The energy to 'take it easy'

I have seven dictionaries at hand, and all seven are wrong. Under ''R,'' alongside ''retired,'' they state: ''withdrawn from active life, due to age.'' Now, I won't presume to say the editors of these references do not know how to do their job, but I do invite any lexicographer who dares to meet my neighbor. He's retired.

We stood one chill evening around Christmas at the low boxwood hedge separating our yards and chatted about what he was going to do with himself. He had sold vacuum cleaners door to door for years. Although he still made double the sales of anyone else, even the younger salesmen combined, he reluctantly had agreed to take retirement with the new year.

''How'd you like to go halves on a spring garden?'' he asked.

''Fine,'' I said, and we agreed to utilize my back yard, sunnier than his, where I had grown a few vegetables within an eight-by-twenty-four plot built up inside a neat border of railroad ties. I didn't really think anything more about our conversation until one spring Saturday morning, amid the rush to leave town for the weekend, he stopped me in my tracks with a simple declaration.

''I'm going to rent the tiller.''

Tiller? I had always spaded the small plot. But, of course, I was younger, stronger, nowhere near retirement age. So, I quickly wrote a check for half the rental fee. Upon my return Sunday night, smelling the invigorating aroma of fresh-plowed fields, the olfactory harbinger of spring and growth and new life, I wandered around back to - to find the railroad ties of the formerly neat border sprawling here and there like outcast timbers of a logging camp. My inactive neighbor had tilled three-quarters of the yard. I gazed upon the future site of a truck farm!

''Too shady back here for grass to grow,'' my partner declared.

''Unnnhh,'' I mumbled.

He grinned and said, ''But I've worked out a plan.''

The plan involved a friend of his from the country - retired, please note - and I can tell you right now, these two gentlemen don't read their dictionaries. The friend came to town with a ladder and a chain saw, carved a vast skylight in the canopy of shade trees (''glad to do it for the firewood he got''), and eventually, with complete disregard for all the conventional wisdoms, hauled away all the debris.

The neighbor planted ''our'' garden just ahead of spring rains. Before long, every evening as I staggered in from an exhausting day at the office, he ''halloed'' me from the back to come view the latest tomato, pepper, bean, beet, carrot, squash, okra, or cucumber that had burst from the earth to commence its awesome drive toward fruition. The mere thought of tending ''our'' variety of crops debilitated me. My neighbor? He graduated to building borders, fences, and pathways.

When I left for work in the morning, he'd have been weeding for an hour or more. When I returned in the evening he would be watering or staking or fretting over okra plants that seemed to have developed timidity about trying for that second set of leaves. With the onset of hot and humid summer, I assumed, my neighbor would surely get the hang of retirement by withdrawing more and more from all this enervating activity. Yet during the day, he studied the changing pattern of sunlight and soon began transplanting peppers and tomatoes and okra to more advantageous locations. I predicted the plants would wilt and die. Under his tutelage, they wilted . . . then thrived!

With that behind him, he plunged into further projects. He trimmed my shrubs, then he mowed the front lawn, and after that he peeled dead ivy from the chimney. The mere sight of this industry overwhelmed me.

One day a lady passing by stopped to admire the zinnias blooming along my front walk in a flower bed created when my neighbor dug up grass for a ''starting'' he hoped would cover a barren patch of earth along the north side of his house. She said he had the prettiest yard on the block. ''No, ma'am,'' he replied. ''I live next door, under those trees where nothing grows. But thanks, all the same.''

''Oh, I understand. Wonderful! I've been looking for someone who hires out for yard work.''

''What do you mean, hires out?'' he said. ''Lady, I'm retired.''

Her oh-wonderful understanding dissolved into a nervous ''Hahahaha-ha!'' which trailed behind her as she scurried down the street. I knew how she felt.

Not long after that I awoke one morning to discover that ''our'' truckload of garden loam (''for the fall garden'') had been delivered (before, incidentally, I knew we had ordered it). ''What,'' I gasped, ''are we going to do with our dirt?'' We didn't do anything. Within two days, he spread it, rented another tiller (''shopped around this time and found a better machine; cheaper, too''), plowed and seeded.

We stood again, one hot August dusk, beside the low boxwood hedge, slapping at mosquitoes, listening to a symphonic interlude arranged by unseen night chirpers, sweating, chatting, watching the beans grow another inch before dark. ''I can't sit still,'' my neighboor volunteered. ''Not that type. Never have been. Have no hobbies. Had no idea what I'd do with myself when I retired.''

''Oh,'' I said, ''when was this?''

He did not seem to hear. ''Too much energy. This garden . . .'' - he studied it with a smile and a chuckle of pride - ''. . . saved me.''

It taught me a lesson. I am going to have to keep working the rest of my life; I haven't the stamina to ''retire.'' Which reminds me -

I have a word of advice for the lexicographers: when you stop by to view this example of ''withdrawal from active life, due to age'' . . . friends, you better wear old clothes and bring your work gloves. My partner will furnish one of ''our'' grub hoes, and when he's done with you, you'll feel a definition of ''retire,'' all right. The one that states: seclude yourself without delay in the comfort of bed!

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