49: Hurricane Betty

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Amazing Mom

Hurricane Betty

A strong woman understands that the gifts such as logic, decisiveness, and strength are just as feminine as intuition and emotional connection. She values and uses all of her gifts.

~Nancy Rathburn

My incredible mom, Betty, gave birth to my younger brother when she was forty-one years old. Her role became that of the devoted and tireless round-the-clock caretaker right up through her early sixties. By the time my brother finally left the nest for medical school, and my thoroughly exhausted dad had reached mandatory retirement age, money was very tight. Mom was forced to go out into the workforce for the first time since her days as a cosmetics salesperson some forty-five years earlier.

I don’t know where she found the strength or the courage to re-enter a competitive “new-age” employment environment. But, then again, my mother was always one to do what had to be done in the name of her family.

Armed with only a high-school diploma, a decent feel for numbers, and a boatload of moxie, Betty applied for a job at the preeminent New York department store at the time, Abraham & Straus. The position? Executive Assistant to the Senior Buyer for Abraham & Straus’s men’s apparel department. Aware that her résumé was not competitive with that of most of the other applicants, she offered to work the first month for free. The head of the department saw something special in her and hired my then sixty-five-year-old mom rather than some young upstart with actual bookkeeping experience.

How’d she do? Well, I recently uncovered a 1986 employee evaluation written by her boss. It reads as follows:

Betty is an expert with the most complete knowledge base possible. She is not only a role model for her peers, but for the assistant buyers here as well. She is truly the most important cog in the running of this office!

The success and respect that Mom enjoyed in the workforce during those years gave her the confidence to tackle even more daunting challenges in the years to come.

When Betty turned seventy, she had to quit her job at the department store in order to take on a new career . . . that of round-the-clock caregiver for my father. My dad, who had already been suffering from severe Parkinson’s disease, now was being further victimized by heart disease, and then a stroke that brought with it immobility, incontinence, dementia, and drastic mood swings.

I often wondered, during that period, how on earth she could keep going day after day, year after gloomy year. To say her life had become lonely, robotic, and exhausting would be an understatement.

When my dad passed on, my mother, then in her mid-seventies, could have taken one of two roads. She could have given in to the toll of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion she was experiencing, and withdrawn from life. Or she could look at this as the start of yet another great adventure, a bold new challenge! Thankfully, my “warrior” of a mom, Betty Stein, was not the type to live out the rest of her days hibernating in a comfort zone of sadness and regret. Instead, she made the courageous decision to embrace the road rarely traveled and return to school after a sixty-year hiatus! She enrolled at Kingsborough Community College with a major in Media Studies. I remember her saying to me at the time, “You know, Gary, I probably can’t compete with these young people today. My goal is just to pass my courses and keep my mind stimulated.”

Well, she wound up doing a lot more than just passing her courses! She graduated Phi Beta Kappa and was the only Media Studies major to make the Dean’s List that year! And today, hanging in the narrow hallway of my apartment, you’ll see a framed transcript with all her course grades on it. My miraculous mother had achieved a perfect 4.0! Well, almost perfect . . .

It seems one professor had it in for my mom. He gave her an A-minus. Maybe she reminded him of the mother who had abandoned him when he was two. Maybe he believed old folks should spend their days playing mahjong and shuffleboard instead of going to college. Or maybe, perish the thought, she didn’t deserve an A in the course. But my mom believed otherwise, and so, not all that surprisingly, Hurricane Betty blew into the professor’s office that day and slammed the door behind her. I don’t know what transpired in that professor’s office, but suffice it to say, when my mom left she had her A . . . and that perfect 4.0.

At age eighty, Betty joined her apartment complex’s creative-writing class and wrote . . . and wrote . . . and wrote. Over the subsequent decade, she authored a substantial volume of high-quality columns, poems, and personal stories—enough to fill several books. A few years ago, I compiled what I felt were some of the best and published them in a paperback entitled; The Golden Years Can Kiss My Ass! (On the cover, my mom is dressed, biker-style, in leather, chains, tattoos and dark glasses.) A year later, we went into a second printing due to the unexpectedly high demand.

In 2013, the amazing woman whom I was blessed to call my mother finally met her match—that heretofore undefeated opponent known as Father Time. She was ninety-five. But just a few days prior to falling into a coma, my mom whispered something to me that seemed, at least at first, totally out of character for the “force of nature” I’d had the privilege of knowing and loving for fifty-seven years.

“Gary, I don’t want to lie in bed all day being fed through a tube. I just want to go to sleep and die,” she said in a voice that was as sturdy as it was certain.

A week later, she was gone. And you know what? When I think back now, Hurricane Betty had once again made clear, even in how she approached her own death, that she was ready to step outside yet another comfort zone and venture bravely into the great unknown.

~Gary Stein

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