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Retirement by Jennifer Hubbard

               Fifi has taught me something that my students were never able to teach me (though they taught me a lot): she has taught me how to sit, just sit, and watch the world go by; she has taught me how to be. When I retired from teaching almost two years ago (a gift from my husband, the best gift ever), I did not know how little I would miss it.   I surprise myself, a person whose main identity was, for seventeen years, “English teacher,” by rarely recalling shining moments in the classroom. I can’t figure out why, exactly: maybe because teaching was such a major portion of my life, it is now as much as part of me as my skin is, which is why I hardly ever think, Oh, yes,there it is all over me.   It is inextricable—this skin, this teaching life—from who I am, so why deconstruct it? In retirement, days of solitude, like those I spent in the woods as a child, have been returned to me, and it is on those that I now choose to build.

My dog and I sit together on the front porch and watch leaves fall from the trees. The leaves are gold, the light is gold, everything, it seems, is gold in these early days of November just after the big election. We are quiet girls, I in my middle age, Fifi in her twilight years, and so spend our days in quiet pursuits. We step into the morning together and get the newspaper, we take our afternoon walk, and while I write poems, Fifi smells things and naps. Fifi, a stray who made our way to us years ago, does not bark. Whenever my husband drives her to her boarding place, she trots right on in, wagging her tail, and the report handed over at the end of her visit never varies: “Fifi’s favorite activity was lying in the sun.” She is lying in the sun now in the front yard, smiling, not barking. She is not a barker even though we live on an active street of dogs and their walkers.

While I’ve always been observant, I am now a watcher.  I watch how light moves across a space: a sloping roof, a chrysanthemum, my husband’s blue-gray eyes.   I can sit for hours on a bench or in a restaurant and study how people step in and out of shadows.  From a window of my house, I watch trees hold the morning and the evening, and although they are rooted, they never stand completely still.  Something on them or in them stirs, and they attend to it.

In her way, Fifi has presented to me what seemed before like drudgery (all those chalky lessons on introductory clauses, all those error-laden essays):  the beauty of routine, how it grounds us by returning us to a place over and over again.  Dogs understand this is a way that humans do not, although we all grow to love specific comforts even when they’re uncomfortable.  Only after I had spent nearly a year sneezing through the night did I give up my down-filled pillow.  Fifi, even though she has a bed of straw under the porch, chooses to sleep at the back door, outside but in her mind closer to us, the ones who come out that door every morning to greet her. 

My husband and I doubt that Fifi will make it through the winter; during cold spells, she struggles to make it around the block.  But our doubt has lessened since we took her up to our new mountain property two months ago.  Fifi felt it just as we did the first time we walked across this piece of land:  that we had (as John Denver sang) come home to a place we’d never been before.  Though in Charlotte Fifi appears to be on her last legs, out in the country she trotted for hours over rocks, through the creek, up and down hills.  She sat on the top of Burnt Shirt Mountain—at the very site where we plan to build our retirement home—and proceeded to look queenly. 

I had never before considered Fifi particularly regal.  Russian- peasant, yes; royal, no.  She has, by friends and strangers, often been likened to a cow.  One older gentleman in our neighborhood misheard and thinks her name is “Beefy.” Speaking of beef, I am reminded that Fifi saw a cow while on that mountain.  And she barked at it, this dog who has never barked at cats, at sirens, at doorbells, even at the mailman.  But she barked at this cow grazing in the field adjacent to our hillside.  Had Fifi never seen a cow before, or did something in her DNA kick in at a moment of recognition?  It wasn’t the first time I wished I knew what my dog was thinking.  She must have come not from bovine genes necessarily but from a place far removed from concrete and stoplights. 

Today, she seems perfectly at peace here on this city street with autumn drifting on her black and white coat, but on that afternoon two months ago, Fifi did not want to leave that mountain.  She actually sighed after she settled in to her place in the car.  I watched her do it.  My husband unrolled the back window for her, and until we reached the four-lane highway, she kept her nose in the air, sniffing.  It’s hard to appear regal sitting in a yard the size of a checkerboard, but now that the mountain has touched Fifi and Fifi has touched the mountain, she somehow manages it.   Although Fifi can no longer hear us call when she wanders too far down the sidewalk, I put my arm around her on this golden day and whisper in her ear, You will be restored your rightful throne.   Fifi and I smile quietly at one another, and I pat her head where the crown should be. 

 

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Jennifer Hubbard, a poet and playwright, asks you to support both your local SPCA and vintner.  Her parents met in California, and she sometimes wonders why they didn’t stay there, though she is happy to have a home in North Carolina in spite of the inferior quality of its wines.