My friends and I are in our late sixties or early seventies. We’ve been through life’s passages together. Just as we were all thinking about sex and dating at the same time, getting married at the same time, having children at the same time, we are now thinking about life between seventy and eighty at the same time.
We like to think that we are individuals with our own unique problems, concerns, life crises, happiness but, the truth is so many of life’s major events are predictable passages.
When I was in my late forties and went to my doctor to complain about my eyesight bothering me (I already wore glasses) and I asked him what was wrong, he laughed and said, “Middle age.” The solution was progressive lenses. When many years later, I had to wear a hearing aid, I was embarrassed until I noticed that many of my contemporaries were wearing hearing aids. We have, on the whole gone through the teenage angst of our children together, their getting married, their producing grandchildren for us, together. We mostly retired within a few years of each other.
A conversation with a long-time (I eschew the world “old”) friend today turned to a new topic, relocating and downsizing. They go together. In our middle years when we were becoming empty nesters, our children moved far and wide. The days of three generations of a family living in the same small town are long gone. Opportunities are nearly always elsewhere. There aren’t many jobs for people with university educations, particularly graduate degrees, in a small town. He result is that our children and our grandkids are spread from Fredericton to Victoria, down to Texas, across to Australia and in places many of us had never heard of until we had family there.
Now, though, that our “kids” are pushing fifty and have settled down, and are, themselves, becoming empty nesters, more and more of my contemporaries are considering moving closer to their kids. That’s particularly true if divorce or death has left them alone. Part of that is simply being practical. As you grow older, you have more medical problems. Many hospital tests require that someone take you to the hospital, then pick you up because you’ve had a sedative and are legally impaired for twenty-four hours. The importance of having someone willing to do that starts to loom large.
In some cases, that move is occasioned by a sense that a person wants to live somewhere where they don’t need a car. They want to be a bus or taxi ride or in walking distance from grocery stores, dentists, dry cleaners, banks, post offices, restaurants. At one time driving an hour into a city to shop or go to a play seemed like nothing. Part of growing older is recognizing that driving an hour into the city is more tiring than fun. There also are warnings about what could happen as friends start to have problems with their night vision or macular degeneration or their balance. A condo in an area where there are shops and services starts to look pretty good.
More, though, than moving, is the question of downsizing. It seems to be on nearly everyone’s mind. We’ve all gone through the phase of having a growing family, needing more space, a bigger house, more furniture, a rec room, a yard. Now, often reduced to being alone, a big house feels empty, lonely, more work than it is worth.
I just recently downsized. I went from a large, rambling heritage home with innumerable rooms, a double lot with what seemed endless flower gardens plus a kitchen garden for vegetables, a carriage shed with an addition where the Chinese cook lived in the 1920s. The trouble is that when you find yourself alone, those innumerable rooms are inclined to echo. With my parents no longer coming to stay for the winters, with my sister-in-law having bought her own home here, with retiring and not having as many dinner parties or receptions, the house was too big. The decision was hard because I loved that house. It was the house I’d always dreamt of owning.
I hated to give up my poppy plants that I’d cultivated and transplanted until there was a hedge of them. Six feet tall, with massive white blooms. The wisteria that wrapped around the bird bath. My nephew planted it for me. The grape vines that grew along the stone wall. I planted those.
I replaced it with a bungalow. No yard to speak of. Real estate agents call it easy care. I resent it the term. Friends say I could have hired a gardener and had everything done for me. They miss the point. It’s not just the having. It’s the doing. It’s the satisfaction of digging that soil, of choosing those plants, of planting those shrubs and flowers.
What I left behind weren’t just the living room fireplace, the study where I could shelve all my books. What I left behind were memories. Here is the living room where the whole family gathered to open Christmas presents. Here is the dining room where we celebrated birthdays and holidays, where we started with one table and ended up with three end to end to accommodate a growing family plus friends.
Here is the yard where I hid Easter eggs for the annual Easter egg hunt. Under that camelia, in the crook of that lilac branch.
Downsizing forces us to make decisions. It’s a simple calculation. A condo half the size of the house means half our belongings have to go. A condo a quarter size means three quarters of our belongings have to be shed. Some decisions are easy. All that stuff that has accumulated in the basement. When you ask yourself, what was I keeping that for, the decision is easy. But then, there are the hard decisions. Some things have to be let go even if we love them. It’s not the monetary value that we grieve. It’s the rocking chair our children and then our grandchildren used. It’s the leather couch that is too big for an apartment. It’s the carpets we chose so carefully but aren’t needed when there is wall-to-wall.
Then there are the items that we thought were valuable. We’re always shocked by what we are offered because we know what we paid for these items. Stamp collections often sell for one tenth of their retail value. Art, unless we’re lucky, goes for a quarter of its insurance value—if that. The buyers don’t pay for hopes or dreams or memories of holding hands looking at a painting that would be perfect for the living room and trying to decide if we could afford it. And then there are the items no one wants. They go to the thrift store or the garbage dump. Precious to us, they are precious to no one else.
It’s a good thing that when we are young and accumulating, buying a house, filling it up with all the things we desire, that we don’t think or even know about downsizing. It would take away the joy of having earned something, the joy of having something that we want, whether it’s a patio set or a hot tub. Each stage of life has its necessary events.
Don’t get me wrong. I like my new bungalow. That doesn’t keep me from grieving my heritage home, the big yard, the flower gardens but probably what I grieve the most is not having the energy to make use of them. I used to run behind the lawn mower for exercise. Up a slope. I’m not able to do that anymore. I was plodding and when I finished, I needed to have a nap.
The lesson of downsizing , I guess, is to store up not worldly goods but good memories for when that day comes, it will be memories that you can take with you and that will warm you and comfort you. Memories don’t take up any space. They fit into a bungalow or a condo or, eventually, if we live long enough, in a single room in a nursing home.