Several weeks ago I posted my thoughts about how to best celebrate retirement. At that time I wondered if there would, indeed, be any celebration planned at work. I was relieved when a colleague finally came to me and said “well, I guess we should be planning a party, what would you like?”. We’d recently celebrated the retirement of a wonderful woman who had been supporting our work for many years. We recognized her retirement by gathering together in a pub not far from our offices, raising a glass, speaking a few words of acknowledgement, and chatting with people not seen in a long time as well as those who work in close proximity day to day. That was clearly the easiest kind of retirement party to organize; locate the right pub, generate an invitation list (I’ll talk about that in a minute), send out e-mails and make some phone calls … tada … party organized.
The relief that I felt reflected some personal insecurities for sure, but it was also based on the fact that we’ve had so many changes in our team in the past year (shrinking from 8 to 3 and now finally back up to 7; and …add to that mix 4 different managers). One of the results of these shifts is that the people who have long-term close working relationships with me and who would have planned a fabulous send-off are gone and the people who have taken on the organizing of this event are less closely tied to my work … or me. Of course I support an option that won’t be too much work for anybody else and I appreciate any efforts that are made to make my leave-taking special.
I was asked for a list of people to invite. There’s the general mailbox at work; that goes out to all of the other Ministry employees. Who else should be on that list; who should be enticed to drop whatever it is that they’re doing on October 23rd and come sit in a pub, raise a flaggon, and cheer my departure? Close family who’d want to be there, and who could do it with ease, were of course top of the list. Then it was another walk down memory lane, with my address book charting the path. It’s a long alphabet! I started with the As and as I looked at each name it was an opportunity for another of those culling procedures: pause and think about this person; remember the things we did/accomplished/didn’t do together; give myself time to conjure up images from days gone by; and then decide. Invite them? Keep them in the address book? Delete them? Now there’s a phrase! In education we used the term “declared redundant” for a long time and I always had a little shiver when I thought about what that meant. To be declared superfluous, no longer needed or wanted. Pales in the light of what to be deleted would mean. Okay – back to the tale. By the time I finished this exercise I’d added another 20 or so names to the list. These were people who I’d once worked closely with, who I’d shared living with, but hadn’t seen for a while. I had also begun the process of up-dating the address book so that it would only include the people from the past that I want to keep as part of the future. This is in no way a statement about anyone’s value; just a reflection of whether or not the relationship is one that will be sustained when I move on to a new phase of life. Another interesting experience for sure.
And then something shifted. Last night, talking with a previous colleague and friend for life (I hope), I was caught by surprise when she said that she’d received the invitation to the pub party and was really disappointed by it. “After all“, she said, “you’ve been there a long time and you’ve made significant contributions … there just isn’t very much honouring in this“. I hadn’t really thought of that. She went on to talk about how her school board celebrates the retirement of educators who have given years of their lives and invested their energy and hearts in teaching. “I don’t want a party in a cafeteria” she said, “I remember when people were really honoured with gracious events that reflected their contributions and an appreciation for what they had accomplished. No cafeteria party for me – I am planning my own celebration!” She then went on to share quite detailed planning she’d already done for the kind of event that she would like to have to, as she put it, celebrate herself. She wasn’t sure of the date of the party yet, but knew just what it would be.
Celebrate myself! That’s an interesting idea for sure. My first response in our conversation about this was that it was a great idea, I’d never had a party that celebrated me. Oops – that isn’t quite true. When I turned 39 my daughter (with some help from her brothers I hope) organized a most amazing birthday party for me. For many years I have, from time to time, hosted a “kumzitz”; that’s the yiddish term for a party where people literally “come and sit” and they do so with guitars, banjos and percussion instruments in hand and voices ready to join in harmony and delight. Conjures up images of a hootenanny. Nili – who was 14 at the time – invited a lot … really a lot … of my friends to a backyard BBQ kumzitz; she told people what food to bring , organized it all without my involvement, and threw this magnificent birthday party. We sat outside on blankets on the lawn singing until the wee hours of the beautiful, summer night. It doesn’t get much better than that. The funny thing about this party is that I do believe we had it when I turned 39; so anxious about the idea of turning 40 that I mixed up the years.
And of course there are the two weddings that I’ve planned. I’ve actually had three, but my parents planned the first one and it somehow felt like it was more about them than about me (Mom, if you’re reading this, don’t get me wrong … it was a lovely wedding). The other two weddings I got to plan – and cook for – myself. Wonder if there’s something deeper lurking here; do I need to reinforce my sense of value by throwing myself a party every “x” years? I might want to have a conversation with David about this so that we can bypass the need to end our wonderful marriage so that I can have another party. Those wedding parties were in a way celebrations of me; they included a toast to the bride which was truly an honouring and blessing.
A little background contextualizing. I’m the second of four daughters born in my family. I’m not the oldest or the youngest. I’m the one born after the holocaust; the one born into a family struggling to make sense of the world and rebuild trust in people. One of the results of the accident of birth order for me is that I’ve pretty much always been the overlooked one in the family (please understand that I am not complaining about this, criticizing the parenting I received, laying any sort of blame at all); the one who had no bat-mitzvah celebration, no sweet 16. Indeed, the first event that was really a focus on my achievement was the day that I got my Bachelor of Education degree. Let me tell you about that – it’s a good story.
I didn’t go to my high school graduation – being a hippy it was just a representation of a repressive world I didn’t value. When I got my B.A. I was living in California and didn’t have the money to fly back to Canada for a graduation event. I got my B.Ed. when I was back to living in London, Ont (for a few years) and it struck me that I’d never given my parents the opportunity to – as we say – kvell over my accomplishments. So, I decided I should go to this one. In those days, there was a room near the graduation hall in which the flowers – beautiful bouquets of roses (usually) which were sent by proud family members – were held until the end of the ceremony. I had no plan to visit that room; my parents, being immigrants, weren’t too apprised of these Canadian traditions. Much to my surprise friends started coming to me and telling me that there was, indeed, something in the flower room for me. I should have known from the giggles in their voices and the twinkle in their eyes that there was more to this than just going in to find my bouquet of roses. And indeed, there was, because what was waiting for me was a large, potted plant. I guess my parents thought that flowers would just wilt and die and that a plant was a longer-lasting, and therefore more fitting, tribute. So, the rest of the afternoon celebration involved me lugging this heavy, potted plant around as I shared congratulations with peers and friends. The only photos of that graduation show two legs sticking out beneath a black gown, and two hands circling a large pot anchoring some lovely green foliage – there were no digital pictures taken then (actually, because I was the subject of the photos and not the photographer there were likely no photos taken at all) so here’s the best I can do to give you a sense of my afternoon at graduation. Ah – such is my life.
Back to the issue of planning my own party – at least as a fantasy. It would be held either in my home or in a lovely setting that has some real meaning in my life. There would be fabulous food and good wine. I’d invite all of my family and friends and they’d be there because they were happy for me. I would have a chance to tell them all how much they mean to me, how important they are to me, how much I’ve appreciated the many, many ways they have offered their love and support to me and encouraged me when I felt that I was getting nowhere or contributing nothing. I would be able to let them know that I’m absolutely aware of the fact that without them my live would be less; less fulfilling, less purposeful, less productive. It would be a celebration of me – and all of the people that I love that are, in fact, a part of “me”.
When I’ve planned other parties I’ve often asked others how they did similar celebrations, asked them to share their ideas based on the parties they’ve thrown and the ones they’ve been to that really stood out in their memories. If you could help me with your ideas, your experiences, your “best retirement parties” or even just “best party” memories that would be great. Between your ideas and mine I’ll be able to plan just what I want. Of course, you’ll all be invited!