I cannot remember when I’ve gained so much wisdom from such a small novel. In his first book in several years, Clyde Edgerton tells a haunting tale of Aunt Lil, her nephew Carl and L. Ray Flowers along with several other memorable characters, several who “live” at Rosehaven Convalescence Center in Listre, North Carolina. The time is the present; the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou” is still playing at the local theatre. The themes are timeless, however: old age with all its problems and sorrows, missed opportunities, the ills of fundamentalist religion, the warehousing of those who can no longer look after themselves–and trite as it may seem– the redeeming power of both music and love.
Truth breaks through on every page. Homecooked, delicious meals have been replaced by cafeteria lunches and/or– heaven help us– fast food chains. On religion, Reverend L. Ray wonders why the local Baptist church sends missionaries to Alaska , England and South Africa. “It seems like church members often have a desparate need to be unaware of the local needs of the local wrecks of local women stacked along the local grim halls of local nursing homes, places in conditions far sadder than merry Rosehaven–places like Shady Rest. (All too soon L. Ray will witness firsthand the awfulness of Shady Rest.)
Then there is the sad truth of the lot of women like Aunt Lil, women who because of their age and community, had their entire lives determined by whom they selected for a husband. Neither Aunt Lil nor her friends got out of a bad marriages. “Until death do us part” was taken quite literally, often to women’s great detriment. Edgerton with much grace and compassion depicts the truth of these women like Lil– they always outlive their spouses– who are in out and of nursing homes and often in and out of reality because of advancing dementia. Sure, the author makes much gentle humor of Aunt Lil’s driving skills or lack thereof. But she also says on a rare visit to her old apartment, “I used to come home. . . Now I visit home.” She describes life in a nursing home as “life after life.” Finally it is no accident that the novel ends with Carl, who is an altogether decent man, feeding the words to L. Ray of one of the saddest bluegrass songs ever written, “Rank Stranger.”
This gem of a novel with make you smile, even laugh out loud in places, but be careful. It will ultimately break your heart, particularly if you have just spoken to a parent who isn’t sure what day of the week it is or who talks to you about you in the third person.
One final note: Mr. Edgerton has Reverend Flowers come up with the plan to unite churches and nursing homes as one where “The First Breakfast” would be served instead of “The Last Supper.” While this may be a novel idea, Messers Edgerton and Flowers have been trumped by a progressive thinking Presbyterian congregation in Atlanta that has turned their sanctuary into a dormitory for homeless men during the week. On Sundays volunteers come in and remove the beds and install the pews for the morning service. Sometimes churches do really wonderful things.