Betty

Dale Fehringer

Copyright 2016 by Dale Fehringer

 
 

Photo of Betty.


The past few months have been hard for all of us. A divisive election and difficult times ahead will present challenges to all of us. If you need some inspiration to help you carry on, Betty’s story might provide it.

Betty said she should have known it was time for new tennis balls on the feet of her walker. The metal legs were scraping the sidewalks and the neighborhood dogs were barking when she walked the streets. So she asked a volunteer to replace the tennis balls, and now her walker glides with barely a peep. Betty is happier and so are the neighborhood dogs.

That’s the kind of positive attitude she has. Betty is in her 80s (though she claims to be 39), and she has been given a lot to bear. She has a weak heart, bad hip, aching knees, one blind eye, and she requires a walker to get around. She has been on a walker for 14 years, and her knees and hips cause her a great deal of pain. But she doesn’t sit and mope about her troubles; instead, she goes to a regular schedule of neighborhood centers, playing the piano and visiting with the other seniors – all with a cheery attitude. She’s very inspirational.

Her struggles started early. Born in November of 1929, one month after the start of the Great Depression, Betty didn’t have much as a girl. She was an only child, born to poor New York City parents, and she came to realize as a girl that her mother didn’t want her. She gets misty-eyed when she tells that her mother once lifted her shirt and showed Betty the scars of the cesarean section from when Betty was born. “I used to have a nice body before you,” she told Betty. That was hard to deal with, and Betty hid from her mother a lot as a girl. But she carried on, loved her father, and left New York as soon as possible, travelling across the country to make a new home in San Francisco. She fell in love and married a man who abused her, so she left him, took her daughter to live in a tiny apartment, and found a job as a receptionist in an Army hospital. That was a lonely patch, but Betty got through it and spent her spare time learning to play the piano for comfort. She has been playing it ever since.

Eventually, Betty met Paul, a kind but struggling man with a daughter of his own, and they fell in love and married. Betty worked full-time and raised the girls. Paul had a heart attack and Betty took care of him until he passed away when Betty was in her 70s. The stress of caring for Paul caused Betty to have a stroke, which is how she wound up on a walker.

Throughout Paul’s illness Betty carried on working full-time, played the piano at local concerts, and even found time to take up belly dancing. She and friends would occasionally demonstrate their belly dancing skills at restaurants, which she loved doing (but which Paul didn’t particularly enjoy). But she did it anyhow. She’s always been a bit of a rebel.

Her apartment was flooded last year when a plumbing pipe in the unit above her burst and water poured into her kitchen and living room. The carpets, walls, and fixtures were ruined, and Betty had to move into a nearby motel for several weeks while repairs were made. She could have given up then and moved into a nursing home. Instead, she bravely carried on, dealing with repair people, insurance companies, landlords, and motels. When repairs were finished, she went out and bought new furniture and rugs for her apartment and moved back in.

Now, in her 80’s each day requires a good deal of effort to work through her pain, get dressed, fix breakfast, and leave her apartment. But it’s important to Betty and she wouldn’t think of not doing it. Last year she faced another severe illness and her doctor talked to her about moving to a care facility. Betty wouldn’t hear of it. “I don’t want to give up yet,” was how she put it. So she took her medicine, got better, and signed up with Next Village, a group that helps keep seniors in their homes. They send volunteers to Betty’s one-bedroom San Francisco apartment to shop and clean for Betty. She loves it, and so do the volunteers.

Betty is back at her regular schedule of piano-playing and lunches at neighborhood centers. When volunteers pick her up, she is always dressed up with make-up, lipstick, and a sunny disposition. She spends her spare time thinking of others, not herself. The day after the tragic warehouse fire in Oakland, for example, she went to a neighborhood center, sat down at the piano, and played “Amazing Grace" as a tribute to the people that lost their lives. Her friend, Kenny, got out his saxophone and joined in. Everyone at the center sang along.

Betty comes from a different generation; one that went through a lot. She survived a depression, a world war, an abusive relationship, a divorce, loss of a spouse, and illness. She’s tough, which we will all need to be to get through the next few years. But Betty is proof that it can be done, and she’s a wonderful example for the rest of us to follow.

Update on Betty's Story.

After nine years of caring for Betty (her real name was Ina), I lost my dear friend two weeks ago.  She was 91, had a long history of heart failure, and she was able to stay at home, which she desperately wanted.   And she went quietly and peacefully, simply nodding off in her easy chair while watching a movie on TV.  We should all be so lucky!

I've been helping Ina's niece clean out her apartment, where Ina lived for nearly 40 years.  We donated most of her clothes, boxes of her sheet music, and her piano to good causes and we are planning a celebration of life for her July 23 at a neighborhood center where she used to play the piano for the "old folks" as she called them.  While working on her apartment, I learned some things about Betty/Ina I didn't know before.  

I now understand why Ina didn't want me to use her real name.  At first I thought it was because she was humble and didn't want to sound like the brave lady she was.  But now I know it was because she had secrets.

The first thing I learned was that when Ina was a teen living with her parents in New York City she became pregnant outside of marriage, and she was forced to give up the baby for adoption.  I have been in contact with Ina's daughter over the past couple of weeks (she lives in England now), and she told me about Ina seeking her out in the 1980s, reuniting with her in San Francisco, and the two of them being close since then.  The daughter had become interested in Buddhism and had become a Buddhist.  After much discussion, Ina also became a Buddhist (she once told me she was raised Jewish, married a Christian, and became a Buddhist).

The second thing I learned about Ina is that she was married twice (not just to Walter, who she told me about) including a brief marriage to a man who abused her and who even tried to throw her down the stairs of her apartment building.  Ina divorced that husband and was single for many years until she later met her second husband, Walter.  

The third thing I learned about Ina was that she was once a belly dancer, which was a hobby she pursued with a group of friends for socialization and exercise.  I did not find any photos of Ina belly dancing, but I did find finger cymbals in her piano bench (which I mailed to her daughter).  

And a fourth thing that I learned (which I had already suspected) is that Ina had a terrific sense of fun.  I heard from a friend that there was a time when Ina and Walter were both in wheelchairs at the same time.  It must have been cramped in their small apartment, and one night Ina suggested they "go out."  They rolled their wheelchairs to the elevator in their apartment building, took it down to street level, and rolled themselves up to the street corner and parked in front of Wells Fargo Bank.  "What should we do now?" Walter asked Ina.  "Let's howl at the moon," she replied.  A lady living across the street heard them and came out to see what they were up to.  When she heard their story, she tilted her head back and howled along with them.  And that's how Helene became Ina's friend.  

We never know everything about our friends.  And sometimes when we learn more about them we think less of them.  But in Betty/Ina's case learning more about her made me think even more of her. 

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