Joan Medlicott holds the yellowed newspaper clipping as one would a treasured relic—which to her it is. The photo appearing with the article, saved from a 1978 issue of the Boca Raton News, shows a smiling Medlicott hugging an older woman, a client of the South County Neighborhood Center where Medlicott was the program coordinator. "This is when the seed for the Ladies of Covington books was planted, although I didn't know it yet," Medlicott says. The center provided services to the local residents. "I saw firsthand the loneliness of these older ladies, living alone, no longer driving, isolated," adds Medlicott. "I thought then how much happier they might be if they could know one another, if they could share a home."
Fast-forward 21 years. Medlicott and her husband, Eben, are now living in Barnardsville, North Carolina, located just outside of Asheville. The couple fell in love with this area after several visits during the 1980s. It is a land of soft hills and curving roads, a land without hard edges or sharp angles."It has a spiritual quality about it," says Medlicott. "And this is where my idea to write about three older women living together came to life. If I hadn't moved here, I don't think I could have written these books, since they are almost as much about place as they are about people."
AARP The Magazine editor Karen Reyes interviews Joan Mendlicott about her Covington novels and the characters that prompted her to write them. (AARP Radio)
The first book of the eight-volume series, The Ladies of Covington Send Their Love (St. Martin's Press, 2000),"almost wrote itself," she says. It follows the lives, adventures, and loves of Amelia, Hannah, and Grace, who were essentially warehoused by their families into a home for retired ladies. The three widows had resigned themselves to living out their days there until a fortuitous set of circumstances enabled them to leave, move in together, and start new lives in the tiny community of Covington, North Carolina, a fictitious location that resembles Medlicott's Barnardsville. "Once I wrote that first book, I thought I was done. But the ladies wouldn't let me stop," says Medlicott. "They would haunt my dreams, nag my subconscious. They seemed to be telling me 'We have so much more to say and do, Joan. You're the only one who can tell our story.' And so I told it. I'm still telling it."
The books became a word-of-mouth success over the next seven years, with three quarters of a million copies in print, and made Medlicott a national bestselling author. They were discussed by book clubs all across the country. Fans looked forward to each new title with almost as much anticipation as readers awaited the next Harry Potter novel. (Medlicott's latest book is An Unexpected Family [Pocket].) And the books sparked a fervor for the idea of sharing a home with supportive friends.
"I used to watch The Golden Girls," says Medlicott."That was a revolutionary idea then: women sharing a home. But times have changed." The huge amount of fan mail that Medlicott receives and the many visits to her website www.joanmedlicott.com are testimony to the impact she is making. "I am so thankful to read of older women living great lives," writes one fan. Another sends her thanks to Medlicott for showing that "even as we age, there is enjoyment in whatever we do."
Because, says Medlicott, "that is what my ladies do—enjoy their lives." Yes, each of them has dealt with loss and problems: misunderstandings with their children, illness, depression, a fire that destroyed their farmhouse. But, much more important, they discovered a world of possibilities, and that includes romance. "Why not?" asks Medlicott."People don't lose their capacity to love just because they get older." She feels that society is too quick to relegate older folks "to the ash heap" when they reach their 60s, 70s, and beyond."They make us think that our lives are over just because we reach a certain age," she says. "But the Ladies of Covington live every one of their days to the fullest."