When I asked Bette Peterson my usual first question, “What are the beliefs and principles that guide you?,” she said without hesitation, “None. I just have stories.” And that was true.
As we sat for an hour and a half over coffee at La Boulangerie, Bette outlined her life as a series of anecdotes that kept me in amazement and laughter the whole time. At one point, a young woman stopped by and, commenting on my note-taking, said, “I hope you’re going to print this somewhere. I couldn’t help overhearing a little, and I want the whole story.”
I’m not about to try reproducing the boundless tales of our Scheherazade of Fig Garden or to emulate the deadpan innocence and charm of Bette’s narrative persona. All I will do is sketch out briefly the route of her journey and extrapolate a bit about the unacknowledged belief system I detect below the surface of this remarkable life.
Bette was born into a well-to-do family living in an exclusive New York City neighborhood near Central Park. As a 7-year old, she was taken on her first international excursion, to the parental ancestral lands of France and Switzerland. Thus was inculcated a taste for travel and breadth of experience that has led to travels to more than 50 countries and a love for other cultures.
Yet despite their cosmopolitan fa‡ade, Bette’s parents were, well, bigots, disdaining as starters Jews, Catholics and dark-skinned people. But Bette, as she blithely reports, was unaffected by familial prejudice. “The school I went to had all sorts, and I could see I had tastes and problems similar to girls of other backgrounds. When my mother told me one day I could invite a friend home after school, without thinking I invited a Black girl. I could tell my mother was shocked but good manners prevented her from saying anything.” In what I soon came to realize was pure Bette, she insouciantly bypassed what for many would have been an emotion-laden obstacle to social maturity.
Not enjoying life with her narrow-minded parents, or playing second fiddle to her fashion-model sister, Bette up and left home at age 19 for a wartime job in Washington, D.C. Remembrances of the time include having to get up at 5 a.m. to take two buses to work, being reprimanded on the job for talking to a Black co-worker (and thinking “how silly”), finding the office flooded by the storm-swollen Potomac and having to refuse the order to “take off your shoes and get to work” by reminding the boss that the office pool used electric typewriters. (All of this, of course, related with hilarity and nonchalance.)
Somewhere along the line (the stories were not told chronologically, and I’m not sure what happened when, but following Bette’s example, I’ll do what comes to hand), she married an army engineer of Swedish descent named “Pete” Peterson, and the couple was dispatched to Miami. He set her up in an apartment and gave her $100 a week allowance, quite a handsome sum in those days. But after six weeks, he told her that the money had come from his savings and not his salary, and he had no more to give her. Thinking quickly, Bette called her parents and told them, “That car you bought for my graduation, and that expensive typewriter-please sell them and send me the cash.” They did so and Bette survived. “But,” she notes, “they didn’t offer to help me with any of their own money.”
Nineteen years pass. Tales include the following:
- Moving to New Haven, Connecticut, into an apartment. Bette is told by her suddenly generous father (who had lost all his money but then made it back again) that he’ll pay for all the furnishings. She excitedly goes shopping and buys everything.except when she and Pete are ready to retire they discover she’s bought a bed but no mattress.
- Her husband decides to quit engineering and go into home construction. They move to Orlando, only to discover that to make it in business there you have to break into the right circles-which Pete does by virtue of his ability to play poker and hold his liquor.
- On an excursion to the beach, Bette accidentally meets someone with 100 acres of virgin beach he wants to develop. This encounter results in Pete’s first construction job-building 70 houses. His business eventually grows to five corporations.
- They have a daughter Andrea. When she’s 10, Bette decides it’s time to show her the wide world, as her parents had done for her. The trip includes Luigi the non-English-speaking tour guide; the “rock lady,” a jewel-encrusted matron who smuggles diamonds from Holland; and a trip to Paris where one couple of the group prohibits their children from seeing “the sinful city,” whereas Bette (having gotten ill) joyfully dispatches Andrea to explore on her own. “And when I was better, she gave me a grand tour of what she had found.” On another trip, Andrea was exposed to still-bombed-out areas of London as well as “wonderful Denmark, with pastry shops and whipped cream on every corner, and socialized medicine.” There was also a tour of the fjords of Scandinavia, which included Bette getting herself crowned as Queen of the Codfish on a small island.
- She discovers one day, via a call from Hertz Rent-a-Car, that her husband has stolen a rental car and disappeared taking all their saving and insurance policies-and that there was another woman claiming to be Mrs. Charles Peterson.
All of this, in Bette’s narration, is simply life unfolding in its marvelous, unending, surprising and eventually entertaining way. No money? Sell the cabinet full of liquor given over the years as “gifts” from potential contractees. Need a job? Tell them you can take shorthand and run an office, then learn how in two weeks. Need to get your husband out of jail? Call on the judge you recently helped to get elected.
The stories tumble forth as if their occurrence was all mystery and coincidence. No mention of the dedicated political work, the generosity, and acceptance toward people of all sorts, the courage to face marital abandonment and virtual destitution as one big
And yes, among the stories, there are remarkable unexpected events that save the day. A Republican Women’s Club spokesperson whose “who-could-have-guessed” personal acquaintance with Norman Thomas (a well-known socialist) results in a desperately needed college scholarship for Andrea. Or getting a job as an executive secretary for a major corporation via a chance conversation
between VIPs on a golf course.
How many women in 1966 had the drive to go back to college at age 43 and the wherewithal to finish a B.A. and an M.A. in three years? And then to take off alone to California for a job with the Tulare Department of Education, “a terrible job” that got her involved in a suit to force better treatment for special education students?
In 1970, she met Bob Billings, chair of the English Department at Fresno State University. “Our first date didn’t go well at all, but he persisted. It turned out he was building a big house, and I needed a place to live. So I suggested that I move in and pay half the expenses. He agreed.” Three years later they got married and lived happily for 30-odd years, until his recent death.
Some years ago, Bette wrote a book directed mainly to homeschooling parents, entitled Beginning Reading at Home. It was self-published (an almost shameful admission back then) and by virtue of this fact not worthy of review. “Somehow,” Bette persuaded the book editor at the Fresno Bee to write about it, and it became successful.
A new chapter in Bette’s life began. Her follow-up book, Beginning Math at Home, was also a big success, and then she began publishing other people’s books under the imprint of Poppy Lane Publishing. She looks for books that a) are by local authors, b) emphasize multiculturalism and delight in different ways of living and c) are beautifully illustrated. Many are for children–a continuation of her mission started with Andrea to help youngsters see and embrace a large world. Many have to do with food and come from her connection with friends she has made vending at the Vineyard Farmers Market. All are books you want to hold and look at as well as read.
Bette’s unheralded work includes participation in the League of Women Voters, Peace Fresno, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and Habitat for Humanity, as well as administering the charitable foundation she and Bob established. But, at the age of 87, Bette says she is especially glad to have the book business as “something to do and talk about”–just another happenstance in this accidental life.
She still finds pleasure thinking about life’s mysteries, and the great connectedness she felt even as a young girl when she read Walt Whitman’s poem “A Passage to India.” She finds herself still a bit of an anomaly-unlike so many elders, she says, “the older I get the more liberal I become.” And she wonders at the way we each try to make sense of life. “I have a friend who tells me she is guided by an angel. I tell her, ‘How nice!'”