My mother, Betty Fivel Haberman Williams, died Sept. 5. Two months prior, and in seemingly good health for a woman of her certain age, she had a Fourth of July week in Maine full of grandchildren and nonstop action.
As was her M.O., she ate, drank and shopped us all under the table. Upon returning to Florida, however, things started off with a cough and feeling wonky. They ended up being Stage 4, small-cell lung cancer.
Such a force of nature was this woman that we took to calling her “The” Betty, and she wore the moniker proudly. Although difficult to encapsulate, The Betty was Audrey Hepburn-era class and forward thinking in the financial/business arena. With or without intent, she ended up being the center of attention at any gathering. She was tough and opinionated, but also benevolent, kind and a supporter of the underdog.
To say I’ve lost the eye of the hurricane that is my turbulent life, is as metaphorically accurate as I can get.
Coming from a long line of accomplished home entertainers, cooks and bakers, I have The Betty to thank for my love of all things restaurant. At a young age, I learned which fork was for what course or dish, and why. I learned to leave my napkin on the floor if I dropped it. I learned to treat servers with utmost respect and that it’s really OK to send a filet mignon back to the kitchen if it’s overcooked.
Her sage advice – “If you can’t afford to leave a tip, stay home and eat a bologna sandwich” – rang in my ears every time someone left me a crappy gratuity.
Like many mothers, mine took an interest in my early love life and wanted me to meet a nice Jewish boy who was the son of a new friend. I agreed to go to dinner with him – and both sets of parents – if she promised to never try and set me up again. As we sat atop Pier 66, the first revolving restaurant in Florida, my “date” slumped down in his chair and picked his fingernails with his steak knife.
My mother cut the evening short, excused us, and never played Yenta again.
For as long as I can remember, The Betty intuitively followed a low-carb, low-sugar diet. When her size 6 petite pants felt tight, she switched to her version of Keto and still ate as she pleased. Being built like my strapping father, it was admirable and aggravating to have a mother who left the hospital in her own jeans after having two babies, both over 8 pounds.
As conscious as The Betty was about her weight and stunning looks (she modeled hats in New York City) she rarely ordered dinner in a fine restaurant without first asking to see the dessert cart. Proper key lime pie (which she taught me was yellow, not green) or a toasted, layered, coconut cake determined the rest of her ordering strategy.
Even in the hospital, just weeks before she died, The Betty sat up in bed and sipped a contraband vodka gimlet, followed by a few bites of coconut cake from TooJay’s, a local deli that had passed her muster. I believe it was the last meal she fully enjoyed.
This won’t be the last Leftovers column referencing The Betty, because the woman gave me a lifetime of relevant material. She also gave me everything she had as a mother and role model for how to live a life full of integrity, grace and humor.
On behalf of the rest of my family and in honor of The Betty, I wish you all a wonderful Thanksgiving. Hug each other a lot, and as always, enjoy your meal.
Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].