Your Storied Life: Viola Waters Bedwell (1916-2000) Part 3, The Later Years

If you didn’t work for it, it isn’t yours
— Viola Waters Bedwell

Viola valued work. Certainly she worked incredibly hard at home, raising her five children. But as Lurton grew ill, she began working outside the home. She cleaned, houses first, then the offices of Holloway’s Construction, and eventually with the housekeeping department of Garden City Hospital, where she would work for more than 20 years.

Throughout her marriage to Lurton, and contrary to the norms of the time, Viola handled the household money. But during the years of Lurton’s illness, advancing in her work at Garden City Hospital, Viola seem to strengthen and evolve even further. She gained in confidence, supporting her family, and was increasingly recognized and awarded at work.

  Lurton and Viola

Lurton and Viola

Viola became more independent in many ordinary but valuable ways. She liked to drive, for instance, and as Lurton eventually became too ill to escort her to work, Viola would for years be seen in one of two Ford LTDs, one white, one pale green (like the one below). The Brougham 4-door was 18 and a half feet long, and Viola, all of 90 pounds, floated around on the green interior like a tough, skinny moth on a giant lily pad.

1977 LTD fs.jpg

Though that’s not quite right, because Viola never liked the water. She was afraid of it, in fact. No lakes or rivers for her. As one story tells it, as a girl, having not learned to swim, she nearly drowned in a river in Tennessee. She would avoid bodies of water the rest of her life, would do her best to prevent her children from playing anywhere near them.

Like many people, despite her capacity for physically hard work, Viola had hangups about her own body. But she wouldn’t wallow. Often, she just dealt the best she could and got on with trying to enjoy herself. For example, she didn’t care much for her bowlegs. So, she would never wear shorts. And she wouldn't let it stop her from becoming a skilled roller skater, or playing baseball in the park with her children.

  Viola Waters Bedwell

Viola Waters Bedwell

Perhaps most compelling, Viola loved to dance. Later in her life, she and her great friend and nextdoor neighbor on Krauter, Jewel Vines (Mim, to those who knew her), would head out on a Friday night to The Odyssey Lounge for beer and music.

Currently at 27346 Ford Rd. in Dearborn Heights, where the Odyssey lounge formerly stood, is the Al-Ameer Mediterranean Restaurant.

  27346 Ford Road, Dearborn Heights, MI - Former Odyssey Lounge

27346 Ford Road, Dearborn Heights, MI - Former Odyssey Lounge

With closed eyes and a little imagination one can imagine Viola and Mim casually walking through the front door after a long week of work on a warm summer evening in 1980. Viola in her preferred pantsuit with her favorite and only perfume, Chantilly, dabbed behind her ears or on her wrists. Most likely they would have enjoyed the bluegrass of Roy McGinnis and the Sunnysiders or oldies with New Impalas, both mainstains at the Odyssey Lounge.

It is hard to know for sure, but it seems likely that the New Impalas were a touring version of The Impalas, a 50s and 60s doo wop band regrouped and revived by band leader Joe “Speedo” Frazier.

Where did Viola’s mind go as she sat with Mim and listened to the music? What did they talk about? How did they feel? Impossible to know. Regardless, they would dance, and no doubt were a sight to be seen.

Viola certainly would have had Doublemint gum or peppermint Lifesavers in her purse, but not just for fresh breath. Her false teeth never fit quite right, and would cause her a small, annoying gag. The gum or mints would alleviate the problem. Though her most common solution was to just not have her teeth in. More often than not, unless she had to go out in public, those teeth sat in a glass of water on the bathroom sink. It became an endearment, to see Viola at home without her teeth in, smiling. It meant she was comfortable.

No doubt the result of her hard work cleaning at the hospital, Viola’s hands were often red and worn. She would often wring them. Smoking her Viceroy or Benson & Hedges menthol cigarettes kept her hands occupied. It’s difficult to know, at a time when smoking was so common, whether this was nervous energy or not.

Viola hated the color aqua, the color of the work uniform she wore everyday for decades. But this seemed to be the only thing about Garden City Hospital that disagreed with her. She began as a “housekeeper” in 1963, a few years after the hospital itself had transformed. The facility, as it stands today, broke ground in 1960.

One can imagine the kinds of vivid work she might have encountered, cleaning at a hospital, but Viola had plenty of motivation. She had five children to support. But Viola also seemed to feel, for the first time perhaps, the power and exhilaration of earning her own money. Whatever the motivations, moving through the shiny new building in her bright aqua, Viola became one of the best workers the hospital had.

Vi, as she was often called at work, was never late (a quality she strongly disliked in people), rarely missed days, and knew what hard work was. The hospital became central to Viola’s life. Everyone there seemed to like her. A long-time administrative employee remembers her as “always willing to help in any way she could,” even to the point of sewing buttons back onto the coat of Barb Withrow, an administrator at the hospital. This work ethic and genuine attention to detail served Viola well as she was consistently promoted, eventually replacing Pearl McNancy as Head of Housekeeping, the position she held until retiring in 1988.


Some people just do more than their share

Of all her siblings, Viola was closest with her youngest brother, Roy. They were “almost twins” in appearance, and throughout their lives Viola would visit him in Tennessee as often as she could. One can imagine, then, Roy’s love and longing for his older sister when he was the one living with their father Will Waters and Viola was at the convent. But it is perhaps clearly shown in his lifelong devotion to children in similar circumstances.

In 1984, with his wife, Lucille, Roy was recognized for, over the span of two decades, providing a home to 78 foster children! Roy and his wife did, in fact, do more than their share, as suggested here, and one wonders if or just how often, in the midst of such important work, Roy thought of Viola.

Here is a photo of one of Roy and Lucille's fostered daughters, Sandra. She stands, inexplicably holding a spark plug box, as the neighbor boy--unsmiling and protective--grips her arm.

Viola brother daugher.jpg

Written on the back of this photo:

"This is Sandra, the little girl we keep and the little boy is just a friends boy of ours."

Roy died a short few years later, on March 9th, 1987.

Viola’s brother Lee also made it north to Garden City and lived for a while with her in the first house on Krauter St. Eventually he would return to Tennessee where he lived to be 87, even getting married at age 80.

  The Leaf-Chronicle April 29, 1985

The Leaf-Chronicle April 29, 1985

Viola’s reunions with her siblings would continue after Lee had returned to Tennessee when, after decades living out in California, Clydia returned to live with Viola in the mid-1980s. First they lived at Viola’s second place on Krauter. Eventually, in 1990, they moved for several years to Canton, a trailer in Holiday Park. Viola did not like this place, so far from the familiarity of Garden City, and referred to it as “Siberia.” Not a surprise then that they would move one more time, to Livonia, to rent a house on W. Chicago.

  Clydia

Clydia

Viola and Clydia always got along, but it was often in a cantankerous way, each no doubt having long developed their own preferences, concerns, and routines. But sisterhood would always win out and they stayed together for more than ten years.

IMG_2176.JPG

Viola’s Later Life and Retirement

Viola was a homebody. She loved to be in the kitchen making food, or to rest in the soft recliner to watch the evening news and her favorite show, “Walker, Texas Ranger.” She would often have a small glass of beer at this time, recommended by her doctor to try to gain a little weight.

When Viola did venture out, take a day trip or vacation, it often involved a casino. She had travelled to some of the reservation casinos in Michigan, to Atlantic City, and certainly Las Vegas. Viola loved slot machines. Like anyone who played them, the colors and sounds, the flush of hope with each spin, thrilled her. Some of her happiest moments were when she would hit a jackpot. Lucky money, pure joy that would not cost any children their Christmas gifts.   

There are profoundly important and difficult spans of time in Viola’s life that will just never be clearly known or felt…Toward the end of her life she would have trouble falling asleep. She would read romance novels in bed, but more and more ask her youngest daughter Sue, who lived with her for a number of years before and after Clydia died, to sit with her until she fell asleep. It wasn’t dying, apparently, that frightened Viola, but the idea of leaving everyone. But Viola was also the woman who kept a small, .25 caliber handgun in her bedside table. A noise she didn’t like, or just to re-check the locks on the doors, and she would place the gun in the pocket of her housecoat and make the rounds. She wasn’t one to cower.

  Viola with her five children: Dell, Peg, John, Jack, and Sue

Viola with her five children: Dell, Peg, John, Jack, and Sue

As Viola was nearing death in the very hospital that she had worked at for decades (Garden City Hospital), she might have reflected on one of the earliest deaths she was likely to have remembered, that of her mother, Amandina (Cook) Waters (about 1879-1925), when Viola was 9. Regardless, she was surrounded by family. Her status at GCH earned her a suite to herself, with plenty of room for all who wanted to visit and spend time with her. Eventually, she would be moved to Dell’s home for the last few weeks of hospice care, where she was made comfortable, and was very much Viola. She ate crab legs, her favorite meal, and even tried to get a cigarette from Sue.

A day or two before she passed away, Viola sat up in the middle of the night, calm, more curious than afraid, surely in a warm fog of helpful pain medication, and said, “The room is full of tigers.” It’s impossible to know just what she might have meant. One could imagine the many times in her life that she might have felt such an intense challenge. Or perhaps this was the animated, animal version of the anxiety she often felt before sleep late in her life.

There is no doubt that from her earliest years, through the “awful blue” her father wrote to Clydia about, and after, Viola had a challenging life, had her fair share of hardship. But she didn’t just survive. She endured, became the center of her incredibly extended family, and enjoyed her life in many ways. Perhaps most impressive, however, is that through it all she never directed her difficulties toward others. It seems factually true that no one had a negative word to say about her. No matter her situation, Viola was strong enough to always consider other people, and be nice to them.


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