I don’t have my make-up on yet this morning. Hey, I haven’t even brushed my hair. Sleeping on yesterday’s hair spray has matted it; it looks like someone frosted it with white cotton-candy and then streaked it with dirty dishwater for good measure. My daughter Mary Lee and I worked well past midnight last night and finished the bedroom, so I guess my appearance can be excused. My wool suits and silk dresses are neatly aligned in my new walk-in closet, my shoes and boots arranged across the bottom like colorful little sentries. My jewelry is organized in floral space-savers in my oak dresser … pearls in one box, gold in another, silver in another. My trade-mark, every-day gold and diamond jewelry is still on the dresser where I placed it last night before going to sleep. Me without make-up, jewelry and designer clothes! The kids will never believe it! Hey, I don’t believe it myself. Only one day in my new home and I look appallingly disgusting–and I love it! I feel free… After thirty years playing female executive in a to-die-for career wardrobe, who could blame me? In retirement I plan to wear sweats and flip-flops as often as possible. Enjoy–that’s an understatement! I’m going to thrive on being as grubby as I can. If that’s true, why didn’t you get rid of half those clothes and jewelry when you gave away three rooms of furniture, a tiny voice nags at the back of my mind. One thing at a time, I tell the voice. Uh-oh, here comes my sister Billie… Bill, we fondly call her. She’s traipsing–one giant step after another–across the dewy grass as though paying a visit at seven-thirty in the morning were perfectly normal. She’s smiling gaily and waving as though personally responsible for this glorious day … as though the brilliant sun and cool, crisp breeze were her own creations. To put it bluntly, Bill looks like an anxious dog scampering to get back to its bone … and I think I’m the bone. Hey, Sis, I think, reaching out to her with my mind, I’m retired now. It’s not like I have to get up with the birds … chirping an early morning greeting, digging for worms or something. I’ve been up at dawn all my life, do I have to do it in retirement, too? Mary Lee thinks her Aunt Bill’s “cool.” Not! But is “cool” the same as being “hot?” I wonder. Today’s kids use those two words interchangeably, but I can’t think of Bill as either “cool” or “hot” when she bothers me on my second day in my new home. Before I’m even settled, for heaven’s sake! The only reason I’m up now is that I’m working night and day to get this town-house in order. Sometimes I think Bill’s absolutely “postal,” which is new jargon for berserk, Mary Lee tells me. As I go to the balcony to look down at Bill, I exchange my frown for a forced smile and a wave. “Morning, Sis. Come on up,” I say. With a furrowed brow and a heavy sigh, I fondle a refrigerator magnet and turn to Mary Lee. “God, honey, today’s only my second day in my new home and I really need to get things put away. Can’t start this last big adventure called retirement till I feel organized around here. Couldn’t Bill have waited a while? There’ll be time for fun and games after I’m settled.” “Oh, Mom, Aunt Bill means well,” Mary Lee says. She flicks a dust-cloth across John Grisham’s face on a book jacket and adds, “She’s excited about having her baby sister around more often and wants to help get your retirement off to a good start. After all, she’s had a few years practice at this retirement business and you’re just an apprentice.” “Apprentice! Humph!” I snort, taking another magnet from a packing box and slapping it on the fridge. “I have five daughters and a son to help me, and you know what they say: ‘Too many cooks spoil the soup.’” “That’s broth, Mom,” Mary Lee says, wrinkling her nose. Then she chuckles, a spontaneous, cheerful sound that never fails to warm me. Like some people take to a cozy fireplace, I take to laughter in all its forms: chuckles, grins, guffaws, smiles. Even chortles, titters, and giggles turn me on. “What’s broth?” I ask, still lost somewhere between the airy, tinkling sounds of Mary Lee’s chuckle. “Oh, never mind … But, Mom, you have the rest of your life to organize this place,” she says … another smile. She’s handing out wide-toothed grins today as freely as dentists pass out suckers to their small patients. Returning her smile with a thinner-lipped replica, I think, She’s happy about my retirement too. Despite the warmth of Mary Lee’s dynamite smile, I grumble, “And if I organize it within the first week, I’ll have the rest of my life for fun.” We turn back to our work. In a few seconds Bill will knock politely, and when I answer, she’ll say, “Morning, Sis,” give me a limp hug and an air-kiss, then breeze into the kitchen. As she passes, she’ll lift the lid of the casserole she’s prepared for my dinner, sniff deeply, smile her pleasure, and then shove it in the empty fridge. She’ll take one look at last night’s pizza on my sweatshirt and turn up her nose. I’ll protest, assuring her that everyone wears grubbies when moving.
Don’t they? Nevertheless, when Bill walks in the door, she’ll be wearing a silk designer jog suit with some fancy sneakers…by Reebok or Nike, of course. She probably wore something similar when she down-loaded to smaller quarters after her retirement. Speaking of smaller quarters, I miss my big house… Bill says this move will free me from all that ghastly housework and after I adjust, I’ll like it. She forgets that I had a housekeeper, but I suppose she’s right about the “liking it” part. She sure seems happier. But right now I’m beginning to have doubts about this retirement thing. As a former newspaper owner, I’m used to ten-hour workdays. That’s another thing I’ve gotta adjust to (proper phraseology: to which I must adjust, but I’m retired now, so what the hey? So far, not much has changed. Even in retirement, I’ve been putting in seven tens a week. Between selling my house, splitting half my furniture and artwork between the kids and grand-kids, then packing, moving, and now unpacking, I haven’t had time to breathe. Now, Mary Lee and I are trying to cram sixty-five years’ of collectibles into this tiny town-house. If Bill insists on helping us, so help me God, I might throw a Lladro at her.
“Morning, Sis,” Bill said, blowing in like a mini-hurricane. When she saw me wearing last night’s pizza, she did indeed turn up her nose. She graced me with the obligatory hug and air-kiss, and everything else went according to my imagined scenario…until we got to her insisting on helping. She didn’t insist on anything; she just went ahead and did it. Pulling an old toothbrush from a pocket of her expensive jacket, she found the scouring cleanser and went out on the balcony. She scrubbed ten years of accumulated dirt and bird droppings off my life-sized Indian chief statue. Inch by inch, she scrubbed him white…without getting a speck on herself or her designer silks. And, no, I didn’t toss my Lladro; it’s too expensive. I let her enjoy herself. After all, scrubbing that Indian isn’t a job I’d wish on my worst enemy, so if Bill wants to do it, let her do it. Most people imagine Bill all wrong. They see how she comes in and
takes over. “She’s too domineering,” they say, but they’re wrong. Mary Lee got it right: Bill just likes to be helpful. And if I sometimes feel she’s trying to dominate me because she’s my older sister, well-l-l … I just take it with a grain of salt. At those times I tell myself, Just thank God you’re the younger sister. Imagine how she’d flaunt the age factor if your roles were reversed.
Like today: When Bill was through scrubbing the Indian, she touched up his eyes to match her own. She used her Clinique eye-liner; midnight green, the label read. He’s my Indian, I thought, and maybe I wanted his eyes blue…like mine. Oh, well, at least she asked my advice before naming him. “Let’s call him Peeping Tom,” she suggested. “He seems to be peeping out over the entire neighborhood, ready to protect you with his little hatchet.” When I said, “Okay, but it’s Big Chief Peeping Tom,” Bill abruptly changed the subject. “Now that I saved you all that time, Sis,” she said, “you can afford a few hours of fun. Go get gussied up! We’re going shopping!” “Shopping!” I yelped. “Whatever for?” Bill rolled her drooping green eyes to heaven, then laughed. Well-l-l, it was really more of a raucous roar. Then she proclaimed loudly, “I’m splurging on a new pair of boots for you!” “But…but,” I helplessly sputtered, “I have work to do, and besides I’m a mess.” I glanced from her to the Indian… From the Indian to Mary Lee… From Mary Lee to the mountain of unpacked boxes… “Go ahead, Mom. Might as well start the first leg of your last big adventure now,” my bright-eyed daughter encouraged. “I’ll finish the kitchen, and don’t worry, I’ll put the grand-kids’ photo magnets just like you had them on your old fridge.” “But…but…” “No buts about it, Sis, you’re coming with me,” Bill said, putting her hand between my shoulder blades and firmly pushing me down the hallway to my bedroom. “You have the rest of your life to organize this house,” she added, echoing Mary Lee’s earlier sentiment. “Okay …okay. I really do need to get my house in order, but I suppose a few hours won’t hurt,” I replied. Then I tossed her a challenge: “But I’m warning you, after I’m settled, I’ll give you a run for your money. No sitting around for this retiree.” Bill picked up a bottle of Sunflowers perfume, extended it toward me, and said, “Here’s to a happy, healthy retirement, Sis. You deserve it.” Then she pretended to drink the contents as though she were toasting me with a glass of champagne. What a character! I took a three-minute shower, and like Superman in his phone booth, came out of that small cubicle a changed woman. I was ready to boogie. Then I slapped on a wig so I wouldn’t have to mess with the cotton-candy, and yes, I put on make-up. And no, I didn’t wear sweats; I slipped into a fine turquoise silk jog suit and white Nikes with a thin turquoise stripe. I know… I know–you don’t have to remind me–it’s not exactly grubbies, but it is a step down from wool suits and silk dresses. Just give me time, and I’ll get the hang of this retirement thing and the proper attire before most people know I’m retired. (You thought I was going to say:before you can say Jack Robinson, didn’t you? Well, I’m not that old.) When I snatched up my purse and reached for my stylish Gucci briefcase, Bill’s hand settled on mine, restraining me. “You won’t need that, Sis,” she said. “Force of habit,” I replied. A smile flickered through my eyes as I thought fondly of the many years I’d carried that case. The manuscripts, articles, and proposals that fine leather had held probably had an accumulative weight of more than six tons…one ton per child. It was those very papers that enabled me to earn the money to give my children a good life and proper education. While Bill tucked a few stray matted hairs beneath my wig, I turned to her. “Now what kind of boots are we talking here… hiking or Western?” Mary Lee had finished the living room and was standing in the doorway. “Hiking might not be a bad idea, Mom,” she butted in. “It’s great exercise, and will keep you hale and hearty in your old-age.” One look at my angry red face and she reversed her steps down the hallway. I caught up to her in the kitchen where I briskly rolled up a dish towel and flipped it at her, whacking her on her cute little fanny. “Old-age indeed,” I teased, my voice heavy with mock indignation. To make sure both my daughter and my sister got the point that I wasn’t going to sit on my duff in retirement, getting sick and old before my time, I crossed the room to Bill. Taking her by the hand, I said, “I want Western boots so we can learn that new-fangled line-dancing that’s all the craze.” “You got it! What color?” When I exclaimed, “Purple!,” I got the turned-up-nose bit from Bill, but was treated to a million-dollar smile of approval from Mary Lee. And when I inched my sister to the door, loudly singing that old Nancy Sinatra hit song, “These boots are made for walking,” both she and Mary Lee picked up the melody. With Mary Lee’s voice fading into the background, Bill and I sang and danced all the way to the car.
The following morning… Seven a.m….I’m seated at my white patio table beneath a tropical print umbrella, about three feet from Big Chief Peeping Tom. As I sip my first decaf of the day, I’m smiling out at the world from my own private balcony. Except for details–like photo albums and other personal items–the house is pretty much settled, so Mary Lee’s inside getting ready to go home to her husband and children. From this vantage point, the world seems so new and untroubled that I feel I could live my entire retirement on this peaceful moment. All along the commons, the leaves are beginning to fall, and I notice how they flutter slowly, effortlessly to earth. Their useful lives as oxygen-givers has ended, so now they’re bunched up in a golden heap, waiting for the gardener to sweep them up and dispose of them. A thought filters through my mind: Those leaves remind me of some retirees I know who just sit around all day, watching TV–all bunched up in a silver heap–waiting for the undertaker to sweep them off the couch and dispose of them. Another thought quickly follows: Is that what Bill’s been worrying about? Does she think I might end up like that if she doesn’t prod me? Not me! When a robin flies onto the balcony and comes to rest on Big Chief Peeping Tom’s feathered bonnet, I think of yesterday when all the birds were chirping and singing … as though happy to be given a brand-new day. When the robin cocks its head and fixes me with its beady little eyes, I smile. “I won’t be like those dying yellow leaves,” I tell the bird. “I’ll be more like you, little red-breast. Happy to be alive and rarin’ to soar…” # Same day, seven-thirty a.m….And here comes Bill, tripping through the dew-drops again. Mary Lee, who has crept up behind me, smiles (and my heart warms). “Yep, it’s Aunt Bill again, Mom, but you must agree–she’s good for you.” My daughter kisses me farewell, hugs me tightly, adjusts her back-pack and leaves. Alone with my thoughts, I start speculating again: When Bill walks in she will…Sure, she’s my predictable sister and I love her in spite of it, or maybe a little because of it. So as not to be transparent myself, instead of “Morning, Sis,” I think I’ll borrow an expression from my grandson: “‘S’up, dudette?” Bill will give me that turned-up-nose bit again, but will probably borrow the expression before too long. Then I’ll tell her to puh-leeze (please, please, please, on bended knee) leave me alone for a week. After the hectic, non-stop activity of moving, and the change of pace from career-woman to silver-haired foxette, I need some time to shift gears. I plan to sleep for a week, doing nothing but reading my favorite authors–Steven King, John Grisham, and Dean Koontz–watching All My Children, and eating. I might even take a bubble bath… Who knows? Then I’ll make a date with my sister, Bill…for a week from today. By then, I figure, I’ll be all revved up and rarin’ to start this last big adventure called retirement. If Bill thinks shopping for purple boots was a big adventure–admittedly it was fun–I can’t wait to see her expression when I tell her I’ve made plans to take her for a picnic lunch in a hot-air balloon. And the next thing on the agenda is flying lessons. After all, I haven’t weathered forty years of journalism, pioneering the field for women, to become a follower at this late age.