Her name was Betty. And she was way ahead of her time.
Betty was a career gal, back in the 1960’s. In Silicon Valley. Before anyone had thought to name it Silicon Valley. Before there was even a whiff of a little thing called the personal computer.
Starting as a secretary, she rose through the ranks until she landed in her own tiny glass-walled office, looking out at the small staff of two who adored her.
By the time the 1970’s arrived, she was taking business trips and flying around the country selling top-secret electronic doodads, devices, and defense systems. She had meetings with high mucky mucks. And found her spot in the most unlikely of places, among the ubiquitous, male-dominated, military-industrial complex of the time.
Betty also juggled work and family. As a single mom, no less, with three sons and one daughter. She persevered through some tough years, stretching her paycheck to support her family and pay off her ex-husband’s debts.
Her children were latchkey kids, long before the phrase had been coined. Well actually, since they never locked the door back then, perhaps they were something else altogether. But one thing is certain: they didn’t feel deprived because their mom wasn’t home when they returned from school.
To be sure, Betty wasn’t perfect. She was a bit of a party girl.
She smoked. Pall Malls. No filter. She rooted around for cigarettes in that bright red pack, tapping each one down on whatever surface was handy. Her smokes deposited tiny specks of tobacco on her bright red lips, which in turn left bright red circles on the butts that gathered in the ashtrays.
She drank. Gin. Beefeater’s was her brand of choice. Preferably mixed in a Tom Collins or Bloody Mary. And she wasn’t averse to a little hair of the dog on the morning after. You might even say she leaned a little too much on the booze to get her through.
She drove. Fast. Her pale blue Mustang could be seen flying down the 101 from her home in San Mateo to her job in Palo Alto. The more pokey road warriors made her crazy, and she sarcastically dismissed them as “middle lane drivers.” Sometimes her white knuckled passengers even held on for dear life. Thank God for the invention of seat belts.
She liked men. A lot. Maybe that’s why she stayed so long with her angry young man/Don Juan of a husband. He was as much a lover as a fighter, with a suave, debonair appeal that wooed the hearts of many women, long after he’d married Betty. But Betty was no slouch either, and had her share of lovers after they split up. She got close to finding the right guy, although sadly, he left her in the end too.
So Betty kept going. And in her inimitable wisdom, proclaimed that anything in moderation was OK. Smoking. Drinking. Driving fast. Sex. Even war.
In case you haven’t guessed, Betty was my mom.
She was a paradox, both tough and tender. And underneath all of her principles and practices, strength and stoicism, guts and gifts, flaws and foibles, criticisms and complaints, she was just trying to do the best she could.
Betty left this world much too soon, at the tender age of 49. It will probably come as no surprise that losing her was a huge blow to my 20-year-old self. Years later I’m still feeling the effects of it. And still remembering. Usually with a smile, but sometimes, with a welling of tears.
Life with Betty was a roller coaster at times. Heck, life in our family was one big amusement park, alternately scary and thrilling, unnerving and exciting. It was the whole shebang.
But as nutty as things could get, there was a surplus of sanity too. A small tract house. The playground across the street. Dinner on the table. Trips to the beach. School. Many hugs. Clean clothes. Camping trips. Loving grandparents. Aunts and uncles and cousins.
And at the end of every day, a good night kiss.
Without a doubt, I know that Betty loved me.
I also know too well that we don’t always get exactly the kind of mothering we need. I’ve heard far too many stories to believe anything else. And that puts my own story into perspective.
As a matter of fact, I know I was one of the lucky ones. In spite of her imperfections, Betty gave me the very best she could give at the time. And it was given with unabashed love. I mean, you only need a quick glance at the photo to see that we were smitten with each other early on.
And so, whatever our relationship is or was with our mothers, I like to think each of them gives us a special gift.
Betty gave me so many gifts. Strength. Resilience. Zest for life. Belief in myself.
Too many gifts, even, to comprehend.