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Leaving Cloud 9

The decision

"I feel as though I'm signing a permission slip for brain surgery," I told the marketing person, as I wrote the check for my deposit. She was a delightful woman who understood the terrible trauma of making such a life-changing decision.

"That's the first line of your next essay, Marian," she said.

She knew I was a writer and had already recruited me to help edit the retirement center's newspaper.

I wasn't serious when I first visited Pinecrest Place. I attended a luncheon with some other ladies from my condo, listened to a talk about retirement living, toured the facilities and came home with beautiful brochures.

I liked everything I saw, and said that I would certainly consider it some day, but not yet. A year or so later, I was invited to breakfast, thought about it some more and said, "Not yet." My three sisters went with me to another place and, if I had agreed, would have signed me in then and there. I said, "Not yet."

Suddenly I asked myself, "How will I know when it's "yet'?"

I made a list of reasons I should consider making this move.

I'm 81. I have had a mild stroke. Although I still drive, that won't be forever. I don't want to live with my children, and I'm sure they wouldn't want me living with them. I am very lax about cooking and really don't eat right. I dislike eating alone in a restaurant, and I'm sick of frozen dinners. When one Sunday dinner was a peanut butter sandwich, I said to myself, "Marian, it's "yet.' "

I made another list of the benefits. Well-balanced meals, transportation provided to anywhere in the county; a nurse on call at the pull of a cord; planned activities which I could join if I chose to; cleaning and laundry service; a private apartment with my own furniture and telephone; freedom to come and go just as I do now. I tried to list what I would give up. I could think of nothing.

I talked to my children. They said, "Great idea!"

I asked my doctor. He said, "I think it would be a wise move."

"But do you think I might go downhill with so little responsibility?"

He said, "You? No way!" That was encouraging.

I planned to be very sensible about this. I visited five other retirement communities. One was too far from my church, friends and writing club, though it was lovely. Two places were a little small with fewer residents. In a community with a large census, I would be more apt to find people of like interests and who might like me. I was sure I would like the one next to a college, especially since residents were invited to take courses or attend lectures. But I was disappointed when I visited. There was very little activity that I could see.

"Where are all the residents?" I asked my host. I hoped he would say "They're at a lecture on anthropology" or "Practicing line-dancing."

"Probably taking naps," he explained. "They usually do every afternoon."

Feeling 10 years older immediately, I crossed the place off my list and went back again to Pinecrest. On this visit I saw a room full of bridge players, men shooting pool, ladies digging in the rose garden and someone in the swimming pool. I checked the large calendar in the lobby and, yes, there was a line-dancing class.

My son and daughter went with me to visit, and took the tour. I knew the decision was up to me, but I valued opinions from their viewpoint. They liked everything they saw, so ...

"This is it," I told them.

The next step was to sign my intent, pay a deposit expressing my choice of an apartment and put my condo up for sale.

Selling my home was going to be emotional. My husband and I bought the apartment eight years ago and had fun furnishing it. He died after three years; it was going to be sad to leave.

Once I signed with a Realtor came the difficult part _ divesting myself of stuff.

I decided to take three rooms of furniture: living room, bedroom and study.

So it was time to give away things like my beautiful Franciscan wear china; this to the granddaughter whose middle name is mine. Pfaltzgraf pottery will go to another granddaughter, Corelle wear to another.

I'll keep service for four of the Corelle as I will have a kitchen. A hanging shelf made by my son at Boca Ciega shop class in 1955 went to his grandson, who has his name. It held my collection of little pitchers; now it holds toy trucks.

My roll-top desk, an entertainment center, stacks of records and a turn-table, a television, a tea cart, two chairs, cookware, stainless steel flatware, bed linen and towels _ all will find homes with my grandchildren. They'll be delivered by my grandson with his pick-up truck.

It's the "stuff" that's left that was the problem. I had boxes of snapshots, pictures of mountain views and other scenery from trips we took. Were they taken in Arizona? New England? Or was this from that time in France, and who on earth are these people? Was this taken from the top of the Prudential Building, the World Trade Center or the Eiffel Tower? I was cruel. I say, "Look, you were there. You enjoyed all the trips to these places with Bill. They are a part of your memory. No one else cares about seeing these pictures. Out they go."

So out they went _ stacks of pictures. And so it went. A bag full of income tax statements with receipts for several years (torn up, of course), high school graduation announcements, band concert programs from junior high school, wedding invitations (even of people long since divorced). Tons of clothes and books.

Then I hit another bump. Should I include our 50th wedding anniversary cards received 10 years ago at our reception? With a deep breath, I was cruel again.

"Marian, you had the 50 years of marriage plus five more. You have the memory of that wonderful celebration. You no longer need the cards. Out!"

I was proud of my courage and fortitude.

I was left with specific piles or boxes: (1)

Throw in trash, (2)

let children see before throwing in trash, and (3)

keep even though should throw in trash.

This last included letters and notes written 55 years ago by my Bill, my son's first piano recital program and, yes, I kept some travel pictures _ those taken of Bill and me in Paris, in Boston, in Hawaii or on a mesa in Utah.

Closets have been culled, housekeeping equipment has been downsized, excess furniture assigned and earmarked, keepsakes have been distributed, destroyed or refiled.

Now I waited for a buyer.

The sale

We called it "Cloud Nine," Penthouse No. 9 on the top floor of Otter Key Condominium. "Marian and Bill are on Cloud Nine" our new-home announcements read. But I have been alone on Cloud Nine for five years, and it's time for me to make a change.

I loved my apartment at Otter Key. So, although I hoped for a buyer, I think I secretly wished no one would want it. With the help of a real estate friend, I went through the listing process, enumerating the qualities and setting a price.

+++++++

As I walked people through, I was more and more impressed with my home as mention was made of things I've taken for granted.

"Such a cozy room!" one man says of the second bedroom, which had become our study. Two comfortable chairs, a sofa and desk plus a television furnished our little retreat.

"Yes, isn't it?" I said, smiling and trying to look attentive.

Suddenly I am back in the years following our retirement. Bill's trips as a wholesale plumbing salesman had ended. He no longer had to leave the house for an early breakfast with a customer. For many years I opened the high school library at 6:45 a.m. No more. Instead we sat here in the study mornings, and lingered over coffee. We took our time with the morning paper, trading the sections as we finished them, calling attention to an item or reading aloud a news story, with the Today show as background. Sometimes we were still there for the Phil Donahue program or Regis and Kathie Lee, and the air was sweet with contentment.

"Yes, isn't it?" I repeat, and I remember that I'm showing my apartment to a very pleasant man. So, with a glance at Bill's million-dollar sales trophies on the wall and a mental note about packing them, I lead him out of the study.

He likes my breakfast room, though I wonder how long he'll keep my Pennsylvania Dutch wallpaper.

"This is a lovely long room," he says of the living and dining area. "Yes, it is a nice room, very versatile _ one can do a lot with it."

When we sold our four-bedroom home where we raised our two children and five foster children and moved to an apartment, Bill refused to give up hosting our family Thanksgiving. We borrowed long tables from the clubhouse, placed them end-to-end and, with borrowed chairs, we had our last and best dinner party. We moved out or pushed back furniture and seated 27 of our wonderful family at one long table with Dad at the head. Children, grandchildren and greats were all there. That Thanksgiving dinner was the initiation and blessing of our retirement home.

"A very happy, long room," I said quietly to myself.

Otter Key is on Cross Bayou, with a beautiful view. Everyone who comes in the apartment door heads straight for the balcony to see a panorama of the bayou and preserve. "What a view," the gentleman says, and he stands there in awe.

"You should see the sunset _ and the birds at dusk ... " I feel as though I'm babbling, so I am quiet.

"I've got to stop this," I admonish myself. "I'm selling this apartment. If I want someone to buy it, I mustn't act as though I can't give it up."

We move on to the bedroom, which has the same view. I resolve to try to do better, but in spite of myself, I see Bill during his last illness, in his hospital bed by the windows. He loved the bayou and used to enjoy the balcony, where he'd watch for an occasional solitary fisherman in a rowboat. But now I see son Bill holding him up in bed, supporting him from behind with his own body. Blinds are all the way up and curtains held back.

"I see a rowboat," said Bill. "There are two men fishing."

"You're right," lied son Bill. "You have good eyes, Dad."

They sat together, watching the scene for a time. Then, gently, he lay him down again. I hear music. Crowded into the bedroom is Bill's little electric organ and our daughter is playing his favorite hymns while our granddaughter plays her flute.

In the present once more, I realize the music is gone. I must not be sad. Bill had the bayou and now he doesn't need it, nor do I. I must not lose my focus. I'm selling my apartment because I'm moving ahead, not back.

My bedroom is different now. The hospital bed is gone, as is the electric organ. My computer, desk and file take over much of the room, just as it has taken over much of my life since I've been alone. Writing is important to me now, and Bill would be proud.

Back to the present. This is a very fine gentleman looking at my beloved home. If he should decide to buy it, I will be happy to turn it over to him. My sense is that he is pleased.

+++++

The good gentleman did like it and wanted it. I turned him and the agent over to son Bill. I learned his name was George and I liked him. When he said, "I'll tell you, Marian, it was love at first sight," I knew he was the one and I didn't feel bad at all. We shook hands and he made a joke about widows and I promised to introduce him.

I felt lighthearted, as though I was really free to pack and move now. I promised myself a trip to New York to see my three sisters and attend my brother's 90th birthday. My son would handle the closing. When I returned in a month, it would be to my apartment at Pinecrest Place.

I could leave the home I loved _ the retirement nest I shared with Bill. I was ready for my new adventure.

I said goodbye to my bayou, and to Penthouse No. 9 _ one room at a time. The beloved scenes will go with me _ the crowded, rollicking living room on Thanksgiving, the quiet study, the way my children and foster children showed their love for their dad.

New beginnings

I wanted to do this myself. I chose when I would go to a retirement community.

Now this was the day. My children offered to accompany me, but I was determined to go alone to begin this new chapter of my life. The moving men were in the apartment, my grandson was with them, and there was nothing more for me to do.

"This is it, David. I'm off to Pinecrest Place."

"Okay, Nana, I'll see you there." His cheerfulness soothed, a little, my unease at leaving a known for an unknown at my age.

It was only five miles to Pinecrest Place from St. Petersburg, my hometown of more than 50 years. But it was Largo, and that made it seem far.

I had signed my lease and picked up my keys the day before, so I parked, unloaded from my car plants, food and other things not packed and entered my new home. The guard met me with, "Hello, Marian," took the things out of my arms and put them into a cart. He had been expecting me!

On the eighth floor, a large sign greeted me: WELCOME, MARIAN FINDEISON, TO THE PINECREST FAMILY, APT. 820.

That was encouraging. Seeing the St. Petersburg Times on the floor at my door assured me I was home.

The moving went smoothly with David's help. He's an attorney but can lift, fix, carry, undo or change anything, and he did all those things for his grandmother with remarkable patience.

In late afternoon, after David left, I sat wondering how I was going to face my new community. It was stage fright! I considered not going to the dining room for a few days until I knew someone. There was a knock on my door. It was Ginny, the staff member who had helped and advised me from the beginning.

"Ready to go down for dinner?"

"Oh, yes," I said. "Will you go with me?"

"Of course I will," said Ginny.

While standing at the door viewing the whole dining room, I remembered a comedian's description of a roomful of white heads. "A lovely field of dandelions gone to seed," he said.

I laughed to myself. "Well, here comes another dandelion!"

I had seen the dining room on my previous visits but it seemed different because it was my dining room now.

I was scared to death. Suppose no one wanted my company. I thought of my daughter shyly entering grade school in Florida after moving from the North. I thought of my son's face when I left him, 8-years-old, sitting on his bunk at summer camp, as he tried so hard to be brave. It's not fun being the new kid on the block. I might have turned and run back to my apartment, but I saw the lovely young hostess coming toward me and I remembered I wasn't alone.

Ginny spoke to her. "Heather, this is Marian. Today is her first day."

She led me as though I were an honored guest to a table of three ladies. "Ladies, this is Marian. May she join you?"

They smiled, and I felt comfortable at once. Conversation was immediate and enthusiastic with "Where are you from?" "Where were you from originally?" and "How long have you been here?" They helped me fill out my menu; explained that you could always have a baked potato, no matter what was on the menu.

Getting to know the ladies was delightful, and I still had about 500 more people to meet. I enjoyed my dinner and couldn't help contrasting the food with what I had been cooking (or not cooking) for myself.

Back in my apartment I knew I was really on my own. I peeped out my door into the long, green-carpeted hall. All the residents were safe and snug in their own nests and I felt like an orphaned bunny in a rabbit warren.

Sitting among boxes of Tupperware, table linens, cooking utensils and dishes, none of which I needed here, I thought longingly of my kitchen in my condo at Otter Key.

I was homesick. I missed my familiar bathroom, my special shower. My things were still packed here and there, and I was tired. I began to be sorry for myself.

Then my daughter arrived like a ray of sunshine.

"I've come to make your bed," she said.

Bless her heart, she was just what I needed. She knew the corners of the fitted sheets were a problem for my awkward fingers since my stroke. "And here's a wreath I made for your door. I'll hang it for you."

She helped me find my personal things, then sat with me while we visually placed or replaced my furniture so that I would have a plan when the maintenance man came to help me the next day.

She left me feeling much better. I tried my new shower, then took time to thank the Lord for his direction and guidance in this new step in my life. I was really tired when I crawled into my bed with its familiar sheets and wedding-ring quilt.

The sunrise awoke me. After eight years of sunsets, it was a novelty to see the early morning sun. It filtered through the trees and lit up the Pinellas Trail beneath my balcony.

The first few days were exciting. There was a visit from the housekeeper to set up my cleaning schedule and a visit from the nurse to get acquainted. I walked around the campus of my new home and found places of interest: the library, the hairdresser, the exercise room, the garden room, the Home Health office, the billiard room, the shop, the reception room and the wonderful, multipurpose room. Then I sat by the pool and enjoyed the flowers.

Determined not to go downhill from lack of responsibility I thought I had to keep busy. I soon realized I had to plan my activities and not try to do everything that was offered. I settled on a weekly hairdresser appointment, chair exercises three times a week, and I never miss Friday's line-dancing classes.

I go to Publix on the Pinecrest bus on Wednesday, the To Your Health weekly seminars, Monthly Resident Mixers and Monday Morning Breakfast Club. Special things like Ruth Eckerd Hall, Performing Arts Center, I'll plan as they come along.

If I go downhill, it won't be from boredom. Advice to the elderly is "Keep moving!" But it doesn't say, "Don't ever rest!" So I still make time for reading and my writing.

By now I'm settled in, still independent and with complete privacy in my apartment. This is home. My furniture is placed almost the same as at Otter Key in my bedroom and living room. In my study, family photos and Bill's award trophies are hung above my computer and bookcases.

I gave a family party with 15 of my children and grandchildren. No housewarming gifts were allowed. Instead, everyone had to take something home, so I got rid of the Tupperware, cooking utensils and dishes.

Ten years ago Bill visited the homebound from our church at Pinecrest Place and was enthusiastic about it. "Marian, someday we might consider going there." So I have his approval for my move.

If I have any heartache, it is that I had to come alone. Bill would have loved it here. But when I see other couples, I'm not resentful or jealous. I've learned to say to myself, "I'm so happy you have each other."

Every staff member and the guard knows me by name and uses first names. I like that. I like the safety bars and seat in my shower, the pull cord for emergency in each room, the transportation anywhere in the county when I can no longer drive my car.

This is not a commercial for Pinecrest Place. There are many retirement homes like this one. It is simply the story of one senior lady who made the decision to move to a retirement community.

The friends I've made say that although it was a difficult choice to make, they are glad they did it. For me, it is my New Continuing Adventure.

You know, I believe I'm getting, not older, but better. At my family's Christmas party at the Yacht Club I line-danced Achy Breaky Heart and did the "Macarena" on the dance floor with the crowd. No one else in my family could do it. Not even my grandchildren!

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