Memoir goes to tough-love ‘Bettyville’

At an early age George Hodgman recognized that he was different.

While he was growing up in a small town in Missouri he grappled with feelings of being an outsider. He spent a lot of time at the library seeking clues about himself and began to feel that being different, being gay, had made him feel isolated and ashamed.

Four years ago Hodgman — who will be in town this week for a book-signing — went back to his home town to visit his mother Betty for her birthday. Hodgman’s father had died some years before. Betty was close to 90, living alone, and she was starting to have some difficulties. The state had recently taken away her driver’s license, which was quite a blow for this fiercely independent woman.

He had planned to visit her for just a little while. He quickly realized that his mother really needed him there with her although she would never have admitted that. Hodgman had recently lost his job working as an editor in New York City. So Hodgman remained with Betty. His experiences taking care of her have been transformative. His memoir “Bettyville” is a fond recollection of his ongoing adventures with Betty.

Betty had grown up in a small town during the Great Depression. Those of her generation didn’t openly share their feelings. They were tough — that was how they endured. As he was experiencing this new situation, living with his mother, Hodgman had plenty of time to contemplate their relationship; what might have been different, and the things that would probably always remain unspoken between them.

Betty was acting like she didn’t really care if he stayed there with her or not. But he knew better; he was her only child, and he knew she could be contrary and on occasion, downright ornery. Hodgman writes: “My mother has never tried to be anyone but herself. ‘At least I’m out and out with my meanness,’ she says. ‘I’m not a sneak. I hate a sneak.’ ”

The author recalled that “When I was growing up, we tussled a lot, but never really fought. Yes, Betty had her blowups, her bad days, her little tempests, but there was always the sly way she winked when I came home in the midst of one of her bridge games, the way she rolled her eyes at Mrs. Corn in church just for me to see. I was her conspirator and she made me laugh or want to reach out, sometimes, to protect the part of her that rarely showed, her secret soft spot.”

They are navigating through this time together now, mother and son. Hodgman sits at the card table. She is nearby, reading, playing the piano. They often chatted while he worked on freelance editing projects and scribbled down his observations. Eventually these jottings became the spine of this affectionate, humorous and sometimes bittersweet account of Betty’s life.

“Bettyville” is a love letter to those fading little towns; to that resolute generation of Americans who lived their lives with grace and a stubborn zeal. After you have finished reading “Bettyville” you’ll admire this gentle memoirist. And you will love Betty.

Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit www.wyso.org/programs/book-nook. Contact him at vick@vickmickunas.com.

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