By George Hodgman. $27.95; Viking; 279 pages
Throughout your life, your parents ignored many things.
That time in high school when you snuck out to party? They knew, but they looked the other way. The same thing happened with wearing make-up, missing curfew and that one regrettable hair style. They often "didn't see" more than you'll ever know.
The problem is that sometimes, they ignored too much. Did they, for instance, know who you really were? In the new book Bettyville, by George Hodgman, one man wondered.
Elizabeth Baker HodgmanBetty, to most peopledidn't sleep much.
At age 90, she was prone to wandering, fussing at the kitchen, piling and restacking paperwork, and playing the piano in the middle of the night. She was "suffering from dementia or maybe worse."
Unfortunately, that also meant her son, George, didn't get much sleep, either.
An out-of-work editor and freelancer, George Hodgman had moved to Paris, Missouri, from New York for what was supposed to be a week. Or a month. Or a year to take care of his mother. Betty didn't like it; she hated needing someone. Hodgman didn't like it, either; too much had changed.
"I was Betty's boy," he says, and he'd been that way all his life. Hodgman loved his father fiercely, but he absolutely favored his mother. Still, he desperately wished he'd been able to tell his parents he was gay, that he felt alone, that he'd survived too many failed romances, that he'd had substance abuse issues. Surely, they knew but no one ever talked about it.
Now, as he cared for her, there were times when Betty infuriated Hodgman. She could be rude and stubborn, prone to fits of anger for no reason, and loud. She flatly refused any thoughts of nursing homes or assisted living. The problem was her dementia, Hodgman reminded himself repeatedly. He understood that she was rightfully fearful because she knew she was losing herself and "I can only imagine how scary it is…"
And yet, "I think I have survived because of Betty, more than anyone," Hodgman said as she eased away. "There are so many things I will carry when I leave Bettyville with my old suitcase."
Without a doubt, you'd be forgiven for reaching for a tissue while you're reading this book. Heck, you might want a whole box of thembut there's a lot more to Bettyville than heartstring-tugging.
I found joy inside this story, in between its inevitable sadness. Author Hodgman keenly remembers his small town childhood from all sides: churchgoers and alcoholics, kindness and bullying, adolescent crushes, baffling foes, and off-limits subjects that no small-townie discusses. We meet, through the eyes of Hodgman, Betty's friends and family and we're told a story about a time past, a life well-loved, and losing a mother long before she's really gone.
Be prepared to laugh a little, but be prepared to cry, too, as you're reading this fine memoirespecially if you're a caretaker for an elderly parent. For you, for sure, Bettyville is a book that can't be ignored.
Want more? Look for The Man I Might Become: Gay Men Write about Their Fathers, edited by Bruce Shenitz, foreword by Andrew Holleran; or Mothers and Sons: Stories, by Colin Toibin.