An immigrant story of resilience, perseverance

Posted on Thu, 09/01/2016 - 11:30am

By Tracy Poyser

Betty and MarieOne of the facets of life at Malibu East that’s so special to many of us is that it’s a veritable United Nations (with an emphasis on “united”), and that goes for all of Edgewater. As a naturalized citizen from Germany who has had the good fortune to realize her American dream in more ways than one, I’m always in awe of how much hardship and heartbreak so many others have faced in order to become a part of that unique melting pot of ours. So, here’s the story of one family whose resilience and grace is worth noting: our own beautiful neighbor Betty “Bebette” Graham and her mother, Marie Graham.

If you’ve lived at Malibu East for any length of time, I’m sure you met Betty with her wonderful smile, exotic beauty and engaging warmth, often carrying her treasured poodle, Toutou. I knew that both Betty and her mom were Haitian by birth, so my first question to Betty was to ask what she remembered about her childhood in the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince.

Sadly, because of the deeply disturbing and violent events she had to witness as a five-year-old when François “Papa Doc” Duvalier was running for president, she has almost total amnesia spanning those early years. Championed by the poor black majority in Haiti, Duvalier hated the mulattoes and threatened to kill those who were unlikely to vote for him, Betty recalls. Little Betty, her mom and her younger sister, Margaret, witnessed homes in their street being ransacked and plundered, and their neighbors being beaten and chased out. Fortunately, their own home was set back from the street and somewhat hidden. Nevertheless, she remembers her mother crying on their front porch, and the screaming and shouting of Duvalier’s thugs, with anyone who tried to help their neighbors also being attacked and arrested, including a handyman who worked for the Grahams. That kind of trauma haunts a child forever.

Betty’s father, Gerald Livingstone Graham, was British and Jamaican, which is why the family was not considered Haitian and therefore “the enemy” of the Duvalier regime. He and Betty’s mother had a great love for Britain and wanted to name their daughters after Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Mom and dad settled on Betty instead of Elizabeth, to encompass Beatrice, her godmother’s name. Her sister was then named Margaret, and they nicknamed Betty “Bebette.” Gerald was a multitalented man, an industrial engineer by profession and a gifted classical guitarist and singer as his lifelong passion.

Unwilling to bend to the impending Duvalier regime and in danger of getting killed, Gerald had moved to Mexico City in the mid-’50s, planning to send for his family once he had found work and stability there. Little Bebette apparently had been a child prodigy in music, but much of her early talent was lost to her amnesia, and she missed her dad terribly. Fortunately, she and her mom and sister were able to flee Haiti and join Gerald in Mexico, leaving their home and most belongings behind. Making a stable living in Mexico was difficult for both parents: Gerald’s engineering background made him “overqualified” for many available jobs, and in spite of having a teaching degree from Haiti, Marie was not allowed to work in Mexico.

In the late 1950s, Gerald was working as an engineer, while Marie made a trip to New York on a three-month visa to visit a friend. But, when she tried to return to Mexico with her Haitian passport just a few days after her U.S. visa had expired, she was refused entrance without being given a legal explanation – so she had to stay in New York, where she was granted U.S. asylum as a refugee. Once her legal status was clear, she found work as a companion/assistant to a blind international industrialist who wanted to set Gerald up in business and help reunite the entire family in New York. However, having become established as a musician and Mexican resident, Gerald didn’t want to move. Plus, he was apprehensive about race discrimination in New York and the U.S. at that time. Both parents loved their daughters, and this separation was hard on everyone.

When Betty was 15, her mother did get permission to visit Mexico for about six months, by then anxious to find a way to move her daughters to the U.S. Both girls were enrolled in a British school in Mexico City. Taking after her dad in terms of musical talent, Betty learned how to listen and to sing for him while he accompanied her on his guitar. She also took guitar and accordion lessons from him. She remembers making people cry with those sad classical and romantic Mexican songs. Without her mom, Betty practically ran her dad’s household, and she met numerous artists, musicians and dancers who inspired her own musical ambition.

Finally, the sisters’ immigration permits into the U.S. were approved, and they arrived in New York in November 1969. Their first impression riding through fog and rain from the airport to lower Manhattan was that everything looked bleak and dreary, including their boxy black cab. They soon settled in with their mom and went to high school for an accelerated path to graduation and to adapt to American English. It was quite an adjustment, from riding the crowded subway to being the oldest students in their grade. They both graduated from high school in January 1972. Although Betty had majored in history and art, she opted for a four-year premed college, Long Island University, while her sister took accounting and business.

But, Betty’s dream to go on to medical school didn’t pan out, even though three schools had accepted her application – it was just not affordable. So, she shifted gears and applied to the National College of Chiropractic (now National University of Health Sciences) in Lombard, Ill., were she was one of 90 students with four-year degrees from all over the world. While she made Chicago her home as a licensed chiropractor, her sister went to flight school in Colorado and became a flight attendant for United Airlines for 35 years. Their mom stayed in New York and worked for the Greater New York City blood bank; sadly, her marriage didn’t survive the distance from Mexico City. Betty’s dad stayed in Mexico and formed a new family, working as an organist and singer in Acapulco. Betty tried to stay close to him in spite of the distance and managed to visit as often as she could. Sadly, her father’s health deteriorated too soon, and he passed away in 2009. But, his musical talent clearly lives on through his beloved Bebette.

The sisters convinced their mom to move to Chicago in 1996. She had been visiting her girls quite frequently, especially after Margaret had a baby. In the meantime, Betty sold her house after her marriage ended, and she moved to Malibu East in 1995 after looking at a couple of other buildings. Her esteemed chiropractor colleague and friend Dr. Anthony Rittling was living here at the time, and she trusted his advice. Both she and her mom enjoy living in our vertical United Nations village, feeling welcome and safe after such a tenuous life journey. They especially love their view of the lake with its gorgeous sunrises and play of light on water.

And, of course, Betty still has her music. She’s become a well-known singer/soloist in her own right. Her amazing repertoire includes the music of Mexico, France, South America and her native Haiti, in addition to English ballads and jazz. She has performed at well-known venues such as the legendary former nightclub Europe by Night, Northeastern Illinois University and The Bulls in Lincoln Park (where she was friends with the band Made in Brazil) among others. Musicians she has worked with include well-known Brazilian pianist Breno Sauer; guitarist, vocalist and composer Paulinho Garcia; and violinist Franz Benteler and his Royal Strings Orchestra. Betty is happy to be studying guitar again, having abandoned it after moving to the States in 1969.

Although she and her sister became proud naturalized U.S. citizens in the summer of 1975, Betty is also a true child of the world. Asked how many languages she speaks, she lists fluency in Spanish, French, English and Creole, with a good understanding of Portuguese and some Italian. As if that’s not enough, she has studied some Hebrew, Mandarin Chinese, Russian and even a little bit of Tagalog, the base language of the Philippines … plus a smattering of German. In spite of Betty’s linguistic talents, her beloved pooch, Toutou, speaks only dog, although he understands commands in French, Spanish and English. He came into her life in 2008 as a gift from her rehab assistant, whose son had rescued him from a shelter for abused dogs.

Relating the journey of her family’s life to me was not easy for Betty. I felt very touched and grateful that she agreed to share their journey of courage and resilience with all of us, and I hope you will too. That strength, in my view, will always be the fabric that holds our nation together.