Retirement Surprise


Absence of occupation is not rest.
A mind quite vacant is a mind distress’d.
—William Cowper


Time’s clock hurls us all on a one-way life ticket, and when you reach retirement, you can’t rewind. You find yourself still busy, but different busy.

Your employer no longer tells you what to do. But your partner—loving and kind—brims with fresh ideas to fill your days, and believes that now that you’ve retired, you should be working on becoming a Better Person. This apparently includes such things as exercising, controlling your weight, maturing spiritually, spending more time with the grandkids, and significantly, taking a greater role in kitchen and housework.

From our first date, Barbara and I never talked about division of labors, so on our honeymoon I began to prepare breakfast. She had a few kind suggestions, and then took charge of food preparation for the next forty years. She didn’t exactly forbid me to cook, but she arrived in my house with a sturdy image of her calling, a calling that included all the cooking, housework, and most of the child rearing. At first, I limited my domestic tasks to repairing our car, mowing the lawn, and handling our money. (She would say I earned it and she spent it.) Gradually, my responsibilities expanded to taking out the trash and, if I got up last, making the bed—the only incentive I can think of to get up early.

Now that we’re retired I occasionally offer to grocery shop, but apparently I lack the requisite skills—judgment, frugality and—okay—common sense. The supermarket presents itself to me as a foreign country—inscrutably organized, with nothing arranged logically, nothing in plain view. I’m too proud to ask for help because I know what people will think—He’s clueless! Even the rare times I go with Barbara, I serve mainly to challenge and distract.

When I offer, “Give me your list; I’ll buy the stuff,” she replies, “That’s all right. You’d take twice as long and pay too much for stuff we don’t need.” It’s true—I’m never sure what brand or size to buy, whether I want lite, diet, or regular, whether I should get high-fiber, organic, or low-fat. I don’t understand coupons. I eschew green-colored food displays; my tastes run more to the ice cream, meat, and cheese counters and to things like refried beans, potato chips, pastries, and chocolate. I’m heartened to hear that with all its antioxidants, chocolate’s becoming the new broccoli. I’ve always thought that if your body craves something, that means it’s good for you. It’s not that I despise the food groups; I just choose to honor different ones than Barbara.

Retirement changes your work habits. Shortly after I retired, I tried the old line, “I have to go to the office.” But when Barbara would ask, “What for?” I couldn’t think of anything. So, when we moved into our townhome, I plunged into unboxing and assembling new furniture, installing cupboards and curtain rods, hanging pictures, spackling and painting walls, installing TV, stereo, carbon monoxide detector and smoke alarms, and repairing downspouts.

Today, Barbara passes her days keenly alert for any strange noise—a sticky door, a flickering lightbulb, a bare spot on the wall. I don’t repair any of these anomalies too quickly, because they’re like moving ducks in a shooting gallery—you no more knock one off than another one appears.

One day Barbara notices that our dishwasher heats and whirs but doesn’t swish any water over the dishes. She says, “The dishes come out as dirty as when you put them in.

I tell her, “I think that’s the way it’s supposed to work. Anyway, they’re sterilized.”

(Eye roll)

So of course we purchase a new Whirlpool with an Energy Star rating. Like a dried-out drunk, I immediately start criticizing friends who don’t have Energy Star-rated appliances. Don’t they care about being green? But when I discover that friends who are real greenies wash dishes by hand, I graciously forgive all my dirty-energy friends.

I think Barbara invites guests over only as an excuse to clean the whole house. I’ve never personally seen any dust in the house, yet Barbara insists that we should clean on the grounds that there might be some there. She’s introduced me to the vacuum cleaner, a challenging machine with lots of switches and levers. It waits patiently in the closet and whispers, “Please take me out; I feel neglected.

When I first pulled the vacuum out and grasped the cold metal handle, it seemed simple enough, and surrendered to my control. I determined to do the sunroom first, because it’s small, and doesn’t seem very dirty. I pushed and pushed with little result. “Barbara, it doesn’t seem to be cleaning very well.

“You have to push the brush control down.”

“I knew that.”

“No, you didn’t.”

Now an expert, I thrill to the loud, businesslike whirr of the motor, the smell of dust in the air, the light-colored swipes on the carpet. The whole house takes less than an hour, yet I wonder darkly, Is this merely the thin edge of a dangerous wedge?

It’s true—without even realizing it, I find myself immersed in other new tasks—for instance, scrubbing the kitchen floor using a milky liquid that Barbara tells me you merely wipe on and wipe off. This is cleanliness gone to church—the floor doesn’t even seem dirty. I learn that you should sweep first. Otherwise you’re down on your hands and knees with a cleaning rag, chasing around little crud thingies.

I’m not complaining—I love retirement. I want to end my passage well. I wish to work well, seeking those new tasks God has for me. It’s just that I didn’t realize God was so interested in cleaning and vacuuming.

12 thoughts on “Retirement Surprise

  1. Dust bunnies hop beneath the couch. They seem to want to play hide and seek. But, Jim with determination, gets a broom–the warrior with bristles and strong handle. He grasps the wood in brawny hands. The dust bunnies quiver in fright when they see the thing. Swish! Swipe! Dust Bunnies gone!


  2. James You are a lucky man to have the help of such a caring woman. What I’ve discovered is that it is a myth that there little elfs that work at night to do your dishes, floors,laundry, etc. If I don’t have time to do it all or if I don’t feel well it waits for me as I don,t have someone to help me pick those little crudie things.. I guess GOD believed me when I said “If YOU want me to have another husband, You will have to have me trip over him. I probably was not paying enough attention when I tripped. I really enjoy your writing. It keeps me laughing. Ginny w.


    1. Ginny, I wonder if you’ve tripped lately… Yes, Barbara was the greatest gift to me, and I am thankful for her post-knee-replacement progress.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s