Switching Roles in Retirement
Recently, packages that I hadn’t ordered began arriving at our doorstep. A digital kitchen timer, a set of measuring spoons, a vegetable peeler. It’s true our ancient kitchen tools have seen better days, but I never thought of replacing them until my husband Ken joined me in the kitchen for the first time in our long marriage.
For years, he didn’t know how to turn on the oven. Now he’s ordering cooking gadgets.
Our Established Roles
We had known for years that we were overspecialized. Ken handled all our finances, and I did all the cooking. What would happen when one of us wasn’t around in body or mind?
When Ken and I married in 1968, we were young and clueless. Neither of us knew anything about running a household. So, we learned by doing. Our division of labor was traditional in those pre-feminist days. He paid the bills, I did the cooking. (Also he had an MBA, whereas I was a French major, so there was natural selection at work.)
I had never learned how to cook growing up — my mother worked full-time and we had a housekeeper — so I tried to figure it out from books like the I Never Cooked Before Cookbook and the I Hate to CookCookbook. And I really did hate to cook. After my workday as a magazine editor, I would arrive home, make some awful looking chicken, burned hamburgers or a tuna casserole and open a can of peas while Ken watched the evening news. We ate out a lot at cheap local places. On the financial front, I entered the checks I’d made out and he balanced the checkbook by hand.
Cut to several decades later. Kids grown and flown. I was still alone in a somewhat bigger kitchen, making somewhat better meals. I’d mastered meatloaf, salmon and variations on grilled chicken. Broccoli was my go-to vegetable. My husband, who retired from a career in real estate, was still balancing the checkbook and taking care of finances, now using Quicken.
When we hit 70, mortality was a not-fun guest at our table. We had been retired for about seven years, updated our wills, left our computer passwords for each other and the kids, signed legal documents about the disposition of our bodies and assets. I kept worrying: “I don’t know how to use Quicken, I don’t know your system for paying bills — if something happens to you, I won’t know how to do anything.”
One night, my husband made a modest proposal: “Let’s make a resolution to trade places and learn what the other does.” It took four months before we actually implemented the plan. Long-term habits die hard, and we each had our own turf. Cooking was the first mountain to conquer.
A Whole New World in the Kitchen
Our son and his wife had tried out HelloFresh and Blue Apron, subscription meal services that send you all the ingredients for several meals a week, along with detailed recipes on how to make them. We used a $40 coupon and signed up for Hello Fresh, too. We initially received three days’ worth of dinners for just $30, or $5 per person per meal. Then my husband entered my world, like Dorothy waking up in Oz.
I was the Wicked Witch he landed on.
It wasn’t easy getting used to having a neophyte in my kitchen. I wasn’t a good cook, but my husband knew absolutely nothing. Some examples: What’s the stove as opposed to the oven? Where is the broiler? What does it mean to mince garlic or zest a lemon? Do you peel a shallot with a vegetable peeler? (What’s a shallot, anyway?) And — my favorite — what’s the difference between a pot and a pan?
OK, I admit I was a little impatient as we worked our way through the first few dinners. We collided with each other like Keystone Kops, had to take turns using the utensils, coped with dull knives and lack of counter space, disagreed on the meaning of a “drizzle” of oil, accidentally left out ingredients.
I grumbled about the prep time; always twice as much as indicated and having to thinly slice fresh herbs that were already sitting in dried form in my spice rack. But the dinners came out wonderfully, so much tastier and more varied than the boring meals I’d routinely produced each week.
We were amazed and were like proud parents when we produced our first meal: maple-glazed pork chops. Our second-born was sliced rib eye steak over truffled mashed potatoes. Green beans with both (these seem to be the hardy perennials of the online vegetable kingdom).
We took photos of every meal and proudly sent them to our kids (a few showed up on Facebook). We saved time and money. I no longer had to go shopping for ingredients like tubs of sour cream that sat in the fridge until past their use-by date. We drank more wine (maybe not so great) because every meal felt special. And we actually had fun in the kitchen. As my son the foodie put it, “It’s like a couple’s cooking class at home.”
Still Mastering the Money
As for my half of the bargain, the finance part: Learning to pay our bills and reconcile our bank account on Quicken was much less fun.
First off, I had to find the checking account folder in our Quicken app. The budget categories my husband had set up to keep track of our credit card expenses seemed a little random. They couldn’t be changed without messing up the whole system.
There were separate categories for what seemed like the same thing. My husband’s tennis membership was under “Recreation” while my gym and yoga were classified as “Exercise.”
Then there was the tech aspect, never my strong suit. After I’d spent an hour separating our latest credit card bill into the non-intuitive categories he’d set up and was ready to pay our various bills electronically, the bank app refused to send them out. Seems the interface between our Quicken account and our bank account wasn’t working. Or something. My husband called the bank while I lay down with a headache.
Oh, I’ll master this sucker; I have to. But cooking is definitely the better role.
Tonight, in honor of my birthday, my husband is flying solo in the kitchen for the first time. The Spanish chicken with chorizo smells amazing. I’ll post pictures.
And after I figure out the banking, I’ll be ready to take on the remote control.
Wendy Schuman, a contributor to Next Avenue, is a freelance writer in West Orange, N.J.