George Hodgman has been an editor in New York since 1983, working for Simon & Schuster and a wide variety of magazines, but his first book, Bettyville, is a memoir of leaving behind everything that life implies. When Hodgman returns to his boyhood home in Paris, Missouri, to care for his ninety-year-old-mother, Betty, it’s strictly out of necessity. Mother and son are both independent, wry, and uncomfortable expressing any hint of emotion. Both are talented—she as musician, he as a writer—and yet they continually irritate each other. Only the harsh reality of life can bring them together under one roof.
“My mother should not live alone now but vetoes all conventional alternatives,” Hodgman writes early on. Betty has been his “rock,” yet in small and increasingly worrisome ways, it becomes clear that her long run of independence must soon end. And because he was recently laid off from an editorial job, Hodgman is free to move into his old room and become his mother’s caregiver, at least temporarily, while working as a freelancer.
What ensues is a long and sometimes comical war of silences. Bettyville is set in a tiny, dying town in the midst of record drought, and the war between mother and son includes small battles over trips to the hairdresser, a dangerously aged pair of sandals that are the only shoes Betty is willing to wear, and—most often—the past that Hodgman and his mother share but have never examined.
The surroundings naturally trigger flashbacks in which he reflects on his (and his mother’s) complex relationship with his deceased father, as well as the family rift created when Hodgeman discovered, slowly and awkwardly, his own sexuality. Amid these revelations from the past are also scenes in church and the grocery store that reveal—in a way which will be painfully familiar to anyone who has cared for an aging parent—Betty’s difficult present. From minor arguments in the kitchen, frustrations during a doctor’s appointment, an insufferable meeting with an insurance agent, and similar events, both Hodgman and his mother emerge as cantankerous and strong-willed characters who are nevertheless devoted to one another.
“I am convinced that, at some level, she has survived to give me—a gay man whose life she has never understood—a place to call home,” Hodgman writes. As the summer progresses, he begins to find that home, as the recollection of a family wedding makes clear:
All my childhood was gathered around me. This was not just a collection of the elders of Paris, Missouri; it was more to me. It was Bettyville, my mother’s home, her place, with most of its surviving souls, those who had known her as a girl and who had been kind to me and watched me grow. They were older suddenly, much older, my people—men in white shoes fit for a bandbox, striped suits from other decades; women in outfits that looked to have been stored away and worn only occasionally—and all I wanted, all of a sudden, was to stay with them forever. I love my town; I love my home.
Hodgman’s love of home is wistful rather than maudlin, especially when placed in the context of his fast-paced life in New York. There he can be himself but can never be truly comfortable. In Paris, he is always comfortable but can never truly be himself. This disconnect focuses Hodgman’s journey of self-discovery with Betty; it keeps story elements that in lesser hands might become mawkish—the arrival of a stray puppy, his father’s battle with cancer, Betty’s increasing forgetfulness—fresh and smart, moving and yet surprising.
Ultimately, both Hodgman and Betty must come to terms with the problem of aging, but that is not what Bettyville is really about. “There is almost no truth better not known,” Hodgman writes. “The harder ones are tolerated more comfortably when shared.” Bettyville shares one man’s truths in a way that will resonate with all readers—and especially those with elderly parents.
Michael Ray Taylor teaches journalism at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. He is the author of several books of nonfiction and coauthor of a forthcoming textbook, Creating Comics as Journalism, Memoir and Nonfiction.