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.
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]