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.”

 

The Best Christmas Music: Tim Minchin's "White Wine in the Sun"

[embed]http://youtu.be/fCNvZqpa-7Q?t=1s[/embed]

Like Tim Minchin, I'm not religious but I love Christmas. I love Hanukah, too! Neutrality has its rewards.

 

And there is no better "I'm-an-atheist-but-I-still-love-Christmas" song out there than Minchin's funny and sweet "White Wine in the Sun." Apart from the often-skipped first verse of "White Christmas," it's the only warm weather Christmas song I know. Minchin is from Perth, Australia, and this vision of a midsummer Christmas depicts that Antipodean holiday reality: Christmas on the beach.

But it's not a song about summertime or even Christmas; it's about family and loving one another. I cannot get through it without crying, not even once. Can you?

If you haven't seen it, watch it now. Lyrics are below, because they're just too good not to read twice.

xo BJ

WHITE WINE IN THE SUN

by Tim Minchin

I really like Christmas

It's sentimental, I know, but I just really like it

I am hardly religious

I'd rather break bread with Dawkins than Desmond Tutu, to be honest

And yes, I have all of the usual objections

To consumerism, the commercialisation of an ancient religion

To the westernisation of a dead Palestinian

Press-ganged into selling Playstations and beer

But I still really like it

I'm looking forward to Christmas

Though I'm not expecting a visit from Jesus

I'll be seeing my dad

My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum

They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

I'll be seeing my dad

My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum

They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

I don't go in for ancient wisdom

I don't believe just 'cos ideas are tenacious it means they're worthy

I get freaked out by churches

Some of the hymns that they sing have nice chords but the lyrics are spooky

And yes I have all of the usual objections

To the mis-education of children who, in tax-exempt institutions,

Are taught to externalise blame

And to feel ashamed and to judge things as plain right and wrong

But I quite like the songs

I'm not expecting big presents

The old combination of socks, jocks and chocolate's is just fine by me

Cos I'll be seeing my dad

My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum

They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

I'll be seeing my dad

My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum

They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

And you, my baby girl

My jetlagged infant daughter

You'll be handed round the room

Like a puppy at a primary school

And you won't understand

But you will learn someday

That wherever you are and whatever you face

These are the people who'll make you feel safe in this world

My sweet blue-eyed girl

And if my baby girl

When you're twenty-one or thirty-one

And Christmas comes around

And you find yourself nine thousand miles from home

You'll know what ever comes

Your brothers and sisters and me and your Mum

Will be waiting for you in the sun

Whenever you come

Your brothers and sisters, your aunts and your uncles

Your grandparents, cousins and me and your mum

We'll be waiting for you in the sun

Drinking white wine in the sun

Darling, when Christmas comes

We'll be waiting for you in the sun

Drinking white wine in the sun

Waiting for you in the sun

Waiting for you...

Waiting...

I really like Christmas

It's sentimental, I know...

"Take This Man" by Brando Skyhorse

Sacheen Littlefeather

Above: Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1973 Academy Awards Ceremony

TAKE THIS MAN: A Memoir by Brando Skyhorse (Simon & Schuster, 2014), 259 pp.

(This review originally appeared in the Boston Globe BOOKS section, June 18, 2014).

“I was a full-blooded Indian boy in a Mexican neighborhood who now had a white older sister that live on another coast,” [55] writes Brando Skyhorse in his memoir, Take This Man. Only one of those biographical facts turned out to be true: Echo Park was, in fact, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles in the 1970s and ‘80s where the author grew up. But he wasn’t full-blooded Indian, nor did he have a white older sister. If the young Brando Skyhorse was constantly searching for a stable sense of identity in his Southern California home, his mother – the source of all information true and imagined – was the San Andreas Fault.

  What was it like to grow up the son of Maria Teresa Bonaga/Ulloa/Skyhorse/Zamora, et cetera (she was married five times, though she never divorced her first husband, and Skyhorse omits the surnames of most of his short-time stepfathers)? To put it a different way: What was it like to grow up the son of a pathological liar? “Much the way certain singers perform a song a different way each time they sing it, my mother told her stories a different way each time she spoke them,” Skyhorse writes. “Her history and her experiences were mercury in a barometer, fluctuating based on what she felt you wanted to believe.” [17]

 

A young, beautiful Mexican-American woman with long black hair, Maria Bonaga grew up in Echo Park with a mother who was obsessed with Hollywood. “A manufactured identity is nothing new in Los Angeles,” [26] Skyhorse writes, so it follows that Maria would first get the idea to adopt a wholly invented racial identity while watching the Oscars. When the Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather accepted Marlon Brando’s Academy Award for “The Godfather” in 1973, the pregnant Maria turned to her Mexican husband Candido Ulloa and declared that their baby’s name would be Brando. It was “a great way to honor her own nonexistent Indian heritage,” Skyhorse notes in a rare moment of humor. Then again, a childhood filled with psychological and physical abuse isn’t very funny – or prolonged. [23] “You’re already five years old,” his mother once admonished him: “You’re not a child anymore.” [39]

  When Brando was three Maria finally ditched not only her husband, but her own name and her Mexican identity, too. Brando Ulloa became Brando Skyhorse Johnson, adopted son of an imprisoned American Indian Movement (AIM) activist whom she met after placing a (dishonest) personal ad: “Young, single Indian mother searching for a good Indian father and devoted husband.” [29] Maria became Running Deer Skyhorse and she and her son suddenly became Indians. Skyhorse’s memoir is structured as a succession of portraits of would-be fathers, some sweet, some surly, all hapless and ultimately doomed to dismissal by his mother’s insanity and abuse. “First I was forced to accept” each new father figure, Skyhorse writes, “then slowly I trusted them, then I grew to love them. Then they left.” [2] The repetition of this theme, while essential to understanding the troubled young man he became, can sometimes be wearing for the reader. We, too, know that each new father, however exciting at first – Frank, the bumbling straight man; Robert, the sexy Aleutian thief – will eventually misstep and then suddenly disappear.

  Yet Skyhorse is a thoughtful, lyrical writer and his memoir is filled with epigrammatic observations that keep his story from becoming a mere catalogue of misery. He writes of his family: “The difference between a leap of faith and a leap of madness depends on where you land.” [48]

  Brando Skyhorse never stops loving his mother. If anything, he’s angrier with his biological father for leaving the family; his mother was maddening but she was also always present in his life. And they shared something else, too. “My mother lied in her stories for the same reason I’ve told the truth in this one… stories sustain us,” he writes. Like his mother, Brando became a storyteller. He understands why she couldn’t stop reinventing her own life. “[Stories] carry us through the lives we convince ourselves we can’t escape,” he writes, “to get to the lives we need to live instead.” [239]

The Still Point of the Turning World.

Book Review: Emily Rapp, The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguing: 2013), 260 pp.

In Emily Rapp’s powerful new memoir, “The Still Point of the Turning World,” the “worst possible news” arrives right in the second sentence: “our son, Ronan, then nine months old, had Tay-Sachs disease, a rare, progressive and always fatal condition with no treatment and no cure.”

But you should keep reading. Rapp has written a beautiful and passionate elegy for her son, a book that offers deep wisdom for any reader. In poetic language that is always grounded in the reality of her family’s day-to-day effort to cope with unimaginable pain, Rapp journeys through the terror of hearing Ronan’s diagnosis — “his death sentence, really” — to the slow, painful acceptance of death:

“Tucked inside the moments of this great sadness — this feeling of being punctured, scrambling and stricken — were also moments of the brightest, most swollen and logic-shattering happiness I’ve ever experienced,” Rapp writes. “I realized you could not have one without the other, that this great capacity to love and be happy can only be experienced with this great risk of having happiness taken from you — to tremble, always on the edge of loss.”

Part of Rapp’s initial shock comes from the fact that she had been tested for Tay-Sachs while pregnant and her results came back negative: not a carrier. She later discovers that only the nine most common mutations are covered in the standard Tay-Sachs screening; Rapp and her husband were unknowing carriers of a different, more rare mutation. “Never having been one to believe that statistics were on my side,” Rapp writes, “. . . I did everything to cover all the bases, get the results, to know.”

She reflects upon “our hopeful delusion that being good people might keep chaos at bay. But chaos finds everyone.” Fewer than 20 children are born in the United States with Tay-Sachs per year; like Ronan, most of them are “born to parents who didn’t know they had anything to worry about.”

The book is not a day-by-day account of Ronan’s demise but instead a series of meditations on life, death, and acceptance. “How do you parent without a future?” she wonders, a theme she returns to several times in the book. “For parents of terminally ill children, parenting strategies incorporate the grim reality that we will not be launching our children into a bright and promising future, but into early graves.”

Although “[t]his was absolutely depressing,” she writes, “. . . the experience of being Ronan’s mom was not . . . without wisdom, not without . . . a profound understanding of the human experience, which includes the reality of death in life that most parenting books and resources fail to acknowledge.”

Rapp finds that “parenting without a future” is a radical act, focused not on improving one’s child or preparing him for adulthood, but simply being with him, loving him. “Sitting with Ronan on the couch I often thought, How can I make this moment more precious? and then I’d realize with a sense of panic that no additional meaning needed to be sought or found. This was all there was.”

This wisdom is something she began to intuit when she was just a child. Rapp was born with a congenital disorder that led to the amputation of her left leg when she was 8, an experience chronicled in her previous book, “Poster Child.’’ She coped by pushing herself to achieve and be an inspiration to others.

As a young girl she was quoted in her local newspaper saying, “If you believe in yourself, you can do anything,” and she did: She skied, she biked, she swam. But eventually all the striving began to wear on her psyche. As an adult she began to question the “pursuit of happiness” itself, the never-ending, rarely questioned American quest for improvement. “People get sick with this idea of change; I have been sick with it,” she admits. In Ronan’s presence, the hollowness of this hunger for perfection finally becomes real to her.

There’s no avoiding it: “The Still Point of the Turning World” is a heartbreaking book about every parent’s worst nightmare. But it is very much worth reading. It’s neither a horror story nor a trite tale of triumph over adversity. “What can be learned from a dying baby?” Rapp asks at one point, as if daring the reader to answer. There are no tidy lessons here, but instead a dark, beautiful sky full of possible constellations of meaning, threads of resonance on the subjects of life, death, healing, illness, friendship, family, grief, and love.

Ronan was almost 3 when he died on Feb. 15, after the book went to press, but it’s clear the lessons he left behind came from his life and not from its end. “Ronan taught me that children do not exist to honor their parents,” she writes, “their parents exist to honor them.” Emily Rapp has done that and much more in this beautiful tribute to Ronan’s rich and meaningful life