Life in Bettyville

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Betty Baker Hodgman

Book Review: Bettyville by George Hodgman (Viking, 2015) 279 pages.

If Roz Chast’s recent book, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, 2014) and George Hodgman’s terrific new memoir Bettyville (Viking, 2015) are to serve as guides—and I think they should—to writing about the often exhausting task of taking care of one’s elderly parents, it’s clear that you need to come armed with three things to make the caretaking and the writing about it work: Humor, patience, and humor.

“She is wearing the jeans she will never take off and a blouse with stains she cannot see,” George Hodgman writes about one site of struggle with his aging mother: the battle to convince her to wear clean clothes. “For many days this pairing has been her choice. I have given up trying to control her clothes. God grant me the serenity to accept the clothes I cannot change.” A veteran of rehab himself, George has no illusions.

Bettyville is the story of a man leaving New York City to return to his childhood home in tiny, tattered Paris, Missouri to help his ailing mother, Betty. It is the story of the love between the two of them; Betty, a beautiful, flinty woman full of opinions (“One could safely say that she considers the absence of bric-a-brac to be a social problem roughly comparable to malnutrition.”) and George, her big, smart, gentle, middle-aged gay son (“I was no Huck Finn,” this son of Missouri writes, “though I thought the hat was interesting.”) Betty knows George is gay. But it’s not a topic of conversation. It never has been.

[Side Note: In a perfect world the casting of the movie version of Bettyville would be easy: George would be played by a younger Oscar Levant; Betty: an older Bette Davis; George’s naughty rescue dog Raj: a spray-painted Asta from The Thin Man movies. And it would be directed by Preston Sturges. Obviously]

“By the time my mother realized that she was smart or saw she had the kind of looks that open doors, she had already closed too many to go back,” Hodgman writes. “‘I just wanted a house with a few nice things,’ she told me once. ‘That was my little dream.’” And that’s where they find themselves, all these years later, in that house, in that little dream. Big George, the father, has long passed on, and now it’s just Betty persevering in a part of the country that is withering in population though plagued with the same challenges facing all parts of America: joblessness, meth labs, depression. Yet it's not a depressing story. "I was over to Wal-Mart  and asked some kid for help, said I was visually impaired," says Evie, one of Betty's friends. "Five minutes later I hear over the loudspeaker, 'Blind woman needs help in drugs.' I mea, what else do they say on the loudspeaker at Wal-Mart? 'We got a bitch in toys?'"

Like Evie, Betty is fully herself, with all her peccadilloes intact, from the “awful” sandals she insists on wearing, to her love of hate-watching Wheel of Fortune. And George is so funny, so self-deprecating and  sweet: "In the course of ten years my existence has gone from Looking for Mr. Goodbar to Driving Miss Daisy... I have been away from New York a long time am tempted to make love to a hanging basket. Recently, the discovery of the Big Wang Chinese restaurant at the Lake of the Ozarks has sparked my fantasy life."

They both have their limits, of course. Betty can be irritable and snappish. But as George writes, “Betty’s crankiness is an act, I think, a way to conceal her embarrassment at having to ask anything of anyone. When I do something for her, she looks away. Accustomed to fending for herself, she hates all this.” And George isn’t quite the superhero he wants to be. “I would fix the mailbox, but am not handy,” he admits. “Nor do I assemble. A trip to Ikea is enough to unhinge me. I would prefer a spinal tap to putting together a coffee table.”

The time away from New York City, where George has worked as an editor at Vanity Fair and Henry Holt, allows him the chance to reflect on his own life and relationships. George is single, a fact that sometimes haunts him, despite his preference for privacy. As he puts it, “I have been called emotionally unavailable. I prefer to think of myself as merely temporarily out of stock.”

The ballad of George and Betty is a lovely one. It’s the story of a mother who needs her son, and a son who needs his mother, and the beautiful way they come together. “On Betty’s journey,” George writes, “I have learned something I had not known: I am very strong, strong enough to stay, strong enough to go when the time comes. I am staying not to cling on, but because sometime, at least once, everyone should see someone through. All the way home.”