Betts Knight, short for Beatrice Knight, smeared SPF 30 sunscreen across her shoulders and around the straps of her tankini before sliding into an orthopedic chaise lounge. She was poolside at the Arcadia Retirement Village, in south-central Florida where all deck chairs were Aruba-blue and equipped with built-in lumbar support, padded headrests, and accompanied by a little black button on the armrest that raised or lowered her feet. The pool was just one of many amenities in the over fifty-five community. Betts leaned back and closed her eyes behind her tortoiseshell sunglasses hoping to drift into an afternoon nap but the steady whir of golf carts rolling by carrying self-appointed landscaping specialists altered her plan. Unrestrained retirees felt compelled to shout advice to landscapers laying a new sprinkler system in the gardens between the shuffleboard court and pool deck. Betts pulled her sunglasses down the bridge of her nose and looked out over the top at the commotion. It was becoming obvious that her nap would have to wait until she returned home in a day or two.
She didn’t meet the age requirement to be a resident in the gated community, but Momma did. Betts drove into town earlier that week to help Momma settle into her new surroundings. Arriving, she took note of the Piggly Wiggly as she drove south on Highway 70. Her mother was not especially handy in the kitchen, but Betts would be sure to stock her cupboards with required essentials including coffee and flavored creamer. She made a mental note to show her mother how to turn on the coffee maker.
The rural town of Arcadia was a far cry from the life to which Momma was accustomed. Betts had driven past cattle ranches and orange groves before seeing the “Welcome to Arcadia” sign on Rural Highway 70. The town, proper, was graced with four stop lights on the main drag one of which was strategically positioned on the corner of Highway 70 and the entrance to “The Village” where Momma would be staying. Betts had slowed to a stop when the light turned yellow, she flipped the blinker and as she waited, counted seven golf carts, bound for the Walmart parking lot scooting across the road in front of her.
The travelers seemed to Betts to be escapees from the retirement village, all filing by in a neat row, one behind the other and dressed in what may have been the acceptable attire for village residents. Men and women were all donned in brightly colored Florida t-shirts, sun visors, and support stockings with sensible shoes. A wave of worry flooded her. Perhaps moving her mother here was a mistake. Momma did not accede to acceptable. She would rather die than be caught alive in sensible shoes and logoed T-shirts. Nor did she drive a golf cart, Momma drove a Porsche.
However, early childhood memories of counting train cars from the back seat brought a smile to Betts’s face as she waited for red to turn to green. Despite what might become her mother’s exceptions with the local customs, Betts knew the Village was just what Momma needed for a full recovery. She checked the dashboard clock; it seemed a particularly long light. The red waited patiently to change until the full train of golf carts was safely on the far side of the four lanes. But it was this pause that provided Betts a moment of deep breathing strengthening her resolve to keep her mother concealed, here, in the Arcadia Retirement Village.
A four-foot-high stucco wall marked the divide between Village property and Highway 70. A replica of the Venus De Milo stood on a pedestal in the middle of the boulevard that divided the entrance lane from the exit. Someone had draped a winter scarf around her shoulders and pulled a stocking cap over her ears reminding all that Arcadia Retirement Village was a winter haven for snowbirds dodging the frigid temperatures up north. It was an odd sight, like a college prank during finals week, but Betts’s attention was quickly drawn to a giant seashell sign next to Venus and she smiled as she read,
Arcadia Retirement Village
Active retirement living for seniors on the go!”
Betts counted four more golf carts in her rearview mirror lining up at the traffic light as she crept about fifty yards up the entrance lane to the village gate. She eased her SUV over a speed bump that forced the 15 mile-per-hour speed limit.
The stucco wall that bordered the front of the Village continued up the drive to the gate that was raised only for code carrying residents and their welcomed guests. On first consideration, Betts thought maybe the four feet of stucco surrounding the community was there for safety’s sake, a barrier to keep all who weren’t residents “out.” However, surveying the parade of golf carts scooting into the grass and dodging the apparently ill-placed speed bump to ramp up over 15 mph, she began to think it might be just the opposite; more than likely, it was there to keep the residents “in.” She doubted that any of the fifty-five plus crowd motoring about would be nimble enough to scale the four feet of stucco and, of course, as far as her mother was concerned, that was for the best. She breathed a silent prayer that somehow, the stucco barrier would keep Lyla Fontaine, now Anne Knight, out of trouble.
She punched in her mother’s code at the gate and it lifted obediently, giving her clearance to pull forward and follow the GPS directions through the winding lanes lined with budding magnolia trees and cottages painted an array of Florida colors including ocean blue, flamingo pink, and sunrise yellow. The homes were small but lovely, trimmed in white looking crisp and clean. Betts turned onto Sunset Lane where each cottage flaunted a front porch with room enough for two chairs and a small table making the whole scene serene and inviting.
Betts had been summoned to the Village by Momma. Being the only child, it was her duty to answer the call and come to her mother’s aid. Not that Lyla Fontaine couldn’t afford to hire help, in fact, she had the means to purchase her own hospital wing fully armed with staff and equipment if she wanted, but Lyla always found great comfort in motivating her one and only by artfully mapping out a guilt trip Betts couldn’t maneuver out of. So, when Momma called, Betts came, immediately.
Lyla Fontaine, who now was to be introduced by her middle name, Anne, and her surname, Knight, had been a Bond girl in the ’60s. Bond, as in James Bond. As an attractive buxom teenager, wearing the buxom part of herself quite proudly, Lyla was discovered by a talent agent in Swartz Creek, Michigan while waitressing at a soda fountain. Hence the last name Fontaine. Back in the days when one could be trusted when introducing themselves as an agent representing Tenor and Young Talent Agency, Lyla jumped at the opportunity and signed on the dotted line almost immediately. Like most high school graduates, young Loise Anne Knight had dreamed of leaving her small-town drudgery to head for the glamor of Hollywood she had seen in the magazines.
Anne, taking on the persona of Lyla, was a natural in front of the camera. Small roles grew to supporting roles until the Bond enterprise offered her a contract and she became a big-screen favorite.
The camera loved Lyla Fontaine almost as much as the crowds. She was beautiful as well as buxom, spunky, and sassy, yet remained genteel even as the limelight grew brighter. Lyla’s trademark became her charming smile that revealed a small but noticeable space between her two front teeth. With long blond curls that splashed around her shoulders, she was the embodiment of the “girl next door.” Everywhere she went the crowds begged her to flash that smile in their direction as cameras clicked and flashbulbs blazed.
Lyla’s career boasted quite the list of handsome leading men whose arms she would grace for a red-carpet stroll on her way to receiving an Oscar, but she refused to get involved in a serious relationship. She was in demand as an actress, one movie after another. Her box office hits not only rendered her the choicest of roles but even led her to Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard where her handprints were forever cemented into history.
During her extensive and successful career, she took only one short sabbatical from acting: the year of 1976. Everything was canceled from her schedule as Lyla hid from sight and claimed a year of renewal. The press wrote stories speculating about her much-needed time away filled with privacy and fresh air to clear her head and renew her creative energies. No interviews were granted.
When she quietly reappeared unannounced to her fans at the Los Angeles Christmas tree lighting, Lyla Fontaine was pushing a baby stroller carrying her three-month-old daughter. The child was introduced as Beatrice, named after Lyla’s dedicated assistant and friend, Beatrice Brown. The adorable child, Beatrice, who by kindergarten was nicknamed Betts, was given her mother’s family surname, Knight. Though Lyla introduced the infant Betts to her birth father, and he graced her with a generous trust fund, his name never appeared in writing, even on her birth certificate, and his identity was never made public.
Although Lyla bore the pain of giving her heart secretly to one of the handsome leading men resulting in motherhood, she wore her new title gracefully and resolutely. Lyla faced the scrutiny determined to hold her head up and move forward with her daughter in tow. While her career remained her focus and first love, Betts became her movie star momma’s second: second focus, second love. That was life for Lyla Fontaine and Betts Knight. It wasn’t the fairytale one reads about, but as a child, it was all Betts knew and as a celebrity mother, it was all Lyla could give. Despite it all, Betts loved her mother, the great Lyla Fontaine, even more than Lyla’s fans.
In the 70’s it was quite chic for the rich and famous to hire nannies trained by NANA, the North American Nanny Association. Staying ever in the limelight, stylish and sophisticated, Lyla took the advice of her colleagues and friends and hired a gifted nanny for Betts. Maybelle Studer, a wonderfully southern, African American woman, NANA trained, moved into the east suite of the Fontaine mansion where Betts would spend most of her childhood years growing up.
Maybelle Studer came highly recommended and Lyla Fontaine would settle for nothing less for her second love. Maybelle, the elder of the two women by nearly ten years, didn’t compare in physical beauty to Lyla, and Lyla didn’t compare to the physical stature of Maybelle. Betts could remember her momma leaving the house and disappearing beyond the size of her nanny as she walked out the door. In fact, at just the right angle, Betts could even lose sight of the Porsche that her momma climbed into. But Maybelle was larger in emotion as well, she was soft and kind and loved Betts as her first love.
Maybelle never married nor did she have children of her own. So, while the rest of the world doted on the great Lyla Fontaine and she on them, Maybelle’s world revolved around sweet little Betts Knight who knew little of her father and only knew her mother as Lyla Fontaine, the absent actress.
When Momma was filming on-site for her latest movie, Maybelle would take young Betts on their own great adventures. There was the zoo, the park, and the beach, of course; but Betts’s favorite outing was Sunday morning service at the Baptist Episcopal Missionary Church of South Los Angeles. The BEMC of South LA stood stately on the corner of 51st and Anaheim.
While the neighborhood was showing its years, the church was kept pristine and well-manicured. Pastor James Overman was a stickler for exceptional first impressions. But it wasn’t the building that young Betts grew to love; it was the church ladies, members of the Esther Circle, that hugged her and kissed her and made her feel like she belonged to each and every one of them. They treated her like their own. It seemed to Betts they were her fan club equivalent to the fans of Lyla Fontaine.
The women wore elaborate Sunday morning hats, the likes Betts had only seen in her momma’s movies. She was fascinated by the array of colors and designs that matched each lady’s dress; that matched her shoes; that matched her purse. Maybelle wore a pink chiffon cloche that sat atop her sleek black hair like a beautiful birthday gift with an oversized bow fastened to one side. Her feet overflowed the matching pink pumps and her floral muumuu swept about her with every step. Betts thought these ladies were stunning, far more glamorous than even the Hollywood friends of her mother.
Clarise Glover, an affectionate mother of the Baptist Episcopal Missionary Church and head of the Esther Circle, often wore a wide-brimmed black hat that nestled just above her eyes with a wide red ribbon adorned with clusters of geraniums wrapped around the crown. Precisely at the right moment, as the Spirit began to move, and the music began to swell, Mother Clarise would begin to sway to the rhythm. Betts could not take her eyes off her as she waited with excitement for the moment to unfold. From beneath that black hat with red ribbon and geraniums a hum would begin to rumble, followed by a deep throaty “Jeee-eee-suuuus,” that rolled along like thunder building. The congregation would ‘Uh-huh” and “Amen” their approval of this move of the Spirit. Mother Clarise would then lift her hands in the air in response to their encouragement and continue the impromptu melody with something like, “Have mercy on us,” or “Come quickly, Lord, to our rescue.”
Pastor James would begin to break a sweat in his handsome, deep purple suit, crisp white shirt, and lavender striped tie. He would step to the pulpit, take his hanky from his coat pocket, and dab his forehead as he echoed back Mother Clarise’s word from the Lord in song. That was the cue for the congregation to respond, the ladies would sway and dance, the men would clap their hands, and eventually someone would need more room and make their way up the aisle to praise the Lord.
Betts loved the whole scene and as she watched, clinging to Maybelle’s flower print dress, she would sometimes wonder why her momma wouldn’t come with them when she was home. And, as she eyed Pastor James, she wondered if her daddy ever wore such a handsome purple suit.
It was there at the Baptist Episcopal Missionary Church of South Los Angeles that Betts, with the innocence of an eleven-year-old, felt the Spirit move within her. Overcome by the soulful melody of Mother Clarise and the display of love by the congregants, Betts made her way to the altar one particularly bright, sunny, June morning and asked Jesus to come into her heart.
From the very first night Maybelle tucked the child into bed, she lavished Betts with Bible stories. Every morning Maybelle prayed with her as she readied for school. Maybelle Studer had prepared the heart of this Hollywood soul to understand how much God loved her and would never leave her alone. Even though her daddy had left, and her momma drove off time after time in a Porsche, Betts knew that Maybelle and Jesus would always be with her. So, there at that old oak altar, Betts knelt and pledged her life to Jesus as she prayed with Pastor James. Though his voice was gruff and loud she felt his emotion and heard the weeping and sniffling of the BEMC Esther Circle blessed to see this sweet little white girl become one of God’s own.
It would be eleven years later, while Lyla Fontaine was filming in Paris, that Betts would dress in cap and gown for her graduation ceremony at Duke University. Crossing the stage with her Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication Studies in hand, Betts heard the quiet whisper of the Holy Spirit. She felt an ache deep in her soul, a longing to serve Christ. Dread mixed with the delight she was experiencing as she returned to her assigned seat and began to ponder her mother’s reaction. It was possible Lyla would understand but more probable that she would spiral into dismay when she learned Betts would be primed for full-time ministry and a pulpit rather than meteorology and a greenscreen in graduate school.
As the ceremony was dismissed and graduates gathered with their families for pictures on the green, Betts found her cellphone and prepared to break the news to her mother. But there in her favorites list was Maybelle’s number. Maybelle Studer answered immediately and wept as Betts announced the new direction her life would take. Through her tears, Maybelle shouted, “Praise Jeeesus!” After words of love and admiration were expressed and Betts promised to call again the coming week, Maybelle immediately called Mother Clarice and all the ladies of the Esther Circle of the Baptist Episcopal Missionary Church of South Los Angeles.
Betts had received a congratulatory call from her mother just prior to the commencement ceremony so she decided not to rush to talk with her again that day. Discussing her complete change of plans and life goals could wait. Instead, Betts spent the next few days packing up her apartment and exchanging goodbyes with roommates and friends. Two full days of preparation and line rehearsal passed before she dialed her mother’s number to announce she would be pursuing a Master of Divinity degree with an emphasis on congregational leadership. And, of course, she had to leave a message on her mother’s cell. Betts hung up the call after a brief description of the new plans for her future followed by an “I love you, Momma,” and wondered if her mother would fully understand the impact the decision would have on their lives.
Two days later a FedEx envelope arrived with an airline ticket to Paris and a piece of lavender stationery folded neatly with it. “Let’s talk, I’d like to know more.” scrawled across it in Lyla’s handwriting. I guess she understands, Betts thought as she rolled her eyes and sighed.
For Betts, there was no argument against spending a summer in Paris before graduate school would begin in September. The argument, she feared, would come after the limousine driver escorted her to the front door of momma’s rented twelve room French “cottage,” as she referred to it. But low and behold, her mother greeted her with a hug and kisses on each cheek. Following the “I love yous,” Lyla spoke words that eased Betts’s anxious heart, “Why Betts, I had no idea, dear, that this ‘Jesus thing’ with you was so serious! I pledge to be your support, darling. You can rely on me to stand by your decision to move forward with your career. I’ll, somehow, find a way to explain it to my colleagues in the business and ease them into the idea that you are going to pursue a religious life, hopefully, they will understand as I do, love. It could be that they find it quite fashionable.”
Hmmm…what direction will this guilt trip take? Betts wondered to herself.
However, Lyla’s acceptance speech ended favorably, “No matter what you do, you have exceptional genes and an outstanding education, I’m sure you’ll change the world …”
Betts listened to her mother’s rehearsed approval and although she was sure a couple of her lines were crafted from movie scripts, which was expected, she was relieved there was no quarrel, not a word of discouragement spoken between them on the matter of Betts’s “calling.” Even so, as was the normal course of action, Betts would still take the next step into her future ridden with guilt. It was the gift her mother naturally bestowed upon her every move.