Opinion: Village Matters

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Remembering My Fairy Godmother

ann christoph

She called herself my fairy godmother. Betty Stiles was my mother Marjorie’s best friend since they met in sixth grade. That was 1931 and times were tough. My grandfather had been an officer of a bank that failed. The family’s house and car were taken to pay the bank’s obligations. They moved to an apartment in Chicago and for a while they shared it with another family. My grandmother taught kindergarten–a job, but she was paid in scrip, which was a promise to pay. It was only redeemable at one store, The People’s Store, at a discount. After Granddad was told that no matter what happened, there would always be women who wanted their hair done, he went to school to learn hairdressing. He became “Mr. Albert” at Carson Pirie Scott department store’s beauty shop where he worked all through the depression. Despite the tight finances, they sent my mom to St. Xavier’s Academy and to ballet lessons.  A picture of Marjorie in ballet costume was taken by the People’s Store photographer.

During college, Marjorie’s ballet training led to the opportunity to be part of a dance troupe that would perform at county fairs throughout the mid-west. She and Betty thought it would be great fun and they would earn money for college. The trouble was, Betty had no dance training whatever. So my mom practiced with her for a few weeks in the basement, and Betty, being a quick study and very cute, was accepted for the dance adventure. Two magical summers were spent going from town to town with their show.

After college they were in each other’s weddings. Then there were husbands and children and visits—to our farm in Wisconsin, and to Betty’s in Evergreen Park near Chicago. I always looked forward to those visits because of the hilarious stories she told. One summer when I was about 10 years old, Betty invited me to spend a week at her house. She was tutoring students on the back porch each morning in French and taking care of her own girls. Yet she showed me Chicago and the Art Institute. But the part I remember most is how she had me rest on the couch when I had an upset stomach and brought me ginger ale and jello, taking care of me like a mother would.

Transcontinental visits continued over the years from both my mother and me. Twenty-five years ago she flew from Chicago for my mom’s 75th birthday celebration in Arizona. There were words from Betty by telephone in my mother’s ear as she lay on her deathbed.

Betty loved the computer and the opportunity to email. Here’s one that must have been sent when I was laid up with some ailment.

National Federation of Fairy Godmothers  

B. Stiles, President  

Dear Ann,

Us Fairy Godmothers do not like to hear that one of our godchildren is “under the weather” (so to speak). No, we don’t like to hear that at all. (It’s a part of our by-laws.) But we do like to hear that there is an Alfredo on the job. That gives us assurance that things will get much better soon.

So, do take care, relax and take it easy.  That’s the best way to make bad vibes go away.Then everything will be A-OK!

Y. F. G. M.

Her death last week at nearly 99 years old has made me reflect on how we are remembered, especially in the context of our present threats and turmoil. Perhaps it’s not the stacks of accomplishments, although Betty had many, but the life-long constancy, the expressions of human concern and the humor. 

Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor.

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