Reflection on relatives: “Bettyville” deals with struggles of caring for an aging loved one

Hodgman’s memoir, “Bettyville,” about returning home to care for his aging mother grabbed me as soon as I saw the cover photo: an old ornately carved wooden bureau/dressing table, crammed with photos and mementos, set against old-fashioned gaudy floral wallpaper. In the mirror you can see a black lab standing on a bed, nose raised in mid-howl.

This was essentially a picture of my grandmother’s room, minus the howling Labrador. So, I had to read his book and meet Betty.

And I’m glad I did. This is a lovely, loving portrait of a difficult, stubborn woman, aging not with grace but with defiance. Betty refuses to give up her favorite slippers, even though their scuffed soles make her slip and imperil her already fragile balance. She refuses to investigate the assisted living facility she needs to transition into, and she’s always refused to discuss her only son’s homosexuality.

Betty lives in a small Missouri town, the home place where her writer/editor Manhattanite son never felt he belonged, and the stage is set for a generational clash.

And clash they do. George is uncomfortable in the role of helper to his strong-willed mother, describing himself ruefully as a “care-inflictor.” Betty’s anger at her failing body and health lands squarely on her son, and she distrusts him, hating that she now needs help, trying to push him away. George describes her as “difficult to corral. Her will remains at blast-strength force.”

He worries that he is not doing enough—that he is not up to the task, but her caretakers have told him she is failing and he has to step up. Finding himself back in his hometown of Paris, Mo. is at once familiar and disconcerting; caring for Betty opens floodgates of memories and the book alternates between Betty’s reality and George’s past. He writes honestly about his struggles with his sexuality and his difficulty explaining who he is to his parents, and he explores Betty’s and his father’s lives with love and curiosity. This is a moving, readable, often laugh-out-loud exploration of family ties and the power of love.

I’m not sure a younger person will relate to the aging parent issues as I do, but I think George’s description of his coming of age, going away to college and early career years in Manhattan would appeal to any student. He is a marvelous writer and a dog lover, so I needed nothing more to fall in love with them both.