“We’ll get Aunt Betty to watch the kids,” Dad always said whenever he planned an evening out with Mom. After my brother was born Mom changed. She was restless and more irritable than I ever remembered. Of course between the ages of 4 and 6 years of age a child doesn’t have enough memories to reference but I do remember, distinctly, the difference in the feeling within the household. Mom wanted to get out, to have conversations with other adults and take in places and events that gave her food for thought afterwards. Dad handled this need very well. He took care of getting babysitters, making the plans for a movie or dinner out and arranging for another couple to join the activity.
Aunt Betty was never discussed in any way by Dad but as his Aunt. I knew she was Grandpa Al’s sister but that was it. She never came to the big family dinners Grandpa Al and Grandma Blanche hosted on special occasions. But I do remember her coming to babysit at our house. Dad picked her up and took her home. Mom and Dad never referred to their Aunts and Uncles as my Great Aunts and Great Uncles. Since they each shared so many memories of their own childhoods with me as I grew up I naturally became absorbed in a part of their past. The effect was that I saw no generation gap, at least until my own adolescence. Mom and Dad’s Aunts and Uncles became my Aunts and Uncles. For this reason I refer to Aunt Betty without the term “Great Aunt.” It does not feel right for me to do otherwise.
When she entered our living room, Aunt Betty created a change in the atmosphere of our home.. She was always impeccably dressed. She reminded me of Spring Byington whom I saw on TV when I was a little girl. Since Mom considered the TV a second babysitter, I had many happy hours from the age of 3 onward watching all the sitcoms that have since become TV classics. My overall memory of Aunt Betty and Spring Byington merged over the years. I remember the carefully coiffed silvery white hair, the full ballerina skirts of the late 1950s dresses, conservative appearance and cheerful way of speaking. Tonight, as I looked at the series Spring Byington was in, called “Spring Bride”, I think that is the show I remember since it had a long run through the late 1950s and followed the “I Love Lucy” show. Mom and I watched Lucy regularly. Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel were part of my play world when I wasn’t occupied with dolls. In addition to reminding me of a famous actress, Aunt Betty brought with her a sense of focus, calm and authority I did not feel when Mom was around. She had a way with children that fascinated me. I think that is why Dad consistently wanted her to be our babysitter.
One very clear memory I have is when she had to feed my brother. He was getting used to being in a high chair. We were having reheated meatloaf, peas and mashed potatoes. My brother looked from the high chair and pointed to the food. Aunt Betty told him he was going to have a little and to be patient. She mashed up the meatloaf and mashed potatoes and then fed him from a little spoon. She made a game out of eating so that he’d pay attention. The spoon became an airplane sailing down to the high chair. He found it great fun and ate everything that night. I thought Aunt Betty would have been a great school teacher. She had a way about her that made you pay attention because you wanted to not because you had to.
There was also something very old fashioned, very proper in Aunt Betty’s presence. When I think about it now, she was a link to the past, to Caltanissetta, Sicily where she was born. There was a very real difference to her that I sensed but could not articulate as a child. She reminded me of other first generation women from Italy who were widows. It was a sense of being proper and understated. Yet Dad never told me Aunt Betty was widowed at an early age. I only knew her as my Aunt and my Grandpa Al’s sister. She was somebody’s daughter, too. But since Dad never, ever spoke of his paternal grandparents that remained a mystery. Until now, that is. I do not have a complete profile of Aunt Betty since it is proving difficult to retrieve information on her married years. Yet I do not want to hold up her story anymore. So we’ll take a trip through the years that we do have some information about and see where it leads.
Resources for Spring Byington
Complete episode with Desi Arnaz
part 1 https://youtu.be/vsIuCAnH6P4
part 2 http://youtu.be/5OZ8ZFp171k
This video includes commercials. You get a real feeling of what it was like to watch TV in the late 1950s.
Spring Byington Bio at Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spring_Byington