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In Dudley Clendinen's 'Canterbury,' pilgrims at a posh stop

Everything can have unintended consequences, even retiring rich.

Tampa-born journalist Dudley Clendinen spent 13 years getting to know the residents and rhythms of Canterbury Tower, a posh retirement center on Bayshore Boulevard, after his mother became a resident there in 1994. He writes about the experience with grace, humor and insight in A Place Called Canterbury: Tales of the New Old Age in America.

What makes old age new? Many things, but the main one is that more people are living longer. Over and over, Clendinen quotes his subjects — the residents' average age is 86 — expressing surprise (and sometimes dismay) that they're still kicking.

Yet they're indelibly alive, full of old stories and new mischief, loyal to friends they've known (and been annoyed by) for half a century and, sometimes, ready for fresh romance.

Although their retirement is more cushioned by wealth than most people's, they face the same losses and indignities age brings to everyone. Money might hold off death a little longer, but no one can buy a way out of it.

Familiar networks

Canterbury Tower is an independent, nonprofit "life care" facility, offering residents 62 and older bayview apartments on Tampa's toniest boulevard plus a range of care options, treating everything from minor illness to dementia.

Many people in Canterbury Tower are longtime Tampa residents, making its culture a microcosm of the city's social elite. Clendinen, who has written for the St. Petersburg Times and the New York Times, grew up in that culture. His father, James, was an editor at the Tampa Tribune for 50 years. Dudley grew up in Sunset Park, then a new suburb.

It was a lively, social life, filled with family, friends, cocktails and dinners and yacht club parties. Clendinen writes that for his mother, Bobbie, "The whole south side of the city was a network of familiar faces and places. She knew its cultural and social progression by heart." He does a fine job of evoking that older Tampa, a slower, softer place now crusting over with McMansions and big box stores.

Because of his mother's many friendships, Clendinen had extraordinary access to people who might otherwise never have talked to a writer about their personal lives. As a result, he's able to reveal them not only in age but, through their memories, as the people they were: young and beautiful, successful and powerful, in war and in love.

He tells of how his parents' close friends Mary and Wilber Davis met in 1933, when she was a pretty 18-year-old waiting for the streetcar on Bayshore and he drove by in his red Chevy Cabriolet and, though they'd never met, pulled over on the spot to ask, "How does a guy go about getting a date with you?"

Clendinen also relates the memories of Martha Cameron, a retired nurse who recalls landing on the Normandy coast in the wake of D-Day and knocking out soldiers with drops of ether as their frozen legs were amputated during the Battle of the Bulge.

Clendinen weaves those past selves into his development of their current characters — and characters is the word for some of them, like his mother's theatrical, imperious longtime friend Emy Moody and excitable, thrice-married Southern belle Sarah Jane Rubio.

When Bobbie Clendinen first moves in at a healthy age 79, she's part of this uproarious crew. But in 1998, she is hammered by a series of strokes that leave her unable to speak, walk, feed herself or swallow solid food.

She moves from her homey apartment to the health care center, where she is tended like a hothouse orchid, lovingly groomed, dressed, made up and tucked into a rolling chaise longue each day.

Her health sinks and rises so many times her son stops counting how often she has neared death. Sometimes she is responsive, smiling or frowning. More often she is an emotional blank.

She lives that way for nine years, dying in 2007.

Because there is money to pay for it, the center's care no doubt prolongs her life. But Clendinen wrestles with whether that is what she would want, and he contrasts her experience with that of three of his elderly relatives, who spend their last days in much less devoted hands.

Although the residents of Canterbury get the most ink, many members of the staff are vivid characters too, such as the angelic nursing assistant Ernestine and the center's driven director, Caridad Vinas, who has a heart attack one Friday afternoon — and is back at work Monday morning.

For the most part, Clendinen brings his subjects to life with telling detail and skillful writing. His phonetic spellings of dialogue, though, are so over the top as to be distractions. I've lived in Tampa most of my life, comfortable amid its symphony of accents, but when I read quotes like "He wannid me to fix him a fried egg sandwich. Fry thuh bagan. Fry thuh egg in thuh bagan grease," I looked for subtitles.

Fortunately, those distractions are few. A Place Called Canterbury tells many a funny, touching and surprising tale and sheds light on the issues of aging that will touch nearly all of us sooner or later.

And Clendinen is hardly finished with the subject. When his mother moved into Canterbury, he was in his 40s. Now 63, he's old enough to qualify for a place there himself.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or cbancroft@sptimes.com.

A Place Called Canterbury:
Tales of the New Old Age in America

By Dudley Clendinen

Viking, 371 pages, $24.95

Meet the author

Dudley Clendinen, right, will be the guest speaker at the Four Seasons Authors Series Luncheon to benefit the Friends of the Library Tampa Hillsborough County at noon Monday at the University Club, 1 Tampa City Center, Tampa. Tickets are $25 per person and must be purchased in advance. Call (813) 273-3616.

Clendinen will read from and sign A Place Called Canterbury from 2 to 4 p.m. today at Canterbury Tower, 3501 Bayshore Blvd., Tampa; 6 p.m. Monday at Inkwood Books, 216 S Armenia Ave., Tampa; 10 a.m. Friday at Selby Public Library Gelbart Auditorium, 1331 First St., Sarasota; and 2 p.m. Saturday at Haslam's Book Store, 2025 Central Ave., St. Petersburg.

In Dudley Clendinen's 'Canterbury,' pilgrims at a posh stop 05/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 5, 2008 10:44am]

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