After a New Year’s fire, a Bow woman is once again picking up the pieces

  • The Hodgman home at 14 Birchdale Road in Bow, shown Wednesday, was destroyed by fire on New Year’s Day. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Rita Hodgman of Bow has lost a lot in life, including three of her sons and husband and recently her home on Birchdale Road in Bow on New Year’s Day. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Rita Hodgman of Bow has lost a lot in life, including three of her sons, her husband and recently her home on Birchdale Road in Bow on New Year’s Day. But to her, her story isn’t a tale of woe, but of perseverance. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Thursday, January 11, 2018

How would you like to approach Rita Hodgman’s story?
   There’s the sad stuff that hits you like the heat that roared from her house on New Year’s Day, destroying the home’s back portion and leaving the rest of it smelly, scorched and unlivable.

That side of her story extends through her family history, the one that reads like a bad, improbable movie, the one about losing three children and a husband too soon.

You like that theme? You’ll get it.

But what about the other angle here, the one about the town of Bow, which has donated so much clothing to help Hodgman that the residents and officials who have reached out to her essentially told me recently, ‘Tell your readers no more clothing, please.’

And what about the nugget on all those tough-looking middle-aged men in Hodgman’s orbit, some of whom call her mom, who have grown up in her blue-collar sphere, who tear up when commenting on what she’s meant to them, who push snow off the roof of the house in which she’s now living?

The home, owned by Hodgman’s last surviving child, 59-year-old Doug Hodgman, is down the street from the charred remains of her former house, on Birchdale Road.

It’s a sore thumb in an otherwise lavish neighborhood, looking out of place, leaving the impression that maybe the snobby reputation Bow carries has been misplaced. After all, some of the people living in the area may have chosen to help Hodgman.

“We were overwhelmed,” Hodgman said when asked about the local response. “I don’t know these people. They’re new people moving in. I’m not a joiner. I don’t belong to any clubs.”

She’s 84, a long-retired state worker who moved into her old house 40 years ago, when this affluent region had three houses and lots of dirt driveways. That followed her years down the street in what is now Doug’s home, where she raised her four boys.

Before that, Hodgman was hopeful and artistic. She took dance lessons. She played the piano. She traveled to Booth Bay Harbor and Disney World with her sister and her best friend for girls’ weekends, went to the theater in Boston and New York City with her late husband, Frank, a mechanic and a farmer and a Navy man.

“He was quiet but funny when he came out with things,” Hodgman told me. “He was always working, so I spent time with the kids.”

It was in those days that neighborhood kids began hanging out at the Hodgman house. Remember that house? The one we all gathered at? The one run by the matriarch who fit right in?

Kevin Jenkins of Concord was one of those teens back then whose loyalty to Hodgman remains fierce.

I met Jenkins while covering the fire on Jan. 1. Hodgman was huddled in the front seat of his SUV, wrapped in a blanket, shivering, crying, wondering what she had done to deserve another lousy hand.

Jenkins told me he was a family friend, that he’d known Hodgman for 50 of his 61 years, that his house was now her house.

“She can have it,” Jenkins told me in zero-degree weather. “I’ll live out in the
f------ car.”

The next time I saw Jenkins was this week, when I sought an interview with Hodgman and he was sliding snow off Doug’s house. Several others were up there helping, all eyeing me with suspicion, screening me, making sure I hadn’t come to do this woman any harm.

I met John Belrose of Concord there that day. He was big and bearded, and he told me Hodgman had taken him in as one of her own when he was in high school.

“There are two people who have taught me unconditional love,” Belrose told me. “My grandmother and this little lady over here.”

Belrose, a little embarrassed when I noticed his eyes tearing, pointed to Hodgman, covered in blankets and a bathrobe in a cluttered living room, with one of those long, trigger-activated thing grabbers leaning against her recliner.

Doug sat in a wheelchair, which, somehow, fit in perfectly with this woman’s story. Bone disease and hip replacement have taken his mobility, ending his days as a bridge laborer, a motorcycle mechanic and a farmer.

David Hodgman, Rita’s oldest son, died after bypass surgery at age 25 in 1982. Her husband, Frank, died from lung cancer in 2002 at the age of 73, and her youngest son, Jim, died three months later from a blood clot at age 36. Another son, 46-year-old Frank III, died in 2006 from an intestinal infection. Hodgman’s sister and lifelong best friend, Mary Temple, died last year.

Now it’s Rita and Doug, plus a family of caretakers named Jacqueline and Jason Clement and their 8-year-old daughter, Isabelle, who, like so many others in Hodgman’s world, are part of her family.

It was Jacqueline who alerted Hodgman that the garage and old barn out back were on fire and helped her outside, into the bitter cold and yet another giant challenge.

No one was hurt, and the cause has yet to be determined. (Bow fire Chief Mitchell Harrington did not return messages seeking information).

But one thing remains clear, beyond the heartache that surrounds the Hodgman history: The mother and son I met last week were, well, in relatively good spirits.

Doug, a big guy who sported a big goatee, has lots of friends, the boys he ran with at Concord High School, the ones he drank with, the ones he raised a ruckus with.

They’re also the ones who will share lumber to help rebuild his mother’s house. He said he knows an electrician. He knows someone in the cement business. He knows someone with a pair of dumpsters.

“They’ve been fantastic,” Doug said, referring to his friends. “They’re handpicked, in my life for 40 and 50 years. This was their house, too.”

“The hardest part will be paying for the house,” Doug added. “But we’ll figure it out.”

Meanwhile, he and his mother will ride out their latest storm. Grappone donated a car to replace the blackened one sitting outside the blackened house. The caretakers – the Clements – run errands.

Furniture and household items are being collected and stored. There’s a menu of dinners already laid out through January, ready to be delivered each day. Chili was scheduled for the night I met with Rita.

Yes, things are hard right now as Hodgman continues to digest what she’s been through to start the new year. Every now and then, though, she pushed out a laugh, and now and again she acknowledged all the good things that have happened to her, as the thumping and scraping sounds above, created by those clearing the roof, mixed with her words.

It’s the angle she chose for this column.

“If I can’t change it, I have to learn to go on,” she told me, softly. “It’s always my philosophy to go from there and see what I can do. I’ve been through a heck of a lot, I’ll tell ya, but with help I keep going.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)