He Was Joyous

Ernie on the riverWhenever 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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67 thoughts on “He Was Joyous

  1. Janet, with teary eyes I’ve read and re-read your words about Ernie. You captured his spirit and it’s remarkable that twenty-six years after he left us we still laugh and have so many stories about how he enriched our lives. He was a responsible and ethical man yet had the heart of a child when it came to enjoying life.

    My youngest daughter remembers an evening when he said “I’m in the mood for lemon meringue pie”. We piled into his tiny ancient Datsun, “high-balled” from Carson City to Marie Callendar’s in Reno, bought a pie, “high-balled” back to Carson City, and ate the entire pie. The memory is lasting because it was such a silly and fun-loving thing to do.

    One memory among so many. I took your picture of him one day after he called to say he was diagnosed with cancer. He was camped on the Yuba River, panning for gold. He told me, “don’t cry Mary, I’ve had such a good life”. He said how glad he was he’d retired at 62 and had enjoyed extra years of retirement, against advice from more logical thinkers.

    He loved the spontaneity that retirement gave him and you’ve reminded me again what freedom we have with retirement…..and how enriching life can be if we USE that freedom. He didn’t have monetary riches but he showed us how to have fun. Thank you, thank you, I needed that reminder

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    • Mercy, dear friend, your comment made me teary-eyed as well. How fortunate that we both knew this wonderful, wise, funny man and can help one another keep our memories of him fresh.

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  2. Okay, I cried too! Mary, I was thinking about your stories of him always delivering a box of rubber bands with any supply order. And of course, your cake! Janet, you will have to sing that song to me.

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  3. Although I didn’t know Ernie your description caused him to leap off the page, saunter into my backyard and take a seat at the picnic table—piled high with corn-on-the-cob of course.
    He could have been my husband’s beloved Uncle Ed, or my Uncle Clarence, recalling the days of WWII and dispensing wisdom about how to live life with gusto, and on your own terms.
    What a great idea, to dedicate a day each year remembering our wise elders who have passed by living in the moment and enjoying something they loved.

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  4. Aunt Janet, your description of Ernie brings back memories of Grandpa.I remember his laugh, his knee slap and his enjoyment of life. He was never afraid of what others thought. He enjoyed life, and showed it. I LOVE those memories!!

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    • Thank you for your comment. The older I get the more I believe that aging well depends on living well, not matter how old we were. Or, as Aunt Beulah put it, “Mean old people were probably mean young people.”

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  5. What a wonderful memorial. At 71, I am trying to be just like I imagine Ernie was. I love a good laugh, and corn on the cob, and beer. Thanks for sharing, and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. We need more of your type of blog.

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  6. Now that I am up there in years, I look at a lot who did not make it and there are tears. Soon I will give my regards to your Ernie, but I am in no rush, tell the sled dogs to go slow and not to mush.

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  7. What a joy to read! This past year I’ve seen four great people pass on, and after hearing eulogies that made me realize how amazing those lives were. I hope one day I too can have those stories read about me. Well wrote!

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    • We owe such a debt to those who helped shape us. I’m sorry you lost those great people, but happy you knew them. And I’m sure you are leaving wonderful stories in the hearts of your loved ones.

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  8. Now that’s an outlook on life I can get behind. Too bad retirement is too far off in the distance right now. I love the idea of living for yourself, like Ernie did in his retirement.

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    • During my early years as a teacher, I thought retirement was what happened to other people, because it was so far in the future. Then one day I received a clock and went home. You’re right, it’s better to enter retirement joyously and free of worrying about what others think, as Ernie did.

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      • I love that, you received a clock and then went home. It seems to sum up the whole process of a great achievement in a few words.

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    • It was so exciting to receive the news about FP and the responses, like yours have been wonderful. I can hear Ernie laughing about the excitement of my day, happy that he caused it! Thanks for you clever and kind response.

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  9. Love this so much! You are a beautiful story teller. I can’t wait to read more. Always a breath of fresh air to find a writer who writes from her heart, honestly. Thank you for sharing!

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    • Wow, Carrie, your words are words every writer enjoys hearing. Thank you for taking the time to tell me. (And you tapped into my secret identity. I have always thought of myself as a story teller!)

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  10. Beautiful story, thank you. In my twenties, I did as I pleased, roamed unafraid and never worried about money. Now getting old is a bit of a worry…but stories such as yours will get a girl through.

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  11. Today,
    It’e been two years since my uncle passed away. His laugh, his memories, his crazy obsession for all things abnormal, make me miss him even more.
    He was young when he died, a mere 42.
    He is missed by all of us as a person who you could turn to in times of distress, a person who will help you with issues related to your mistress, a person who never failed to make you see the light in the darkest days.
    But, his death changed something.
    I saw my family shatter before my eyes.
    My mom weeps till date remembering how easily God took away her only younger brother away from her.
    Trust me, its huge burden for me as a 16 year old to bear.
    But today, reading this paragraph you wrote about Ernie, makes me think that maybe death is just a door into a better world for those who were too good to stay.
    Thankyou for writing such soul stirring pieces.
    Thankyou.

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  12. Hi !

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    • Yes, it was. I find that when I’m truly writing from my heart, the words flow so easily and readers seem to respond as well. Thank you for reading my blog. I’ll pay a visit to yours.

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    • And I appreciate your well written comment, Cinique, and found the laughter outbreak in Tanzania interesting. Once at a picnic, my younger sister and I got the giggles and laughed so hard she blew a watermelon seed out her nose. It was the talk of the town. I’m glad you found my blog, and I will find yours soon.

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  13. It is amazing how someone who is gone never forgotten, at our quiet or even our loudest moments there word’s bring a sort of ease to life. As if they are looking at you at the moment or telling you something. A spiritual thing I would think.. Good Read

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