Author Jill McCorkle spent the weekend in Lexington, speaking to the Kentucky Women Writer’s Conference and shepherding a group of 16 budding authors through a two-day workshop in how to “find the story.” I was lucky enough to be among that small group; to sit with, talk with, learn from and laugh with the kind, gently Southern and very talented writer. She shared with us how she found the story she wrote in Life After Life, a sweetly hopeful and melancholy tale of lives entwined in an assisted care facility.
Life After Life takes the reader into the Pine Haven retirement center in Fulton, North Carolina: a refuge for some of the residents and staff and a prison for others. Rachel Silverman, a transplanted Yankee, stirs many a pot as does retired lawyer Stanley Stone. Toby and Sadie comfort Abby, the child of a painful marriage, who likes to escape to visit the residents of Pine Haven. Joanna, an employee of Pine Haven, gathers the stories of the residents in a central point. Joanna’s mission having been given to her to “make their exits as gentle and loving as possible.” She does, and thereafter collects the stories of their exits in her journal.
Ms. McCorkle talked of visiting her own mother in a location similar to that of Pine Haven. Of the hard truth that so much in such places is simply not nice, but staying in that facility willfully until some glimpse of humor displayed itself. She mines the truth of the situation for gentle humor throughout Life After Life as well. But in each life, a little rain must fall and as each residents’ story becomes known, the reader sees the tragedy as well as the comedy.
One of my favorite characters was the character of Stanley Stone, who is suffering from dementia-turette’s syndrome and plays Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’ vinyl recording of Whipped Cream “nonstop.” He has the unfortunate tendency to walk into a room and make the most obscene outbursts.
“You aren’t queer, are you, son?” Stanley asked. “Been a long time since I’ve heard of you getting a piece.”
During her talk on Friday, Ms. McCorkle read a passage from what she called “Toby’s rant,” that is a good illustration of what the New York Times book review referred to as the “simple, often luminous moments this side of the great divide.” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/12/books/review/life-after-life-by-jill-mccorkle.html?smid=pl-share
“I am a human, a woman; I was an English teacher and a bit of an amateur writer myself, but I’ll tell you things went so far off course I just didn’t even know where I was anymore. I think it was the beginning of the end, too. What once was generous compassion for high school students with all their angst and crap going on turned into pure agitation and fury. I didn’t get frustrated by who I am; I got frustrated by what they were reading and wanting to write about. I said, you’re too smart for all this shit. Dwarves and wizards and gnomes and vampires — big blue aliens with tails like monkeys. I said what I wouldn’t give for a good old-fashioned story about somebody losing his or her virginity or getting an abortion — Grandma died and for the first time I knew I was mortal or what about the one where the boy doesn’t want to kill a deer, but Granddaddy makes him so he can be a man. I was wanting to write something myself and it was dying to get out of my head but couldn’t’ find the door it was all so plugged up with that malarkey.”
Life After Life offers multiple lives, voices and topics for discussion: senior care, adultery, dementia, creativity, artistry and of course, aging. And like Jill McCorkle, you will leave Pine Hurst with a dose of gentle humor to leaven the sorrow.
Pine Hurst employee C.J. runs a hot dog stand. The stand features special like a German Shepherd with onions and sauerkraut. I can’t stand hot dogs though, blame Upton Sinclair, so I would serve:
Sweet Tea/Bourbon Cocktail
Muddle one sugar cube with 2 oz lemon juice in low ball glass
Add two ounces of tea and two ounces of bourbon
Shake with ice cubes and serve
North Carolina Barbecue
Sweet Potato Pie — my good friend Denise Smith shared this yummy recipe with me.
1 1/2 cup sweet potatoes
1 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 stick butter, at room temperature
1 unbaked pie shell
Preheat oven to 350. Boil sweet potatoes in large Dutch oven until knife inserted goes through with complete ease. Peel sweet potatoes as soon as they are cool enough to handle. Beat in electric mixer until smooth. Add next 3 ingredients and mix well. Pour into pie shell and make the top of the mixture as smooth as possible. Cover with glaze and bake for one hour and ten mites or until pie shell is golden brown.
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Beat all ingredients together in electric mixer. Pour over top of pie.
Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass! Whipped Cream. Actually that album is one of my favorite childhood memories. I think my mom played it non-stop as well. Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba . . . http://youtu.be/VFgKIz1SrlI
This would be one heck of a tale to tell via film. But I’ll do my best with a few of my favorite characters:
Stanley Stone: Clint Eastwood
Rachel Silverman: Barbra Streisand(!)
Toby: Dame Judy Dench
Sadie: Sally Field
Kendra: Julie Bowen
Thanks again to Jill McCorkle and happy reading!