Celebrities often remind us of people in our families.
While driving home on Route 4 in Paramus, I looked up at one of the large roadside billboards and saw a picture of a smiling Betty White, with the dates of her birth and recent death.
Looking up at that sign, I smiled too.
But then again, Betty’s presence on television always made me smile, laugh, and feel good. It began with her role as Sue Ann Nivens, the naughty and acerbic television homemaker on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” who delivered double entendre zingers with her sweet dimpled smile. Then in the ’80s Betty played the adorably ditzy and lovable senior citizen Rose Nyland in the “Golden Girls.” She was brilliant in both roles, which were polar opposites. And then, not resting on her laurels, she continued with “Hot in Cleveland”, and there was that slam dunk on “Saturday Night Live” when she was 88.
Betty White also was a pioneer of early television with her own show, “Life with Elizabeth,” and she had numerous guest appearances on game and talk shows.
And I thought, “Wow, but what is it about Betty White, an almost 100-year-old actress smiling down from a billboard?” Yes, she was a comedian, multiple-award winner, and also an animal activist. She was an appealing personality to so many, young and old. Sadly, Betty died only a few weeks before her centennial birthday.
Clearly, Betty White hit a chord with multiple generations. There was something very special about her. She had accomplished so much, yet she always appeared humble and appreciative of her success in television interviews. She exuded a sharp sense of humor, modesty, and kindness.
Those qualities reminded me so much of my own Aunt Helen, of blessed memory.
Lauren Novak, an arts and entertainment writer, wrote, “Betty White filmed a tribute to her many fans ten days before her death. She wanted to thank her fans for their support over the many decades she had appeared on television.”
The tribute’s producer, Steven Boettcher, was quoted as saying: “Betty felt she was invited into people’s homes and it was a privilege, like almost your favorite aunt coming over. Betty embraced that relationship.”
Aunt Helen was very dear to me. One time while we were talking, I remarked, “You know, you remind me of Betty White.” Aunt Helen, in her characteristic modest way, replied, “Oh, but she’s so pretty!”
Indeed, Aunt Helen was a beauty. Over the years, she aged gracefully and naturally. She didn’t believe in youth-enhancing potions or facials, sticking to her basic beauty regime of red lipstick and a tad of blush. I don’t think she owned an eyeliner. Ever.
Aunt Helen grayed prematurely, and let her hair go natural, and then it changed into a frosty white. As she got older, her simple hairdo morphed into a teased bouffant with lots of sticky hair spray, helmet style, and she slept in a big hairnet at night, keeping it intact. She enjoyed her visits to the beauty parlor each week; she had her people there.
And Aunt Helen also had a great smile, a sharp and acerbic sense of humor, and she loved to laugh, heartily, with tears forming. There were the zingers she delivered with a twinkle in her eyes, often in Yiddish or Polish, her native languages. If you did something she considered clumsy or ridiculous, she’d toss out the term “netalanga.” Aunt Helen had little tolerance for people she considered yentas or busybodies, referring to them as “koch lefels,” people who enjoy stirring the pot and making trouble.
Above all, Aunt Helen was the kindest person I have ever known. As the Oprah of Madison Avenue in Scranton, she listened to everyone’s stories in her cozy kitchen, which was a meeting place for the neighbors on the block. Mildred, Rowena, Rae, and Sarah often sat at her table drinking coffee or tea and shmoozing for hours.
She was a devoted wife, beginning in 1948, the year she and Uncle Sidney married. He was a Holocaust survivor, and Aunt Helen was his confidant, best supporter, and bookkeeper for his newly developed plastics business. As his unsung business partner, she never took any credit for his success. They’d work together long into the night. She’d sit quietly at the calculator, while Sidney paced back and forth giving her the “plashtics” — plastics — information in his loud, inimitable Yinglish.
When her beloved Sidney died, we didn’t know how Aunt Helen would pick up the pieces. But she did.
In her later years, she was still making friends with younger and older people. Aunt Helen continued to form a new chapter of her life by going to the Jewish community center and building new connections and strong friendships.
When her vision was failing, she kept reading, enjoying being a bookworm with the assistance of a magnifying machine. “Look Esther, I read this whole book with this machine,” she explained proudly. In her younger days, I’d often find Aunt Helen curled up on her favorite chair with a book and a plate of her “hunk of junk,” which she called a big piece of homemade cake.
Interestingly, she was always cagey about her age. We still don’t know who was the eldest, my dad or Aunt Helen. They were close in age, and they were best friends. When I’d ask, “Aunt Helen, how old are you really?” she’d say, “I’m an old, old lady.” Her daughter Gitty said that she was about 101 when she died a few years ago. “But it’s hard to know for sure,” Gitty admitted.
The last time I saw my Aunt Helen, I thanked her for everything she did for me and my family. I hope she heard me.
Esther Kook of Teaneck is a learning specialist. She dedicates this story “to my beautiful and special Aunt Helen. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”