There'll be a small party tonight at our place to celebrate my grandmother's 139th birthday. Probably just two of us there, part of a dwindling few who remember that remarkable woman when she was in her prime at, oh, 80 or 85. She was always ready to jump in the car and go somewhere. Or deal another game of cards, her green eyeshade pulled low and her eyes darting around the table. Or ready to pick up a squalling grandchild or great grandchild and balance him or her on her ample lap and tell another of her stories about life back in the day.
She was born a decade after the end of the Civil War, grew up in Raleigh when it was just a small dusty town, still smarting from Sherman's visit but still mostly intact. She attended Peace Institute, just a few blocks on the other side of the Governor's Mansion, met an aspiring young dentist named Joe Betts, moved to Greensboro shortly after the turn of the century and lived to be 103 before going to her reward in 1979. She had most of her marbles up until she was 102.
To celebrate the end of her 14th decade, we'll have a nip or two of bourbon, her toddy of choice after she rejoined the Presbyterian Church after the death of my teetotaling Methodist grandfather in the mid-1950s. Her second son Henry would bring her a jug every month or so and put it near the front leg of her writing desk, close to hand in case she wanted a little nip. Her first son was my Dad, John Monie Betts. Her daughter was a beauty named Margaret, but of course we knew her as Peggy. When those three kids got together with their mom, the laughter would fill the room.
She was a force field in Greensboro in the first half of the century. Along with two other women whose last names also began with a B ("the Three Bees," as they were called locally) she founded the Greensboro Historical Museum in 1924. She and Joe Betts were into technology, in a way. They had one of the first residential telephones in Greensboro in their front hall, and my Dad once told me he never forgot their phone number. What was it? I asked. "Seven," he said. They also had a radio that could be tuned to stations named in gold paint on the dial: Tokyo. Berlin. Paris. London. Chicago. New York. And they subscribed and kept every copy of National Geographic, providing their grandchildren with pictures from around the world that would reappear in elementary school projects at Irving Park and Aycock schools in the 1940s and 50s.
Mamie Betts, as friends called her (To my older sister and me, she was simply "Gran"), was a formidable presence who bore a striking resemblance to a certain presidential spouse. The family story goes that a stranger once inquired, "Beg your pardon, but aren't you Eleanor Roosevelt?" To which she replied, "I most certainly am not," and strode away in a huff.
In her early days in Greensboro as a young bride and mother, she struck up a fast friendship with Annie Cooke, whose husband (and in time, children and grandchildren as well) was a prominent lawyer in town. Many years later after their husbands died, my grandmother moved in with Annie Cooke and they spent years holding court in Annie's handsome brick home near the golf course. They were known to most folks as Aunt Annie and Aunt Mamie. Their upstairs den was a popular gathering place, especially for Annie's sons, graduates of Davidson College, during the 1960s when the Wildcats had nationally prominent basketball teams. Through some quirk of the atmosphere, the TV in Annie's den could often pick up televised games from Charlotte stations, and a crowd of Davidson alumni, most of them but not all of them lawyers, would watch the games while Annie and Mamie poured lemonade and dealt cards at the table in the corner.
My lasting memory of these two old friends came with their attachment to taking Sunday afternoon drives. For a long time, their driver was a quiet, dignified black man named Leroy -- not Leeroy, Aunt Annie was quick to point out to those who did not know the distinction, but leROY -- who would tuck the two old friends into the back seat of Annie's car and then hop in front to drive them for a long turn around Greensboro. Leroy was not in great health in his later years, and he lost a leg to complications from diabetes. My Dad worked for a surgical supply company and had Annie's car fitted with a mechanism that made it possible to drive the car with one leg. Thus when they went for a drive, it was the two old ladies who helped Leroy out to the car and into the front seat, and then Annie and Mamie would let themselves into the back and off they would go, gliding around town for the afternoon. Years later, when I saw the movie "Driving Miss Daisy," there were scenes when I felt like I had seen this flick before.
Gran saved my bacon once from almost certain permanent grounding. My parents were out of town one week in the mid-1960s, and Mamie was staying with my sister and me to make sure we didn't get into trouble. I was working construction that summer, and had an early start to the day. I had left a stove burner on after fixing coffee and rushing off to the other side of town. The red-hot burner first melted some of the plastic wall tiles my Dad and I had years earlier applied to the wall behind the stove. Some of the melted plastic ignited and, before the stench woke my sister and my grandmother, the resulting fire spread an oily black goo all over the kitchen. When I got home that evening, Gran offered me a deal: "If you can get this cleaned up and fixed before your mother and father get home, I'll never tell them about it." So it was that I spent the next 48 hours scrubbing off goo, chiseling away burned and deformed tiles, finding replacements and more mastic, and getting the kitchen back in reasonable order before the parents got back. The kitchen smelled faintly of burnt toast and turpentine for months after that, but no one said a word, and I was allowed to live.
So this evening I will raise a cup or two of Kentucky's finest to Mary Atkinson Monie "Aunt Mamie" Betts. Happy Birthday, Gran, and thanks.