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Memoir marks the moment when parent and child roles are reversed

March 19, 2015 at 6:15 PM EST
George Hodgman left a fast-paced life as an editor in Manhattan for small town Missouri to care for his elderly mother. Judy Woodruff sits down with Hodgman to discuss his poignant memoir of caretaking, “Bettyville.”
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GWEN IFILL: Now: an intimate look at the challenge of caring for aging parents.

Judy Woodruff recently recorded this latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It is a memoir of a son and his mother at the twilight of her life, the son who returns from the fast track Manhattan life to the small town of Paris, Missouri. It’s about loss, but also about discovery. It’s about struggle and courage, but ultimately it’s about love.

The it is “Bettyville” by George Hodgman, a former magazine and book editor at Simon & Schuster and Vanity Fair and Talk magazine.

George Hodgman, welcome to the program.

GEORGE HODGMAN, Author, “Bettyville”: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You spent years as an editor, but you had never written a book until this one. Did that make it easier or harder?

GEORGE HODGMAN: I think that I always, always wanted to write a book, and I had been carrying around little slivers.

And this emotional moment just had to allowed me to access everything. And the editing, I learned a lot about what I should have been doing as an editor all these years when I became a writer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want you to fold that in to coming home to Missouri, a place you left, maybe thinking you would never go back.

GEORGE HODGMAN: I am surprised to find myself back, but I also am surprisingly happy there.

I had lived on my own and for myself in a lot of ways, and it’s nice to be in a different kind of community for a little while. I have been around hard-driving, ambitious, kind of self-centered people. And I’m enjoying a completely different kind of life.

I mean, it’s interesting, because my East Coast friends are — were so determined to get me back. And they had such negative attitudes about this part of the country and, you know, religious fanatics and right-wingers and everything. And it was a good lesson in learning that the stereotypes that I had sort of acquired were not always so accurate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want you to read a passage about — you were 5 years old. Your mother — your mother is a remarkable person and we can’t capture it in the few minutes of this interview, but just read that one passage when — about her and her driving and taking you to school.

GEORGE HODGMAN: “My mother always drove fast, never stayed home. In the old days, we sped across the plains in our blue Impala, radio blaring the deejay Johnny Rabbitt’s all-American voice on KXOK St. Louis. She took me to the county line, where I waited for the bus to kindergarten. My mother, too damn high-strung, my father said, stayed in the bathroom, fussing with her hair and smoking Kent cigarettes. I look like something the cat drug in, she told herself.

“Those mornings heading to school, I learned to love pop music, a lifelong fixation. My mother and I sang along to ‘This Diamond Ring,’ ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ and Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown.’ Betty took the shoe off her foot and almost floored it. I like fast things. And the highway between Madison and Moberly, Missouri, will always be one of the places where I will see my mother, hair wrapped in rollers under a scarf wearing a pair of sunglasses taking me off into the big wide world.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s just — it’s just such a great evocation.

What comes away from this book, and there’s a funny moment and the next moment, it’s poignant, it’s sad. That woman you wrote about when you were growing up in many ways was the same woman who you were losing, or — I know she is still alive, but you were with her, but watching her slip away at the same time.

GEORGE HODGMAN: Well, I always say that I have known many Bettys during our relationship.

And maybe it was me that changed and not her, but it seems like, you know, I have seen her go through so many stages of her life. And in her current incarnation, every day, I feel like I see sort of all the Bettys. It sounds sort of like it’s always sad when you’re caring for an older person, but there are a lot of lighter moments, too.

And she’s here, and she’s there, and she’s gone. And we sort of are grateful for the moments when she’s there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are there lessons here you think you have learned to be shared with other people who are caring for aging parents who may or may not have dementia?

GEORGE HODGMAN: You know, I think I’m a bad person to give anybody lessons at everything. I’m an improviser.

I’m not very perfect. And the thing about this book is that I never thought I could do this. I never thought I would get through this period. I’m a — I couldn’t keep a cactus alive. I never had a pet. I haven’t had a child. I dreaded this all my life. I love my parents so much.

But — and I have always been scared of losing them. And — but I can’t cook. I can’t — you know, I’m a — I am so surprised that I have been able to step forward. And I think that it’s kind of about doing the next right thing.

None of us — we’re not perfect. We don’t know. Nobody teaches us. I think about all the mothers who have taken care of their kids and fathers. And it’s my turn, you know? It’s my turn. And I want to try to do it the best I can. And the lesson for me is just — just the next thing. And if you can find a happy moment, if you can find the good mood, give her an ice cream cone, and try to make the moment last a little bit longer.

You do the best you can do, you know?

JUDY WOODRUFF: It is a lovely book.

“Bettyville” is the title.

George Hodgman, we thank you for sharing that with us.

GEORGE HODGMAN: Thank you for having me.



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