Thursday, June 18, 2015

"Bettyville": You can go home again

There are simple things in life that make sense.

The first thing that makes sense is that it's important to tell the truth about ourselves.  The second thing that makes sense is that we need a place to call home.  What strikes me as most interesting about these two simple things is that it isn't always easy to face the truth of our homes, but it's important to seek understanding about where we come from regardless of how painful that truth might be.

George Hodgman's memoir "Bettyville" explores his relationship with his 90 something mother in Paris, Missouri.  After losing his job and realizing that his mother who is in early stages of Alzheimer's and living alone needs his help more than she is willing to admit, he moves home to care for her.  He isn't quite sure of this at the outset of his "visit" because George is more New York City than small, Midwest town of Paris "population 1,246 and falling" where life moves slowly and revolves around homemade lemon pie, church piano playing, old shag carpets, and visits to the hairdresser.

But something happens as George, a former Vanity Fair editor and book editor, stays to care for his mother.  He begins to see her for who she is, but even more importantly he begins to understand who he is as well.  George's father, Big George died in 1997, and it is abundantly clear in this book that he deeply loved his father and still loves his mother even with their stoic approach to raising him.  For George, growing up was more than awkward.  At times it was painful because he was a gay man living in a small town where people didn't understand homosexuality nor did they care to even try to be open to the idea that gay men weren't choosing that life.  His parents never discussed his sexuality with him, and never really talked to him about his personal life even when he invited boyfriends to their home.

Ultimately, though, "Bettyville" paints the picture of George's mother, a feisty woman who still retains a sense of her former beauty.  Even in her 90s, she refuses to submit to her dementia and her lymphoma diagnosis.  She cares about remembering how to play her favorite hymns and the names of things that seem to slip just outside her grasp.  And George is there to help her in her twilight years with love and tenderness and often humor and a bit of disdain.

Even with their bickering and disagreeing, he respects and admires his elderly mother.  He realizes  that her inability to face his sexuality stemmed from her belief that she had somehow broken him when he was a squalling baby that she could not soothe. "She was not good enough and then he turned out broken and, after all someone had to be blamed. Someone had to have made her boy turn out wrong.  She thinks she was the one." Although George could blame his mother for many of the turns his life took, he never does, and he gives her the greatest gift by staying and helping her when she needs him most.

In his author's note, Hodgman writes, "My greatest wish is to hurt no one, though I believe we are often the most triumphant when revealed at our most human." In this book he uncovers not only what it's like to grow up gay with parents who don't want to acknowledge it, but also what it's like to come home again after living a fast paced life full of wrecked relationships and self-loathing to finally discover yourself as you care for a dying parent.  It's truth after truth after truth, and it's rarely pretty but it's always human.

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