Betty Kirshner’s extraordinary creative gifts were not limited to art. She was was a prolific writer, as well as passionate expressive painter. The first book she read from cover to cover was Webster’s Dictionary. As an elementary school student, she was reading books at the adult level. Her most prized possession was her first library card,for which she was grateful to her doting older brother Sam Berman. They remained close (and from Los Angeles, he called and spoke with her every evening until she was hospitalized and I provided the updates). She died age 86, on July 6, 2015. As if his mission was done, her brother lived for several months more, and joined her at ninety-three.
Writing poetry and stories and journalistic articles came naturally, like it did for her maternal great Uncle Mayer Chidekel (a victim of the Holocaust, whom she never met), …and like her daughter Karen, and Sam, Betty’s spouse of 51 years, and Betty’s brother Sam, who wrote memoir into his 90s. It seemed to run in the family, (and her grandson took up glass sculpting). Betty as a poet and writer, was also my “walking and talking dictionary and thesaurus.” I can count on one hand the number of people I have known who were capable of completing The New York Times Crossword Puzzle nearly every day, including Sunday, which she did,. I think it was the Sunday one that gave her a hard time, while her friend Fred Cooper often completed it and they’d discuss the few items she missed. Only a few on the most difficult day. What a feat!
In terms of passions, was it the words or was it the art at the top? (It’s like’ the chicken or egg came first’ question.) I don’t know which came first for her. I know Art came first as a passion, ever since she could pick up a pencil. (For me, I believed it was writing, ever since I could pick up a pencil and scribble. Although, fact is… as a toddler I picked up my crayons and drew what I saw as a fantastic garden scene as mural on my father’s freshly painted office walls.) Everything around Betty were her palette and models, much to the delight of those being honored with her attention. Drawing everyday, in most places on the ready with sketchbook in hand literally everywhere! Even at the beach, where we had a cabana or on Jones Beach or Long Beach, we’d go as a family, and sure enough Mom would beautify it with a massive sand sculpture. Our mission was to scavenge for shells and pebbles, filling our pails on the shoreline and return to her with our treasures. She’d use them to decorate the mermaid. We’d watch in awe, as she transformed ordinary sand into a glorious masterpiece. People would come to see the spectacle and dad, an avid, talented photographer, snapped photos. When it was time to go from Betty’s creation, knowing it didn’t belong to us, we’d walk away, accepting the inevitable. The mermaid would to return to her ocean home. with the rising tide. Perhaps because she was a Pisces, Betty became that mermaid, passing away into the ocean of heaven, after making our world better and more beautiful.
Betty was a humble, quiet, creative, brilliant petite brunette, curly-haired “Betty Boop” *(her cartoon twin). People often said she she resembled the actress Audrey Hepburn. Ever observant, beauty begot beauty. Betty could be summed up as “beauty incarnate.” … How often does one come across such a person? Not often enough. Betty saw the good in everyone. She was a positive thinker, who said of herself, “I see the glass half full, not half empty” and she gave everyone she knew the right to be him or herself without judgment. I would complain, “He’s a lazy, sneaky guy” and she’d say, “I don’t know why he’s like that, but that’s just the way he is.” It often was a source of frustration for me, for example, when her last beau would give me and the aides a hard time and even violate nurses’ orders, putting her safety at risk, Much to my frustration, she didn’t condemn. Even when a person’s actions were abhorrent, she was tolerant. Perhaps she was “Christ-like,” because saw the good in everyone.
People shouldn’t get away with misconduct, but there is something in her way of being, that makes one feel more people need to be more like her, versus butting heads, shouting or seething with rage turned inward.. I was fortunate having Betty as one of my primary role models.
As a child,Betty/Mom sat down with me at the kitchen table and told me about her childhood, and that she’d go out of her way to embrace the children no one would befriend. I did the same. She told me she would rather spend a little more money buying at the local stores to help the shopkeepers, than save money buying from more prosperous department stores. She taught me the importance of empathy, compassion and kindness, and advised not to judge others, because unless one is in his or her shoes, one couldn’t know what motivated someone else. By example, and counsel, she advised me to treat others as I wanted them to treat me. And, She instructed me not to gossip. Somehow Betty’s lessons stuck with me. Betty refused to participate in mahjong and bridge clubs where women would bad-mouth their “friends” the minute they left the room. It caused me distress not knowing why she didn’t “hang out” with the mothers of one of the cliques I could have belonged to. Highly-sensitive and handicapped with shyness, I would have been more comfortable with them, I thought, had she done so. Yet, when she told me the reason many years later, I was glad she stood by her conviction.
I befriended the unpopular, and I was kind, and considerate of others and didn’t gossip, Seeing ‘Mom and Pop’ stores being swallowed up by conglomerates and disappearing from local shopping strips, I think of her message, and buy locally, when possible. I learned from her (and from my moral, honest, kind and generous father) how to comport myself in life. For that I am grateful. (I was “daddy’s girl” in my youth, and grew closer to my mother in the last decade of her life. A special healing took place, in a karmic relationship of mutual nurturing and appreciation.)
Art was always present on every wall in the house. Her favorite color was turquoise And she loved cobalt blue glass objects, which had been scattered around. One spring day, she admired a cobalt blue glass ball and mentioned it to me, so I dashed to the store and purchased it for her, and the stand at another store, and it sits in the backyard as a reminder of another Betty Kirshner lesson — Color and beauty in one’s environs makes a significant difference in one’s perspective. Betty would often sketch strangers in restaurants, waiting rooms, in meetings or classes. Wherever it was, inevitably the mysterious model would approach her to see what she was doing. Sure enough, the “Ooo’s and Ahh’s” would follow and the compliments at her mastery at capturing them and she’d generously say “Here, I’d like to give you the sketch.” and she’d sign it and it was a gift. …Now that she is gone, I wonder how many of those people know who she was?
Betty was very active until the age of 80, when illness struck (and I became her primary caregiver and best friend). While active, she often attended art studio sessions and exhibitions, and writing groups The writing groups included the Long Island Writers Guild, (with daughter Karen). After retirement, Betty also attended Taproots with Lenny, her second beau after Sam died,, and her writings were published in group publications. She also enjoyed being with friends in the Brandeis and Hunter Alumni and Pen Women’s writing groups. Active, friendly, sweet, refined, gracious, erudite and sophisticated, beautiful and an excellent listener, Betty was the perfect friend, guest and hostess.She took pride in her home and family and accomplishments as a creative individual.
Betty B. Kirshner should be remembered for making the world a better place. Her creations preserve her legacy. Now, I carry the torch of her legacy with this website, with the art shows we shared, and with future projects. Beautiful Betty B. Kirshner, rest in peace and know you are honored and loved by all who knew you.
(Written by Karen Kirshner)
Below is a writing exercise Betty wrote many years prior to her death. It literally fell into my hands by “so-called accident” (nothing is an accident, when it is something like this). I wonder if she did meet the two people she said she wanted to meet in heaven. Surely, she would have been given a first class ticket.