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Betty Baker at a benefit in 1997. (Bill Brett for the Globe/File)
Betty Baker at a benefit in 1997. (Bill Brett for the Globe/File)

SWAMPSCOTT — These are the lessons Charlie Baker's parents taught their three boys: Serve your community; when you're knocked down, get right back up; learn from your mistakes.

On Thursday, when Baker is sworn in as the state's 72d governor, it will be the culmination of a life and career in which he has tried to live out those lessons.

But there will be a hole in the proud family tableau arrayed around him.

His father, also named Charlie, will be there to see the inauguration, beaming. His mother, Betty, will not. The once-vital, funny woman whose firm, loving hand shaped the younger Charlie Baker into someone who could win the state's highest office doesn't know her boy will finally be governor. Suspended in the cruel in-between of Alzheimer's disease, she no longer knows him at all.

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"I am my mother's son," Baker said, adding later: "She knew for a long time that this was something that was important to me. It's hugely disappointing that she doesn't know I took a second shot at it, and it worked."

Betty Baker and her family always assumed she would get the disease. Alzheimer's had picked off so many on her side of the family, it was hard to imagine she'd somehow be spared. They even joked about it sometimes.

Still, nothing quite prepares loved ones for that unmistakable beginning. She got lost in the mall more than once. At a celebration of her 50th wedding anniversary, she gave the same beautiful toast several times. She was starting to slip away.

Betty Baker was a lot to lose: a voracious reader and letter-writer, a Democrat happily married to a Republican, head of Christian education at a Congregational church, mother to dozens of children besides her own official three.

"Every kid at the neighborhood hung out at my house," her son recalled, his eyes welling. "My mother used to buy cookies and soda when she went shopping, for literally 30 kids." The Baker house on Cleveland Road in Needham was halfway to every place kids were headed. There were always armies of her sons' friends around, and casseroles on the stove to feed them. She kept her kids in line not by yelling at them, but by making them dread the thought of disappointing her.

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"I would describe her management style as firm, with a soft voice," Baker said.

The soon-to-be governor's parents — his father from a "classic New England family," his mother a Midwesterner from Rochester, Minn. — were not the type to complain. When the disease descended, his father simply got down to the business of caring for his mother. She'd looked after her family for 40 years, the elder Charlie Baker would say. Now it was their turn to look after her.

In the early stages, his mother was dismayed by her decline, apologetic that she could no longer conjure the massive holiday feasts that had seemed effortless before. She also approached her disease with characteristically edgy humor.

Charlie Baker’s family, including children Jonathan, Alex/Sandy, Charlie, mother Betty, and father Charles. Charlie Baker was about 9 years old in the photo.
Charlie Baker’s family, including children Jonathan, Alex/Sandy, Charlie, mother Betty, and father Charles. Charlie Baker was about 9 years old in the photo.Baker campaign

"Well, how do you think I'm doing?" her son Charlie recalled her answering, when he'd asked how she was. "Your father keeps telling me I've agreed to things I don't remember agreeing to. I keep worrying he's going to sell the silver."

The elder Baker, a former assistant US secretary of transportation who jokes that he'd always been known as Betty Baker's husband until his son ran for governor, devoted himself to her care with such consuming energy that his children worried about him.

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"He's a stud," Baker said of his father. "He is a stiff-upper-lip kind of guy. Play the hand, and play it through." He played it through by keeping Betty with him as long as possible. A few years ago, the couple moved to a senior facility in Needham. Every day, the elder Charlie walks from his apartment across a driveway to be with Betty, now 83, in the nursing home.

When Baker ran for governor the first time, in 2010, his mother was still well enough to attend the Republican convention. She wasn't involved in the campaign, but she watched it closely, and she certainly knew he'd lost to Democrat Deval Patrick.

"She had some choice words for the voters," Baker joked.

After that defeat, her son picked himself up, just like she'd taught him. He studied his mistakes, determined not to repeat them. He did not wallow.

When he finally succeeded, there was not enough of his mother left to know it. The morning after the election, before his victory was official, Betty Baker's nursing home was alight with chatter about the race. She seems to understand her oldest son is involved in something big, Baker said, but nothing more.

Just as his mother knew her turn would come, the new governor believes Alzheimer's will eventually visit him.

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"I look like her, and I think like her, and I speak like her," he said. He sees it as inevitable that he will follow her into the illness, too. Baker says this regularly, and with resignation. It just is.

But right now, Betty Baker's son has a big life to live, and a very big job to do. He has a whole state to serve. He has more defeats to endure, and to bounce back from. More mistakes to make, lessons to learn, victories to savor — but never to count on.

It's time to play it through.


Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.