This book is dedicated, first and foremost, to my best friends, my parents: George A. and Betty Baker Hodgman. Every word about them is written with love.
If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember. Make a decision and what you want from the lost things will present itself. You can take it down like a can from a shelf.
—Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights
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 air-conditioning 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.”
. . .
Betty—actually Elizabeth, or, on her best stationery, Elizabeth Baker Hodgman—doesn’t see well at all. Certain corners of the world are blurred. Her hearing sometimes fails her, but it is often difficult to determine whether she is missing something or simply choosing not to respond. Also, she is suffering from dementia or maybe worse.
Some days she is just about fine, barking orders at Earleen, our cleaning lady, sharp enough to play bridge with her longtime partners. Other times, though, she is a lost girl with sad eyes. I am scared I am going to break her. I am new at all this.
We have hunts for liquid tears, or checks, or hearing aids, or the blouse Earleen was supposed to have ironed for church. The mind of my mother has often drifted away from peripheral matters. She has always been busy on the inside, a little far away.
Now more than ever, she is in and out, more likely to drift off into her own world for a minute or two. Or sit staring for long spells with a vacant look. Or forget the name of someone she knew, back then, before she had to worry about not remembering. In the afternoons, her whimpers and moans, her little chats with herself are all I hear in the house. The nights, especially just before bed, are the worst. She knows something is happening to her, but would never say so. We circle around her sadness, but she will not let me share it. Acknowledging anything would make it real. These, I fear, are her last days as herself.
. . .
My mother always drove fast, never stayed home. In the old days, we sped across the plains in our blue Impala, radio blaring DJ 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 until the very last minute. “I look like something the cat drug in,” she told herself, frowning into the mirror.
When she finally came out, I’d be sitting on the hood of the car, my Batman lunch box already empty except for wads of foil and a few hastily scraped carrots.
“I’m a nervous wreck,” I’d cry out. I was an only child, raised mostly among adults. I repeated what I heard and didn’t get half of what I was saying.
“Why are you just sitting there?” she’d yell as if I were the one delaying things.
Those mornings, heading to school, 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 Righteous Brothers, and Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” Betty took her shoe off the foot she used for the gas pedal and almost floored it.
I like fast things, and the highway between Madison and Moberly 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.
“What are you looking at, little demon?” she would ask.
“Don’t bug me,” I’d say. “Mind your own business.”
“You are my business.”
“Betty,” my father often said, “no one would mistake that kid for anyone’s but yours.”
I was Betty’s boy.
This year, Betty had to give up her driver’s license after backing into a ditch. Now she must sit home, awaiting invitations. “They won’t even let me go to the grocery store,” she says. Her eyes are wistful and her fingers, with their chipped pink polish, are itchy for the feel of the car keys.
. . .
Suddenly, Betty yells out. “Oh God,” I think as I run to her, trip on a hair curler and barely escape ankle injury. “What is it?” I ask as I approach her door. “What is it?”
“Say,” she begins, “you didn’t get toilet paper.”
We go through enough toilet paper for an army. I think she is involved in some sort of art project. A kind of Christo thing.
“I’ll get some tomorrow,” I say.
“That suits me,” she answers, pausing before asking, “Did you make me a hair appointment?”
“I told them it was an emergency.”
It is 3 a.m. I steal a cigarette from my mother’s old, hidden cache and sit out on the step in front of our house in the dark. The mailbox made by my father is falling apart now. I would fix it, but am not handy. Nor do I assemble. A trip to Ikea is enough to unhinge me. I would prefer a spinal tap to putting together a coffee table.
I am running out of meals I know how to prepare. Tonight, feeling nostalgic, I rolled out tuna casserole made with Campbell’s Mushroom Soup and crushed potato chips.
“I didn’t know anyone still made this,” she said.
“I was trying to think outside the box . . . Mushrooms are vegetables. Or are they a fungus?”
Mushrooms, I realized, are a fungus. I had served my mother a fungus casserole. With barbecue potato chips.
. . .
“There is no such thing as a perfect parent.” Betty always said that. But to me she was perfect. Especially when she thought she was not. In grade school, on holidays, the mothers brought refreshments. Popcorn balls—crunchy white confections with the popped kernels held together with sorghum—were my favorites. When it was her turn to bring treats, Betty asked what I wanted. I said, “Popcorn balls.” She said, “Oh brother,” and lit a cigarette.
The kitchen was not her natural habitat. Her tendency to never turn things off led to exploding percolators and smoky puffs from toasters. A few days after my popcorn-ball request, I found Betty in front of the oven in her hair rollers, which were held in place with pink picks that tended to turn up all around the house. The kitchen, never a page from Good Housekeeping, was strewn with bowls and baking sheets. Sticky lumps of popcorn and fallen curlers were everywhere. On a tray there was a strange grouping of misshapen popcorn balls.
When I said they were supposed to be all the same size, Betty appeared exasperated, harassed, so forlorn and disappointed. She had failed. Nothing was right. She thought she had to be some kind of model mother.
I reached for a ball and took a bite. “I think these are the best I’ve had,” I told her as I stuck some of the picks from her curlers into the balls so they would look a little snazzy.
“Why are you doing that?” she said. “Go outside and throw something.”
. . .
My mother should not live alone now, but vetoes all conventional alternatives. I try to pretend I am in control. It is my time to play the grown-up 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.”
In my apartment in New York there are tumbling piles of books and, in the refrigerator, cartons of take-out food I forgot to throw out. By now it must have sprouted new life forms. I imagine squatters with grimy faces, warming their hands over fires crackling from large rusty barrels. Chickens are running everywhere, clucking and bursting madly into flight. I am probably going to have to stay here in Missouri and become a horse whisperer.
I have three pairs of pants and about five summer shirts, food-stained from my culinary efforts. This visit, for my mother’s birthday, was supposed to last two weeks. It is getting on two months. I lost my job; I have the time. I am not a martyr. I am just available, an unemployed editor relegated to working freelance.
I think about leaving, but cannot seem to make it to the plane. My fingers will not dial the American Airlines number and I realize that my place in New York would feel very empty if I returned. I miss the company of people from work. I’d miss Betty too. Turns out I am a person who needs people. I hate that.
“Don’t leave me,” Betty says, if I go to bed before she is ready also. “Are you going to leave me?” If I start to move my work to my father’s desk in the back of the house, forsaking the card table near the couch that is her center of command, she begs me to stay. She sits beside me all day, always wants me near, a real change from the woman who was always shooing me away, off to camp or college, or the next phase, off to be independent. If I allow someone else to take her to the doctor—the foot doctor, say, not an emergency situation—she is angry for a day or two. This is how it is now.
My mother is scared. I cannot believe it. But she will not speak of her fears. She is locked up tight. She keeps her secrets. I keep mine. That is our way. We have always struggled with words.
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. This interlude, I know, cannot last. My life, such as it is, is on hold. I am worried by how we are living now, scared of drifting, losing footing on my own ground. Soon she will need more than I can provide, but she is not ready to give up. Despite her vision, her fading hearing, her stomach problems, and the rest, she tries to hold on in this place that is so familiar, her home.
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 operate. Tell her the house is on fire and she will go on with the newspaper. 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 gay man whose life she has never understood—a place to call home.
In her wake now, a path of open cabinets, dirty Kleenexes and crumbs, cantaloupe seeds on the couch and the floor, bills she intends to pay, food left out to spoil. I polish the silver, fix her meals, buy her new bracelets, leave Peppermint Patties under her pillow, drive her to her battalion of doctors. I buy mountains of fresh fruit, still—like ice cream—a luxury for a woman raised in the country during the Depression. Even after decades of relative prosperity, a bowl of fresh strawberries remains a thing of beauty to her, a wonderful surprise. She spies them with the delight of an excited girl.
I try to imagine anything that will make her a little happier. If only, just once in a while, she could 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. I am a loner, but I hate to lose people. I can only imagine how scary it is to know that the person one is losing is oneself.
In Missouri in springtime, the rivers rise and the rolling fields stretching acres and acres, miles and miles, gradually go green as the farmers fret over the wet ground, wondering when it will be dry enough to disc and get the crops out. In the mornings, old women wander through wet grass, bending with dirty hands over jonquils or bursts of peonies, rising to inspect children walking to school or hang summer clothes to air in the breeze.
In April and May, torrents of rain come, lightning chars the tree trunks, and the branches fall, and the thunderclaps crash. Creeks and rivers flood the river bottoms and roads. Betty hit the gas and drove through the water, never acknowledging anything unusual.
More twisters touch down here than ever now. A few years back, the town of Joplin, a few hundred miles away, was nearly destroyed by a funnel cloud that gathered force as it made its way across the plains. Many people died. The world took note.
Betty had little to report. These things happen. That is life. One year, near Paris, a farmer was taken up in the winds. Betty did not register the event, just marched on. She is from determined stock.
According to a family story, my mother’s grandmother Anna Callison began a journey one spring morning at the age of eighty-five, departing from Union Station in St. Louis. She traveled alone by train halfway across the country, to Virginia, where as a girl during the Civil War she fetched a drink of water for Traveller, the horse of General Robert E. Lee. She headed back to catch a glimpse of Traveller’s bones, which had been recently excavated, to remember the morning when she saw the general, the war, the days when she was a girl. No one could stop her. Not Mammy, or Nona, or Uncle Oscar.
“That old woman was crazy,” Betty says.
. . .
Spring is long gone now; it is August and the heat has been record breaking. No rain since June. Even the river bottom looks like desert and the corn in the fields is burning on the stalks.
On the television news at 6 p.m., I learn that members of the Missouri legislature, some of whom carry guns into sessions, are considering a bill to ban the imposition of sharia law. There is a controversy over a resolution forbidding teenagers access to tanning beds without parental permission. Betty scrutinizes the television.
“They are going to start arresting teenagers for illegal tanning,” I tell her.
“You’re not as funny as you think you are,” she replies. My humor makes her look as pained as she did at parties when my father, a tenor, and never bashful, belted out barroom ditties as the other husbands strained to mutter a word. I am irony. She is no nonsense. Our lives have been lived on different planes.
I like staying up all night, hunched over a manuscript, playing with the words and sentences. I like setting out for somewhere early in the morning when no one is stirring. When I scan my existence, I can recognize no recognizable pattern. At home in New York, I listen to music, read books, fish old photographs from trash cans on the street. I like the unconventional, the city and its stories, castoffs and characters of dubious reputation. My mother has sometimes lived her life for the neighbors. I have never been able to remember the neighbors’ names.
. . .
“Who is that?” Betty demands to know as a kid roars by in his pickup as we back out of our driveway into the early evening. “Now where is he going?” On the corner, where the city is excavating and there is a pile of dirt, she demands, “What are they doing? It looks like they’ve dug a big hole. You better watch out.”
She is wearing the jeans she will never take off and a blouse with wrinkles she cannot see. For many days this pairing has been her choice. I have given up trying to control her clothes. God grant me the serenity to accept the clothes I cannot change.
We are thirty minutes late for a dinner so I hit the gas, and in moments we are turning onto 24, heading out of town. We pass a church, not so well kept up, where the sign that usually displays Bible verses beckons with a request: PRAY FOR RAIN. Prayers are frequent around here, especially this summer. Angels are hoped for. A woman nearly killed in a car crash on I-70 claims to have seen an angel crossing the road before her car veered out of control.
We pass the place where, some years back, Major’s Drive-In Theater blew down in a bad spring storm. We pass shiny black cows. Mammy always talked about how pretty she thought black cows looked against green grass. But the grass is not green this summer and Mammy is a long time gone.
Betty sighs as she surveys the fields. “It’s a good thing we don’t have to try to sell lumber to the farmers this year,” she said. “Lotsa luck.” She hugs her purse, a bag of flowered cloth I purchased for her birthday and she declared too youthful. “I thought you didn’t like that purse,” I commented. “It’s bought and paid for,” she says. “I’m not going to turn my nose up at it.”
This is the real country, not a place for rich weekenders. Tractors putt along highways where vapor rises and tar melts. We go by one of the lumberyards our family used to own, closed decades now, where a meth lab was discovered in an outbuilding. Betty turns her head rather than see the place. Some man keeps a collection of boa constrictors on the premises now. Recently one escaped to slither down Rock Road toward the home of my high school typing teacher, an excitable woman, unprepared for a morning of snake wrestling. To my way of thinking, the only proper place for a boa is around Cher’s neck at the Golden Globes.
Dinner is at the home of Jane Blades, my old friend. We are late because Betty has demanded her gin and tonic, her five o’clock ritual. When Betty asks whom Jane is married to, I say, “No one you know.” She says she hopes Jane does not have to support him. “Whoever he is.” Betty never thinks anyone has married the right person. Some speak of love and romance. This is not my mother. A ring on the finger is not, in her opinion, a ticket to high heaven, but she is usually curious about the quality of the diamond.
. . .
“I shouldn’t even be going,” Betty says. “I’m an ugly old woman. I’m an old battle-ax.”
“How do you think I feel?” I ask her. “I don’t have a pair of decent pants I can button over my stomach.”
“You could take off a few pounds.”
“Did you fix your hair that way intentionally?”
“Just be quiet. Don’t say a word.”
“I’m probably headed for a gastric bypass.”
“Stop,” she says. “Don’t talk. . . . Al Roker had one.”
“A gastric bypass. He had it on The Today Show.”
“During the weather report?”
“Everyone could see it. I thought Earleen would never shut up about it.”
. . .
Betty peers at the huge metal barbecue on Jane’s patio. “What is that?” she asks. “I don’t know,” I say. “A school bus?”
When Jane comes out, we hug, but Betty draws back. Her family, the Bakers, did not hug socially, and she is not a woman who cares much for such. Nor is she often sentimental. Inside a silver locket she has worn for years, a gift from my father, are the stock photographs of strangers it came with. When she speaks of dying, I tell her how sad I will be. She waves my words away. “The world goes on,” she says.
Jane’s house is nice, but a little bare compared to ours, cluttered with antiques laden with hat-pin holders, candy dishes, decanters, ashtrays, and figurines. Many of our things are dusty, but Betty can’t see well enough to recognize this. One could safely say that she considers the absence of bric-a-brac a social problem roughly comparable to malnutrition.
My father, the unofficial architect of the lumberyards once owned by my mother’s family, supervised the remodeling of Jane’s house decades ago. He gave my friend his greatest compliment. She did not, as he always put it, dillydally over everything. When I bring this up, Jane says my dad made her laugh, Betty says nothing. She never mentions my father, dead since 1997. She is always silent about loss.
“Oh God, what a character,” Jane says of Big George.
My mother stares at me.
Inside is Evie Cullers, a colorful soul whose light blue sweatshirt says COUNTRY KWWR, MISSOURI’S SUPERSTATION; it looks clean enough for a baby. A former floral designer, now in her sixties, Evie sometimes bemoans the poor quality of current funerals and warns of the pitfalls of cremation. “They burn everybody on the same tray and there is a potential for getting one person’s ashes mixed up with another’s.
“If I’m gonna be livin’ in a urn,” she declared, “I’m not crazy about the idea of having a roommate.”
I love Evie because she is a character; Betty is sympathetic to her as both have vision problems. “I was over to Wal-Mart,” Evie tells me. “I was searching for something in the drug section and asked some kid for help, said I was visually impaired. He said he’d get someone. Five minutes later, I hear over the loudspeaker, ‘Blind woman needs help in drugs.’ I mean, what else do they say on the loudspeaker at Wal-Mart? ‘We got a bitch in toys’?”
Betty’s eye difficulties, not quite as serious as Evie’s now—thanks to a legion of doctors and treatments—began when I was in grade school when her retina detached during a surgery for a condition called latticed retinas that Mammy had as well. There have been eight or ten surgeries since then, culminating in transplanted corneas. It has been decades since she has seen clearly, but no complaints have been uttered. She has played the hand she was dealt, bluffing her way at night or on cloudy days. Just like Evie.
. . .
We stand around the kitchen island. Betty accepts a glass of wine, but I decline because I have to. I’m nervous, but can’t drink; I can’t take anything that isn’t prescribed. I have a history. Twenty years ago, I was snorting lines of speed before I went to work. When I crashed I never told Betty what had happened. I knew she would try to help, but I knew what she would think of me.
I listen as everyone talks about their children. Betty, not one to fuss over wee ones or beg to hold a baby, pays little attention to the pictures being passed. She is quiet, as she is in public these days. She seems to have declared herself beyond participation. Sometimes she seems to fade away. By the time she goes to bed, when things get bad, she will have fewer pieces left in place.
Camilla, Jane’s sister, who has worked construction all over the world, including in Iraq, talks about Baghdad. The city, she says, barely exists now.
“Just like here,” remarks Evie. “Stoutsville is just gone. We had banks, stores, a restaurant, even a movie theater. And the trains. Every time I heard the whistle, I’d run down to the tracks to wave at the engineer. In summer, the gypsies would come and steal everything. They wore bright colors and drove old cars. Mama would tell us to get under the bed when they were around. People said they liked to run off with children.
“There’s not a kid here anybody’d take now.”
“In ten years,” says Camilla, “we could be sitting around this table and there could be no Paris at all.”
. . .
Places like Paris are vanishing. Main Streets in all the towns around are boarded up. Gone are Lillibelle’s Dress Shop, Mrs. Bailey’s department store, Nevin’s Florist, the barbershop where old farmers emerged after a cut and card game to take a pinch of chewing tobacco from the pockets of their overalls. We are decades past the last picture show. Wal-Mart, staffed by those known as Wal-martians, has taken its toll. There is a bail bondsman, and on television, a place called Family Pawn advertises relentlessly. “I’ve never pawned anything,” Betty has confessed to me. “Have you?”
I read histories of the place I am from—the Civil War battles, the characters, the traveling Chautauquas, the old houses that lined the shady streets when Paris was the heart of “Little Dixie,” a bastion of Southern sympathy. Long ago, there was an opera house; a grand hotel; a woolen mill that produced yarns, flannel, and blankets. There was a pottery works; a flour mill; plow, wagon, and shoe factories; tobacco warehouses; a feed store; a livery stable; a factory where cigars (Queen of Paris) were made and a wooden Indian stood out front. At Murphy and Bodine’s Clothing Store, a huge stuffed bear in the window displayed men’s coats and hats.
Things are different now. A book I read said three things changed rural America: the breakup of the family farm; Wal-Mart; meth.
. . .
After dinner, Jamie Callis, who graduated a year before me, arrives. The immediate center of attention, she is bawdier than I remembered and I am miffed; I want the spotlight. In the kitchen, Jane whispers that this is Jamie’s first time out since her husband, a veteran, committed suicide. A few days ago when Earleen told Betty all about this, my mother interrupted: “Stop, stop. I can’t hear that. I can’t hear it.”
Betty shyly edges her hand toward Jamie’s; she wants to offer something, but cannot reach her without calling attention to herself, and when she sees that I am looking, she withdraws.
. . .
Driving home, we pass Jamie’s big old house, which was her parents’, and Betty notices a flower bed at the edge of her driveway. “I hope her flowers make it,” Betty says. “Hers more than anyone’s. Look at that woman. A lot of people would fold. She’s carrying on. I like her.”
Later, Betty and I are watching the news. She looks up, unhappy. “I’m ignorant, aren’t I?” she asks. “Jane’s sister’s gone everywhere. I’ve never been anywhere much. I never went far.”
Ignorance has always been one of my mother’s greatest fears—for herself and for me. Growing up, she emphasized that I would be going to college. She planned for me to become a lawyer, like my father’s father, in St. Louis. I didn’t see it.
When I was a kid, I had no notion of what could happen to me. I knew that, somehow, I did not fit exactly; but this was my home. I loved my home.
I still hear the sound of the clothes falling in the dryer on the other side of my bedroom wall in our old house. On hot nights I lay with my head at the end of my bed to catch the breeze from the humming fan. Out my window, I could see the field, planted with soybeans. All summer long, Bobby Buck and I ran between the rows of beans all afternoon; at night after supper; and then after dark, when it felt dangerous to go barefoot, as we always were. A curled-up snake might be waiting underfoot. Some animal might spring up. I closed my eyes and took off.
Across the street lived the Masons—J.C. and Maggie and their kids, Kevin and Missy. J.C., who drove a big gravel truck, or Maggie took us all to grade school in their sea-green Chrysler, its ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts. “Your love,” the radio played, “is like a itchin’ in my heart,” or “Come on, come on boy, see about me.” Early morning in Missouri: fog billowing around the grain elevators, streets slick with ice, blue windows, big women in aprons behind the diner counter beating the hell out of egg yolks.
“Tell me a joke,” Missy cried, her small face streaked with a bit of breakfast, swimming in the hood of a parka circled with dirty fluff. “Say a joke. Say a joke. Say a joke.” I was always trying to be funny. I remember Missy, maybe four years old, in winter, with skinned knees in a torn pair of shorts and a pair of her mother’s battered high heels, making her way across the highway, hair full of flakes of snow.
Most kids lived on farms. Some of the country kids brought the same lunches every day: one strip of bologna on a slice of bread folded around with a dot of mustard. One girl had skin so dry from walking in the cold to feed that no one would touch her when we played games.
I read books and worried. Sometimes when company came I hid in the front closet, among the coats, with their just dry-cleaned smell and blue plastic wrappings. In summer I hung around the house, filling the captain’s decanters with Dr. Pepper, which I drank from my parents’ wineglasses. I watched TV, mostly soap operas: As the World Turns, Love Is a Many Splendored Thing, and The Edge of Night. When something remarkable happened, I called my aunt June, long-distance, to discuss these events. June—married to my mother’s younger brother, Bill, was a former beauty operator whose home was decorated with furniture from her parents’ funeral parlor in Kansas. She always thought she knew who had done the murders. “I can tell,” she said, as if gifted with special insight into homicide, a special benefit, she implied, of being raised in the funeral home business.
In the afternoons I peeped into the tavern to see who was drunk or rode my bike to Mammy’s where a handful of old ladies—Winnie Baker, Betty’s aunt; her sister Maude Eubank; Ruth Holder; and Bess Swartz—often played canasta. Mammy kept score with a pencil she sharpened with a kitchen knife and stuck in her pinned-up braids. She reminded the women, when they excused themselves, not to put paper in the toilet, which was temperamental. I sat on the front porch, listening and reading Ladies’ Home Journal, particularly absorbed by the monthly column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” though I somehow knew I would never be kissing the bride.
I sometimes walked with Mammy to Mildred’s Beauty Shop, where I read Photoplay and Modern Screen as the blue-haired ladies lined up, waiting for the dryers in their bibs and wave clips, their new hair colors dripping in rivulets down the sides of their heads. Mammy didn’t go to Mildred’s that often. When it was possible, she washed her hair in rainwater, collected in a flat tin pan, kept on the top of the well, amid the pink roses covered in coffee grounds and eggshells, their branches held together with nylon stockings.
. . .
Before bed, I check Facebook where Jamie Callis has written, “Why can’t we go back in time? Joyful family and love.” I hear my mother talking to herself as she does when it gets late and she seems particularly anxious and confused. “What’s wrong with you?” she asks herself over and over. “What’s wrong with you?” For a minute, I think she is talking to me. But she would only be so ferocious with herself.
“Are you okay, Betty?” I ask. “Are you okay?” Standing in the doorway of her room, I see her wagging her finger at someone who is not there. “I’m fine,” she says. She is yelling at me all of a sudden. “I’m fine.”
She is so frustrated, ashamed of herself. I want to go to her, give her a hug, but she would just draw back.
“You’re my buddy,” I tell her.
“Am I?” she asks. “You know I wouldn’t want just another damn sweet old lady,” I say.
Later when I look in, she is dozing with the covers kicked off and her purse in bed beside her, making the odd, sweet noises old people make when they sleep. When she opens her eyes, I put an old soft towel in the dryer to warm up and then spread it around her feet, which she complains get cold at night.
Here in Paris, too anxious to linger after the alarm, I get up early to edit in the quiet. A freelance book editor I am struggling to balance Betty, manuscripts with snarled sentences—and my checkbook. Last night, I was up late on the phone with one of my clients, a loon from Los Angeles who believes he has dug up an unprosecuted Nazi still stomping around Germany. Instead of actually acting on my edits, he has e-mailed hundred of documents to be summarized for entry into the text. I have had very little sleep. My sympathies are veering toward the Reich.
Mornings in New York, I could be found editing books through the night, at the Malibu Diner on West Twenty-third Street. I sipped my coffee, watched the street and the people, scrutinizing the cops mingling with ancient ladies with drop earrings, streaks of red on their faces, and blaring lipstick—old showgirl types, their often-tinted hair in dry curlicues, who come out early to order rye toast and soft-boiled eggs.
I have always lived alone. My life as an editor of books and magazines has been spent lingering in the white spaces between lines of copy, trying to get the work perfect. I was raised to get it right. I was raised to work. These were some of the things my mother taught me by example.
. . .
Betty started playing the piano when she was a girl. She has a way with the instrument, but it was my father’s voice that people really noticed. Big George was known for singing. The possessor of a voice that could boost celebrants and move even casual mourners, he performed at weddings and special occasions in Madison and Paris. Betty accompanied him. One night, I remember her practicing the “The Lord’s Prayer” over and over so many times I got a headache.
“Stop playing ‘The Lord’s Prayer,’” I screamed out from my bedroom.
“Don’t bug me,” Betty yelled back. “I’m in a mood.”
When my father came home, later than usual, I threw my arms around him as my mother asked where he had been. She said they had to practice for a funeral the next day. We hadn’t had much dinner. Betty never really ate, just pushed her food around on her plate. She wanted to stay thin.
“Thy kingdom come,” my father sang, “thy will be done.” His voice filled the house. They went through the song over and over as I slept on the couch. The warmth of my father’s hand on my back brought me back. When I got up, he stood me in front of him with his hands on my shoulders and my feet on his work boots. He walked me all the way to my room like this as Betty kept on at the piano.
Betty kept practicing just to make sure she got it right, got it perfect. I had listened to my mother so many nights, playing the church songs over and over; I could sleep through it. But my father, a man with a temper, never could. Big George got up, furious.
“Dammit, Betty. Dammit,” he said, his voice loud and angry, “leave that alone and come to bed. I am worn the hell out.”
“No one,” my mother yelled back, “wants to hear the pianist hit a clunker when they’re about to go into the ground.”
. . .
All through school, I worked as hard as I could, tried to win approval. From anyone. I was so hungry for something. My quest to be perfect never really stopped. I tried at work, on every project, at all the jobs I held. For a long time, as I moved from job to job, I was always praised and got promoted, over and over. But I never got it quite right.
I am not sure my mother believes she ever got it right either. I don’t think she believes that either one of us have ever really hit the mark. I struggle with my moods. They come in big waves, erratic and intense, though I hide them. I have had to fight at times to stay upright. But here my mother keeps me going. I just get up. I crack the eggs, pick the pieces of shell out of the bowl, and flick them across the room with my fingertips.
This morning, as usual, there was coffee, ready and waiting. Every night Betty changes the filter and puts the water, some of which she always manages to spill, into our old, huffy-puffy machine. During her night missions she turns it on for when I come in. She is very conscientious about this; it almost is the last task, aside from the laundry, that she is able to complete successfully. Although she can still play the piano occasionally for church, she cannot cook, or clean, or do anything that requires organizational ability or thinking ahead. She makes the coffee too weak, but if I try to intercede before she gets to it, she looks hurt. It is her job. And she thinks I use too much Folgers. “Coffee’s high,” she says. “Coffee’s high-priced.”
Procrastinating, trying to avoid the Nazi hunter’s last crazed draft, I snag this and that from the kitchen. A day that begins with four coffees, two cinnamon rolls, and several trips to the refrigerator for caramel praline ice cream is likely to lead a person into risky emotional territory. If that doorbell rings it had better not be a Jehovah’s Witness.
. . .
“What is that stuff you drink at Christmas?” Betty asks when she gets up. “What is the name of that stuff you drink at Christmas? I lay awake half last night trying to remember the name of it.”
“Eggnog,” I say.
We are to drive to Columbia to the hairdresser later. If we don’t leave by noon, we’ll be late and Bliss, Betty’s hairdresser at Waikiki Coiffures, will throw a fit or, as she has threatened, cancel my mother’s appointment. I hate Bliss. She stares at my mother’s clothes on the bad days when we don’t get things quite right. Betty pretends not to notice, but I see how it hurts her feelings. There is a lot she pretends not to notice these days. She doesn’t even seem to take in the weather.
This is the third month of the drought. There may be hope for beans, but not for the corn; the farmers are cutting it down for silage. I have never known exactly what silage is, but I wonder if it would enhance a dinner salad.
Our flowers, miraculously, have survived, mostly. I am trying my best to keep them alive. In the mornings my mother stands at the window in the dining room, where the silver is tarnished now, in front of a wicker stand where she once kept geraniums, gazing out at the roses for as long as she can bear to stand up. Her face in the pane is like streaks of a watercolor. Even though she is old, I think she is more beautiful than ever, softer. You would never guess her age until she speaks. I do my best to make sure that when she looks in the mirror, there is someone who is familiar though sometimes nothing else is. When dealing with older women, a trip to a hairdresser and two Bloody Marys goes further than any prescription drug.
. . .
The pink rosebushes came from my grandmother’s garden in Madison. My uncle Bill, adept at an astonishing range of skills, moved them here for Betty after my grandmother gave up her house. “I am grateful to Bill for that,” she says. As if there is not much else she gives him credit for. “It was a hard job. He worked and worked. He worked hard.”
When I lie awake worrying about what will come next, 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 gone. Caring for things—flowers or people—has never been my strong point. I worry about doing right by my mother. She deserves someone who can help her better, someone who can change a flat or stuff a turkey. My life has been unconventional. I have walked the streets of New York City, lived in studio apartments, eaten tons of takeout. I have made only desultory attempts at personal arrangements. In fact, I have no personal arrangements.
Maybe it is impossible to come home again and not to wonder how it is that things turned out quite this way, why I am here, how it came to this, how it is that I cannot quite find the appropriate term for my “lifestyle,” why it is that my mother simply shakes her head when I share details of my existence, why she cannot bring herself to speak of my life.
. . .
My mother has never tried to be anyone but herself. “At least I’m out and out with my meanness,” she says. “I’m not a sneak. I hate a sneak.” When I was growing up, we tussled a lot, but never really fought. Yes, Betty had her blowups, her bad days, her little tempests, but there was also the sly way she winked when I came home in the midst of one of her bridge games; the way she rolled her eyes at Mrs. Corn in church just for me to see. I was her conspirator and she made me laugh or want to reach out, sometimes, to protect the part of her that rarely showed, her secret soft spot. At the country club, where she could turn a game of golf into a disaster movie, her face took on a wistful look as she watched her ball plunk down a few feet from the tee. Once on Ladies’ Day, Doris Rixsey took the golf club from her hand and said, “Honey, let’s just go have a highball.”