Eventually, we thought about giving up our apartment near the city and living full-time in the country. To do that we needed jobs in the area. One Sunday we saw an ad for the English Chair at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York, about 40 minutes north of our weekend home. We decided we would both apply for the position, and, if either of us got the job, we could become full-time residents. Amazingly, we were both called for interviews – on the same day – at 10:00 and 11:00. I went first, and on my way out I whispered to Jim, “It’s your job. They have union troubles.”
Jim had been the United Federation of Teachers’ (UFT) chapter chairman before becoming an administrator. The selection committee at Hudson Valley Community College put three names before the board: Jim’s, mine and that of a third candidate. We waited several months to hear the results. I was number two. They named Jim Chairman of the English Department.
Thus, our weekend house became our year-round home. Two years later when we were on vacation in Ireland, Jim called his secretary, Lorraine, from a phone booth on a windy Rosses Point in County Sligo. For an unassuming man with his own demons and insecurities, that call was special. Jim had applied for another position at the college. Lorraine told him that he had been named Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He looked so proud and happy, and I was thrilled for him. To celebrate, he said, “Buy yourself a present.”
“Get something for yourself,” was typical of Jim. At times his reluctance to celebrate or buy gifts for me or for anyone else made me ‘nuts.’ I, on the other hand, loved to give him presents: books, pipes, trips, clothes and even tractor mowers. When it came to buying presents or to writing poetry, he had to be perfect – certainly never wanting. Would that he had written more.
His forgetting my 50th birthday was particularly painful. I remember looking at him just before I left for work, saying, “Would you please wish me a Happy Birthday?” He grimaced. Don’t ask me how he managed it, but within minutes, I was feeling sorry for him because he was feeling guilty about having forgotten.
Even though I had applied for the chairman’s job at HVCC, within three years of earning my PhD in education I wearied of the school business. I resigned my administrative position and took a job as a recruiter with a personnel agency in Manhattan. Despite welcoming the change, I was terrified of leaving my job, my profession and working on commission.
My mother’s reaction was, “What are you making? Nothing?”
Always my supporter, Jim said, “You’re the gutsiest broad I know.” And added, “Don’t worry. We’ll be fine.”
He was right.
I enjoyed personnel work; it was fast-paced, required listening, planning, problem-solving, motivating, involved no committees, and I felt I had a more immediate impact on someone’s life. But once Jim was working full-time at the college, I began looking for work upstate because the six-hour, round-trip, scenic commute into the city by car and rail was expensive and exhausting. In time we commuters came to know each other very well; we knew who slept, worked or chatted on the ride into Manhattan. We even organized a picnic for commuters and trainmen at Claremont Park. Around the holidays, regular passengers brought chocolate truffles and wine.
Occasionally I stayed over in our rental apartment near the city. Over the years Jim and I were rarely apart – so few times, in fact, that I can name them: obligatory work-related retreats and conferences – in Saratoga for Jim and Williamstown, Lakeville and Gettysburg for me; overnight hospital stays in Dublin, Hilton Head and Boston and Jim’s trip to Ireland. We preferred each other’s company.
Whenever we were apart, I phoned Jim to catch up on the day’s events. One night he said, “The mosquitoes are merciless. I have been clearing the yard, and I’m covered with bites. Frankly, I’m not feeling well.” The next day when I returned home, I saw that Jim’s itch was not caused by insect bites. He had a rash from poison ivy. Mosquitoes? Poison ivy? What mattered to Jim was the bottom line – he itched.
After one awful 11-hour round-trip train ride, my half-hearted job search upstate became more aggressive. While I thoroughly enjoyed what I was doing in personnel, we weren’t living in a ‘wired’ society yet, and the commuting was wearing.
We were able to let go of the apartment when I was hired as Personnel Director for an educational services organization about 35 minutes from home. The organization provided shared services to school districts. Along with my Human Resources duties, I had an opportunity to design handbooks, create a recruiting fair as well as several educational seminars for administrators.
One day, the superintendent of one of the participating districts spoke to me privately, “Would you be interested in the position of Assistant Superintendent in my district?” I said, “Yes.” She added, “I am going to speak to your Superintendent and ask for you to apply,” and she added, “And I want you to act surprised when he tells you.” I said, “I will.” Mistake! I should have consulted Jim.
A month or so went by, my boss called me into the office and told me about the position, and I did as I had promised – I acted surprised. I applied, was appointed and became operationally responsible for the district during a political ‘mess.’ We reopened the pool and the library, scheduled assemblies, put student artwork in the halls, organized a major outdoor event, hired new staff and encouraged team teaching. It was a great and gratifying challenge.
However, my former boss had a long memory and didn’t forgive. He learned that I had known I was going to be recruited and was livid that I had been dishonest with him and had misplaced my loyalty. So when the Superintendent’s position in the district became available, and the school board put my name forward, I was told that my previous boss told the school board in no uncertain terms that he would oppose my candidacy. While the board had given me authority and supported my recommendations for change in the district, they acceded to his position. No surprise. But I was devastated. After the initial shock, I began looking for jobs elsewhere. Jim came with me on the interviews. But I realized that, even though the names changed, the public school business was the same.
One night we were home sitting by the fire. “Why don’t we move to Ireland?” For years afterwards, we debated which of us had had the ‘epiphany.’ It was to become our final great adventure – and ‘great’ it was.
Why Ireland? When we first met, Jim talked of his ‘love-hate’ relationship with the country. In 1976, I bought him a present of a round-trip ticket for a two-week vacation during the Easter break. Tears came to his eyes when I surprised him with a model of an Aer Lingus plane and his ticket. He flew to Ireland, traveled around the country and saw his Uncle Jack for the last time.
Three years later Jim and I went on a two-week vacation to Ireland – my first trip. I loved the country, the blue and gray skies, the openness and warmth of the people, the lush countryside. We saved our money and our vacation days and went to Ireland for our annual two-week vacations as often as we could. One year on the way to the airport, I gave Jim a gold self-winding watch for his birthday.
Our half-joke about relocating to Ireland became a reality. Even though his pension was small, Jim was old enough to retire and did, and he was champing at the bit to leave. I, however, needed a few more weeks at work to ensure my pension rights. When I gave notice, we put our house and car on the market, arranged for the driveway to be plowed and for friends to watch the house. Sadly our cat, Mulligan, had disappeared one night. We arranged for our new cat, Molly, to be adopted by a friend – who promptly flew with her to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Over the years, we had Daedalus, Blazes, Mulligan and Molly – all Joycean cats. Guess who named them?
As eager as I was to try our six-month ‘adventure,’ I felt guilty leaving my aging parents and my daughter Ellen, who was now living in New York after having graduated from Vassar. I remembered justifying the decision by saying, “We have to do this now, because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Another extract from Part One of DIGNIFYING DEMENTIA will be published next week.