The Doc Project·Reporter's Notebook

How a piano teacher I never met taught me about fashion and finding joy

When Edmonton piano teacher Bette-Joan Rac died in November 2020, those tasked with cleaning out her house found several clues about the colourful life she led. Reporter Alexandra Zabjek dug into the story of a seemingly quiet woman who lived life on her own terms, and she learned some lessons about herself along the way.

After Bette-Joan Rac died, reporter Alexandra Zabjek discovered her life was full of intrigue and glamour

CBC Edmonton reporter Alexandra Zabjek, left, delved deeper into the identity of Bette-Joan Rac, a mysterious piano teacher who lived life her own way. (Submitted by Alexandra Zabjek)

In the dark days of February 2021, everything was blending together in a haze of bad news and dreary familiarity. 

The weather was brutally cold, COVID-19 cases were spiking, and I spent most days in my "office" — a desk crammed into a corner of my bedroom — dressed in grungy sweatpants and wrapped in fuzzy blankets. 

Just over a year later, COVID-19 remains a lingering concern and I'm still working from home in a makeshift office. But there is something a little different in my wardrobe, thanks to a chance encounter I had with a story last winter. It lifted my spirits and offered a bit of intrigue that I didn't know I needed. 

It was about Bette-Joan Rac, known as Madame Rac to the hundreds of piano students she had taught over the years. She was a 76-year-old Edmonton resident who had died a few months earlier and when her image came across my screen, it showed a woman with a warm smile and long grey hair, adorned with ribbons.

Bette-Joan always dressed with flair, especially while on vacation in Hawaii, one of her favourite destinations. (Submitted by Vince Anderson)

Bette-Joan's story hit the news after a local antique dealer, hired to clear out her modest bungalow, started to find unexpected "treasures" — including a three-kilogram silver bar that had been shoved under a mattress and a Crown Royal bag filled with diamond rings. Even more impressive, however, was a collection of clothing so vast, eclectic, and pristine that it would eventually make one vintage dealer almost cry when he sorted through it. 

My COVID winter, dominated by the white snow outside and grey doldrums in my mind, was suddenly filled with pops of colour, both literal and figurative. I became a little obsessed. Who was this woman with a wardrobe fit for a movie set? And why couldn't I have known her?

A few months later, I got my chance when I walked into a pop-up clothing shop in Edmonton called House of Rac, filled almost entirely with pieces once owned by Bette-Joan Rac. Vintage clothing dealer Mark Frost found almost 10,000 pieces in Bette-Joan's house. They included a Christian Dior couture sheepskin coat, glittery party dresses, beautiful sweater vests and happy summer frocks.

The whimsy, the sheer luxury of such a collection, and the fact that it had belonged to someone who many might have dismissed as simply a "little old lady," was overwhelming.

"Her sweet spot was really in the 1980s. She definitely had a taste for the bold and the eclectic," says Frost. "It felt to me like it was fashion forward for the time. It was better quality and nicer cuts and nicer fabrics."

Bette-Joan’s wardrobe ranged from casual and sweet to glitzy and glamorous, like this dress held by vintage clothing dealer Mark Frost. It was all kept in pristine condition. (Alexandra Zabjek/CBC)

Frost spent months sorting through boxes and bags of clothes, developing a sort of relationship with a woman he had never met. Like a lot of people, Frost suspects Bette-Joan had a shopping problem. But her clothing selection was hardly random, he said, and sometimes included items that wouldn't have even fit her. It's like she wasn't just buying a wardrobe, she was curating a collection of beautiful things.

"There was stuff that she wore that she loved. And then there was stuff that she just loved because of what it was." 

That message, in the middle of the pandemic, was comforting: find the things that make you happy and savour them.- Alexandra Zabjek

Bette-Joan had an eye for unique items and she seemed to find joy in them, even if others might have thought her choices odd. That message, in the middle of the pandemic, was comforting: find the things that make you happy and savour them.

I learned a lot more about Bette-Joan. She had lived amicably in the same house as her ex-husband for years, while jetting off around the world to travel with her boyfriend, a musician she had met in Hawaii. Seriously, what a boss!

I suspect Bette-Joan would have shunned the very idea of that modern sin we call "guilty pleasures" — and she'd be right. Life's too short to feel embarrassed about the clothes, the habits, or the entertainment that bring you harmless joy.

As for me, why shouldn't I relish the catnaps I take while "watching" cartoons with my kid, or the money I spend on plants that I know I'll likely kill? As a friend once said, "There's not enough joy in the world to taint yours with needless shame."

Bette-Joan’s wardrobe included vintage pieces dating back to the 1940s, like this dress modelled by Alexandra Zabjek. (Mark Frost)

At House of Rac, the pop-up shop, I picked up a 1940s dress with a Peter Pan collar, marked with small pearl buttons, short sleeves, and a subtle waterfall pattern. I thought about how, as impractical as the dress was, it made me happy to look at something so pretty and with such history. I felt like I was holding a capsule to another time, when a dash of glamour wasn't just reserved for Hollywood, and when you didn't face a firehose of daily COVID-19 information.

And so I bought the dress, like I suspect Bette-Joan might have urged me to do. 

Fast forward to the winter of 2022, and at times, the world seems like even more of a dumpster fire than it was last year. Still, I imagine Bette-Joan might have told me to put on that dress, get made up, and pose for a picture — not because it would change anything but because it would be beautiful and make me smile.

About the Producer 

Alexandra Zabjek is an Edmonton-based journalist, who currently works on CBC Radio's, The House.