Betty left us on November 24th after a long hospital stay to try to get her a new heart. She was, in the fullest sense of the word, a storyteller. We wanted you to hear a few of our stories about her and we would love to hear yours.
Art: I met Betty when she was 16. I was captured by her from the start. She came to see me to transfer out of the physics class was teaching at Nova High School to an advanced math class that met at the same time. We talked about physics for a while and I decided to create an independent study so that I could continue to work with her. We talked for so long that she missed her late bus and needed to be home for Rosh Hashanah. I drove her. That was the first of our many after school study sessions. By the end of that school year, I knew I was in trouble. Her love, her spirit, her luminous mind, and her beauty captivated me. When she went off to Wellesley College we filled mailboxes with love letters. When I came to Cambridge permanently she called me and told me to come to her. We were never separated. I have had the great good fortune to spend more than 50 years loving this woman, seeing her get a PhD from Harvard Ed, helping her raise our three wonderful children, adding two terrific daughters-in-law to our family, enjoying our grandson, Jakey, being her companion in her great mission for all children, caring for her, and yes, fulfilling the promise I made to her to see her dreams realized and our love letters shared.
Kori: Mom’s love for all children and families, but especially her own, shone through in everything she did. She had a way of making everyday things feel special and memorable and making those around her feel treasured. As a child, she would add my initials in pasta sauce to the top of the lasagna to show everyone that I had helped her make it. When I turned six, she gave me her childhood poem book that her grandmother had given her and helped me add my own poems to it. She insisted I wait until I was 12 and “ready” before allowing me read To Kill A Mockingbird, because she knew it would become my favorite book and she wanted to make sure I was mature enough to appreciate it. In high school, she would sit with me for hours, typing as I dictated my papers and asking questions to draw out my knowledge. In college, and even grad school, she would edit ones I’d written, helping to synthesize my ideas into something that expressed exactly what I was trying to say. Even from her hospital room, she helped me revise the first draft of a chapter for my thesis, offering suggestions, citations, and just the right phrasing to crystallize my thoughts. Even as I am struggling to write this obituary, I can’t help but think about how she would have the exact right words.
We would chat for hours about education. She was a wonderful sounding board for ideas, but always knew when and how to share her own vast knowledge. Always the consummate researcher, she was constantly reading and talking with experts to learn new techniques that could benefit children, families, and educators. When attending conferences together, I would watch in awe as mom went from session to session, gathering and sharing new ideas, stopping to talk with friends and colleagues, and making new connections to amplify her message. Her ability to create synergies and connect not only people but organizations and ideas was incredible. Mom had an unbelievable ability to not only support others in their goals, but to share her vision and invite others to join her in making a difference!
Brenan: My mother’s passion, tenacity, and unfailing optimism towards making a better, more just, more caring world are undeniable. But, as I reflect on the parts of her that I most admire, I think about how much she just loved life. She loved to play. She took every opportunity to add a little fun to what we were doing. Treasure hunts for our birthday and handmade Halloween costumes. Afterschool snacks made to look like clown faces. Epic word games while we waited for hours for me to get x-rays on a sprained ankle. She even gamely attempted to help us try things that were a little outside of her own comfort zone, like when her Julia Child-obsessed five-year-old decided he needed to master the art of French cuisine. In big and small ways, she never missed a chance to play with us.
As we got older, I also came to appreciate how much joy she got from being in this complicated and fascinating world. She loved to learn and to watch people learning. She could meet anyone and want to know everything about them and their lives. She would want me to recap every late night conversation I had with college friends--back when we were too young and naive to realize that we didn’t know everything about everything--just because she loved to hear how we thought about things. She wanted to hear over and over about every little milestone that Jake reached. Not because she didn’t already know what he could do, but because she just wanted to relish the moment again.
I once told her that I had come to expect bad news. She made me promise not to think that way. “You have the greatest little boy in the world,” she said, “it’s not possible to be pessimistic.” In that one simple sentence, she taught me everything that is important.
Arran: When I was in college, I would send papers to my mother just before they were due--like an hour before. Sometimes the paper would be due at midnight, sometimes at 8am, sometimes in the middle of the day. Every time, mom would edit it, perfectly, and she’d edit it in my voice. At the time mom was working on a few books of her own. She was a leader on several boards, and yet she would always take a moment to help me hone my thoughts but keep my own style.
Her favorite activities were cross-country skiing and paddle boarding. “I like gliding through the world,” she once said. She would go out on a perfectly calm lake and listen to the birds. She would slip across fresh snow and find all of the animal tracks (which, of course, she could identify even before we noticed they were there). When she came home from a trip, she would walk around our house and adjust every little tchotchke so that it was in just the right place. That was my mother, always finding the time to make everything a little bit better. She pretended to glide through the world but, of course, there are ripples of her everywhere. We see them in her push to ensure that every child has a strong start, we hear them in our cries against injustice, and we feel them in our bones from her immense, unending love.
At my wedding, we asked her to give a blessing. She chose an old Irish one with, of course, her own little twist. “May the road rise to meet you, may the wind always be at your back, and may the love that shines in your eyes tonight, continue to light the world.” As I think about my mom, I realize that that was her. Someone who so effortlessly moved through life that, at times, you forgot how much she lit up the world, but boy did she light it. She lit the whole damn thing. I love you, Mama.
Betty wanted more time. She needed more time. Indeed, she demanded more time to make the world a better place for children. She spent her last 4 months in a New York-Presbyterian hospital room trying to will her body to be ready for a new heart. She wanted more time because neither she nor the world was doing enough. Despite authoring over a dozen books for or about young children, despite using her poetic voice to improve many others, despite chairing the T. Berry Brazelton Touchpoints Foundation, despite her position as a board member, supporter, and moral compass of several philanthropic and visionary organizations, including Smart from the Start, Facing History and Ourselves, the A. L. Mailman Foundation, and the Cambridge Community Foundation, despite having touched the lives of thousands of people, she was not nearly finished.
Even when she was no longer allowed to leave the hospital, she wouldn’t stop pursuing her dream of a better world. No matter what therapy or treatment she was undergoing at that moment, she never stopped thinking about the future. Anyone who came to visit her was greeted with the same love and luminous smile, but she soon turned the conversation to how we could improve the lives of others. Whether discussing politics and the upcoming elections, exploring new educational ideas, or sharing new ventures, she lent each of us her wisdom and shared in our enthusiasm. Each of us was a new project-- a project to make our world a better place for all children. To be there with Betty was to feel the love, the care, and the enthusiasm she brought to life. To be there with Betty was to be enlisted in this struggle for a better future for all of our kids. To be there with Betty was to be embraced by the goodness in this world.
We appreciate you sharing your memories and hope you will join us in continuing to carry out Betty’s hopes and wishes in making this world a better place for children!