This is my mother, Betty of Bettyville. Born Betty Baker, she became Betty Hodgman. The photo was taken sometime during her college years.
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 where she could not afford to join a sorority. Listening to her memories, I see her in a castoff 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, big-city life as she stands by other women in expensive dresses, the sort that Mammy never allowed her to buy.
This is my father, George Hodgman. He attended Soldan High School in St. Louis and, after World War II, Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri.
Big George fancied himself a little bohemian. In the late sixties, when the hippie signs proclaimed, “Flower Power,” he painted the refrigerator in the family room completely black with one big blooming white flower. He could draw anything and, wishing I could, too, I sat watching him for hours as he sketched a caribou from the World Book Encyclopedia, the profile of John F. Kennedy, a sleeping dog, and my mother’s face from a photo taken when she college. In the picture she looked shy and innocent, in the sketch, through my father’s eyes, even more so. He worked on that portrait night after night, but she didn’t like it. It was the same old problem; in person or on paper, she never thought she looked right, even when captured by loving hands.
Margaret Callison Baker, my grandmother, who lived most of her life in Madison, Missouri.
On the table by my bed, I keep a picture of Mammy as a young woman in her hat with the side dented in, a heavy suit with a long skirt, a white blouse with ruffles, carefully ironed. Beside her, a suitcase; behind her, a railroad track and a boxcar with an open door. In the far distance, a long expanse of flat American land, a line of bare trees with thin branches dwarfed by the wide-open sky clear of clouds.
“Where were you going?” I want to ask her every time I see that picture, but I’ll never know.
I see her reaching up to hang laundry on the line, clean clothes slapping in the wind.
The woman who will become my grandmother is alone in the photograph by my bedside and does not appear happy or eager to travel. She is a farm girl from a big family with a reasonable number of acres on the outskirts of a town called Clarence. Maybe she is leaving home, perhaps departing for the women’s college—Hardin, in Mexico, Missouri—where she learned Latin or is off to teach in another place. Her eyes are closed, perhaps because of the sun, or the fact that she is reluctant to be photographed, or because she is in tears.
A few years after the picture was taken, she would marry Joe Baker, back in Missouri after a few years down South, in Alabama—Tuscaloosa, it said in his obituary—working in a John Deere factory where tractors were assembled. In photographs, my grandfather has shadows around his deep-set eyes. I never knew him; a year or so before I was born, he sat down at the lunch table and died after a heart attack. During my lifetime he was never spoken off. None of them, not Mammy or Betty or Bill or Harry ever told us anything about him. All Betty will say, when asked about him is that he was “a very nice man.”
Dogs are one of the leitmotifs in this book. 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.
This is a photograph of me with Mammy (older now, as you can see) and my Aunt June and Uncle Bill, two of my life’s more colorful characters.
On Sunday, Bill and June arrived with their two dogs, Tammy and Heidi, to take us to see Mammy’s brother, Uncle Oscar, who had not yet left his home in Clarence, not far from the farm where Mammy grew up.
Bill sold tractors in Mexico, although he remained a partner—with Harry, Betty, and Mammy—in the lumberyards. Spitting out the windows and clearing his throat, he traveled the countryside with June and the dogs at all hours in a grimy baseball cap in search of round balers to buy and sell. Before he married, he slept in rooming houses run by old widows but lived on the back roads. Late nights found him at a roadhouse in Moonglow or sipping a Bud in some truck stop, mulling over newspapers. He met June at the Black Orchid Lounge in Joplin. A still youngish “widow woman,” she had been a beauty operator before the five farms in Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma that she inherited from her first husband made her a rich woman. The owner of a mink stole which I tried on in secret during a Thanksgiving dinner, she always gave me special attention.
June smoked profusely and served her seventeen year-old toy terrior, Tammy, coffee with cream in the mornings to get her going. “In the mornings,” June would say, “Tammy needs her fuel. Just like me!”