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Books with Old Folks (by Brian Francis)
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Books with Old Folks (by Brian Francis)

By 49thShelf
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"I’ve never met a senior citizen I didn’t like. Cranky, kind, loud-mouthed, timid, I don’t really care. They’re always fascinating to me. In my new book, Natural Order, I’ve indulged my love of seniors with a host of elderly characters. Here are some other CanLit novels that also feature old folks." BRIAN FRANCIS' first novel, Fruit, was a 2009 Canada Reads finalist. He has worked as a freelance writer for a variety of magazines and newspapers. In 2000, Francis received the Writers' Union of Canada's Emerging Author Award. He lives in Toronto.
Exit Lines

Exit Lines

also available: Paperback
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At three o’clock in the morning, that defenceless hour when anything feels possible and nothing human or inhuman out of the question, the Idyll Inn’s only sounds are the low hum and thrum a complicated building makes to keep itself going. Like any living body, even a sleeping or unconscious one, a building has to sustain its versions of blood and breath, so there’s a perpetual buzz to it, white noise in the ­night.

With only those faint sounds for companionship, three o’clock in the morning is an uneasy hour for the wakeful. It is also the most discreet hour for dodgy, unsavoury acts. Still, while those abroad tonight in the Idyll Inn may find their moods swinging between severely apprehensive and hopeful, there remains potential for a kind of slapstick comedy. If they are discovered, whether too soon, too late, or quite irrelevantly, their lookout will bumble about causing as much tripping and confusion as possible, while the others are to divert authority with exclamations and flailings and ­jostlings.

If all goes well, there’ll be no repercussions. If all does not, they’ll be in big trouble. They have chosen nevertheless, not lightly, to draw on whatever reservoirs they possess of determination. Stubbornness. Will. Solidarity in the cause of friendship and, they suppose, of its surprisingly expansive ­boundaries.

On their side is the unassailable fact that whatever transpires, barring ­on-­the-­spot discovery, the odds are decent that no one will ever find out. Resistance is high, they understand, to seeing them clearly at all. Or as one of them has previously remarked, “Most people would rather paddle the Amazon than be tourists around here.”

People are cowards, she ­meant.

So were they, ­once.

Well, they can’t be cowards tonight. In the morning, though, the real morning, they intend to have a bit of a ­lie-­in. Either life will go on as unaltered and perilously as life at the Idyll Inn ordinarily does, or they’ll be indulged with extra treats and particularly kind words. Either way, it’s nice to have cosiness and comfort to look forward to, if only because the prospect of even a small reward at the end helps keep a person going, ­really.


Nearly four seasons back, during a blessedly balmy spring run of ­late-­April days, ­move-­in time has finally come to the Idyll Inn. From start to ­near-­finish, from plans and permits to all the necessities and some of the graces, construction on this plot of riverside land in this small city has taken just eight months, including the periodic disruptions of winter. During this time and even before, when it existed only in theory, the place has been an object of interest and curiosity; in some cases, suspense; in a few others, ­desperation.

This Idyll Inn is the latest addition to a small chain that is not locally based. The corporation is not called something obvious like Idyll Inn Inc. or Ltd., but is a numbered company run by a management group on behalf of a collective of professionals, mostly dentists and doctors, interested in untroublesome, steady investment in what’s bound to be a growth industry. The expectation is that as the chain thrives, it will become a bigger firm’s takeover target, so from every perspective, present and future, its investors must ­prosper–­how can they ­lose?

The paved parking lot, which will be adequate for the ordinary run of events, is insufficient for so much simultaneous activity, so each day during ­moving-­in week there’s a muddle of small vans and trucks arriving with their loads of possessions, leaving not much later empty. There is, too, considerable risk of dented fenders, bumped bumpers, in all the forwarding and reversing and squeezing by large and small cars, many of them occupied by tense ­multi-­generational groups up to their necks and nerve endings in emotions of one sort and ­another.

How purposefully strangers hustle through the parking lot, how swiftly and surprisingly movers wielding sofas and chairs in the corridors overtake those slowly taking up ­residence–­how alarming and ­rude.

Never mind, their day will ­come.

At this stage in the numbered company’s expanding history, there’s a vast, detailed, operational template governing services, menus, staffing levels, recreational offerings, cultural and religious observances, decor and other fundamental amenities, right down to the number and location of phone connections in individual suites. Overall design, however, varies from one Idyll Inn to another, depending on ­­lot size and shape. This Idyll Inn, if viewed from the unlikely vantage point of the air, more or less resembles a sperm: a rounded head with a long ­two-­storey ­tail.

The tail section contains forty suites, twenty up, twenty down, all brightly painted, with shiny fixtures in their bathrooms and large windows in their main rooms. The main room in each suite provides lots of space, adaptable to individual taste, for chairs and sofa as well as TV set and sound system, coffee table, an end table or two, and various meaningful ­knick-­knackeries. Each suite also contains an array of ­built-­in cupboards, closets, drawers and shelves for storage and display purposes, which means that bedrooms don’t have to contain closets and drawers, and so can be on the small side, really only big enough for a human or two plus bed and side ­table.

Ten ­main-­floor suites along one side of the ­sperm-­tail’s long central corridor even have decks attached, which will be useful for outdoor leisure activities such as sitting in lawn chairs in the upcoming good weather. Those rooms and decks, which overlook the river flowing by, or in deep summer, drying up, are more expensive than the rest, and not everyone can afford the extra cost on top of what is already a substantial basic ­rent.

That rent includes the friendly, communal, ­well-­intentioned features located in the ­single-­storey part of the building which would, from the air, form the plump head of the sperm. Circling about from the main ­double-­doored entrance are several rooms: a large lounge with plants and paintings, low tables, soft chairs and hard ones, where sociable people are expected to gather to chat and play cards or word games, or to rattle away at the computer on a desk in one corner; a crafts and activities room with long schoolroom tables and chairs, and tall cupboards behind whose doors are the papers, glues, paints, yarns and mosaic tiles that are to become drawings and placemats and small candy dishes; a laundry room, another benefit of the place, one more dull burden lifted; a kitchen outfitted with ­restaurant-­quality cooking and refrigerating equipment; the open space of the dining room, where almost everyone upstairs and down will gather for breakfast, lunch and supper at round tables, getting to know each other quite swiftly, if they don’t already, for better or worse. Since this Idyll Inn is located in such a small city, a mere forty thousand citizens give or take, it’s safe to assume that many residents will already know, or at least know of, each other. Again, for better or ­worse.

The dining room’s grandest feature is a great wall of windows facing, like the most costly suites, the river that winds by bearing ducks, canoeists, anglers, assorted debris. Better than television, is the idea; and also light, as has been proven, affects people’s spirits. Research in design indicates that a happy crew, or at worst a tolerably amenable one, should be the result. Not that, once residents are installed, their moods will necessarily count for ­much–­certainly not to the distant investors, as long as the money rolls in. The Idyll Inn is rather like a Brazilian mine or a sweatshop in China that ­way.

Some afternoons and evenings the dining room will be cleared for various entertainments. Every day there’s to be a minimum of one organized activity somewhere in or outside the building, and holidays will be marked as they arise and as they represent the customs and beliefs of the residents. Here in this city, there’ll be no need for any very exotic or even multicultural celebration, but whatever does come up is well ­covered.

Completing the circle, back near the main entrance, is the staff office, which this week, possibly every week, is busy with harried people, women, on a steep learning curve. Across from it is the ­ill-­named library, a ­dark-­panelled room with no books except a set of encyclopedias and a severely ­out-­of-­date atlas, but with a ­wide-­screen TV and a fireplace, two large sofas and several easy ­chairs–­rather lush, in an English ­unlettered-­country-­gentleman sort of ­way.

And that’s it. The landscaping remains to be done, but otherwise the contractors have met most of their deadlines. Incomplete landscaping doesn’t prevent the place from opening for business, although, aside from the parking lot, the property is bogged down in spring mud. Soon, however, it will be covered in sod and dotted with decorative rocks and perennial flowers and shrubs, and no doubt residents will enjoy observing this happen as spring and summer unfold. Many are probably interested in gardening, and the rest should be pleased enough to watch workers ­working.

It’s in the interests of its distant investors that the Idyll Inn be comfortable and attractive in order to appeal to prosperous clients. At the same time, there must be responsible limits, which in practice means that the walls are painted appealing shades of pastels, and the chairs and tables are both efficient and homey, and the floors look like real tile, and the flowers and plants placed here and there out of the way are either ­full-­grown and thriving or fake, and the art on the walls is unobjectionable, mostly prints of gardens, seashores and animals grazing in fields; but which also means that under the paint the drywall is not always smooth, the chair at the computer desk in the lounge is by no means ergonomically top of the line, the floor tiles are ­stick-­downs, and the flowers and plants camouflage a certain draftiness around some of the ­windows.

Those doctors and dentists with their numbered company and expanding empire have no intention of being directly involved ­with–­of even ­visiting–­this Idyll Inn or any other, so it’s fortunate that Annabel Walker exists. She grew up in this city, left at twenty, returned at fifty, and in the interim trained and worked restlessly in nursing, briefly and radically in auto repair, and finally and practically in accounting. She has already worked at a larger Idyll Inn elsewhere, although not as manager. She is unencumbered and plain, and looks fairly worn down by the world, and at this stage is likely to remain unencumbered and plain, if not necessarily worn down, and so can presumably be counted on to concentrate on running this Idyll ­Inn.

During the months of construction, she has spoken extensively and intensively with a great many people. She has cracked the whip with contractors to keep schedules nearly on track. She has interviewed and hired staff, supervised the distribution of instruction manuals and the showing of corporate videos on required procedures, and is already keeping an eye on one or two staff with a view to possible firings. She has been responsible for furnishing and stocking the place, within the limits specified by the Idyll Inn rules. All that is good business, well ­done.

She has also, when possible, personally interviewed prospective residents. She has reviewed their histories, medical and otherwise, checked their credit, conducted tours, allocated suites, heard a great many stories. Unlike a newcomer to town, she knows there will be people at the Idyll Inn over whom she’ll particularly have to exert her authority, and here, quite possibly, comes one ­now.


Not for Sylvia Lodge an ignominious arrival in the hands of others, that sure, helpless sign of having waited too long. She comes to the Idyll Inn under her own steam, not counting the taxi driver, who gets no ­tip–­imagine honking from her driveway instead of ringing the doorbell, imagine not helping, and never mind that she doesn’t particularly need help with only a purse and a small fabric suitcase containing toiletries, ­mainly.

He can mutter, “Cheap old bitch,” if he chooses, but he’d do better to turn his mind to the benefits of courteous service. Another time she might set out to instruct him about who may lie behind the rangy flesh of an ­eighty-­one-­year-­old female, which in this instance happens to be a good tipper, but today she has other ­concerns.

She is not one of those superstitious people who hesitate before pride in the nervous belief that it precedes a fall. Pride, in fact, helps hold her upright, and therefore upright she proceeds along the short walkway and through the two sets of automatically opening glass doors of the Idyll Inn entrance. There’s not much time before her moving van will arrive, her possessions in the hands of two scruffy young men she found through the classifieds. She has culled fairly ruthlessly, but there’s still a lot of life travelling behind her, and she wants to be organized for it and prepared to ­direct.

Her new home sweet home. But mustn’t start on a sour note, or a dubious ­one.

It is ­mid-­afternoon. She woke early this morning, melancholy as any normal human would be. Besides closely supervising the young men as they loaded her selected remaining possessions into their van, she took a last stroll around her garden, admiring particularly the hardy spring tulips and tough, graceful forsythia. Indoors she observed the light slanting through leaded windows, patterning bare hardwood floors, and ran her fingers over the naked fireplace mantel and shivered at the echoey sound of her solitary voice when she made the sentimental mistake of saying aloud, “Goodbye then, old house.” She cooked herself an asparagus omelette for lunch, on the theory that future omelettes would likely be of the cooling, rubbery variety, possibly not even involving real eggs.

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Why it's on the list ...
“Honest to God, we’re just old, we’re not morons.”

Barfoot’s 2008 novel was many things: funny, sad, honest and pointed. Set in a retirement lodge, Exit Lines centres around four residents who find an ability to bond with one another in surroundings that would challenge the best of us. In spite of that (or because of it), they discover the preciousness of their own lives.
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The Innocent Traveller

Far away at the end of the table sat Father, the kind, handsome and provident man. At this end sat Mother, her crinoline spread abroad. On Mother’s right was Mr. Matthew Arnold. On each side of the table the warned children ate their food gravely, all except Topaz on Mother’s left. Topaz, who could not be squelched, was perched there on the top of two cushions, as innocent as a poached egg. Mother sat gracious, fatigued, heavy behind the majestic crinoline with the last and fatal child.

Said Mr. Matthew Arnold in large and musical tones, speaking across the children and three jellied fowls to Father who with divided attention carved, “It is now my hope to make a survey of the educational systems of France and Germany with a view to the establishment in this country of reasonable educational facilities for every child, rich or poor. You will agree with me, Mr. Edgeworth, that a modicum of education, given under healthy and happy conditions, is the right of every boy. This I would extend to girls also.” Thus spoke Mr. Matthew Arnold.

Father, as he carved for ten people, made encouraging sounds, although he had not yet considered this novel idea. He was, however, prepared to do so. He looked forward to a pleasant afternoon with this agreeable and enlightened person who was a coming Inspector of Schools, a present poet, and a son of Arnold of Rugby.
Mother’s quiet sombre gaze swept round the table, dwelt for a moment thoughtfully on the poet, rested on Father busy with the jellied fowls, rested on the two young grown-up daughters, on the four sons, on the little Topaz at her side, and on the ministering Cook and Emma.

Topaz was anxious to be noticed. But nobody was noticed today except Mr. Matthew Arnold. Not Annie, Mary, Blakey, George, John, nor Joe. She determined to be noticed immediately, so she spoke across the table to the guest.

As she was so unimportant no one paid her any attention at first until she was heard to say, “. . . and it’s got a lovely yellow glass handle and you pull it and it goes woosh! Woosh, woosh!” she trumpeted, and smiled happily at Mr. Matthew Arnold.

“What goes woosh, my child?” he asked.

“Our new —”

“Topaz!” thundered Father, and Mother put out a grieved and loving hand. The outraged brothers and sisters looked across and downwards. Only Mr. Matthew Arnold regarded Topaz without horror.

“Topaz, eat your bread and butter,” commanded Mother. But Topaz had succeeded. She had been noticed, although she had failed to tell Mr. Matthew Arnold about their new plumbing.

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Why it's on the list ...
“Life is a party and she is at the party.”

First published in 1949 when Wilson was 62 years old, The Innocent Traveller recounts the life of Topaz Edgeworth from childhood to her death at the age of 100. Throughout a life that spans from Victorian England to Canada in the years following the Second World War, Topaz charms us while calling to mind all those odd elderly relatives we were forced to visit as kids. Pass the mint melt-a-ways.
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The Stone Diaries

The Stone Diaries

by Carol Shields
introduction by Penelope Lively
also available: Audiobook (CD)
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Birth, 1905

My mother's name was Mercy Stone Goodwill. She was only thirty years old when she took sick, a boiling hot day, standing there in her back kitchen, making a Malvern pudding for her husband's supper. A cookery book lay open on the table: "Take some slices of stale bread," the recipe said, "and one pint of currants; half a pint of raspberries; four ounces of sugar; some sweet cream if available." Of course she's divided the recipe in half, there being just the two of them, and what with the scarcity of currants, and Cuyler (my father) being a dainty eater. A pick-and-nibble fellow, she calls him, able to take his food or leave it.

It shames her how little the man eats, diddling his spoon around in his dish, perhaps raising his eyes once or twice to send her one of his shy, appreciative glances across the table, but never taking a second helping, just leaving it all for her to finish up -- pulling his hand through the air with that dreamy gesture of his that urges her on. And smiling all the while, his daft tender-faced look. What did food mean to a working man like himself? A bother, a distraction, perhaps even a kind of price that had to be paid in order to remain upright and breathing.

Well, it was a different story for her, for my mother. Eating was as close to heaven as my mother ever came. (In our day we have a name for a passion as disordered as hers.)

And almost as heavenly as eating was the making -- how she gloried in it! Every last body on this earth has a particular notion of paradise, and this was hers, standing in the murderously hot back kitchen of her own house, concocting and contriving, leaning forward and squinting at the fine print of the cookery book, a clean wooden spoon in hand.

It's something to see, the way she concentrates, her hot, busy face, the way she thrills to see the dish take form as she pours the stewed fruit into the fancy mold, pressing the thickly cut bread down over the oozing juices, feeling it soften and absorb bit by bit a raspberry redness. Malvern pudding; she loves the words too, and feels them dissolve on her tongue like a sugary wafer, her tongue itself grown waferlike and sweet. Like an artist -- years later this form of artistry is perfectly clear to me -- she stirs and arranges and draws in her brooding lower lip. Such a dish this will be. A warm sponge soaking up color. (Mrs. Flett next door let her have some currants off her bush; the raspberries she's found herself along the roadside south of the village, even though it half kills her, a woman of her size walking out in the heat of the day.)

She sprinkles on extra sugar, one spoonful, then another, then takes the spoon to her mouth, the rough crystals that keep her alert. It is three o'clock -- a hot July afternoon in the middle of Manitoba, in the middle of the Dominion of Canada. The parlor clock (adamantine finish, gilded feet, a wedding present from her husband's family, the Goodwills of Stonewall Township) has just struck the hour. Cuyler will be home from the quarry at five sharp; he will have himself a good cheerful wash at the kitchen basin, and by half-past five the two of them will sit down at the table - this very table, only spread with a clean cloth, every second day a clean cloth -- and eat their supper. Which for the most part will be a silent meal, both my parents being shy by nature, and each brought up in the belief that conversing and eating are different functions, occupying separate trenches of time. Tonight they will partake of cold corned beef with a spoonful of homemade relish, some dressed potatoes at the side, cups of sweet tea, and then this fine pudding. His eyes will widen; my father, Cuyler Goodwill, aged twenty-eight, two years married, will never in his life have tasted Malvern pudding. (That's what she's preparing for -- his stunned and mild look of confusion, that tender, grateful male mouth dropping open in surprise. It's the least she can do, surprise him like this.) She sets a flower-patterned plate carefully on top of the pudding and weights it down with a stone.

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Why it's on the list ...
“I am not at peace.”

Shields’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel turns the convention of autobiography on its head. Lead character Daisy Goodwill doesn’t attempt to describe herself in own terms, but through the observations and opinions of the people that surround her. It’s heartbreaking, hilarious and extremely moving.
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The Stone Angel

Above the town, on the hill brow, the stone angel used to stand. I wonder if she stands there yet, in memory of her who relinquished her feeble ghost as I gained my stubborn one, my mother’s angel that my father bought in pride to mark her bones and proclaim his dynasty, as he fancied, forever and a day.

Summer and winter she viewed the town with sightless eyes. She was doubly blind, not only stone but unendowed with even a pretense of sight. Whoever carved her had left the eyeballs blank. It seemed strange to me that she should stand above the town, harking us all to heaven without knowing who we were at all. But I was too young then to know her purpose, although my father often told me she had been brought from Italy at a terrible expense and was pure white marble. I think now she must have been carved in that distant sun by stone masons who were the cynical descendants of Bernini, gouging out her like by the score, gauging with admirable accuracy the needs of fledgling pharaohs in an uncouth land.

Her wings in winter were pitted by the snow and in summer by the blown grit. She was not the only angel in the Manawaka cemetery, but she was the first, the largest, and certainly the costliest. The others, as I recall, were a lesser breed entirely, petty angels, cherubim with pouting stone mouths, one holding aloft a stone heart, another strumming in eternal silence upon a small stone stringless harp, and yet another pointing with ecstatic leer to an inscription. I remember that inscription because we used to laugh at it when the stone was first placed there.
Rest in peace.
From toil, surcease.
Regina Weese.
So much for sad Regina, now forgotten in Manawaka — as I, Hagar, am doubtless forgotten. And yet I always felt she had only herself to blame, for she was a flimsy, gutless creature, bland as egg custard, caring with martyred devotion for an ungrateful fox-voiced mother year in and year out. When Regina died, from some obscure and maidenly disorder, the old disreputable lady rose from sick-smelling sheets and lived, to the despair of her married sons, another full ten years. No need to say God rest her soul, for she must be laughing spitefully in hell, while virginal Regina sighs in heaven.

In summer the cemetery was rich and thick as syrup with the funeral-parlor perfume of the planted peonies, dark crimson and wallpaper pink, the pompous blossoms hanging leadenly, too heavy for their light stems, bowed down with the weight of themselves and the weight of the rain, infested with upstart ants that sauntered through the plush petals as though to the manner born.

I used to walk there often when I was a girl. There could not have been many places to walk primly in those days, on paths, where white kid boots and dangling skirts would not be torn by thistles or put in unseemly disarray. How anxious I was to be neat and orderly, imagining life had been created only to celebrate tidiness, like prissy Pippa as she passed. But sometimes through the hot rush of disrespectful wind that shook the scrub oak and the coarse couchgrass encroaching upon the dutifully cared-for habitations of the dead, the scent of the cowslips would rise momentarily. They were tough-rooted, these wild and gaudy flowers, and although they were held back at the cemetery’s edge, torn out by loving relatives determined to keep the plots clear and clearly civilized, for a second or two a person walking there could catch the faint, musky, dusttinged smell of things that grew untended and had grown always, before the portly peonies and the angels with rigid wings, when the prairie bluffs were walked through only by Cree with enigmatic faces and greasy hair.

Now I am rampant with memory. I don’t often indulge in this, or not so very often, anyway. Some people will tell you that the old live in the past — that’s nonsense. Each day, so worthless really, has a rarity for me lately. I could put it in a vase and admire it, like the first dandelions, and we would forget their weediness and marvel that they were there at all. But one dissembles, usually, for the sake of such people as Marvin, who is somehow comforted by the picture of old ladies feeding like docile rabbits on the lettuce leaves of other times, other manners. How unfair I am. Well, why not? To carp like this — it’s my only enjoyment, that and the cigarettes, a habit I acquired only ten years ago, out of boredom. Marvin thinks it disgraceful of me to smoke, at my age, ninety. To him there is something distressing in the sight of Hagar Shipley, who by some mischance happens to be his mother, with a little white burning tube held saucily between arthritic fingers. Now I light one of my cigarettes and stump around my room, remembering furiously, for no reason except that I am caught up in it. I must be careful not to speak aloud, though, for if I do Marvin will look at Doris and Doris will look meaningfully back at Marvin, and one of them will say, “Mother’s having one of her days.” Let them talk. What do I care now what people say? I cared too long.

Oh, my lost men. No, I will not think of that. What a disgrace to be seen crying by that fat Doris. The door of my room has no lock. They say it is because I might get taken ill in the night, and then how could they get in to tend me (tend — as though I were a crop, a cash crop). So they may enter my room any time they choose. Privacy is a privilege not granted to the aged or the young. Sometimes very young children can look at the old, and a look passes between them, conspiratorial, sly and knowing. It’s because neither are human to the middling ones, those in their prime, as they say, like beef.

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Why it's on the list ...
“And then—“

Oh, Hagar Shipley, with your beetle-flecked hair, wilderness pride and flatulence, you left a mighty shadow in the literary landscape. It’s hard to think of an elderly protagonist and not have Hagar immediately come to mind. Laurence’s portrait of a woman in the final days of her life was as tough—and complex—as the character herself.
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Remembering The Bones
Why it's on the list ...
“Women my age are invisible.”

There’s the hardship of being old. Then there’s the hardship of being old and driving your car off the road while on your way to visit your idol Queen Elizabeth and spending your final days lying on the ground waiting for help. Sheesh. And you thought you had a bad day. But that’s just what happens to Georgina Danforth Whitely, an 80-year-old who occupies her post-accident time examining the worth of her life. Be warned. Nothing prepares you for Itani’s gut wrenching ending.
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