My mom is 98 and has dementia, so George Hodgman's astonishingly warm and moving memoir, BETTYVILLE, was a must-read for me. He's a veteran magazine and book editor who has worked at Simon & Schuster, Vanity Fair, and Talk magazine. His writing has appeared in Entertainment Weekly, Interview, W, and Harper’s Bazaar, among other publications. He lives in New York City and Paris, Missouri. Thank you, thank you George!
There is something so exquisitely funny about a NYC cultured gay man going to care for his aging mother in a small town in Missouri, and although this book is sublimely humorous, what caught me the most is how moving it is, how profound. Did this surprise you when you were writing the book?
I loved my parents; they have truly been my favorite people. I’ve spent my life fearing the time when we would have to say goodbye. I lost my father in 1997. Since then, my mother and I have grown closer in many ways and I have dreaded what I knew was coming, the loss of her. The thing is this—her dementia, her cancer, her decline, all of it is hard, but it is also a journey that we are sharing. I watch her struggle, with a lot of courage, through this hard chapter and there are horrible days, depressing days, but there is also a lot of humor and tenderness. Watching it has changed me, made me more human, not necessarily happier, but deeper. At the place where she goes for radiation treatments for her cancer, I hear people talk about “the journey.” The term is correct; it is profound to walk through this with someone. It’s a surprise only because this ending is something I never wanted to think about or dwell on. I wasn’t prepared for how full this experience was going to be. These days, these years, it’s like they are a different color than the rest of my life and I’ll never go back to quite the same shade. Without my mother, the world will become less familiar. Part of the journey of being human is dealing with all this change.
I think what moved me the most were the questions about how do we handle the end of life? And how do we help our loved ones through it? These surely must be questions you think about for yourself. Do you have advice for anyone who doesn’t have family and who is facing aging on his or her own?
I think about that a lot. I think about how I want to spend the last part of my life. I believe it is really important to have a community or communities, whether one has a conventional family or not. I want to be part of something. You have to give to others in some way for as long as you can. I think that finding people to share your deep human experience with is the most important thing. Helping and accepting help make life more meaningful.
I have to ask about your experience with Madonna, since you so wittily said people would have to ask you privately about that, and I never follow directions.
I worked with her on the diaries she wrote for Vanity Fair when she was filming Evita and found herself pregnant. Getting her to agree to the business aspects of it—the length of the piece, especially—was rugged. She wanted everything she could get in terms of the deal and the way the piece was handled. After all that, the negotiation was settled, she was the complete professional, but very guarded. My little dream of becoming her friend was not going to come true, but I liked her a lot. She was surprising in certain ways—like not wanting to keep me up too late at night when her schedule created the need for crazy hours. She seemed like someone I might have gone to high school with, an ordinary person who demanded a huge amount of herself, but who was finally really vulnerable and maybe, in her heart, a bit lonely.
So much of your book is really about kindness, the little things we can do for people that will mean everything to them. Some might say it was a huge sacrifice for you to leave NYC and tend to your aging, feisty mother, but in your book, it becomes a kind of blessing for both of you. Would you talk about that a little, please?
It’s been a gift, to have a little more of home, to create a space together at this moment—Betty, me, Carol who helps us, my cousin, and our dog. It’s a family and, after going it alone through a lot of stuff in New York, it has been lovely to come back to this place and renew my relationship with this place. It has been a huge comfort to discover that I still have a place here, that I still have a home in this town, that the kind of harsh judgments I anticipated as a kid growing up different here are rare. I’ve found this domestic side of me. I’ve learned to cook, to tend the flowers, take care of someone. It has been a blessing. When I left New York, I had lost my regular job. I was freelancing and just hated being in my apartment alone all day. There is this sound that empty building have during the day. Here, it’s busy; there’s always something, but I’ve grown from the necessity of taking charge and getting through things that I never thought I could. I mean, my approach to daily life has been pretty cursory. I’ve usually managed to do my taxes but never had any idea of whether I had any money in my checking account. I’ve been forced to grow up, father her in a way. But your word “blessing” is correct. There is a quote I remember in a novel by Mark Salzman called Lying Awake: “Suffering as shared by two is nearly joy.” No way can dementia or cancer be considered joy, but there’s truth in his sentiment.
I find it totally remarkable that you are still staying with your mother, who now has cancer on top of dementia. You mentioned in an interview that there is a possibility that “you will decline along with your parent.” How do you deal with how anger affects you about your mother’s aging, about suddenly becoming her parent, something that surely is uncomfortable for both parties?
Everything happens minute by minute, a day at a time. I don’t think too far ahead. I just try and get through the next thing. I try to make the best choice I can when each decision or problem presents itself. The anger is rare, but it comes. Recently she has not been eating, won’t try to eat. This just drives me nuts. I don’t know what to do about that. But mainly I’ve settled into the role. I don’t get out much. I don’t have a lot of people to socialize with. But I have the early mornings as I’m a very early riser and she doesn’t get up until later. And I have the late nights as she goes to bed at 9. That time is kind of crucial. I read. I binge watch The Wire or some crime show. These hours are special and the house is quiet and really late at night in a small town in the winter, you feel comfortably alone and tucked in, cozy and safe. Wherever and whatever you’re doing you have to find the beautiful moments. Betty gives me those. Mainly she makes me laugh. She recently read this book called The Secret Conversations of Ava Gardner and she thought it was very risqué. “This is the filthiest book I’ve ever read,” she told me, “you ought to read it.” For weeks she spoke about Ava and Frank Sinatra as if they lived here in the house with us. Reading, which she never did much before, at least beyond the newspaper has been a great gift in these years in terms of providing entertainment and helping her mind. You have to find the little pleasures you can give them and take satisfaction from that. Also, it’s not like I’m the first person who’s ever gone through this. Zillions of people are taking care of people, a fact that seems to have escaped me earlier in my life. I really get a lot of good examples from others. A trip to the doctor’s office or to the cancer center….You see these people and their hopes and losses and every day there is something human and you want to celebrate these other people. It’s taken me out of myself a bit and boy did I need that.
What I loved so much about your memoir, besides the richness of the writing, is the wry humor, and the depth of your love. What was it like writing this? Was there ever a moment when you wanted to rewrite the story of your life and your mother’s, or did you feel peace that things worked out just the way they did?
I’ve never wanted a different childhood or different parents, really. I mean, when I was a kid I used to dream about growing up in New York or L.A., having a more glamorous life, but there has been a basic contentment about what I have been given and I’ve grown more and more grateful as I’ve seen the world that I’ve had what I’ve had. I’m proud of my struggles and my battles. I want to wear my scars well. The pains have given me depth. I don’t want to rewrite. Maybe I’d add a few chapters, some vignettes and anecdotes, more youth, more beaches, fewer humiliating mistakes. There is certainly stuff I wish I could have avoided, but I feel like I am negotiating the journey that I’ve been given here.
You write about fearing intimacy and yet you have the most movingly intimate relationship with Betty. Has that changed the way you deal with other people?
I guess we’ll see. It’s certainly changed my values. I don’t want to go back to living as I did, but it’s subtle. I’ve not had, you know, the big, expected intimacy with the great, long-lasting love or whatever, but I’ve had a lot of surprising, unconventional times of great connection with people, things that are hard to articulate but significant to me. I imagine that will be the way it will continue to be, but I do think that I have outgrown a lot of insecurities that have made intimacy harder. I’m just more real, more frank and that makes connections.
You write movingly about what it was like to be a young, confused gay kid who could not discuss your sexuality with your parents. In a way, you were in a lonely country the same way your mother Betty is now. But knowing what you know now about your mother--and yourself--do you think if you had told them, they would have accepted it?
I love your phrase, “a lonely country.” I was lonely, longing for a certain kind of experience and understanding as a kid and I guess all my life, but I also have had a lot of people around me who I have been really happy to be with. Great friends. I think my relationships with my parents were really satisfying; I wouldn’t trade them. I wish that we could have communicated about things more openly, but I’m learning from conversations with people who have read the book that you don’t have to be gay to keep parts of yourself secret from your parents. I wish I had more faith in my mother, that I would have shared more personal things with her and I feel bad about that, but she kind of set the example, you know, she didn’t tell me how she was feeling or what was going on inside her, but I never for a second doubted the love. I can’t gauge what might have been. Everyone’s reality has light and dark, everyone’s relationships have great satisfactions and some problems. No connection is perfect. If we had been more honest about the gay thing, we probably would have found something else to have trouble with. That’s life, that’s reality. But I think that one of the things that the book is trying to say is that a family doesn’t have to be perfect to be a family and to provide lasting foundation. Perfect people sound pretty boring. I certainly would not want to move in with the Brady Bunch.
How is Betty now and will you say hello to her from me?
Yes I will, we’re having some struggles now. It’s been a very hard winter on many fronts for Betty. I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know if I will be able to keep her at home, but I certainly won’t put her in some kind of facility and go back to New York. I’ll be with her as long as she’s here and I’ll be happy to be here.
What’s obsessing you now and why? What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
I’m always obsessed with what I’m reading or seeing—a book or poem, a painting, a movie, or whatever. I am passionate about participating in and enjoying what people have created. That’s all magical and even spiritual to me. At this point in my life, I would rather be a participant, a maker, rather than just a consumer, so I’m obsessed with finding a new project, with continuing to write and to try and improve in this arena. I want to be a writer. I want to get better at it. I want to be an old man writing in my house late at night with my dog and the snow falling down or the crickets buzzing, sneaking out to the garage for a cigarette. I’m not the most religious person in the world, not conventionally, but I am a believer in the God I have discovered along the way, the force that has been gradually revealed and felt. I pray a lot. All through this book, I prayed to tell a human story. I don’t like big things—wars, for example. I like the daily struggles. I would just be so grateful to get to do this again, to be able to overcome fear and try again to make something.
I’m not aware of a question that you have avoided, but I want to make this point: I don’t think I’m unique. It’s not remarkable to try to take care of someone. Most people do it at one time or another. My story is unique only because of the people it involves and their individual personalities and struggles. I would like the book to celebrate my mother’s courage and her resilience, these gifts that she has given me. I’m not the giver here, really. I’m the recipient and I think that maybe the book is about discovering what it is we find in participating fully in and observing other people doing their best as they go through hard, beautiful life.