Betsy Caroline Doughty, known as Bessie, was born in 1866. She was a concert pianist who gave up her promising career to marry watchmaker Sylvester Watkins. Her only son, Stanley, was my father. Perhaps because she was reduced to giving piano lessons, and discovered her husband was perhaps not what she had hoped for, she poured all her frustrations into smothering Stanley.
Bessie was a strong woman; in 1902, leaving Syl behind, she took her 15 year old son with her from London by ocean liner and train to San Diego where her brother, Will, had been offered a lemon ranch. For a year, before deciding that ranching life wasn’t for her, this small, intrepid woman kept house (and a piano) in the Cajon Valley, literally thousands of miles away from her elegant life in London where she had famous Victorian artist, Arthur Wardle, as a neighbor.
When my father was hired by the Bell Labs in New York in 1911, Bessie joined her son in Rye. Her husband was again left behind in London, though he did visit once, and eventually moved to Rye where he died in 1926.
Stan met and fell in love with a young dancer, Frances Cowles, who was determined to marry him “because Mrs Watkins was so against it.” That marriage didn’t last very long, perhaps partly because of pressure on Stan by his mother who didn’t like his new wife.
When Stanley’s work took him back to England, Bessie went too. She must have liked my mother, because Stan and Molly were married in London, November 14, 1930, and a few years later my sister and I were born. Mother never talked about having difficulties with Bessie, but I have heard her describe her father-in-law as “Poor Syl.” Bessie was often a guest at the dinners Stan and Molly held.
She was a small woman who wore a long skirt all her life, and sensible black shoes. When she was young her hair was dark and abundant, and she wore it bouffant; in later life her white hair was like a bowler hat, smooth over her head with a roll all around just over her eyes. That’s how I remember her. That and her black dresses, sometimes with a different neckline, and a long silver chain that held her glasses, but always the long skirt.
And she was always darning Daddy’s socks. I looked through the photo albums recently because I couldn’t remember many pictures of Granny. But there they were, from her early married days (although no wedding picture?), in San Diego, then London, then Rye, and back again to England.
She lived with us in the States and taught we three girls to read music, if not to become great pianists. Mary Ann complained she was not allowed to get beyond The Harmonious Blacksmith, and I often hid in our woods when I knew it was lesson time. She gave piano lessons to several local young people; Bunny Ferris bartered ballet lessons for the three of us from Aunt Bessie for her times at the keyboard.
Eventually her mind started failing. Granny was living on the converted porch of our big house on Forest Avenue. She began to (falsely) accuse my little sister of stealing from her cookie box. For some reason I was her favorite (despite avoiding my piano lessons) so I escaped her anger and eventually I inherited her baby grand piano.
Finally it was becoming too difficult to keep her at home, then she fell and broke her hip; after her recovery in hospital, Daddy reluctantly had her admitted to a home. As her senility got worse they couldn’t handle her either and Granny was transferred to the State Hospital in Poughkeepsie. It was about an hour’s drive away and every Sunday Daddy would drive there, often with me for company, to see Granny. When it was obvious she was dying, now totally mindless and bedridden, I heard the
doctor say “We’re doing all we can to keep her alive.” I don’t remember Daddy’s response, but on the way home he pulled over, stopped the car, and, saying “Poor Mother,” he just sobbed. Bessie died in 1942.