‘Bicyle Betsey’ – volunteer, philanthropist, gardener, astrologist, humanist

SOUTHWEST HARBOR, Sept. 9, 2020 – Every hamlet has its special people who make it what it is – a community of individuals who, when taken as a whole, give it a highly differentiated and distinctive feel.

Imagine Southwest Harbor without Brian, Scott and Jennifer Worcester. Well, we can. Witness the effects of Brian Worcester’s absence as Sawyer’s Market – the town’s retail cornerstone – remains shuttered, leaving a huge hole. Thankfully, Jen and Scott have powered through the pandemic and are operating Sawyer’s Specialties, Sips and Sips. 2.0 with relentless fervor. (Try the frozen meatballs at Sips 2.0 – and the sheep’s cheese at Sawyer’s Specialities).

Shelley Mitchell, who owns the local hardware store, once lent me a cable cutter after I lost the key to the lock securing my canoe, trusting I would return it. I did. And I made sure that I patronized McEachern and Hutchins at every opportunity even though it probably costs slightly more than the stuff I could get online.

There are side players in a community, like Brian Kupiec who organizes the open mics at Sips which was a welcoming hearth during winter to salve our cabin fever.

This is a long preamble to the actual subject of this post – ‘Bicycle Betsey” Holtzmann. Every day she rides her bike to Main Street to tend to her flowers – the sunpatiens in front of the Little Notch bakery and the library – hauling gallons of water and dead heading the fading blossoms. She is a one-person village improvement committee. I had seen her before but it didn’t occur to me to write about her until former Tremont librarian, Clara Baker, suggested it.

Bicycle Betsey isn’t hard to find. Just hang around the library any day and you’re bound to run into her. So I did.

I felt a slight unease as I approach her. What if she told me to get lost?

“Hi, are you Betsey?” I started … “I write a blog called the Quietside Journal. May I ask you a few questions?”

So it began, the first of several conversations.

I found her to be guileless and willing to share personal information readily – like how she started tending to the potted plants because she had a crush on a regular customer at Sawyer’s on Main Street. This was contrary to what I was told – that she guarded her privacy. The woman I talked to was a trusting and generous spirit who shared her thoughts with a stranger on the sidewalk as if we were old friends.

As we talked, she’d pick up litter around us – cigarette butts, paper. She’s a multi-tasker.

“I do this by default,” Bicycle Betsey said. She took over chores left behind by friends who died, preserving their legacy, like that of Julie Russell, who was the assistant librarian in Southwest Harbor. She died of brain cancer in 2017.

From Sawyer’s and the library, Betsey went on to help in the coffee shop which is now the First National Bank. She also helped tend flowers at the Lindenwood Inn on Clark Point Road. “I don’t like plants to die,” Betsey said. It was a simple statement, unadorned with fanciful declaration of purpose, to explain her mission.

“There’s a pull I feel to be equal with other people who work,” she said, attributing the strong feeling of community she gets from astrological beliefs. “I work but I don’t get paid.”

“But I did barter,” Betsey said of her negotiations to store organic food for her ailing friend Julie Russell. “I bartered and got shelf space in the cooler at Sawyer’s … it was hysterical.” Betsey laughs readily at the consequences of her own choices – like deciding to stop driving 27 years ago, around the time her son was born.

“I didn’t want to harm animals,” she said was her primary reason to stop getting behind a wheel. But her son became a cause celebre at his boarding school in New Hampshire when classmates learned they had a peer who grew up without a car in the family.

Betsey recalled her son’s classmate who came up to her during graduation weekend and said, “So, are you going to buy your son a car for graduation?”

“It was hysterical,” Betsey said.

This was our third meeting. We were on the side of Clark Point Road near Lindenwood Inn. Our conversation took all manner of unexpected turns. This was a person so comfortable in her skin she had no reason to embellish, to admonish, to revise. She enjoyed the comedic reaction to her own choices in life and in a society so attuned to regulation that iconoclasm was both celebrated and suspicious.

Betsey grew up in Mamaroneck, N.Y., before moving to Maine 40 years ago with her boyfriend. Her father, Howard M. Holtzmann was a preeminent international arbiter and an original member of the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal, which was established as part of the settlement of the Iranian hostage crisis.

If this were all to this story, we may easily tag her as an eccentric lady in a small town in Maine doing her eccentric thing: pampering us with care and feeding to preserve the aesthetics of our quaint village.

The untold story behind Betsey Holtzmann is that she is one of the most generous donors on MDI. Her philanthropic footprints are everywhere – too numerous to list. The driving force powering her energy and spirit, she said, is her belief in astrology and her place in the universe, an Aquarius and Pisces rising. “Each planet has a purpose,” she said. I wrote down notes as fast as I could on the back of my UPS receipt as she talked and still could not comprehend her expansive exposition of astrology. She talked about the last six houses of astrological wheel, starting with libra, and how those houses make up the foundation “for who we are in relation with the rest of the world.”

Suddenly, her cell phone rang, someone reminding her she was late for an appointment. “I’m always late,” she said. We could have communed on the side of Clark Point Road for who knows how much longer.

She put her foot on the pedal. I’m waiting for more conversation but she said, “I have to go .. there’s so much more to talk about but I have to go.”

As she rode away, she shouted back, “The inequality in this country .. don’t get me started.”

That will be the opening subject the next time we meet – for sure – in my ongoing conversation with Bicycle Betsey. I’ll keep you posted.

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