George Hodgman accidentally vacated his Manhattan life to serve as caretaker – and, equally, abuse-taker – for his aging but irascibly independent, ninety-one year old mother, Betty. After a relationship constructed of the sort of intimate distancing, that mutually agreed-upon silence often mistaken for American-stoicism, and having shared many kinds and levels of love too reticent and inarticulate to dare speak their names, George and Betty battle and banter through fear, anger, and their history of silence to achieve a loving, laughing balance of resolved acceptance.
With mordant, self-deprecatory wit, reluctant and never mawkish warmth, Hodgman delivers more than memoir; Bettyville is also cultural commentary. Not only has Betty faded, but the town to which Hodgman returns has changed at least as much since the young George, who knew he was different and suffered for it, left to find a place to belong, a people with whom he could be home. In the intervening decades, as he explored his sexuality and life outside small-town America, came unpredictable changes both fantastic and horrifying including AIDS. And if Betty could never quite accept him, he could never quite accept himself either.
George’s struggles with addiction and relationships and puppies and Betty are all explored with a surprising amount of straight-forward emotion for someone who describes himself as closed and distant, who has come to accept being alone as his fate.
Being of a certain age and spending a few days a week with my own aging mother, Hodgman’s story resonated for me. Some of the details of his youth electro-shocked into consciousness things I’d forgotten from mine like loving the “Can This Marriage Be Saved” column in Ladies’ Home Journal, drinking soda from grown-ups’ wine glasses, watching As The World Turns and The Edge of Night and comparing notes with my aunt, and, this sentence;
And now here I am, suddenly, after all these years, home. I am not exactly the black sheep of my family, but it is not like I am grazing in pastels.
Universal, that. On some level, I think, we all feel like outsiders, unseen, disapproved of and searching for purchase, place, home, acceptance. Ultimately, with luck, age brings us to the discovery that the acceptance for which we long is something we need to give ourselves; I’m grateful to have shared in George and Betty’s journey toward theirs.