Memoires of Bettye-Down-the-Street

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August 5, 2020

My dear friend, mentor, and neighbor, Bettye Jane Hodgkins, passed away a few hours ago, at 4:30am Pacific Time, August 4th. Bettye was 99 years, 5 months and 4 days old.

I was here in Japan when I received the news a few hours later, at 4:30am my time, August 5th. Something woke me up and I know now it was Bettye, letting me know she was on the other side, through an email sent by her dear daughter, Christine.

When Bettye passed in America it was actually evening in Japan. There was a full moon and my husband, Mark (whom Bettye adored), suggested we go out and look at the sky from our balcony. It was cool outside, and we stood for a long time, gazing at the moon and then looking out at the ocean from our home in Okinawa. Little did we know at the time, but Bettye was slipping quietly to heaven.

It is impossible to measure the good or influence a person can have in 99+ years of living. I only know bits and pieces of her first 78 years of life. But her final 18 years were filled with meaning for me and my family.

Bettye had four incredible children, all whom I met. She was a devoted wife and mother. She was an artist, and always had a canvas set up in her kitchen, with paints and brush at the ready, a few finished pieces displayed on her fireplace mantel. She was also a writer, like me, which is partly why we became close friends 18 years ago.

My husband and I moved to Las Vegas, Nevada with three young children in 2002. A day later, our 4th child was born, in our home, just four houses down from where Bettye had lived for over 60 years. Thomson Circle is a quiet place in the busy city. It’s an older neighborhood, with large mature trees and big yards full of grass—the perfect place to live with children.

I first noticed Bettye a few days after our daughter’s birth, walking the circle everyday with her cane, and sometimes even going as far as the local elementary school. Within a few weeks of moving in, I was also walking to school to pick up my oldest son from kindergarten. Bettye was a pleasant person to pass and we always said hello.

A few months later my husband and I took some neighborhood information around to each house on the circle, and enjoyed a long and friendly conversation with Bettye at her door. That interaction made us official “acquaintances” and we again said friendly “hellos” and visited often on the street.

A year later in July 2003, we hosted a neighborhood bar-b-cue along with several other families on the circle. Together we made handmade invitations, constructed a patriotic parade with the children who lived there, and gathered for a potluck dinner on the lawn of a one of the houses. I had recently had an article published in the Las Vegas Family Magazine, and Bettye told that she was a writer as well. Something struck a daring chord in each of us, and the next week we signed up together for a community writing class. That was the beginning of a wonderful friendship for Bettye and I.

Each Tuesday for six weeks I left my four busy children at home with my husband and picked Bettye up in the family van. Together we learned about poetry and prose and honed our writing skills. But even more life-changing than the class, our drives to and from were filled with incredible conversations. Bettye knew everything about motherhood that I didn’t know, and her advice and wisdom were just what I needed to keep me going during those busy parenting years. She was born in 1921, was raised on the East Coast, later moved to the West, and lived a beautiful life. I loved hearing her stories of courting her husband, a Navy sailor, of raising her children, of writing and of living.

Neither Bettye nor I had much published from the writing class, but we enjoyed each other’s company and our kindred acquaintance blossomed.

When the class ended, our friendship continued. Sometimes, when I had made a batch of bread, I would send one of the kids down the block, carrying a warm loaf to Bettye. Other afternoons she would stop in and sit on the couch for a visit while I folded clothes or made dinner. We discussed books and politics and motherhood and religion and life. We never ran out of things to talk about.

At Christmastime we always visited Bettye in her home, sang a few Christmas carols and left a treat. She always reciprocated with a special gift or trinket. One year I even had the children organize a 12 Days of Christmas for her, and each morning as they woke up they would run barefoot down to her door and drop a small gift: a partridge, two pears, five golden rings (donuts), or other traditional memory. I also remember when Bettye came down on Christmas Eve with her daughter, Candy, to bring us a Christmas cookie jar full of treats. I still have that jar and set it out each December.

Bettye was very religious. She loved to discuss God, revelation, and divine intervention. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (yes, I’m a Mormon), and as a devoted Presbyterian (she loved her church), Bettye and I had plenty to discuss. She was always incredibly respectful of my opinions and beliefs and we loved talking about our similarities and differences. One year she invited all of us to her holiday church service. I was thrilled. We all dressed in our Sunday Christmas best and drove with Bettye to the local Presbyterian Chapel where we sat on one long bench and thoroughly enjoyed the words and music of an inspiring Christmas devotional. The gorgeous stained glass throughout the chapel kept my children gazing during the entire service.

I am sure that Bettye is up in heaven right now, getting answers to her many questions. I can hear her quick wit as she discusses eternal truths with the angels.

Bettye came to our church occasionally as well, especially when my kids participated in a special presentation with a speaking or singing part. I remember one Sunday when I conducted a children’s program, and saw Bettye in the congregation, smiling and supporting me and the kids. And another day, when we blessed our new baby, she came again.

IMG_9172As the years passed and our friendship progressed, I even grew so bold as to send a child down to her house once in a while when I needed a break. He or she would knock on Bettye’s door and Bettye would invite him or her in, invite them to be seated, have a nice conversation, and then send the energetic child back to me. The 30-minute reprieve always gave me a needed break and the energy to start mothering again. And when great Grandpa Francis visited us (14 years older than her), he struck up a friendship with Bettye as well. They often sat chatting in our house or hers, sharing stories of decades past. When Grandpa died, Bettye remarked how she wanted to stay sharp like him until the very end. And she did.

Bettye had a special love and respect for Mark, my husband. She often told me how wonderful he was, a man without guile, and how his quiet mannerisms reminded her of her own husband, Nathan. Mark and Bettye had a special relationship. Maybe it was because he had the same name as her son. My Mark often went down to help Bettye with various projects and simple household repairs and he even stopped to visit her when he traveled to Vegas on business after we moved. She said Mark just shone with goodness.

Speaking of children, that was one of the remarkable things about Bettye that I admired. She had four wonderful children and they ALL came to visit her each year. Sometimes they gathered at Christmas, sometimes they came for her birthday, March 1st. We would see several cars parked in and around her driveway, which was usually quiet, as the holidays started. Her kids would come from the four corners of the globe and stay in the small four bedroom house. Once we stopped by and saw her family sitting comfortably in her living room and kitchen, holding lively discussions, eating, performing music: it was exactly what a family gathering should be.  I was impressed that they all came home, every year, to be with her.

I wondered if my kids would do the same.

“Sometimes my children bicker with each other,” I complained to Bettye one day.

“That’s nothing to worry about,” she told me, not missing a beat. “When my kids were young there were times they didn’t get along. But now that they’re older, they can’t get enough of each other.” That phrase, ‘they can’t get enough of each other,’ has stayed with me. I often hear Bettye’s voice reminding me that when kids grow up and leave home they will look back, remember the good times with fondness, and cling to family.

In 2005 I had my 5th baby, ten days after my due date. Bettye called me daily during the final weeks of pregnancy, checking on my status, comforting me in my miserable state, and asking how she could help. Then, when Naomi Rose was born in our home, Bettye came down with a huge bouquet of pink roses.

Two years later, when our baby Baden was born (again, in our home), Bettye arrived at my invitation within a few hours and held him in the rocking chair. She always told me how special babies were, and I loved the mental image of a woman in her 80s holding a fresh infant.

One year we adopted a desert tortoise and named him Nephi. After many happy months munching grass and lettuce in our backyard, Nephi found his way out of our open gate. The children were heartbroken and told Bettye of our loss. A few days later, during breakfast, Bettye called to say she had found Nephi in her front yard. She spoke with Nephi, gave him some lettuce, and told him to wait right there while she called to let us know of his whereabouts. What happy children ran down to collect our turtle and bring him home.

My children were very fond of Bettye. When our oldest daughter, Emma Rae, turned 5, she insisted that she wanted to invite Bettye down to her birthday party. In true childlike fashion, Emma delivered an invite to Bettye and was ecstatic when Bettye arrived, on time, dressed up for the party. While the 5-year-olds played games on the floor, Bettye (85 years) sat on the couch and interacted with them, never missing a beat. After games, all of the guests sat at the picnic table, catching M&M candies with straws and eating ice cream sundaes. I will never forget the image of Bettye, playing along with those girls and having just as much fun. And Emma still treasures today the pink purse Bettye brought her—the perfect gift for a 5 year old!

One day I suggested to Bettye that we do some family history. She pulled out a hand-written record of her forefathers and told me that she was trying to find some information about one John Schreiber (which means “writer” in German). Together we drove to the local family history center and spent the afternoon researching all the Schreibers who arrived on boats through Ellis Island. We had a memorable and wonderful time, but never found her John. I’ll keep looking, Bettye.

Bettye and I loved discussions. She generally voted Democrat, while I am a Republican. Whenever the presidential elections rolled around we visited about pros and cons of each candidate. Then, on the day of the election, we watched the news expectantly. One of us was always disappointed. In 2004, when George W. Bush was re-elected, I knew Bettye was devastated. The morning after the election I took her a piece of homemade American Apple Pie, to try to cheer her up. And in 2008, when Barack Obama won the election, Bettye made a delicious pot roast dinner, complete with vegetables, salad and rolls, for our entire family. She asked me to send Ben and Sam down the street with our wagon, and then Bettye loaded the dinner (served in her beautiful Corning ware) for the boys to pull back to us. What a memory.

A highlight of our family’s relationship with Bettye was the summer of 2008. Struggling against boredom in the Vegas heat, the kids and I decided to make a movie. We had just finished studying Tom Sawyer and decided we had enough kids and parents to play all the parts—except for one. After handing out costumes and preparing the video camera, we realized we still didn’t have anyone to play the Widow Douglas. I made a quick phone call to Bettye:

“Hello?”

“Hi, Bettye, this is Nettie.” (We both thought it was fun/funny that our names rhymed.)

“Hi Nettie.”

“Are you busy right now?”

“Not really, why?”

“Is there anyway you could put on a hat and come down and play the Widow Douglas?”

Pause.  “From Tom Sawyer?”

“Yes…”

“Sure! I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

I hung up the phone. Within 10 minutes, Bettye was at my door, dressed as a stunning widow, complete with an ideal period hat on her head. Without any acting lessons or further adieu she sat in our kitchen, received a 30-second rundown from the kids on her lines, and the cameras started rolling. Bettye played her part perfectly! In fact, the next day we filmed an additional scene in her backyard (with multiple neighborhood children), and the following week Bettye even agreed to dress in black (she had another perfect hat) and accompanied us to the church to film the final funeral scene. Yes, Bettye and I were kindred spirits. And she will always be the Widow Douglas we picture.

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In the fall of 2008 we moved out of Las Vegas. I remember the evening we left. Bettye walked down and watched as the movers loaded the last of our belongings into the truck. It was too sad to share words. Then the kids and I all walked back to her house. It was December and the evening was dark. We sang her one more Christmas carol and she hugged each of us. I didn’t know if I would ever find a neighbor like her again, a mature helpful friendly friend, full of the motherhood advice I needed weekly, sometimes daily, as I managed my little brood of children.

We moved to Wyoming and then to Utah. But Bettye and I stayed in touch. We called each other every few months, sometimes planned, sometimes random.

In August 2010 I returned to Las Vegas for a writing assignment, with my infant twins in tow. What a disaster! Bettye graciously let us stay at her house. I had also brought my oldest daughter to help, but with two babies—just over a year old—nothing was easy. Bettye happily endured three days while Emma and I bathed, diapered, fed, and cleaned up after the twins—all with me attempting to report on a local story. It was comical, but in the end we enjoyed our time and Bettye was extremely patient with the situation.

In April 2015 I gave birth to my 10th baby, a sweet surprise boy. He came 7 weeks early. The morning after his birth I was in the hospital, dizzy with the sudden events of the past few hours, when my phone rang. It was Bettye.

“Hello, Nettie, I’ve been thinking of you.”

“Oh, really? I just had a baby this morning. That must be the reason I was on your mind.”

“I’m speechless.”

Bettye had a sixth sense and impeccable timing and always knew when I needed a quick phone call with comfort and wisdom.

We called her every March 1st, on her birthday, and sent flowers. Even though my older kids started to leave home, and the younger children didn’t really know her as well, they all knew of Mrs. Hodgkins, aka “Bettye-down-the-street.”

The last time we visited Bettye in person was December 2017. Our oldest son, Ben, had just returned from his mission to Denmark and on a whim we took the kids to Vegas to see a few friends.

Just like old times, we all crowded into Bettye’s living room. She sat in her chair with her walker nearby. She asked the kids how they were and gave them each a hug. We reminisced about old times and Bettye shared about the neighborhood and her children. We looked at her family history, still sitting on her counter, and the kids admired her old New Yorker magazines. We sang her a song.

In April 2020, I called her. We had a good long chat and caught up on life in general. Then I told her we were moving to Japan and I would call her after we were settled.

On Sunday, August 2nd, I had the strong prompting to write a newsy email about our Japanese adventures so far. I sent it off to Bettye and other friends who couldn’t follow my posts on social media. On Wednesday, August 5th, I received the news that Bettye had had a stroke and passed away. I cried and cried. Memories flooded back.

Who else gets to live a century, minus 7 months? Who else has seen world wars and pandemics and administrations and yet has influenced the world even more than politicians and dictators, in her own corner? The greatest wisdom she ever shared with me was how wonderful life is, and how blessed we are.

I wish I had all the snapshots we have taken with Bettye during the past 2 decades. They are tucked away in our home in Utah, safely, while we live overseas; but I can picture each one. Photos of Bettye in her home, in our home, on the lawn, at Christmas time, birthdays, picnics, sitting for a visit, bringing down a book, stopping for a friendly chat, wearing a timeless hat, holding a newborn baby.

How can two women, over 50 years apart, be kindred spirits? We were. I needed Bettye and I believe she needed us, too.

She signed her letters Bettye-down-the-street. She was 99 years old.

Farewell, Bettye. Rest in peace with your wonderful husband until we meet again in the next world. I love you.

Your neighbor,

Nettie

 

 

2 thoughts on “Memoires of Bettye-Down-the-Street

  1. Kathleen says:

    Dear Nettie,
    Thank you SO much for this beautiful piece. I never got the chance to meet Bettye, but have corresponded with her since my mother, Naomi Thomas, passed away in 2012. Bettye and my mom had been friends for more than 60 years since they met in the Red Cross during WW2. Bettye was a delight and I cherish every letter she sent to me.
    Thank you for the lush description of your friendship with her and the photographs.
    I know you will miss her. She was an amazing person.
    Thank you again!
    Kathleen Naomi Catts

    Like

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