Making the last years lovely years

A Place Called Canterbury

By Dudley Clendinen. Viking.

400 pages. $24.95. ***

“Death is not really the main preoccupation of life at Canterbury,” Dudley Clendinen writes. Life is, and its joy and pain are at the center of this tale of the residents of a geriatric apartment building – average age 86. It's an intimate, touching, often hilarious look at the last years of a generation living longer than expected and determined to grow old with dignity.

Clendinen's mother moved to Canterbury Tower in Tampa in 1994. She had been editor of society and women's pages for The Tampa Tribune. Charming and gregarious, “nothing but hurricanes and broken bones kept her from her calendar” until she suffers a series of strokes and must be moved to the nursing wing, barely able to move or speak.

Clendinen visits so often – spending more than 400 nights – that he becomes a friend to many residents. There's Mary the Southern belle; “Emyfish,” who once had a TV talk show and sounds like Bea Arthur; philosophical Rabbi Karl, who escaped from Nazi Germany in 1939; chain-smoking “Sweetso”; and Elizabeth, who gives a man she's dating a book called “Sex After Sixty” and stocks up on chardonnay.

In the poignant chapter “The Cocktail Hour,” we join Mary and Wilbur at their favorite time of day, for the pleasant ritual they've enjoyed for 65 years. But Wilbur can't remember what anyone ordered or where the vodka is, and sometimes he can't remember who Mary is, either.

Several ladies plan to pose for a nude calendar. Emyfish organizes amateur plays. Everyone dresses for dinner, and wheelchairs aren't allowed in the dining room (too ominous). Widows and widowers glance at one another, shyly or boldly, and wonder if they might have one more chance at love.

Running the place is Mrs. Vinas, a kind but no-nonsense perfectionist who puts herself on 24-hour call.

As Clendinen sits with Mother, remembering his childhood aloud, he feels she is communing with him, despite a resident's assertion that “Yoah Mothah duzzen know me from Adam. She duzzen havah clue.” (The patronizing representation of the Tampa natives' accent is one of the few annoyances in this book.)

“Canterbury” dispels stereotypes about old age. After reading it, you will look at your parents or grandparents with fresh eyes and renewed compassion.

Elizabeth Gelgud is an Observer copy editor.

*= poor; **= fair; ***= good; ****= excellent