These Are the Golden Years? On Retirement and Chicken Piccata
My husband just retired. I’m still working. From home. It’s created some … tension in the relationship.
My husband is cooking dinner in the kitchen — the kitchen that for the past three-plus years has also been my home office. He’s making chicken piccata, from a recipe he found in the New York Times. He combs the internet for interesting recipes daily. He went grocery-shopping for the ingredients this morning. He has plenty of time — after all, he’s retired now. I piggyback off his Times subscription, but I never realized I had access to the paywalled recipes. Not that I’d do much of anything with them anyway. I find cooking a bore these days. But suddenly, I’m living with Top Chef every freaking night.
Since Doug started the job he just retired from, back in 2011, I haven’t really cooked a weekday dinner. I haven’t had to. He ate in the cafeteria of the Main Line hospital where he worked, every night. I haven’t done much about breakfast or lunch, either: Doug got up every morning at 4:30, made himself a hearty starter meal, packed a frozen entrée and some fruit and crunchies for lunch, and was on his way by 6:30 a.m. — long before I wakened. He’d roll home some 12 hours later, catch some Phillies or Sixers, and head to bed by 10 p.m.
To say things are different now that he’s retired doesn’t really say enough.
I picked the kitchen for my office for good reasons. It has the best light in the house. It gives onto my garden. I can open the curtains and look out at my roses and the birds at the feeder and the rain on the tomato plants. Most of all, it has the Keurig machine.
Unfortunately, it also has the stove and the refrigerator, which is where Doug’s heading now. He already has a bowl out on the counter for dipping the chicken in egg yolk, another bowl with flour for dredging it, a frying pan, a colander, a pot for making the sauce, another pot for boiling some green beans, and one more pot to make pasta, not to mention forks, knives, spatulas, a whisk, a grater, a corkscrew, a citrus juicer, measuring cups, and a set of measuring spoons. As he finishes with each utensil or cookware item, he sets it on the opposite counter, beside the sink. He won’t wash anything until after his meal is cooked and eaten.
Every woman I’ve told this to has rolled her eyes and said some version of “Oh my loving God, that drives me insane.”
So, you ask: How was the chicken piccata?
I don’t know. I didn’t have any. Since Doug started his most recent job — did I mention it was a dozen years ago? — I’ve had the same thing for supper, by myself, alone, almost every night after he goes up to bed, while I watch reruns of Law & Order — a show he finds “morbid” and “ghoulish” and refuses to watch: a steamed green vegetable and a frozen stuffed chicken breast. I enjoy them very much, thanks.
We humans are creatures of habit. Repetition is soothing. The familiar is comforting. Dammit, I had a routine while Doug was still working. I liked things the way they were. Now, suddenly, there’s someone else in my space, leaving a mess all over the kitchen counter. In my home office.
And if you ask him how retirement is going, he’ll give you a big grin and say, “Oh, just great!”
I never really gave much thought to retiring. I mean. I’m a writer. It’s not like writers wake up one morning and announce, “I don’t feel like writing anymore.” It’s how I process the world — more a way of life than a job, you know? Besides, I like what I do. Oh, I miss the camaraderie of the pre-pandemic office, sure, but I don’t miss my three-hours-there-and-back commute to Philly. Or the $250-a-month parking. Or the $6 get-me-on-the-Expressway-alive-today-caffeine-please lattes. Or the daily need to dress up and actually wear shoes.
Doug liked his physical therapy job, too, but the pandemic took a toll. There were days during its worst when he was assigned to the hospital parking lot, directing bewildered drivers where to go for testing. Days when they were so short-staffed and overwhelmed with patients and paperwork that he did 16-hour shifts. Days when waking up at dawn to check his temperature and stick a swizzle up his nose just got old. His decision to retire, it seemed to me, came on pretty abruptly. But then, it wasn’t my nose the swizzle stick was twirling in.
Besides, he always viewed work as a job, not a calling. I think that’s because he’s worn so many hats in his life. When we met, in our 20s, he was a musician — very romantic! He played the trombone in salsa bands and wedding bands and jazz combos. I remember asking him early on, in my girlish enthusiasm: Didn’t he want to be the best trombone player that ever lived? He looked at me and shook his head and said, “Nah. I just want to make a living at it.”
He did, for many years, through two kids and one large dog and all those hours I spent commuting. Then, in 2007, just as our oldest was beginning college, the recession hit. Nobody could afford live bands. Doug worked a series of part-time jobs — soccer ref, substitute teacher (he lasted one day), school bus driver — while he thought about what to do next. In the end, he got his degree as a PT assistant. He graduated the same month our daughter did.
The point is, he’s better at change than I am. He’s not as invested in his work as his identity. But I have to say, as I sit tied to my computer in the kitchen and watch his new life of spending the morning at the gym and heading out to visit our grandkids in the afternoon and taking long evening bike rides with our son Jake, the prospect of not being at work’s beck and call every day is starting to have more appeal.
It’s not that Doug doesn’t respect my space. He mostly does, or at least he tries to. He begins each day sitting across the kitchen table from me, both of us on our computers, with me working and him doing — you know, I’m not quite sure what he’s doing. He told me he’s started journaling. Why, or about what, I have no idea. Most of his co-workers at his last job were women, so maybe journaling is something they talked about. Frankly, I don’t get it. Who wants to write without getting paid?
While he does what he does, he listens to podcasts or music on his earbuds. I’m grateful he does this, because I can’t stand to be distracted by noise while I work. But Doug has those earbuds in all the time, which means when I need to tell him something really important — like that the cat threw up, or somebody’s at the front door, or there are eight cop cars and two fire trucks lined up along our block — he doesn’t hear me, and I can’t see that he’s wearing earbuds, so I don’t realize he doesn’t hear me, so I get annoyed because he’s ignoring me, and then I realize he just can’t hear me, and by that point, I’m really annoyed.
Don’t get me wrong; for the most part, we’re exquisitely patient with one another in this strange new phase of our relationship — one in which we’re together, in the same place, more than we’ve been at any point since our initial courtship. In fact, that’s what our home life now reminds me of — those early days of dating, when you’re trying to make such a good impression and you never fart in front of the other person and you don’t dribble toothpaste around the sink. It’s lovely, but it’s also exhausting to always be on your best behavior. At least, it is for me, since I still have a job that requires substantial energy.
But Doug’s probably worn out, too, by all that time he’s spending with the grandkids and at the gym.
When he’s not on the computer, he’s reading. Books. That he gets from the library. I haven’t been to a library since the kids were small. I can’t recall the last book I read for pleasure and not for work. When Doug reads, he sits on the living room sofa that’s covered with an Indian bedspread. Doesn’t he know nobody sits on that sofa unless it’s company, because the spread immediately gets disheveled, which makes me crazy? Apparently not. He doesn’t much notice dishevelment, or the dusting of crumbs his bedtime snacks of popcorn or Cheetos or potato chips leave on the kitchen floor.
I do, though.
If he’s not on the sofa, he’s on the front porch, vying with Whitey two houses down (it’s not what you think; it’s for the color of his hair when he was a kid) for the title of King of the Block. He says hi to passersby, watches the clouds and the neighbor kids riding on bikes, snickers at bad attempts at parallel parking. Meantime, I’m wrestling colleagues’ sentences into submission and wondering who would clean up their commas if I did retire.
Oh, I know it’s not all fun and games for Doug. For one thing, there’s his mom, who’s 92 and in assisted living a few miles away. This morning, for instance, he went with her to a doctor’s office so she could have laser surgery for her glaucoma. Last week, he drove her to several different appointments — one with a financial planner, one with another medical professional — took her out to get a hoagie for lunch, and typed up and printed out a detailed list of all her investments, in the hopes she would consult it when she got to worrying about money, which she does pretty constantly, instead of asking him to give her the rundown again. That he’s so conscientious and patient with her gives me warm fuzzies and reminds me of what a great human being I married. It also gets him out of the house. I’m grateful for both.
Our 40th wedding anniversary, coincidentally, hit just a few weeks after his last day working. It’s a long time, 40 years. An accomplishment. I should, I know, be looking at these coming years as a time to celebrate, step back from life’s worries, revel in the company of Doug and our kids and grandkids, maybe do a little traveling, pick up a hobby or two. But I’m profoundly unsettled by the prospect of letting go of what I have. By the question of what will make getting out of bed worthwhile once I no longer have to get out of bed.
My old college friend Liza and I were talking about this, and she said, “There’s no blueprint when it comes to these next few decades.” Maybe that’s what’s worrying me. Did I mention that I don’t like change? I don’t have any big, challenging unmet life goals, like learning to fly-fish or cross-stitching the faces of all the U.S. presidents onto pillows or seeing Majorca. I’m not even sure where Majorca is. How does that Mary Oliver poem go?
Tell me, what do you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
She makes the question seem so fraught and weighty, like the decision is a momentous burden. And I suppose in some ways, it is. But it’s also just one foot in front of the other, over and over again.
Doug and I didn’t start out with a plan, all those years ago. We were just two kids having fun, hustling to cobble something together, a freelance writer and a journeyman musician, staying out late and getting up late and seeing where it went from there. No grand ambitions; no mighty yearnings. Doug had it right: We were never going to be the greatest trombone player that ever lived.
But it has been important to me to get to have my say. Maybe it’s because I was the third kid in a big, hyper-competitive family, where you sometimes had to yell to be heard. There are plenty of other things I’m good at besides work. I’m a hell of a grandmother, a crackerjack gardener, a pretty good seamstress, a fine cat mom. But those are all small-scale, private, known only to my friends and family. Nobody pays you to be a great grandma. No one but the neighbors knows about the garden. I’ve wanted — needed — the pages of this magazine.
More and more, though, the stories younger writers are pitching aren’t the stories that interest me. After all these years — after all these mayors and City Councilmembers and agitators and activists, the budget woes, the arguments over where to put stadia — I find myself wondering: Does anything ever really change? There’s government corruption? Nooo — say it ain’t so! There are too many cars and not enough sports championships? You must be kidding! And I hear we’re all going to be replaced by chatbots anyway.
Liza and I used to make time to see each other every summer. When our kids were small, we’d go on family vacations together, to upstate New York or the Outer Banks. I rendezvoused regularly with my gang of buddies from high school, too, and with my old college roommate, Paige. But now our kids are having kids, and who knows how long you’ll be around to enjoy those grandchildren, you know? Better to spend the time we have with them. Besides, travel’s such a bother — all that packing and unpacking, and remembering your mountains of meds …
I’ve come to think of the bonds I have with old friends as accordions, supple enough to contract and expand. We come together, we stretch apart, but we never fully sever, even if the only points of contact sometimes are Christmas cards from year to year. My relationships with my siblings are the same way. We rally into a flurry of togetherness at holidays and on our annual beach trips, for a family funeral or a momentous birthday. Beyond that, we just … text.
Life’s been like that with Doug, too. I think of the intense days and nights of early parenthood, the colic and exhaustion, the 3 a.m. feedings and aimless wandering in the car or with the stroller on the streets of South Philly — anything that would keep a baby quiet so one of us, at least, could sleep. We were shipmates marooned together on a hellish desert island, making whatever sacrifice was needed to ensure that we’d both survive. The coming years will be like that, too. But in the end, we’ll die.
After all, some fluss is inevitable. That’s one of our mantras as a couple, taken from the care instructions on a dining room rug we bought at Macy’s early in our relationship. No, “fluss” isn’t a real word, but it’s a perfect portmanteau for “fuss” and “fluster” and “fuzz” — all the stuff in life that gets on your nerves even though it’s so minor. Hey, I’m not exactly easy to live with, either, when you come right down to it. Get the hell off that sofa! Can’t you see you’re wrinkling the bedspread again?
I’ll just remind myself: There’s no one else on this Earth who remembers how, on our honeymoon in New Orleans, we paid a dollar apiece to stare through a street-corner telescope at Saturn, her rings so bright and clear that they made us gasp. Or the terrible time we had fastening Marcy into her car seat to take her home from Pennsylvania Hospital two days after she was born, and how we held our breath all the way down 8th Street to Snyder, terrified we’d hit a pothole and she’d just — what? Break? Explode? We’ve been through a lot together, Doug and I. If what he wants to do now with his one wild and precious life is try out chicken recipes, who am I to complain?
Hell, who knows? I might even try some of whatever he cooks up tonight.
Published as “These Are the Golden Years?” in the August 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.