Not many people get to retire twice, but I said goodbye to my mules, Mike and Ike, last weekend. My days on the wagon watching quail hunters stalk the South Georgia pine forest have come to an end as I prepare for big changes in the new year.
In fact, my changes begin with Christmas because for the first time in forty years, we won’t be loading the car with gifts and driving to Louisville, Kentucky. The years of celebrating the season in my wife’s childhood home on Tyler Lane ended when her father died earlier this year. Elmer Liebert was the last of our parents and the sale of his house means life-long traditions have passed. We will need to find new ways to Celebrate Christmas.
When you get to retirement age, big life-changes aren’t necessarily a good thing. Our elderly parents have passed away and suddenly my wife and I are the oldest generation in the family. Gone are the days of exciting promotions and pay-raises at work, sitting in bleachers at our children’s sporting events, or learning a new skill. A good day is when I can go for a walk and not need a handful of ibuprofen when I get home. A triumph is remembering why I walked into a room to get something. And sleeping through the night without having to get up two or three times to stumble to the bathroom is, well, unheard of.
So, when we bought a house in Atlanta, I began to feel like a kid again. We won’t move until Karen retires at the end of this school year, but the honey-do list for the new house is growing by the day. And with the excitement of the move comes the months of anticipation and the endless goodbyes. At some point, I will take my final walk around the neighborhood, say goodbye to my Sunday School class, and walk out of Calhoun State Prison with my Kairos ministry team for the last time. Karen is already facing her school year of “finals”—the final first day of school, the final book fair, and the final Christmas break.
There is plenty for us to miss about life in Albany. I’ll miss all of the retired Marines in their red pickup trucks with Semper Fi stickers. I will miss Pretoria Fields Brown Thrasher Ale, the Festival of Lights at Chehaw, the five-minute drives to Publix and Home Depot. But all of my life, I have made the most unlikely of moves. As a young zookeeper who grew up on the sandy beaches of Florida, I moved to Canada in the fall of 1973 to face my first Arctic winter at the Toronto Zoo. Karen and I moved from Louisville to Tampa to Sioux Falls to Toledo to Greenville, South Carolina before settling in Albany seventeen years ago. Now, in retirement, we are once again taking the unconventional route. We are not retiring to a cabin in the mountains or a beachside bungalow. We are relocating to the heart of one of the biggest cities in America.
Our new home in Atlanta is within walking distance of four microbreweries and a pub called the Stratford, which has trivia night on Wednesdays. We look forward to a neighborhood with sidewalks, a home with a basement, and an elementary school across the street. We’ll enjoy the Christmas lights at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, the Atlanta Opera’s performance of the Pirates of Penzance, and summer Braves games at Truist Park. And while my fellow Atlantans are stuck in traffic on their way to and from work, I’ll be perched at my new writing desk looking out on my new back yard where Karen will be constructing her new garden.
I will, of course need to find a new outlet for my writing. Albany Herald readers probably won’t want to hear about my new life in that big city to the North. And the big city newspapers won’t be interested in the musings of a small-town writer. Since I retired in 2016, I’ve written about sixty articles for the Albany Herald. I’ve covered mules and dogs, nature and COVID, Albany history, and my own personal life. Maybe there is another book in all of that.
One of the oddest experiences so far occurred on the day I resigned from driving the wagon. As I drove home from the plantation, I reflected on my experiences and the many people whose lives crossed mine. But the greatest sadness came from an unexpected source. I never said goodbye to the ones I came to admire most. I was in direct contact with them for countless hours over the last few years. I learned from them and came to love being around them. I’ll cherish the time I spent with my mules, Mike and Ike, as much as anything else in recent memory.
I can’t say their feelings toward me are mutual, but I do recall the time a couple of months ago when I was loading them into the horse trailer, and I slipped and fell down. As I lay flat on my back looking up at two, half-ton mules with hooves as big as dinner plates, I thought I might be a goner. They could have squashed me like a pumpkin. But they both stood unnaturally still. I grabbed a harness, pulled myself to my feet and stumbled outside to catch my breath. Working with those mules touched my spirit in ways I didn’t expect.
So, in spite of the adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, this old dog is looking forward to a new year and some new adventures. Wednesday night trivia with a locally brewed craft beer on the table sounds kind of cool. I might even try to introduce one of our Albany traditions to those big city folks at the Stratford Pub. They might enjoy a Monday night of Beer and Hymns—“Hey, Hey”.