Betty Jean McNeil
Difficulty: Engaging (click for info)
With the stubbornness of a small child, I persist in thinking of my own life as the beginning of Betty Jean's story. She was such a strong presence in my childhood, a kind yet fiery companion who sat with me for hours in my favorite room – the tiny, nest-like one under the eaves – listening attentively as I described the fantastic worlds of my imagination. It was Grandma Betty who first taught me to love the wild grey ocean at the western edge of Oregon, who held my hand and waded out into the waves, teaching me just when to jump so that the surf carried me backward. Betty Jean introduced me to Alfred Hitchcock, and we stayed up thrillingly late watching North by Northwest and Psycho together, she chuckling at my squeaks and gasps during the startling dénouements.
The materials for imagining were always of the best at her house: not the packaged robots and dolls that dictated to a kid exactly what they were and how to play with them, but mysterious and versatile objects full of suggestive power. There was a case of old costume jewelry in her little attic room, through which I would paw endlessly, and a wooden rack of picture books whose age gave them an air of the exotic. In the attic closet dwelt an ancient-seeming fur coat, around which I concocted an elaborate tale about my great-grandmother slaughtering a bear and skinning it herself. Once, when my best friend Sara was over, Betty Jean let us get into her store of old makeup. Rather than turning ourselves into glamorous movie stars, we tore up old sheets for ghostly shrouds, and used the red lipstick to make gruesome wounds in our sides. We ran up and down the staircase, moaning and shrieking, and smearing our lipstick entrails all over the wallpaper. Betty Jean just laughed, and snapped a picture of the both of us.
She was one of the most generous adults I knew, although I would stop short of using the word "permissive." I always understood that there was a rock-solid core at the bottom of her kindness, infrequent as it was that I pushed her far enough to get a taste. Betty Jean told me once "The only things I regret are the ones I didn't do." Then she looked at me and said "So do them." Those words still play themselves in my head whenever I'm feeling intimidated at the idea of trying something new.
As a kid it never occurred to me that things were ever tough for Betty Jean. I never knew about the awkwardness of being confronted, at dinners and holidays, with the rampant alcoholism in her husband's family, or the pain that she must have endured at watching her son struggle with the same illness. I never knew that her relationship with her own mother was tense and resentful, the product of a lifetime of being shunted aside in favor of her brother.
Nor did I know the rest of it: how she was born, the second and less-favored child, in the Portland of 1924, to Ethel and Kenneth McNeil, Scots-Canadian immigrants who had come to Oregon from Tees, Alberta. How she attended the High School of Commerce, a secretarial school that taught typing, shorthand, and other skills befitting a young woman about to enter the business world of the early 1940's. (Her yearbook from Commerce lists "Room Representative, Book Exchange, Honor Roll, Never Tardy, Orchestra, Artisans," next to a photograph of a beautiful, serious-looking girl, her dark hair neatly waved, the corner of her mouth showing the faintest suggestion of wry amusement). How the young Betty Jean must have felt some degree of pride about her accomplishment there, because she kept her excellent report cards for the rest of her life. How she left Commerce to take a job at Montgomery Ward's, and how then, after he got back from fighting in the Second World War, she married my grandfather Warren and moved into a small house he'd built himself, on what was then the far outskirts of Portland.
I did hear the funny stories, of course. Like the time my youngest uncle fell off a bunk bed in the camper, split his sleeping bag and his lip simultaneously, and ended up shocking Betty and Warren by wandering into the house looking like a giant half-plucked chicken. Or the time when Betty discovered my tiny uncle Steve, all of seven years old, poring over a book about particle physics at the town library. Taken aback, the young mother exclaimed "Steve, I'm not sure that's completely…appropriate." At which my uncle looked up, tears starting in his eyes, and protested, "But mom, it's really interesting!" Or how, during a raging house fire, Betty Jean had to shake my young father violently for several minutes in order to convince him to wake up. (I am my father's daughter: my own young self was extremely annoyed to be awoken one morning by an earthquake, which caused my collection of pewter figurines to fall on my head. Grumpily, I turned over and went back to sleep.)
My grandmother's senses of smell and taste deserted her very early in life, but the perception of sweetness was the last to go. Looking through her old Betty Crocker, which I inherited after she died, it's easy to see the evidence of this: the entire book is falling apart from decades of constant use, but almost all of it is still legible. All, that is, except the sections devoted to baked desserts, which are marked up, caked with various kinds of dough, and in some cases worn so far away that Betty Jean had to re-write the quantities of flour and sugar in her neat, beautiful hand. Graduates of Commerce all have my grandmother's handwriting, actually. I can only assume that uniform penmanship was drilled much more stringently in Betty Jean's day than it ever was in mine. And every once in a while, with a shock of recognition, I still come across that hand when an elderly woman is writing out a check in the grocery line ahead of me. If she happens to be buying butter or sugar, the temptation is strong to ask when she graduated from Commerce, and whether she ever knew a young girl named Betty Jean McNeil. Usually, though, I am too shy.
I felt so close to my Grandma Betty when I was a little girl, but she died when I was eighteen, deep in the self-absorbed awkwardness between child- and adulthood. I have a lot of sadness that I never got to know her, to talk to her and spend time with her, as one grown-up woman to another. I would have liked to ask her about those regretted things she left undone, and to tell her what a difference she made in my life. But more than either of those desires, I simply wish I had a chance to relate to her as an equal, because I suspect that we would have enjoyed each other immensely.
The Betty Jean McNeil Cardigan is a tribute to my grandmother in high school, the age I was when she died. The crisp tailoring and fitted shape recall Betty's scholastic seriousness, and the colorwork details suggest her femininity, and her sense of fun. The garment as a whole is reminiscent of wartime fashion; it would look perfect with a pleated knee skirt and saddle shoes, although it is also fitting for the modern era of jeans and sneakers. Betty Jean's favorite weather came in the brisk, clear parts of early Autumn. This sweater is made for exploring those days, when the sun alights obliquely on fiery leaves caught in whirlpools of wind.