Whenever Ernie laughed, he did so with his entire body, a knee-slapping, unrestrained, booming cackle that invited others to join the every-minute-of-every-day party he hosted for anybody who wandered by.
But eating corn on the cob made Ernie more philosophical: the more gnawed cobs, the more profound his utterances. During a six-cob session, he said the best thing about being old was no longer worrying about the expectations of others, but doing what he wanted. Furthermore, when he did so, people usually expressed amazement and appreciation.
Since his favorite activities were drinking beer and singing scandalous songs he learned in the Navy, I could believe people expressed amazement.
“I’m easier on myself now I’m old and retired,” he continued “I’m finally free to do things because I want to, not because I’m proving something to myself or others. At 68, I’m 200 pounds of blue-toned steel, and I can pee into the wind if I want.”
At the time, caught up in a whirlwind of goal achievement, I chuckled, but missed both Ernie’s point and the model he provided. He wasn’t offering toileting advice. Instead, his words and actions were saying that as you grow older and retire, you can laugh, create fun, and be kind to yourself. You can relax into the rhythm of the life you now have with no need to maintain your past self; and, if you take the time to look for delight and humor when young, they’ll be easier to find when you’re old.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, I had only a few years left to benefit from Ernie’s fun and wisdom. Too soon, I sat in a drab hospital room as he drifted in and out of sleep, watching his gnarled hands crawl the bed covers and listening to the shudders of his breath. I knew the day was fast approaching when I would join his family to drop flowers into his beloved Yuba River, which flowed through the Sierra Nevada Mountains as deeply and surely as his friendship and happy spirit flowed through our lives.
In memory of Ernie and to remind myself how to live well in retirement, each year I choose a summer day to eat corn on the cob and sing his favorite navy song—the one about Columbus and the cabin boy.
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