Betty Willson: The View From 95

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins June 15, 2016 20:11

Betty-WillsonFN00151-spring16-editedAt the age of 88, Betty Willson sat down to write her life story. While there was still time, she wanted to tell her grandchildren and great-grandchildren – “some of them coming in with ideas so liberal it made me shiver” – about what life was like when she was a child.

Over more than 100 pages in a softbound journal, she wrote with neat penmanship and eye-opening candor about the events, joys and hardships of nearly 90 years.

She told about nearly losing a leg to gangrene in the early 1920s (an Indian woman’s salve saved it), relative Herbert Hoover’s brief visit in 1927 (her grandmother said, “You’re that cheating cousin,” and slammed the door on him), her husband’s service on Okinawa in 1945 (a bloodbath), her shift from housewife to career woman in the ’50s and ’60s (a transformative time marred by a brutal crime) and much more.

What she could not know was that another chapter was yet to come: caring for her 71-year-old daughter Nancy, a retired bank manager who was diagnosed last year with dementia.

Her “organized, frugal, brilliant daughter” Nancy moved in with her mother in 1992 when Betty was grieving the death of Robert, her husband of 52 years.

“I needed help,” recalls Betty, herself a cancer survivor. “And for a long time she did help me. Now it’s my turn to help her.”

Betty began to notice changes in her daughter’s memory last year. “She’d forget things – her address, phone number,” she explains. “She’d forget to pay bills or would pay the same bill twice.”

Betty now does the cooking, and checks to make sure Nancy takes her medication. Nancy vacuums, waters the plants and puts away the dishes “although it’s a hunt sometimes to find them,” her mom says. Betty worries about her daughter wandering; Nancy has pledged to let her know if she goes outside.

If you think this story is a tragedy, you don’t know Betty Willson and the strong beliefs and family bonds that shaped this self-described “people person” from an early age.

Born Betty Potter in Fort Jones, she grew up in nearby Yreka. A cement contractor’s daughter and the youngest of five siblings, she vividly remembers a happy childhood. Yreka, she says, was “a giant playground, really” – where life was simple and sweet, but not without its moments.

“When I was 4 ½ my mother took me to a tea party in honor of Mrs. Patsy Reed, who as a child was with the Donner Party. My brother Pete told me she ate people. When I was introduced to her I was shaking with fear. I was so frightened I screamed, ‘Don’t eat me’ … My mother was so embarrassed.”

Next door lived state Sen. Randolph Collier, who advised her father to move his money to the Bank of Italy. That tip helped the family survive the Crash of ’29 – unlike an uncle, heir to a copper fortune, who lost it all and committed suicide.

Betty’s dad always had work during the Depression, and shared that good fortune with others. “From the age of 10 to 14 we never sat down at the table without 10 or 12 people around it, all strangers. Anyone who had no place to stay or no food, he’d always bring them home.”

Those strangers impressed young Betty as grateful, hardworking and “honest to the core.” Many were Midwesterners who had lost their farms and came to pick fruit in California and Oregon. Yreka was halfway between the Central Valley and Portland – the point at which many weary families’ gas and food ran out.

“One woman I remember saying, ‘You don’t know how good your food is. For over a year I ate nothing but sand and dirt because the wind blew so much of it into the house.’ She was from Oklahoma.”

In 1939 Betty met and married 19-year-old Robert Willson, a handsome ambulance driver with the Civilian Conservation Corps. They moved to Oakland where he earned 25 cents an hour trucking, and their tiny apartment shared a bath with five other families. “But we had friends and companionship,” she recalls. “Everyone was in the same boat we were.”

Her husband joined the Army in ’44. Returning on New Year’s Eve from tank training in Utah, he survived a horrific train crash only because he got off in Salt Lake City to get a beer. Robert returned to find his seat taken, and was sent to a steel car behind the wooden car he’d been in earlier.

“I figured if he survived that when all his friends were killed, well, I never worried, even when he went to Okinawa,” recalls Betty, who treasures his wartime letters to this day.

After the war, Robert worked as a lumber truck driver while Betty raised their three children – Gary, Nancy and Catherine – helping with school activities and becoming a life member of PTA and Campfire Girls.

By the late 1960s she was ready for a new challenge, and took a job at an Oakland maternity store. This is where her life story takes a harsh turn. At closing time on a Saturday in February 1968, a man entered the store, put a gun to her temple and brutally raped her.

“He was a Black Panther who had raped 10 other women in San Francisco, but only three would testify,” says Betty, who was so badly beaten that she was hospitalized for three weeks.

Police brought her out of the hospital to look at a lineup. She was able to identify him, Betty says, because she had seen his face in a side mirror during the attack.

Her husband bought a gun. They received threatening phone calls at night. At the pre-trial hearing, she remembers seeing Huey Newton and other supporters of the defendant front and center. The case never made it to trial; the attacker pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to 20 years and got out in seven, she says.

What saved Betty was a young doctor’s advice. “He told me, ‘Don’t be ashamed, don’t hide it.’ ”

That is what she did – despite being shunned by some of her own male relatives, who intimated that perhaps her appearance provoked the attack – and what she continues to do.

“Talking about it let me get it off my chest,” she says. “You feel better afterward, that you’re not dirty, that you’re still in God’s world even though this happened to you.”

Why talk about it now, as her 96th birthday approaches?

“Maybe it will help some young girl to survive it,” she explains. “Back then, there was more stigma against the woman who was raped than the man who did it.”

Her children and grandchildren helped her through, Betty says. “They gave me something to live for, to forget all that.” Focusing on them helped push her terror and pain to the background. She retreated to an Amador County cabin the family was building near Pioneer, and after a year or so recovered her health and some sense of normalcy. “But you never get used to it,” she says.

In the 1970s she took a job at Capwell’s, an upscale Oakland department store, becoming the first woman to sell furniture there. Male coworkers at first told customers she was a greeter, which explained her early lack of sales. She made up for it. “I outsold them. And I learned my lesson, that men will look down on a woman, that they don’t think a woman’s capable.”

She loved the job but left it in the late 1970s to help Nancy, manager of the main Modesto branch of World Savings, after her husband was killed by a teen driver. When Nancy’s work took her to Sonora to manage the local World Savings, the family moved together. Nancy bought her parents a house next to a bus stop – Betty has never had a driver’s license – and prepared to help care for them.


Betty treasures WWII letters from her husband

Robert died before they could move in. And so in 1992 Nancy and Betty became housemates – and the family’s loving support of each other through good times and bad carried on.

As Nancy’s banking career flourished, Betty began to travel with friends and to volunteer at Columbia State Historic Park, serving as a docent until she turned 90. Her favorite job was teaching fourth-grade visitors to the park’s historic schoolhouse about life in the 1850s.

“I was a strict teacher,” she says. “Kids these days have no idea about discipline.”

She was twice named docent of the year, and retired just five years ago when climbing the old schoolhouse steps became a challenge.

Today she looks forward to monthly Red Hat meetings with women whose red-and-purple attire announces joyful camaraderie. “They’re all lots of fun, and they all support each other too,” says Betty.

These good friends took her on a hot-air balloon ride in Napa for her 90th birthday, to Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel last year, and are planning another outing for her 96th in July.

At home, Betty takes it day by day. She and Nancy are adapting to changes they never expected, and they do not dwell on what the future may hold.

Asked about her diagnosis, Nancy says she feels good. “I feel I’m OK, I’m in control,” she says. Though she no longer drives, close friends stop by every week for long walks together, a highlight.

She and her mother get along fine after all these years, she says, though when Betty quips, “I’m still bossy,” Nancy is quick to agree.

Looking at her daughter, Betty notes, “She’s put up with me for a long time.”

Caregiving is a 24/7 commitment, one she never imagined at this age. “Getting old, you expect to be taken care of, not to be taking care of someone.” Yet like any other challenge, she is dealing with it, her trademark optimism evident. She has lots of help from daughter Catherine, son Gary and their families, Betty says. Still, she gets tired in this new role, and sometimes worries, but then stops herself.

“What is there to worry about? She can’t help the condition and I can’t help it,” Betty says. “There’s no cure. You learn to live with a lot.”

She worries too about the younger generation, what’s ahead for them and how they will adapt. Perhaps the lessons from her own life will guide them just as her parents’ beliefs shaped her.

“Accept what’s happening and work with it,” she says. “Do your best. My mother always said, ‘Take one day at a time,’ and I think she was right. If you can get through one day at a time, you’re doing fine.”

Copyright © 2016 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins June 15, 2016 20:11
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