Before Mary Poppins floated down to earth with her umbrella, and before Marie Kondo discovered The Joy of Tidying, there was Betty. Throw in a little Julia Child, and the Italian grandmother you never had, and you’ve got Betty.
With a box of Italian pastries from Boston’s North End and a bottle of red wine in hand, my husband and I knocked on Betty’s door one Sunday afternoon. When she greeted us with a delighted, but surprised, “I just got here,” I knew one of us had the wrong Sunday, and it wasn’t 89-year-old Betty Belmore. It was me.
She basked in the serendipity of the moment; she had just bought the groceries for next Sunday’s dinner. Although I’d only met her three days earlier, and we were a week early, she greeted us with a hug and a kiss on the cheek as I introduced my husband. Betty graciously welcomed her two very unexpected guests, and in a moment’s time, had offered my husband a glass of wine and a comfortable chair in front of the Patriots game, and was tying an apron around my waist, and giving me onions and garlic to chop.
Betty’s nickname is The Grandma of Warwick Neck, a name she has proudly earned, and suits her perfectly. Her loving influence has spanned generations.
The day we met she made me a cup of tea and said, “Let me get my boxes!” and scurried over to a wooden cabinet to retrieve her treasures. We poured over the photos that filled the shoebox, and an album of the children she babysat. “I wish I could do it all over again,” she sighed, “caring for the children,” as she gazed at their young faces. “They’ve brought so much joy to my life!”
Betty’s parents, Louis “Luigi” DiSano and Louise Natle, met on the ship when they emigrated from Naples, Italy, and before their journey to America was over, they were engaged. When they arrived in New York City they married, and settled in Providence. Luigi and Louise had 12 children, and Betty was their youngest. “And now you have me!” she smiled. Growing up in Warren, her eight brothers and three sisters spoiled her, she admitted, adding, “But I loved it.”
Betty married Clive Belmore, the handsome young Coast Guard who first came in to the Newberry’s five and dime where she was working at 16 years old. “He was the first boy I ever kissed,” she smiled thoughtfully. Betty and Clive married in 1951 and had three children, eventually settling in Rochester, New York where they lived in a seven-bedroom stone farmhouse.
From a young age Betty had wanted to be a homemaker and a mother, and she was in her element. She loved to cook and entertain, in addition to working for the Rochester school system lunch program. In 1970 Clive’s employer transferred him, and Betty was back in Rhode Island.
Over the years an extended family formed in Warwick Neck where Betty and Clive lived, when Betty began babysitting. “These are the Bennetts,” she said, leafing through the photo album scrapbook, a Mothers Day gift from the Macliver family, as she identified each little smiling face. “Here’s the Macliver family – I went to Florida with them as their nanny – the Colliers, the Phillips family, the Pettruti family, the Harringtons, the Wagners, and the Millers,” she said, as she turned each page.
It started with the Hurds
“But it all started with the Hurds – as in Hurd Buick,” she explained. “I still baby-sit for their dogs!” she laughed.
The year her beloved husband Clive passed away, after 42 years of marriage, Betty sought solace in caring for the youngest Hurd, newborn Rebecca.
“I left my house at 7:00 a.m. to get the kids ready for school, and didn’t get home until 7:00 p.m. I wrapped my life around her.” Betty lovingly touched a picture of Rebecca in the hospital the day she was born, reaching in the box for another picture of her as an adult. “Isn’t she beautiful?” she asked, before adding, as one would expect of an Italian grandmother, “and she’s so smart, too!”
Betty led me to the kitchen to point out a gift from Rebecca, a painted canvas sign that read, “Betty Belmore, World’s Best Cook.” Next she handed me “Betty’s Cookbook,” a three-ring binder Rebecca filled with photos of them together, Betty’s recipes, and photos documenting her early culinary attempts to duplicate Betty’s cooking. “They call me for my recipes – even people I didn’t baby-sit for!” Betty mused. “I can cook Polish food, too,” she said, incidentally, as her late husband was Polish.
Rebecca earned her Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Performances, having recently performed her play, “The Other Side of Me” in Cranston. As she pursued her performing arts degrees, “Betty attended every one of my performances,” Rebecca shared. “‘You study hard and be good!’ she’d say to me. She said I’d be a star some day.”
One of Rebecca’s fondest memories is when Betty hosted her 12th birthday when her parents had to be out of town. The following year, it was a birthday party sleepover, which included about 15 of her closest friends. Betty cooked them all dinner, and served breakfast in the morning.
Caroline, Rebecca’s sister, knew Betty and Clive had dreamed of going to Italy for their 50th wedding anniversary. While Caroline was attending college in Italy, the entire Hurd family, including Caroline’s sisters Rebecca and Sarah, and brother Frank, along with their parents, traveled with Betty to Italy.
Today Caroline works for Wayfair, the Internet furniture and home goods company; Frank is a musician in Nashville, and Sarah is a registered dietitian.
Ashley (Macliver) McMullan is a registered nurse whose earliest memories are of being cared for by Betty with her younger sister Kristin. Betty always sat on a pillow when she drove her white Mustang convertible with red interior. “She was firm, but loving,” Ashley recalled, “and very Italian, although we didn’t understand it at the time.”
Watching 10 kids at a time
She always cooked classic Italian food. “She can’t cook for just one!” Ashley laughed. Betty now cooks for 60 people for Ashley’s two daughters’ birthdays, as if she’s still cooking for the school in Rochester. “She’d squeeze you to death when she saw you!” Ashley remembered, with a smile in her voice.
Betty always kept busy, Ashley told me. “She would dump the bedroom drawers and empty the bureaus and encouraged us to become organized. Sometimes when all the kids were gathered, Betty would be watching 10 children at a time. But Betty could handle it all. If she wasn’t babysitting, she was at someone else’s house babysitting, where you had a play date. Betty was everywhere!” Betty is often spotted at graduations, birthday parties, and Mothers Day celebrations. She spends Christmas Eve with Ashley’s family.
Although all of Betty’s “kids” are grown, many with families of their own, Betty still dotes on all of them. “She makes me feel like the best wife, mother, friend,” said Ashley, with appreciation. “I don’t know how we deserve her.”
Betty considers it a privilege to be welcomed into people’s homes and lives, and abides by a creed of respect and keeping confidences. “I don’t ask questions. I’m a listener.”
That Sunday, as Betty schooled me in Italian cuisine, my husband had dozed off in Betty’s comfy chair, delighting her immensely that he was so at ease in her company. As I set the kitchen table, Betty pulled a tray of her homemade baked stuffed shrimp out of the oven. I’d gotten a taste of her lovely company, and now I’d get to taste her fabled authentic Italian cooking.