Betty Taylor has a reputation for providing a warm hearth and a helpful hand to those in need.
Betty Taylor sits in her daughter’s Whitehorse home, where she lives, and fumbles with a remote control, quieting the noise of an afternoon newscast. The frail 93-year-old turns to me and looks confused when I remind her of our scheduled interview.
Oh, really? Well, I don’t remember but that’s nice,” she says, before offering a cup of tea. “I don’t know why you’d want to talk to me. I’ve just been a housewife all my life; I’ve never really done anything.”
It’s a remarkable understatement coming from a woman known as an effortless hostess and someone who during her fifty-six-year marriage to prominent Yukon businessman Charlie Taylor was at the core of Yukon high society.
Betty and Charlie met during the depression in Mayo, Yukon, where he was sent to manage one of the several Taylor & Drury stores established around the territory by Isaac Taylor (Charlie’s father) and William Drury. Within months, Betty and Charlie were in love. “We wanted to get married when I was 17, but our mothers talked to us and said we were too young and we should wait.” The couple observed the advice, but began laying the foundation of their life together. They attended the Anglican Church, where Betty played organ and Charlie sat on the vestry. They also played baseball and tennis, participated in the drama club and performed music at dances in the local Pioneer Hall.
The two finally married in 1936, and in 1942 they reluctantly moved to Whitehorse when Charlie was called to manage his father’s flagship store. The family, which by then had grown by three children, lived in an apartment above the store, where Betty opened her home to anyone who knocked on her door. She always had a full cookie jar for the neighbourhood children and baked countless loaves of homemade bread as gifts for visitors. Later, Betty and Charlie built a larger home on Lowe Street and a cabin at Marsh Lake, where they took great pleasure in hosting brunches featuring Charlie’s famous sourdough pancakes and Betty’s high-bush-cranberry jelly. Over the years, Betty’s hospitality became legendary in a territory better known for gold mining, rough-housing men and husky dogs.
Betty’s youngest daughter Verna, with whom Betty now lives, enters the living room and joins the conversation. “Mom treated every guest the same; from royalty to the needy, she made them all feel at home,” she says, and produces a binder of letters Betty and Charlie received on their 50th wedding anniversary, in 1986. The return addresses on the two-inch stack of letters reveal the depth and range of their friendships and the people they’ve hosted over the years: there are many letters from neighbours, some as close as down the street; one from Rideau Hall; another from 24 Sussex Drive; and hundreds more from the United States, England, and almost every province and territory in Canada. The most telling testament to Betty’s hospitality comes from Martine (no last name), a newcomer to Whitehorse in the early1950s: “How wonderful to sit in someone’s kitchen, with no fuss or artificiality and just feel welcome,” she writes. “The piles of ironing would be put aside, a cup of tea would appear, the boys would move to someone else’s lap…Betty always had time for folks like me.”
The energy Betty put into receiving guests was matched only by the energy she put into the organizations and institutions she believed in. She has been a mainstay in the Anglican Church and a longstanding supporter of conservative party politics. Betty was also an active member of the International Order of Daughters of the Empire, a federation of women that promotes patriotism, loyalty and service to others. She volunteered when help was needed by her children’s teachers, contributed to church and community bake sales, and even knit socks for soldiers overseas during the Second World War. “I was never important but I always volunteered,” she says. Charlie shared her passion for community, and in recognition of their contributions, the Yukon Order of Pioneers appointed Betty and Charlie the first Mr. and Mrs. Yukon, in 1986.
Betty’s life is much more limited now. She does not venture out alone, and it’s her daughter who escorts her to social gatherings and government events. (Charlie passed away in 1992.)
A few months after I first interviewed Betty, I saw her and her daughter Verna during the 2008 Canada Day celebrations at Shipyards Park in Whitehorse. Betty clutched Verna’s arm as they walked slowly through the red-topped tent. People would interrupt their progress, take Betty’s hand in theirs and say a few words before allowing her to move on. “Who was that, Verna?” Betty would sometimes quietly ask her daughter. Betty didn’t recall the name of each person she met, but from the number of people who took the time to greet her that day, it was obvious that many remembered her full cookie jar, the smell of fresh baked bread, a house filled with music – and Betty, welcoming them with her warm smile.
Grace Among Us, a profile of Betty Taylor, was first published for Yukon, North Of Ordinary, Volume 2 Issue 4 Winter 2008/09