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My Mom, My Hero: A Trailblazing Wave Woman

Vicky Durand remembers her inspiring, adventurous mother and their shared experiences surfing in the 1950s and '60s.

My mother, Betty had entrepreneurial creativity and a drive for self-sufficiency. She encouraged me to always do my best in whatever task I chose and to never give up when things got tough. She was a proponent that everyone (particularly women) needed to have a profession or trade in order to be independent. People were drawn to my mother like magnets as she only saw the best in everyone. She had such an inspirational life with so many wonderful examples of living life to the fullest. 

My goal has been to share her story with as many people as possible. Philosophy defined her life and, believing that it is never too late to follow a dream and try anything exciting at least once, she took up surfing at age 41. She was a lifelong learner and believed in her ability to partake in whatever new endeavor she found interesting. She found meaning as a sculptor, a dental hygienist, jeweler, a builder, a fisherwoman, a potter, and a poet. I would not have had the courage to write the book if it had not been for her example of always being willing to tackle the nearly impossible task.

Betty Heldreich on dolphin swim in Waianae, Hawaii, 2001, 88 years young

The sky was the limit for Betty. When one door closed she opened a new avenue for expression and creativity. She was young at heart till her last day on earth at 98.5. When I was fourteen, my adventurous, athletic mother took me and my younger sister on a girls’ trip to Hawaii. “Hawaii?” I asked. 

“Yes. Hawaii. It’s twenty-five hundred miles from anywhere,” she announced as she kissed my dad goodbye on the front porch of our home in California. This move was unheard of in the early 1950s but it’s how my mother rolled. “We got to try anything exciting at least once,” she told us as she grabbed surfboards and headed to Waikiki Beach with two blondes in tow. Beach boy Charlie Amalu taught our first surfing lesson. The first wave I rode was a disaster as I hit my leg falling off the board. I didn’t dare cry and got back up on the board. My sister, age ten, was not taken with the sport and stomped out of the water. But, Mom! The smile on her face was as big as the distance between Hawaii and California. After one wave she was bitten by the “surfing bug.” Three months later, we landed permanently in Waikiki during what became known as the golden age of Hawaiian surfing.

What a Life in the Ocean Taught Us

Surfing liberated mom and me in more ways than one. We gained physical and psychological strength as we experienced nature and our place in it. We developed the love for a challenge and learned a new language like “stoked” to describe our feelings for the sport. We spent time together, daughter and mother. Several years later, we surfed the big waves on the west shore at Makaha Beach earning ourselves the designation of women surfing “pioneers.” 

Honolulu in the ’50s-’60s

Even though we were on a small island our life in Waikiki was never dull. We lived in a two-story house on Royal Hawaiian Avenue just a short walking distance to the beach. Waikiki was a magical and uniquely glamorous spot and nothing like the overly crowded commercial hub it is today. It was a time before passenger jets and statehood — a low-key place. There were no high-rises; shops and small houses lined the streets, along with a sprinkling of two-story apartment buildings and very few hotels higher than six stories. 

During the 1950s-60s, Hawaii was a destination for an elite crowd from around the world with the likes of the Shaw of Iran, Nat King Cole, and James Arness, to mention a few. Mother and I surfed with dignitaries, movie stars, professional athletes, and industrialists who had the time and money to soak up the pleasures of paradise.  

Education was important to my mother so she insisted (against my father’s wishes) I attend Punahou, the prestigious private college prep and famous high school that Barack Obama attended. Back then tuition cost $350. I went on to receive my master’s degree in education and taught at Waianae High, a Title 1 school.

Fast Forward to 2021

Sixty-three years have passed, and I think back on those memorable days. The house where we lived now has a high-rise. Mom lived a creative, prosperous ripe old age of 98. She surfed her last wave in 1963.  

Still dream of surfing. Those waves haunt my memories. They will never fade. I still have lunch and go to water aerobics with my dear friends from prep school days. I married a man who attended the same school. In 2020, I completed a book about my mother. I named it Wave Woman: The Life and Struggles of a Surfing Pioneer

Wave Woman by Vicky Durand

The Lurline and Matsonia passenger liners arrived and departed once a week. Local men and boys dove for coins thrown from the ships at the Aloha Tower, a lighthouse built in 1926 in Honolulu Harbor. Pan American Airways flights took ten hours from California, and the number of tourists between 1957 and early 1959 averaged only 180,000 a year. (Today, approximately ten million visitors bring in close to $15 billion in revenue each year, and Waikiki is a madhouse.)

1 COMMENT

  1. I had the fortune to spend 6 weeks at Betty’s house in Makaha the summer I turned 15. My job was to swim with her grandchildren while she worked in her studio creating jewelry and other things. I had never been around an “independent and adventurous woman” before. That summer was life changing for me and Betty ( I called her Tutu like all her grandchildren, thinking that was her name) remained an idol to me as I went on to care for people as a nurse (as I too had the drive to be independent), to experience many adventures and to raise three kids with my husband. Her daughter, Vicky, and her girls have been a big part of my life ( for 50 years now). This book should be inspirational for other women to take charge and “live” their lives!

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