Claudia and Michael Sternbach at home
“First thing on my worry list,” Claudia Sternbach (right) writes of the impending retirement of her husband, Michael, “is that he will judge me.” Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Quick Take:

Lookout columnist Claudia Sternbach is undergoing a life change: Her husband is retiring after 40 years at a tractor dealership. She works from home and is uncertain what it will mean to share the space all day. “First thing on my worry list is that he will judge me,” she writes. He’ll also find out she sometimes sleeps until 10 a.m. and eats Tate’s chocolate chip cookies for breakfast.

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Retirement is coming. Not mine, but my husband, Michael’s.

Lookout columnist Claudia Sternbach

For the past 40 years, he has worked five days a week at a tractor dealership in Watsonville. Typically he gets two weeks of vacation time a year, plus the federal holidays. For the past few years, I have worked from home. Both of us are curious about what his retirement will feel like. Soon we will find out.

Believing he would ever actually be able to stop working has been like believing that Trump can put together three sentences without telling two lies. I mean really, Michael won’t have to set the alarm for 6 a.m. any longer? He won’t come home dragging his behind from exhaustion? Does this mean that when I wake up at 9:30 a.m. or 10 a.m. he will be here? And is this a good thing?

First thing on my worry list is that he will judge me. I watch “The View” almost every morning with bags of junk food laid out in front of me. Will he think that tacky or frivolous? And should I care? Does he know that I eat Tate’s chocolate chip cookies for breakfast? Will it matter?

A couple of weeks ago we decided to do a test run. He had time off which needed to be used up before the Big Last Day, so we decided to go away for a few days to the Claremont Hotel in the Berkeley/Oakland hills for two nights, and then over to Bodega Bay for a couple of sleepovers.

Why, one may ask, the Claremont? Well, for sentimental reasons. We met there more than four decades ago as employees. I hired him. I was the tennis director and he was a college graduate who could work full time, which I preferred to juggling the schedules of employees still in school. Love happened and that was that. We worked side by side every day until we moved to Mexico. He still believes he has a lawsuit to file; I was his boss, after all.

When making the reservation, there was a place on the form that asked if this was a special occasion. I told them it was our 40th anniversary and explained our love story. It hit a chord with hotel management, and when we checked in and went to our room we were welcomed with chilled champagne, a beautiful cake under glass, rose petals on the bed and a card wishing us a wonderful stay “back where it all began.”

That evening, sitting out on the deck for a sunset dinner, I looked out at the view, the tennis courts, the bay, the Bay Bridge, the San Francisco skyline, and found it difficult to believe so many years had passed. It was as if I could look out and still see a much younger Michael holding hands (in secret) with me as we walked the path along the rose gardens leading to the pool and tennis club.

Both of us are keenly aware that we have entered into the limited-time phase of our relationship. And in nine weeks, when he comes home from work for the very last time, I still will feel a bit gobsmacked. Really? We’ve made it?

Please, let me say right now, if you have a long marriage or partnership and can revisit where it all began, I recommend it. It sets the tone and adds perspective. If I could have told our younger selves that we would still be together all these years later and celebrating in the hotel where we first met, I doubt I would have believed it. And yet …

I confess, this first part of our vacation is more my kind of getaway than his. Oh, he enjoyed it immensely, but he also likes a more rustic adventure. He loves to camp in the great outdoors. I adore eating cake in bed.

To balance things out after two days in luxury, we packed the car and drove over to Bodega Bay, taking the coastal route. Michael loves to drive up and over Mount Tamalpais and back down again while we cling to the very edge of California. I’m not such a fan.

But, here was a bit of compromise. I would let go of my fear of falling and he could enjoy the majesty of Highway 1.

We were headed for the Sonoma Coast Villa, where neither one of us had been before. Situated on a cattle ranch where the great beasts roam the hills surrounding the hotel, it is far from roughing it, but less citylike than our previous location. Michael would be happy to camp out with the cattle, but I still require a comfy bed and internet access.

There was a small pond on the property with Adirondack chairs placed for bird watching and cattle watching and it was as peaceful as anything I could imagine. We were four days into our one-on-one vacation and we were still getting along. But we began to find our individual paces when it came to our 24-hour togetherness. While I was still sleeping, Michael would slip out with his binoculars and head up to the pond for some early morning wildlife viewing. After I had had my fill of sleeping, I would take my coffee and join him at the small body of water, where we would sit in silence, in no hurry to be anywhere or do anything.

Then I would retreat to our room and watch “The View.” There was no judgment.

Now I realize this is not the same as being home together all day every day, but by the time we got back to Aptos I still felt it was a worthy test. Yes, people waited on and pampered and fed us, but after five days and a long drive home, we were still speaking to each other. Still had things to say. We weren’t finished. Aren’t finished.

Both of us are keenly aware that we have entered into the limited-time phase of our relationship. And in nine weeks, when he comes home from work for the very last time, I still will feel a bit gobsmacked. Really? We’ve made it?

I think about dear friends who did not make it this far. Oh, how I wish they could be sailing into this new phase of life along with us. Our best friend Eddie, who was retired and died in June and with whom Michael couldn’t wait to have adventures once he, too, was done with the daily grind. I know I can never replace Eddie, but I will try to fill as much of the space he has left as I can.

It is up to me to be Michael’s companion in retirement full-time. I accept the challenge and know just how lucky I am. We are.

I’ll keep you posted on how we progress.

Claudia Sternbach has lived in Santa Cruz County for almost four decades. This was not planned but somehow our town by the bay has become her forever home and she is grateful. Her writing career began...