BUT RETIRE WELL
The nice thing is you can go home again
J. E. BELLIVEAU Once when we were spending summers on Shediac Bay in New Brunswick, the local
postmaster redirected a Christmas card to our metropolitan Toronto address. On the envelope he wrote, “The postmaster and staff of Shediac post office also send their best wishes.” And it was signed, “Ned Foster, postmaster.”
It was this type ofthing that helped us make the decision to retire to the 1830 house we had brought back into the family in 1966 after it had been with strangers for nearly four decades. Over the past several years we had been restoring it — using it as a summer home as my parents had done before me — and it was filled with enchanting childhood memories. There was a spooky attic storeroom where, half a century ago, a hoopskirt frame had hung upon a wooden peg like a rattling skeleton in the closet. Cemented to the hearthstone of the fireplace were iron rings we fondly believed had held a manacled religious zealot, Amasa Babcock, who apparently slew his sister in a seance long ago at nearby Shediac Bridge. Sheriff Beal of Shediac had occupied our house once, and when the winter roads to Dorchester were blocked prisoners destined for its county jail would be held here overnight.
Truth was, though, Babcock had been hanged long before the house was built. (He died on June 28, 1805, to be exact.) Still, there had been an earlier house on this same site and the land was owned by William Hanington the magistrate and it was he, with Joseph and Pascal Poirier, who had apprehended Babcock. And Babcock had been held overnight in a fierce winter storm. So there was just enough truth to the tale to run cold chills deliciously down young spines.
Through 30 years, mostly in Toronto’s miserable winter climate, I had remembered things like this and so much more: the whiteness and the constancy of New Brunswick’s crisp snow, the invigorating clarity of its cold, the brilliant winter sun. Especially the outdoor skating. When my wife and I began thinking of retirement I seriously wondered if it could be still that good at age 60. Of the summers there could be no question — tranquil, bee-buzzing, hammocky days watching the birds in the orchard, and long, lazy days on the old Cape, never too hot. But was it enough to bring us back after all those years?
When first where began Gertrude to we consider would and retire I to we were in our early fifties. Our five sons were finishing their higher education, and we were alone and with enough spare time to look at places in the world where we might either retire completely or at least escape the chilly Canadian winters. We went island-shopping in the Caribbean and South Atlantic, ducking into Florida, trying Arizona and Southern California, the Canadian Pacific Coast, the Gulf and Atlantic coasts from Texas to Savannah, Georgia, three times to Mexico, to the southern coasts of Spain and France, to Italy and to the hills of the Algarve in Portugal, not to mention the Greek islands. We checked out northern Turkey, Ireland, the Channel Islands and England’s lovely mild Cornwall and Devon. Just to be sure, we also went to Hawaii, stopped a while, lived a month with a son in Hong Kong, inspected the south coast beaches of Australia, looked on China, tried Samoa and Fiji, New Caledonia, Tahiti and even Nuku Hiva (it’s in the Marquesas, very isolated). It was nice in Tahiti, but the profusion of roadside flowers in the humid heat gave me hay fever. For 25 years I had been fleeing Toronto in the ragweed season for coastal New Brunswick where it’s clear, and not even Gauguin’s paradise was paradise for me.
We sold out in Toronto, the best modern city in the world, and came to Shediac Cape, to the very acres where Pierre Arsenault, fleeing the Expulsion of the Acadians from Grand Pré, put up his cabin before 1768 (our earliest record of the property) and was removed when William Hanington, who bought the grant in London, came over in 1785 and put off the refugees. The Arsenaults never left the district, though, just moved up or down the road, leaving Hanington the 5.000 acres which later became the English colony known as Shediac Cape.
We were fortunate to have had the means and opportunity to search for the perfect retirement before the time actually came. The hints my wife and I pass on are not for the rich — they can look after themselves — nor for those on minimal pensions, because the circumstances do not apply. We’re talking here about retirement income levels of between, say, $8.000 and $20,000.
We that Shediac had the always family home Cape known would at suit us perfectly as a summer retreat. After all, summers in the Maritimes are the best anywhere. But for a couple of years there was still the question of where to spend the winter. Our first, spent on the Cape, had lived up to all the glorious expectations of my dreams, but we quickly found out anew that spring is hardly the Maritimes at their best. So before the second winter began, we struck out to survey the Atlantic seaboard once again, just to be sure. Going south to Key West, atross the Everglades, north to Clearwater and Tampa and back home again before the gas drought came, we quickly realized we hadn’t chosen wrongly. In one $20,000-per-unit condominium at Florida’s Delray Beach, the manager was giving out wrist bands to identify the occupants at the pool, like newborn babes in hospitals. Eight million people jammed along two coasts, often seedy, geriatric and formless. For us anyway, winter in the Maritimes held much more promise. We had splendid memories of that first winter spent in Shediac, and the second provided us with a whole new set: skates in the back porch and skis in the barn. On the tips of the blades, 1 tiptoed down to the shore (where my brother built a lighthouse cottage) and set out onto the icy bay. My wife stayed home and scraped the paint and varnish from an antique chest, later joining the country ladies at St. Martin’s-in-the-Wood for church-hall badminton.
In his working life, J. E. “Ned” Belliveau was a journalist, public relations consultant and advertising executive.
When I watch the Acadian oyster fishermen up the bay, I know that something of the past fives yet
It was somewhat idyllic, if cold, and yet there was still one further question to be answered — would we stay through a second Maritime spring? Fifteen years ago, thinking to beat the February blasts on Lake Ontario, we found a place along the beach near San Diego. Too cold for swimming, and we didn’t like the John Birch smell in the air, so we came back. Northward, the best of California, at Carmel and Monterey, millionaires could live in glory — unsmogged, uncrowded and scenically magnificent — perhaps the world’s most beautiful conjunction of land and sea. But how do you live contentedly among the folk who made Dick Nixon?
There are other places with winter sun. Arizona has its desert fascinations but when I asked about the heating bills they told me air-conditioning costs more than does the oil to heat our place in Shediac. Jamaica, Trinidad, Grenada, St. Lucia, Barbados and Antigua are far less tempting now than they once might have been; the colonial regimes have left nasty legacies. Out in the Gulf Stream, in beautiful Bermuda. K. C. Irving could afford to buy a Trimingham estate; and, in Nassau, E. P. Taylor owns the colony where he stays at Lyford Cay. Nice indeed on both those islands when you own your jets, as they do, and can flit back and forth to Saint John or Toronto to keep up your business contacts. Nice, but very, very expensive.
A son of ours who lived in Indonesia considers it the world’s most beautiful area, while admitting that Prince Edward Island is as pretty as Bali, save for the ancient temples. But elderly Canadians would find adjusting difficult. Another son who spent considerable time in India and Russia, in the Arab lands and visited Tanzania and Kenya, today finds living in the Maritimes much more congenial. And a third, who knows Central America, thinks his parents might find winter happiness in Costa Rica. At 26, he says he could retire there. We couldn’t.
We always came back again to the Cape on the Bay of Shediac which the French cartographer Emmanuel Jumeau first mapped in 1685 and called Gedaique, his version of the Micmac Indian Es-ed-ei-ik which means “running far in.” When we returned it was midDecember; the grass was brown and flat along the shore but the air was mild. The Maritimes are a little shabby at this mongrel time of year, rough at the edges, but still there were no endless industrial slums, no smog, few billboards. A few of the roads are good but the others awful (particularly ours, because we’re Liberals around Shediac and the government now is Tory). Down on the marsh a covey of black and white petrels jittered nervously skyward and a few mallards lingered in the bay. The snipe, with their Tartuffe-ish noses, which had tickled us all fall, were gone now. Once on assignment in Venice in December for the Toronto Star, I saw the poets’ treasure, when people were themselves and the tourists gone. It’s like that here. Another time, we drove around the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro at this season and the feeling was the same. The people were themselves, unguarded, open. They’re like that here when tourists leave.
The French explorers called it Arcadie (Arcadia) and somewhere the “r” was lost and the region became known as Acadie (Acadia). Nicolas Denys was in the bay of Shediac sometime around 1670, and John Bell built our house in 1830. Since then, the house has been the residence of Beals, Stovers, Watsons, Nickersons, Martin Walsh (a stagecoach driver). Browns, Lockharts, Robichauds and Gillespies. Once it fell into the hands of our farmer neighbor, William Glendenning, and once a mortgage on the place was held by Edward Barron Chandler, a Father of Confederation. Where our pasture meets a clump of trees, there is a Presbyterian burying ground; in my youth the flat white stones were half-buried in the grass but still visible, but are now gone entirely. Beside the graveyard was the kirk, and there the father of Bonar Law, the Canadian who became prime minister of Great Britain, preached the occasional sermon.
Hardly an acre of this once-thriving farming-shipping-lumbering community of 3,500 has sold within this century. Most of the founding families are here yet, either on their original lands or owning them. Once there were five tanneries, five schools, four churches and at least three taverns. It’s not Utopia and not to the taste of everyone, but if William Faulkner had come from Oxford, Mississippi, he would have found in Shediac Cape exact counterparts of the Snopeses. Hidden by the great orchard, the white-verandaed Welling house could come straight out of Yoknapatawpha country: rusted farm machinery strewn about the yard, a hand-turned washing tub and bursting mohairstuffed discarded sofas sitting out, broken chairs waiting year after year in the boneyard of a railed veranda. In our county, Westmorland, LeBlancs, Cormiers, Boudreaus and Belliveaus are numerous, but the Old South would feel at home with the Murrays, Chandlers, Websters and Batemans. Of course, Faulkner’s country was first settled by the French, too, but here they’ve kept their language and traditions. They prosper and they are in the professions and have one of the county’s two universities. When I watch the Acadian oyster fishermen up the bay leaning over their rakes I know that something of the past lives yet.
Economics, unfortunately, has nothing to do with the past, and our retirement to Shediac forced a few present realities upon us. Anyone who dreams of living graciously in the charming seaside Maritimes on less than $8,000 is either planning to camp out, live with relatives or build a shanty on the shore which goes out with the first high tide. Of course, so much depends on what you settle for and what you have accumulated in the working years to supplement the after-60 income. Choice land is hard to get and no longer cheap, but it is still far cheaper than land in the cities. The costs in Halifax so nearly match Toronto’s there isn’t much to choose. Fredericton is very expensive; Moncton has no land to sell except in newly added outskirts where a relative of mine is asking $160,000 for 90 acres which were granted freely to his grandpa.
In the country, old houses can be bought in southeastern New Brunswick, and if you’re an adept at renovation you may find a hobby that’ll last you for years. Not far from here, a century-old house with 50 scrubby acres was going for $12,000. You could see the bay through a field beside the house across the road, but you could also see at least $5,000 swallowed up in first improvements, with more to come. One country house, with fewer acres, went for $10,000 but would take almost as much again to make it livable. There was, on a side road near a rather chintzy village, a splendid farm which went last fall for just over $30,000. With well-farmed acreage, barns and outbuildings, a closed-off well, and three miles from the main road, it was a buy, 150 years old and owned all those years by the same family of excellent farmers and workmen. Only the 1920 linoleum needed lifting from the “parlor” floor to put the place in first-class shape. This year it would sell for twice that.
New houses cost almost as much as they do in the cities, except that in the country land can be bought much more cheaply. Around the bays and rivers there’s little left, though. A lot of Americans have already been here shopping. Rural taxes are low in New Brunswick, and until recently mortgage money easy. In these circumstances, a more than decent house can still go up for $20,000, providing you have a plot to put it on.
As for other living costs, one car does us where two used to be necessary. Gasoline is more expensive in the Maritimes, but distances are shorter. Clothing costs are low in retirement because you won’t be dressing for work. Join a top-notch golf club? The stock will cost $500 and the dues perhaps $150. There are other clubs, less elegant but cheaper, likewise curling clubs. Booze for your golden years is a rip-off in New Brunswick, every bottle more expensive than Ontario or Quebec prices. The wine selection is so small you’d cry, or make your own. Entertainment costs are up to you, but generally they’re less. There’s less to choose, and the back-and-forthing of suburbia doesn’t seem a factor here. Get-togethers are largely in the family, or dinings out, or Christmas season cocktail bangs. It’s only half an hour’s drive to Cy’s Seafood Restaurant in Moncton which is just about as good as any in the country: none better in the Maritimes.
Food costs are much as in Montreal or Toronto, sometimes a trifle higher. but older people eat less and bargains sometimes strike in season. Lobster, when available, is not the 35-cents a pound of 20 years ago, but in season sells from $1.50 to $2.10 a pound at the wharves. Shediac is — by title — the lobster capital of the world, and the pissclams (soft-shell) only cost a shovel to dig them, the hard-shell quahogs are free for the wading and dipping your hand almost anywhere into the slimy seaweed bed. Electricity is more expensive than in central Canada; heating oil costs about the same.
My roots here go back to 1635
Still, there are moderating factors. Down east the people live more frugally. Wages and salaries are lower; society is less spoiled by useless modern trappings. Fishing is good, and free unless you’re out for big-time salmon. If you hunt you can join the annual moose lottery and perhaps become one of the lucky 1.000 legalized to try for game.
When the summer folk are gone, Shediac is a quiet place to be, sometimes a little lonely if you’ve always lived in cities. We miss Toronto less as it is now than as it used to be, when the city was more neighborly. We know there are no Shangri-Las. We’ve looked. If in the end I dwell upon the place where my family’s roots go back to 1635, it is simply because no other place seems right. Emil, the grocer, whispers to my wife when he’ll have fresh lamb, and he’ll save a leg. John Foster, the watchmaker, takes off his gold Bulova and puts it on my wrist so I won’t be timeless when he’s fixing mine.
Filling my own time is no problem. There are still some business and writing interests, mowing, painting, pruning, weeding, fence-mending, ditch-clearing. The maintenance never ends, except in winter, and then I do a little work as a consultant and my wife scrapes antiques when the housework’s done. 1 shovel snow. Three daily Canadian newspapers, two weeklies, a dozen magazines keep the long winter nights warm, and there are still a thousand books in which to revel. Sometimes we watch television — CBC radio is better — but the Maritimes are badly served in this respect.
Down by the coast time moves in a natural way. There is time to talk and think. Each person has a face, a name, a family, is known and has a place in local history. You watch the clouds, test the shifting winds and see the moon flood the evening waters. You feel a part of where you are, a link with those who once were here and those who will follow. Perhaps you never really got away. So you come back — and stay.ó