A difficult transition out of the workplace was the spark for Ginni’s new book on easing the transition into retirement—and her own reinvention as an entertainer in her 60s.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in Long Beach, California, and married at 19 to Bob Gordon. We were married for 33 years until he died in 1991. I have four children and five grandchildren. The death of my grandson, Christian, of leukemia in 2007 led to our founding the nonprofit, Gold Rush Cure Foundation, which gives personalized gifts to children diagnosed with cancer and provides mentorship for parents who are experiencing cancer with their children.
I had my children by the age of 26, and, when my youngest daughter started first grade, I started college. Seven years later, I graduated from Dental Hygiene School. My brothers, Larry and Jim Rizzo, are dentists; I was in practice with them for 25 years. We had a wonderful time and retiring from the practice was difficult; I found that my patients were dependent on me to “help them hold onto their teeth.” I actually developed a process that let us have conversations while they were having their teeth worked on.
I also pursued a degree in Human Resources from University of San Francisco and a teaching credential in Human Services and Health Sciences from California State College, Long Beach. I have taught at USC and UCLA Dental Schools, Cerritos College Dental Hygiene Program, and Saddleback College Human Services Program. From 1979 until the mid-1990s, I also conducted a group program for parents whose kids had drug, alcohol, and eating disorder problems.
When did you start to think about making a change?
I was a young widow at 52 and, because of increasingly painful problems with my hands, I retired at age 61. This was quite a transition! I found that, for a person who is “role identified,” retirement can be quite a shock. Being “role identified” is a common thing in our culture; many people describe themselves as, “I am a teacher, or a doctor, or a lawyer.” That makes retirement more difficult because you give up this part of who you are and move into who knows what?
What I experienced during this period contributed to my desire to write the book I have recently published,If Not Now, When?: The Retirement Guide You’ve Been Waiting For. It’s a workbook that leads the reader through the process of recreating themselves. It is designed to have the participant examine and design their life. During the process of the book, they create lists of the talents and skills they have developed during their careers and begin to see themselves being capable of recreating.
In January, 2010, I attended a meeting in Costa Mesa, California, given by two women, producer Patty Turrell and author Thea Iberall, who were getting ready to stage a play, We Did It For You: Women’s Journey Through History, about women who secured rights for women. They put out a call for actors, singers, and dancers. I had been a dancer for a number of years, so I attended. At the auditions, we were asked to choose a role to read. I picked Mary Kay Ash of Mary Kay Cosmetics because it was, truthfully, the shortest. Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather when I received a call later that day with the message, “You got the part!” And, of course, I informed them that I wasn’t an actress. The reply was, “You can do it; give it a try.” And I did, becoming an actress at age 70! I eventually took on the additional roles of Eleanor Roosevelt and Billie Jean King. I loved researching each new character and became quite fond of “my women.” There’s a good story about Billie Jean King: Her father and my father were on the Long Beach, California Fire Department (LBFD) together and were quite good friends. My dad told me that the LBFD helped pay for some of Billie Jean’s training when she was starting out. I would still like to meet her someday.
While I was acting in the play, a friend of mine found an article in the Orange County Register, requesting that senior women apply for the Ms. Senior Orange County Pageant. She persuaded me that we should do it together—and the pageant was in just a few weeks! So we met with our interviewer and she signed us up. I had several Hula dances that I did as a solo, and a presentable long dress—thank God, there was no bikini competition. My friend dropped out at the last minute when she had to get her house ready for sale.
On the day of the pageant, I showed up with 18 other women. We went through personal interviews, modeling our long gowns, and stating our “philosophy of life” to a packed audience. Then, while standing in a row along the stage, the winners were announced and crowned: Fourth runner up, Third runner up, Second runner up and First runner up. All stood with their crowns awaiting the announcement of the winner… Which was me! I stood there with my mouth hanging open as they gave me a crown, beautiful yellow roses, and placed the sash over my shoulders that said, “Ms. Senior Orange County – 2012.” I was also given a statue that was close to four feet tall and instructed to “pick it up and walk back and forth across the stage.” No easy task.
Winning this title opened the door to many new adventures. I discovered a group of women who entertained other seniors, veterans, and children. This would usher in my next, next act.
What is your next act?
I am a performer in a group called “Sensational Ladies and a Few Good Men.” (We also use the name “Sensational Seniors” when we perform without the guys.) The women have all participated in the Ms. Senior California pageants. Many are singers, and a few of us are singers and dancers.
We stage approximately 40 shows a year. Last year, we performed in New Orleans, Las Vegas, and Laughlin, Nevada. I cannot praise too much these women (and a few men) who get together and entertain those who might not have the chance to see musicals and variety shows otherwise. We perform at the Orange County, San Diego, and Los Angeles Fairs and at a number of variety shows, often centered around the closest holiday. I especially enjoy doing the patriotic shows for veterans. In these, we honor the men from the various branches of service by playing their particular anthem and asking them to stand while they are recognized. We sing the National Anthem and other patriotic songs and I close the show with a Hula dance to “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood. This song is a real crowd pleaser.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My family and friends were helpful when I asked, although I’m usually an “if you want something done, do it yourself” person!
I love having my family in the audience. When I played Billie Jean King in We Did It for You, my dad was able to attend a performance—a very special moment for us both. My dad was also present when I was crowned Ms. Senior Orange County.
My children have attended my shows over the years. I remember they were surprised to know I could sing as well as I do. Cute story: When I was part of a Polynesian dance troupe called Tiare Productions, one of the dances I performed was “Tutu E” about a grandmother who liked to walk into town, have a few drinks, and teach everyone the Hula. Since I am slender, my costume had lots of padding to make me look plump. One of my daughters (who didn’t know about the padding), commented that the costume was not at all flattering to my figure!
What challenges did you or are you encountering?
Being a performer requires time: time for rehearsals, time to travel and present the shows and, of course, time to have dinner and celebrate afterwards. I still feel that being in this group is worth the time and effort involved. These people inspire me and keep me young.
I need to pace myself more than in the past. When I attended UCLA in the 1970s, I was at it from sun up to bed time. That doesn’t work for me anymore. I have learned the value of the “afternoon nap” and a cup of coffee to restart my engines.
I also have learned how time my work in a more effective way, i.e., work on the computer in the morning and save jobs like folding clothes and walking the dog for the afternoon when my brain wants a rest.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
As a young widow, I needed to learn, quickly, how to do many tasks. Navigating the challenges of being on my own, then retiring, showed me that I have the ability to adapt to whatever comes my way. In the process, I also learned to do the things I do well and, like the chair-woman of the board, delegate those jobs that can be done better by someone else. This was a big lesson for me.
I also learned that I am a woman of courage. My dad told me that I could do anything I set my mind to and he was right. For me, the challenge was in the choice.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I can’t think of anything I would have done differently. I know that sounds strange, but each action I took taught me something. And I paid attention.
Some things I was called on to do (or chose to do) were pretty painful. When my grandson, Christian, was diagnosed with Leukemia, and it was discovered he needed a bone-marrow transplant, I moved into my daughter and son-in-law’s house and became a “single-grandma.” The best treatment for Christian was at a wonderful hospital in Seattle, Washington, so, of course, that’s where his parents took him.
The experience of having total care of his brother, Garrett, and sister, Kendall, was often wonderful. I was able to put my teaching skills to good use. Moms these days have a huge, multi-tasking job. I became, carpool mom, team-mom, homework-mom, cooking/cleaning/laundry-mom, and so much more. I learned to get my PJs on before I sat down in the evening because, if I didn’t, I would wake up a few hours later and need to get ready for bed.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention, and maybe even performing later in life?
Say yes. Don’t decide you won’t like doing something without trying it. If I had insisted that I wasn’t an actress when offered the part of Mary Kay Ash, I would have missed out on five years of doing a wonderful play.
Don’t tell yourself, “I’m too old.” Trying new things is what keeps you young and keeps your brain firing on all cylinders. You can reinvent yourself, even if the “into what” remains to be revealed. In all honesty, if someone had told me, ten years ago, what I would be doing in my life right now, I would have thought they were talking about someone else.
Are you interested in pursuing one of the performing arts? It’s never too late; I’m an example of that. There are many ways to dip your toe into the pool and decide if you want to take the plunge. Many of the senior centers, parks and recreation departments, community colleges and adult education programs offer classes in everything from voice, to dancing, to playing an instrument, to acting. There is bound to be something that will be worth your effort.
What resources do you recommend?
Looking to let your artist out?
Julia Cameron has classes available both online and at certain sites. Her process is very helpful for getting started. This is a wonderful way to develop a new hobby.
Want to take a hike?
Sierra Club Seniors offers many different outings, from docent-led museum and gallery tours to challenging Sierra hikes. The program welcomes all seniors who are interested in conservation and wish to participate in the activities listed on the group’s Facebook Page.
Want to find like-minded people?
Seniors Meetups are designed to help you meet other seniors in your local area! These clubs cover a wide variety of activities.
Thinking about writing a book?
Everyone has a story to tell and ideas to share. The CSL Writer’s Workshop makes it possible for you to stop thinking and start writing. This program provides 24-hour online access to all class videos. You learn to choose your subject, create your title, write a paragraph that identifies the problem your book will solve, and generate your chapter titles. Then, using the timed writing exercises, you can write your rough draft during the class sessions. Learn how professional writers create an emotional connection with the reader. You also learn to edit what you’ve written and construct a marketing plan to sell your book.
Want book recommendations?
The Gift of Change: Spiritual Guidance for Living Your Best Life by Marianne Williamson
The Power of Intention by Dr. Wayne Dyer
You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay
The Second Half of Life: Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom by Angeles Arrien
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey
65 Things to Do When You Retire, 65 Notable Achievers on How to Make the Most of the Rest of Your Life by Mark Evan Chimsky, Ed.
I Will Not Die an Unlived Life: Reclaiming Purpose and Passion by Dawna Markova
How to Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life by Art Linkletter and Mark Victor Hansen.
What’s next for you?
One of the groups I perform with is rehearsing a new musical, 100 Years on Broadway, featuring well-known beautiful songs. I’m also speaking about my book to groups that have shown interest, like several senior centers. I may use the book to teach at a local community college; it makes a great eight-week class. I have also done several radio shows to promote my book and am working on a Facebook page to help people discover the wonders of reinventing yourself as a senior.
Most recently, I have started a second book with my daughter, Sandy Barker, to help parents whose child has been diagnosed with cancer. She has a wealth of information and there are so many people who need this help and don’t have access to a mentor like her.
Connect with Ginni Gordon