Saturday, July 19, 2014

When Parents Retire

My parents planned out their retirement methodically, much like Josef Stalin, with their own five-year plan. The did it the way the television commercials say you’re supposed to go about it. Mom went first in August of last year. Dad retired at the first of this summer. Now they've been hard at work fixing twenty-five years of repairs that had been pushed off for this very moment.

This is a momentous occasion for both of them, but their responses have been more muted than I expected. I suppose if you've worked for fifty years or so, the combined labor has a way of making you tired and footsore. The end for both was not an exuberant sprint, but a weary and obliging trot across the finish line. They deserve to live out the rest of their days in relatively calm, even though having reached this stage in their lives reminds me once more that life is finite. The ultimate biological machine, at least so far as we know, is the human body. It tends to wear out after a while.

I want to keep my focus upon them, not myself, but I admit I’m having some serious reservations. Much of my life is tied up in that house and the city in which it is located. My folks will be leaving both behind, retiring to the beach, as so many retired couples do. If I peer out of the front door, my attention focuses briefly, inevitably on the bus stop where I waited for middle school and half of high school. We waited by a storm drain, every morning, at the spot where the concrete met the asphalt of the road.

My bedroom had many configurations, much like an art gallery, one of which showcased a large CD player against one corner. It blared the music of the time, and my latest album purchase. Every inch of the walls, in those days, was covered by store-bought posters of musicians and movie stars. After I left for parts elsewhere, I remember how sparse and bare it seemed when it all had been taken down. My sister moved home for a while, taking my room for herself, scattering clothes across the carpeted floor. She owned several vinyl LPs and a decent player, though her purchases always came from thrift stores and garage sales.

From recent conversation with my parents, I’ve gathered that their fondness for the house is not my own. My father felt that it was too expensive to maintain. He criticized the workmen who built the house, feeling they rushed through the job. But I have to be pragmatic in my nostalgia. Being that two people now inhabit a space designed for five, it is clearly more house than they need. Moreover, it seems that my folks don’t have the same strong sense of ambivalence that I have.

My mother’s childhood home has been visited probably once in twenty years. Her father died after a severe bout of cancer, and the home reminds her of those awful final months and days. After my aunt died, Dad never had much reason to visit his parent's house, either. He might have even been ashamed of it, showing, as it did, the extreme poverty of two career textile mill workers, his own parents, who never passed 9th grade. Dad got out at 17 and never looked back. We regularly visited when my sisters and I were small children, but conditions on the ground changed.

Childhood is difficult regardless of circumstance, but I was an imaginative child. I could escape into my books and later play my guitar with a single-minded focus. As I walk through the house in my mind, I recall a million tiny confrontations and words exchanged. Every corner has a memory, even with a fresh coat of paint or an elaborately re-designed sundeck. I remember my grandmother, an unfiltered cigarette smoker, staking claim to one corner. I remember, years later, her being shocked when I picked the opposite corner to light my own cigarette.

The driveway and basement became a service station to many a car. I knew nothing of automobile repair. Dad would patch together the once-dead until I created a new problem for him to fix. On my teenage trips to Atlanta, two and a half hours away, he would make sure my turn signals were functioning properly and my windshield was clean. He didn't have to do it, and I know many parents would not. Though we've had our differences, I recognize the gesture was one of love, and I am finally willing to take it on its own terms.

The notion of shrines and monuments has never been foreign to me. Some people stare at them uncomprehendingly, briefly. They move on to the next, displaying the same reaction. To me, at least, the house is a monument to lots of things. It was where I first kissed a girl. Until they got run down, both of my father’s parents were present, housed in a basement apartment we had specially built for them. It was, outside by the mailbox, where my rebellious sister sneaked away late at night, arriving at school the next day sleep deprived.

A surprise blizzard in Birmingham dumped 18 inches on an incredulous, uncomprehending public. After the ominous green lightning subsided, around 5 am, I walked out into snow that reached my kneecaps. The scene was pristine, as no one else had yet woken up and sullied the landscape. That image has been seared into my brain, one I know to be uniquely my own.

It will probably be easier than I’m anticipating. Though I’m usually not much of a sentimentalist, here my secret romantic side shines through. Unlike my parents, I will make a silent pilgrimage to the house from time to time, if only to see what the new owners have changed. Much of me exists at that house and I measure my progress using it as a thermometer. I much don’t like the notion of my folks passing away someday, but I know they will. Maybe this can be my own silent ritual, to preserve the memories for myself and my younger relatives.

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