Adventures begin when the working years end.
That’s what Arlene Swanson has discovered, and she’s happy to share the news with the world.
“There’s a life after retirement. You don’t have to sit down and wither away,” she said. “When you’re young you can’t see ahead. I never thought I’d be old at 18. Now I’m 69” – but loving it.
She was an LPN2 at Blue Ridge Rehab Center for more than 30 years. She got her nursing degree after going back to school in her 30s, as a working mother.
She retired on Jan. 17. “I said I’d never live to see it, but God’s blessed me to see it,” she said.
However, “I haven’t forgot where I come from, and I know what a joy it is” for folks at work to get the treat of a home-cooked meal. That’s why every now and then she takes hot food to her former co-workers.
She recalls how much she appreciated others doing that when she was working full time, she said, and now it’s her turn.
“I got my braces as part of my retirement,” she said, smiling to show the metal on her teeth.
She started taking piano lessons two years ago. “I love it” – playing piano is comforting, she said. She has had some recitals, and she said she is looking forward to another one in September.
Soon she would like to get a portable keyboard and take it to nursing homes to play for the residents, Swanson said.
She and her husband, Print “Danny” Swanson, have “three great big boys and one girl:” Print Daniel “Stinker” Swanson Jr., who lives in Fieldale with his wife, Deborah; Isaac Nakada “Ike” Swanson and his wife, Nashell, of Martinsville; Michael “Mike” Swanson and his wife, Keisha, of Martinsville; and Toni and her husband, Danny Hairston, of Martinsville. Mike is a professor in Raleigh, and his brothers drive 18-wheelers.
“I’m so proud of them I don’t know what to do,” she said. She also has eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Her home is in the neighborhood behind Albert Harris Elementary School, a 1-story, ranch-style house uphill from the street, with more hill looming above it. Little by little she and her husband have bought surrounding lots to have a large area for themselves.
At the highest part of the hill behind the house, along the back road, is a fenced-in vegetable garden, where the plants are arranged neatly in raised beds.
“This is the garden I always wanted but never thought” would get, she said.
As her husband and sons were building the bed frames, “people stopped and looked at this garden. It seemed like forever to get it out. My sons looked like two great big giants” working on it, she laughed.
When it was finally done, they asked her, “‘Mama, are you happy now?’” she said, smiling.
She had good topsoil brought in by truck and hauled it over to beds one wheelbarrow-full at a time. She used a little tiller to break up the soil, and she hoes occasionally to keep weeds down.
The mulch is shredded paper she breaks up herself in a shredder. “It makes the soil rich, and it keeps the grass down,” she said.
It was an experiment that served her well: “I lay and think about things like this and try it and see if it’ll work.”
There are deer in the neighborhood “but they don’t come in” over the 4-foot fence, she said. “I thank the Lord and hope they don’t get in.”
Different plants have their own blocks. Beans (snap and lima), peppers, okra, eggplant, watermelon vines, squash and tomato plants are new and small. The spring crops, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, are mature.
The cauliflower was a trick; a few cauliflower seedlings were in the multipack of what she thought were all cabbage plants. When just the size of having a few leaves, both plants, members of the cole family, look the same.
As they grew, the difference became apparent. She used clothespins to pin the large top leaves of the cauliflower plant together over the emerging cauliflowers to keep them white; otherwise, they would go green.
Once the summer vegetables start maturing, she will be busy: “Whatever goes in a jar, I’ll can, I sure will,” she said.
Shelves full of her last-year’s canning are in a sturdy outbuilding she and her husband had set up next to the garden two years ago. It’s fancy, with a porch and bay window. Getting it built there took as many inspections as building a house does, she said. It has electricity and water hook-up.
Set around the outbuilding are pots and buckets of young flowering shrubs. “I learned to graft flowers,” she said. “I paid $35 and $40 to buy them in a bucket like this, and now I learned to graft them by myself” and she no longer has that expense.
Marigold seedlings also are growing in buckets and beds around the outbuilding, and soon they’ll be big enough to be planted all along the walkway down the hill to her house.
She’s also created a neighborhood park.
A lot to the side of her house has picnic tables with shade umbrellas, and every now and then, such as Memorial Day, she has a big fish fry and hot dogs for anyone who comes by. “People enjoyed it,” she said.
Swanson hopes one day to work with ex-felons and veterans, helping those who need it to get back on track and established.
That might involve her mother’s old house near hers. If she can get a grant, she would fix it up and “get them into college and have them a nice place to stay.”
She’s been involved with Grace Network through food drives, and she said she thinks it’s time now to start volunteering in their offices as well.
Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.