BOOK BEAT 69 – Dudley Clendinen

See this moving essay by Dudley Clendinen:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/opinion/sunday/10als.html?_r=2

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   May 29, 2008

by Philip K. Jason

Florida is not the fountain of youth; rather, it is the fountain of extended old age. It is home to many retirement communities, as well as facilities designed to meet the needs of those elders who can live independently and those who no longer can do so. Dudley Clendinen, who provides a close, compassionate look at one such enterprise, presents in microcosm a portrait of what he calls “the New Old Age in America.” His book, “A Place Called Canterbury,” is at once a biography of his mother, a family history, and a history of Tampa. It is also a probing examination of the meaning and texture of extended old age.  Beautifully written, it recounts the closing decade of a remarkable generation whose lives spanned most of the 20th century and, in diminishing numbers, a bit of the 21st

When it was time for Clendinen’s mother to give up the family home, to scale down her responsibilities and activities, and to enjoy the virtues of communal dining and a range of professional services, she joined many of her long-time friends in Canterbury Towers, a geriatric apartment building constructed in the 1970s. In her apartment, she reproduced the ambience of her home as best she could. She maintained her habits of personal grooming and social intercourse. And she involved herself in a larger community of people, many of them strangers, who had come from elsewhere to enjoy similar benefits. Each had all made a deal with the devil of reality, giving up some aspects of their complex identities to maintain and even enhance others.

Her son, Dudley, had assumed many of her decision-making powers. Over the many years of Mrs. Clendinen’s residence at Canterbury, Dudley visited frequently and sometimes for extended intervals. His visits added up to something just short of 400 days. Over that period, this reporter, editorial writer, and columnist exercised his curiosity and skills as well as his heart-felt familial responsibilities. He came to know the residents and staff members of the Canterbury community intimately, and he came to know what a lot of middle-aged children come to know about their parents; that is, how little the children actually know.  

 Clendinen explores the structured relationships between parents and children in his own family. Sharing insights with members of his own generation, he finds his observations reinforced: locked in roles, parents and children often have surface relationships, and, as the children become adults – eventually with their own retirement years in view – they miss opportunities to ask the important questions, to hold the potentially revealing, intimate conversations. And then, too soon, it is too late.

The author interviewed and re-interviewed his mother’s core group as well as many fascinating new acquaintances. He left between the covers of this book a memorial of their fight for dignity and of their quest for the redemption of all those extra, unexpected years.

We read of their love lives, past and present. We receive glimpses of their childhoods and their wartime experiences. We see them at play: dancing and putting on entertainments, as well as extending their sex lives. We are witness to the steady and often embarrassing breakdown of their bodies. We marvel at their resilience and at their mutual support for one another. We discover all the ways that they find reasons to be alive while choices, appetites, and mental faculties are taken away by time.

We also get to meet a handful of skilled and dedicated caretakers.

Yes, the book has streaks of melancholy and nostalgia – and even heartbreak as Mr. Clendinen’s mother, a stroke victim, is relocated from her apartment in the towers to the nursing wing. She gradually loses her mind, and even more gradually – perhaps too gradually – loses her life. 

Dudley Clendinen’s mix of exposition and story-telling is just right. His descriptions of place, his handling of dialogue (especially the capturing of southern dialect), and his personality portraits are masterful. One might not expect it, but humor is abundant through this book. Clendinen allows the natural humor hovering around solemn situations to manifest itself. This humor is never disparaging, but rather bracing and respectful.

“A Place Called Canterbury” is a glorious piece of wisdom literature without the preaching. It is clearly one of 2008’s nonfiction masterpieces, a marvelous evocation of a new frontier – the “New Old Age.” You might find a signed copy at the Naples Borders, where Clendinen had a book signing on May 18.

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.

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