Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change

CHAPTER 52: HOW I “FAILED” RETIREMENT

with 4 comments

My grandmother, Kate Evans Ford, turned 65 in 1947. She died eight years later, at 73.

I look at those numbers and think how completely different life is for 65-year-old women today. One of those women is me. A few million of us are still wondering how we got to be this old and how we managed not to be our grandmothers. Credit feminism, work, careers, choice, modern education and, probably, good nutrition and better health care. Those of us 65 years old today were born during the Second World War, but we were raised in boom times, albeit always reminded of the Depression and, of course, the war.

Two of the many things that set us apart from our grandmothers is our right to choose to work and our attitude toward retirement. One does follow the other, circuitous though it might be. The concept of retirement was almost a completely male thing for our grandparents. Many were raised at a time when women might take some job — as nurses, teachers or office workers — but that was not their life. That life was husband and family, and the work never stopped. It would lessen, of course, when the children left home, but the “job” of homemaker never ceased. It still doesn’t.

So the concept of retiring from a full-time occupation, from a career chosen freely and without complaint, is a modern construct.

And, I’ve managed to fail at it. When I took early retirement nearly six years ago, it wasn’t the same as downing tools. It’s not as if sitting in an office and having opinions required much heavy lifting. But a combination of factors — one of which was a chronic heart condition — led me to embrace Freedom 55 plus five.

That was then. This is now. Better health; less stress. So, I’ve gone back to “work.” Not that my husband calls it that. But I’m now writing a weekly column for an on-line news service and newspaper called Troy Media. (www.troymedia.com) It appears every Sunday and has been cheekily titled My Call.

All of this got me thinking about my grandmother, at least the one I knew. My Irish grandmother, Kate Regan Tunney, died in 1950, her husband following her a few years later.

So the only grandparents I knew were my father’s parents. And I remember how old his mother appeared to me. She was an avid sportswoman, but I only know that from slightly out-of-focus photographs of her in a long skirt, standing beside a tent and holding a fishing rod — a willowy young woman in the fresh mountain air. I never knew that woman who loved to fish in the Highwood River and camp in the mountains.

The Kate Ford I and my only first cousin on that side of the family, Paul Perkins — two years older than me — knew was a kindly little old lady who loved bridge, tea, Central United Church, the YMCA and YWCA and playing the piano. We only ever knew the plump grey-haired woman in a housedress or a simple suit and, when she went out, the obligatory hat.

Her generation’s idea of retirement was nothing more exotic than having her children give her grandchildren upon whom she could dote. She had married late, at 30, after teaching school in Ontario. She had waited for her future husband, Clinton James Ford, to set himself up as a lawyer in Calgary and return east to marry her. She had her first child, Helen Margaret, at 31 and her last, Thomas Fullerton, at 42. In between there was William and Robert or, as they were known, Billy and Bobby. Bob was my father.

I mention all this family history because the idea of retirement would have been completely foreign to Grandmother. When she died, her husband was still working, long past 65, yet to be appointed Chief Justice of Alberta and the Northwest Territories. She did not live long enough to see the only grandson to bear her husband’s name and follow his profession as a lawyer, my brother, Clinton William Ford.

It is the arrogance of the young to believe that youth belongs to them. They will eventually learn that the young person they are now will still be there a few decades along. Still there, but hidden under the inevitable signs of age, including the faces earned throughout life. I’m reminded of an incident at a lunch years ago when my friend said, of the elderly hostess who had invited all of us, that she would like to look like her when she was reached that advanced age. Overhearing this exchange, one of the other guests leaned across the table and said: “You have to start out really, really beautiful to look like that at 80.”

True, maybe, but there are women in this world who start out plain and end up beautiful because age strips away the façade to reveal the inner beauty. I don’t expect anyone without wrinkles to appreciate or understand that sentiment.

Mostly, though, we don’t feel old — at least those of us who aren’t stricken with some disease they can’t ignore. I can only conjecture that, at this age, my grandmother didn’t feel old either.

I belong to the first feminist generation to define retirement as quitting full-time work. My grandmother, the teacher, “retired” to be married. My mother, the nurse, “retired” when she was pregnant with me.

As we retire, even those of us who “fail” and go back to work or work even harder at volunteering, aren’t necessarily following any ground rules. There is at least one simple reason for that: Right behind us, snapping at our heels is what Landon Y. Jones called “the pig passing through the python,” also known as the Baby Boomers. (A phrase Jones coined.)

The first of the Baby Boomers turns 65 in 2012 and just as they have all of their lives, they will again change the priorities of the world they inhabit — for the good, the bad, or the horrible.

(It is noted that the Canadian baby boom started a year later than the U.S. boom. The reason, according to demographer David Foot, is that American troops started coming home in 1945 and the U.S. baby boom began in 1946. “Canadian troops came home later, so Canadian births did not leap upwards until 1947,” writes Foot in his and Daniel Stoffman’s demographic study, Boom, Bust and Echo.)

When the boomers retire, they will rewrite the entire notion of retirement. “When they get interested in a particular product or idea, we all have to sit up and take notice,” writes Foot.

I suspect all I am doing in taking on paid work again is anticipating that my sister and brother — and the millions in their cohort — will abolish the notion of retirement as a time of doing nothing.

NEXT: Summer’s treats, temptations and drinks with umbrellas in them

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Written by Catherine Ford

July 13, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. I have been following this column since its beginning, and have come to look forward to updates. Rather like conversations with an old friend – revealing, personal and objective all at once. Thanks for continuing to write. I for one, am hoping you don’t stop after one short year.

    Jamie Godwin

    July 14, 2010 at 10:55 am

  2. “CHAPTER 52: HOW I FAILED RETIREMENT Catherine Ford Gets Personal” was in
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