My Turn: The stuff of life

For the Monitor

Sunday, August 20, 2017
This summer, as I enter the other side of middle age, I have begun to get ready for my retirement from teaching. I already imagine the freedom of days without preparing lessons, grading essays or chaperoning teenage dances.

Like many baby boomers, I have been looking back on my years, trying to figure out what I have accomplished and what I might do next. I have decided to move away from New Hampshire, where I have lived for close to 40 years, to try a new adventure, a “gap-year,” as it were.

I know I will leave a rich community life filled with caring friends and intellectual stimulation, but I want to experiment living closer to my grandchildren in northern California while I am still strong and young enough to be helpful.

One moment I grow excited about the possibilities of living in the West again, the next I feel petrified as I think about downsizing my belongings, making decisions about Social Security and Medicare, finding new friends who are older than my own children.

I am not totally sure that I am completely done working, for I still have good energy to offer and I have loved teaching young people. The thought of living without a regular paycheck also makes me nervous. Perhaps, I will explore part-time opportunities in a school, a library, a bookstore. I am also uncertain if this old girl who never got comfortable downhill skiing will thrive in the high Sierra Nevada Mountains or if I will like living so close to my children every day (or they me!), but I need to find out.

I will grow engaged in civic life wherever I land, as I have in Concord and in the summers when I spend time in a small island community in Maine’s Casco Bay.

I have begun to look around my home to see what I will keep, what I will throw away or offer to others, what my children might want (not much it seems). We all collect treasures throughout our years, surrounding ourselves with objects that speak of who we are and where we have walked. I am discovering what my parents no doubt experienced years ago when they retired. I did not understand their choice then to get rid of so much to move west away from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where we often lived when my father was stationed stateside. Now that I am their age, I get it.

As a military family, we moved every three years; my parents became good at discarding what they did not need for the next journey. Sometimes they stored belongings in warehouses when the Army sent them overseas.

I remember my mother’s tears when she learned that a fire had destroyed the family photograph albums they had left behind. When my parents retired in southern California after close to 30 years of military service, they chose a two-bedroom condominium home in a retirement community called Leisure World. I was appalled. Why live with old people over 55? Why such a small home that would never accommodate three grown children and their families at the same time? After all, their small second bedroom had only two Murphy beds tucked into a wall. Now as I approach retirement age myself, I understand the need for less space, the desire to be around people of similar age, the longing for more sunshine in the winter months.

In their mid-80s, my parents moved one final time to northern California to live in an assisted living complex a mile from my brother’s home. Hating the snow, my parents never considered moving closer to my sister or me in the Northeast. Their final small, first-floor unit was down a long, carpeted hallway, an easy walk to their 5 p.m. dinners in the community dining room and close to the game and newspaper room.

Within six months of the move north, however, my mother unexpectedly died. My plan to surprise her for Mother’s Day weekend as she healed from a broken hip suddenly became a trip to mourn for her. I never got to say goodbye. My father, who was no longer able to live alone, moved briefly to a smaller unit before graduating to full nursing care and a series of different roommates. With each move, we three adult children gained an oil painting, a marble topped table, a set of crystal cocktail glasses.

I said goodbye to my father many times. Each time I left him to return east again, I wondered if it might be my final visit. The last time I visited, I hugged him tightly, told him I loved him and promised I would be back soon. I looked back at him from the hallway to wave one more time. He smiled at me, resting peacefully in his narrow hospital bed with but one personal item remaining, a framed family photograph sitting on a small nightstand by his side.

Gone were the paintings on the walls from around the world, the colorful linen place mats and blue flowered china my mother loved, the brass and copper treasures from various Middle Eastern souks. My parents’ possessions gathered over a lifetime had dwindled down to that one photograph.

Now, as their youngest child, I, too, am contemplating my retirement to a smaller home in a new location far from what I know. I wonder what to keep and what I no longer need.

It is not hard to let go of some items I once thought I needed – the silver fly-shaped salt and pepper shakers (what was I thinking?), all the different candle holders, the colorful pottery coffee mugs I’ve collected. I will give away my worn, paperback novels of Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, D.H Lawrence from graduate school and my too many copies of the Quran. I will keep my poetry books, my favorite novels of Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison, my short story and essay collections, but there are harder decisions.

What should I do with the small, cracked plastic jar of black sand that my father brought back from Iwo Jima or my mother’s many hand-written index cards of recipes gathered from friends and Good Housekeeping magazines stored in wooden box my father carved? What about the blue painted wooden Adirondack chair with two yellow loons flying off separately that I bought at a fundraising auction? I can’t let go of the delicate pottery guinea fowl I bought the brief afternoon I strolled through the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. I will also keep the blue-green hand-blown glass dish from the island of Murano and the hand-painted water turtles on a turquoise table runner that I purchased from an ambitious business woman in a South African township.

I may let go of the boxes of old birthday cards and sweet notes I’ve collected from grateful students, the divorce file folders, subway maps of New York City and Washington, D.C. I will keep the brown, tattered envelopes of black and white photographs of my parents when they were young and the many photograph albums I created of my own children’s fun family adventures. But, oh, what do I do with the too many journals I have scribbled in almost daily since my 20s? Perhaps, I will need a big bonfire this winter for those.

As I begin to discard the non-essentials, I have found the experience cleansing. I have taken high heels, pocketbooks and professional suits I no longer wear to the Families in Transition – New Horizons thrift shop. I have sold to a friend my 30-year old baby grand piano, which my sons and I never played enough, but I am saving the dollars to find a used upright or an electric keyboard when I know where I land and have more time to practice. I will keep my multiple pairs of boots for rain, snow and style, for cold winters are still in my future. I will keep the few rugs that have meaning and sell the ones that I bought only to keep my feet warm. I will keep most of the treasures my parents gave me.

I am lucky to enjoy good health and the means to make a bold choice about my tomorrow as I head into my final year of teaching. Although nervous about leaving the generous Concord community where so much of my adult life has been shaped and enriched, I am ready. Like my parents before me, I will shed the unnecessary material possessions I have gathered over time to explore a life outside my comfort zone – at least for a year.

Who knows? I may return soon, satisfied with my adventure out West and ready to settle back into the welcoming New England life I know well. Or just maybe I will find fulfillment on the other side of middle age in a different landscape with a new way to live each day.

(Candice J. Dale lives in Concord. She served as Concord’s first community development director beginning in the late 1970s before turning to teaching full time in humanities and administration, including 10 years as vice rector for faculty at St. Paul’s School. She is the mother of two sons and grandmother of two children.)

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