01 March 2008

Happy Birthday to a Design Mentor!

 

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My living room with inherited French antique chairs

Ask any interior designer who their mentor was, whose style first influenced them, who introduced them to a certain look - and most likely they will have a long story about that person and how important they were in shaping their aesthetic.  Ask me and I'll answer with two words:  Betty Rae!

Betty Rae - just the name itself goes so far in describing her:  A southern lady, gracious and beautiful, with an accent that matches her name.  I always say that Betty Rae's style influenced mine more than anyone  - bar none.  Who is this Betty Rae you are probably wondering?

Legally, she's my step-mother, but we don't use the word "step" - she's my mother in every sense of the word and today is her birthday.   I've been wanting to write about her and how she influenced my design style, so today - her 78th birthday, seemed the perfect time to do it. 

Betty Rae came into my life when I was 14,  after my mother, Sonia, died unexpectedly at the age of 42.  My father had one date and was hooked.  Who wouldn't be?  She was beautiful with dark brown hair and eyes, sweet and loving, and very stylish.  She introduced me to antiques and french design and for that I'll always be grateful.

 

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That us, me and Betty Rae at my high school graduation.

Thinking about it, I guess you could say I came out of the womb interested in design.   When I look back,  it must have been well known in my family that I was into decorating.  One of my more vivid childhood memories is when a elderly cousin brought me all her old home magazines.  I was so excited to get them - in those days back in the 50s, there weren't a lot of design magazines like today.  I remember after my cousin went home, I sat down to look at the magazines and was utterly disappointed.  She had brought me her old magazines and I was expecting new ones!  They were probably from the 40s (ones I would kill for today!) and were such a let down.  I must have been only six or seven years old at the time - I know this because we still lived in our old house.  A few years later, my parents built a home across town and that experience was a further strengthening of my interest in interior decoration.  They let me help design my room all in lilac and white, I even had a lilac sink!   We all pored over the architectural drawings for months and this fueled my fascination with floor plans.  For years, I drew plans - doodling them in school instead of listening.  At that time, it was thought I might become an architect - but those hopes were dashed when the reality of my lack of math skills became apparent.  And so, when our lives changed for ever, and I ended up with a new mother - her sense of style was an extra bonus in the package.    Betty Rae was into French antiques, two words I knew nothing about, but which would form the basis of my design aesthetic forever. 

In contrast, my own mother who had immigrated as a teenager to the United States on the heels of Hitler invading Poland, knew nothing about interior design.   A redhead and a natural comedienne,  she only knew to hire someone to fix up our house in the popular "modern" style of the 50s and 60's.    Because of this,  modern design was all I knew - everyone in my life decorated their houses this way.  It's not that I wasn't interested in other styles, I just had never been exposed to them.  French antiques weren't a part of our lives or of our neighbors.

When I first met Betty Rae and her two daughters who would become my sisters - they were living in a fashionable high rise apartment, something that was an anomaly to Houston at that time  and something that was extremely exotic to a teenager from the suburbs.    I can remember that apartment vividly:  the living room was designed around a blue and green flowery fabric on a cream background which covered a down filled sofa.  There was a light blue velvet skirted table in the room and French antique chairs were scattered about.  The family room had an antique bakers rack (what's that?!!) that doubled as a tv stand and a bar.  The master bedroom was done  in blue and white, with a french headboard and a huge, fruitwood antique armoire that housed the tv.  Picture this:  Jacqueline Kennedy's personal space in the White House and you can get an idea of what the apartment looked like.  It was as if Stephane Boudin had decorated it himself, instead - the french antiques and reproductions were bought from a Mrs. Handy. 

I can not begin to explain the effect that this apartment had on me.  It was so beautiful, so feminine, so foreign to me.   I just loved everything about it then and still do today.  My love of french antiques was born on that day I first visited them in their apartment.   They say good taste runs in families, and Betty Rae's was no exception.  The youngest of three daughters, they all shared great style.  Her  two sisters both lived in New York, so their more cosmopolitan exposure trickled down to Texas.  At one point, Betty Rae and her best friend opened a small antiques store that specialized in accessories.   The two went to England to stock their inventory and were nice enough to let me work there sometimes on the weekends.   Over the years, as I became more and more exposed to french antiques, Betty Rae was always there to help guide me and teach me about them.  We would often go to antique stores and shows together, along with her daughter - my sister - Cathy.  We had so much fun antique shopping together, most times not even buying, just looking.  We even flew to Dallas to antique there.  We would go the Round Top antique fair twice a year and slosh through the mud to find some great piece of Masonware for Cathy or transferware for me.  We still will rehash the new Veranda or Southern Accents over the telephone or talk about some great new design book.   For fun, we'll go together to someone's new home to admire their antiques and ooh and ah.  In short, Betty Rae and I developed a great closeness centered around our love of French antiques.

Betty Rae's taste has remained impeccable and she can "kill" something with a just a glance.  She will quietly say, "Oh, I don't...know...." and she might as well of have shouted "I hate that with all my might, don't buy it!!!!"   She's my best sounding board and I never make major decisions about decorating my house without talking it over with her first.  When I bought my own armoire, I needed her and Cathy to approve it and say, "buy it" and the decision over which buffet a deux to choose - I left to Betty Rae to tell me which one I should pick.  Her vote of approval, whether it's for a dress or a husband, means the world to me and I would have trouble making a choice she didn't approve of, even though I'm 53 years old now and not a shy teenager any longer. 

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My mom and dad:  This was taken on Betty Rae's birthday a few years ago.

While I still love French antiques and live with them, Betty Rae's tastes have evolved over the years.  She and my father now live with Biedermeier antiques.  Their look is more sophisticated and eclectic these days.  But, whenever she gets lonesome for her old furniture, she doesn't have to travel far.  In fact, much of the furniture from that first apartment that I so admired is now in my own house, slowly accumulated over the years as Betty Rae's furnishings and houses changed.   The french chairs in my living room are from that apartment and so is the french secretary in my entry hall.   Her bakers rack is in my breakfast room along with her antique tole light fixture.  I have her french desk and antique nightstands from her master bedroom.  The armoire?  She sold that to someone else!

I hope that one day my daughter will share my love of antiques and that we might be just like Betty Rae and I are.   I even secretly hope that one day Elisabeth will join me in my interior design business, but she doesn't seem to have a great love of it, like I did at her age.  I was really lucky in my life, to have met Betty Rae who always encouraged me to put my heart into my home and fix it up and I try to instill that in my daughter.   I wonder, sometimes, if I had not met Betty Rae and she wasn't my mother, would I even be into antiques and French design today?  I honestly don't know that answer.   Maybe, but I'm not positive about that.  We talk about how few families out there get along with their stepmothers and stepchildren and we count ourselves so lucky that we aren't like that.  Not only do we get along, we are all the best of friends.

And so, today, Betty Rae, even though you are sick with a "full fledged" cold, happy birthday and thank you!  I love you!

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Betty Rae, Happy Birthday!

44 comments:

  1. What a treat to meet your inspiration and what lovely photos! Thanks to both of you.

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  2. Sounds like a wonderful relationship! You know you look a bit like her too.
    Tell Betty Rae Bon Anniversaire!

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  3. What a wonderful story. How wonderful to have such a wonderful influence come into your life. Happy Birthday to Betty Rae! :-) Rosie

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  4. Ohhhh such a sweet hommage! And what a wonderful thing to have someone like Betty Rae as a setpmother, such a delicate role, especially in a teenagers life. Wishing Betty Rae a wonderful birthday!!!

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  5. I am so touched. Happy Birthday Betty Rae! This look into your past was wonderful. Your blog always inspires me.

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  6. A most charming and generous lady -- so wonderful to read about her influence in your life. A treasure! And a blessing!

    Jan at Rosemary Cottage

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  7. What a lovely story. I really enjoyed reading this, Joni.

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  8. Joni...what a wonderful tribute to Betty Rae. Losing your Mother at such a young age is very tragic, but the angels were surely at your side. The impressions of childhood are very precious and you have been fortunate to carry them with you and be surrounded with them everyday!

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  9. Beautiful tribute! Happy, Happy
    Birthday to Betty Rae. Bravo! ... to this woman extrodinaire! Joni, thank you for sharing both of your lives with us all!

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  10. I agree reading about who has influenced you most in life - and discovering it is your mother has been a real treat. And what a classy lady she is.

    Happy Birthday Betty Rae!!

    Anna :)

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  11. Happy Birthday Betty Rae! I can only hope that I look as young as you do when I am your age!

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  12. She's so beautiful and classic. Love those pearls!! How lucky you were, after the tragedy of losing your mother, to have someone like Betty Rae come into your life.

    Don't we all have someone that we admire and aspire to be like, when we're teenagers? Mine was a neighbor of my grandmother's, who was a fascinating and dynamic woman. She wrote in calligraphy, which I vowed to learn someday. I did, and strived always to attempt to be as talented and interesting as Joanne.

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  13. Joni, What a beautiful post! You are so lucky to have her and she you! Happy Birthday Betty Rae!
    -Linda

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  14. Another lovely glimpse into your personal life--you continue to be so gracious in sharing a bit of yourself with others. We sooo appreciate it! Happy birthday to your (step)mom.

    Angela

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  15. Joni, you are so generous to share this with us! Yowza! If only we could all look so fabulous at 78! She looks like a very stylish lady, and you are very lucky to have had her come into your life. I am happy that she was so generous and loving towards you!

    I would have to say that my own mother was also my first mentor. She has really influenced my style more than anyone else.

    Perhaps this is the way of the world?

    Thanks for sharing! :)
    Katie

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  16. What an extraordinarily beautiful and stylish womans she is, Joni. It's critical to have a mentor at that age, and you had a good one.

    I bet I can do a pretty good vocalization of "Betty Rae".

    Thanks for sharing with us. NOW...MARCH over there and get us photos of the Biedermier house!

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  17. What a neat story...like you said, that is rare to get along so well with a (S)mother. If you got your taste from her, then she must be one heck of a stylish lady! Loved the background and happy birthday to a very attractive and young-looking Betty Rae! She and your dad are such a cute couple and I loved your graduation photo, Joni! You are adorable!

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  18. Joni you really are the best. What a wonderful post. I loved learning more about you and Betty Rae. Happy birthday!

    ps your photo is too cute! :-)

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  19. What a wonderful post to honor your mother.
    Happy Birthday Betty Rae!
    XO
    Brook

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  20. LOVED the story about Betty Rae. I am so sorry not to have known her - you know, in my "other life"! What a lovely tribute to her, both as a sweet mother to you and a stylish mentor! I am so happy you have her - and she has you!

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  21. Hip, hip, hooray!
    Hip, hip, hooray!
    Hip, hip, hooray!
    Many happy returns of the day Betty Rae.

    I send a virtual hot toddy your mother's way in hopes that it'll chase away that cold post haste.

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  22. Oh my......I simply think I must cajole Betty Rae to hope on a plane and visit me in Marrakech immediately. I am in desperate need of learning a thing or two about French antiques, you see.

    She is lovely, and so are you.

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  23. Thank you all so very much for all the great comments! BR (as we call her!) is enjoying reading them all. I surprised her with this posting, so she didn't actually notice it until the next day, but that's ok - she loved it just the same and was really excited about it.

    Thanks again everybody from the two of us!

    Joni and BR

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  24. What a wonderful tribute to a very important woman in your life! Happy birthday, Betty Rae! Bon anniversaire from France.

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  25. I have to gush over Betty Rae's dress in your graduation photo, It's lovely. And it is so wonderful to read your story, thank you!

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  26. What a looker,odd,you remsemble one another,how wonderful that she came into your life,and vice versa.Your dad is so hamdsome as well.Thanks for sharing such a great story

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  27. How blessed you are/were to have two "mothers" that truly loved you. Betty Rae sounds like she is a true "lady" in addition to being a beauty. While I'm sure that she instilled in you your love of french design, you must take some credit yourself cause you know you can't "learn" this stuff....it's born in us. I used to send off for interior design courses (in the early '70's) and always wanted to be a designer. Fate took me in another direction (law) and I love that too but my passion is decorating.

    You have the best posts....if you ever get out of the interior design business, you would be a facinating writer.

    XOXO- Judy

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  28. I agree with Judy; you are a wonderful writer. You know how to let the story unwind. Sweet post.

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  29. Lovely and touching story . A meeting, love and family , the best things to make a good business ...
    Happy birthday to your mother !!!

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  30. Happy Birthday to your mom, lovely tribute!

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  31. Joni, what a sweet birthday card! I'm sure you are and will be the same inspiration for your own daughter. You're a lucky lady! Lana

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  32. Awwww....how sweet! Such a touching story. Thanks for sharing it! Happy Birthday Betty Rae!

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  33. Betty Rae is a beautiful lady! Happy Birthday!

    I loved reading how she influenced you, what a blessing to have someone like her come into your life. I too am the happy recipient of my own mother's changing tastes and downsizing. Love that about being a daughter!

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful tribute!

    xo
    melissa

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  34. This was very very moving. On some levels, I can really relate. Happy birthday!

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  35. Beautifully said Joni. Betty Rae is lovely. Thanks so much for sharing :)

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  36. Oh, that's very sweet of you Joni. You and Betty Rae are quite lucky! Happy Belated Birthday Betty Rae! (You two are both very photogenic)

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  37. I want to see her house now.

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  38. Joni,
    I had a "Betty" as a close friend and confidante and she was a wonderful spiritual guide and counselor to me while I grew up one of "seven." Betty had two daughters that were older and she always had to time to listen, time to make me feel special, time to extole and speak of virtues. I cried so hard when she left this earth.
    I polished her silver for savings, I needlepointed her chairs for love, I painted her butterflies, she made me tea and tuna-fish sandwiches. I made her a gros-grain ribbon address book. Painted an angel-fish for her bathroom. We were so close and I miss her terribly. She complimented me if she liked it and if not, well, I knew immediately - it went unspoken.
    Who are you mentoring? It is people like this that remind us the importance of sharing and making someone small feel great.
    "Betty Rae" reminds me so of my "Betty"-
    You are so fortunate to have her, treasure every moment and every birthday! Sorry, to ramble, just could not help myself!

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  39. Joni,
    What a great tribute to you Mom. I second Anonymous' suggestion (March 5) to do a piece on Betty Rae's home.

    My mentor story--as a gift for my 30th birthday, a good friend of mine who was a decorator gave me the gift of a day of her time--unbelievably generous. I was a harried mother of three very young children with very little money. But by the end of the day I realized that more than a lack of money, my limitation was a lack of knowledge of my own artistic self. To my embarrassment, my friend went through closets, drawers and dark basement corners to uncover the treasures I had hidden throughout the house. At the end of the day the first floor of my home had been transformed. We only purchased a plate holder and a bit of ribbon. Brenda taught me not only how to recognize the beauty around me but how to organize it in the most pleasing way. It's a gift that has kept on giving for 20 years. She has not helped me since, but she certainly liberated my inner decorator.

    I am prone to waxing hyperbolic on the healing power of interior design, but I have to say, that experienced changed my life--I know I chose a fork in the road that day, deciding to travel down the more scenic one! I believe that at its best design is about recognizing and creating beauty. At it's worst, it's about trying to consume to fill up holes (like not knowing your own beauty and worth). Your post today reminded me of that.

    Sorry for the long ramble. Belated happy birthday to Betty Rae. And thanks for your great posts with all the wonderful pictures.

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  40. TC: What a sweet, sweet story! Thank you for sharing it. I know what you mean about being surrounded by beauty - I deal with that every day of my life. I'm so glad you had that experience and what a great idea to gift someone with!!! Thanks again
    Joni

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  41. What a great tribute to your mother. She looks so stylish and classy and so so good at her age. Most families aren't as lucky to have such a great transition in their lives with loss and gain. You have a wonderful family and thank you for sharing about your parents - they look very cute together.

    Karen

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  42. oh... your story is so beautiful! Your mom sounds like a wonderful lady and her apartment must have been a site to see!

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  43. Joni, how blessed you and Betty Rae are to have each other. I loved reading this tribute to your mentor and mom. I cannot imagine how proud she is of you, and after looking at the pictures from your dad's party, I am amazed at how much you and Betty Rae resemble each other. You really could be mother and daughter. You are both beautiful ladies.

    Love you,

    Sheila

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  44. Joni, thanks for sharing this tribute! How lucky both of you are!

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