The Universal Notebook: Happy 100th, Mom

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Betty Beem and Betty White were both born in 1922 and were both married to men named Allen.

Had she not died in 2013 at the age of 91, my mother would have turned 100 this year. There was really nothing left of her when she passed, but there are still moments when I think, “I should call Mom.”

Edgar Allen BeemMom grew up Betty Gibson, daughter of Paul and Mildred Gibson. They lived on Woodmont Street in Portland near what is now the University of Southern Maine campus. Betty was a perky and petite girl, barely 5 feet tall. Her father, a Kansas man, was the manager of the oil docks in South Portland.

Betty attended Nathan Clifford School, Lincoln Junior High, and Deering High School before studying early childhood education just down Stevens Avenue at what was then Westbrook Junior College. She then completed her bachelor’s degree at Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Growing up, Mom was one of the few women I knew who was a college graduate.

Mom was a nursery school teacher in Portland when she met my father. Though they had only been two years apart at Deering, Betty and Al met on a blind date. My father told me that the day before their first date he was having a beer with a buddy at Vallee’s on Woodford’s Corner when Betty walked by with a friend. He remembered thinking that she had nice legs.

Eerily, Bill Barry’s history of “Deering” includes a photo on page 135 marked Sept. 20, 1945, that shows two young women walking past Vallee’s. Couldn’t be.

Betty Gibson became Betty Beem in 1948. My parents were married at Windleigh Farm in Windham, where her parents had moved. I was born the following year, my brother Paul in 1953, and Dana in 1965.

We had a peripatetic youth, moving all over Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island before my parents finally settled in Westbrook in 1960. I say “finally settled,” but Mom moved seven more times within Westbrook with brief stops in Portland and Falmouth as well. Mom liked real estate and she liked to move.

My father had a life of his own apart from the family, first with Met Life and then in the Merchant Marine. My mother belonged entirely to us. We thought we knew her, but of course, we didn’t really.

Mom was adopted when she was 4 years old, but she never had the slightest interest in knowing anything about her biological family. She felt inquiring about the circumstances of her adoption would be disloyal to the mother and father who loved and raised her. So she left it blank.

What little we know is that her birth name was Bertha. I won’t disclose her surname as there may still be family living in the Bath area. 

It seems her father may have been a shipyard worker who drowned in the Kennebec River, leaving his widow with too many mouths to feed. As was common in the day, at least one of the children was put up for adoption. Bertha became Betty in 1926.

Just one year later she posed on the sandy wheel of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis as it was being refueled by her father on Old Orchard Beach. That photo became a family icon, beautiful little Betty standing on Lucky Lindy’s plane, family history intersecting with American history.

I have a lot of questions about who my mother really was, but it’s been 100 years now. There’s no one left to ask.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.