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Opinion | Mameve Medwed

My husband retired, but his desk didn’t

The desk in question, pictured with owner Howard Medwed.
The desk in question, pictured with owner Howard Medwed.(Mameve Medwed)

As of the first of the new year, my husband has retired. At 10 years beyond the usual retirement age, he needs to make room for the young Turks. Besides, the firm is moving to smaller quarters.

Whatever the reason — age, space, fresh blood — both of us, daunted by such a sea change, find it more manageable to focus on the emblem of his career — his desk. It’s a 19th-century behemoth, which he bought 30 years ago after a 20-year search. Once, at the office of an old-time Boston lawyer — a wood-paneled, book-lined sanctuary right out of a Merchant Ivory film — he beheld the object of his longing: an acreage of mahogany and leather built for two people to sit opposite one another, each side paired with identical pedestals and drawers. “That’s what I want,” he exclaimed. My husband is not a person who wants much; his cars are clunkers, his clothes on the near side of disreputable, he never yearns for the latest in gadgets.

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The desk became an Ahab-like quest. Wherever we went, we searched antiques stores, estate sales. At last, on vacation in New Orleans, we found it. A whale of a desk, 5 feet by 4 feet, a stunner. My husband, a thrifty Mainer, who will go miles out of his way to avoid a toll, who bought a reclaimed tuxedo at Max Keezer’s for our sons’ weddings, pulled out his checkbook on the spot. “It will only gain in value,” the salesman advised.

“I’ll never sell it,” my husband declared. “I’ll keep in the family.”

Fast forward to the family. My study, a converted closet in the third-floor attic, holds only one standing person (me). My husband’s home workspace, once part of a center hall, is the shape of a railroad car. The obvious successor, our law-professor son, has, like his father, too narrow an office; our other son, who works in the music industry, occupies a tiny apartment, jam-packed with his vinyl records. Wouldn’t our cousin in Maine be thrilled by such a windfall? Alas, he claims his unheated barn would damage ancient wood. At night, I lie awake counting friends with square-footage benefits. I check real estate listings, pouncing on the words “spacious” and “generous.”

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The desk — the center and symbol of my husband’s career, the witness to drama both human and legal — has turned into my own fixation. I grab the tape measure, struggling to fit the round peg into the square hole. Maybe we could toss out our bed and stick a mattress on the top, I joke. There must be a solution, I tell myself.

My husband sends around an interoffice e-mail. “Best offer!” reads the subject line. No reply. Undeterred, he phones consignment shops. He forwards photos. “Nobody buys brown furniture,” dealers sigh.

Now the desk, the single tenant of his emptied-out office, is stripped bare of the paper piles that obliterated its green-tooled leather covering. These days, my husband sits at a small rectangle of coffee-ring-stained oak, typing on his computer; he’s writing about tax reform, he says. But when I tiptoe by his study, I see not dense sentences of Times Roman or columns of numbers, but an ongoing game of solitaire. “Just taking a break,” he excuses.

That’s what retirement is, I realize. A break. Following something concrete, and preceding something unknown. Like the solid fact of the desk and its amorphous fate, a huge beached and abandoned whale. “It’s OK,” soothes my husband. “I won’t miss the stress. Besides,” he adds, “I got all those great years out of that desk.”

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I wish I felt the same. Still, I’m trying to adjust. From his second-floor study, he calls up to my attic hide-away. “It’s just afternoon,” he says. “Let’s go out and eat a delicious lunch.” And so we do.


Mameve Medwed is a novelist.