North Carolina is blessed with more than its share of great writers. And I am looking over some of my favorites from my 20-plus years hosting PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.
One of the very best is Clyde Edgerton’s, “Lunch at the Piccadilly.” It wrestles two of life’s great challenges. One is coming to some understanding of the meaning and purpose of our lives. Another is figuring out how to tell an aging relative that he or she is no longer fit to drive a car and must turn in the driver’s license.
As the novel begins, Carl Turnage, is taking his Aunt Lil from a nursing home somewhere in North Carolina to lunch at the Piccadilly Restaurant. After letting her drive around the parking lot, he plans to break the news that she will never be able to drive again.
After lunch, and after a dangerous spin around a parking lot, Carl just cannot muster the courage to give the bad news. Throughout the book he resolves again and again to try, but he never completes the project. Carl’s love of his aunt and his deep sense of responsibility take him back to the nursing home time after time to visit and care for Aunt Lil.
On these visits, Carl encounters a rich variety of other nursing home residents and staff.
Aunt Lil’s nursing home friends are hardheaded and opinionated even though their memories and reasoning abilities are in a state of decline. One of them, Clara, asserts that Bill Clinton was not the kind of president that Washington and Lee were. When someone reminds her that Confederate General Robert E. Lee was never president, she responds that he should have been.
Meanwhile, the nursing home staff members do their best to attend to the needs of the residents. But they also wrestle with the rigors and paperwork of Medicare and other government regulations.
Carl meets a retired preacher, L. Ray Flowers, who is recovering from a leg injury. L. Ray charms Aunt Lil and most of the other women residents. He preaches “tent revival” sermons. He sings and leads them in singing familiar old hymns and other songs, some of which he wrote himself.
The passionate preaching and singing conceal L. Ray’s loss of faith in a God who would respond to his prayers. Struggling to find purpose for his life, L. Ray latches on to the idea that churches and nursing homes should merge into “Nurches of America” so that church members would come to worship in nursing homes, where they would automatically be of service. When the idea begins to catch on with the other residents, the nursing home’s owner deems L. Ray a troublemaker and finds an excuse to force him out.
Meanwhile Carl looks out for Aunt Lil. He takes her back to her home to visit and give it a good cleaning. He sits with her and goes through her papers. He comforts her when her growing dementia makes her think that her nursing home room is a jail cell in South Carolina.
These scenes will ring true to every reader who has ever tried to help a parent leave a home that means so much and move forever to a strange place where he or she will be surrounded by others who can see and feel death closing in.
As Carl comes to grips with Aunt Lil’s approaching death, the reality of his own mortality grows within him. As he gropes for the meaning and purpose of his own life, he represents all of us.
Like Mark Twain’s best writing, Edgerton’s entertaining story of the relationship of Carl and Aunt Lil as they journey toward the end of life can touch a reader’s soul.