My grandmother Betty Lane was a teacher, artist and inspiring tho crotchety character who lived for most of her life in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I wrote this short essay for a 1997 retrospective of her work hosted by the Cape Cod Museum of Fine Arts.
We called her Grandbetty. She was too original and too prickly, for a simple “grandma.” One day, out of the blue, she told me she would always like my sister best because she had changed her diapers and not mine. It’s some measure of her charm that I truly wished at that moment I had a soggy nappy for her.
By the time I moved to the Cape in 1992, Betty had stopped making art. I had seen her paint a few times while visiting, but she put down her brushes altogether around the time I arrived. Her hands jittered, she said. While she was no longer painting, she was always an artist. She lived in a world of her own inventions, made real by the details of her choosing.
She was past 80, rail thin and fiercely independent. She still tore around in her little Accord, a string of fading yarn tied to the antenna, a sticker for Michael Dukakis’ failed presidential bid on the bumper. She walked with a stoop and had a hard time getting up from a chair, but her eyesight was perfect—she took great pleasure playing a video of her cataract operation. “My eye!” she giggled, pointing at the television picture of a quivering pink glob.
My memory of Grandbetty will always be tied up in the house she built in the woods off Stony Brook Road. You entered from the basement, where she did most of her work. Bits of colored glass hung in the window. A stuffed dinosaur sat on an old chair for models. Everywhere there were paintings, stack upon stack, many on both sides of a single canvas.
Upstairs, the wooden skeleton of a pterodactyl spun slowly over a rollout desk stuffed with letters and postcards. Shelf tops were crammed with a crazy assortment of stuff—a chunk of mosaic, a swath of fishing net, a patchwork pillow, a model of a double decker bus, the inner workings of a music box. She did not keep these things as ornaments—she seemed to carry on a relationship with even the littlest of objects, and most gave her real pleasure. A few did not—I remember a compact disc had been marked with a piece of masking tape, printed with the words, “No! No!”
I visited her on my days off work. She always made a fuss at first, shuffling around the house fetching things. A peanut butter jar filled with old raisins. A ceramic dish filled with unsalted peanuts. A shrimp cocktail glass filled with old Chablis. We would talk about local politics, the new New Yorker, the threat of snow.
Pretty soon she would retire to a big beige chair under the window. Next to the chair was a stack of books—a world atlas, a sketchbook, a dictionary, a stack of diaries. She adjusted her lampshade, a coffee can punctured with holes and painted black. Then she took off, talking out loud as she chased after memories with the help of old notes and tattered reference books. She rode a donkey up a hill in Crete. She made friends with a nun while riding a bus in Mexico. She spent an evening at a sidewalk cafe in Paris, keeping the waiter away by watering down a single glass of red wine.
That chair became command central in the last few years of her life. She would sit talking and reading until her head tilted forward and she slept, at rest after a trip through the astounding adventure of her life.
The pictures in this web site are part of her story. Betty Lane lived as artfully as she painted.