Remembering Our Mother

By Becky O'Malley
Friday June 28, 2013 - 09:36:00 AM

It’s fitting that I should be writing about my mother’s life and death in a week when the Bay Area and the nation is celebrating the Supreme Court’s extension of marriage rights to everyone regardless of sexual orientation. My mother, known for most of her 98 plus years as Bette Peters, was an indefatigable matchmaker. She herself had “married well” in the best tradition of the Jane Austen novels which she thoroughly enjoyed, and she recommended the same course for everyone around her.

When the culture shifted during her long life to openly acknowledge gay relationships, she took up promoting unions for gay family members and friends with the same enthusiasm which she’d always expressed for straight matches. She died on Thursday of last week, just a little too soon for her to urge gay couples she knew to finally tie the knot.

My daughter Eliza described her grandmother’s last years well in an email to friends: “She remained sharp as a tack, independent and deeply involved in the lives of those around her up until the day she entered the hospital. “ She still lived alone in her own house at the end, still queen of her domestic empire, still keeping her eagle eye on what everyone else was up to.

In many ways she was the exemplar of what was to become the modern woman. She was born in the first years of the 20th century, but lived more than a decade into the 21st, always with one foot in the past and another in the future. 

Born in 1914, she was raised to be a conventional ornament of St. Louis’s version of high society. The oldest of five children in a family with a devout Catholic mother, she got a good education through high school in the humanities, including Latin and French, at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, which prepared her for a lifetime of continued self- education through voracious reading. It was not expected that girls like her would need any more formal schooling. 

On October 19 of 1929 she turned fifteen, and ten days later the world she was prepared for collapsed. Her father’s position in the financial world evaporated, leaving his large family dependent on the charity of relatives who had not been hit so badly by what they called The Crash. He never again got a steady job. 

My mother quickly finished school and won a scholarship to Washington University’s art school. But after only a year there, she needed to leave and take a job as a “salesgirl” in a department store to support her family. In a story I heard in recent years (which she alternately admitted and denied) she said that when she voted for Roosevelt for President her staunchly Republican father threw her out of the house, only to invite her back three weeks later when he realized she was the only family member earning any money. 

The lavish debutante parties of the Roaring 20s for which she’d been prepared disappeared. Mom “came out” (in those days it meant something different) at a modest tea at the home of an aunt. During the day she was a working woman, attending occasional evening parties for better-fixed friends in borrowed dresses when her job permitted. Selling on commission only, she was frequently required to take uncompensated leave from the sales floor to serve as a model, which she deeply resented. 

When Anita Hill testified about her experience with sexual harassment in the workplace during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991, my mother was very sympathetic. She told us for the first time of being subjected to similar indignities by male bosses during her working days. 

But like Cinderella she finally met her prince, a Princeton graduate new to St. Louis, my father, Warren Peters, known to all as Pete. They married in 1939, she retired from her job, and he took over supporting her family. 

I was born 11 months later, and less than two years after that Pearl Harbor was attacked. My father signed up for the Navy without consulting Mom. She and I moved back into my grandparents’ big old house with her family of origin to wait out the war. 

Much is made of the men of what’s now trendily denominated as “the greatest generation,” but the women of the first half of the 20th century also faced many challenges with grace. The household where my mother spent the war years included not only my unemployed but still demanding grandfather and my long-suffering grandmother, but also my beyond-eccentric great-grandmother and three of my mother’s siblings plus my aunts’ husbands or fiancés when they were home on leave and sometimes a great-uncle. And they all had to get along. 

From time to time my mother was able to join my father when he was in U.S. ports, and in due time she was pregnant again. Tragically, just a few days before my sister was born in 1943, Mom’s closest sibling, her brother Edwin, was killed in the crash of the plane he was piloting in Air Force flight school in California. A clipping she preserved documented an expose of poor management in the program, with the implication that a series of training deaths at the facility should never have happened, which made the family very bitter. My sister Edwina was named after the uncle who died. 

When the war ended my mother resumed with enthusiasm the role of wife and mother, a comfortable and fulfilling position for some women like her in the late 40s and 50s. She expended a lot of energy and considerable intelligence on her daughters’ education, picking out the best books to read to us and teaching us to read on our own—I could read before I got to first grade, thanks to my mother’s tutelage. 

She put her artistic talent to work rehabilitating and redecorating a succession of old houses in which we lived that were eventually sold for tidy profits. When I was a child in St. Louis she and her best buddy Helen Wilson frequented Father Dempsey’s, a charity emporium where they found antiques which they refinished for their houses as well as fascinating used books. 

What a reader our mother was! A prime perk of her mid-century domesticity was first dibs on the New Yorker when it came in the mail every week. I can see her now, sitting down in peace and quiet at the kitchen table for lunch with the latest New Yorker and a bowl of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. And she read her way through all of those classics she bought at Father Dempsey’s, ending up better educated than most of her peers or mine who had fancy college degrees. She was naturally one smart woman, and she made the most of it. 

She loved good writing wherever she found it, encouraging her daughters to learn to write by giving us good things to read and critiquing our own early attempts. 

She loved her family too, and there were lots of us to love. She regretted only being able to have two children, but her two sisters and her brother in St. Louis produced many more that she doted on as much as on her own. 

My father, in the 50s mode, was an organization man, and in 1954 his corporate employers transferred him to Los Angeles. Our loyal mother hated leaving her St. Louis family, but she made the most of her new Pasadena home, not, however, without a few complaints. Fulfilling what she saw as her primary duty, she made sure that my sister and I both went to good colleges and were “married well” at an early age to Caltech graduates with “good prospects.” 

As her nest emptied, with more time on her hands, she became an enthusiastic Democrat. Her parents and my father were old-style moderate Republicans, but she was a militant liberal, an early member of her local California Democratic Club. John Kennedy’s 1960 candidacy galvanized her. 

Another corporate transfer took them to New Jersey, which she really hated. Some fancy footwork on my father’s part landed them in Santa Cruz, where he became an administrator at the new University of California. There she designed and built a charming house in the country without the aid of an architect, where my parents hosted a generation of grandchildren and their friends plus assorted nieces and nephews who called her “Tante” and a variety of waifs and strays of all descriptions. 

She was a superb grandmother. She had the gift of focusing her full attention on the person she was talking to, making each and every one feel for a moment like the most important person in the world. Every child in her sphere was an only child. 

When they got too old to live alone in the country, my parents moved to town, eventually coming to the East Bay to be near my family. They were very lucky to end up in a cozy house a few blocks from ours on a quiet street with a full complement of wonderful neighbors who look after each other. In her eighties and nineties my mother was at home a lot of the time, taking devoted care of my father in the three years he was bedridden until his death at 96. Her neighbors generously kept an eye on both of them, right up until the week she died. 

Her lifelong energy, which allowed her to keep up with a succession of lively kids and unruly dogs, perhaps could be attributed to her unique lifestyle. She smoked until she was 75, and her diet featured alcohol, sugar and lots of butter, chocolate and ice cream. She detested organized exercise, but made up for it by jittering a lot and keeping her house very clean. 

She always looked stylish in a modern way, nothing of the old lady about her even in her nineties. She fancied jeans or tight pants, enthusiastically donning the leopard-print velvet leggings she got last Christmas when she’d just turned 98. When she went to hospital for the last time, her fingernails and toenails were painted blue, in solidarity with Michelle Obama and the Democrats. 

Other enthusiasms? She always supported classical music, including serving a stint on the early board of Santa Cruz’s Cabrillo Music Festival. In the last years after my father died she particularly enjoyed Michael Morgan and the populist flavor of the Oakland Symphony, as well as any performance that featured her descendants. 

And she was passionate about politics. She watched the Senate and House on C-Span as eagerly as sports fans watch ESPN. Her boon companions in recent years, heard at top volume because her hearing went and she refused hearing aids, were Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart. 

Meeting Elizabeth Warren during the campaign in the fall was a big thrill. She fervently hoped that a Democratic congressional majority would be able do something tangible to help the destitute people that she met around Berkeley. She was on a first name basis with the regulars who solicit funds outside stores where she shopped—when my father died she gave many of his clothes to a favorite stationed outside of La Farine on College. 

A friend has asked if any memorial contributions are in order. Well, there’s always Elizabeth Warren’s campaign committee. The Oakland Symphony is another good cause she’d support. 

Mom had a particular devotion to St. Anthony, patron saint of lost objects, and contributed to the San Francisco dining room named after him when she believed he’d helped her find something. Her eleven-year-old great-granddaughter Nora suggested that you could cover a couple of bases by donating a lot of ice cream for the homeless diners at St. Anthony’s. 

My mother had the great good fortune to live long enough to be a real presence in the lives of all nine of her great-grandchildren, the oldest of whom graduated from high school this spring and the youngest who’s just turned three. A matchmaker ‘til the end, she was scheming in the week before she went to the hospital for the last time about how to fix up her beautiful great-granddaughter with one of the attractive twin boys who lived across the street from her. 

Perhaps another good way to honor her memory would be to marry the one you love if you haven’t already done so, now that the Supreme Court, even including one of the Republicans, has finally decided that all of us have that right. These days family is where you find it, and Mom believed firmly in family.