Advent Post #11

“Even Elizabeth…” (Luke 1:36)

The angel told Mary that her prophecy included her kinswoman, her relative. Isn’t that wonderful? God’s grand messages to us are never, solely, for us. They are for others. As much as they are about us, they are about others. They spread the miracle-working strength of God.

In this case, Elizabeth was advanced in years. Elizabeth wasn’t expecting to get pregnant. Like Sarah in Genesis, Elizabeth was old. I have teachers who wouldn’t let me call them that. One of my teachers said quite loudly to our peer group, “I am a senior!” There are people who have trouble with “old.” Bad connotations come with that word.

We discard old things. We replace them. We forget them. We prefer younger, newer, bolder, anything other than old. There are good reasons to be bothered by the word.

And then I have friends who I met through Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly who would gladly be called old. When I consider some of those friends, they would be thankful to be called anything by a person who cared for them, someone who was showing up regularly to listen to and talk with them like plain people. I am stretching it a bit, of course, to make the point. But when a person is alone and isolated, calling them old may be complimentary if you’re sticking around to hear their comeback.

In a way, my friends are like Elizabeth. They are the people who no longer expect God to act in them. They are so untreated and mistreated by society, that they believe God does them the way we do. They are resigned, withdrawn, and, many of them, hopeless because the world around them has “forced them out,” made no place for them, moved by them, and cared less for them.

We mistreat people who are old. We think little of them, and I hear Elizabeth’s blessing of bearing fruit as a reminder to remember that “people are people.” …Whether they bear another child, work another job, do something you and I think are contributions to current society or not.

Can you see Gabriel’s words not so much as a comfort to Elizabeth because she could do what everyone younger than her could but as a challenge to fix our thinking around the inestimable quality residing in people who have lived long lives?

They are senior leaders, senior members of the human community. Even if they “bear no more” or “produce nothing else,” can we not speak to them graciously, listen to them tenderly, serve them generously, and love them as we love ourselves? May these better acts be true of us.

We might be changed. We may learn to treat everybody that they matter, essentially, no matter what they do, what they produce, what they accomplish. And what a gracious world that would be. If only we could treat each other, no matter our ages, that we are loved and that we are important just because we’re here.

Singing with Brother Tom

When we first met, he seemed to be a stiff, jovial man.  The stiffness was only in his movements and not his heart.  He kept a full, broad smile on his face, wore glasses and a gray beard, and I could tell early on that he had jokes I wouldn’t understand.  Jokes, perhaps, I’d laugh at later.

I was told to call him Brother Tom because that was his preference.  We would get along because I could relate to his Christian faith, to the songs he sang, to the scriptures he went on and on about.  All those markers would be little pieces of Brother Tom’s deep faith.  He had an abiding song for his God.

On several occasions when I was with him, he had me pull his CD player to his side so he could play Gaither gospel, music I didn’t enjoy but lyrics I could follow.  The tunes’ texts were so familiar that I could follow them, even if I had to close my ears to their sounds.  Looking at Brother Tom’s face as he sang–closed eyes, his deep throat open–I’d think back to rehearsals with the Soul Children of Chicago when we would sing with all our selves.  I’d think about my days at church singing in the choir.  And I would join Brother Tom.  Sometimes.

We talked about the Bible.  We spoke of theology.  He always asked about my ministry and my leadership.  He wanted to talk about his writings, and I wanted to hear about his life.  Sometimes it felt like our conversations were dull in the sense that they were aimless, almost lazy.  But there was something building, an intimacy I wouldn’t know until my internship and time with him was ending.  Still, with all those important words shared between us, it was his music that marked our time.

He would sing in the middle of a conversation, offering a public display of affection, even next to sleepy residents in St. Paul’s house.  I didn’t want to wake up his fellow residents.  But he didn’t mind it.  He would simply sing.  Loud and never quietly, he’d open his throat as if God was before him, waiting and encouraging him to sing louder.

Donny Hathaway, a singer I’m sure Brother Tom was unfamiliar with, sang that “for all we know tomorrow may never come.”  But the faith residing in the deep bottoms of my old friend, old because he’d seen so many days with God and with people, old because he’d experienced plain loneliness and gripping isolation, old because he was aged by grace and suffering and illness, that faith had a different lyric.  In some ways, Tom Lopresti sang because he believed he would see a tomorrow.

On the first day of the week, when he died, Brother Tom’s voice joined another melodious chorale.  He wouldn’t sing along.  He would join the sounds of the stars and the unseen vocalists from all eternity.  In death, he would start a new chorus, hardly ending his lovely baritone rendition of thankfulness.  He would keep singing, even if I’d never hear him again.  Perhaps this time he’d open his eyes, but Brother Tom would sing.  For sure he would.

Author Interview with Courtney Miller Santo

Elders often go unnoticed.  In your book, the elders of Kidron (and around the world if the clippings and news items within the novel come to mind) are central.  How did you come to write a story underlining people who are generally so unrecognized?  I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by elders for most of my life. One of the reasons I wrote this particular book is that none of the fiction families I read about had many of their grandparents, or great grandparents around and yet my experience growing up was one of being surrounded by people who not only had a few years on them, but were delightfully funny and interesting. Not that I’ve got anything against grandmothers who bake cookies or knit, but that wasn’t my experience.

 

Tell us about your research process, particularly how you developed multiple characters of varying ages.  Again, your characters weren’t exactly typical for contemporary fiction.  I was fortunate to have my own great-grandmother in my life until a few months after the book was published. She was 104 when she passed away and although in the book, Anna is a few years older, she is modeled very much on my own great-grandmother. The other women, who are older are also based on people in my family. If I needed to know what particular phrase an almost ninety year old woman would use, I just started a conversation with one of my relatives, or read their journals.

Courtney's Five Generations

The more difficult characters where those who were closer in age to my own mother. There’s always a barrier between mothers and daughters and the frankness that my grandmother’s talked to me isn’t the same. I also have an extraordinary group of women who I’ve come to know through my church community who were very valuable in that respect.  Are there elders, living or dead, who you believe we should remember?  Any notables for you?  I am fascinated by Jean Calment, who makes a brief appearance in the book and was in fact the oldest woman to have ever lived. But mostly when I visit with bookclubs and talk about this book, what I encourage people to do is to ask the elders in their lives to share their stories. Some people are lucky enough to still have grandparents and great grandparents living, but if that isn’t the case, look to your neighbors or your work community and start asking questions about their lives. I am particularly interested in stories beyond the typical where were you during a war, or a historical event. One question I find that always gets great (and sad stories) is who do you know who drowned. I believe that people live on through their stories. It is the way we echo through generations. Storytelling is vital to our identities.

 

You dealt with many things in your work, one of which was the way stories of our forebears are kept hidden, shared, remembered, rehearsed, or, in some cases, lost.  Choose one of the Keller women and give us a sense of something she’d want us to know.  What an amazing question! I always wanted Bets and her daughter Callie to have a conversation where they allowed themselves to be honest with each other. Bets in particular kept so much from her children—especially about their father and the type of relationship she had with him and that damaged Callie in ways I don’t think she understands. I always thought that those two in particular would have benefitted from an airing of grievances and secrets. I think that if Callie understood her parents and the secrets they had to keep that she’d have found love much sooner in her life and that might have changed what happened with Deb.

 

Courtney Miller SantoYou acknowledge the community of writers around you.  How did that community support you as you worked on your novel?  My writer’s group has to be some of the most insightful and encouraging people in the entire world. Throughout finishing this novel, we met monthly and each time I read a bit of the work, they found ways to push me to make it better. I also was lucky enough to have a fantastic mentor in Cary Holladay, whose own work I deeply admire. I always wanted to write so-called Southern fiction, which Cary does so well, but the rub of it is that because of my Western pedigree, all I could do was write bad imitations of southern stories. Cary helped me to find my own authentic voice. I also want to say that I have so many poets in my life who have helped me to learn the value of a single word among 100,000—in particular Heather Dobbins has been an incredible support to me.

 

What did you learn while writing?  What did you find out about families, aging, death, and life as you developed the book?  One of the biggest revelations that happened while I was writing this book is that I began to see my own mother as an individual. The more I spoke to my grandmother and great grandmother about their lives, the more I was able to see my mother as somebody other than my mother. I also have learned buckets about olive trees. They are incredible trees. I only wish I could figure out how to keep one alive. I’ve killed at least three. The other startling connection I made while researching this book is how many of mankind’s myths deal explicitly with aging and the idea of immortality. Every community has an idea of how to get past mortality—and yet scientifically we’ve sort of reached an end road of sorts.

 

Did you come across any notable remedies for aging?  There are more wives tales than remedies. Everybody ages, what you hope for is those genes that make you physically less old than your actual age. My great-grandmother could touch her toes until the day she died and yet for the last twenty years of her life, she had M&Ms and Mountain Dew for breakfast. That tells me it was mostly genetics that kept her flexible and the science backs that up. However there’s common sense nobody wants to hear it, but it’s true stuff that helps you if you don’t have extra long telomeres—basically keeping active and eating well.

 

What are you reading these days?  I’ve just started Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred Year House, which I adore and since I just wrapped up vacation, I recently finished Wolf Hall, a fabulous nonfiction book that tells the history of Paris through biographical vignettes, called The Parisians, and I devoured my daughter’s copy of Divergent on the plane ride home. I’ll be going to my twentieth high school reunion in a few weeks and have bought the Hurricane Sisters for the plane ride there.

 

How can readers support you and are you working on words you can tell us about briefly?  My second novel, THREE STORY HOUSE, comes out on August 19 and I’d love for anyone who enjoyed THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE to check it out (Anna makes a special cameo in the book). Set in Memphis, the book delves into the relationship between cousins who find their lives coming apart as they work to renovate a spite house. There’s going to be a fun contest starting August 28 where readers are invited to post their own versions of my cover on my facebook page at www.facebook.com/courtneymsanto There will be prizes! I’d love to hear reader’s stories of their local spite houses.Olive Tree for CM Interview