Like so many members of the post–World War II generation, Dudley Clendinen sometimes imagined that his parents would live forever. It was an expectation he had to revise as his mother and father, who had once seemed so invincible, began to surrender to the passage of time. Yet even as they aged, they did not do so in the same ways as earlier generations. Thanks to advances in diet, medication, and elder care, people who grew up during the Depression and fought in World War II—the Americans known as the Greatest Generation—are living much longer than any generation before them. The longer they live, the more their children are drawn into their lives. Women and men who never expected to see their eightieth birthday are now celebrating their ninetieth or hundredth. They have become part of an unprecedented demographic phenomenon that Clendinen calls the New Old Age—an experience for which neither they nor their children have been prepared.
In his work as a journalist and author, Dudley Clendinen has long been engaged in telling the stories of people in America who, like the rest of us, are too often invisible. In his latest book, A Place Called Canterbury, he has written a warm, witty, painful, real-life account of the challenges that face older people, as well as the children who become responsible for them, in a society that has enabled us to live longer without saying how.
A Place Called Canterbury is a nonfiction soap opera about two hundred feisty old people who have come together from across America, and the world, to live at Canterbury Tower in Tampa, Florida—and about the staff that cares for them to the end. With all the compassion, sensitivity, and conflicted feelings of a devoted but sometimes bumbling son, Clendinen chronicles the last years of his mother, who, though felled by a pair of debilitating strokes, evinces no desire to let slip her hold on life. Trying to communicate with her, reliving memories of earlier, more vibrant times, Clendinen struggles to come to terms with the person his mother was and has now become—someone who only partly resembles the charming, complicated, controlling woman he knew, but who still exerts a hold on him and still stirs depths of admiration, love, and frustration.
The unfolding relationship of mother and son is just one of many tales and themes in A Place Called Canterbury. In these exquisitely rendered, dramatic, and often very funny pages, we meet people like Karl Richter, the “Archrabbi of Canterbury,” who escaped Nazi Germany as the storm clouds of World War II were preparing to burst; Emily Moody, a.k.a. the Emyfish, the arch, theatrical old New Yorker who spurs a movement to have the aged women of the complex pose nude for a calendar; the Sweetso, Canterbury’s combative, liberal, book-loving atheist from Pennsylvania; and Wilber Davis, the confused, gentle-hearted ninety-year-old from Tampa who loves to dance, and who urinates in his roommate’s closet, misses his wife, and chases women around the nursing wing. Thoughtful, witty, and heartbreaking, Dudley Clendinen’s book is a microcosm of life, a story told by a son who chose to live out these last comic and painful years with his mother and her friends and keepers in a very special place, A Place Called Canterbury.
Dudley Clendinen is a former columnist for the St. Petersburg Times, an assistant managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and a national reporter and editorialist for The New York Times. He is the editor of a book of essays, The Prevailing South, and the author of the text for a book of photographs, Homeless in America. With Adam Nagourney, he is the coauthor of Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
Q. How were you able to spend so much intimate time at Canterbury? Did you have to get permission to write A Place Called Canterbury?
Well, yes and no. When I decided to do it, I wrote the board of trustees a long letter introducing myself, explaining what I had in mind, and asking for a hearing. Some of them knew me. We had a meeting. I had a legal right to be in the building, because I had my mother’s power of attorney and was her trustee. And I had Mrs. Vinas’s support. She liked the idea, and we trusted each other. If she had been against it, the board would never have agreed. But they’d never had a writer loose in the place before, and the board members were worried that the book might take advantage of the residents, invade their privacy, and make fun of their debilities.
What did I want? they asked. Just for the board to write a letter explaining to the residents and staff who I was, that I was going to be working on a book about life at Canterbury, I said, and that I might want to interview them. They could agree or refuse. It was entirely up to them. I thought it might take a couple of years. Could they see the manuscript before it was published, one asked? No, I said. And they shouldn’t want to, because I couldn’t let them edit it, and if they saw and approved it, then the residents who didn’t like when it was published would hold the board responsible. It was my book, not the board’s. I had to be responsible. If the board refused, would I do the book anyway? another member asked. Probably, I said. But it wouldn’t be as good or balanced a portrayal of Canterbury if they refused to let the staff talk to me. Canterbury was a good place, I said. But if I couldn’t talk to the staff, it would distort the picture and damage the portrayal. After talking about it in private, the board agreed. Then sent out a letter that essentially said, “Watch out. Here comes the bogeyman!” It scared hell out of a lot of residents, but it was a very honest, open way to begin. I could start, and everyone was warned.
Q. How did you get the residents—and also the staff—in A Place Called Canterbury to trust you and talk to you? Were there some who wouldn’t?
The short answer is time, patience, good humor, a refusal to go away, and lots of explanation. Yes, after the letter went out, there were some who refused. Sometimes I was glad; sometimes I wasn’t. I began by putting up notices of meetings to which anyone who was interested could come and ask questions, and I would explain. About twelve people came. Then I began the interviews with Helen Hill, who might have been the oldest person in the Tower and who knew me and my family. She’s a very definite personality. Everyone, of course, asked her what it was like to be interviewed by me. When she told them it wasn’t so bad, they began to relax. But basically, I just kept coming back, listening and asking questions, doing interviews, and just being there. Living the life, figuring out who was interesting, who was open, which ones might be the best characters in the life of this village. I’m speaking now of the residents. The staff talked to me in part because I’m easy, but really only because Mrs. Vinas told them they could. They don’t do anything without her approval.
Q. Was there ever any point at which you worried that you might be supplying the reader with too much information on your subjects’ lives?
Yes. All the time. I threw tons of stories and narratives and descriptions and biographical details away. Tons. I have restructured, rewritten, restructured, rewritten, thrown out, and rewritten this book four or five times. I have honed and shrunk, rephrased, compressed, and written through every page of it, probably one hundred times. Or more.
Q. Were you surprised by the overall candor of the people whose experiences and memories helped you to write this book?
In some ways, yes, hugely. In others, no, not really. The Emyfish, for instance, is a very cagey personality. Even though she’s known me from birth and loves me, she’s a very wary interview subject, because she’s always guarding the secret of her real age, or anything that might give it away. Mrs. Vinas is a very hard interview, in a way. Because she’s so controlling, because she guards everyone’s privacy, beginning with her own, so carefully, she doesn’t relax into easy conversation. She doesn’t give up information easily, and she doesn’t want a tape recorder on. Among residents, the men particularly are reticent and can be hard to draw out. Males of that generation just aren’t accustomed to talking about themselves and their feelings. The women are, of course, though some of them tend to put up a lot of screens and mirrors. Sarah Jane tells great stories but is always saying, “Now, Dudley, you can’t use that.” I loved Mary Davis and Nathalie for being so open. Ditto Martha Cameron. The Sweetso was a born observer and commentator, and sensationally candid. And the rabbi was wonderful. Considering how cautious so many of them were at the beginning, I was amazed to realize what I had at the end.
Q. Did you know which residents and what themes and stories would be in the book when you started spending time at Canterbury? Did you know how you were going to write it when you began? Why did it take so long—seven years—to write A Place Called Canterbury?
The answers are no, no, and because that’s how long it took me to figure it out. Someone else might have been faster, but no one else has ever tried to do this before—or anyway, done it. I knew that Mother—or my relationship with Mother—would somehow be at the center of the book. But that was tricky. I hadn’t ever made myself a narrator and character in a book before. The closest I had come was in essays and magazine articles. And Mother was already stroke-damaged and silent when I began. I assumed that Mary and Wilber, and the Emyfish, and Ashby would be in the book because they were part of the continuum of my life. And there were others, like Elizabeth Himes, who I thought would make strong characters, but then she died. I knew the rabbi and Ruth, because their granddaughter and my daughter, Whitney, were friends. I knew Mrs. Vinas had to be omnipresent, as a sort of Oz-like figure. But beyond that, I didn’t know. I didn’t really know Sarah Jane and Mauricio. He’s very reticent and hardly talked to me for the first five years. I hardly knew Martha Sweet and Martha Cameron. I knew, in an almost visual way, in my head, what a lot of the themes were. But I found new threads and themes every week I was there. And I realized, as time went on, that I had no idea how to structure the book. That’s partly why it took so long. I had to wait for part of a plot to emerge from life. And I had to invent the rest—the structure, I mean. Not the content.
Q. Have you ever done anything like this before?
Sort of. I’ve interviewed thousands of people over the years and have spent months—and sometimes years—among special populations. Death row, the abortion rights community, the Religious Right, and the gay rights movement, for instance. They all have their own codes, folkways, ideologies, and ways of judging other people. But the writer’s responsibility with every population is the same. You have to be interested in understanding them—especially what’s different about them. You have to be honest with them about what you’re doing. You need to be empathetic and reliable. And you have to listen, and keep coming back.
Q. Why did you want to write this book?
For lots of different reasons. Researching and writing Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America, with Adam Nagourney of The New York Times, which was published in 1999, had been so consuming, so complicated and difficult and personal—although written in the third person—that I found myself wanting to do an entirely different kind of book. I yearned to do something sweet and funny, something that was very personal but also common, and profound. By the time the gay history came out, Mother had had her strokes. I had spent years dealing with her, with my aunts Bessie and Carolyn, and with my cousin Florence, and a great amount of time at Canterbury. I had made mistakes and learned, and was fascinated. I was spending time with people I loved. It is what millions of us are going through, and it had begun to seem a natural subject.
Q. One of the ironies of A Place Called Canterbury is that, because most of your observations were recorded after your mother’s debilitating strokes, you came to know much more about many of her friends than you know about her. If you could spend an hour interviewing your mother, restored for the occasion to the fullness of her awareness and memory, what are some of the questions you would ask her?
Oh, boy. Yes. I’ve been a reporter and a writer for forty years. I’m the son of journalists. And yet I never asked my own parents the simplest questions. I can hardly believe it, but I never asked them how or where or when they met, for instance. Or how my father, who was the editor of The Tampa Tribune for almost thirty years, or how my mother, who was the women’s editor and then the food editor, first got into the newspaper business. I would ask them all those questions now, and what their own parents were like, and what their childhoods were like, and what the Depression and World War II had been like for them, and whether they had slept together before they married, and what I was like as a boy. If I started asking questions now, I wouldn’t know where to stop. That’s my instinctive reaction. But the truth is that I did start trying to interview my mother about her life, by telephone—which is usually a comfortable way to do it—in the last two or three years before her strokes. She liked it, but I didn’t. I wasn’t comfortable. I couldn’t ask the same questions of my own mother that I would have of someone else. And I had the distinct feeling that she was putting a rosy glow on everything. So I let it drift. And I’m sorry.
Q. You present the Canterbury community as a “microcosm.” However, the residents are, on average, wealthier than most Americans, and they are overwhelmingly white and Republican. How did these facts influence your ability to construct Canterbury as a “little world” of elderly America?
I suspect it is actually more of a microcosm than most. To begin with, most old people—say seventy-five or eighty and above—are white and are politically and culturally conservative. And it is women, especially the best cared for, more affluent white women, who tend to live the longest in America and other Western cultures. Senior communal housing facilities in this country tend to be culturally skewed, or lumped, toward one religious or economic or working group or another—meaning for the poor, or Methodists, or Catholics, or Jews, or retired teachers, or the more affluent, or whatever. Canterbury is unusual in having virtually all traditional faiths in this country represented, and most of the economic spectrum. Its residents range from barely middle class in income to wealthy. And they come from all parts of the continental United States, and also from the Philippines, Mexico, Europe, and Bermuda. That’s not bad. In fact, it’s good, as is the fact that Canterbury is relatively small, and a nonprofit. It all contributes to the quality of life.
Q. You point out that the staff at Canterbury is, on the whole, darker skinned than the residents. You also mention that the staff members appear to have noticeably shorter life spans than the people they serve. What is your thinking about these demographics? What binds them together? And is it fair?
It’s a kind of cultural selection process. And no, it isn’t fair. But it is very real, and touching, and human. The people being cared for, of course, are better cared for than the people doing it. They have probably had better care all their lives. They have pretty good genes, or they wouldn’t already be so old. And they have less stress in their lives than do the certified nursing assistants and nurses, the custodians and waiters and waitresses and housekeepers and security guards—none of whom make much money. Some of them make very little. And yet they have great compassion. There are a lot of people in this culture who ought to be paid a lot more for what they do, and many who should be paid a lot less. Sometimes I wish I were in charge.
Q. You’re gay. Did that make it more difficult to live among mostly conservative people whose average age is eighty-six? Was it harder to win their trust? Did they know? Did they ever say anything about it?
Oh, I think everyone knew. I had come out on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, written about it in GQ, and coauthored the major history of the gay rights movement. The Sweetso and I talked about it a lot, because we talked about everything a lot, especially when I began staying in her apartment. But the only comment ever made, so far as I know, was when Martha Sweet was eating at the men’s table one night. “Martha,” one of the men said, “I don’t think Dudley’s the answer to your problems.” Mostly, I think they just thought of me as my mother’s son. For almost ten years, I was around more than any child of any other resident. They just thought I was a good son.
Q. You write affectionately of your daughter, Whitney. What emotional role did she play for you during the times you describe in A Place Called Canterbury? Did she affect your writing of this book in any way?
Yes. It’s for her. We are all too distant and divided from each other and our pasts these days, and I wanted to give her a legacy of love and understanding, an intimate feeling for her own family that I think many children of divorce—like Whitney—lack, and a feeling for the common experiences and backgrounds that bind our different groups and generations through time. And yes, she affected the writing. Whitney’s twenty-seven now, and she’s smart. I would send her chapters and she’d comment. She’s a good editor, and I rewrote some things because of her.
Q. Do you intend to write any more about Canterbury and its people? Or is this it?
Yes, indeed, I do intend to write more. I want to do two more books. I have four more years of notes, and it is my favorite personal soap opera.