“Bettyville; A Memoir”
Author: George Hodgman
Price: $27.95 (Hardcover)
George Hodgman had an up and down career as a book and magazine editor in New York City, working at different times for “Vanity Fair,” Simon and Schuster and other organizations. He had become neither rich nor famous but New York had become home. Through the years, he visited his mother and father, Big George and Betty, in his home town of Paris, Missouri, but certainly never planned to return there to live.
But Big George died and Betty, at 90, needed his help.
This is a fine, truly touching memoir of Hodgman’s experiences back home, caring for Betty who had always been a very difficult person, always cranky, and now suffers increasingly from dementia and rage at losing her driver’s license, her mental sharpness and her independence.
Hodgman loves his mother, absolutely, and does not want her institutionalized, but of course, the situation grows steadily worse. He is sometimes impatient with her; she is angry at George who is, in a sense, “the guard at the prison she will never get out of.” Betty is rather narrow, provincial, never having traveled much, but in a moment of insight George realizes “My mother has also traveled—across time for more than nine decades, from one era to the next, from a world she knew to another where much she was taught does not apply. Things are changing so fast; there is no period of adjustment now for anyone.”
Now there is a piece of wisdom worth remembering.
One might easily imagine this story to be—horrible word, “depressing”—but it is in fact inspiring, never maudlin, and amazingly funny.
Hodgman has all his life been a smart aleck, an entertainer, the class clown, a wit. This has been his defense against others’—including his own parents—knowing how insecure he really was, how low his self-esteem.
Paris, like his mother, is failing, having been destroyed, like a lot of America, Hodgman offers, by “the break-up of the family farm, Wal-Mart and meth.”
His childhood home is “The last place in America with shag carpet.”
And in it he finds what he believes to be “a toenail from high school.”
The house is cluttered with “a lifetime of antiques laden with hat-pin holders, candy dishes, decanters, ashtrays, and figurines.” One could safely say Betty “considers the absence of bric-a-brac a social problem roughly comparable to malnutrition.”
The banter is wonderful.
George, overweight, says “I’m probably headed for gastric bypass.”
Betty says: “Al Roker had one…. He had it on the Today Show.”
“During the weather report?” George counters.
Betty fights her memory loss, making lists of names and the world’s capitals. A pianist at church, she practices relentlessly to get it right. At funerals, Betty says, “nobody wants to hear the pianist hit a clunker when they’re about to go into the ground.”
Hodgman grew up in this small town a closeted gay man, coming out to no one, not even his parents. He hated football and NASCAR and loved Barbra Streisand, but they still didn’t get it. He wanted to scream “‘See me!” but he couldn’t. He felt he had let his father down, as a man, and disappointed Betty who would have no grandchildren. They never asked and even if he tried to tell, they couldn’t hear. This was painful, leading to a lifetime of shame and problems with alcohol and drugs. Hodgman became in some ways emotionally unreachable, unable to connect even with other gay men, even on Fire Island, in the heart of gay life.
George from Missouri had no idea the gay world could be so competitive and so faddish. “My body wasn’t marketable.” He was not “cut out for chaps,”’ not a “piercing type.” He speaks of “the long decade of the muscleman when the great beasts . . . lumbered down the avenues.” This was followed by the period of lean, then sculpted, then a time when the complete absence of body hair was fashionable. For a while, black men were the favorites, then Latinos.
George laments: “At no time, in my memory, have Midwest Protestants been the flavor du jour.”
The terror of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s, with friends dying in clusters, didn’t make any of this easier.
In the final months of Betty’s life, mother and son reach some understanding, mostly unspoken, but real, nevertheless. And there is love.
Hodgman says: “I think people who have always felt okay in the world will never understand those of us who haven’t.” But his book will help. A lot.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.