Model Trains…one piece at a time.

My husband retired last Friday and I am worried. While I celebrate his freedom from a job of which he was truly tired, I am also concerned about what he will now do with his time, as well as the loss of his income. How will the family budget survive? How will he survive psychologically? 

I have heard stories from friends whose husbands retire only to find themselves at loose ends, taking on vacuuming and laundry to reduce their boredom (which sounds to me like a good way to ensure boredom!), or worse, parking themselves in front of the television set. Yet, other friends have better stories to tell: exciting plans for travel, golf and tennis on weekdays, a movie any afternoon they please.

Of course, all that activity requires a team committed to making the transition out of the work world, and a large cushion in the savings account, as well. Trouble is, I have no intention of ever retiring. I can’t imagine it. My brain runs on, putting ideas into words, capturing thoughts and images, wanting to tell stories with essays and poems, novels and memoirs. How could I ever stop? 

Brad is an avid model train aficionado, and every Christmas we have set up his train set, which circles around a small evergreen tree that I decorate with ornaments and ribbon somewhat grudgingly. While he lays track and gets the engine primed, the set-up of the winter scenes complete with complex housing, trees, street lamps, miniature people (and dogs!) falls to me. I am happy to see his enthusiasm, but perhaps not so happy to have one more task at this hectic time of year. In California, we did not have the space to leave the train up after the holidays, but now, in the new house in Maryland, there is plenty of room in the finished basement for the train to have permanent residence. 

Already, Brad has approached his hobby with new-found vigor. Last weekend, we went to a model train exposition, where there were dozens of intricate displays of trains and their accompanying landscapes, many of which were quite striking in their detail. After this, he began the process of dismantling the train set he now owns and getting ready for a trade-in–a larger and more modern affair that can be run by Wi-Fi fr0m his phone. He has begun to design different potential displays on his computer. With several gift certificates to cover the most of the initial expense of the conversion, I can hardly plead financial hardship. Why, then, do I feel so quietly opposed to his newly expressed passion, when it answers, in part, what he will be doing with his free time?

He has planned other “putter-around projects” (as my Dad used to call them), like repairs at the sailboat, and building a tree house for the grandchildren; quite handy, he will undoubtedly do a great job at all this. I find that reassuring, but still, some vague sense of unease niggles at me.

As I offer reserved responses to his proposed layout for the new train–which will take up nearly half the space in the basement, intrude awkwardly into the room and require rearrangement of the furniture and the pool table–I realize that my uncertainty is due to something far more important.

When I think of “retirement,” I remember my father, who was “out on the beach,” as he referred to it with sarcasm, shortly after he turned 65. Dad left work with both feet dragging behind him when his boss forced him out–he didn’t want to retire because of some love for his job as a wool salesman, but rather because he needed his position for both self-esteem and income. Profoundly unhappy for the rest of his life, he sat at home doing crossword puzzles and reading, neither of which truly fulfilled him. (Even though I enjoyed giving him many good books.) As his health failed, these two activities were his only ones, and his third wife was helpless to keep him from becoming a sad shut-in. 

I counsel myself that I face a critical time: to put the past behind me. My father’s retirement picture does not have to be my husband’s. I hope Brad will spend many happy years expanding his railroad and creating model churches, barns and homes out of matchsticks. And perhaps he will finally build a beautiful treehouse that the kids can enjoy throughout their childhood. Perhaps he will make boat improvements that will help us be better sailors.

As for me, who says I have to retire to keep him company? I can arrange my schedule any way I choose, take my laptop any place in the world, enjoy some of his free time as my free time. There’s nothing that dictates I have to learn to play golf! All this may be a challenge to my flexibility as a partner, but I will make the best effort I can. And so, I move forward into our senior years, certain that my older son would caution me with his new-found wisdom: “Don’t look too far into the future. Just enjoy each one step at a time.”



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