My sister, Lucy Hart Abbot, died this morning, Oct. 3. She was 87 years old and died, essentially, of old age.
Everyone called her Bideau. Originally my parents called her Billy Lu. That was at the start, after she was born on Hart street in New Britain, Conn. That southern-style adoption of their own names, Lucy and Bill, would not endure. My brother couldn’t say the words and called his older sister Bideau. And so her distinctive name came to be, leading many people to assume she had been born in France.
As a kid trying to grow up into adulthood, Bideau was the ideal sister. She welcomed me into her own family and into her social life and I will never forget how appreciative I was to be a young tagalong at Bideau’s up-Island parties. Being part of a group composed of articulate, educated people made me realize how joyous it was to have a brain and use it, almost always with humor. There was a sense of glee in being bright.
Certainly Bideau’s husband was bright. Frank Abbot was Phi Beta Kappa at Amherst and received his medical degree at the University of Virginia. Frank did his residency at New York Hospital and the Abbot family with children coming along moved to Greenwich, where they rented a sizeable guest house from an in-law cousin, Polly Pease Edson. Suffice to say, Greenwich was so convenient to New York city that I, her younger brother by seven years, called it my halfway house. It was full of hustle-bustle and good times. There was always a couch to sleep on. Being close to the New Haven Commuter Line out of New York, Bideau and Frank’s digs suited me to a tee.
Bideau and Frank moved to Woodbury, Conn., and Frank started his practice in internal medicine in nearby Waterbury. Their five children grew up in Woodbury. In summer, the Abbots lived in Harthaven, the family enclave in Oak Bluffs.
It was an ideal family in an ideal situation but as I would learn, it was not ideal at all. Cracks began to appear. Bideau was unhappy. There was little communication between husband and wife. Different interests began to cause irritation. Boredom, inattention and being ignored were issues to overcome and neither boredom nor being ignored went away. As in so many stories of marital unrest in the 1950s, the Abbot marriage began to fall apart.
Bideau seemed to change overnight. She began working on an operetta based on the Magic Flute by Mozart. Her collaborator and she became intimate, and divorce was then inevitable. Soon Bideau was still summering in Harthaven and working as a bartender, exploring ways to live other than as an anonymous housewife and mother. During this period she took in a young musician of color, the highly gifted Walter Robinson. Walter was possibly 18 and Bideau gave him a place to stay.
Walter made eyes pop in the old Harthaven community. The older generation steeped in bigotry would espy a brown-skinned youth on the beach and horrors! There goes the neighborhood.
Matters became so strained that Louis Young who married our cousin, Marge Hart, felt compelled to call upon our father. Your daughter must give up her houseguest, he said, and my father, of a like mind, agreed. My father went to Bideau and told her that either you tell Walter Robinson to leave your house or you will have to leave Harthaven. Refusing to be bullied in a matter that was so basic and so dear to her — prior to any formalized civil rights movement she was already in the ranks — and because she valued integration and equal opportunity, she told my father that he could have the house; she was not kicking Walter Robinson out. If he could not stay on as her guest and swim at the private Harthaven beach, then she would move into downtown Oak Bluffs. From the day she left her so-called heritage, to the day she died, Bideau was proud of her convictions and proud of joining a racially integrated and open society. She was her own person for the rest of her life. Ralph Waldo Emerson, attempting to be droll, once wrote that everything about a turtle is a turtle. Everything about Bideau was Bideau; she was always herself.
Many years later Bideau was honored with an award. She had been ahead of her time and had placed principle above the family of her birth. She was ahead of the women’s movement as well as the civil rights movement which arrived right on her heels. Starting at a small country day school she attended in New Britain, her soul ached to be freed from the strictures of convention. When she married, marriage was supposedly a way to leave home and strike out into the open world and be oneself. Bideau’s destiny was to be on her own. And as such she brought love and enthusiasm to all who knew her. Upon receiving her award for service to the community, Bideau was asked to speak and all she said, looking into the audience, was, “I did the right thing,” after which she left the stage.
Of Bideau’s five children, four survive her. Her son, Kim, crippled by multiple sclerosis, died in a fire, unable to escape the dense smoke that invaded his room. Born after Kim was Lucy Lee Abbot, a legal aide and the woman who nursed her mother forever and ever, always in the house seemingly at her side, sleeping only feet away. Younger than Lucy Lee are two sisters: Genevieve Abbot of Woodstock, N.Y.; Martha Abbot, a yoga instructor and movement therapist, also of Oak Bluffs who was (like Lucy Lee) in attendance to her mother’s needs for the long months during which Bideau slowly slipped away. To round out the children who survive Bideau, there is indeed another son, Chris Abbot, a popular teacher in the Tisbury School, an intellectual and critic of serious music.
Bideau’s journey from Hart street in New Britain to a small cluttered house on Dukes County avenue in Oak Bluffs kitty-corner from Tony’s Market was a journey of downsizing that fit her personality and matched her ideas of how life should be lived. One lived with one’s fellow humans and not above them or apart from them. Embedded in my sister’s mind was the thought that she belonged to the human race and it was not in her to scorn others or look down upon those who were less fortunate. At the end Bideau had succeeded in her life’s mission that started in a day school run by a left-wing head master (eventually fired) and then on to a secretarial school in New Britain, where she began to interact with what were deemed by her mother to be rather ordinary young women. The Moody Business School was between the Madeira School, which Bideau detested, and Smith College, where she met the man she would marry and from which she never graduated. But not to worry, because long after Smith and marriage, Bideau began taking courses, year after year, at Oxford University and actually bought a house in nearby Woodstock. She was always learning but had no interest in degrees.
Typically, Bideau enjoyed hard work. She was a house cleaner for many years and cleaned the Methodist Church in the Camp Ground where she sang in the choir. She was a hostess at the Dunes at Katama, waitressed at the old Ocean View, tended bar at the VFW and did part-time bartending at the Ritz. She was never a rebel. As she said, she wanted to do the right thing and by doing the right thing she remained a free soul. She lived a full life and breathed freedom into her lungs.
Bideau worked for me at the Red Cat Café and Bookstore in 1959 and 1960. She was in charge of what we called musicales in which Tom Rush and Jessie Benton performed. The Red Cat musicales predated the Mooncusser. To me it seemed important that Bideau opened up a bookstore to folk singers at the turn of the decade. And as for thecafé, we served lobster dinners complete with salads and steamed clams and corn on the cob, fresh rolls from Humphrey’s as well as Humphrey’s pies for desert. At night the Red Cat was crowded with people hungry for our dinners, costing only $3.95 a meal. Bideau was our chef.
On Thursday nights Bideau hosted poetry evenings in which local poets read their poems and the poetry of others. Cars lined up all along State Road in North Tisbury. The Red Cat was becoming an event and that it did not last is not the fault of my sister. It is my own fault because unlike my sister I hankered for success in mainstream America. I took a job in Boston and moved into a suburb.
Bideau’s death was expected. Now after her long ordeal is over, bedridden and growing weaker with each day, there is sadness. But there is joy in having known her and been with her and in having one’s memory peppered with incidents and happenings and involvements and companionship and the pure fun of it, the fun of her life. Such memories put out the fire of sadness and in my case, I retain my picture of Bideau at age 12 riding her bicycle off to school, a knapsack on her back, her blonde hair caught by the wind, the pure energy of it, the surge of life that she displayed and how I, a small boy, would feel her spirit as she dashed down the driveway and onto the road that would lead her to school.
And so it is goodbye. Someday I will be following Bideau into the eternal darkness that some will call the light. Whatever it is, I hope to see her again and we can recount the fun we had and laughter will ring in the heaven of our dreams.
Stan Hart lives in Chilmark.