“After the Children Leave,” Ensign, June 1988, 32
Our son had just turned fifty-one. He was worrying about being a first-time grandfather soon to face the empty-nest period of life. Only a few months ago, he wrote us after a visit, “It’s hard for me to understand that things have really changed. I suppose that I believed deep down that life would remain the same. Somehow, though, it has advanced, and now my wife and I are like the way I once remembered you—only I don’t feel as I used to think you felt. You seemed so wise and—old; and, well, I feel the way I’ve always felt.”
Though intellectually and emotionally we may feel the same, the time comes when we must drop out of some of life’s races and reexamine our lives and marriages from the context of our mature years.
I think President Brigham Young gave us some fine advice for this situation when he said: “Prepare to die is not the exhortation in this Church and Kingdom; but prepare to live is the word with us, and improve all we can in the life hereafter, wherein we may enjoy a more exalted condition of intelligence, wisdom, light, knowledge, power, glory, and exaltation. Then let us seek to extend the present life to the uttermost.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, John A. Widtsoe, comp., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1954, p. 186.)
Those of us couples whose children are on their own have a chance to refurbish our marriages in preparation for our eternal destiny. For us, the ultimate goal, eternal life, is no longer a far-off destination.
Rodney and LeNeve Kimball know a great deal about marriage: theirs has lasted for fifty-three years. They think that the criterion for living together successfully after retirement is formulated during the preceding years. Rod says that if a marriage is floundering, twenty-four hours a day is not enough time to improve it, unless the couple recognizes the danger flags and makes a determined effort to shift from a temporal to an eternal perspective. With this in mind, they have worked all those fifty-three years at enjoying each other’s company and buoying each other up.
Because Rod’s work often took him away from home, the Kimballs appreciated the time they had together. Although LeNeve accepted the separations as part of his job, she never grew used to his being gone. She confesses that one reason she missed him was because he is so considerate: “For example, he doesn’t limit himself to one gift on my birthday. I get about twenty birthday gifts during the year. In appreciation, when he left on business trips, I’d slip notes into his pockets so that he’d know I was with him in thought if not in person.”
The two have gotten along well all their married life, taking care not to let little annoyances grind on their nerves. As a result, when Rod’s retirement neared, they weren’t worried about being together most of the time.
From the beginning of their marriage, they have also cultivated their love for good books, drama, music, and sports. They established an active social life and kept involved with their children after they left home. They kept track of blessings, baptisms, priesthood advancements, and graduations. These things have helped them make the transition so that they haven’t had the problem of too much time and too little to do.
LeNeve sums up their approach to their golden years: “Our great expectations are the things fight under our noses: first each other, then the family, then the Church. We don’t separate them. The greatest gift we have given our children is the love Rod and I have for each other.”
One of the first steps in enriching a marriage after the children have gone is to be doers of things. Alice and Robert Rockwell are prime examples.
Alice cannot remember having a boring day—partly because she can’t remember when she wasn’t doing something. One thing she loves is writing poetry and short stories. She started to write when her children were young. Because her husband at first objected to her writing, she wrote after the rest of the family was asleep. She mailed the manuscripts to contests and magazines without telling anyone, and to her surprise, several won or were accepted for publication.
After the children had grown up, Alice and Robert started to attend all the fairs they could drive to—she for the paintings, ceramics, dolls, and handicrafts; he for the gardening exhibits. Alice admits, though, that rodeos were their “thing.” They took in all the rodeos they could find, and when rodeo season was over, they could hardly wait for the next season.
After her husband died, Alice continued to “do.” She took up oil painting, then watercolor. She also paints china plates. About five years ago, she started working in ceramics and began making porcelain dolls. She continues to crochet bedspreads. Alice is now over eighty.
Once, when a seven-year-old grandson visited, he looked around the Rockwell home with all its treasures and exclaimed, “Grandma, when I get old, I want to be just like you: a doer of things.”
Many of a couple’s skills can be expanded in later years. For instance, since their children have left home, Ruth and Merlin Johnson have centered much of their time on their doll business.
Merlin is the last person you’d expect to be interested in dolls. He is six-feet-two-inches tall and weighs 210 pounds. He hunts and fishes with his boys, gardens, and fixes everything. But it was he who started his wife in the doll business and joined in afterward.
Early in their marriage, Ruth took a class in making lace-draped ceramic dolls. She enjoyed it greatly, but then the teacher had an accident and could not teach. Because Ruth was so disappointed, Merlin put aside money until he could buy her a kiln. When he found out the price of molds for the greenware, he jokingly said, “You’re just going to have to sell some of these ceramics to afford this hobby.” And she did, putting all her sales money aside. Whenever she could afford a reproduction mold for a porcelain doll, she bought one. She estimates that she has made over five hundred dolls.
Over time, Ruth certified as an instructor of antique doll-making. She still sells dolls at Christmas, but teaches now as well. Merlin helped by remodeling their garage into a classroom. When pouring the slip into molds (the first step in doll-making) became difficult for Ruth, Merlin pitched in. Now he pours all the slip for his wife’s and her students’ greenware. Ruth currently teaches sixty students once a week in three different classes.
Merlin was also the one who became interested in buying original antique dolls, adding a new dimension to their hobby. He bought books and catalogs and learned to match the markings on dolls with originals. Ruth says that she is more practical: if they can’t afford an original, she can make a reproduction.
They are both pleased that they started their hobby before Merlin’s retirement. It has added zest to their lives, as well as a supplementary income.
When their son, Jay, was in college, the McNamaras decided that, since the children were grown, they’d give up their traditional Easter-egg hunt. Elmeda McNamara relates, “Our six-foot-two-inch son had a fit. He cried, ‘What do you mean, “No Easter-egg hunt”? Fine thing! No Easter-egg hunt!’ Needless to say, we continued hiding the eggs.”
The McNamaras realized that when their children married and left home, that did not leave them without children. They could enjoy many of the same activities with their grandchildren that they had with their children. Recalling how their own three children had enjoyed roller-skating and running their electric cars around the fireplace room in their basement, Harold and Elmeda decided to convert their whole lower floor into a haven for their grandchildren.
They didn’t do it all at once. First came a walk-in playhouse for the girls, then a train room. They followed that with a dress-up room with chests of old clothes and costumes. Then they added a mini-kitchen to help with parties for their children and grandchildren. Harold says that he’s afraid to get out of bed in the morning for fear that Elmeda will turn their bedroom into a playroom while he’s gone. Though the end result is impressive, it took years to produce. The McNamaras worked at a pace that didn’t overwork them and at a price they could afford.
When one of their grandchildren had to write a story for his third-grade class about his favorite holidays, he wrote: “I like Christmas because I get to go to Granma’s and have a Christmas party. I like Thanksgiving because I get to go to Granma’s and have Thanksgiving dinner. I like Halloween because I get to go to Granma’s and have a spook alley. I like Easter because I get to go to Granma’s and have an Easter-egg hunt. I like the 4th of July because I get to go to Granma’s and have fireworks. Valentine’s kinda fun.”
The McNamaras are convinced that staying involved with their family has enriched their married life. Harold says, “It’s fun to spend time with your children and grandchildren. If you can do a few things for them, it will make your own life more interesting and productive.”
The Church has a built-in structure designed to help older couples continue to learn together. Leland and June Johnson discovered this for themselves.
June was inactive through the early years of their marriage, and Leland was not a member. But one day, June’s Jewish aunt, the dean of women at a local high school, said to June, “Something puzzles me. Why don’t you go up the hill to your Mormon church? Every year we try to find LDS students to put in the homerooms because they are good leaders and they set fine examples. Are you missing something with your children?”
June never missed a Sunday meeting after that. She says, “It just turned me right around. Aunt Bertha wasn’t a member, but she had tremendous respect for LDS people.”
Both June and Leland regret the time they lost because June hesitated to bring the blessings of the gospel into their home. Leland became interested in the Church when he saw his wife and children improve their lives and realized how much the gospel meant to them. He joined the Church and has since been amazed at how it has helped their marriage. He says, “I can’t think of another organization that has so many things for the enrichment of the lives of older people as does the LDS Church: priesthood quorums, Relief Society, temple work, genealogy, missions, and Church work.”
The Johnsons feel that their growth during their older years has been due largely to their commitment to the gospel. They were sealed in the temple while their oldest son was on a mission. The Johnsons have also served a full-time mission. Leland points out that June has developed patience, as her patriarchal blessing (received when they left on their mission) promised; and June tells how Leland has learned to make inspired decisions and take the lead as family patriarch.
Missions offer wonderful opportunities for older couples. Husbands and wives can learn to work together more effectively, draw closer to their eternal goals, and accomplish something of tremendous value. Leonard and Katy Harris soon discovered the challenges—and rewards—of missionary work when they were called to the Kentucky Louisville Mission.
Leonard says, “We were pretty compatible before we left on our mission. Even so, it wasn’t easy being together twenty-four hours a day. Every so often, we had to stop and look at our lives and have talks about what was bothering us and what our needs were. We had to be open about our relationship and our work, to talk out problems so that we could solve them. We couldn’t do that alone. This was our mission, not her mission or my mission. Living the rest of our lives together is our major mission.”
Katy adds, “Sometimes, when an irritation seemed unbearable, we would find an empty room, get down on our knees, and pray that we wouldn’t be negative or critical, that we could say, ‘I’m sorry.’ I’m an organized person who wants things to go click, click, click. Leonard likes to play things more by ear. I was trained to supervise teachers, and I found that I pushed Leonard the wrong way. We had to learn how to work together.”
Leonard speaks of the joy they had on their mission: “We learned how to pool our strengths. Katy is strong in evaluation, and I think I’m better at spot decisions. When we learned how effective we were as a team in teaching the gospel through the Holy Ghost, the spiritual experiences we had were terrific!”
The Harrises learned how to resolve conflicts so that they could work together. As a result, they have learned to live with each other better as “civilians.” They find their life richer and more fulfilling because of their decision to serve a mission together.
There are many good things that can help us enjoy our senior years. The magic for us older couples is being able to be alone together; relying on each other; looking at each other and not seeing the wrinkles, the gray hair or bald head, but seeing the beauty we had when we were young—improved by the richness of the years we’ve spent together. The joy is being able to say, “I love you,” and know that we have spent a lifetime showing it.