An Excerpt From 'Bettyville': When Your Loved One Becomes a Stranger

by George Hodgman
Originally Published: 

Missouri is a state of stolen names, bestowed to bring the world a little closer: Versailles, Rome, Cairo, New London, Athens, Carthage, Alexandria, Lebanon, Cuba, Japan, Santa Fe, Cleveland, Canton, California, Caledonia, New Caledonia, Mexico, Louisiana. Paris, our home.

Then there are the funny-named places. Licking is a favorite, along with Fair Play, Strain, Elmo, Peculiar, Shook, Lone Jack, Butts, Lupus, Moody, Clover, Polo, Shake Rag, and the T towns that always end my list—Turtle, Tightwad, Tulip, and Tea.

When I cannot sleep, I try to see how many I can still name, an old game played with my parents when I was a kid looking out the car window at the rolling brown waters of the Mississippi.

Something has awakened me, though inside there is only the sound of the air conditioner and outside it is pitch black and quiet, but for the trains. The clock says 2:30, give or take. I won’t go back to sleep. Where am I? Not in my apartment; there are no sirens, horns, or streaks of neon shining through the blinds. This is not Manhattan, not Chelsea, not West Twenty-third Street. I am home, in Paris, Missouri, population 1,246 and falling. Living here, I say to myself, for just a few more days or weeks. For now. Until Carol, the good-hearted farm woman who helps watch out for Betty, recovers from surgery on her rotator cuff. Or until my mother can be admitted to an assisted living facility. Until there is rain, or Betty’s spirits mend, or I get a regular job again. Until something happens here on Sherwood Road, and my mother is gone, and I must close up shop.

I hear Betty’s voice from the hall: “Who turned up the air­conditioning so high? He’s trying to freeze me out.”

And here she is, all ninety years of her, curlers in disarray, chuckling a bit to herself for no reason, peeking into our guest room where I have been mostly not sleeping. It is the last place in America with shag carpet. In it, I have discovered what I believe to be a toenail from high school.

On the spare bed, there is a quilt with stars and crescent moons, figures of girls and boys joining hands along the borders, and the embroidered signatures of long-gone farm women, including my great-aunt Mabel’s. I am installed here, along with the Christmas wrappings, the desk of Betty’s uncle Oscar, and the bed I slept in with my grandmother as a boy, listening to Mammy’s snores and the sound of the furnace startled into service. My grandmother’s home in the village of Madison, ten or so miles west of us, where my mother grew up, was nicknamed the House of Many Chimneys. In the garden by the back door there were pink roses, which my grandmother, half blind and old, fretted over constantly, nicking her fingers on the thorns.

The hallway light is on. Betty has been in the kitchen, cadging a snack as she does in the middle of the night after being awakened by the need for the bathroom or dreams that make her cry out. Something—her dreams, her thoughts, her memories—hounds my mother at night. A light sleeper, she toddles around in her thick white socks, clearing her throat loudly, veering slightly from side to side, turning on the coffee, which will be cold by morning, checking to see if everything is in her own odd idea of order. After she has gone to bed, I try to light the path she takes to the kitchen in the dark, leaving on the lamp in my father’s office, along with one in the foyer, to provide a trail to guide her through the hall.

“Are you awake?” my mother asks.

“I am now,” I say.

Betty, who I recently discovered sorting through the contents of my suitcase, turns on the overhead light in my room, wrinkles her brow, and peers in like a camp counselor on an inspection tour, as if she suspects I might be entertaining someone who has paddled in from across the lake. She must keep an eye out. I am a schemer. There are things going on behind her back, plans afoot, she fears. She has no intention of cooperating with any of them. When the phone rings, she listens to every word, not sure if she can trust me with her independence. I don’t blame her. I am an unlikely guardian. A month ago I thought the Medicare doughnut hole was a breakfast special for seniors. I am a care inflictor.

She’s not easy to corral. Her will remains at blast-force strength.

“It’s a hot day, but I’m going to that sale,” she murmured last week in her sleep as outside the temperature soared past a hundred and, in her dream, she jabbed her finger up to place a bid. She is testier with me than anyone, sometimes slapping the air if I come too close. There are days I cannot please her. Carol, who has worked in nursing homes, says that old people who are failing get the angriest with those they are most attached to, the people who make them realize they are no longer themselves. But Betty’s crankiness is an act, I think, a way to conceal her embarrassment at having to ask anything of anyone. When I do some­thing for her, she looks away. Accustomed to fending for herself, she hates all this.

“I was worried,” Betty says. “You said last night you couldn’t sleep. I was worried you wouldn’t sleep tonight.” She stares at me.

“No, I’m sleeping. I’m asleep. Right now I’m talking in my sleep.”

“You’re in bed in your clothes again.”

“I dozed off reading.”

(Actually, I go to bed in clothes because I am waiting to be called into action, anticipating a fall, or stroke, or shout out. She seems so frail when I tuck her in. I keep the ambulance number, along with the one for the emergency room, on my bedside table.)

“It isn’t a good thing for people to go to bed in their clothes … The Appeal didn’t come today,” she complains.

Our little town’s newspaper, which reports civic events, charitable campaigns, and church news—including the “Movement of the Spirit” at the Full Gospel Church—has appeared erratically recently, possibly because of the increasingly short-staffed post office. This is the kind of lag that can throw my mother into crisis mode. She wants what she wants when she wants it.

“Did someone call today? From the church? I can’t find my other shoe, the Mephisto.”

I say we will look in the morning, and my mother, somewhat satisfied, almost smiles. For a second, there is the old Betty, who does not often appear now, my old friend.

In St. Louis, when we turn off Skinker onto Delmar, not far from the University City gates, Betty always points out the place where, as a young woman, working as a secretary at Union Electric, she waited for the streetcar. She seldom mentions the past, but loves to return to that old streetcar stop. Back in the 1940s, after the war, she was a pretty girl with wavy light brown hair, fresh from the “Miss Legs” contest at the university. Listening to her memories, I see her in a cast-off coat, not long after the war, looking down the tracks toward Webster Groves where she stayed with her aunt, called Nona. There is innocence in her expression, excitement at her new city life as she stands by other women in expensive dresses, the sort that Mammy never allowed her to buy. Sometimes I wonder whether she wishes she had gotten on that streetcar and ridden it to some other life.

By the time my mother realized that she was smart or saw she had the kind of looks that open doors, she had already closed too many to go back. “I just wanted a house with a few nice things,” she told me once. “That was my little dream.”

From Bettyville by George Hodgman, published on March 10, 2015 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by George Hodgman, 2015.

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