VIEW VIDEO We had a wonderful Christmas. I am the proud owner of a new shirt and a book on architecture, given to me by our younger son, Sam, and his wife, Kelsea. I’m like George Costanza, in my dream life I’ve wanted to be an architect, designing lovely places for poor people to inhabit. Why can’t poor people also live amidst beauty? I’ve lived in five separate houses in my life, that I just called houses when I lived in them, but because of my new book now know two were ranch-style houses, one was an American Four-Square, another a folk Victorian farmhouse, and our house now, a Colonial Saltbox, which doesn’t have a front porch, but was, ironically, paid for by writing a book named for the front porch.
My grandfather was our family architect. He was made to leave school at the age of 14 to work in a glass factory beside his father. When he turned 62, the owner of the glass factory absconded with the pension fund, my grandfather found himself without a job or a pension, so went to college at the age of 62 and studied architecture, which he worked at until he was 78 years old. If you were to visit the Old Cathedral Catholic Church in Vincennes, Indiana, you’ll notice a lovely little library, built in the Greek Revival tradition, next to the Cathedral, designed by my grandfather in 1968, who also oversaw its construction.
When it came time to pay him, the bishop gave him a plaque instead of the promised fee. My grandfather spent the rest of his life mistrusting the owners of glass factories and Roman Catholic bishops. Despite being stiffed by both God and man, I remember that period of my grandfather’s life as happy and satisfying. When the library was being constructed, I would walk with him the four blocks from his house to the Old Cathedral, hurrying to keep up with him. He couldn’t wait to get there. A man with a purpose. For the rest of his life, it brought him great joy to see the lovely, little building he’d designed, and even after he moved to Danville, we would drive him down to Vincennes every year so he could see it again. People would walk past, Grandpa would flag them down, point to the library, and say, “I built that, you know.” Then he would give them a three-hour discourse on the Greek Revival Movement and its impact on American architecture. Asking my grandfather about architecture was like asking a hypochondriac how they felt. You were told more than you wanted to know.
I remember thinking that someday I hoped to be as passionate about something as my grandfather was about architecture. We’ve been thinking about stuff we want to do before we croak, our geezer manifesto, and today I want to add to our list this lesson I learned from my grandfather. I want, in my geezer years, to be excited and passionate about creative and useful work. I want to contribute, even if my only pay is a plaque and satisfaction.
Throughout the Bible, there are several streams, several patterns, one of which is this: God calling the elderly to creative and useful work. Sarah gave birth to Isaac as an old woman. Anna was an elderly prophetess when she was asked to bless Jesus in the Temple. Noah built a great ark in his advanced years. Job began a new family. Abraham embraced a new faith. Now let’s understand something. Some of these people were attributed with incredible longevity. But in the Bible, age wasn’t so much a statement about one’s durability, as much as it was a statement about one’s character and faithfulness. And these were the people God often called to creative and useful work, people of noble character and fidelity. People with enthusiasm and a sense of purpose. Just the kind of people you and I admire.
Note to self: In my advancing years, I will not lose my sense of purpose. I will not live aimlessly. I know a man who, after retiring, bought a recliner, and a big screen TV and began watching Tucker Carlson. He said he’d done enough. It was time to relax. He phones me every now and then wanting to talk and I honestly can’t bear the conversation. He talks only of yesterday and never of tomorrow. No purpose, no goals, no hopes, no aspirations. He has no future, only his past. And honestly, I don’t think he’s going to live much longer. After all, how much Tucker Carlson can one listen to before wanting to die? When we ask someone what they’re going to do in their retirement, what we’re trying to discern is what will animate their lives. Because if nothing does, they’re goners.
For all its blessings, retirement can be dangerous. I’ve been reading about it. Did you know people who retire are 40% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke than those still working. Well, that’s because they’re older, we tell ourselves. Is that it? Well, perhaps. On the other hand, maybe it’s because we lose our sense of purpose. Maybe it’s because we feel we have nothing to contribute. I have a neighbor who worked in the building trades. Big, gruff he-man kind of guy. Goes to Alaska every year and wrestles grizzly bears to the death. He retired three years ago and took to his recliner. I gave him another year before he had a massive stroke and checked out. Then his son and daughter-in-law had a baby girl and guess who they asked to babysit their precious little daughter three days a week? My big, gruff, he-man neighbor. The same man who never changed the diapers on his own children is today taking care of a baby three days a week. And he has blossomed. Feeling useful has completely changed his life. Now his son and daughter-in-law are expecting another baby and he’s already signed on to watch that child too. You think he’s going to die anytime soon? No way. He’s got too many people depending on him. We need a purpose, don’t we? Let’s remember that in our geezer years. Old age isn’t the only thing that kills us. Sometimes we die because our lives lack purpose and meaning. We die when there is no joy, no dream, to greet us each morning. I learned that from my grandfather, who at the age of 64 designed his first building and received for his efforts a twenty-dollar plaque and the deep satisfaction of creating a work of useful and enduring beauty. What is your purpose? What dream do you awaken to each day?