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In my files, I keep a magazine spread featuring Mildred Heath, who, at age 101, was still working part-time at the local newspaper in Overton, Nebraska. In the photo, her office walls are plastered with ancient clippings, placards, and photographs, her desk kicked and scratched such that barely any of its original finish remains. She is wearing a red pantsuit, red blouse, red socks, and red moccasins, although none of the reds seem to match.
I clipped the article years ago because I feared I might become Mildred one day, staying too long in my job, my obsolescence obvious if not in my wardrobe and surroundings, then in my ideas. As it turned out, Mildred died in December, at 104. After being honored in 2008 as the oldest working person in the United States, she was left with only three years of freedom.
I’ve made a different choice. After 32 years of commutes and adjustable desk chairs and phones with multiple lines, I shall officially retire this month, just shy of my 66th birthday. I’ve spent that time managing scores of employees and overseeing magazine content, carrying the flag of respectable—and fun!—journalism. I hope I led with a kind of toughness, that I taught rather than dictated, and expected the best rather than demanded it. The only mission that remains is the continuation of this column, at least until I begin writing about my bursitis and “these kids today,” at which point I’ll hang up my pen.
When I was a young mother and my family was settling into our first house, I set out some pots on the front steps and went about planting marigolds. The baby was napping in his crib, and I kneeled in the sunshine, a spade in the dirt, wondering if that’s all there was. Should I have used my brain for a higher, more professional purpose? A few years and another child later, I left full-time domesticity behind and answered my vocational calling, which satisfied me—until now.
The first yearnings for retirement come on little by little. The notion plants its seed in your brain and then grows until there isn’t room for anything else. A Little Shop of Horrors takes over your psyche, with Audrey II reaching her tentacles around your frontal lobe, stretching down to grab your heart. You want—no, need—time, more of it the less you have left.
A few years back, I stood in my hotel room in New York City and looked out at the office building across the street. There, on multiple floors, were rows of employees in cubicles, everyone seated before a computer. It reminded me of an ant farm. I took the scene personally, beginning to believe it might be time to dig myself out. Sometimes you have to view a situation from the outside to gain the necessary perspective.
My own office overlooks the Circle, and I can see a tall strip of blue sky between the Soldiers and Sailors Monument and Chase Tower. For the 14 years I’ve sat here, I have loved that azure patch, but for some unexplainable reason—blame it on Audrey II—I now need to get out in it, without the glass that separates us. I feel like my beloved Aunt Rose, who, in the throes of heart failure, would rush to her balcony to gasp for fresh air. I’m still well but cannot breathe.
I’ve had enough of decisions that affect others’ lives, of conducting tough performance reviews and assigning grades. I never want to fire another employee—too much blood, a colleague once said upon his ultimate decision to leave. I won’t miss PowerPoint presentations and buzzwords like takeaways, content verticals, and action items.
I know what I will miss, though: the people. It’s easier than you think to fall for those with whom you spend as much time as your loved ones. Our able corporate assistant Rita sits outside my office. On occasion, I will holler from my desk:
“Rita!” I say, too bossy.
“What?” she answers, in the same tone.
“My printer won’t print. Can you come and help?”
“No,” she says, “but thanks for asking.”
It’s funny every time.
I dread the formal goodbye scheduled for next month, when I will face all my caring, dedicated, clever magazine friends and vow to keep in touch but know we probably won’t.
My least favorite question when I share the news of my retirement is, “What are you going to do?” Everything. Nothing. I’m not leaving to write a novel (requires an idea), return to school (never), or raise chickens (yuck). My needs are simple: schedule appointments at times other than 8 a.m. or 5 p.m., exercise in the middle of the day, drink my morning coffee slowly, play with my grandkids. My recent horoscope said, “Do whatever pleases you most.” Seriously? A person can do that? See a movie on a Wednesday? Stroll Garfield Park’s greenhouses? Read for fun?
The same colleague who bemoaned the professional bloodshed emailed me on the first day of his retirement. “The sun came up,” he said. Life will go on, I assume, even if I am temporarily confused by the lack of order, that morning no longer means go to work, and dusk means go home. For a time, I might ricochet off the walls, like a balloon as it loses air. But I pray I will adapt.
Nobody says “old” anymore, but I admit that’s what I am. Conventional wisdom dictated retirement at 65, and then 60 became the new 50, and our work lives extended. For me, the original timing still makes sense. It’s somebody else’s turn: a younger person who better gets the digital world, who can develop sub-brands and practice best practices and drill down. Maybe it’s time for me to pick up that spade I laid aside more than three decades ago. The season is right for planting marigolds.
Illustration by Andrea Eberbach
This column appeared in the April 2013 issue.
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved.