Remember this: There is no such thing as an unforgettable story.
You will forget, so I’ll say that again: There is no such thing as an unforgettable story.
Over time, the details will escape you. The colors and names and faces will fade. You will argue with friends and relatives over who really burned down the neighbors’ garage.
If you don’t write your memories down, one way or another, someday it will be too late.
As such, I have been meaning to interview my grandparents for years. Like any family, we have so much to get on the record. Like any family, we’ve been busy.
My maternal grandmother, Betti F. Saunders (formerly Betti Jo Friedel and often known as Betsy), is my last living grandparent. Her husband Charles died last year, and my father’s mother, “Gram E,” took her last breath before my eyes this year. My father and his father have both been gone quite some time. So many memories are gone with them.
So finally, at the encouragement of my sisters and cousins, I packed up my kids and my laptop and headed for Houston two weeks ago. I prayed Betsy would be up for talking with me about her life. She has lived a full and adventurous one—born to a poor, small-town family, only child of a blind father and the wife who helped care for him, she later become a performer, mother of four, wife, world traveler, philanthropist, and more. She is one of my inspirations.
I was overjoyed when it turned out Betsy was happy to share stories galore. On the night of November 17, 2012, I typed along while the children slept, laughing and bugging my eyes out in surprise while trying to keep up with her vivid memories.
Clearly, we can’t cover 88 years in one sitting. This will have to be an ongoing oral history project. I’m urging the rest of our family to record stories too when they have the chance. It was a blast! And I am so grateful to my grandmother for the gift of her time. As much as I learned from Betsy that night, her stories only served to make my list of questions longer.
I hope those of you who don’t know my grandmother will still enjoy this snapshot of the early and mid-1900s and that perhaps it will inspire you to record your own family stories. I bet many of them will surprise you.
Above we have my maternal family, 1963 in Graham, Texas, clockwise from boy at left: Steve, Melanie, Betsy, Charles, Cindy, and Shelley (AKA the Saunders kids and their parents), and Betsy’s parents Eunice Covey and Joe B. Friedel. We still have that old brown buggy—my great-grandmother’s when she was a girl—at my mom’s house. My daughter plays a little too rough with it from time to time.
ERIN J. WALTER: Thank you so much for talking with me, Grandmother Betsy.
BETTI F. SAUNDERS: You’re welcome. What do you want to know?
EJW: I think I’ll just take it from the top and see how far we can get. Where were you born?
BFS: 1924 in Graham, Texas, in a house. It was sort of like a clinic in a house. The doctor that delivered me took out Charles’s appendix about 30 years later and didn’t charge him a penny.
EJW: You’re kidding!
BFS: Charles gave him a check and he gave it right back. The doctor was a family friend. Melanie [my mother] was born in September 1949, so we went to Graham for Christmas. I took just enough clothes and diapers for the weekend–-you know, they wore cloth diapers then—and lo and behold I was packing on Christmas night and Charles said, “You don’t need to do that because I’m going to have surgery in the morning at 8 o’clock at Graham Hospital.”
I knew he had been suffering but they never could diagnose his problems. He died not knowing what his pain was. A doctor told me some pain can never be explained and that was Charles.
Anyway, the surgery was supposed to be at 8 o’clock. I went up to the hospital at about 8:30 thinking I would’ve missed it. The operating room had doors and windows, so you could see in. I thought I’d see them cleaning up. But I got there just in time to see them stick a knife in his tummy.
EJW: Eek! So what was Graham like back then?
BFS: Charles swore it was never more than 5,000 people. The sign at the city limits always said 7,000, and I don’t think it grew any while I was there. And the numbers decreased after I left.
Graham was always in a dry county. You had to drive 15 miles to another town to get beer and I guess whiskey. I don’t know. We never drank. I think Graham is still dry.
EJW: What was your school like?
BFS: There was a grade school and a high school. In those days there were only 11 grades and I graduated at 15 because I did not go to the first grade. I was promoted to the second grade because I could read. I went to a girls’ college in Missouri paid for by the doctor.
EJW: Wait, the same one?
BFS: Yes. He was our guardian angel. He took care of Dad when he was shot in the face. He’s been a part of my life as long as I can remember. He smoked cigars. He ate cereal for breakfast every night, which was unusual. He had a wife who was a hypochondriac. She never got out of bed. Maybe that’s why he ate cereal for breakfast.
EJW: Ha! Good theory. Sounds like he was a special guy.
BFS: He used to take me to Ft. Worth to the dentist. I wore braces for three months after I graduated from high school because I had a gap between my front teeth. I won a contest while I was wearing the braces.
EJW: A contest? That’s a story I’ve never heard about.
BFS: There was a contest for four girls to represent the Burlington Railroad. It was brand new then, called the Silver Princess. You had to be 18 to enter. I was 15 but they didn’t know. You had to appear in person, and I didn’t think I had a chance of winning. But I did.
It was a wonderful prize because I got a whole new wardrobe for college and we went to Denver. It was my first luxury trip, in sleeping cars. We made stops along the way in the best hotels, a resort hotel in Colorado Springs. I ice skated there for the first time in my life. I was terrible at it. My ankles were weak. It was wonderful though. Every place the train stopped, they greeted us with a band and flowers, like real celebrities. I wrote it all down but I don’t know where the diaries are now.
EJW: You mentioned earlier when your dad was shot in the face. What was it like having a father who was blind?
BFS: As far as I was concerned, everybody’s dad was blind. But my father was a very courageous man. He walked to town every day to get the mail. The only time he was ever hurt in traffic, he was hit by a police car.
The jail and courthouse were in the center of town, in the square, just like the post office. The policeman or detective was backing out from the jail and wasn’t looking. Dad was not seriously hurt but it was a shock to the town that anybody would run over Joe Friedel because he was an ornery Czech. He carried a white cane stick and everybody knew Dad.
Dad ran for the Legislature and he lost. That came as a great shock to him too.
EJW: Wow! I had no idea he ran for office.
BFS: I didn’t know anything about politics then and I don’t know now. I hate politics. I don’t discuss it.
EJW: OK, so how did Grandpa Friedel get shot? I remember being told a long time ago that it was a hunting accident.
BFS: He was hunting and somebody shot him, mistook him for an animal. They heard a rustling in the trees. I thought all my life that we didn’t know who shot him—that the man left town—but recently I found the newspaper article and it tells who shot him. Of course, it was an accident, but it was just as bad as if it wasn’t.
They didn’t think he was going to make it. I was about one year old at the time. My poor mother—can you imagine? Dad was about to start his own business putting tops on cars, canvas I think they were. Then he couldn’t do that.
They had run off and gotten married. He was just out of the Navy, and she lived in Ft. Worth. My granddaddy wouldn’t let her date unsupervised. I don’t know how she got away with him, he was so protective of his four daughters.
EJW: How did you meet Grandpa Charles?
BFS: We both landed at the University of Texas in September of 1942. I had two years to get my degree, and Charles had three years to go because he was in law school. I didn’t like him very much. The first time I saw him, he came at night after law school to watch us rehearse a play called Heaven Can Wait. I had a small part as the maid. I had to scream, so naturally I got his attention. He hung around the drama department because there weren’t any girls in the law school.
EJW: There were no women in the law school at all?
BFS: I think there was one. We have the photo upstairs.
EJW: I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, it being the 1940s. I wonder how much better the numbers are today. Anyway, go on.
BFS: Charles would call and ask me out and I would tell my roommate, “Tell him I’m not here. I have other plans.” She didn’t like to do that. She was from Ft. Worth. Her name was Charlotte Guerry. I was very fond of her. She was almost selected sweetheart of the school that year. Everybody liked her. She tried to promote the romance, but I never liked for someone to—well, she was messing with my life and I don’t like that. I like to make my own decisions.
EJW: I admire that about you for sure.
BFS: Christmas of my last year at the University of Texas, I didn’t want to go home to Graham. I never liked living in Graham, so I booked myself with a travel agency to go to Mexico for Christmas. My parents would let me do anything. They were very generous with me. They trusted me completely and let me do anything that I thought was OK. I’m sure they were disappointed, but I went to Mexico and saw the famous volcano that had been belching recently. I think we spent New Year’s Eve watching it erupt.
I had a roommate, a nutty woman named Jane—tall, unmarried—who fell in love with a Mexican guide and wanted to stay and marry him. Of course, it was a two-week trip and it would have been foolish of her to marry him after such a short time. I think she came back with us.
Anyhow, it was a nice trip and I wrote Charles a postcard from Mexico. When I got back his birthday was coming up on January 18. Mail was very slow from Mexico, so he got my postcard apparently on his birthday. He called to thank me for remembering his birthday, which I didn’t. He asked could he come over and give me a piece of his birthday cake-–that some girls had made for him at Mrs. Hardin’s rooming house—and I said, “No, you can’t.” It was late, maybe 10 o’clock. I had on my gown and robe and my hair was rolled up. He came over anyway.
EJW: How forward. Where were you living then?
BFS: I was rooming in an elderly woman’s house on Rio Grande Street. The first year I was at Texas I lived in a dorm, but the second year the navy took it over. This was wartime. We all moved out and I had to find a new place to live.
We sat and talked on the porch of the house that night of his birthday. I don’t think she even had a swing. We just sat on the couple of steps. We talked for an hour. At that point I decided I had been passing up a good thing and started pursuing him.
One time he brought me a chamelea. It looks like a gardenia. I’d never seen one. I don’t think they grew in Graham. I wouldn’t accept it. It was a standing joke that I was a poor little country girl who didn’t know the difference between a chamelea and a gardenia.
You will appreciate this story. We had a huge gardenia bush that had never done much. But the last year before Charles died it had a minimum of 100 blooms every day and he would go out first thing in the morning and cut one and go around the office and give one to every secretary and receptionist. I have more thank-you notes from when he died about what a kind person—[She chokes up.] Anyway, I knew what a gardenia was.
EJW: I know he loved his job, but was he really still going into the office last year?
BFS: He had retired about 20 years before that. He was not receiving a dollar. But he still went to the office for 20 years after he retired. Retiring has a lot of different meanings for different people. He did a lot of free legal work. He built houses with Habitat for Humanity.
Charles died in September. The bush died soon after. We had an ice storm or maybe it was just cold, and the bush died the same year Charles did. Often the wife dies a couple months after the husband.
EJW: Well, we’re all so glad you’re still here. I know you miss him a lot. I do too. Do you want to rest and talk more tomorrow?
BFS: No, I’m doing just fine.
EJW: OK. You make your own decisions, like you said. So, how did you get engaged?
BFS: We’d been going together for two years. I was expecting it. He asked me and we set the date one night when we were on a date in Herman Park by a lake. He wasn’t very imaginative or romantic. He gave me a very clear explanation of why he wanted to get married. It was time for him to get married. A man should not live alone. It was in July that he asked me, and we got married on Oct. 18. I thought that was far enough away that I could get time off for a honeymoon.
EJW: What was your wedding like?
BFS: We got married in Houston in 1946 and were married three years before having kids. Melanie was born in 1949.
[My grandmother skips any details and moves to another subject, but as we can see from her portrait, the wedding must’ve been at least a wee bit on the fancy side. Chances are there was no bucket of complimentary flip-flops for the reception, as there was at my wedding.]
We’d been attending Central Presbyterian Church. He later became a deacon and an elder and very active in the church. I was president of the women’s association, but I don’t like to be president of anything. I think I did all that could be expected of me in the way of church work.
We moved to a new house when Shelley was born because we figured six people could use more than one bathroom. The church congregation had mostly moved out to the suburbs and it finally got down to where there weren’t maybe 25 people on Sunday, but we kept driving into that church for maybe ten years. We shouldn’t have. We should’ve been going to church here in our new neighborhood. Our children didn’t get to go to Sunday school with their schoolmates. That’s why I think Melanie is the only one who goes to church. I think it’s our fault. We made a mistake.
When the minister retired, we moved to a church near us. It’s big, maybe 5,000 people, and I always said I never wanted to belong to a big church. I used to not enjoy going to a modern church. I used to say, “I want a church that looks like a church,” and the minister would say, “What does a church look like?” The building shouldn’t be a deciding factor.
EJW: I have said those same words about wanting a church that “looks like a church” myself. I love finding out about these ideas or opinions we have in common. I’d love to hear more about your parents too. What were they like?
BFS: My mom was an angel. My dad was very stubborn, and I heard him fuss at her. Of course he never struck her, but they would argue. He was hard to live with. He wanted what he wanted, when he wanted it, right now.
EJW: I do recall him as a tad gruff, but I adored both of them. I have great memories of working puzzles with her and playing dominoes with him, since he could feel the indentions in the domino tiles. Did she have hobbies or interests that were just hers?
BFS: Mostly she looked after him. She spent her life doing things for him.
He had a newsstand next to the movie theaters. There were two movie theaters in Graham. They were on the same block, The National and the Liberty. He sold magazines, newspapers, candy, popcorn, cigarettes. I often popped the popcorn and burned it, because I didn’t concentrate. I walked off [while it was popping]. But they were nice about it. They always let me do it again.
Sometimes he made 10 dollars a week. Those were Depression years. But I never knew we were poor. I always had everything I needed, and all the love I could handle. They thought I was perfect, that I hung the moon. It was nice to be loved like that.
That is pretty much exactly how I feel about my wonderful grandmother, shown here with her youngest great-grandchild.
To be continued …
I conducted this interview for my family, but I greatly appreciate everyone who takes the time to read it. And most of all, I thank my Grandmother Betsy for sharing these memories. I’m very fortunate to have her in my life.
Come back next Monday for a second half largely focused on Charles and Betsy’s travel adventures—mud slides, attack monkeys, an epic train ride across Siberia, a bath tub that spewed dirt, and much more.
In the meantime, please check out past interviews—with interesting people from Austin to Chicago, L.A. to London, most of whom are of not relation to me—at theadmirationsociety.tumblr.com and share the link! Thank you. - Erin