When I arrived in Birmingham, AL, last week, I didn’t have any interviews scheduled there. I didn’t have any connections and I had been unable to crowdsource nominees for that area. So I started talking about the project with strangers, and hoped I’d find a connection that way.
On the last day of my three day visit, I met Barbara. We sat across from each other at a coffee shop we had both chosen to get some work done. She commented on my earrings, and we got to talking. I told her I was out of town, and that I was working on a book about the history of our country as experienced by the Silent Generation. She was instantly interested, and soon shared that her grandmothers were still alive, in town, and had beautiful stories to tell.
I wanted to interview them, but I was short on time. We had a five hour window, but Barbara was confident she could make it happen, and she did.
I met Bettilew, Barbara’s maternal grandmother, at a retirement home that happened to be just across the street from the road on which she’d raised her children. After our talk, I had the pleasure of driving by the houses she spoke of.
Bettilew Turk Gaskell was born January 4, 1925 in Prattville, AL in her grandmother’s home. Her grandfather died when she was young, so her mother, father, and siblings all lived with her grandmother there in Prattville. She spent her entire life in Alabama. During childhood, she loved to dance, and took lessons in ballet and tap. She also took piano lessons from her mother, and enjoyed singing.
Bettilew met her husband when they were 14, and would go on group dates throughout their teen years. They did not marry before World War Two, however, but he wrote her every day. She said that she has over 500 letters he sent her during his term in Germany. Her husband was a guard of German POW’s before the Nuremburg Trial, and she told me of her husband’s witness to the suicide of one of the POW’s which became an international spectacle. Here she tells the story of the prisoner Robert Ley.
What was really interesting to me was that the family still has had the same phone number since they got a phone in the 1950’s. I told Barbara at the end of the interview about Google Voice so that they might save the phone number even after the land line goes away.
A story arose revolving around the phone number. In the early 1950’s, Bettilew had a maid named Ethel that helped with her children and kept the house tidy. Ethel worked with the family for 23 years. When Bettilew brought up Ethel, her daughter (Gail) and granddaughter (Barbara), who were in attendance, joined the conversation to affirm Ethel’s role in their family, that she and her children were a part of the family even though she didn’t live with them.
Ethel eventually stopped working with the family as she got older. One day, years later, Bettilew got a call from Ethel’s daughter, whom she knew well. Bettilew was happy to hear the familiar voice and was eager to hear how Ethel was. The news wasn’t good. Ethel was ill and not doing well. She had been delirious for a time, but every so often would speak a series of letters and numbers. Since our phone numbers aren’t structured like that today, it took Ethel’s daughter a while to understand what she was saying. It was Bettilew’s phone number, memorized from her time working for her. Here, they speak about the call and the presence Ethel had in their lives.
Bettilew really highlighted that travel has changed a good deal since her childhood, and especially since her grandmother’s time. Her grandmother was from Georgia, but there was no car, so they were unable to visit family. Bettilew thinks we’re lucky that transportation has gotten so much faster, safer, and more convenient so that we can travel.
Bettilew recognizes that technology is interrupting are ability to have conversation. Even when we’re talking on the phone, we interrupt ourselves to answer another call, to look at a notification, or to dual speak with someone else that is in front of you. She sees her great grand children already using cell phones to play games, and wonders how it will affect them as they grow.