At Home: The Little House that Betty Built

And the bittersweet story that brought her to Martha’s Vineyard.

Betty Wilson at home with her dog Jack —Sam Moore

There’s an old saying that people start to look like their dogs, but has it ever occurred to anyone that some people resemble their houses?

On a recent rainy Tuesday, Betty Anne Wilson of Newburyport and Oak Bluffs kindly came to pick me up to keep me from getting drenched on the 10-or-so-block walk to her house. Seated behind the wheel of her tan Honda, she had an artfully layered head of strawberry blond hair, and wore owl-round glasses with twinkling crystals at the tips. She’d wound a beige dotted scarf around her neck over a toffee-colored sweater, and against these neutrals, her cherry-red lipstick was just the right bright touch: Not many women can pull off red lipstick without calling too much attention to it.

The first words out of my mouth were, “You’re adorable!”

And so too was the house we approached five minutes later. Nestled in a country-quiet neighborhood between the library and Wing Road, Betty’s small cottage — small but not tiny; as Goldilocks would have said, the size was “just right!” — is set back from a flawless porte cochere of pale pebbles circling an art installation — a tree made of driftwood branches. The two-story house is constructed of off-white clapboard, although “off-white” is simply shorthand for an inscrutable shade about which Betty and I debated.

“Is that off-white?” I asked. “It’s gray,” she said with a certainty. Well, why not? It’s her house. But a color aficionado myself, I decided it was more “country club ivory linen with just that merest dab of yellow.” The crowning touch of Betty’s house is at the top of the steepled roof, a “Jaws” weathervane.

Over the phone Betty had told me, “I love my house!” so I wasn’t surprised as we tripped over the threshold to see a magical front room, with a Jack Russell named Jack on hand to greet his mama, and to sniff my leggings for that irresistible aroma of Boston terrier dander.

Even during that day’s dreary weather, wide windows in front and on both sides of the room admitted soft light to set aglow white walls. DKNY white curtains with tiny white pompoms hung from curlicue wrought-iron rods. Turquoise and pink Matisse-like flowers set off the throw pillows on a white slipcovered couch. Dainty slipcovers in a turquoise and ivory pattern also hid straight-back chairs, turning them instantly elegant.

Betty said, “I get everything — chairs, couches, tables — from the thrift shop or consignment stores. Then I purchase special items, such as pillows and painted rugs, from favorite stores like Citrine and Rainy Day in Vineyard Haven.”

She picks up paintings from yard sales — always bright and cheerful and, of course, gallery-ready. On the floor, waiting to be hung, rests a large bold oil of a striped bass, with “Oak Bluffs” blazoned overhead, created by painter Dean DiManzo.

Betty’s kitchen is also light and bright, ornamented by a long painted runner of small red flowers and white maple leaves against a green background, the work of artist Cecily Stibitz, whom Betty greatly admires. “I bought this at the Farmer’s Market,” she said.

The kitchen is a breezeway to the small den out back. I said, “You do all your reading and

relaxing here, don’t you?” To confirm my theory, Jack jumped onto his fleecy tan doggy bed. Here, from a low white sofa — thrift store d’origine, topped with more floral pillows — Betty can kick back, looking out through wide windows at her yard of oaks, balsams, and arborvitae, bounded by houses in the distance. “I love my neighbors!” said Betty. “Everybody’s so nice on the Vineyard!”

You think?

Up a trim staircase with polished cedar-wood steps resides one bedroom and one bath (there’s a half-bath downstairs). The bedroom walls are an inscrutable shade of pink or lilac or lilac-pink; we spent a few minutes analyzing the exact color until we arrived at pale raspberry pink. A pink and yellow bedspread came from the Beach House in Vineyard Haven, a gift and housewares shop where both of us agreed we’d always been able to find just the right pillow or carpet or bedspread after we’d been driven mad by looking in a dozen other places.

At the center of Betty’s bed resides a white lace pillow that would have looked perfect on Jane Austen’s bed, another consignment store treasure, this one on the Cape. A watercolor beachscape with scarlet rosa rugosa hangs over the bed, and, as a special touch, Betty has painted the blades of the ceiling fan with the same pale raspberry pink as the walls, turning it from a utilitarian feature into a design ornament that helps to pull the room together.

So that’s Betty’s house — or at least a few features of it. Here’s Betty: She was born 68 years ago in Newburyport, about a 1½-hour drive north of Boston. It’s a town revered for its colonial past and its many waterways. The locale, in fact, is so bewitching that Betty’s sister (“she’s my best friend!”), Betty’s brother, and his five grownup kids all still live there. She goes to them for holidays, and they come to the Vineyard for fun. “How do you put everyone up?” I asked. She quickly calculated, “Two can sleep in my queen bed upstairs, the front couch pulls out to another queen, and one extra person can sleep on the couch in the den.”

Betty worked at AT&T for 35 years. Then, at the age of 52, she became a flight attendant at Pan Am. To paraphrase an old quote, “Life is what happens to you when bad timing intervenes.” Pan Am folded a year after Betty took to the skies. Back full-time in Newburyport, she found a fulfilling job as a clinical secretary at Anna Jacques Hospital.

A bittersweet story brought Betty to the Vineyard. Some 12 years ago, her brother-in-law was dying of leukemia. His one wish was to come to Martha’s Vineyard and swim in the ocean (let none of us ever take our daily summer dips for granted again). His son and daughter-in-law rented a house in Oak Bluffs for a week, and the whole family crowded round. The dying man’s kids rolled him in a wheelchair over the sand of the Inkwell, and helped him into the sea. In the course of that week, Betty visited the annual craft fair in the Campground. Before you could say “Holy Tabernacle!” Betty had bought a house in Forest Circle, an unassuming blue and white single-story cottage that once held a sign: “Cloud Nine.”

Betty’s real estate ventures took place under the fairy-godmother wand of Marilyn Moses of Ocean Park Realty. Marilyn found Betty Cloud Nine and then, when Betty decided she needed her space, as it were, Marilyn brought her attention to the lovely secluded lot that now holds her beloved 668-square-foot modular home.

Yes, modular. Betty found what she was looking for in a “Little House” catalogue. Her friend Carole Walton of Oak Bluffs recommended builder Randy Stines of Design & Style (“I call Randy ‘Design’ and his wife and partner Debbie ‘Style,’” Betty told me). Randy ordered a unit from Excel; it floated over in two pieces on a barge, and a crane and truck hauled it and erected it on Betty’s new lot. “I showed up the next day,” said Betty, “and it was all in place except for the flooring and one last coat of paint on the walls.”

Betty and Marilyn Moses are now best friends and golfing buddies. While Betty has been married twice, she’s clearly thrilled to be on her own in her precious home with Jack — now a geriatric pooch at 13 years of age — always on hand for a snuggle.

If Betty’s joie de vivre and loving nature weren’t inspiring enough, I’d also add that whether she realizes it or not, she’s on the cutting edge of what will save our planet, at least according to a bunch of ecologists, economists, wildlife activists, and humanitarians: We need to consume less — much less, continuously less, and more less — live in smaller houses, give up our cars (OK, if you’re a family of four, give up all but one car), eat less meat or no meat (I actually don’t know what Betty fixes for dinner; I’m simply sneaking in my own agenda), and get with the old Thoreau agenda of “Simplify! Simplify!”

Given that Henry David’s fabled cottage was a mere 15 feet by 10 feet, he might have found Betty Anne Wilson’s house a bit on the trophy side.