By Lindsey Lane
On January 5, 2022, Betty X Davis vacated her seat at the front row of our BookPeople launches. At one hundred and six years old, still quoting Shakespeare at length and spouting snippets of French, it seemed like she might live forever. But alas, she slipped away, quietly, as one does when they’ve been to an excellent party, had a wonderful time and leaves at the exact right time without a lot of unnecessary fanfare. Betty didn’t go in for a lot of sentimentality or over-the-top gushiness.
What she loved was the power of writing and stories. To that end, a few writers have shared their thoughts about Betty X Davis, one of the treasured members of the Austin writing community, and how she touched each of their lives. In a way, these stories and memories are a kind of quiet immortality in that they reveal how a beloved one has shined us up and made us better in a particular way. It’s how we will carry them forward.
Settle in for a few Betty X Davis stories and please feel free to share one in the comments. Betty touched many lives in her long life and we’d love to know how she shined yours up.
So, this is hard because I thought Betty would live forever. And that would have been just fine by me. On the day she walked into my writing workshop, back in the last century, she was already nearly eighty years old, even though to look at her, you wouldn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it.
I still don’t.
With her tenacity on the tennis court, and her doggedness in her writing, I came to think of her as one of the Immortals, perhaps a younger sister to Athena, albeit in the form of a tiny back-swinging package. If asked, I’d tell you that her superpower was her ability to look you directly in the eye and, in a single stroke, charm the birds right out of your tree. (Or maybe slam them out—she was sneaky that way).
What was her secret? When asked at her 100th birthday party, she said it was “good genes.” And she prefaced that with, “I hate to tell you…” which automatically made me run through all of my known ancestors in hopes of the kind of longevity genes that had brought Betty to her centennial. The answer, in my case, is ambiguous at best. Not so hers.
She was a founding member of the Austin chapter of SCBWI, and she attended every conference. The last time I saw her at one, maybe four years ago, I was waiting for her in the hallway just outside the main meeting room. When she came through the door, I swear, she started running. At once, I realized I was running too. It was a happy collision, the way we wrapped our arms around each other. Her head came just underneath my chin. We held hands as we walked toward our table. I felt like the most honored guest in the room, even though really, I was just the escort.
She was the Betty of thee’s and thou’s, sprinkling those old-fashioned pronouns into the stories she wrote, tales of a not-so-distant past, but distant enough that they stood out. It was the language of her childhood and she owned it, and in doing so, she gave us a bigger picture of her place, of our place, at the story table. She enriched it and enlivened it and made it real.
How could she be gone? It makes no sense to me.
And yet, how could she be gone? The truth is, her circle of family and friends is large and wide, and she will always be present inside of it. She was the most patient of guides, the most gracious of hosts, and the most loving of humans–with good genes to boot. Good golly, I miss her.
Godspeed, thou teller of stories. Rock on, you goddess of serves. I can hear the flutter of your brand-new wings as you brush by.
And I am running, running to watch you fly.
Before I met Betty X at Toad Hall (Thank you for bringing all of us together, Meredith!), I went through the line at a Kevin Henkes’ book signing and asked him what his advice was to writers aspiring to publish. ‘Perseverance.’ That was it. Then, I didn’t fully appreciate the full meaning of perseverance. Experience brings clarity. One hundred six years of experience brings near-divinity.
The older we get, the more we realize that truly, it is the small moments that make life beautiful. I have one simple memory of Betty X that sums up what I learned from her. Shortly before one of her birthdays as an octogenarian, I asked her if she wanted pie or cake.
‘Pie. Gooseberry pie.’ Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a slice of gooseberry pie. That’s Betty X. Original to the hilt, our Goodnight Moon and Where The Wild Things Are.
And guess what? Gooseberries are good for you! *Rich in antioxidants, high in fiber, and heart-healthy, they also keep your brain happy. She must have eaten bushels.
After she told me about her favorite pie and saw the blank expression on my face, she giggled. Yes, giggled. Like Betty X’s favorite pie, she was rare, a marvel, someone who inspired. This is the goofiest ending and smacks of sentimentality, but it’s one she and I would smile at over a slice: Good-pie, Betty X.
Gooseberries are available at specialty groceries and online.
Betty X Davis, well into her 90’s, was a sit-on-the-front-row, never-too-old-to-learn-something-new kind of woman. She became a part of the fabric of my writing life in the mid-1990s. We critiqued each other’s manuscripts, bemoaned our rejections, and celebrated our victories big and small. Threaded through it all was poetry. Betty loved a good poem. When my son needed to memorize one for school, I emailed Betty for suggestions.
When she lost most of her memories, the poems remained, mostly Shakespeare. I still have the ones she wrote for me. I pulled them out when I heard she was gone, and one dated May 14, 2001 had a stanza that stood out. She must have written it when I stepped back from leadership in our SCBWI chapter.
When not with this group
she leaves a large hole
that misses her help and
I speak her words back out to her. “We miss you Betty, you leave a large hole.”
Her help and compassion live on in the award with her namesake, the Betty X Davis Young Writers of Merit Award, given to kids who show promise in their writing to encourage them to keep going. What a wonderful legacy for a storyteller, a long line of new stories like the tail of a kite. May many be buoyed up by Betty’s vision and enthusiasm.
What a firecracker she was. My favorite memory of Betty was when we went on a mission to get donuts for our critique group at Lindsey Lane’s house. Betty drove me around in her little car and showed me how to drive a car with stick shift. I was so wowed that, at the time, a beautiful eighty-plus year old woman who still played tennis was showing me how to drive a stick. She explained as she drove. I did not learn that day because she drove too fast for me to concentrate.
One of the greatest honors I had while serving as RA for SCBWI Austin was working with Betty and her beautiful family to create the Betty X. Davis Young Writer of Merit Award. I was frequently moved by the affection these people had for one another. Her children were driven to establish this entity as a lasting tribute to their mother’s love for the written word. It was a privilege to play a role in the process. While it is wonderful that the award will live on as a philanthropic celebration of Betty’s passion for writing and kids, the real legacy she leaves behind is her vigor, tenacity, and deep love of life. Hers is an example of a life well-lived. I’m forever grateful to have known her.
Betty didn’t beat around the bush. She wasn’t mean but she was plain speaking. When she heard that I was writing a monthly parenting column for Good Life magazine, she said, ‘I didn’t think someone who had only one child (Betty had eight) would understand much about parenting, but it’s pretty good.’
When I first approached her about the creating an award in her honor for the Austin SCBWI chapter, I tried to nudge her toward a scholarship for writers to attend the conference, but she waved her hand in the air as if to move my stinky suggestion out the window. ‘Nope, we need an award for young writers. Writing is powerful. Kids need to know that and I think our chapter needs to recognize their writing.’ She was right, of course.
I miss my lunches with Betty. I miss all the wild, out of the blue, true stories she would tell me. I miss her plain-speaking wisdom. It contained love, but not the gushy kind.
“One of my fond memories of Betty was her pride and pleasure in having a story she wrote accepted by one of the Carus magazines—when she was in her early ninties, I believe. I don’t remember if it was Cricket or another one. But the group’s production schedule is so pokey that she was afraid she wouldn’t live to see it in print. I got in touch with the executive editor, whom I had gotten to know, and tried to nudge her story into publication more quickly. I don’t know if I helped but I think she did see finally see it.” (She did. In 2012. In Spider Magazine. When she was ninety-six. Here is a post her son Talbot wrote about it.)
I didn’t know Betty as well as some but enough to realize that she was a one-in-a-million force of nature. I treasure the memory of a particular Austin SCBWI conference where I got to sit next to her for the whole morning.
My favorite Betty memory, though, was a sweet email I got from her when the Dinosaur Boy (Sourcebooks, 2015) announcement came out. Betty and I hadn’t even met in person at that time, but at ninety-nine years old she took the time to write me a congratulatory email. She compared my book to an old childhood favorite of hers and told me that I made my community proud. I can’t even articulate how much that meant to me. She was such an inspirational lady.
“Yes, Betty was awesome, and so much a part of this chapter’s history. A few years before I joined SCBWI, I used to see her at league tennis courts (she was probably eighty, then). Before I even met her, I was impressed by her zest, vigor, smile, and spirit. She launched a cool website when she was in her mid-ninties, posting a great photo of herself still on the court, grinning ear to ear.
Somewhere around when she was ninety-eight, I noticed that family members now drove her to Book People for meetings, then retreated into the ether-sphere to do their thing while she did hers. We ate cake together at someone’s book launch (gosh, I miss that) and she told me giving up the tennis racket was more bothersome than giving up her car. She always told it like it was, but never with a “poor me” attitude. She was frank, but grateful. Observant like a child, stoic like someone who has weathered many storms, present like someone who appreciates learning something new every day.”
“So many of us have memories of Betty sitting in the very front row at every book reading or launch she could get to, for years and years. But more than that, I don’t know that she ever attended a single event that she didn’t follow up with an email — specific, funny, full of love and enthusiasm. I went back and read several this morning, and was reminded that she was not just our peer but our protector, our cheerleader, our champion. Nobody’s imposter syndrome could stand up to Betty.”
Betty’s official obituary in the Austin American Statesman written by her beautiful, loving family.
Watch a video that Meredith Davis created about Betty and the Young Writers of Merit Award so that young writers would get a glimpse of this extraordinary soul after she was gone.
Lindsey Lane is the author of young adult novel Evidence of Things Not Seen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) and picture book Snuggle Mountain (Clarion, 2003 and iTunes app, 2008).
She earned her BA in Theater Arts from Hampshire College and her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She regularly teaches private classes and is an assistant professor at Austin Community College.