“Boys like freckles,” Bettye Sue told me, and that was it. I never complained about my freckles again. I was about ten or eleven, and looking back, at a perfect age to have such affirmation cast my way.
She was eight years older than me, and with baby Brian in the house, a frequent babysitter for us, mostly evenings when Mom worked swing shift at Crown Zellerbach, and when Dad was on a haul somewhere up and down California in his truck.
Bettye Sue wasn’t quite the older sister I needed, but she was definitely a presence and a profound influence from the time I was born. She witnessed me grow from a hairy, wrinkle-faced squalling infant (“You call that a baby?” she had said to herself the first time she laid eyes on me when my mom had brought me home from the hospital, after my older brother Tom had tirelessly dragged her blocks from her home, excitedly crying, “Come see my new baby sister!”) to my pre-pubescent awkward years.
I remember in the mid-60’s she had a boyfriend named Bob, and their song was “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Story has it, around that time, I had bit Bob’s butt (she reminded me of this in later years) while they were goofing around in the kitchen.
As a babysitter to Brian and me at our house in the early 70’s, Bettye Sue wasn’t bossy, so much as advising; from things like to not pick at my pimples and blackheads (“you’ll get holes in your face”), to thinking of others besides myself (“Don’t you think that’s a bit selfish?”), to even playing constructive art critic to some of my people drawings (“Where are their boobs? Didn’t they have boobs back then?,” after seeing a picture of some colonial women I had drawn). I believe she even caught me cheating at a Crazy 8’s card game, and all it took was once for me to never cheat — at least with her — again. In all of the above scenarios, there really was no shaming; just calling you out. You came away basically unscathed, yet informed.
She was the first person I ever heard use the word “gross,” and it was in response to some cartoon character eating a spider. Bob having been long-gone from the picture, Bettye was dating a guy named Steve Ortiz, so she would occasionally use Spanish words and it would crack me up. She had a dry sense of humor and astute delivery that kept you engaged.
She liked Joe Namath (“He’s cool!”) and claimed to not like Raquel Welch because she was “too pretty” — which I thought was amusing, as Bettye Sue, who I thought resembled the cute, sassy Pamela Dare character in the movie “To Sir with Love,” was attractive in her own right. She smoked cigarettes, but since all the other adults in my life did, I paid it no mind.
Considering that my parents’ marriage was so loveless and fraught with anger, frustration and sadness, when we had a babysitter, it was kind of like a holiday — or at least a much-needed escape. The house felt different, and in a pleasant, more carefree way. Some nights when I would hear my dad’s truck roll up, a wave of disappointment would wash over me, as I knew the “party” was over; soon Bettye Sue would have to leave.
One night at our house, Bettye Sue got a disturbing phone call that a friend’s husband had been killed in a boating accident. I had seen occasional tears from her in the past, but I was older now, and this was somewhat alarming. I don’t remember how I reacted, but I do remember feeling sad for her. She was still crying when my dad got home about an hour later, and he seemed sympathetic, and advised her to go ahead and go home. Face tear-stained, she gathered her things and stepped out into the night.
That evening the cool cousin who I had already learned so much from, raised the bar even higher by showing me that it’s okay for adults to cry in front of children, and that water-proof mascara wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.