Life with ʽAuntie Betty’
On her 88th birthday, Betty Smith woke to messages on Facebook and WhatsApp.
By the end of May 3 she’d received more than 200 phone calls, the most distant came from an old family friend living in South Korea.
Although out enjoying the day with her daughter, Lita Smith, the St George’s resident appreciated hearing from them all.
Even the ones she wasn’t related to called her “Auntie Betty” – she loves people, and they seem to love her back.
“When my children were young, all the children came to our house,” said Ms Smith. “I always made sure they had something to eat – maybe apples or a peanut butter sandwich. I love feeding people. Lita is the same way.”
She has lived next to Mullet Bay her entire life. At Cup Match her door is always open to friends and family.
Some of her grandchildren and great grandchildren still hang out at her home with their friends.
“I love that,” she said. “They aren’t out on the streets. I know what they are doing.”
Mullet Bay Park didn’t exist when Ms Smith was a little girl. Her back steps led down to the water.
“I would fish down there in the morning,” she said. “I would catch yellow grunts and squirrel fish. Then my mother, Mamie Gibbons, would fry it up for breakfast.”
She still loves seafood.
“If it comes out of the ocean, I’ll eat it.”
It helped that her father, Horace Gibbons, sold lime he made in a kiln in the backyard and also fished.
Ms Smith never went out with him in his boat, The Cat; Mullet Bay was her playground.
“I would swim from boat to boat,” she said. “Mullet Bay was divided by a plank bridge. First it was the width of three planks but a storm blew one plank away. Then another storm came up and blew the second, so there was just one plank we went across.”
In the 1940s, the government deemed the eastern side of Mullet Bay unsanitary.
“When the tide was out you could walk right across the mud,” Ms Smith said. “And it did smell. I had a neighbour who used to joke that his wife’s tea smelled like Mullet Bay when the tide was out.”
In 1944, the government dredged the western side of the bay and used the mud to fill in the eastern side to create Mullet Bay Park.
Ms Smith can remember the dredging pipes sticking out of the water.
“Look at it now,” she said. “It is a beautiful park.”
She was the last of five children.
“My mother already had two grandchildren when I came along,” she said
At ten, she joined the Salvation Army Girl Guides in St George’s. Always outdoorsy, she loved going on hikes and camping.
When her older daughter, Francine Simmons, joined the Girl Guides in 1964, Ms Smith agreed to help out the new leader of the 2nd St George’s Girl Guide Company.
“The leader came to two meetings and then never came back,” Ms Smith said.
So she took over for the next 43 years. Later, she became Eastern District Commissioner, and the Bermuda Girl Guide Association camp adviser.
“I went along with whoever was having a camp out,” she said.
In 2006, she was made an honorary member of the Council of the Bermuda Girl Guide Association in recognition of her sterling service. She was also given the Bermudiana Award, the association’s highest honour.
“I was the first black woman to take on these positions in Bermuda,” said Ms Smith, who still sits on the council.
In her 20s, she started a business, working as a seamstress out of her home with her friend Winifred Jones.
“We called it Parkside Dressmaking,” said Ms Smith, whose mother and sister taught her how to sew. “We did a lot of weddings and alterations. You name it, we did it. I loved dressmaking.”
Later they moved into the Town of St George, across from Somers Garden.
“Then my eyes got bad and we stopped,” Ms Smith said. “I don’t remember when that was but I think it was in the 1960s. I was already working part time for Bermuda Island Cruises doing concierge work.”
She took on a full-time job with BIC, working at the airport and a number of hotels.
Ms Smith was working at the concierge desk at the Hamilton Princess when she had a stroke in 2000.
“My foot went numb,” she said. “And I felt really weird. I had taken first aid so I knew what was happening. I turned to the girl next to me and said, ‘I think I’m having a stroke.’ I think she just about had a stroke herself.”
She called Lita, who took her to King Edward VII Memorial Hospital. The hospital sent her home.
“Then Roslyn Simmons – I call her my adopted daughter – called me,” Ms Smith said. “She works in the Intensive Care Unit at the hospital. She said you are slurring your words. You need to go back to the hospital.
“I woke up the next morning in hospital and the left side of my body was paralysed. I could not raise my left arm. I could not walk.”
Ms Smith is still weak on her left side but, thanks to many hours of physiotherapy, can raise her left arm walk a short distance using a cane or walker. A mobility scooter has opened up the world for her.
“I have a lady who comes here and exercises with me once a week,” she said. “I also pedal a stationary bike.”
Ms Smith met Gladstone Simmons while working as a waitress at Nanking Restaurant.
“It was a Chinese restaurant located where Wahoo’s is now on Water Street,” Ms Smith said. “He was a carpenter and made a cedar bedroom set for me when we got married.”
She was 18 when they wed in 1952. They had two children, Gladstone and Francine, before Mr Simmons died of a massive heart attack in 1958.
“He was 32,” Ms Smith said. “My children were two and four. He had rheumatic fever when he was younger and that leaves you with a weak heart. It was a shock, to be sure.”
In 1959 she married Willard Smith, Lita’s father. Her mother-in-law thought it was too soon.
“But I said, ‘Look I am in my twenties with two little children. I need a man in my life.’
“Both my husbands were really good to me. I wanted for nothing. I had the best husbands in the world.”
Mr Smith died in 1987.
St Peter’s Church has helped keep her busy.
“I have been on the vestry at St Peter’s for almost 30 years,” she said. “I was secretary of the St Peter’s West Guild for 14 years.”
During the pandemic she has made and given away hundreds of masks.
Ms Smith also crochets, does puzzles and loves to talk on the phone.
“I am just grateful the stroke did not impact my speech,” she laughed. “God is so good. He knows how I like to talk.”
She has five grandchildren, 11 great grandchildren, and two great great grandsons.
Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Wednesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or firstname.lastname@example.org with the full name and contact details and the reason you are suggesting them