My Father’s Lesson on the Sovereignty of Retirement

My father was 49 when I was born. He already had two daughters in college, two sons in high school, and another daughter in middle school – this part of his family referred to as “the first five”. When the youngest of “the first five” was ten, along came a son and two years later, me, a daughter. Dad was in a meeting with the Governor of New Jersey to discuss his appointment to the bench to serve as a judge when a call came through to him that his wife was on her way to the hospital to have me.  By the time I was ten years old, the “the first five” had all graduated college and were in law school, medical school, or married or getting married to someone doing something similar. Mom and Dad were at that point in their life where I was with my husband when our own two sons were in their twenties and finding their own way thorugh life.I still recall the Saturday morning my husband and I sat down at the dining room table to plan a trip, and we had the epiphany parents have at that point in their lives…on this vacation, it is all about us!

However, at this point in my parents’ lives, they still had a thirteen-year-old boy and an eleven- year-old girl to consider. By this time, Dad was sixty; he had worked every day his whole life to support and educate his family, a goal to which he and my mother were deeply committed. However, Dad had some dreams of his own and at 60, he knew he was not getting any younger.  He had spent enough summer Saturdays cutting the lawn and planting petunias. Dad launched himself.

So it was that in his sixties, my father learned how to ski, and he skied Vermont every winter weekend the lifts were running. Summers in his sixties were meant for other adventures. He spent the month of August on his 24-foot Chris Craft cabin cruiser travelling up the Hudson River to Lake Champlain which he fully explored until the return trip home four weeks later. He made that trip to Champlain for about five consecutive summers. In fact, in 1967, he took his beloved Stella Maris all the way from the marina in Edgewater, New Jersey to the World’s Fair in Montreal. 

It was also in his sixties-summers that Dad decided to find his roots. He rented a thatched cottage in the west of Ireland, the cottage having no running water nor electricity. He lived there for the month of July, setting out each day from this beloved cottage in search of his roots, which he eventually found at a Dysert O’Dea in County Clare. He would return to the west of Ireland each summer for the next five years, taking some side trips to London and Paris, as well as a couple weeks driving through France, Germany, and Switzerland, stopping in Dijon for dinner, as this place, my father explained as we pulled into town, was the gastronomical center of France. Dad even attended summer school at Oxford University, studying International Law and Jurisprudence.

However, Ireland had won his heart and he spent the better part of his summers in his sixties on the west coast of Ireland. One summer, he rented a cottage in the Connemara Gaeltacht, an area where only Irish is spoken, and hired a tutor to help him with his study of the Irish language. This culminated in my father reciting his translation of Joyce Kilmer’s poem, Trees, in Irish over RTE Radio one memorable summer Sunday afternoon. Dad designed a Claddagh ring that held a heart of green Connemara marble, a design much copied now, and had a small business selling this ring to jewelry stores in the west of Ireland. Dad arrived one summer with bats, balls, and mitts and he coached a gaggle of young Irish boys on the basics of baseball in a field across the road from his cottage.  The following summer, I accompanied Dad to the local blacksmith where he supervised the making of a hoop, as that year the lads were to learn the basics of basketball. Dad made friends wherever he went in Ireland and was sure to visit with them each summer. During the fall and spring, when he was in home in New Jersey, he taught an evening course on Irish Art and History.

For most all of these adventures of my father’s, I got to go with him. This began when I was five and my brother seven. Dad, at age 54, had his initial itch to take his boat, the Stella Maris, up the Hudson River to Lake Champlain. The deal struck with Mom was he could go if he took the two youngest ones with him. This deal prevailed through all his following adventures. Shestories holds detailed accounts of some of these adventures with my father, be it on the stern seat of the Stella as she plowed north towards Champlain with my father at the helm, or Dad and I at the top of the Eiffel Tower on our last day in Paris.  By his side, I witnessed the joy not only of travelling, but travelling light, taking off myself at the age of 16 to work as a waitress in Galway, a small city in the west of Ireland. That summer I was invited to the home of a friend for a weekend, and it was in the kitchen of that family’s home that on Sunday afternoon I heard my father’s translation of Trees. I was not sure how hearing Irish spoken with an American accent would go down with the natives. You could have heard a pin drop as they listened, and at the end, it was proclaimed that my father was “a grand man, a grand man, indeed.”  I was a rising junior at the University of London when I met my father at Heathrow in 1973, arriving for his summer school at Oxford. As he came through International Arrivals ta Heathrow with the eternal cigar in his mouth, he was grinning like a kid going off to camp.  

One year later, Dad passed away from cancer. I was all of 21, too young to fully understand who or what I had lost. I do now, whenever I see a cabin cruiser heading up a river or a jet headed across the Atlantic. They speak to me of my father, the remarkable man I knew, the man who taught me, by example, to follow your heart, live your life, get out there.  On those adventures with Dad, I grew from a five-year-old girl to a twenty-one-year-old woman. I do not mean to dismiss the role my mother played in my life. Shestories carries innumerable accounts of the wisdom gained from my mother, most often addressing how to raise a child. However, as I have transitioned from my fifties to my sixties, from those demands of motherhood to the sovereignty of my retirement, my father’s voice has become dominant. My only regret is that I cannot tell him.

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