Life is the strangest thing. One minute, Mrs. Elner Shimfissle is up in her tree, picking figs, and the next thing she knows, she is off on an adventure she never dreamed of, running into people she never in a million years expected to meet. Meanwhile, back home, Elner’s nervous, high-strung niece Norma faints and winds up in bed with a cold rag on her head; Elner’s neighbor Verbena rushes immediately to the Bible; her truck driver friend, Luther Griggs, runs his eighteen-wheeler into a ditch–and the entire town is thrown for a loop and left wondering, “What is life all about, anyway?” Except for Tot Whooten, who owns Tot’s Tell It Like It Is Beauty Shop. Her main concern is that the end of the world might come before she can collect her social security.
In this comedy-mystery, those near and dear to Elner discover something wonderful: Heaven is actually right here, right now, with people you love, neighbors you help, friendships you keep. Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven is proof once more that Fannie Flagg “was put on this earth to write” (Southern Living), spinning tales as sweet and refreshing as iced tea on a summer day, with a little extra kick thrown in.
About the Author
Date of Birth:September 21, 1944
Place of Birth:Birmingham, Alabama
Education:The University of Alabama
Read an Excerpt
Elmwood Springs, Missouri.
Monday, April 1
9:28 am, 74 degrees and sunny
After Elner Shimfissle accidentally poked that wasps’ nest up in her fig tree, the last thing she remembered was thinking “Uh-oh.” Then, the next thing she knew, she was lying flat on her back in some hospital emergency room, wondering how in the world she had gotten there. There was no emergency room at the walk-in clinic at home, so she figured she had to be at least as far away as Kansas City. “Good Lord,” she thought. “Of all the crazy things to have happen this morning.” She had just wanted to pick a few figs and make a jar of fig preserves for that nice woman who had brought her a basket of tomatoes. And now here she was with some boy wearing a green shower cap and a green smock, looking down at her, all excited, talking a mile a minute to five other people running around the room, also in green shower caps, green smocks, and little green paper booties on their feet. Elner suddenly wondered why they weren’t wearing white anymore. When had they changed that rule? The last time she had been to a hospital was thirty-four years ago, when her niece, Norma, had given birth to Linda; they had all worn white then. Her next-door neighbor Ruby Robinson, a bona fide professional registered nurse, still wore white, with white shoes and stockings and her snappy little cap with the wing tips. Elner thought white looked more professional and doctorlike than the wrinkly, baggy green things these people had on, and it wasn’t even a pretty green to boot.
She had always loved a good neat uniform, but the last time her niece and her niece’s husband had taken her to the picture show, she had been disappointed to see that the movie ushers no longer wore uniforms. In fact, they didn’t even have ushers anymore; you had to find your own seat. “Oh well,” thought Elner, “they must have their reasons.”
Then she suddenly began to wonder if she had turned off her oven before she had gone out in the yard to pick figs; or if she had fed her cat, Sonny, his breakfast yet. She also wondered what that boy in the ugly green shower cap and those other people leaning over, busy poking at her, were saying. She could see their lips moving all right, but she had not put her hearing aid on this morning, and all she could hear was a faint beeping noise, so she decided to try to take a little nap and wait for her niece Norma to come get her. She needed to get back home to check on Sonny and her stove, but she was not particularly looking forward to seeing her niece, because she knew she was going to get fussed at, but good. Norma was a highly nervous sort of a person and, after Elner’s last fall, had told her time and time again, not to get up on that ladder and pick figs. Norma had made her promise to wait and let Macky, Norma’s husband, come over and do it for her; and now not only had Elner broken a promise, this trip to the emergency room was sure to cost her a pretty penny.
A few years ago, when her neighbor Tot Whooten had gotten that needle-nosed hound fish stuck in her leg and wound up in the emergency room, Tot said they had charged her a small fortune. On reflection, Elner now realized that she probably should have called Norma; she had thought about calling, but she hadn’t wanted to bother poor Macky for just a few figs. Besides, how could she know there was a wasps’ nest up in her tree? If it weren’t for them, she would have been up and down that ladder with her figs, making fig preserves by now, and Norma would have been none the wiser. It was the wasps’ fault; they had no business being up there in the first place. But at this point she knew that all the excuses in the world would not hold much water with Norma. “I’m in big trouble now,” she thought, before she drifted off. “I may have just lost ladder privileges for life.”
Earlier that morning Norma Warren, a still pretty brunette woman in her sixties, had been at home thumbing through her Linens for Less catalog, trying to decide whether or not to order the yellow tone-on- tone floral design chenille bedspread, or the cool seersucker 100-percent-cotton-with-plenty-of-pucker in sea foam green with ribbon stripes on a crisp white background, when her aunt’s neighbor, and Norma’s beautician, Tot Whooten, had called and informed her that her Aunt Elner had fallen off the ladder again. Norma had hung up the phone and immediately run to the kitchen sink and thrown cold water in her face to keep herself from fainting. She had a tendency to faint when she was upset. Then she quickly picked up the wall phone and dialed her husband Macky’s cell phone number at work.
Macky, who was the manager of the hardware department at The Home Depot out at the mall, glanced at the readout of the number calling and answered.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Aunt Elner’s fallen off the ladder again!” said Norma frantically. “You’d better get over there right now. God knows what she’s broken. She could be lying over in her yard, dead for all I know. I told you we should have taken that ladder away from her!”
Macky, who had been married to Norma for forty-three years and was used to her fits of hysteria, particularly where her Aunt Elner was concerned, said, “All right, Norma, just calm down, I’m sure she’s fine. She hasn’t killed herself yet, has she?”
“I told her not to get on that ladder again, but does she listen to me?”
Macky started walking toward the door, past plumbing supplies, and spoke to a man on the way out. “Hey, Jake, take over for me. I’ll be right back.”
Norma continued talking a mile a minute in his ear. “Macky, call me the minute you get there, and let me know, but if she’s dead, don’t even tell me, I can’t handle a tragedy right now. . . . Oh I could just kill her. I knew something like this was going to happen.”
“Norma, just hang up and try to relax, go sit in the living room, and I’ll call you in a few minutes.”
“This is it, I am taking that ladder away from her as of today. The very idea of an old woman like her . . .”
“Hang up, Norma.”
“She could have broken every bone in her body.”
“I’ll call you,” he said, and hung up.
Macky walked out to the back parking lot, got in his Ford SUV and headed over to Elner’s house. He had learned the hard way; whenever there was a problem with Aunt Elner, having Norma there only made matters worse, so he made Norma stay at home until he could get to Elner’s and size up the situation.
After Macky hung up, Norma ran into the living room like he had said to do, but she certainly could not calm down or even sit down until he called to tell her everything was all right. I swear to God, she thought, if she hasn’t killed herself this time, not only am I taking that ladder away from
Reading Group Guide
1. When Aunt Elner falls out of her fig tree, she embarks upon a journey she never could have anticipated. Describe Elner’s surprising view of heaven. How does it compare with your own idea of the afterlife, or the conceptions held by various world cultures and religions? On a personal note, what do you hope is waiting for you on the other side of the pearly gates?
2. Elmwood Springs is a tightly knit community in which everyone seems to know his neighbor’s business. For the Warrens, what are some of the benefits of living in a small town? On the other hand, what are some of the drawbacks? How does your own hometown compare with Elmood Springs? Would you ever wish to move into Elner’s quirky neighborhood? Why or why not?
3. Describe Norma and Macky’s relationship, and how their marriage grows throughout the course of the novel. What bumps in the road have the Warrens endured? What keeps their marriage strong?
4. On her ascent to heaven, Elner climbs a crystal staircase; meanwhile, Ernest Koontz drives up to destiny in a brand new Cadillac convertible with heated seats. Consider your own wildest fantasy about heaven; how would you choose to arrive in style?
5. Norma and Tot’s long-standing friendship is challenged by Tot’s persistent negativity. Do you, like Aunt Elner, naturally embrace a positive outlook on life? Or, like Norma, do you strive, day by day, to “replace a negative thought with a positive”? Or, like Tot, do you prefer to “tell it like it is”? How does Norma choose to handle her differences with Tot? And how do the two friends manage to reconcile in the end?
6. For Elner, meeting her hero, Thomas Edison, is a dream come true. Which figures from history would top your own list of people you’d like to meet in heaven?
7. What message does Raymond impart to Elner about the meaning of life, and how does this view compare with your own beliefs?
8. If heaven allowed you to re-experience an episode, a place, or a time from your past, like Aunt Elner’s trip fifty years back in time to Neighbor Dorothy’s on First Avenue North, what scene or event would you choose to revisit, and why?
9. Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven is as much a mystery as a comedy. Do you think Elner truly died and went to heaven? What do members of Elner’s family believe? Next, just what is the truth behind the strange golf shoe? And what about Ida’s hidden family Bible? Finally, discuss the mystery of Elner’s loaded gun; were you surprised at the truth behind the mystery?
10. Reading Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven is like taking an antidote to the almost constant stream of bad news that surrounds us in our modern world. Tot voices something we all feel: “I always try to put on a happy face, but it’s getting harder and harder to keep up a good attitude…..Nostradamus, CNN, all the papers, according to them, we are on the brink of total annihilation at any second.” How did this novel make you feel about the state of the world today?
11. Elner touched the lives of many people in her community, from the ambitious journalist Cathy Calvert, to the troubled, misunderstood Luther Griggs, to the reformed lawyer Winston Sprague. How does Elner relate to so many different personalities? Describe Elner’s character and attitude toward people, problems, and life. Do you know anyone who shares Elner’s sensibility and talents for reaching out to others?