Would the last ones to leave Fairbanks please turn off the heat?
Our transformation from Fairbanks cabin-hippies to Bellingham retirees started 40 years ago. As a young grad student at the University of Alaska, Pete unexpectedly became guardian for his former 6th grade teacher, a family friend. “Mrs. T” was fiercely independent in the 1950s, leaving Fairbanks during school vacations to travel throughout the South Pacific. She continued her peripatetic ways after retirement, so much so that she never established residency in another state.
One day, Pete received an unexpected phone call at the grad student office in Fairbanks. Oregon Social Services informed him that Mrs. T would be on the noon flight to Fairbanks and that someone should meet the plane. Mrs. T had started the long descent into dementia and Oregon had decided she was not one of their residents. They determined that the closest place she had to residency was in Fairbanks, so they were sending her “home.”
Pete stepped up and became Mrs. T’s guardian. The experience started a series of conversations among our grad student friends. Given the climatic challenges of Fairbanks, where could we age gracefully in place? How should we prepare for retirement? How could we retire while it was still an adventure? How could we establish a community of friends in a new location where none of us had ever lived? The answer seemed to be to move with a group of friends.
Friends Sarah and Dan did the leg work. They created a matrix of desirable traits for a retirement city: An economy based on more than tourism. Good health care. Good college or university. Cultural diversity. Good outdoor recreation. Variety of housing options. Small city. Ocean nearby. Driving distance to winter. Good public transportation. They vetted the matrix with the rest of us. After several years trying out the short list of possibilities during winters, Sarah chose Bellingham, and she found Jeff Braimes.
It was easy for Pete and me to buy into the plan. Relatives on his mother’s side had been early residents of Lynden. We had traveled through this part of Washington many times to show our kids Berthusen’s Woods and the Lynden Pioneer Museum.
Pete and I established our own 5 Year Plan for retirement. Jeff helped us find a house on Maplewood that has a garage large enough to hold our boat. We had wonderful tenants while we drew our Alaska obligations to close. A friend of Sarah and Dan’s, a former Alaskan, is our contractor for refreshing the house.
The house is adjacent to Woodway Senior Living. In the beginning, that was cause for concern. But we soon came to see it as opportunity. Pete’s mother Helen now lives at the Woodway, and it is easy for us to stop over and see her several times a day. Besides, we hope the residents of the Woodway will refer to us as “that young couple next door.”
Best of all, we have a circle of Alaskan friends, and friends of friends, here in Bellingham. Some are still snowbirds. Others, like us, have wholly committed to this new place. Life is still an adventure.
Blogger’s note: It’s been very gratifying to actually see Pete & Meg land in Bellingham and commence transforming the house on E. Maplewood that I wasn’t sure they’d ever actually get to live in. These guys are the third ( fourth? ) in a running series of Fairbanksians who have arrived in Bellingham in a similar fashion to the one described here by Meg. They are a unique breed– hearty & resourceful from their years spent in that challenging region. Many of them are retired academics and they’re all just smarter than snot– deep readers. But they also share a less tangible characteristic– a gentleness & warmth & earthy sensitivity that makes them great artists and great writers. And great friends…