Betts’ work as family historian and memoirist ended in 1995, with the completion of her memoir, which carried the story of her life and that of her family through the autumn of 1964, when, as she wrote, there “came changes which affected all of our family.” This was as close as Betts came to telling readers that in September 1964 she and Ben angrily separated and subsequently divorced. She was forty-one years old; for the next half century Betts was a single mother, or, perhaps more accurately, an independent-minded single woman.
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Betts lived at first with her parents, but eventually she moved to an apartment in a private home between Newark and Wilmington, Delaware. After the passing of her mother in 1973, Betts returned to Choate Street to help her widowed father, and, following his death in 1980, the family home passed to her.
To support herself, Betts resumed her role as receptionist for Dr. Perry L. Munday until his retirement, at which time she moved to Christiana Hospital, near Newark, where she worked in the office of a radiologist. She walked to work at Dr. Munday’s office and rode the bus to Christiana Hospital.
Betts was a member of the first generation to have access to Social Security, and her years in the work force coincided with a time when it was generally understood that the retirement age was sixty-five. And that’s what Betts did when her time came.
Like many retirees before and since, Betts was ambivalent about leaving the working world and shortly became restive for “something to do” that would enable her to maintain daily contact with people. She hit on “volunteer jobs” as a way to fill at least part of what had once been her work week: Betts volunteered in the office of a museum consortium headquartered in Newark, and later worked behind the scenes in a grocery co-operative, also located in her hometown. Once again, the close-in location of these activities was absolutely crucial to Betts, who, remember, did not drive. Just how important these “volunteer” activities were to her became clear when one of them ended:
The office . . . will be moving to the Baltimore area the end of the year, probably in November, so I will be finished there. Sure was a lifesaver 10 years ago when I was wondering what I was going to do with retirement. Seemed to me they did a lot toward saving my “sanity” and I have always appreciated that. Worked for some very nice people and hate to see it end. But guess all good things must end, huh?
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Betts’ children visited when they could. Her daughter and grandsons lived for quite a while in Newark, so they saw her frequently. On the other hand, Betts’ sons lived far away, in Oregon and Georgia. When their children were born, Betts cultivated a late-life love affair with commercial aviation, which enabled her to travel great distances relatively quickly so she could see those grandkids.
Changes came, and sometimes proved unsettling. For instance, in March 1996 she wrote:
Since the weather has been awful this winter, . . . I get depressed and that is no time to have to think about the past, present, or future. [Grandsons Drew and Keith, daughter Judy, and brother Bob had already moved, or would shortly be moving, from Newark.] I feel like someone stole my “security blanket,” but I will adjust to that change as I have had to do in the past. . . . My Mom and Dad had 6 children, 5 of whom lived away from this area—if they could adjust to that, I am sure I can, too.
For someone who was treated as physically “delicate” until she graduated from high school, Betts enjoyed relatively robust health as a wife and mother and reasonably good health for almost two decades following her retirement. Midway through the first decade of the twenty-first century, however, she began to experience blood pressure, mobility, and memory problems that eventually led her to sell her beloved home, which had been owned by the Dobson-Knighton family for more than eighty years. Diagnosed with dementia, Betts relocated to Lewes, Delaware, where she lived with her daughter and son-in-law for a time. As her memory and general health further deteriorated, she was moved to a rest home, and then to a personal-care home, where she died on December 29, 2013, ten days before her 91st birthday.
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As a teenager, Betts had entered the workforce part-time, and she could hardly wait to graduate from Newark High so that she could get a fulltime job. By 1940, when Betts found her first “real” job, the proportion of women in the workforce was about 25 percent. (Vandenberg-Daves, 28) Yet, female employees like Betts were expected to work only until they married and began to have children, at which time they were supposed to leave the workforce and become “fulltime homemakers.”
That began to change, and quickly, during the Second World War, when, with men fighting abroad, their mothers, wives, and daughters filled many occupations not previously considered “women’s work.” (Sholar, 42) As Betts’ experience shows, this “patriotic” endeavor called for sacrifice, creativity, and time management skills, especially with children in the house:
Imagine: four women and three babies sharing the same two-bedroom apartment! Our neighbors marveled that all of us could share an apartment, but it really was a case of survival —we were working mothers with babies, but not much money. This was a long time before “Women’s Lib.” [Pt.IV]
At war’s end, husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers came marching home hoping to reclaim their jobs, and there was a societal expectation that women workers would “do the right thing,” quietly give up their jobs, and cheerfully return fulltime to home and children. Betts did exactly that for a decade or so, but she never forgot the early independence that working outside the home had provided—and, of course, with a growing family to support, additional income was imperative. Almost as soon as her youngest child entered elementary school in 1954, Betts went back to work.
Her first fulltime job was with the family doctor. When Betts told Ben the news, he was less than thrilled, predicting that she “would last about a month in that job.” Her later comment on Ben’s attitude was classic Betts: “I believe that was the only reason I stayed with Dr. Rombro, except for the fact that I really enjoyed the office work and the contact with people.” Moreover, Betts understood that her taking a job also struck at Ben’s perception of himself as the family breadwinner: “[I]f a woman worked outside the home, it ‘proved’ that her husband could not provide for his family. Well, I must have been among the first ‘liberated women,’ because this was the 1950s.” [Pt.V]
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In retrospect, it seems clear that Betts attributed her evolving independent streak to the rheumatic fever and subsequent heart issues that had kept her from doing things other girls her age did. In reminiscing about a girlfriend, for instance, Betts recalled that, in order to attract boys, Mickey “decided to learn to roller skate, dance, etc. All the things I was never permitted to do, remember—I told my doctor that I was going to have fun, no matter what! Guess you know that went over big.” [Pt.IV]
For Betts, then, work and marriage enabled her to become an independent person, one who was fully capable of thinking for herself, regardless of what her parents, her physicians, or her husband might have wanted her to do:
I was surprised that I had become a person who could make her own decisions. When I was growing up, decisions were always made for me, by my parents or by the doctor. . . . When we married, I was a dependent individual who always had someone else tell me what to do. I expected to be able to lean on your Dad the way I had my parents, but I found that he was not around enough for that. . . . I had a lot of responsibility in the home, and I learned to make my own decisions. As your father always said, I became “too d—– independent”! I was always told that we do what we have to do, and this was the first step. I have had to live with my decisions. [Pt.V]
End of Part VI
Next–After Words: Betts on Family, History, and Family History
Additional Sources (Part VI)
Jodi Vandenberg-Daves, “Twentieth-Century American Motherhood: Promises, Pitfalls, and Continuing Legacies,” The American Historian, No. 10 (November 2016), 26-32.
Megan A. Sholar, “The History of Family Leave Policies in the United States,” The American Historian, No. 10 (November 2016), 41-45.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject: