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Friday / February 21, 1997
Retirement. I've been phasing into it slowly, gently (three years at three-quarter time, two years at half-time), so I figured it would be an easy transition when the no-time time begins a few months from now. I'd step into my new life so well prepared for it that I'd hardly miss my old one. Just a simple matter of putting one foot in front of another on my way to the brave new world of AARP—the American Association of Retired Persons. As a retired person—a retiree—I'd no longer feel the old compulsions to go into the office, check the mail, chat with my colleagues, confer with my students, or do any of the other things I've been doing the past forty years. I'd hang out instead in my attic study, overlooking the backyard, and watch the seasons unfold. But just to make sure I didn't go to seed, I'd keep a hand in by teaching one of my favorite courses in the nonfiction writing program that I used to direct—a course in prose style, or the personal essay, or the art of the journal. One course a year—enough to keep in touch with the students, keep myself stimulated, and keep my office too. But without any of the hassle.
No more department meetings, no more committees, no more salary reviews. Free at last! Free to tend my garden for the rest of my days. Free to read what I want, write when I want, teach when I want, go fishing, visit the children and grandchildren. And travel with Kate to all those alluring places in the glossy brochures that clutter our mailbox every spring and fall. Hike Machu Picchu, explore theGalápagos, take a villa in Tuscany, tour the Holy Land, visit the Forbidden City, and behold the Great Barrier Reef. No wonder I chose to retire at sixty-five rather than seventy. Especially with more to spend than if I were working full time—thanks to Social Security and forty years of investment in TIAA-CREF, otherwise known as Teachers Insurance Annuity Association and College Retirement Equities Fund. My pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The only problem is that some of my plans began to change, and not by choice, when I stopped in a few weeks ago to visit my colleague Paul, who now directs the nonfiction program. The minute I sat down and started to discuss my teaching plans for next year, I could see the smile on Paul's face beginning to droop. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me that our department chair, Dee, had been fretting about low enrollments in some of our nonfiction courses, especially given the recent additions to our nonfiction staff. So, as he explained it, there'll probably be no chance for me to teach a course next year or any other time in the near future. No room for me, no need for me. No fault of Paul's or of Dee's, but those words reverberated in my head as I listened to him reviewing the numbers, just the way I'd advised him to do when I passed him the baton a few years ago. As he leaned back in his office chair, ticking things off with his fingers, it dawned on me that I'd not been keeping track as closely as I used to. It also dawned on me that I'd soon have fewer professional options than I'd imagined. I too was ticking things off.
Then I found out from Dee that the department will be short of office space for several more years. So I'll probably have to give up the office I've had the past twenty-five years—my office overlooking the river—and take up residence in "the emeritus suite," a three-room ghetto for retired professors overlooking the parking lot. A place so crammed with metal lockers and similar amenities that only one or two of my retired colleagues have ever used it. Once upon a time, retired faculty kept their offices as long as they wished, so the department was like an extended family, and retirement was not an eviction notice. But now I might be evicted altogether, for the emeritus suite, as I discovered just a few days ago, has been converted into office space to house our visiting professors and the department's honors program. Talk about being out of touch! You'd think I was already retired, given how little I know about what's been going on around the building while I've been phasing in. Or phasing out, to put it more accurately. And not just out of my office, but also out of the community of my colleagues.
Out of it, just at the moment when a new person's coming into the nonfiction program who's sure to be a wonderful colleague—a person who'll fill the vacancy created by my departure and so in a sense will be my replacement. Though I met Sara just a few days ago during her campus interview, I've been hearing about her from members of the search committee, also from my longtime friend and former colleague Bob, who's directing her doctoral work at Brown and sang her praises in a recommendation that's exuberantly over the top—"She can charm bees from flowers and words from dictionaries" Last summer, I exchanged a few e-mails with Sara about her thesis on the essay—the subject of my own study the past twenty years—and just from that exchange I was buzzing about her too. Then a few weeks ago, I looked at her teaching materials and noticed that she's offered courses not only on the essay but also on prose style, covering some of the same material that I've been dealing with the past forty years. And doing it with more pizzazz, though she's only been teaching a few years. A lot more pizzazz, as I could see from watching her run a two-hour workshop a few days ago. The room was abuzz when she finished. So when the department met yesterday afternoon to consider our two job candidates, I could hardly contain myself as I waited to make a strong closing statement for Sara—even though she hasn't yet finished her doctoral thesis and several people are worried about bringing in someone without a degree in hand. I don't think I've given such an impassioned talk since my heart attack twelve years ago—I could feel the pulse throbbing in my temples.
Only then, in the flush of my excitement about Sara, did I realize that I'd delivered my valedictory—that I'd probably never have another occasion to address the whole department. And only then did I realize that I was far less ready for retirement than I'd supposed—that I have, in fact, such mixed feelings about giving up the classroom, my office, and the community of my colleagues and students that I thought I'd better start keeping a dairy. A diary where I can deal with the bittersweet feelings I'm experiencing even now as I sit up here in the attic writing this piece. A diary that might help me through this suddenly dismaying phase-in-phase-out—and beyond. For I don't want my final day of teaching, just a few months from now, to be a day of mourning. I want to take retirement rather than feel as if it's taking me unawares. Maybe even seize it joyously. But at least behold it without looking back so longingly that I turn into a pillar of regret.
Saturday / February 22
Last night I e-mailed Sara a one-word letter of congratulations, and this morning she replied: "Thank you. THANK YOU. You have been enormously helpful. As you know, this job wouldn't even exist without you. I am fitting both my shoes into one of your footprints, and very grateful to have discovered their impression in the sand." Such a gracious and flattering note that I responded in kind—"Your feet are bigger than you think." And I meant it, meant it so much that it made me keenly aware just then of how easily replaceable I've turned out to be. No one, of course, is replaceable. "One mind less, one world less," as Orwell says in "The Hanging." Still, it's hard to ignore the contrary truth that resonates through the halls of every place I've ever worked whenever someone decides to change jobs or move elsewhere or retire—"No one is irreplaceable." I've sometimes uttered that line myself, especially when a big name has decided to leave. But then again, I'd have to admit that I've sometimes heard a little voice within me saying, "It'll be different with you. It won't be so easy for them to replace you." Come to think of it, though, I've rarely heard that voice the past two years since Paul's taken over the nonfiction program and done such a fine job of it. And now with the coming of Sara, I don't expect I'll ever hear it again. So the most haunting thing about her lovely message is the image of my footprints in the sand, likely to last no longer than the next incoming tide.
Sunday / February 23
Tides be damned, there's a life to be lived, and that means it's time to get started on the vegetable garden. This morning I planned the spring garden and planted a few tomato seeds, keeping myself focused on the task at hand, on the dry seeds in the wet germinating mix, on the prospect of fruits to come. No matter what happens at the building, I'll have homegrown tomatoes in June or early July. Fresh produce just a few weeks after I retire. Maybe Kate's right when she tells me, "Just get on with your life, and retirement will take care of itself."
On days like this, in fact, I wonder why I'm worrying about it at all, especially when I think about my parents, neither of whom lived long enough to retire. Even if they had lived to be sixty-five or seventy, they'd probably have kept on working until they dropped dead in their tracks. Like most people of their generation, who were born long before the time of ample pension plans and Social Security—my father in 1879, my mother in 1903—they couldn't have afforded to retire, particularly after my father, a doctor, lost everything he owned, including his home, in the stock market crash of 1929, and my mother returned to schoolteaching after he died in 1934. When I think of how hard it was for some of the relatives who raised me during the Depression era in Cleveland, and harder still for the immigrant parents of my childhood friends, I feel as if I've been richly spoiled by the retirement funds I've accumulated during my years of working at Iowa. A far cry from the way it used to be for college professors. A far cry from the way it still is for many clerical, factory, and service workers, given the recent wave of downsizing and cost-cutting programs. No wonder so many people have to work two part-time jobs just to make ends meet, without any chance of a comfortable retirement. No wonder McDonald's has been running want ads for elderly employees. They make me feel like the beneficiary of such a rare windfall that I should keep my mouth shut and get on with my life—gardening, reading, and puttering around the house, as I did today. But no sooner do I vow to shut up than something happens that starts me fretting again. And then I understand the embarrassing truth of E. B. White's acknowledgment that "Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays." Or to keep a retirement journal.
Monday / February 24
Today I was back in the pre-retirement world, getting ready for tomorrow's workshop in the art of the journal, a course I created this year as an outgrowth of My Vegetable Love, the journal I wrote two years ago. It's the last course I'll ever teach here, and happily (or sadly) it seems like one of the best I've ever taught. Eight gifted women and I, turning our days into daybooks, our lives into journals. I wonder if it's exciting just because it's a new kind of venture for all of us. I'm teaching something I've never taught before, and they're writing journals in a much more artistically conscious way than they've ever done before. I also wonder if it's so special for me because it's the last course of my career. Perhaps I shouldn't even be worrying about such questions and simply be thankful that it's been so satisfying, especially when I remember how it was with my colleague Jix, who retired last year after teaching a course that according to him was one of the most disappointing of his career. Maybe, after all, there's a truth to the cliché of quitting while one's ahead, particularly considering the recent growth of my retirement funds. But then again, what a pleasure it would be to have another go at this course. But then again, what a pleasure it would be to stop going back and forth like this. I wonder if everyone goes through such mood swings on the verge of retirement, or if it's just me and this day. But one thing's for sure—I can't ever remember myself having such ups and downs, such highs and lows, as if I were on drugs or had somehow lost control of myself.
Tuesday / February 25
At breakfast this morning, I devoured a two-page feature in the Des Moines Register, called "New Beat for the Old Reporter." A piece about a recently retired columnist, whose stuff I've been reading the past thirty-five years, without ever realizing we're almost the same age—just five months apart. He's always looked so much older than me, especially in this morning's article, balding at the front, gray around the edges, that I was doubly surprised after mentioning it to Kate, who smiled at me across the breakfast table and said, "Have you looked in the mirror lately and seen what's going on—the thinning hair, the sagging cheeks, the growing waistline?" Only your best friends will tell you! I was also touched by the discovery that his decision to retire "came as a surprise to everyone, even himself," because he "suddenly realized it was time to go. `I was so tired of it.'"
Though I've never been tired of the students, or the give-and-take of classroom discussion, or the office hours, or the mentoring, I'm so burnt out from forty years of reading and commenting on student writing—a lifetime with the editorial pencil in hand—that I sometimes feel as if I can hardly bring myself to look at another set of student essays. And it's not just the tediousness of making the comments again and again. It's the emotional and intellectual exhaustion that comes from repeatedly making the effort to produce comments that are evaluative but constructive, probing but encouraging. Now I'm beginning to wonder what makes other people decide that it's time to go. Boredom? Burnout? Buyout? Illness? Wanderlust? New ventures? Old hungers? Or the sand running swiftly down from top to bottom? And I wonder how they feel about it once they've decided to go.
A few more classes like the one I had this afternoon, and I'll be ready to retire—without any qualms at all. Discussion got off to a slow start, everyone sitting silent around the big seminar table as if they'd all lost their voices at once. And it didn't get any better the rest of the session, so I had to offer a more pointed critique of both manuscripts than I care to make in class, especially when I'm concerned about the confidence of the students, as I was this afternoon. By the end of the two-hour workshop, I felt much more drained than usual—also more in touch with the burnout I was feeling five years ago when I decided to go on phased-in retirement. And now after dinner, as I sit up here in our attic study finishing this entry, I'm also feeling in touch with another post-workshop evening twelve years ago today, another February 25, when I first started feeling uncomfortable spasms in my neck that turned out to be the signs of a heart attack. A heart attack, followed by a triple bypass, that changed the course of my life as much as I now feel it's being changed by my forthcoming retirement. But in this case, there's no kind of bypass available.
Wednesday / February 26
Kate's birthday, and once again I was elated to give her some better gifts than the heart attack I had twelve years ago. Especially an illustrated book about trees from around the world—my contribution to the library she's building for herself and for Heritage Trees of Iowa City, the long-term preservation project she's been spearheading the past several years. That book is also an emblem of the traveling we hope to do in the years to come, a leafy reminder of why I should be looking forward to retirement. Skimming its pages after she opened it at lunch, I gazed at seductive photographs of trees and places I've never seen before—the grass trees of Australasia, the fever trees of South Africa, the araucaria trees of Chile.
But this afternoon I was back at the office for conferences with Angela, who's working on an M.F.A. thesis about her Chicano heritage, and Jean, who's keeping a journal about coping with her mother's rapidly failing memory. Both compelling projects that I hope can be turned into publishable manuscripts. So the thought of abandoning the know-how I've developed during forty years of teaching is difficult to accept, particularly when students ask if I can serve on their theses after I've retired. I wonder if it might be possible for me to stay on as an unpaid consultant to the program. As an adjunct professor rather than a professor emeritus. As someone who can help colleagues and students develop their manuscripts and get them placed with agents and publishers.
Or am I just looking for excuses to avoid the unavoidable? And if that's the case, why can't I just let go of it all without trying to hang on in one way or the other? Retirement, after all, is a time for new ventures, yet for some reason I seem wedded to my same old job. What a strange thing—to know better, yet not be able to let go. As if it were an addiction rather than a profession.
Thursday / February 27
In the midst of such fretting, there's nothing like the spectacle of a tomato seedling just beginning to emerge, its neck arching out of the soil. Only four days after being planted, thanks to the warmth of the living room radiator directly under the seed tray. I christen it with a little mist from Kate's spray bottle and think of the months ahead. I imagine myself taking up watercolors, so I can do detailed studies of emergent seedlings. I'm inspired by the ethereally beautiful, larger-than-life watercolor of leeks by our dear friend Jo Ann—a lovely pair, suspended in midair—that arrived late yesterday afternoon as the climactic present in Kate's birthday bounty. Better to look forward rather than back. Better to focus on the joy rather than the sadness of my coming retirement. Better to stop spouting such platitudes lest I turn into a latter-day Polonius and not come to terms with the fact that it's time for me to leave even though I'm not yet ready to let go of what I've been doing for almost two-thirds of my life. And I don't know if I'll ever be ready. Now I'm beginning to understand why some of my older colleagues seemed prickly or distant when they were facing retirement.
Friday / February 28
"Looking forward to your retirement party?" My colleague, Jon, clearly meant well by the question he asked me when our paths crossed in the office corridor this afternoon. But in my current mood, a retirement party is the last thing I want to hear about. So my response to Jon was a bit crusty—a response that left him looking a little less bright-eyed than usual, especially since I didn't feel like going into a long-winded explanation just then.
How could I tactfully explain that such parties usually give me the creeps? They seem like a thinly veiled expulsion, complete with going-away gifts and celebratory farewells. A few years ago I wrote a note to Dee, asking her not to plan any such thing for me. No luggage, thank you, or emotional baggage, or anything else to send me on my way. I should have known that she'd urge me to reconsider and I wouldn't have the gumption to refuse, especially given Dee's irrepressibly genial and earnest manner. Now I'll have to write her another note, asking once again to be spared the ceremonies and the remembrances and all the other stuff that sometimes make me feel as if I'm at a memorial service rather than a retirement party. For I don't want to be buried alive, don't want my story to be told until my story is complete, and certainly don't want to hear it being told. Especially when I'd much rather stay on as an unpaid editorial consultant to the nonfiction program. Maybe I should propose that idea to Dee as something I'd much rather have than a party or a going-away present.
Saturday / March 1
Though I've been writing about retirement for a week or so, I woke up early this morning with the sudden realization that I—the so-called English professor—don't really know what the word itself means. Oh yes, I know that it usually refers to the act of giving up a longtime job or business, career or profession, usually because of advancing age. But a quick check in the dictionary reminded me of its derivation from the Old French verb retirer (literally, to draw back). So, in its root sense, retirement denotes the act of withdrawing to a private or secluded place, as in going to bed. Or to giving ground, as in retreating or withdrawing from battle. Retirement, in other words, is deeply connected with the act of giving up, giving in, retreating, as it were, from life itself. And that's not what I'm ready for at all, which is probably why I was put out by Jon's well-meaning remark yesterday and by the whole idea of retirement ceremonies. Perhaps I just need to get it through my head that I'm not retiring in the root sense of the word, not retreating, not giving up anything but my classroom teaching, my tenured job, and probably my office. Even if I'm up here in the seclusion of the attic, I'm still going to be writing new books and essays, revising my textbooks, keeping in touch with colleagues, collaborators, and students. And when I'm not up here, I'll be gardening, traveling, cooking, and so on.
But Jon's remark reminds me that others might be inclined to perceive me as retreating into a world of inactive graybeards (even though I don't have a beard at all). In fact, the mail these days has been bringing me so many cards and letters and flyers and advertisements, most of them trying to sell me retirement housing, retirement planning, retirement counseling, retirement insurance, that it's sometimes very hard to see myself as anything but a retiree. Or a big old cash cow that everyone wants to get a piece of.
Sunday / March 2
Though I'm not a cash cow, this whole retirement process has been making me wonder who I am, especially this afternoon when I was staring at the blank screen of my computer, confronting the question more directly than usual, because I had to write a note about myself for the jacket flap of my forthcoming daybook, Weathering Winter. Just a few sentences, a short paragraph, that would put me in a nutshell, the catchy sort of prose I've written so often in years past that it usually takes no more than an hour. But today I fussed over the thing for several hours, because today for the first time in twenty-five years I couldn't refer to myself as a professor of English, since the book will be published several months after I retire. The minute I realized I'd be losing that title, I suddenly began to experience something like an identity crisis, the sort of thing I can't remember since my sophomore slump, when I switched from being a premed student to being an English major. Who am I, I wondered this afternoon, if not a professor of English? And a faint voice whispered in my ear, "You're about to become a professor emeritus of English." My first promotion in twenty-five years. The only problem is that I've never craved that venerable title, whose Latin word for retired makes it sound "ever so much more lofty," according to Kate. Nor have I ever thought it fit me, since I've always been too rambunctious to be addressed in such a high-flown way. Besides, who would want to buy a book by a professor emeritus, except another professor emeritus? So I decided to avoid any mention of professorial titles and referred to myself instead as the "founder and former director of Iowa's nonfiction writing program." I was pleased at first with how adroitly I implied my retirement without calling myself a professor emeritus. But now I can't help wondering why I wasn't willing to identify myself openly as a retired professor. Am I embarrassed, perhaps, at being known as someone who's retired? And why should I be, given that someone who's getting on in years might know a few things about weathering winter. Besides, now that I think of it, why do I feel compelled to refer to any of the titles that I once held? I mean, what's the good of retirement if it doesn't free you from the titles and other claptrap that pervade the world of corporations, governments, and academic institutions? Come to think of it, who am I anyway? A retiring professor? A cynical author? A gardener? Or a person who's lost his bearings?
Monday / March 3
The painters and wallpaperers arrived this morning to begin putting the house in order "for our golden years," as Kate says, wryly reminding me that she's ten years younger than I and not all that happy about being lumped in with the golden oldies. "I'm not retiring," she said a few days ago, and "I'm sick of hearing all this talk about it, as if that's all you think about anymore." But she's evidently not averse to planning our golden years projects, which started last summer when we had the second-floor bathroom deconstructed all the way down to the bricks and an elegant room designed by Kate constructed in its place. A room fitted out with handmade oak cupboards, handcut tiles and decorative tile borders, brass fittings, a ruby red granite counter, and an old-fashioned door key with a braided silk tassel. A monument to self-indulgence after twenty-seven years of bathing at the far edge of comfort and respectability. Retirement, it seems, is the final fling. The love boat, the trip-around-the-world, the Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited, the bathroom-of-our-dreams. Now I'm beginning to understand why my retired colleague Jix and his wife, Jean, just finished building a spacious two-story, glassed-in addition to their house, including an elevator. "Whatever turns you on," as Kate says. The only question is whether I have enough gold to gussy up this nineteenth-century brick house for the fling of our desires, without having to look for a new job in a new profession. I was thinking along those lines a few days ago, when I got another e-mail from Sara, thanking me for some advice I'd given her about rental housing in Iowa City. "You sound just like a realtor," she said, playfully picking up on all the housing suggestions I'd offered her, and for a moment I wondered how I might do in that arena. The old competitive instincts feel almost as sharp as ever, especially after some forty years of honing them to a fine edge.
Tuesday / March 4
This afternoon's workshop was so lively, and I felt so energized by the discussion, that it made me wonder why I decided not to continue teaching beyond this semester—as if I didn't already know the answer. I was listening to the discussion of some richly detailed journal installments by Priscilla and Vanessa, but I found myself looking back five years to the time when I was still directing the nonfiction program, also teaching a full load of courses, advising some forty students in the program, sitting on a dozen M.A. and Ph.D. thesis committees, chairing a special reading group on the essay for six doctoral students in nonfiction, and grousing about the fact that I had virtually no time for my writing, or for traveling with Kate, or for anything beyond the press of my academic commitments. No wonder I wanted out.
But now I wonder why I couldn't foresee how much more appealing my lot might be on a drastically reduced workload—so appealing that I sometimes wish I could keep this comfortable berth forever. The only problem is that I would never have discovered this happy arrangement without taking part in the university's phased-in early retirement plan, the financial inducements of which I accepted in exchange for agreeing to retire completely at the age of sixty-five. And without agreeing to retire, I couldn't have afforded to work part-time, so I'd certainly not have had enough spare time to keep the journal that led to both of my daybooks, and I'd probably never have hit upon the idea of teaching a workshop in journal writing. Now that I'm thinking about the matter like this, taking everything into account, it looks like this phase-in-phase-out plan has turned out far better than I could have imagined, even though it includes my upcoming retirement and the end of my teaching career. And that charming rationalization suddenly puts me in mind of a haunting couplet by Richard Wilbur from the end of "New Year's Eve":
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
No wonder I'm keeping this journal.
Wednesday / March 5
Sometimes, though, this journal makes me feel as if I'm becoming obsessed with retirement, writing about it every day, worrying about every twist and turn in the road, rather than enjoying the scenery—and the surprises—along the way. But at breakfast this morning, when I mentioned the possibility of giving up this journal and working on other things, like the garden and my book on the personal essay, Kate stopped scanning the newspaper and told me in her sternest, no-nonsense tone of voice, "You can't keep starting these journals and then dropping them, like you did with that other one last fall." I never thought she'd bring up my journal about the journal-writing course, especially after I explained how it was getting in the way of the course itself.
But I couldn't make a similar case against this one. And even if I had decided to stop keeping it this morning, the rest of the day would have convinced me that it isn't the journal that keeps me thinking about retirement but all the other reminders of it that come welling in on me every day. Like the flyer that arrived today from Blue Cross/Blue Shield, inviting me to think about my upcoming sixty-fifth birthday this May and the need to supplement my forthcoming Medicare insurance with a "wraparound" policy (of which there are ten kinds to choose from). Or the recently gyrating stock market that makes me wonder whether I should reallocate some of my retirement funds. Or my upcoming trip to Cleveland this weekend, to visit my ninety-five-year-old Aunt Ada and help her adjust to the move she recently made from her longtime apartment into a retirement home. Or the well-meaning question that my hairdresser Chris put to me this afternoon when I sat down in the chair and took off my glasses: "So tell me—what are you and Kate planning to do once you're retired?"
Thursday / March 6
Henceforth, perhaps, I'll be known not as a retired professor of English but as an active winterologist, thanks to an hour-long radio program about winter, for which I was interviewed last month by Wisconsin Public Radio. The nationally syndicated program aired in Wisconsin last Sunday, and since then I've received several calls and e-mails, all telling me how "thoughtful" and "informative" I sounded. At first, I assumed it was just the affection of my daughter Amelia, who lives in Wisconsin, and the eagerness of Sarah, marketing director at the university press, whose mother also heard the program in Wisconsin. But a few other favorable reports led me to imagine that I sounded more knowledgeable and articulate than the thick-tongued fellow I felt like during most of the interview. The past few days, in fact, I began to think about doing some radio essays on gardening or winter or retirement or writing, or anything else that might come to mind. A new venture and a way to continue teaching as well. For a moment or two, I even imagined myself being invited to do a weekly or biweekly essay on one of the PBS radio programs. Something with an evocative title, like "Tending My Garden: A Letter from the Heartland." So beguiling a series that I'd become the darling of millions. An E. B. White of the airwaves. But then I remembered the nasally, slow-talking pontificator I used to hear when I still listened to myself being interviewed on the radio, and soon enough I decided, after all, that I'd rather not listen to the program when it airs next week in Iowa. Still, there's nothing like a good daydream, especially on the eve of retirement.
Friday / March 7
On a cool March day, there's also nothing like the promise of an early summer tomato, so it was a pleasure to transplant the seedlings that germinated last week, now that their first true leaves have fully unfurled. And then without further ado, Kate transported me to the Cedar Rapids airport for my flight to Cleveland to visit Aunt Ada. Actually, she's my mother's first cousin, but she's always been like an aunt or a fairy godmother, especially during my childhood when I sometimes spent weekends with her and her husband, Bernie, after my father and mother died. The last time I visited Aunt Ada, some five years ago, Kate and I and a host of other relatives gathered in Cleveland to celebrate her ninetieth birthday. And she was still the most effervescent relative in my life, still up to a few comic vaudeville routines with her younger brother, Jerry, in the gracious apartment they shared, and then to decking herself out in an elegant lavender dress for a celebratory dinner, where she played the belle of the ball, with toasts and good memories all around. But this time I knew would be different, for Jerry passed away just a few months ago, leaving Aunt Ada in grief at the loss of her last close relative and friend, leaving her too with no choice but to move into a retirement home last week, a move that she and Jerry had been resisting for several years. From my recent phone conversations with Aunt Ada, I've also realized that she's in a bad way over her loss of hearing, her diminishing eyesight, her failing health, and everything else in her immediate world. It's no wonder I've been getting SOS calls and letters from Lois, my former sister-in-law, who tends Aunt Ada's many needs as if Ada were her own aunt or mother.
But nothing I'd heard from Lois or from my brother, Marshall, could have prepared me for what happened when I first saw Aunt Ada again this afternoon. Oh yes, she was still carefully dressed, and she still cared intensely about her favorite art objects, as I could tell from the suggestions she kept making to my cousin Joanne and her husband, Marvin, who were hanging her pictures when I walked into her room at the retirement home. But this time, the first I can ever remember, she didn't greet me as "little Carly," with the familiar twinkle in her eye and the playful use of the double diminutive that she knew I detested from years of having been greeted that way by most of my other relatives. No, this time instead, it was "my dear, dear Carl, how good of you to come." And then I knew for sure that things were in a bad way, especially a moment later when she said, "Come give me a hug," a request I'd never heard from her before. So fragile that I worried about holding her too tight lest I crush her in my arms. Her eyes tearing, her voice crackling, all she could say to me just then was, "The quality of life. The quality of life." And then I knew her anguish was so profound that nothing could relieve it but death itself. Aunt Ada, it seemed, had reached the point of no return, a place that I can only imagine right now by remembering how delicate she felt, how frail her bones, when I took her in my arms.
Yet just a while later, when I was about to go out to dinner with Joanne, Marvin, and Lois, Aunt Ada wanted me to meet her "dear friend, Alice," a diminutive lady who appeared at her door, smiling, and without a word took Aunt Ada's hand and started walking down the hall, arm in arm, hand in hand, as if the quality of life could never have been better. And I could never have been more uncertain about what it means to retire or when one has passed the point of no return.
Saturday / March 8
At dinner last night, Marvin, a retired elementary school principal, could not have been more certain about retirement. "You should keep on working as long as you believe in what you're doing and it gives you satisfaction. Which means that it's time to quit, time to retire, when the work doesn't satisfy you any longer, or you can't bring yourself to do it any longer." It sounded as if Marvin was talking about boredom and burnout. But when I asked him about his own situation, it turned out that he retired a few years ago, in his early sixties, earlier than he had planned, when the superintendent of his school system demanded that he cut the budget by firing some of the young elementary school teachers whom he had hired. "They were excellent teachers, who didn't deserve to be fired, so I didn't feel I could continue to work in that kind of a situation."
Given the intensity of Marvin's feelings about leaving a career that had given him so much satisfaction, I was fascinated this morning as I listened to Lois talk casually about retiring "sometime next year" from her job as a research assistant at Case-Western Reserve University. She's always seemed so knowledgeable and serious about the projects in which she's involved that I've assumed her work to be as central in her life as mine or Marvin's has been in ours. But when I pressed the matter a bit, inviting her to talk about her work as a research assistant, she devalued her job so quickly that I could see how she might not feel the anguish of retiring from a cherished career: "Oh no, I don't usually do any of the scientific analysis. I just make myself useful to the project, do whatever needs to be done, which means that I often put myself in a position of being used. It's a habit of mine."
For someone whose life has followed such a pattern—and I suppose there must be millions of such people, especially women—retirement might well be a nonevent. Or better still a liberating experience. How else to account for the congratulatory remarks I've been getting recently from secretaries in the department and elsewhere around town? At first I was puzzled, wondering if there was something wrong with me for being so troubled by retirement, or something wrong with them for taking it so joyously. But now I'm beginning to see that retirement, like everything else in the world, is so deeply differentiated by gender, culture, profession, and everything else in human experience that my story of it—and my feelings about it—are probably as quirky as all the others.
Which reminds me of my conversation this afternoon with Aunt Ada. I was trying to find out about her life during the 1920s, in the years before I was born. I was curious about how she met Bernie and what she'd been doing before they were married. And she didn't hold anything back. "I was teaching elementary school. I received my teaching license, you see, in the mid-'20s, the same time as your mother. But no sooner did I meet Bernie and begin dating him than he started to meet me every day on my way to school, telling me that he wanted to marry me—wanted to marry me so much that he threatened to jump off a bridge if I didn't agree. Can you believe it? Jump off a bridge for me? So what could I do? But back then, you couldn't continue to teach if you were married." At that point, she pulled out her old teaching license from the Cleveland Board of Education just to show me the restriction against marriage. "Besides, Bernie and his family would have been embarrassed if I continued to work after we were married. So that's when I retired."