I retired from teaching English down here at Cottey College on Sunday, May 18, 2003. I started thinking about retirement some time last year. Sometimes I think I'm not yet ready for it. Other times I think I am, plenty.
Frankly, I wouldn't even have begun toying with the idea if my health hadn't taken a great big hit (heart attack and its consequences) at the turn of the century, and left me a different person than I was before I lost my right leg below the knee. For some quarter of a century, I'd bathed in the bliss of teaching my students, leaving all the serious drudgery of life (doing the income taxes, paying the bills, making the meals, looking after daughter Jessica's material needs, sorting out clothes for Goodwill, taking the car for an oil change etc.) to wife Ginny.
When I woke from the thick fog of anesthesia, I found myself driver's-licenseless and mad at the world. But I began to rediscover Ginny, whom I'd taken for granted much too long, and was, well, "happy" is not strong enough. In the hospital, I spent a lot of time thinking about my wife Ginny, our daughter Jessica, my friend Robert Palmer, the houses we'd rebuilt together, and all the other blessings I could think of.
I'd recently dodged the bullet, and I had a lot to be thankful for.
When it finally dawned on me what I owed my wife, I swore (if only to myself) to try to jump-start our marriage by paying closer attention to her needs and wants. She had, after all, in many ways, through the three decades we'd been together, saved my life. It was Ginny who remembered to remind me whenever I forgot to take my shot of insulin before a meal; it was Ginny who drove to the drug store whenever I'd forgotten to tell her I was running low on, or had used the last of, my insulin; it was Ginny who, in my tenure-earning years, agreed to dress up and attend both yearly (and lengthy) Phi Theta Kappa scholarship banquets in Raney Dining Room; it was Ginny who developed and printed the student photographs for the Retrospect yearbook, when my other staff workers saw fit to jump ship; it was Ginny who phoned for an ambulance the early morning (5:16 a.m.), when I had my heart attack. "Helpmate?" Hell, more like "Lifesaver!"
At the close of each of these "lifesaver" episodes, she'd turn to me, smile, and say, half-jokingly, "Boy, do you owe me!" Which meant that by the time I closed out my 32 years of dangling modifiers and Huck Finn, I'd run up a lengthy bill, indeed. Would I ever be able to pay it off?
Now that we had the money, I began giving her jewelry for Christmas, her birthday, Groundhog Day, whatever. She'd tear the Metropolitan Museum wrapping paper off my gift to her, examine the charm bracelet made of 15 miniature 19th-century woman's enameled metal shoe replicas, smile, hug, thank and kiss me, then say, convincingly, "Chuck, you shouldn't have." Or, I'd buy her good clothes of the kind I'd bought for her when we were first dating. A classy sweater, a good-looking suit. Same thing: an inspection, a smile, a hug, then a thank-you and a kiss, followed by a convincing, "Chuck, you shouldn't have." She wore the suit (on work days, and for real estate-related "occasions") until it wore out, but I think the bracelet soon disappeared into the top drawer of her dresser, where it probably rests, gathering dust, to this day.
It took me roughly seven years to learn that when she said, "Chuck, you shouldn't have," she really meant it. Especially now. Why, after all, would she choose to wear a business suit and jewelry bracelet to grub around in dirt and cut wood to build showcases for our SHP office? When we were first dating, I'd first bought her a four-volume set of scholarly books on 20th-century philosophy. (Seeing that particular gift to Ginny, my mother mocked me: "If I were Ginny's age, and the two of us had just begun dating, Chuck, and you gave me that, I'd have locked the door on you plain and simple!") Then I bought her a pretty, circular gold pin that she'd worn religiously until the day we were married. I thought jewelry and sweaters were what fiancees prized (among other things, like mystery novels, dancing, Chanel No, 5, being shepherded to lunch at Schrafft's, on rainy days, under an umbrella). As for the gold circular pin, I later gathered she took it for a mutual pledge, in addition to her "official" engagement ring. I just thought it was pretty, so I rushed into the store, bought it, had the clerk wrap it for me, and gave it to her that evening. Even though I prize my wife for the individuality of her tastes and preferences, it took me an absurdly long time to recognize that if I wanted to give her a gift she'd like and actually use, I'd do well to buy her a Dremel, say, or an electronic nail gun.
I guess, in retrospect, I knew that, but simply couldn't accept it. "But she's a girl!" my sense of Social Appropriateness would whisper in my ear.
"Yeah," I'd reply, "but she's MY girl, and she doesn't want to wear jewelry. So, just shut up!"
Years ago, a girl presented with such a gift as the latter would turn it on her boyfriend and squeeze the trigger! That's what ran through my mind, until I woke up and, my driver's license revoked, asked Jessica if, the next time she drove to town, she'd buy any automatic tool at the hardware store that she hadn't seen hanging on a hook on the deep red pegboard wall in our barn. Really, you wouldn't believe the number of electronic tools for sale these days. What did folks do before there were such things as electronic paint stirrers?
I guess it's true that, in a good marriage, each member gets more satisfaction and happiness by giving more. In ours, I get a nod of appreciation when my wife sees I'm working hard out at StoneHouse Perennials (SHP) filling thousands of black plastic pots with a mixture of sand, peat moss, potting soil, and a goodly sampling of manure, in preparation for her to plant various beautiful, healthy-looking flowers in them, when they arrived by Fed-Ex.
Smelling like a ripe turd, I always get a genuine, heart-felt thanks when I emerge from that segment of the SHP business. She doesn't express as much appreciation when she sees me painting two or three gourds out in the shed, of course, because she knows I'd be playing around with them anyway, trying out different designs -- an American eagle with a severely twisted beak; the bust of a matronly but shapely 19th-century dowager, wearing expensive jewelry; the bust of a gentleman in a black tux, wearing a decorative handkerchief and a Nevada Optimist pin. I'm a fairly rotten free-hand artist, but every so often I stumble across an idea that doesn't take much craftsmanship, but still might bring a smile to someone's face, if only my own.
When our super-conscientious helper Bill Coffin, who's usually astride our John Deere and mowing grass shortly after daybreak, has to be absent, I sometimes pitch in and see if I can avoid running the blade over the green hose. (Unfortunate color for such an implement!) With my eyesight gone fairly whacky because of my shot sense of balance, I usually have to make three passes to cover a strip of grass the width of one mower blade. And I'm a bit slow to trim SHP's front yard, until it's in Pebble Beach Golf Club shape, but I can do it with a single tank of gas! Can you say the same?
It's taking me a lot longer than my wife to learn the ropes of the flower business, and I'd like to blame that failing on my parents, neither of whom knew a single thing about flowers, nor cared to, but I can't. I grew up in the dirt- and flower-rich suburbs, where one of my next door neighbors (Doris Stampleman, by name) spent nearly all her free time nurturing her front yard garden. In that kind of environment, I should have learned something about gardening, if only by osmosis, about gardening.
Ginny, on the other hand, grew up in NYC, with front and back yard roughly the size of a bed sheet. And I think it's because of that concrete background that she's taken such a shine to gardening, to nurturing green things. Try to find a dead leaf out here at StoneHouse Perennials. Just try! I dare you!
I've got a heap of catching-up to do, but at least I've started.
One of the themes that runs through Hawthorne's fiction is that the fellow who somehow cuts himself off from humans becomes a sort of self-destructive freak, like Chillingworth, in The Scarlet Letter. And that's the danger posed to anyone interested n pursuing an academic career. Working your way up to degree after degree, you bury yourself in whole libraries of books, typewrite and read ream after ream of dry academic prose, and, in the process, find yourself drifting away from the mainland of ordinary human experience. Fortunately, Ginny and daughter Jessica, together with such activities as the late Nevada Optimist Club, the Nevada Methodist Choir, the Nevada Community Choir, and other such activities as coaching Jessica's intermediate softball teams, have kept me from falling over the edge.
I'm finding that, in retirement, you can read only so many books and magazine articles; you can watch only so many PBS programs. To keep from going nuts, you've got to get back in touch with what, in the long run, really matters: your wife, your kids, your friends, and your community.