Ordinary People in Interesting Times

Chinese New Year in Paris 2013
via Wikimedia Commons
He: 57 soon 58, worked 35 years for the same employer, a solid and still thriving brick and mortar manufacturing company, rose steadily from blue collar to white then retired at 55. She: 53, worked 33 years for the same employer, a staid professional association representing some of the most powerful institutions in Quebec, rose through the ranks from clerk to executive assistant then, two years short of a full pension, was laid off.
Reality hasn’t quite measured up to the plan. Freedom 55 failed them. The world is wack.

I met Pierre and Marie almost twelve years ago. Generational peers, we couldn’t have been more different. A credit to their easy-going good nature, we got on well. Not friends, exactly, but friendly enough to exchange greetings, talk small about inconsequential matters. The weather, for example, illness, catastrophes and sudden death. The usual taboo subjects—sex, politics, money—remained taboo. And work? They had no clue what I really did to pay the bills; I couldn’t tell you much about their day-to-day activities.
For four years, we were neighbours and this is what I did come to know about them. They were inseparable. Friends rarely visited. As far as I could tell, they had no hobbies and rarely went anywhere in the evening or on the weekend. Work and family formed the centre of their existence. Their sons, polite and well-behaved if occasionally rowdy as teenagers will be, loved them. And Pierre and Marie loved them back.
Young, the family went camping in summer and skiing in winter. When the boys became men, Pierre and Marie happily shifted gears: two weeks in a rented condo down South in winter, an organized junket to a European capital in the summer. Extravagant, capricious and careless are not words that you would use to describe Pierre and Marie.
When I moved out of the neighbourhood, although we didn’t make any effort to stay in touch, I occasionally ran into them. We’d stop and chat then move on. Over time, I noted some unsettling changes.
Pierre, once jovial and easy-going, since his retirement seemed increasingly wired, strenuously exuberant. “Freedom 55, ma fille! It’s great. At loose ends but, t’sais, it’s an adjustment. Hey! I’m thinking I’ll get a job. Part-time. Keep active.” Marie, still employed but anxious to retire, seemed to be aging rapidly and not well. Slender as long as I’d known her, she started to look emaciated, her hair thin and brittle, her eyes too big, her smile too wide, forced. Her father’s death, her mother’s cancer, the suddenly empty nest, I thought.
Just before Christmas, I spotted Marie at the supermarket. Working the cash register. Stunned, I chose another check-out line and managed escape unnoticed. Shameful, but I admit that it took me a few weeks, until after the holidays, before I mustered the courage to approach her.
A big halloo! “How are you?” She beamed at me and laughed. “Surprised?”
Gobsmacked actually. I didn’t say that. I let her do the talking.
Turns out that the association she worked for did some belt-tightening that included an actuarial report. Turned out that Marie was not a viable risk. Turned out that she and 23 other employees, half the staff, would have to go. Like that. Her pension? Two years to go before she’d be free at 55 and they cut it in half.
That wasn’t the plan. She and Pierre, still flailing around for something to occupy his time, couldn’t make it with over 25% of their income gone. The working conditions at the supermarket were “not great” but it’s close to home so she has plenty of free time. No vacation this year. That’s okay, she’s busy exploring ways to get her work life back on track.
In other news, her mom has taken a turn. For the better. Go figure. “And, guess what? I’m going to be a grandmother.”

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