Nancy and Pete: A Love Story


A little Valentine’s Day shrine in memory of my parents.

I don’t know why I’ve been feeling so sentimental about the past. Maybe it’s a normal part of growing older. Not so long ago I wrote about my mother’s 80th birthday. Today is Valentine’s Day, another source of memories. When I was a child in Atlanta, I didn’t like to sleep in my own room, so I often camped in my mother’s room. I loved to go through her jewelry box and the “pretty things” inside. Among these were an old Valentine’s Day card from my father and an identification bracelet, both of which were kept in an old envelope at the bottom of the jewelry box.


I don’t remember if I am the child who made the pencil scribbles on the card. It wouldn’t surprise me, though.
Maybe this was “the rest” that goes with the card?


In my child’s mind, with no memory of my father, I naturally romanticized the stories I’d heard into an epic and tragic love story, a la Romeo and Juliet. The Scarboroughs were the Capulets and the Cottrauxs the Montagues, with high school sweethearts Nancy and Pete caught in the crossfire. Actually, there wasn’t a feud between the families, but my grandmother Scarborough (Nana) didn’t approve of the Cottraux grandparents (Mimi and Grandaddy). My Cottraux grandparents were world travelers, golfers, and loved a good cocktail party. Despite Nana’s hard-working farm family roots in Vermont, she very much embraced the role of Atlanta society matron and “old money” traditionalist. I was a little bit afraid of her, and adored Mimi and Grandaddy. Neither of my grandmothers, however, was the warm, hugging cookie-baking grandmother of my dreams. Nana was very stern and forbidding in my mind, and Mimi was more interested in the country club than baking cookies.

Nancy and Pete (aka Mom and Daddy) met at a dance, and the story was that the instant Daddy saw her, he told the friend he was with that he was going to marry that girl some day. In 1952, when Mom was only 16 and Daddy 17, they did just that. They eloped to South Carolina, where a 16-year old girl could marry without her parent’s permission. They kept it a secret until they no longer could. My sister Cathy was born in 1953. Mom was allowed to get her high school diploma, but had to study from home as it would “corrupt” the other girls to be around their married and pregnant friend. Her dream of going to college to study journalism was set aside. In 1950s Georgia, young mothers didn’t do such things. My father was by then a freshman at Georgia Tech, and they set up house in family student housing. (When I was little, this was very romantic to me as I had no idea how young they really were. As I turned 16 and then 17 I began to think of it a little differently. They were just babies themselves, I think now.)

Daddy became an engineer with Georgia Power, and was sent from Atlanta to Savannah and then Macon, where I was born in 1961. Daddy died less than a year later. Of course I’ve always wondered how different my life would be if he hadn’t been in the car at that time, that day, when the world irrevocably changed for us. Mom moved us back to Atlanta to be closer to family. By then my Cottraux grandparents were retired to San Diego, making them that much more glamorous and exotic to me than ever. Nana, however, was a powerful influence and support in our lives (and I never got over being a little afraid of her).

Remembering how much the card and bracelet had fascinated me as a child, when my mother was dying of lung cancer in 2009, she had me bring her the jewelry box one day. She handed me the card and bracelet and said, “I know you’ll take care of them.” I feel honored to be their keeper.

Never take your loved ones for granted. Someone might leave for work one day and never come home again, like Daddy.

And enjoy Valentine’s Day!


Happy Birthday, Mom

Today would have been my mother’s 80th birthday. She was born February 3, 1936 in New York City, which often surprises people because she was so much a Southerner. Her parents, Dr. James Elliott Scarborough (1906-1966) and Isabelle Wisell Scarborough (1909-1992), moved to Atlanta when Mom was very young. My grandfather was a doctor at what was then the Memorial Hospital for the Treatment of Cancer and Allied Diseases and is now Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. My grandmother was a nurse but left the hospital when my mother came along. The story in the family is that they were so sure that my mother would be a boy, they hadn’t come up with any girl names. Her birth certificate says “Baby Girl Scarborough”. Eventually one of the nurses started calling her Nancy and it stuck.

Dr. Scarborough, originally a farm boy from Hayneville, Alabama but a graduate of Harvard Medical School, was recruited by Coca Cola CEO Robert Winship Woodruff in 1937 to head up the Winship Cancer Institute in Atlanta. Thus my mother became a Southerner and my Vermont-born and raised grandmother embraced Atlanta society.

I don’t have a lot of pictures of my mother. In 1990, the house she was living in with her second husband in Sacramento, California, burned down and many photos were lost to the fire. Here is a short photo tribute to my mother, Nancy Scarborough Cottraux Dilbeck (February 3, 1936-August 23, 2009).

I get the impression from the look on her face that Mom might have a little attitude going. The story she told is that her mother told her she couldn’t wear the ring she has on her finger for the photo because her hands were too dirty, but Mom slipped the ring on anyway.


high school
Mom’s high school senior photo, Henry W. Grady High School, Atlanta, circa 1952-1953.


baby G
Mom with baby Genevieve in 1961. I am the youngest of 4; our father, Stephen Pierre Cottraux Jr., was killed in an automobile accident in 1962.


Mom loved red dresses. This is at my grandmother’s house. I’m in the blue sweater. Sister Ellen is behind me, my brother Steve next to me and sister Cathy behind him.


Mom in the Alps
In 1969, my mother took a trip to Europe. I spent what seemed like a really long time with my grandmother. My brother went to summer camp, and my sisters went on a trip to San Diego to visit our Cottraux grandparents. This is in the Swiss Alps.
Circa 1972.
In 1972, Mom married her second husband, Van Dilbeck. This is on the farm in Georgia where his mother had relocated with her second marriage the same year. My mother is in the back in the dark blue shirt. I am up front, upside down face. My brother Steve is showing off how much fresh corn on the cob he can eat. At 14, it was a lot! Later that summer, we moved to California.


There is a huge gap in the photos after that. Many were lost in the fire, and others I’ve never had scanned. Jumping to 2003, this is in my then backyard in Napa when Mom came from Sacramento to go to a tea party with me.


Mom helping a much thinner me with home decor, 2003. I did eventually learn how to turn the date stamp off on that camera!


sewing 1
Mom was a very talented seamstress. She made most of our clothes when we were growing up. This is at her house in Sacramento in 2004, cutting fabric for an evening dress I decided to make out of a satin tablecloth. I’ve never finished the dress.


Bob cat
Mom with her beloved cat Bob, a stray who took up residence in her yard and hit the jackpot. Here he is getting his Christmas treats.


70th birthday
Mom’s 70th birthday party in 2006.


This is one of the last photos I have of her. In late 2008 she was diagnosed with untreatable Stage 4 lung cancer. She spent her last months in hospice care. Always an animal lover, she was so happy to have hospice pup Violet to cuddle with.


I like to think she would be proud of me for the path I’ve taken over the last few years. She always let me make my own decisions, whether she approved or not (like when I dropped out of college in 1981 to follow a boy halfway around the world). I didn’t always like her decisions either (like moving us to California in 1972), but I’ve come to appreciate the hurdles she faced and the choices she had to make.

I love you and miss you, Mom.