A short story about Julie Jackson’s retirement by Mina Wong
Julie Jackson and I first met at a public library concert two summers ago when she sat next to me. As four musicians belted out Mongolian love songs, Julie amazingly identified all the instruments, including obscure pipes that wailed impossibly high notes.
Julie introduced herself afterwards and asked how I had enjoyed the music.
“Very much. It’s stunning how pipes and drums could sing so much joy and sorrow”, I said.
After talking on the sidewalk for a long time, we agreed to meet sometime for coffee.
Julie is a retired medical secretary and caregiver to Carl, her elderly husband. They have always lived in a modest apartment on Harbord Street just west of Spadina Avenue in Toronto.
Three years ago, Carl developed severe muscle weakness and poor co-ordination that needed daily homecare and therapy, but Julie would continue to care for him in the evening.
At first, the new routine with caregivers from morning to evening made Julie feel like a third wheel. But gradually, she accepted her freedom knowing Carl was in good hands. “I started to read more, attend concerts, sign up for classes, and learn new things. At my age, it’s really late life learning, but I am grateful for it”.
“I’m even tempted to study new medical knowledge to help Carl, but he wants me to retire happy even if I don’t go out every day. If he could, he would learn new skills, too”, she added.
Julie reveals she knew so much about Mongolian music simply by researching it before the concert where we first met. Likewise, before a talk, a film or a workshop, she will become familiar with the material so that she can learn more.
However, Julie’s upbringing didn’t foster education. In fact, she believes it was only in Toronto that she began to think of herself as a successful learner.
Julie Guinto grew up in Manila where she was the fifth of eight children, all of whom had quit school by the eighth or ninth grade because their parents couldn’t support even one child to graduate from high school. Her father’s law clerk salary paid for a three-room apartment, but most days, their meals were meager and soon, the children fended for themselves either by marrying early into families of similar circumstances or holding menial jobs in hotels, casinos, bars, and brothels. For Julie, she chose housekeeping on a cruise that sailed away from the Philippines.
Six years on international cruises gave Julie enough confidence to become a domestic worker overseas. She first worked in Singapore and Hong Kong before a huge leap to California, followed by New York, and finally Aurora, Ontario that she thought was Toronto.
For seven years, Julie cleaned, cooked, and ran errands for affluent households in Aurora, with short visits to Toronto that she became very fond of.
How Julie met Carl Jackson was because of a dead transistor radio. Hoping an electronics establishment in Toronto could revive it for her, Julie was advised by its soft-spoken technician that she needed a new radio with warranty. “This Filipino gem is an antique now”, came his honest opinion.
That technician was Carl, somewhat older, but kind and sincere. As Julie took home a shiny new radio, she had also gained a friend who enjoyed talking with her.
Carl, single after a previous marriage, respected Julie’s practical mind and fierce independence. But Julie, self-conscious of her incomplete education, initially declined his affections.
Patiently, Carl showed Julie not only uxorious devotion but also moral support toward a college education. They pored over numerous programs until she settled on medical transcription that needed two years of upgrading and core training. When Julie finished her program and got a job in a doctor’s office, Carl encouraged her to go further. That’s how Julie became a medical secretary with a career that she could only have imagined in the past.
These days in her retirement, Julie appreciates all the learning opportunities available to older people: “We grow old, our family members grow old, our lives come to an end sometime. But while I can, I want to discover new things every day. Learning is beautiful”.
In my opinion, Julie has always been a tireless lifelong learner. When education eluded her back in Manila, she worked for cruises that took her around the world. Barely out of her teens, Julie courageously ventured to North America where every new experience bolstered more knowledge and skills. It was in Toronto where she eventually completed formal learning and pursued a rewarding profession built on motivation and support. Now that she is retired, she realizes her late life learning is just blossoming into splendid loveliness.