The last week has been a world wind of emotions. In my experience when you lose a grandparent you are filled with sadness, joy, surprise, relief and a feeling of reflection. To me it's almost like looking at a rainbow, each emotion a different color and although you see them at the same time you can recognize they are individual, you can't seem to pull them apart or experience them individually. It's a beautiful thing to feel so much that everything is amplified and you some how feel more alive, more in touch, motivated and also like the days are in slow motion.
Betty Joan Straughan, my mother's mother went meet her husband and her uncles and aunts and mother and father. I like to think of it as an old fashion wedding where everyone lines up in a receiving line to greet and chat and she's having a fancy coffee with lots of cool whip and just giggling sharing the adventures they have missed.
I was very lucky to sit with my grandmother, we all called her Mama Bette in 2014 when she broke her hip and I flew to Georgia to nurse her (complain about politics, listen to love songs and feed her dog) back to health. I took the opportunity to write down her and my grandfather's whole love story. Now five years later after she is gone it's one of my most prized possessions and something I will look back on often. I'd love to share it with all of you. If you like a little sass, a whole lot of matter of fact and a guaranteed "I do" ending read on...
The Love Story & Wedding of Betty Joan Smith and Robert Morris Straughan
Early Summer 1952
I had invited my best friend out to our country home to spend the weekend with me. I did not work on the weekends. I was going to the University of the Virginia and since it was summertime most of the students had gone home. I didn’t have many dates much this summer. I had invited her out to the farm to play cards and watch tv. We just had fun the two of us. She got a telephone call, her boyfriend Carlos. Carlos Dias. Asked her out for a date and that was the reason I met Bob Straughan. She said to Carlos “You have to come pick me up, I have no car.” He replied “Not a problem I will ask my friend Robert Straughan, he has a car.” I called him Bob, his father called him Robert, his sisters called him Stinky, which I don’t think was very nice. Some people called him Bobby, my mother called him Bobby after she came to love him. Names are a funny thing.
Shirley Jo Carr was the girl. She was getting dressed that night and there was a knock on the door and I didn’t have a date. I went to the door and opened it and there were two boys standing there. I thought, “Why did two boys come to the door, why didn’t just one?” And they came in and sat down and sat in the living room on the couch. The couch in there, the blue one (motioning into the formal family room). It was a large room with a fireplace. My daddy kept a fire in it a lot of times.
I sat down in a chair opposite them. Did I ever tell you how I use to sit? I sat in a chair that was not a rocker. It was covered in a gold velvet. I used to sit down with my right leg under, automatically I would sit down and I put my right leg under me with my left leg hanging over the chair. It’s kinda sexy looking. I don’t know how I started doing that. I don’t know if that had anything to do with anything that happened later but I think it did. It made it clear I was no Plain Jane, but I think when I sat down that Bob thought it was interesting. So Shirley got ready finally. They had waited there in the living room. She said she was ready to go and the three of them left me there the whole weekend. They got in the Dodge convertible he owned and little did I know that boy sitting on that couch would be my husband and the father of all the children we have together. Our children, our grandchildren our great grandchildren or the ones that will come. That is how I met Robert Morris Straughan.
Mid Summer 1952
During this time I was getting kinda envious of Shirley Jo. She had a boyfriend down in town and all the boys I knew were gone for the summer. Shirley Jo told me that on the ride home the boy Robert said he wanted to date me. So about a month passed and I heard nothing. I finally called Shirley to find out why I had never heard from him. Shirley Jo called Carlos and Carlos called Bob.
So I was working at Levy’s, a very up and coming dress shop in Charlottesville. I’m not sure if it’s still there or not. Mr. Levy started the store, he was kind of a colorful figure, and then his son took over. I would go shopping there and so did my mother. They would go in the back and get dresses and bring them out and if you put them on he would accompany you around and you would have to shoo him away. Everyone loved the Levy’s. I was working on the second floor; working on the telephone. So one day I was downstairs doing work sending out bills when the telephone rang. “Goodmorning, thank you for calling Levy’s” and a voice said “I would like to speak with Betty Joan Smith” and I said “speaking”. He said “this is Robert Straughan, would you like to go out tonight”. I thought to myself: I don’t have a date tonight, everyone is gone, should I date him? I’m not sure I’m impressed. So I came back to the phone and said “Ok” or something like that.
So nighttime came and I was all dressed to come out and this knock came on the door. It was Robert Straughan. I was still not impressed. He opened the door to let me in the car and Shirley Jo and Carlos were in the back seat, so we were doing a double date. I was sitting in the car on the right side of the seat and all of a sudden this hand reaches out and takes my leg and pulls me over by him. I was a bit disturbed. I was not used to sitting in the middle of the front seat up next to the person driving the car, but I did nothing. I just sat there being very uneasy. So we drove out of the driveway, this long driveway and took a right and headed to town. Oh boy that ride giggle was a funny one. Robert reached down and got a bottle of liquor. I never could understand that. I really disliked it immediately. Here he had pulled me over beside him and then gets this whiskey and takes a swig and offers it around the car. All three of them are laughing and talking. Well I’m not laughing, and I’m not talking. I don’t remember too much after that. I do remember that we went to the bowling alley and we bowled that evening. I used to bowl occasionally but I wasn’t very good at it. When we got home he walked me up to the door and he made a motion to kiss me and I took my two hands and pushed him away on the chest. He didn’t try again.
We started dating all the time and I don’t know why we did because I was really turned off. Especially when he got that whiskey out. We would go to the movies and the first movie we saw was Viva Zapata. The main character was Marlon Brando. He gained so much weight, but back then he was very handsome. That was the first movie and I know I came out of it loving it. Maybe that had something to do with it. He was in jail in the movie and they were hanging people. Maybe he got hung in the end. I guess I fell in love that night.
At some point I changed jobs. I was working up at the University of Virginia at the Bursars Office. We worked on student accounts. It was a big office but we were just a small part, three of us. It was right in the Rotunda that Jefferson had built when we lived in Monticello. I would see all these students from the University. There wasn’t one I wanted.
Late Summer 1952
He graduated from University of Virginia later that summer and was made a Lieutenant in the United States Army and was pinned on The Lawn. I pinned his bars on his uniform. We had probably been dating all that year. Then he went to Fort Eustis. Sometimes he’d come to Charlottesville on the weekend. He must have been in Charlottesville Christmas of 1952. Sometimes I’d meet him in Fredericksburg for the weekend.
I was over in Fredericksburg and he went to the airport and rented an airplane and landed on the farm and I got on the plane with him. We’d go flying around. He didn’t go much out of the area because it was a Fredericksburg airplane and he didn’t have his license yet. I trusted him. There was nobody else I would have gone with. That was when he cut down the Cherry Tree. There was a Cherry Tree in his way at Idlewile so he couldn’t land. His father came home mad. There was a big tadoo about it.
He wanted to go to aviation school and he was selected to become an aviator and they sent him to Texas. I cannot think of the name of the Army Airforce place there. Bob invited me out there for his graduation, so we went. That was the time when we were sitting at the party and he said he was going to the men’s room. I sat by myself and Bob went to the latrine. One of his aviation buddies came up and was trying to sit down beside me and Bob got back at the same time. When he began to sit down Bob pulled out the chair and the guy landed on the floor. He picked him up, dusted him off and sent him on the way. No one giggles ever said anything about it. That was the first time Bob ever demonstrated jealousy. I was kinda delighted.
Nancy and I had a hotel room with two double beds in them. We landed in Dallas Fort Worth when we landed there. We all came back to the room. Bob said he was staying the night there. I thought he would go back to where he was living because he had to go back the next day to report for duty for the second half of aviation school in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. I was really smitten with him then. So that night, Nancy and Bob and I went back to the room he had rented for us. It was a pretty big room. You could even fix something to eat there. Maybe on a small scale. I can’t remember if we ate there or not. So that night Nancy got ready for bed and I so did I. So Nancy got in the bed, the left bed was up against the wall and I think there was a window there. So when she got in and settled in I thought, where am I getting in? So I step over her to get in her bed beside the wall. So I thought we were settled for the night. I lay down and all of a sudden my future husband reaches over Nancy, how I’ll never know, I weighed about 128 pounds, and scooped me up in his arms and took me over to this other bed and put me in it and got in it. I was pretty horrified by this. He has dragged me (uncontrollable giggling) over there. I often marvel of how he lifted me.
He always surprised me. He would come home after being gone a year, later in life and would just surprise me. I used to tell Joanie that when that little tree out there grew to be so high, Papa would come home. She was in her little pajamas with feet in them. You had to snap them all up. She was looking outside and a taxi pulled up. When you open the door the lights come on and a character got out of the car. It was Bob. Joanie started screaming. There was a screen on the front door and when he got the bottom of the steps and he must have let loose of his suitcase and Joanie took a running leap and landed into his arms. She was hugging him and kissing him and I was standing at the door. That was the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen in my life. He was coming home from a year in Vietnam. He could have been killed. He could never have come home to us. He had flown helicopters. He would land and get people and bring them back then go back for the helicopter. He got the Bronze Star. He had saved a lot of people. The man who had been his CO had gotten killed. He probably took over after that, who knows. Someone had to.
Monday, December 28th 1953
One night he said we should get married. It was up in the attic of Idlewile.
It was a civil war mansion. They had beautiful rugs. The hallway was really long. The front door had colored glass. It was typical of the houses built before the civil war. You go up these wide stairs to a platform and there was a big clock that would ding the hours and right beside it was another door that went back into the other part of the house. Back there was Bob’s bedroom and there also were the stairs that went to the attic. It was beautiful, history over and over again. It was like a wonderland to me. I don’t know why I was up there. The attic had two small rooms and a shower. Mr. Straughan fixed it up. Bob was sleeping up there on a cot bed to be near his two friends staying there Robert Morris and Erling Hornsling. They were in his flight class in Texas and were on Christmas leave from Fort Sill.
We had sorta been talking about getting married. I never pushed him on anything. I just waited for him. I thought I had to do that. I was like a member of his family.
Tuesday, December 29th 1953
The next morning we went to get my blood test. He had already had his blood test when he got to Fredericksburg and had already told his whole class in Oklahoma before he told me we were getting married. We were all sitting there, his whole family in Idlewile and he and his father left the kitchen to the hallway where the phone was. Bob called Charlottesville and called my father. My daddy stammered when he didn’t know you, but with family didn’t. So he asked to speak with Mr. Smith. So when my daddy got to the phone he said “Mr. Smith, I’d like to ask you for the hand of your daughter” and my daddy said “dadadada (stuttering) I think you’d better speak to Isabel”, so Isabel got on the phone and Bob asked her the same question and they were all happy.
Wednesday, December 30th 1953
The next night we went to see Porgy and Bess in Washington DC. It was amazing. There was a ship up there that Porgy and Bess played on. I can still hear Porgy sing, You Is My Woman. I remember sitting in that theater with my coat on. I had bought my dress before. Nancy and I went to the big department store there and I told the lady I wanted a dress that was not quite formal. She went and got one and it fit perfect. It was like it was made for me. First dress. It didn’t have to be altered or anything. She said we could come back later and pick it up. That is what we did. When we came back it had my name, Betty Joan Straughan written out in gold letters on the box. I got my shoes that night too. I think it might Hex, but I’m not sure.
Thursday, December 31th 1958
The next day Bob and I got in the car and went to Charlottesville. The first place we went was to see the Baptist Minister at the Baptist Church. We didn’t have an appointment but somehow got to see him. We sat down and he came out. We told him we wanted to get married on 1/1/54. He talked to us about the seriousness of it and said he would be happy to do the ceremony. Neither one of us really knew him but I was a Baptist and Bob was a Presbyterian, so that was good.
Next, we went to the Photographer Office and I sat up on the stool. We spoke to him about doing the wedding and made all the arrangements with him.
After that we went down to the Main Downtown to Keller and George. We told the man waiting on us, I knew him because I worked with his wife at the bank. I was working at the bank Citizens Bank and Trust Company as a teller. My daddy got me the job because he knew everyone in Charlottesville. He had his own barber shop and traded with everyone in the neighborhood. He must have spoken to someone to get me the job. So we decided we both wanted gold rings and then we left the jewelry store and walked up the street to the flower shop.
It just so happened the lady who owned the flower shop was a friend of my mother. My mother had nursed her mother when she was sick. I told her we wanted flowers to decorate the University of Virginia Chapel. The Chapel was already booked for another wedding right after ours, she was doing the flowers for that wedding. We were given all the flowers for our wedding because this same women was decorating for the other wedding. So we didn’t have to pay for any of the flowers in the church. She fixed it up before we came. She did that because she was a friend of my mothers.
Miss. Winney and Miss. Texey, I don’t know what their real names were, lived together across the street. They were sisters. Miss. Winney was the small one, she ate real little and she was the artistic one. They made my announcements. They even put one in the gold frame there in the hallway. I’ll always treasure that. Their brother lived with them also. He worked at The National Bank and walked to work every day. We had such nice neighbors. They sent them out after the wedding. Most people sent presents. I got some nice cut glass.
I remember going home that night, washing my hair, rolling it up, getting in bed.
Friday January 1st 1954
The next morning I remember getting up, unrolling my hair and Nancy being there. She said Bob and Sweets were at Mama Cropp’s, my grandmother, my mother’s mother, having coffee. Nancy called her father Sweets. Nancy helped me put my wedding dress on and button it up. Nancy was my Maid of Honor. I went upstairs and my mom was up there and says, “We cannot find Ernly’s teeth”. Oh god. That was terrible. I about went in a hissy. I knew we had to get to the church and my daddy was giving me away and we couldn’t find his teeth. Then Suzie came upstairs. She was the black lady that worked for us that was like a family member. She found his teeth in his Pajama Pocket. She saved the day. She was the other woman I loved. Suzie Hester.
We proceeded to get in the car to go to the wedding. I suppose. Time was saved. They took me over in that little car, I think it was Wilson that took me. I don’t know how all that was arranged but it was. We went up there in the church and someone was there, I’m not sure who it was, must have been the woman that did the flowers. I was standing with my daddy on his right arm. Someone moved me to his left arm. I never will forget that. I don’t even know who it was. Now I think it must have been my mother’s friend, the flower lady, because she knew. We had no practice or anything. This was all one deal.
It was a good crowd for a small wedding. All the family for both sides and some of my mother’s friends like the doctor and his wife that worked with my mother. It was New Year’s Day. Nancy was my Maid of Honor because she was there with me when I bought my dress, she bought her dress too. It was sorta out of convenience. She was my friend too, but it was because she was Bob’s sister. Bob’s father was his Best Man. Mrs. Ayaling picked out the music and played the organ. She played in one of the churches in Charlottesville, we worked together in the Bursar’s office. She was an older woman and her husband was dead. She was happy to do it. Bob Morris had the same name as my husband. He was dating Nancy that winter. He was going to bed with her, I think he was married but I can’t swear by it. Erling Hornsling was from Norway and was a sweet guy. He was so gentle, everyone fell in love with him. If a lady got a cigarette out, he was there to light it and was probably Bob’s best friend. They were spending Christmas at the Straughan’s House and it was just a natural thing they would be ushers in the wedding. They had practiced the night before in the basement of my house.
I remember walking down the aisle with my daddy and I see Bob come out of the door on the right. The preacher was standing there. When Bob turned, his uniform flapped when he took the turn so sharply. I thought that looked right cute. We got down to the preacher and there were several steps I had to go up. Someone must have helped me. Nancy was there. I think I had given her the ring. It was over so fast. It was a regular wedding. That you hear all the time. I take thee Betty Joan to be my lawfully wedded wife to have or to hold from this day forward. In richer or poorer till death do us part.
My uncle, Wilson drove us back to the house where my mother and father lived on Cambridge Circle. We stood for the photographer and took the picture up there and of the whole family. I grabbed my grandmother and made her be in a picture. She didn’t like to take them but she did it for me. My Uncle Wilson and Plenty were in the basement watching the game while we were having champagne. Then the neighbor called and said her daughter had measles but wanted to see me in my wedding dress. I walked out on the back porch and the little girl came into her yard so she could see me.
The lady that lived up the hill made hour de oeuvres. Shirley Jo was there, we made her be in charge of the punch. We ate cake. It was a delicious cake. One of my neighbors made it in his bakery. It was very unusual getting married on New Years Day because everything was closed, but he was our friend and lived on our street. See my family knew everyone in Charlottesville. They weren’t snippy people. Just down to earth friends. Everyone knew that. It all just worked.
Then I put on a knitted dress my mother bought me. She always knew just how to fit me. I put on my shoes and everything. Bob and I went up to the front door, everyone was at the bottom. I threw my bouquet. Sue, Bob’s sister caught it. She was the most athletic. Then we got in the car.
It was a Buick my daddy owned. He had two cars, one was a station wagon but I always drove the Buick. They put things on the car, like cans. There was rice on the visors and when we went up the hill from the house all that rice came down in front of us. He took the car and went down the highway. We stopped at Buddies, a famous restaurant and asked for a broom. He swept out the rice and took off the cans.
We got back in the car and drove off toward West Virginia. We drove quite a ways that night and stopped at a big hotel there and we spent the night there and I remember the bell hop took us to this room and Bob told me, you stand here. He went in the room and left me in the hall. Bob put his suitcase down and came back to me and swooped me up in his arms and took me over the threshold. I didn’t know he was gonna do a thing like that. It must have scared the bell hop because I was screaming. I think the hotel must have been empty because it was New Year’s Day. The next morning we went into a big room and ate breakfast and we were the only ones there.
Then we got back in the car and drove back to Fort Sill. It was a long drive. He would drive and I would drive. I remember one morning there were these huge rocks and I woke him up to find out if I was going the right way. I was.
This love story is quaint and practical and also a huge leap of faith and understatedly romantic happening that would foster three children, seven grandchildren, several homes, lots of travels and now an eternal bond.
I hope this story inspires you to love your older generation a little harder and a small reminder how quickly they leave and their stories go with them. Take a moment to write it down, to share it, to research the details and meditate on the moments because once they are gone these stories are ours. We own them and by passing them on and reliving their humour we honor them.
To Mama Bette, may you rest in peace with your loved ones, we will see you on the other side.