Through Any Given Door

1.99.6 From Betty’s Best Friend

Letter to me from Lorna Harrington, Mar 18, 2005
Dear Cathy:
When we last talked you were surprised when I said that Betty didn’t have other friends that I was aware of. While trying to give you an idea of what our (Betty’s and mine) lives were like during our Sonora grammar school days I didn’t think to explain that we weren’t the happy, cheery, popular girls it might have been nice to be. Children who can’t invite friends to their home or have birthday parties remain apart from the cliques that school girls form. We were not in those days sweet, happy, little girls. My mother didn’t like living in Sonora or like 90% of its inhabitants, and was very vocal about it. She grew up in San Francisco and loved art, music, and lots of city variety, like your mother.

If popularity was based on brains and good looks, Betty would have been surrounded. But at that age a lot of other things like family come into it. She was critical and not afraid to say so to anyone she thought needed educating, and she’d take action, like throwing out church propaganda, which I helped with—just like she helped me during a walk around a lake and I got upset over a pen full of gasping fish. She never liked getting wet or muddy (my mother never cared about muddy clothes, but maybe yours did) but she waded in and between us we liberated those fish while a large angry man was running at us shouting… but we ran faster. Apart, I think we were much better controlled than when together!

I think we were both happiest during those many excursions my mother took us on, hunting mushrooms, wild quince, rare wildflowers, interesting rocks and crystals, and with my mother naming them all and pointing out all kinds of interesting birds and insects. This, despite the fact my eyesight was very poor, along with my depth judgment, until I got my first pair of eyeglasses in the fifth grade. Predictably, my school grades were as poor as my eyesight and sense of balance. Betty’s critical nature managed to ignore my obvious failings, and during my frequent winter illnesses I could count on her to fill me in on what our class was studying. By the end of our fifth grade year, with my new eyeglasses finally making those hazy marks on the blackboard interesting, our grades were equal and when we compared report cards that year Betty looked sternly at me and said, “remember that although you are now a dictionary, I am an encyclopedia!” which remark I thought so enormously funny that I used it to tease her with for a long time after. I had no ambition or competitiveness in me at all. The phrase “feckless youth” would have better suited than the “dictionary” description. But Betty was a serious competitor to our classmates in every thing from spelling bees to math pop quizzes. She had to have been a favorite with our teachers because she studied hard and her hand always shot up when a question was asked. If she read the Harry Potter series I’m sure she’d have seen in the character Hermione Granger a kindred spirit. She also spoke well, and was always chosen for class plays or presentations. Teachers gamely tried to have us all participate, if in just some tiny way, but my mind would go blank when facing an audience. Not Betty. I remember applauding her the year she was chosen as the narrator for our class presentation… she did well, and loved doing it.

My two sisters and I were staying at our cousin’s home in Los Angeles during the summer after seventh grade when we were told we weren’t going home to Sonora. Instead, we were sent to Reno, Nevada to join our mother while she got her divorce. During the following year in Reno my father wrote, sending me a newspaper clipping about the savage attack on Betty. My world changed, and I knew Betty would never be the same. And she wasn’t. Sonora was a small town, off the beaten track with absolutely no crime that we had ever heard of. Our schools had such good discipline and our streets were so safe that as students we were not aware of the possibility of being attacked. Yet Betty was grabbed while walking home, savagely beaten and raped for hours while they talked of killing her. Finally they threw her out of the car on a dark back road. She said she found a deserted building where she could break a window in and she phoned for help. But she told me that the nightmare continued with the sheriff’s men questioning her, the doctor’s exam, and then the trial when they caught the thugs. And she said people treated her strangely afterwards.

Later that summer, while visiting my father in Sonora, Betty and I spent what turned out to be our last few days together. As usual, we avoided other people, but this time we weren’t hurrying off to see what our neighbors were up to. We walked out of town and talked. Betty was still seeing a chiropractor because of the injuries to muscle and bone structure that came with the rape and beatings. We were thirteen and she always had been well built with great health, and from the outside she looked like the same old Betty. But she hurt, and she was troubled with questions, when before she had always been so sure of everything. I hope I helped and that she could believe the truth when I said that those thugs hadn’t singled her out, but that they chose the only girl on the street when they drove by. I got a small smile when I pointed out that if all the girls in our class had been strung out walking along that street at that time, the one grabbed would have been the classmate we both knew to be the poorest athlete and slowest runner, and the easiest to catch.

Betty loved her father, and I didn’t know what to say when she told me he had denied to a relative that she’d been raped. We talked it over and over and over, and the best I could figure it was that our fathers were really old fashioned and strict over anything to do with sex. Not allowing us makeup or formfitting sweaters, etc., and that they expected us to grow up, get married in white dresses as virgins, and the rape bothered Betty’s father so much that maybe he decided it would be best to deny it happened. After that summer I never liked Betty’s father. Though once I had my own children my thinking softened to hoping he denied her pain and trauma thinking it was for her sake.

At that time, Betty and I had restless mothers who moved a lot. We lost touch almost completely. Recently reconnecting, I hoped that she might still be up for a few more adventures with me. Lots of our time together when we were really small was spent playing the usual games and talking non-stop, usually at the same time. I hope when we get together it will be the same.

Take care.
Love, Lorna

A second note from Lorna, Dec 30, 2017
Catherine, When in your house it seemed that your mom was never happy. My mom explained to me when I was a teen that your mom, she thought, found herself in a trap of having too many babies with a Catholic husband, and had no personal outlets for fun or self-expression. Looking after five babies/toddlers/young children and all the daily grinding labor of that is definitely not for everyone, but your mom didn’t seem to have a choice. My mom was raised by a feminist activist mother in San Francisco. She had music and art classes and what must have been a great education because she often took us, including Betty, on walks where she showed us how to find crystals and other pretty rocks that she knew all about, along with hunting for blackberries, wild quince, mushrooms, etc… and she knew the Latin names of most flowers and trees. Betty and I would stare at her big-eyed like ancient Greek children must have stared at the “Oracle of Delphi” when she talked to us on those walks, because we thought she knew everything… and the cement of Betty’s and my friendship was that we both had never-ending senses of curiosity for everything and everyone around us. But my mom didn’t like being stuck in small-town Sonora doing the eternal house and child work any more than I think that your mom did, only she had three children to your mom’s five, and my father was okay with her spending time on her own with her own mom, my grandmother, in San Francisco so she could go to operas and art museums when she really needed a break.

Lorna, Heather, Fay Harrington abt 1943

But, in the end she divorced my dad, and although she took myself and sister Heather, (eldest sister Fay was away at Berkeley University) with her, I ended up living with my older sister, Fay and her husband, which gave my mom the freedom she needed then. Your mom couldn’t have provided financially for you, and leaving you, Claudia, and Betty in Sonora might have seemed the best thing for you three. Of course many women of our mom’s generation did not want to be trapped in a life of continual childbearing and a lot of them ended up with emotional illnesses. My mom’s mom never forgot that her eastern Oregon farmwife mother had 13 children, most of whom died, including the 13th, and not too long after that her mom died. She always backed my mother even when she didn’t agree with her, and I see from your mom’s letter to her sister that there was no similar family safety net for your mom, or for you, Claudia and Betty. I am so sorry for your hard times, and the trauma you went through growing up.

Lorna

to be continued…

© 2017. Catherine Sevenau.
All rights reserved.

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Comments

  1. I just finished reading QUEEN BEE. You said not too long ago what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Well Catherine you have really proven your point. I was always called a “difficult child”. If I hadn’t been so rebellious, I may have ended up weak and indecisive. Thank goodness I never gave up either. I really admire you and your honesty.

  2. A comfort to read your writings Catherine. I realize I was not the only one. Continue on please. J

  3. Lorna, I wanted to let you know that in fact, yes, my mom did read, and was a big fan of, the Harry Potter books. I think that your comparison of her to Hermione Granger is an excellent one: intelligent, inquisitive – and loyal. I hope that your friendship with her was a source of strength during what must have been a difficult part of childhood, for both of you.

    My mom was shaped and moulded by her experiences, both good and bad. We all are. However, she never used them as a crutch or an excuse. She knew and accepted that life was tough, and she was grateful for the opportunity she had to live it.

    Thanks Cath,
    Tony (Betty’s son)

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