IN MEMORIUM, BETTY P.M. OVERLAND
My mother was a person of contrasts. She had the most beautiful face you ever saw, but she was someone for whom external things—wealth, beauty, fame—held no importance. She had humble origins, but she developed such an appreciation of art, architecture, and cooking, she was the center of Society wherever she went. She could have been a great writer, or maybe a singer or an actress—her voice was that lovely—but she focused on passing those talents to others.
Not all the most important people in the world are those that we read about in books or watch on television. Sometimes it’s those who change things by quietly working to help others, employing a thousand kindnesses, creating a vision for a Good Earth that remains long after.
As though it were yesterday, I hear my mother’s voice reading to me and my siblings every night from the classics of children’s literature: Lewis Carrol, E. B. White, A. A. Milne (author of Winnie the Pooh and poetry), tales of Robin Hood, and many others. To hear these nightly readings was a privilege for the five of us: a virtual education in how to speak, how to read, how to write, and above all, how to use our imaginations… which she further encouraged by never stopping to take us to art, math, and music classes.
She was born in 1929, a few days before the great Stock Market crash, and grew up in British Columbia, at the address “Swamp Road”—a name that Charles Dickens or William Faulkner, writing about poor white people, couldn’t have improved on. A death in the family caused unbearable sadness, and, seeking refuge, she went south to Seattle, at the University of Washington.
It was her Renaissance. She was an outstanding student in Political Science and Literature. But the time was the late 1940s, and her eyes were opened by the terrible injustices being done by Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Despite her dependence on a green card, and the risks this entailed, she stood outside the Quad to gather signatures in protest. There my father saw her, although they officially met on a blind date.
The two of them settled in Tacoma, Washington, where my mother showed early skills in her part-time jobs: as a librarian and in interior design. The arrival of five children (one by one, except for the twins) changed her career path. Yet through the manager of the design studio, who became a life-long friend, these two straight people were introduced to the Seattle/Tacoma gay art community.
It would be wrong to say that they were spurned by Tacoma society for that, or for their opposition to the Red Scare, their strong opposition to the Vietnam War, or their friendships with people of all races. My parents, especially my mother, could not be removed by Tacoma Society; they were Tacoma Society. They were loved by everybody, the blue-bloods along with the intelligentsia, including writers, musicians, and professors of note.
At the same time, my mother came to be deeply loved by people of all origins, and there are many, to this day, who consider her a second mother. She knew no way to treat people but with kindness. The quality of love was not strained with her but bequeathed to every innocent heart.
Over the last several decades, I knew her primarily as a great friend. There was nothing we could not talk about: literature, art, music, history, politics, even science (Carl Sagan was her hero). She was an expert in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, having read the book a dozen times. At the same time, I had endless fun teasing her about the well-worn copy of Fifty Shades of Grey I kept finding in the family home. And I'll give you a clue; it wasn't my father who was reading it.
No one appreciated a good play, television show, or movie more than she did. To her credit, she liked the really good actors in Hollywood, not the handsome guys (except for Hugh Jackman, I’ll allow that she liked him) but Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Robert Downey, Jr. Meryl Streep (of course) and Danny Devito, as an ex-ad man who had to teach Shakespeare to poor kids.
Her last day fell right between the Ides of March (we had once been part of a book club that read “Julius Caesar”) and Saint Patrick’s Day. Every year on the latter, I had called her up and reminded her that “Irish Eyes are Smiling.” To miss her on Saint Patrick’s Day was very difficult.
It was a song she always remembered. As a little girl in Canada, she had been asked by the teacher to sing that song. The children teased her at first, but the teacher told them to be quiet, that this was the most beautiful rendition of that song he’d ever heard. Then he looked out the window, tears in his eyes. The next day he enlisted in the War.
When Irish eyes are smiling,
Tis like a morn in spring.
In the lilt of Irish laughter,
You can hear the angels sing.
When Irish hearts are happy,
All the world seems bright and gay;
And when Irish eyes are smiling,
Sure they steal your heart away.