(1) STARS IN BLACK TURTLENECKS: George Hodgman. Photo by Joe Johnson for St. Louis magazine.
(2) SOME JOY: Hodgman interviewed for CBS Sunday Morning by Mo Rocca.
(3) BEFORE GOOGLE: Hodgman and his first dog Toto. He wrote:
“Dogs are one of the leitmotifs in Bettyville. This is me and my first dog, Toto, perhaps the worst-behaved animal in the history of the state of Missouri.
“Toto was a loyal but randy terrier who pursued every bitch in Monroe County. Domestic life did not come as second nature to him. Asked to perform even the most rudimentary trick, he yawned and sauntered off to lick his well-used private parts. He seemed to like my father, who had found him on the street and took care of him mostly. Me, he seemed to have reservations about. Each day, when Big George arrived home, Toto swaggered over to his station wagon, looking aggrieved and obligated to report that the boy-dog bonding thing wasn’t working out quite as he had envisioned.”
(4) When I was founding Editor in Chief of FourTwoNine magazine in San Francisco, I asked George for a column for the section I labeled 4FRONT. Each column was around 500 or so words. George sent me a personal essay of several thousand words. I never published it – only a section of it with a few added bits prompted by me – but I found the original essay this morning. I am finally publishing it in his memory.
Here is the voice of George Hodgman full of its singular sentiment, soulful, its foundational editor’s ear giving it direction and propelling it forward. Yet its poetic pulse was a lot like his mama’s unshod foot on the gas pedal of that car he wrote about that gave her freedom from herself toward herself, just as his voice gave him his from himself even as he dug deeper into who he really was.
I hope in some sense the realty of who he was – troubled and true and treasured by those who loved him so, though he would have hated that march of alliteration across this messy sentence – which gave him such a tragic end – more alliteration, George, sorry – also freed him.
He was an innate editor with a knowledge of the beats imbedded in prose. The cruel need to cross out a sentence, or several. The courage to X out whole paragraphs. Sometimes to suggest that a first draft was just too much drudgery to get through, even at times too painful for him to endure because of his love of language and his rigorously honest respect for it. He’d sometimes – gently, kindly – suggest one needed to kill that first draft and start anew. That is the only truth, the only sense, I can make of this tragedy. The narrative needed to stop. That is what I am left with this morning as I try to process it all. George’s maddening need for the narrative to stop. It was the only clarity he could find in the intensifying and increasingly dense text of his life. He gave himself his own ending. My only wish is that he had been as kind and gentle with himself as he was with others.
I loved him.
HE ALWAYS HAD PARIS by George Hodgman
Something wakes me, though inside there is only the soothing 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 my apartment; there are no sirens, no headlights, no horns, or clanking elevators, or streaks of neon shining through the blinds. I hear no cars with open windows pumping out dance music or trannies in tattered fishnets cussing out cops. This is not Manhattan, not Chelsea, not West Twenty-third Street, not 5DW.
No, I am home, in Paris, Missouri, population 1246 and falling quickly. Although I am a little embarrassed to concede it, I am staying here with my mother. Living here? Sort of. For a few more days or weeks. For now. Until Betty gives up and goes to an Assisted Living facility, or I can summon my strength to leave, or until something happens here on Sherwood Road, and she is gone.
And there she is, all ninety years of her, curlers in disarray, chuckling to herself for no apparent reason as she stands in the doorway of the room where I have been mostly not sleeping, our old guest room. It is the last place in America where one can still find shag carpet. (In it, I have recently 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 joining hands along the borders, and the embroidered signatures of long gone farmwomen, including my Great Aunt Mabel’s. I am installed here, along with the Christmas wrappings, the desk of Mabel’s husband, Oscar Callison, and the bed I slept in with my grandmother as a child, when I visited overnight, listening to her snores and the sound of the furnace kicking on as if startled into service.
Often, my mother stands at the window in our dining room, where the silver is tarnished now, in front of a wicker stand where she once kept geraniums, gazing out at the flowers outside for as long as she can bear to stand up. The pink rose bushes came from my grandmother’s garden and my uncle Bill, adept at many surprising skills, moved them to our yard. Sometimes, late at night, when I lie awake worrying about what will come next, as I so often do, I wonder if my mother is contemplating, as she stands at that window, what will become of her mother’s roses– transplanted by her brother’s old rough hands, pruned by my father, watered and tended by the family through decades of harsh summer sun– after she is moved, or gone and I, not destined to stay here, I fear, have reluctantly let go of our home.
The hallway light is on. I surmise that Betty has been in the kitchen, cadging a snack as she does, late at night or very early in the morning, after being awakened by the need for the bathroom, or the dreams that make her cry out. Something—her dreams, her thoughts, her memories–hounds my mother during the nights. She is a light sleeper and rises to toddle around the house in her thick white socks, clearing her throat loudly, veering slightly from side to side, turning on the coffee for the morning, checking to see if everything is in her own odd idea of order.
“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 under the cover of darkness. She seems to believe I have a great capacity to err. She must keep an eye out: Fifty is a dangerous age. She is not quite sure if she can trust me with the future, with her independence. I am a schemer, she thinks, like everyone around her now. No one is above suspicion: There are things going on behind her back, plans afoot, she fears. She has no intention of cooperating in any of them.
“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.”
“You’re sleeping in your clothes, again.”
“I feel asleep reading.”
(Actually, I didn’t fall asleep reading. I cannot settle down enough to read much. I sleep in my clothes because I am waiting to be called into action, anticipating her latest fall, or a stroke, or a shout out. I keep the ambulance number, along with the one for emergency room at the University Medical Center in Columbia, on my bedside table.)
Betty—actually Elizabeth, or on her best stationary, Elizabeth Baker Hodgman– doesn’t see at all well anymore. Certain corners of the world are slightly blurred and inaccessible. Her hearing sometimes fails her, but it is often difficult to determine whether she is missing something or simply choosing not to respond. Also, there is this: She is suffering from dementia or worse, I fear, the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. The nights, usually the hour or two before bed, are the worst and her confusion seems to increase as the days progress. At some moments, she is just about fine, barking orders at Esther, our cleaning lady; rowing with me over everything possible; sharp enough to play a little bridge. Sometimes, though, she is a lost girl with sad eyes, looking as though she is waiting for her mother to come and take her someplace safe. She is busy on the inside, in and out, likely to drift off into her own world, or sit staring for long spells with a vacant look, or forget the name of someone or something one she knew, back then, before she had to worry about what the next day would bring. The other day, she asked five times throughout the day, “What is the name of that stuff you drink at Christmas?” Egg nog. Egg nog. Egg nog. Egg egg. Egg nog.
Betty shuts off the light and I hear the whistle of the old trains that still clank and bang across Missouri, making the crossing on Highway 24. There is, as well, the sound of her footsteps in the hallway as she pads back to her own bed with its old spread and thin yellow sheets washed too many times. “They’ll last me out,” she says when I suggest replacements. I listen carefully for signs of trouble in the hall, breathe a bit more deeply when I hear her light switch click and the springs of her mattress. What do the very old look forward to? In her case, I am afraid, there is very little, actually. There is only tomorrow, and the day after, and then? These are her last days as herself. I am here to make them happier, because I have always lived for mainly for me and because I believe that, once in life, at least, you should stand up for someone else, you should be there, you should try to do the human thing. I have lived for Graydon Carter and Tina Brown, writers who call at midnight, outraged over punctuation changes. I have lived for circuit parties, and trips to South Beach, fretted over the proper shaving of body hair, bemoaned the indifference of beautiful boys. Now I live for her and I know that I can never go back to “as it was.” This has changed me. I am different now. Her last gift is the chance for me to love. Getting it seems unimportant now. Isn’t it funny how life sneaks in to change you?
It is 3 a.m. I steal a stale cigarette from my mother’s old, hidden cache and sit out on the step in front of our house. I think I can hear the one streetlight on the corner buzzing. The mailbox made by my father is torn up now and can barely contain a postcard. I would fix it, but I am so not handy. Nor do I assemble. The mention of Ikea is enough to unhinge me. Also: I am running out of meals I know how to prepare for our supper. Tonight, after our walk, I rolled out tuna casserole with potato chips crumbled on top. Betty was stoic, probably because she seemed uncertain about what exactly she was consuming. She should not live alone, but vetoes all the conventional alternatives. Firmly. So here we are for now; I am responsible for her. She is young. I am old. It is my time to play the grownup and I don’t want the part. “Don’t put me in a place with a lot of old people,” she says. Fine, I say to myself, I’ll go.
There is an apartment in New York with tumbling piles of books and, on the wall, a collage of family photos I made several years ago. In the refrigerator, there is takeout food I forgot to throw out before I left and a large assortment of unopened water products. I have three pairs of pants here in Missouri and about five summer shirts. This visit, for my mother’s birthday, was supposed to last two weeks. That was many months ago. I cannot seem to make it to the plane.
As I re-enter the house, I look in on Betty. She is sleeping with the covers kicked off and her purse in bed beside her, making the odd, sweet noises old people make when they sleep. I hope she is dreaming of flying down the open road. Tomorrow, I will take her wherever she needs to go.
This year, Betty had to give up her driver’s license. It was a blessing in disguise; it should have happened at least a year before. But she just wouldn’t relent and, as usual, I postponed intervention. The end came when she backed into a ditch at MacDonald’s after a bridge game. It seems she had suffered bad cards. Betty likes to win and, miffed over the injustice of losing, I think, she wasn’t paying attention. It was too late for her to be out, anyway; she had promised not to drive after dark. Now she sits home, awaiting invitations. “They won’t even let me drive to the grocery store,” she says, sadly. Her fingers, with their chipped pink polish, are itchy for the feel of the keys and the freedom to just get up and go.
My mother has always driven. She never stayed home. Most of my memories involve going places with her–Columbia, or to the swimming pool at the Moberly Country Club where she liked to tan her legs. But sometimes, often actually, I was left behind. I was sick all the time. “Every fifteen minutes,” my mother complained, “he picks up some new bug.” At some point, in my early childhood, it was decided that I–an only child–was socializing too exclusively with eccentric older relatives and the bosomy woman who kept the books in my father’s lumber yard and told me dirty jokes. I was “plump,” disobedient, sassy, already depressed over the state of my world. “Spank him, he tears around here like he owns the place,” my grandmother told my mother. “He won’t let me,” Betty always replied. “Just give us a break.”
I needed, or so thought by my mother, to be around children my age, but the tiny town of Madison, where we still lived then, did not have a kindergarten. School didn’t start until first grade. So my parents paid tuition for me to go to kindergarten in Moberly, the nearby town where my mother would later have her disastrous meeting with the errant ditch. It was arranged that she would take me each day to the county line where I would wait for the Moberly school bus.
My mother, who my father always called “too damn high strung,” stayed in the bathroom early in the mornings fussing with her hair and smoking Kent cigarettes. We never left in time. I watched the clock nervously while Betty, a few years or so over forty then (I was a late baby), sprayed her locks dyed with Summer Blonde or put in curlers. We were never on time. She’d floor it as we sped down the highway, radio blaring with the sounds of DJ Johnny Rabbit’s optimistic, all-American voice on KXOK St Louis. These were the mornings when I learned to love pop music, a lifelong fixation. My mother and I sang along to “This Diamond Ring” by Gary Lewis and the Playboys, “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” by the deep-voiced Righteous Brothers, and Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” my first- ever favorite song:
My mother drove—fast, as usual. Yet we never made it to the county line in time to catch the bus, steered by Mr. Singleton. Betty never understood why they couldn’t just wait for me to arrive. She always had to drive me all the way to Moberly to school. She never seemed to mind. She was out of the house, away from our cluttered kitchen counters. She always took her shoe off the foot she used for the gas pedal. Once my cousin said my mother drove “like a bat out of Joplin” and I took it as a point of pride. I like fast things and the highway where we always traveled 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, telling my grandmother, concerned about her daughter’s tendency to let certain things go, that the house could wait, that she had places to be.
“Where are we now?”, she asks sometimes. “Where are we today?” So often, I just don’t know. Betty leaves a little every day. “Don’t leave me,” she says, if I go to bed before she is ready also. “Are you going to leave me?” If I say I might move my work to my father’s desk in the back of the house, forsaking the card table in the family room, near the couch that is her center of command, she begs me to stay. She sits besides me all day, always wants me near. I remember how my father, in the last years of his life, when his heart was bad, spoke of waking to find my mother, her face right up in his, checking to see if he was breathing. “I’m dead, Betty. I’m dead,” he’d say. “Well how would I know if you were,” she’d respond. “I’d have to wake up and find you.”
These days, I understand her fear. I am never certain quite what I will wake up to. Recently, as she was preparing for our daily walk, I discovered her trying to put her sock on over her shoe. Soon, she will need more than I, or any single, nonprofessional person can give. But she is not ready to give up. Despite her vision, her fading hearing, her stomach problems, and sometimes uncertain sense of reality, she tries to hold on in this place that is so familiar, her home.
Sometimes, it seems, it is the smallest things that trouble my mother most—the glass broken, the roast she cannot bake right, the can opener she cannot command to do its work, the TV remote control she cannot remember how to operate. Tell her a tornado is coming and she will go on with her book. Tell her you cannot find her address book and she will almost fold. Yet she has always been a determined woman, a force. She has been my rock and I am convinced that, at some level, she has survived to give me–a bit of a loner without lover, partner, mate, or child– a home.
I fix her meals, buy her new bracelets, leave Peppermint Patties under her pillow, drive her to her battalion of doctors, try to imagine something that will make her look a little happier. I know that her days are numbered in this house, built by my father, where deer run in the backyard, and Sara Dawson, down the street, watches for Betty’s light in the mornings, in the kitchen window, where so many times I have seen my mother’s face, watching out for me, as I turned into the driveway. For both of us, finally, I know, these are our final days of home. So I stay on. I hate to lose people. I imagine how scary it is to know that the person one is losing is oneself. She would have stayed for me.
The next day comes. It is a rare day: From early morning on, one call after another. My mother refuses to answer the telephone herself, balks at even being called to the receiver. On the line this morning, she oozes the frustration of a mob boss, dissatisfied with the morning tallies from Vegas. By the third of fourth call, Betty—who has the tendency to hit the wrong button and end calls accidentally—is greeting her callers with: “Speak!”
When i Coiffures calls, I start to put Betty on, but the shop’s owner stops me, asks: “Are you her son?” Apparently, Betty—who surrenders no information– has nearly fallen on her last visit. The woman on the line cannot risk a lawsuit if my mother tumbles down on the way to the operator’s chair. Now Betty will have to be accompanied by someone who will wait while she gets her hair done.
As I talk, I watch Betty, who eyes me gravely, her antenna for trouble unfailing. Yes, she is sometimes shaky on her feet, I tell the caller. But the biggest problem, I maintain, is her shoes. The woman agrees. She says the soles on Betty’s aged sandals are worn down enough to make her trip. Hip—breaking, I think: Please don’t even mention hip-breaking. After hanging up, I explain the situation to Betty who slams her book down on the couch. “I’m ninety years old and everybody in town is telling me what to do!” When she clicks the TV remote control device, I feel that she is pointing it at me. “Be still,” she yells. “Just be still.” Then she stops. “I am ninety,” she says, questioning herself. “Am I ninety today?”
My mother complains constantly about her feet. New shoes, she claims, cause her agony. (She has always taken a particular pride in the fact that she wears a narrow size. Now she insists on the same size, though her feet have swollen.) During fittings, she cries out. Fellow shoppers stop in concern, fearful she is being attacked. In her mind, she is: Nothing is right; nothing feels good. For several years, despite our efforts at malls across the region, she has found no pair that does not cause her pain. At Saks, a clerk pulled out a pair of flats by Jimmy Choo. “Listen,” I begged her. “We are not talking Sex in the City here.”
A pile of rejects which Betty has tried on in the stores with moderate satisfaction only to rebel against at home, grows higher by the couch. She refuses to put them on or try to break them in, relying instead—even in winter– on the beat-up sandals and her ancient Mephisto “runners.” Now, when I reach for a pair of the new shoes, she brings the newspaper up over her face and sticks her feet under the coffee table. As I withdraw, I catch her peeping out from behind the paper quite satisfied with her obstruction. I wonder if my Twelve-Step group might pass some sort of temporary humanitarian injunction allowing me to injest Xanax on an emergency basis.
Since man first staggered across the earth, wars have been waged over God, land, money, freedom. This is the beginning of the The War of Shoes, a battle for control over one small territory that remains my mother’s own: her feet, a dry landscape below the region of swollen ankles, a terrain coursed by rivers of fragrant lotion, of calloused patches, broken veins, errant toes. On this field of battle I vowed to lay my body down. Withdrawing to my bedroom, I plan future maneuvers. My hostages, I decide, will be stowed in the crowded confines of my bedroom closet, but despite my inclinations, I will stop short of waterboarding.
As I headed out to pay bills at the city office, I enter the family room that Betty had recently vacated for her morning nap. The TV is tuned to “Wild About Animals.” Hastily, I did what has to be done, seizing the sandals. The Mephistos I decided to leave for a while, as an act of mercy. I was not prepared to risk annihilation.
If I were starting a Betty Museum, I would make an exhibit out of the sandals with their worn, thin straps and soles indented with my mother’s dark footprints. These shoes are relics; they sum up our last years here, on this planet. I treat them kindly; they have served us well, through weather in all forms and days of challenges. In my bedroom, I tuck them into the closet on a high shelf. There will be repercussions. But this is war.
Just before 4 p.m., when I drive into the driveway, the garage door is up, and my mother is standing at the door to the empty space, wearing no shoes, as upset as I have seen her, maybe ever. She is livid, fiery. After fifty years, I can read her; today, anyone could: she can conceal much but registers dissatisfaction without hesitation. Her face is angry; her body is angry. Even her hair, shooting out at odd angles, looks mad. I tense up, afraid that she will step out and trip on the rug in front of the door. When I get to her, Betty, nearly frantic, strikes me on the chest with her fist. “Where have you been? Where were you? I have to get to the church. You have to take me to the church. How could you forget me? You knew this was the day. You knew this was the day.” She slaps me on the arm. “You were there when they called this morning. You heard. You heard them say there was a meeting.”
I have not remembered that I was supposed to drive her to a Memorial Committee meeting at four. I try to apologize, but she will not hear it, will not settle down. Her rage has been building since who knows quite when. Although she is mostly dressed for the meeting—she has made a real effort to be on time–she is on the verge of breaking down, her body trembling. But there is something behind her panic, besides the fact that I have forgotten her. She cannot find her shoes. “What,” she asks me, in desperation, “have you done with my shoes? Why do you treat me like this? Where have you put my shoes?”
The clock says it is after four. Betty—still slapping my upper arms–says she will never make the meeting, beats her hand on the table as she makes the point over and over: “Old, old, old.” They will say she is too old, too old, too old. They will say she shouldn’t even be on the committee, that she can no longer keep track of the expenditures. “They will say I forget,” she keeps repeating. They will say I forget, forget, forget.” Her hand beats the table again and again and again. “Why did you leave? Where did you go? Why today? Why don’t you ever pay the slightest attention?”
I give up immediately, all vows rescinded. I get the sandals and when she sees them, when it is confirmed beyond denial that I have hidden them, a new wave of hurt and anger emerges and she slaps me on the arm before sitting down at the kitchen table and trying, unsuccessfully, to put them on her feet, a task that she cannot manage because she is so enraged at me, at her feet, at the people at the church, at herself, the way she is. “Calm down,” I say, taking her hand, which she pulls away, slapping slapping me away. “Please Mama,” I beg her. “Please, please mama. It is alright. It is okay. You’re alright. You’re okay.”
“Am I,” she asks. “Am I? I don’t think so. I don’t think so.”
For the meeting, she has put on her good black pants that we found at J Jill in St. Louis. They are tattletales that keep record of every day’s spills, every crumb or bit of lint, everything she has brushed against, every speck of this or that. Tight at her bulging waist, baggy over her narrow legs, they hang down over her feet. Sometimes, because of her vision, she cannot make out how much of her life has accumulated on her outfits and just doesn’t realize how badly they need to be cleaned. How unforgiving the eyes of the world can be, even over small things: She knows that now. That is part of what she has learned on this road.
Kneeling in front of her, face to face with the sandals, I salute my victorious adversaries as I kneel in front of Betty and brush off the legs of her trousers with my hands. Her fingers, resting tentatively on my shoulder for one fleeting second, when it seems that she has almost lost her bearings, are trembling. Her shoes, her good old shoes: She thought they had just walked off and left her. She thought they were gone. From the sink, I bring a damp cloth to erase a dusty streak on the trousers. Her gaze meets mine, but then she looks away from whatever my eyes show. This is the ending of the war of shoes.
She is under siege, from scary thoughts, from new shoes, from a son that does not understand, from a world that cannot comprehend the confusion and pain of the secret battle she does not acknowledge to anyone, maybe not even herself—the struggle to stay, to hold on, to maintain. She looks up at me, her elbow on the kitchen table, her hand gripping her forehead as if it is too heavy to hold up. Her eyes, where clouds have settled in, which seem to grow larger, more liquid, every day, are full of fear, her expression anguished. How hard she is trying here. No one knows. They are taking everything away. Now I, the one who she counted on her side, have taken her shoes, the only ones that still soothe her tired, sore feet, that carry her load. She is so hurt.
This is what I see in her face: the wandering one, the one who is letting go and the anguished one, the one who remains, but who knows she is losing, barely holding on. They coexist, alternating, the one gradually ceding to the other. As the surrender progresses, she becomes more and more anxious, sometimes even terrified.
“Betty’s okay,” I whisper. “Betty’s fine. Betty’s home. Betty’s okay. Betty’s fine. Betty’s home.” When I finally get her in the car, she looks at me as if she has lost the only person in the world she trusts. I get her to church, hold open the car door, help her in, and down the basement stairs. They are waiting and not everyone looks like they have maintained their patience. As she starts into the room, she rallies; she straightens her shoulders. She heads into the fray. She sees a sea of faces whose names she is not sure she remembers, who will question how much she has spent for flowers. She prepares herself. She marches into the mob. She is no longer the one she remembers. Now she is different. But she goes through the door, clutching that purse in front of her like a shield, looking back with a face that says she forgives me, reaching out for my arm as I turn to leave.
The meeting will not last long and I don’t want her to have to wait for me when it over. Sitting in the car, I watch the door so I can help her down the stairs when the time comes. There was a day once, a few years back, before I realized how bad her eyes had gotten, when I had left her at the church to practice the piano. Detained at the lawyer’s office, where I had been trying to get some explanations about some of her affairs, I was late to pick her up. When I returned, I saw no other cars in the parking lot and glimpsed Betty, walking close by the side of the church, keeping both hands on the wall of the building, moving tentatively toward the side yard to wait by the steps for me. There was no sun; it was a cloudy day. She moved very slowly as if, just ahead, there might be something waiting, something that might take an old woman down forever.
Later, I am scared and sad, lonely for friends. I cannot bear to sit in the house one more night. I mix pineapple with cottage cheese, bake a piece of salmon, and give Betty an early supper for which she is grateful. She eats as if starved, as if someone were going to take her plate away. When I say I am going out, she nods her head. “I don’t begrudge you a little time off,” she says, “but don’t forget my ice cream. With strawberries.” It is her special treat. I slice the berries carefully as they are ripe and nearly bursting with juice.
The town is getting me down. My biggest entertainment is a trip to the convenience store. I am very often lonesome. In the Columbia paper, I have read about a program at the synagogue there on Green Meadows Road. It is called “Coming to America” and features elderly Jews from the area telling the stories of where they are from and how they came to this country. After filling the tank with gas, I head out and decide, as I have time, that I will take the route through Madison and a country town called Middle Grove. I have been taking Betty there to buy pies in the little store run by the Amish. By the time I reach the area where the Amish reside, the sun is setting. I slow down, pass big white houses where the extended families live together, notice the little one-room schools. Because the children must walk to school there are, despite the small size of the overall community, several schools along the road, which the kids can reach easily on foot, whatever the weather.
I watch the Amish in their heavy dark clothes, which must bake them at this time of year, gathered on their porches or walking in from the fields, silhouettes against the sky filled with streams of color. By the side of the road, a group of little girls in aprons marches together toward the little store, carrying dishes covered in white cloths. One girl lags behind. Her bonnet is untied and the strings hang down her chest. Her cheeks are dirty and her boots appear to be unlaced. She stomps angrily down the path, oblivious to the rest. She looks angry; I sense rebellion. Enough with the churning: this one may just be heading off the reservation. In less than a decade she could easily be lap-dancing. I imagine Betty as a girl like this, inclined toward irritable moments and headstrong, determined to go her own way. I like a girl like that.
In Columbia, at the synagogue, I eat a few green grapes from the table and find a seat. I listen to the stories. A woman named Hannah Klatcho, whom I know of from my cousin, is introduced. She speaks softly, reverently of her parents as she describes her childhood in Cologne where her father was a wealthy grain merchant. After the persecutions began, her family obtained hard-to-get visas out of the country. Australia was where they found themselves–poor, without any of the things they were accustomed to having. Hannah’s father got a job stabbing trash in a park with a spiked stick. At lunchtime, he watched the Aussies play tennis and gathered their used, dirty balls, pitched onto the sidelines, to take home to his children. Sometimes there was a broken racket he could fix up. Hannah tells the audience that, these days, she can never open a can of clean tennis balls without feeling grateful. She saves all her old balls in a box she keeps in her garage.
The rabbi rises to speak, begins to tell us of his childhood in Palestine and his journey to New York where he moved to study history. He was lonely in Manhattan; none of the Europeans in his synagogue could understand his thick accent and most of the people his age were already married and unavailable for social activities. He rode subways until late at night, listening to people speak and attempting to learn to understand them. His only friend, he says, was the New York Times.
The stories calm and soothe me. All my life, stories have saved me, beginning with the ones my mother read to me, hour after hour, as a child when I had bad dreams. Little human stories that say, “Yes, this is what I have been through and I am still standing,” have kept me sane. Tonight is no exception: My mother is not the only person to have encountered difficulties on her journey. I am not the only one to find myself lonely in a place where friends are few.
Later, after the drive home through the dark country, approaching our house, I see my mother’s face in the window. She has been waiting. I find her inside, in her nightgown and socks, tense and nervous. “I thought you had run away,” she tells me. Standing behind her, I guide her down the hall towards her bedroom with my hands on her hips. I put an old soft towel to warm up in the dryer and then spread it around her feet which, she always complains, get cold at night.
To help her get to sleep, I sit on the edge of her bed and tell her stories, the tale of Hannah’s father and his tennis balls, the lonely days of the rabbi. Betty says that when she was young and working as a secretary in St. Louis, she went to the zoo in Forest Park sometimes on Saturdays. Walking to see the animals, she sometimes saw the rich people who lived in the grand houses around the park playing tennis. She liked the white skirts, “clean as a whistle, always,” she says. “These were girls who probably never did their own laundry.”
“Will you remember to water the roses,” she asks before drifting off. I do not leave until I am sure she is okay. Outside it is hot, as it was, during the summer of my mother’s birth, a year of record-breaking heat. I think of my grandmother, sitting on the steps in the summer night, brushing her hair as my mother cried through the night and she—a young woman with so much work to do the next day and the day after–tried to think of some way to make her little girl feel better. As I leave the room, I notice the shoes, my mother’s ancient sandals, there by Betty’s bed, waiting for another morning in the world. When she wakes, I will cook her breakfast. I will stay here until it is over. I am different now.