The act

We talked about it. We thought about it. And then we did it.

We spent a month in Collingwood to experience living close to a child and grandchildren, something we had not enjoyed since the boys left home for university, many long years ago. One went to Texas and the other to Ontario, and they only came back for brief interludes before making their homes away, the elder in Europe and the younger in Toronto. Thus our grandparenthood—and we are blessed with three grandsons & three granddaughters—has been long distance.

The preamble

I had hoped that maybe one of them would move back to Calgary, but that hope died when both chose the financial sector in which to make a living. Being Calgary’s biggest booster, even I have to concede that it is but a bit player in the financial world. And again we are blessed that they have been productive citizens and good fathers & husbands, an outcome devoutly to be sought in my scheme of the good life—and essential to preserving Western democracy. So in principle, all is good, but the reality of neither son ever moving back confronts us with a decision: move to Ontario where family can help us navigate our golden years or stay in Calgary.

We are prairie people: born in Saskatchewan, met & married at the University of Saskatchewan, worked in the Alberta oilpatch, and raised a family & grew old in the same house & neighbourhood in Calgary. We are conservative in thought and act, so moving to Ontario is a decision not to be taken lightly, made even more fraught by the deepening divide shown in Election 2019. The father was a disaster for the West, and the son is living up to his parental heritage. Nevertheless, the time has come to take our first cautious step—a month in an Airbnb apartment near our son’s cottage in Georgian Bay region where they drive up every weekend to ski in the winter months. (Toronto, where they live, was ruled out because it’s too chaotic & too expensive for our age & pocketbook.)

Our experience

First, we celebrated Christmas at the cottage. And Christmas 2019 gave me the gift of ‘spending’ some time with everyone in our global family—the first five days, with Sandrine & Oscar (Geneva) and Alice (Boston) at the cottage, then long phone conversations with Thomas (Amsterdam) on the 17th & Sean (Meribel/French Alps) on Christmas Day, and finally the Toronto Parks for most of the time at the cottage. But on the 29th it was time for us to separate. So Jack & I packed our bags and moved to our apartment in Collingwood, the upper level of what was the coach house of an old brick heritage home. The house and area reminding us of home, we quickly settled in and made ourselves at home.

Our apartment. Our apartment was everything we could have wished for: old hardwood floors, new windows letting in lots of light, a gas fireplace to make the place cozy in the long winter evenings, a comfortable bed and good bathrooms. Its rectangular layout, rather than the much more common linear, met our preference. At one end was the open great room with the galley kitchen and dining table on one side and the living room on the other; the wide central hall had the staircase down to the entrance on one side and the second bedroom & bathroom on the other; and at the other end and a couple of steps down was the master bedroom and its ensuite bathroom. Its 1500 square feet, we found, would suit our downsizing needs much better than our original thinking that 1200 square feet would do.

Our landlady. Our landlady, too, was just the person we could have wished for: friendly and helpful when asked, but respectful of our privacy throughout our stay. We enjoyed her company the two times we shared a glass of wine, and I felt we’d become friends if we moved there: We approached one another positively and assumed good fellowship, the foundation of friendship in my opinion. And it worked. The Airbnb experiment was a first for both parties and resulted in a mutually excellent experience. We bid Suzy goodbye with our wishes for continued good guests in her elegant apartment.

Our purpose. Remember, the purpose was to be close to family and the plan was to see them every weekend with the jewel in the family mosaic being Sunday dinner by Grandma & Grandpa. I know I’ve romanticized Sunday family dinner because it wasn’t possible in our case, but I firmly believe that being around the table together sharing food and conversation—the good, the mundane and the argumentative—is a cornerstone of strong families, ergo a cornerstone of civilization. So I was excited to have it actually happen.

Our social events. And it did happen. Not all of it—weather wiped out one weekend’s plans with drenching rain all day Friday followed by heavy snow all day Saturday making driving hazardous—but most of it:

  • By Wednesday, we were ready to host New Year’s Day dinner at the apartment. What better way, we thought, than serving a prime roast of beef with Yorkshire pudding and all the trimmings—a typical Sunday dinner and a salute to Alberta beef. Before dinner, we had Suzy up for a glass of wine and an introduction to our month in Collingwood. All in all, a fitting way to launch our adventure.

  • The following Saturday, we brought the meal to them. Arriving at the cottage around 4pm, we had our usual preprandial drink in front of a roaring fire; the fireplace is original to the mid-1800s log house and is truly the heart of the cottage. We all love it, and Jason makes sure it is well stoked when a chill is in the air. Having prepared the halibut ready for baking and the cookies & strawberries ready for eating, I had only half an hour’s labour before dinner was served. Beatrice, who is a fussy eater, loved the halibut, so it was duly added to Grandma B’s “meals to make for the kids & grandkids” list. Just the cookie crumbs were left after the three ‘children’ argued about who ate the most—fondly reminding me of the walrus and the carpenter discussing ‘shoes and ships and sealing wax and cabbages and kings’ while weeping for the oysters as they ate them ‘every one’, in Lewis Carroll’s fabulous poem.
  • Saturday, the 18th, was the big celebration: Madeleine’s 17th birthday party. Valuing tradition like I do, I was pleased to be able to complete the circle of celebrating in person at least one of all six grandchildren’s birthdays. Hers on January 21st was the most difficult, coming as it does in darkest January with a Christmas-depleted bank account. And we did it to Madeleine’s specifications: tacos by Grandpa J & Greek salad by Grandma B for a meal everyone could customize to her vegetarian or his/her omnivorous taste, and cookies & ice cream for a sweet ending. Cookies of two kinds—oatmeal-raisin & chocolate-chip-pecan cookies lovingly baked by Grandma—were accompanied by ice cream in four flavours—chocolate-mint (Madeleine’s choice), chocolate (by acclimation), strawberry (Beatrice & Grandma’s favourite) and vanilla (the only ice cream Grandpa will eat, and he loves ice cream!). This time the leftover cookies were divided fairly: Jack got the oatmeal-raisin and Madeleine & Beatrice the chocolate-chip-pecan; the girls’ appeal to the baker-judge was summarily dismissed (like so many of the pipeline appeals should have been, but continue to cost tons of time & money by courts skewed heavily left).
  • Our final weekend was a flurry of social events. We began with a 5 à 7 for family & friends, with wine & hors d’oeuvres for some 12 of us in the elegant setting of our Tall Trees apartment. Jack thought I had too much food, but its abundance and variety was much diminished when we left for dinner at Tesoro. The restaurant was lively when we arrived at 7:30pm, and we added our talk, laughter & appetite to the convivial mix. Our last event of the weekend was Grandma B’s Sunday dinner, this time a roast chicken and all the trimmings, closely matching little Jack’s favourite meal, the Christmas turkey dinner—a fitting ending to our month in Collingwood.

Our daily life

Being creatures of habit, we quickly resumed our daily rhythm after we moved into the apartment. (But our internal clocks stayed on Mountain Time, waking us at 8am in sync with our usual 6am at home…interesting.) We’d begin the day with reading the news, but online rather than on paper, followed by exercising, showering & dressing for the day.

Then every second day we’d go for groceries, a new habit for me because at home I only shop for parties & flowers, with Jack doing all the weekly grocery shopping. We cooked supper almost every night and went out for lunch just a few times, again, just like we do at home. And a few times, like I do at home, I went for walks, downtown to shop or around the neighbourhood; I would have liked to do more walking but, alas, my knees don’t allow it.

Afternoons… But afternoons were different. At home, I spend most afternoons (especially in the winter) in my wonderful home office on my wonderful computer system: reading news & articles; writing emails & letters to family & friends; and writing blogs & comments. At the apartment, my electronic life was brief; via remote access, I’d check my messages, but the setup of laptop, keyboard & chair was so uncomfortable that I’d spend little time online.

So I read and read and read. No hardship because reading is pure pleasure for me. (In fact, I’ve often wondered what retired people who do not read do in the hours of leisure retirement offers. One can only do so much playing games and sports before the brain cries out for food. And not just mindless pap, but something of heft & depth to sink one’s brain cells into.) A mix of literature, history and philosophy is my favoured blend, with the first illuminating my time away. I started with rereading Wuthering Heights at the cottage, and was as intrigued this time as I was when I first read it some 60 years ago. I ended the month with another reread, Madame Bovary, and my admiration of Flaubert’s writing deepened; I was impressed as a young woman when I first read about this vain and shallow woman, and the years in between have shown me many a striking likeness to Madame Bovary. Human nature doesn’t change; just the manner in which we show it changes to suit the current style—a compelling reason the nattering nabobs of the politically correct brigade should read literature & history to inform their received wisdom.

In between, I discovered a new author, Kate Atkinson, and consumed two of her books, Life after Life and A God in Ruins. I became absorbed by the interesting world of the first half of the 1900s in England as lived by particular members of a particular family. The two world wars infused every nook & cranny of this world to devastating and illuminating effects. Great evil can produce great goodness, and it did. And Atkinson didn’t commit the cardinal sin of so many current writers: depicting the past through the eyes of the present; she imagined how they would see and react to their world. Affecting and thought-provoking, the way the story is told, so I highly recommend them and will seek out other novels by her.

I read the last one of a favourite author’s, Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams. This was the first of his only three novels, a sad fact for those of us who consider Williams to be one of the best in the pantheon of 20th Century writers. The subject of each novel is wholly different: Stoner is the story of a professor in the Midwest; Augustus is the story of Caesar Augustus as seen through the eyes of his contemporaries and himself; and Butcher’s Crossing is the story of “Go west, young man, go west.” Each is brilliant. Each is a gift to the reader. Each leaves you wanting more, sadly.

And evenings… Evenings returned us to our habits: 7-9pm – watching a comedy or two before a more lengthy series on TV; 9-10:30pm in bed reading; 10:30-11pm – lights out. And we learned that we will not subscribe to Netflix because it offers mainly dross, drenched in the blood & guts and gratuitous sex & nudity that pass for excellent shows these days. Yes, I am a curmudgeonly old woman, but a good sentence and a decent plot are not an outrageous demand, à mon avis. So we rewatched Friends, the 1990s comedy that let us watch our boys’ 20s again through the lives of Rachel & Monica & Joey & Phoebe & Chandler & Ross navigating their 20s during the last decade of the 20th Century.

Our impressions

We still don’t know. I long to be closer to family, with family dinners a frequent feature in our lives. But our budget leans to staying put; Jack knew, but I had to learn onsite, that living in Ontario is about a third more expensive than living in Alberta. Add to that our continuing depressed house prices—with Collingwood’s on par or higher, a dissonance that jars my sense of value when Calgary is the fourth largest city in Canada and Collingwood is merely a big town—and the strain on our retirement budget becomes onerous.

Then add the romance of the West—as my husband said, “They don’t write songs about Ontario!”—to this lower cost of living, and the balance tilts westward. Calgary makes manifest the Western idea, with its capitalist marketplace populated by the youngest, most educated workers who work hard and play hard; with its citizens who are risk-takers & adventurous, optimistic & generous, who don’t want handouts, just fair play so that we can keep contributing more than our share to the Canadian treasury.

As friendly as the people in Collingwood and environs were, they’re a bit too parochial for me. And too Protestant, with its austere church naves reflecting an emphasis on restraint, in contrast to the lavish naves of Catholic churches that reflect a more abundant view of the human soul. Protestantism tends toward smugness, whereas Catholicism, for all its faults, is much too catholic, that is, broad and all-encompassing, to ever be smug. Confederation is working for Ontario, so their concern for Alberta’s plight is muted at best. To be fair (a favourite phrase of my two university-student grandkids), at least they did not think like many Quebecers that Alberta owed them the money! I guess that’s what comes of giving up your Catholic soul for a mess of secular pottage.

‘Sunshine on my shoulder makes me happy’

Grey skies make me sad

Another Alberta advantage is our incredible sunshine & blue skies even on the coldest winter day versus the overcast & grey skies even on the mildest winter day in the Georgian Bay region. Another contrast is our dry snow & air versus their wet snow & damp. But to be fair, my hair & skin flourished in the damp atmosphere, reminding me of the lotions & creams that are an essential part of my Calgary toilette. Then, again, a point in Calgary’s favour is I can wear beautiful leather boots all fall & winter without ruining them in the wet & slush of Collingwood’s winter.

So we’ll put it off for a little while and hope the glimmer of pipelines turns into a bright light for our economy. Why, I was even contacted about a job, a rare occurrence since Alberta’s recession began in 2015. It’s a harbinger of a more robust economy, in my optimistic estimation, and maybe even will result in a little work for Editor’s Ink.

With that, a toast: “Next year at the Stampede!”