A Retirement Odyssey
by John Malone
People choose retirement locations for all sorts of reasons. According to AARP statistics, ninety percent of retirees choose to “age in place” and stay where they are. Christa and I tried that for a while.
We returned home to the Washington, DC area in 1991, after my three-year pre-retirement 'swan song' as World Bank representative in Malawi, a small country in Southern Africa. We still had a nice brick and redwood contemporary on a corner lot in Mt. Vernon, Virginia originally bought in 1967 for $53,000. We had done some remodeling as the family grew over the years, and then again as the children began to leave the nest. When I finally retired from the Bank to take up part-time consulting, we did a major upgrade, thinking that we, too, would prefer to “age in place.”
A few years later, with the help of a therapy group and our parish priest, I was able to emerge from a typical “male menopause” job and identity crisis to conceive of myself as something other than Mr. Malone, the ex-World Bank executive.
I chose to be just plain John, the Volunteer. For a year I donned a bright green jerkin every morning and registered outpatients at the Mt. Vernon Hospital, a couple of miles from home. I was finally free from the daily commute through Washington’s notorious rush-hour traffic. Then I was recruited by a local non-profit providing subsidized housing and family services to low-income, single working mothers. As a new board member and part-time grant writer, I put my writing and organizational skills to work for a good cause. But if I no longer made the daily trek to the World Bank, why stay in Northern Virginia, with its worsening pollution, crime, and drug scene; endless traffic jams and mushrooming population? It bore little resemblance to the place where we started out in 1963.
Christa and I then began a series of ever-widening searches and experiments designed to find the one perfect retirement location that would suit both of us. We still had “the ranch,” a vacation home in Canaan Valley, WV. It was a weekend get-away from the city with a big workshop and stained-glass studio for Christa. But the thought of spending the mountain winters there, deep in the snowy woods and fifteen miles from the nearest town, made us shiver.
One day, we came upon the scene of a highway accident and stood by, horrified, while the local volunteer “first responders” arrived way too late to save the victim. Then our nearest neighbor had a heart attack and waited almost an hour for the rescue squad to reach him. He died on the way to the hospital. That did it.
We put the place on the market and accepted the first decent offer. Driving home on I-66 from a beautiful fall weekend in the woods after signing the contract, Christa suddenly burst into tears. “I can’t go through with it. I love the place, the kids love it and we have too many memories. I just can’t let it go.”
I knew how much she loved our house, so I didn’t argue. I spotted a blue sign, “Rest Area 2 Miles,” and pulled off the interstate, stopping by the public phone. We called our realtor, who fortunately still had the contract. Christa tearfully explained our inability to part with our beloved hideaway. The agent was angry that we had wasted his time, but a year or so later, when we changed our minds again, he agreed to re-list the house for us after carefully making sure that, this time, we would really sell it. It took a couple of years to sell while we experimented with wintering in Florida.
In 1994, we rented a house in the Florida Keys near a retired State Department couple we had befriended in Malawi. We loved that first winter in the Keys, and in 1995 we bought a place of our own, with a boat dock on open water and a back-yard swimming pool.