by Hendrik Groen (2017)
Trigger warning: if you feel offended by such words as “old,” “geezer,” “coot,” and “codger,” you may be excused from reading this blog and the book under discussion. (Thanks to Rolynn Anderson for the “trigger warning” reminder.) If you decide to take a chance, you’ll find that it’s more sweet, wise, and darkly funny than bitter, and it’s all about ATTITUDE.
Hendrik Groen’s first published book is The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen covering the year 2013. On the Bright Side continues that format for 2015. These are not REAL diaries, nor is Groen the author’s REAL name. In fact, he has been compared to Elena Ferrante for this reason: no one knows the true identity of either person! However, I can assure readers that this mystery in no way detracts from the excellence of their writing and stories.
Groen is an 85-year-old “inmate,” as he calls it, of a retirement home in Amsterdam. We learn his back story slowly: he was a primary school headmaster for most of his career; his only child drowned when she was 4; his wife is in a psychiatric institution; he arrived at the retirement home several years earlier because of some health deterioration; and he’s still a snappy dresser. He’s not as mobile as when younger, although he notes that compared to the walking speed of many of the residents, he’s “the cheetah of the geriatric world.” [p. 61] A scooter enables him to enjoy frequent outings, sometimes with a friend with a souped-up scooter. Even elderly men have a need for speed.
Other residents of the home have varying degrees of mobility as well as a wide range of ailments. For those in better health, the worst problem is boredom. They don’t work, food is prepared for them, there’s no house and yard upkeep…one can’t watch TV and sleep ALL the time!
Gradually Groen formed friendships with other like-minded residents. Six of them formed the Old But Not Dead Club (OBNDC), later expanded to 8 members and kept exclusive. This way members could legitimately spend most of their social time with compatible and trusted people as well as conspire and plot ways to get around management’s ridiculous rules. However, the main objective of the OBNDC was to organize group outings such as restaurant meals and short trips to take advantage of what Amsterdam has to offer. Looking forward to outings was nearly as good for the members as actually experiencing them.
The OBNDC was founded on specific guidelines: “…there’s to be no whining, but…we laugh a lot about our various miseries. It makes living with the restrictions brought on by the body’s decrepitude a great deal easier.” [p. 16] So does sharing good times with compatible people.
Groen doesn’t shy away from the less positive aspects of aging and group living in a retirement home. Aside from the obvious issues of an aging body and mind, just bringing together diverse people with their tastes and quirky personalities in one place often can be virtually combustible. Groen and other OBNDC members had no patience for childish behavior, bullying, playing dirty tricks on other residents, rudeness, temper tantrums, and incessant complaining. Finally exhausted by the latter, they resorted to placing a sign on a common room table: you are kindly requested not to talk about ailments, organs, or death at this table.
As if awaiting a visit from Death wasn’t stressful enough, there was uncertainty about how long residents would have a place to live. Cutbacks by the government kept chipping away at benefits, and the owners of their home and others did the same to cut costs. As more homes closed, more people who should have been in a residence home were forced to stay in their own homes longer than they should for their safety and health. This is a real problem in many nations, especially as the post-WWII population boom ages.
Groen also shows the impact of the death of close friends in the home on those left behind. Using the slow deterioration and finally death of Groen’s close friend Evert as a sort of tutorial is oddly positive (I know that sounds strange).
If I’ve given the impression that this is a depressing book about depressing topics, that’s completely untrue. The reader grows to care about the characters, what happens to them, and how they face the adversities of aging. Groen notes that with each new setback to our body or mind, humans have a strange ability to adapt, to incorporate the behavior needed to cope with the new issue and move on.
There is also a lot of laugh-out-loud humor in both of Groen’s “diaries.” Mrs. Schansleh had a habit of mixing proverbs and idioms. “They make a mountain out of every elephant in the china shop” was her response about an Iraqi bombing. Personally, I’d keep talking to her just to see what gem she’d come up with next!
The frequency and danger of falls among the elderly can result in broken brittle bones, with a hip fracture being the worst. Groen discusses a (faux?) newspaper article describing the hip-airbag equipped with sensors to detect a fall happening and inflate. After pointing out the pros and cons of such an airbag, he thinks it could be useful for “tipsy café patrons. I would suggest making it absolutely mandatory for all epileptic geriatric pub-crawlers.” [p. 61] Obviously the man has way too much time on his hands!
Readers grow so fond of Groen’s cast of characters and shenanigans, we hate to see the end of the book. When will we have another, we ask while demanding MORE?
I don’t know if he’s making a promise or a threat, but whatever “Hendrik Groen” writes, I’ll read!
Groen leaves the reader with these words:
“A new year—how you get through it is up to you, Groen; life doesn’t come with training wheels. Get this show on the road. And keep looking on the bright side.” [p. 440]
NO WHINING sounds to me like the perfect New Year’s resolution!!