Literary Links: Aging Parents

Lauren Williams, Public Services Librarian

“…sometime, at least once, everyone should see someone through. All the way home.”
– George Hodgman, “Bettyville”


As you may already know, this year’s selection for One Read, the community-wide reading program sponsored by the Daniel Boone Regional Library, is George Hodgman’s memoir “Bettyville” (Viking, 2015). This is the story of a son’s return from New York City to small-town Missouri, where he finds himself thrust into the uncomfortable role of caregiver. His deep love for his mother is complicated by the gulf of silence between them. Hodgman is gay, something his mother Betty has never directly acknowledged, and he is also a recovering addict, a fact he could not allow himself to reveal to his parents. Betty is likewise intensely private about her feelings and her past. Hodgman declares, “If I could ask her anything, it would be this: ‘What was it, Mother, that just shut you up, so tight and quiet?’”

Regrets about feelings unspoken and unasked questions often burden the children of aging parents, and “The Rainbow Comes and Goes” (HarperCollins, 2016) by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt reveals the quiet magic that can happen when a parent and child open up to one another. The two began corresponding after Vanderbilt fell ill, shortly before her 91st birthday. Asking and answering questions in writing, rather than face-to-face, allowed for an honesty and intimacy that results in a lovely portrait of a mother and her son.

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Such closeness as a parent-child relationship nears its end is not always the case. Sometimes, the dysfunction in our relationships becomes magnified. Like “Bettyville,” the illustrated memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” (Bloomsbury, 2014) by cartoonist Roz Chast is not only poignant but also frequently hilarious. An only child born to middle-aged parents, Chast writes and draws about her anxious childhood and how the resulting strained relationships with her parents informed her later struggles to care for them as they met illness and death. The humor comes from her parents’ eccentric behaviors and beliefs (my personal favorite is a “Wheel of Doom” drawing, highlighting all of the world’s dangers according to her parents, including sitting too close to the TV resulting in radiation poisoning, blindness and then death). Despite such oddities, this book ends up providing comfort for readers readying to face the task of caring for their own loved-ones.

Bobby Wonderful

Maybe having a sense of humor about the end of life is one of the only ways to face it. In “Bobby Wonderful: An Imperfect Son Buries His Parents” (Twelve, 2015), Bob Morris chronicles his flawed attempts to do his best for declining parents, not shying away from the selfish thoughts (“are you going to die already?” muttered to himself during the last agonizing hours of his mother’s life) or the absurd and even funny moments (thinking his ailing father is pausing during a conversation because he is a about to share a profound thought—instead, it’s a bowel movement). Morris candidly shares missteps made on this journey that everyone must traverse, but which has no foolproof map or guidebook.

About his struggles with addiction, Hodgman writes that the stories of others in recovery saved him. And perhaps this is also true for those helping loved ones at the end of their lives. Knowing that others made the journey and came out okay is a great comfort. “What Comes Next and How to Like It” (Scribner, 2014) by memoirist Abigail Thomas strings together vignettes about all kinds of loves and losses—a husband to an accident, dogs to old age—as well as facing her daughter’s cancer diagnosis and her own alcoholism. Vignettes about seemingly small moments vibrate with deep significance and feeling. Thomas doesn’t provide advice or checklists for preparing for all of the endings life will send our way, but she presents an honest portrayal of her search for meaning in loss and how to live through and past it.

A Bittersweet Season

If you want more than humor or comforting stories, “A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents — and Ourselves” (Knopf, 2011) by Jane Gross is a wise and welcome resource for caregivers. Using her own experience caring for her mother as a frame, Gross shares practical information about navigating Medicare and Medicaid, research on assisted living facilities and facts about the aging body.

We hope you’ll check out “Bettyville” and then join us this September for film, discussions, presentations, art and performances exploring aging and caregiving, small town America, the LGBT experience, memoir and other topics. The month of One Read events will include author talks with George Hodgman on Tuesday, September 12 in Fulton and Thursday, September 22 in Columbia. Find more information about these and other events at