What’ll I Do?

 Posted by on May 26, 2015 at 8:50 am  Characters, Mad Men
May 262015


The first scene in Mad Men that made me laugh featured Betty Draper. It surprised me — she surprised me. She always does. As well as I think I know Betty Draper Francis, she never does exactly what I think she will. I think she even surprises herself.

What would you do if you were me? Would you love you? – Betty Draper

So far, 2015 has been a year of deaths for me. Two of my close friends’ mothers died within days of each other — one after a long illness, the other quite suddenly. Of our moms who are still with us, most are now in their 80s, as Betty would be. For many of us, the similarities between Mom and Betty don’t end there.

My friends and I joke about what it was like to grow up with our Bettyesque mothers: They locked the doors behind us when we went out to play. Our teachers helped us reach our mothers by making gestures to their lives as women: glued-doily Valentines in February, Mother’s Day ashtrays. But we didn’t kid ourselves. We were never really valuable unless we were “making ourselves useful.”

So we are useful. It’s been a long road for us, helping Betty navigate the world; many of us are still at it. But soon, there will be no more work to do.

They are leaving us, these chilly women who made dinner in the blender and mixed cake batter with a fork. Their cocktail glasses will soon stand empty for good. We will no longer have to wonder whether Mom is too hot, too cold, or bored, or disappointed in us.

What’ll I do?

My mother and her cohort were never small women. They made an impression: the upright posture, the perfect hair, the sudden fleeting smile. These women were always well put together, and their tastes and aversions are still unbreakable.

“She refused to take pictures of us,” my best friend said at her mother’s memorial service. “She thought her hands shook.” Another friend’s mother, Dorothy, despised curse words; my mom hates primary colors. We wear the imprints of their preferences inside us even now: using the word “freaking” and “darn,” choosing gray-blue over royal, never really thinking about why.

She doesn’t care what the truth is, as long as I do what she says. – Sally Draper

Matthew Weiner remembers what life with Betty felt like: everything in its place, the tapestry of rules, the silences that stopped time and made you wish you were dead. Some Mad Men episodes hit so close to Mom I can’t watch them again. Bobby’s sudden fall from being Betty’s joy to Betty’s disappointment, in Field Trip, still haunts me. Did Betty ever stop being mad at Bobby over his lunch trade? I still don’t know.

You’d think we would feel relieved to let Betty go. Perhaps, after some time has passed, we will.

But it’s the strangest thing: as my mother slips further from me, it’s not her anger I remember. I think about the time I woke up in the hospital after a childhood operation: she was there, wearing the softest shirt I have ever felt. I remember laughing with Mom about a man we both hated. And I can still see her makeup drawer in my childhood home: soft colors, small gifts from my adoring Dad, pressed like flowers between the leaves of her scarves.

In the garden of my childhood, my friends and I played hide and seek with our mothers. We feared them, tried to find them, hoped they would try to find us. We searched for them at school plays and sports games; sometimes we even found them, sitting somewhere out of the way. A drift of Chanel No. 5 would rise when they hugged us, then fade; they turned away from us, to greet other grownups.

What’ll I do / with just a photograph / to tell my troubles to? – Irving Berlin

Betty Draper Francis is a world, complete with her own climate and seasons. She warms from distant to tender, but the chill is never gone for long. That world can be uncomfortable, but it feels like home. The chill is familiar. And she was right: I really have always needed a sweater.

How will I ever be comfortable anywhere else?

[Editor’s note: This beautiful piece was written before The Milk & Honey Route aired, when we thought Betty Francis would live on in the world of Mad Men, but simply not occupy our televisions. After discussion with Anne B., I’ve chosen to publish it as-is, a tribute to the living, and not dying, Betty Hofstadt Draper Francis. –Deborah]


  22 Responses to “What’ll I Do?”

  1. Wow!
    I hope January Jones reads this essay!

    What gets me is the clarity of it all…”locking the door behind us!”…”searching at school plays” That was my childhood.

    Anne B. I always eagerly read your stuff.
    So great.
    Thanks !

  2. They are leaving us, these chilly women who made dinner in the blender and mixed cake batter with a fork. Their cocktail glasses will soon stand empty for good. We will no longer have to wonder whether Mom is too hot, too cold, or bored, or disappointed in us.

    That is seriously beautiful. Thank you (again), Anne.

  3. Is anyone reminded just a teensy bit of David Sedaris’ mother (if you’ve read or heard any of his autobiographical work) when thinking about Betty Francis? Apparently Mrs. Sedaris never wore pants, drank and smoked incessantly and could be quite acerbic at times.

  4. My mother was the Irish Catholic Democrat schoolteacher version of Betty. Making ourselves “useful” is one way of looking at it — I tend to think of it as conditional love for these Depression era women. If we achieved, if we were what they thought we should be, we would receive affection. Not that they wouldn’t love us, but they’d be sure to express their disappointment.

  5. The Mother’s Day episode was gut wrenching! My grandmother was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis a year ago. She just passed this past Sunday. It’s heartbreaking to watch someone go through a terrible terminal illness. We’re all relieved that she’s now at peace and no longer suffering. I can’t imagine losing a mother at a young age!

  6. Nice post, Anne. I wonder if your mother would recognise herself in your description?

    I know this is about Mothers and Daughters, but I’d like to offer some reactions and a remembrance.

    My own mother, born 1924, took only three school-years off to bear three children in 1958, 1960, and

    1965, so guess I’ve always had a “professional mother”. By the calendar she was a contemporary of

    Betty’s but could hardly be more different. The first years of her life were like Dick Whitman’s – outhouse,

    kerosene lamps, wood stove. Mainline Elizabeth Hofstadt never knew such “privations”. Mom rarely took a

    drink, was not conventionally “beautiful”, and only flirted with cigarettes after dad died (no divorce required

    in this case).

    We were “latchkey kids” before we knew what it was called.

    We had no Carla – and everyone helped with the chores and cooking. By the time I was Bobby’s age I had dozens of skillet-meals under my belt (can you say “Hamburger Helper”?)

    We went to church – not twice-a-week like the Baptists and not every Sunday – but a lot more than Easter

    and Christmas.

    The canned cherry coffeecake link aroused a remembrance of the first dessert I learned to make –

    No-Bake “Cheesecake” made with cream cheese. I’m fairly sure the recipe came off the side of a Borden’s

    Condensed Milk can.

    Filling: Condensed Milk, lemon juice, cream cheese – mix it up.
    Crust: graham cracker crumbs, butter (?), – mix and press into pie pan.

    Pour filling over crust, top with canned cherries, refrigerate.

    The filling is white – it was quite a few years before I saw the conventional yellow cheesecake.

    As for imprints: once my own were old enough to understand me I heard my mother – speaking with my voice.

    • Re: your first statement, would any of us recognize ourselves from a description about us from another’s perspective? I know that my description of my Mothers mothering would not at all match her description….how do I know this? One of the stranger aspects of dementia is eventually my mother no longer recognized me as her daughter, she refered to me as the “mean nurse”, and we could have a semi-rational discussion about her children and how she raised them. It was eye opening to me, answered a lot of my questions, and allowed me to see the motivations that produced the actions. I was enough of an adult to hear her without the filter of being a child. I’m not sure this insight was worth the years of dealing with her dementia but it was illuminating. It also made me aware of my parenting activities and how my children might see me. It didn’t change my basic parenting goals, but I did try to amend some of my practices or methods.

    • My mom would make a similar “cheesecake” with Jello Cheesecake instant pudding mix. I actually really miss it.

  7. I watched the pilot (and will continue watching the whole series again) and as Birdie awakens, my heart just sank. Like a time traveller (The Wheel anyone?), my perspective upon Betts is now completely different. I’m now watching Betty’s journey in this show through an alternate prism.

    • I too am revisiting MM from the beginning and know what you mean about viewing the journey through an alternate prism. The thing that has astonished me on the re-watch is the extent of Don’s brutality towards Betty. While I recalled Don being verbally abusive to Betty, I had no recall of Don physically shoving Betty during an argument. By today’s standards, Don is an abusive pig…good thing he’s good looking as even today that helps men escape responsibility for their bad actions. The second viewing puts me squarely in Betty’s corner. While I was heartbroken to hear of Betty’s lung cancer diagnosis, I was really happy to see Betty shown as a strong and courageous woman in “The Milk & Honey Route”. But I was saddened, and a bit angry, to see her depicted smoking in the kitchen having clearly given up her battle. That last scene of Betty smoking at the kitchen table looking beaten and dejected brought to mind that last scene of Skylar in Breaking Bad — both strong women relegated to a very sad end.

    • I was always pro-Betty, despite her extraordinary, reflexive cruelty toward her children. She seemed created to illustrate the effect on women of specific sexist social arrangements, which broke down due to the Great Inflation of the 70s.

    • I read the last scene with Betty not as giving up but as accepting her fate with quiet dignity and strength. F*&$ you death, I’m gonna sit here and smoke till the end.

      • I 100% imagine a grown-up Sally telling her kids or her grown-up friends about her mom dying from lung cancer when she was 15-16, and how she smoked her cigarettes right up till the end. And it won’t be until she’s a grown woman that the can fully appreciate what that says about Betty.

        • I could imagine that, too – but in college holding a burning Virginia Slim(s) as she tells the story.

  8. Here’s what this post made me think about: one HUGE theme of Mad Men (maybe even THE theme of Mad Men), is how very, very much society shapes our personality, how it can make an individual person fundamentally different than that person would naturally be. Societal mores can take the raw material of how a person would naturally be, and change that person, sometimes beyond recognition. (I always think that about Betty — that she would be such a different person if she had not grown up with the parents she had, not grown up in 1940s and 1950s society, and not had Don for a husband. I see glimpses of the “real” Betty underneath the Betty that society made her into. Those glimpses include the warmth of her smile at her children in the rare moments when she relaxes, the way she looked at Don when they were intimate, that time when she said to him “It’s all I think about all day” (meaning sex with him), the way she spoke Italian at the café in Italy, her excitement about her psychology course work…).

    I think, and hope, that it is less true in 2015 that our personalities are so determined by societal norms that our true selves get buried deep underneath, but I think that it was very true in the era in which Mad Men takes place.

    • While I do think we have more options in 2015 than existed in 1960 or 1950, I think societal norms still control a lot of what we “choose “. It just takes a few decades to look back and see the patterns.

  9. I got a little teary-eyed reading this. Thanks, Anne.

  10. Amazing writing here. There is a book that can be written on this topic – and you should write it. I’m with you – some ‘episodes hit so close to Mom I can’t watch them again’, and what a Feudian slip that is. It’s the beauty of the show to capture the universal and make it so personal at the same time. You capture the conflict of being of a generation, too, and how much of our behavior is ruled and shaped by the attitudes surrounding our roles as wife, mother, sister, friend and other dimensions within us. Betty is so much more than a stereotype – it’s a character study in contraction, conflict, complexity and survival. It says something that these characters feel like family members because in a sense they are – and the mothers we recognize and who never really leave us.

  11. Just for you Annie, my favorite cover of Irving Berlin’s song:

  12. I never hated Betty. I always understood her hateful moments as coming from anger. Anger at how Don treated her, anger at her limited life choices (she wasn’t a big mothering-type), anger that her life wasn’t “perfect.” In the end she made peace with most of it.

    I think the time she was with Don at Bobby’s summer camp together was when she found peace in their relationship. Taking psychology was a way to branch out after realizing her life did not revolve around her children, especially as they grew up. I still tear up when I think about the letter she wrote to Sally. IN the end she accepted that she marched to a different drummer. Sally will have a hard time without her mother, but that letter will help her.

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