Pretty Betty. Pretty, pret-ty, PRET-TEEEEEE BET-TEEEEEEEE! Those are the words that made me cry most when I was a child. It was not a compliment, for it was always wielded as a weapon by powerful siblings. Pretty Betty. It was said with meanness and great momentary childhood hate as each child carved out their place in the universe. And I cried. Pretty Betty. It made me cry and feel ashamed of all I was, and I could not figure out why they would say such a terrible thing to me. What did I do? How do I fix it? And, if I was pretty, wasn’t that supposed to be a good thing? It was so confusing. What I did know was that, obviously, being Pretty Betty must be a terrible thing to be, and that I was terrible and offensive to be that terrible thing.
Pretty Betty. Most of the time, I was not teased at all. Most of the time I was protected, helped, or left alone. I was autistic and I loved being alone, that glorious place where I could just be, experimenting, experiencing, and making order of things important to me and no one else. Alone was where life was so beautiful and not confusing. But I lived in a home with a brother and two sisters, and I wanted to play, at least sometimes, and they played by rules that I didn’t know. They enjoyed a banter I did not understand, shouting and laughing for mysterious reasons. I could not figure it out, and I felt like I was very stupid. But they never teased me for things I could not do. No mention was made when I struggled with speech, or cried in the car from the noise and the smell, or when I rocked for hours, or banged my head, hoping to numb the pain of overwhelming sensory input. Nothing was said of the things that made me very different from other children. My offense was being Pretty Betty.
They made the rules, those powerful children, rules I did not understand, and I cared little to follow those rules. They were noisy and mean, and enjoyed being mean, and I knew mean was not a good thing. I felt stupid for not understanding why they enjoyed their play, but I felt secretly smart for knowing better. So while they played, building their world of forts and games and one-upmanship, I built a different world. And my world was pretty. I moved precisely, dressed in costumed ways, hiding under a hat at times, playing dress up, putting on scripted shows dancing and singing. I walked on my toes, as if in high heels, and spoke each word in a high pitched, singing voice, swallowing in between words. I lined things up to make order of things, and because it was beautiful. I stacked things, too, because I found that took grace and calm skill to do, and the calming was beautiful in a chaotic world. I made things, drew things, and loved pretty things. I was upset when rules were broken, the real rules, not the ones made by siblings in play. I must admit, I was an awful priss, and you may have found me not your first pick at the playground.
My mother taught me I was strong, and that I could do anything, and advised that I do it my own way, or, at least what she considered my way. As mothers do, she looked for the strengths and talents in each of her children, in hopes of nurturing those while discouraging flawed behavior. She never saw my behavior as flawed, only different. So she nurture a different path for me. Mine was not to be one of academia or business, though she excelled at both. Mine was not to be of networking or social change, like my father’s either. In her strangest child, she saw…pretty. Not that I was that physically beautiful, for I was not, but because I created an illusion of pretty and dwelled in it. As my sister would say, I wasn’t pretty. I did pretty. And I was good at it.
In the late fifties, being pretty was considered a valid life plan. A quiet, well bred, pretty girl was assured a good marriage and protection. Charm schools and finishing schools were acceptable training for that purpose. The plan was that my bright and boisterous siblings would be expected to make good grades, go to college, and assume careers of their choosing. They were disciplined, scolded for bad grades, reminded to do their homework. I was treated gently, given art classes and cooked with my mother, dressed ever-so-pretty, but little was expected from me in school. I was never going to fit in, so my ability, my assumed one asset, was encourage by my parents and pointed out deficient by the children. Pretty Betty. Because you can’t be other things. Pretty Betty, because you will never be anything more. Pretty Betty. Because you are simple and slow and do odd things all the time and will never be our friend. Pretty, pretty, pretty Betty.
Was this a bad plan? Maybe not, at the time, for there were few better alternatives my mother saw for me. I had talent performing, which was doing pretty things in a more public way, and my talents in painting, but I did not possess the skills to make a career. I was good at all traditionally feminine and domestic arts and that was considered of far more worth, as an added bonus to offer some potential husband. I was not expected to take summer jobs, like my brother and sisters. I was expected to never hold a job at all, except maybe modeling or acting, being professionally pretty, if that was my choice. I did not feel controlled in my path of pretty. I felt saved. And that I had nothing else to offer.
In the late sixties, I became what my mother wished, pretty. My big brother made sure the boys did not try to take advantage of me. My older sister became a rebel, loud in her anger and protest, and I admired her strength. Her friends would comment how pretty I was, and sweet, and my sister would say, “Yes, but she is so simple.” I would cry, again, pretty Betty. I like to think she was trying to help when she was mean, pushing me to be more like her, or just to be more something. At one point, I had saved my allowance for many weeks, dreaming of crocheting a lacy shawl, pure white angora, like a cloud, that I could wrap myself in and move as if with angel wings. I designed in carefully, and spent more weeks crocheting it. It was the most beautiful thing, original, exquisite and precious to me. I was almost done when my sister came home from college to visit, walking into my room, picked up my beautiful cloud with two fingers, repulsed, saying, “What’s this?”, as if it was feces. She tossed it and snapped, “You think you’re in heaven!”, offering no other explanation of why I had done something wrong. But I obviously did, for she knew the rules, and I never did, and I was obviously too simple to know. I never finished that shawl, never worked on it again. I never crocheted again. I threw in into the back corner on the floor of my closet. Pretty Betty.
I fell in love with a man who loved me for me, not Pretty Betty, and we lived a life as hardworking farmers for too few years. I was happily free of Pretty Betty. I found I was really good at so many things, and maybe not so good at others. That is what happens in life, to all of us. I became a mother, then a widow, with a son to support, and many, many, many more things. And still, of course, autistic. So I had to do some things differently, and I figured it out best when I got the least advice from someone else. And sometimes the best thing for me to be was Pretty Betty, even when I didn’t want to, and certainly was not respected for doing so. I am happy to say I did it on my own terms, because it is honestly a part of me. I own it. I am comfortable doing pretty, gift wrapping my many-yeared skin. I have paid the dues and own it.
So it goes with all strengths that are burdens as well, as trite as they may sometimes seem. Our experience is ours alone, and the importance of some things in our lives ours alone. Our joys often hurt when we allow others to own the rule book. The important thing is to own it and do it your way. We each make the rules for ourselves. Own it. Own it and play to whatever strengths you posses, even when others see it as awful. It is, you know, your strength, awful and wonderful, for that is how such things work. It is the same with each unique thing about each of us. My autistic friends know this so well. Disabilities and abilities shift in what they bring to our lives, and how we choose to perceive them. And life fits just right when we make the rules for ourselves. It is that simple. And pretty nice. Own it. Oh, and give all you have every step of the way. If you have nothing else to give, give love. Might be a simplistic message, but, that’s fine with me. I own it, and that is pretty swell, indeed.
photo at Gadsby Tavern with my husband, Doc Scantlin, leading the Imperial Palms Orchestra. I am singing a tango. Under a hat, of course.