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Charlie Comrie knows his story is unusual, and that some may think he’s lost his senses.
But for Comrie, a 96-year-old veteran of the Second World War, it all made sense when he sold his house in Clinton, Ont., in December to move 3,000 kilometres east to a rural town on the island of Newfoundland.
Comrie now lives in Plate Cove West, a village of about 170 people who have welcomed him and his best friend Shiloh, a Nova Scotia retriever, with open arms.
But you might wonder why an old man would move such a distance to live along the harsh coast along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
And the answer is simple.
While this is the first year Comrie has lived in Plate Cove West, he and his wife, Anna, fell in love with Newfoundland and Labrador during the first of many visits starting in 2000. They would discover the community that is Comrie’s new home 15 years into their tours of the province.
Anna died in 2019, after 19 years living with dementia. Comrie still misses her. After 70 years of marriage, being in a place that she loved so much, helps.
“I think maybe you can understand that I do feel closer to Anna with this. I really do,” he said.
It was, after all, Anna’s wish that compelled him to make such a bold move — the kind of change he has embraced several times in his life.
A fateful visit
Some of Charlie and Anna’s fond memories were with Chris and Karen Ricketts, the owners of Round Da Bay Inn, a 16-room bed and breakfast on the main road in Plate Cove West, which is nestled on the western side of Newfoundland’s Bonavista Peninsula.
They remember the couple’s first visit to Plate Cove West, in 2015, very well.
“When we met Charlie and Anna first, it was obvious Anna had dementia, but it was just something about Charlie’s character, how he looked after her,” said Chris Ricketts.
They grew to call them The Notebook couple, after the Nicholas Sparks novel of the same name.
“She needed taking care of. And he’s her man and he takes her wherever she needs, wants to go. They travelled all over Canada,” said Karen Ricketts.
The couple first came to Newfoundland the year of Anna’s diagnosis. They came back every year after that, exploring both the island and Labrador, but made a real connection with people every time they came to Plate Cove West.
It was on the couple’s last visit to the Inn in September 2019 where they met a group of singers who would make a huge impact on them all. Mary Jane Maloney and her barbershop quartet, Close Quarters, were visiting at the same time as Anna and Charlie. Chris told her about the couple and suggested they sing a few songs.
“When they finished their lunch, we got up from our table and we just stood in front of them and we sang a couple of songs from Vera Lynn. It was really touching,” recalled Maloney.
‘My man. Where are we going today?’
Later that fall, Anna’s health took a turn for the worse. She was admitted to hospital and later a care home. Charlie and Shiloh would make their daily visits, with Charlie helping with meals and other needs.
But she wasn’t able to communicate with anyone, even her husband, for many weeks.
Comrie said he will never forget what happened next.
“Two days before she died, they wheeled her in a wheelchair in the morning, and she said to me, ‘My man’ — she didn’t know my name at that point. ‘My man. Where are we going today?’
“And those were the first words she had said to me in three weeks. ‘Where are we going today?'” he said.
“And I said, ‘we’re about to have breakfast right here. But where would you like to go?’ She said, ‘Newfoundland.’ And I said, ‘We were there for six weeks. Yeah. You want to go back?’
“She said, ‘But those ladies sang so beautifully.’ And those were her last words.”
The many chapters of Charlie’s life
After living alone as the COVID-19 pandemic set in, Comrie returned to Newfoundland for a visit in the fall of 2021.
Mary Jane Maloney was also there that weekend. She arranged an online call to sing again for Comrie.
It was this gesture, on top of other acts of kindness from the people of Plate Cove West, that cemented his decision to move to the rural Newfoundland town.
So, well into his 90s, Comrie is starting a new chapter in life. He’s busy helping Chris and Karen with their gardens, he bakes pies, and is even helping renovate a shed into a “bunkie” for extra sleeping.
Change is just a part of life, something he’s done many times before.
He grew up in Toronto. At age 15, Comrie joined the militia to train so he could later become a member of the Canadian Army. In 1945, at 19, he made the one-week voyage from Halifax to England to serve in the Second World War. He fought as a soldier in battle, then served as a police officer in Holland.
He sailed back to North America along with the U.S. military. He was to be stationed in Georgia. But when atomic bombs hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki that August, Comrie was sent back to Canada.
After his discharge from the army, he went working in the grocery business. He married Anna that same year, on Sept. 24, 1949. The couple would have four children: three girls and a boy. They lived in southern Ontario, moving from time to time, including 13 years on a farm.
At age 59, after more than 30 years in the grocery business, the company was sold, and Comrie was laid off.
Too young to retire, he found a new career in flipping houses. He would buy a house, fix it up, sell it and then move on and do it again. Seven houses and two cottages later, he gave it up to be a full-time caretaker after Anna was diagnosed with dementia.
It was then that the couple started travelling. Comrie said he found it easier not having to worry about meals when they were on the road.
They had good memories, and he knew that even when she didn’t want to go shopping with him, he could trust her in the car.
“She loved the car,” he said.
Always thinking of Anna
Now a widower, there’s never a day Comrie is not thinking about Anna. His new friends, though, make it easier.
Along with Chris and Karen, he gets a lot of help from others in the community. There are always fresh homemade bread deliveries, there’s help with the snow clearing, and even rides to St. John’s for medical appointments. One of his new friends is Kim Furlong, who works at Round Da Bay Inn and lives just down the road from Comrie
She helps him with his household chores and is helping him renovate a small structure in his backyard.
She’s not the only one who’s fallen in love with Comrie. Her whole family, including her teenage boys, have a fondness for their new neighbour.
“My sons, they love him. Especially the older one. [Tyson] loves his stories. And Charlie’s got lots of stories to tell.”
Tyson even invited Comrie to his high school graduation.
Inspired by Anna’s final words, Comrie feels lucky to have found this place and its people. And even at 96, he said he isn’t going to slow down.
“I think it’s kind of important to have something to get up for. I really do,” he said.
He hopes his family can come visit him in Newfoundland soon. In the meantime, he’ll be keeping busy with the gardens, fixing up his house, with his faithful pup Shiloh following right beside him.
When he looks around at the geography of the Bonavista Peninsula, he knows Anna would be happy he’s here.