My Mother and Dad met by accident. It was Leap Year 1936. Mother was in her final year at Yale School of Nursing. She had wanted to be a medical doctor; but her Father had insisted she earn a nursing degree first. That, of course, was a mistake. It’s a fork in the road. Once you’re a nurse, you don’t become a doctor: it’s like the chasm between workers and management. And Mother had gone away to boarding school at the age of twelve. By then she was tired of school. I don’t think Mother ever intended to get married. She was a real MHT – Mount Holyoke Type. They were among the first women libbers.
Mother had originally wanted to go to Wellesley, and was accepted. But one of her friends at National Cathedral School, where she took a year’s post-grad after Dickinson Seminary, had had her heart set on Wellesley and was on the waiting list. So Mother turned Wellesley down. Her friend was accepted. Mother hoped that her sacrifice had played a part. Her friend never knew. This story played a part in my psyche and own saga with Stan and the Whiffs. In my case, it was a futile gesture, since Stan had already been selected to be tapped. But I hadn’t known.
Anyway back to 1936. Mother’s roommate asked her to join her on a double date with two Divinity students. Mother really wasn’t interested. Her roommate persisted and persuaded her to go since the younger Divinity student was engaged. Mother had first choice. By selecting the already engaged, younger man, presumably she’d never see him again. Dad had worked a few years as a social worker in Boston before finally deciding to become a minister. And even at the end of his life, at 73, Sherry had something of a baby face. Dad’s classmate had a moustache, which made him look older. So Mother mistakenly chose the younger looking man, who was not engaged.
Elizabeth and Sheridan really didn’t know each other. When they were married on September 1, 1937, they had spent less than an entire week together. And they hadn’t written very often. Mother graduated from Yale School of Nursing in 1936. She taught Chemistry at National Cathedral School in Washington the following year, while Dad finished up his studies at Yale Divinity School.
According to Dad, Mother called the shots. She wrote him to determine his intentions. Perhaps her Father was exerting some pressure for her to get married. They agreed to meet half way in New York City. Dad said he got on the train in New Haven without knowing exactly what he was going to do. They met at the Hotel Pennsylvania. He proposed and she accepted. But they still didn’t know each other.
In many ways Elizabeth was a catch. Her Father was a successful businessman in the middle of the Great Depression and a Congressman to boot. It would clearly be an abuse of power today—perhaps, it wasn’t considered such then— but Grandfather Rich had three of his prospective sons-in-law investigated by the FBI; so if Sheridan W. Bell, Jr. had had any significant skeletons in his closet, they should have been uncovered then. Anyway, it was very useful for a Methodist minister to have a wife. (I later learned from Aunt Julie that Uncle Charlie had been exempted from the background check because his father had gone to Dickinson College, which Baba attended, but from which he did not graduate. Evidently Baba felt that the Dickinson connection was a good enough reference.
Sherry visited Betty once in Washington. It was near the end of her year teaching Chemistry. Daddy said it was the messiest lab he had ever seen. That should have been a sign. After they had been married a few months, Grandma Da took Dad aside and quietly suggested that Elizabeth might need some help with housekeeping.
I understand that Grandfather Bell died within the year of my parents wedding. So I suppose none of us at the Bell Reunion in 1994, besides Aunt Claora, had had the opportunity to get to know him well. Just before that reunion I heard a story from Mother, I think, about Grandfather Bell at my parents wedding in 1937. He was, of course, the Minister. On the day of the wedding he got up early and thought he would play a trick (or perhaps conduct a test) on one of my Mother’s relatives, who was helping to prepare the pre-wedding buffet. Grandfather Bell went to the back door and said he was a stranger in need of some food. Remember this was still the Great Depression. Mother’s Aunt said something like: " I can’t possibly help you. I’m having over a hundred people to breakfast this morning."
Can you imagine her chagrin when she went to the wedding and realized she had turned away the Minister and father of the groom! With today’s increasing tragedy of homelessness, it’s important to remember the saying of one tradition that you never know which stranger is an Angel. In words attributed to Christ: "If you do it to the least of these my brethren, you do it unto me." Enough pontificating! But it sounds as though Grandfather Bell had a terrific sense of humor. I know his son, my Dad, certainly did.