An old quilt for a picnic cloth, spread under a gigantic old maple tree, it was a comfortable spot for an after school tea party. Wonderful homemade oatmeal cookies, white coconut layer cake, sandwiches, cucumber slices, bowls of berries and milk straight from the cow were ready for me as I skipped up the laneway. My cousin Jean, well into middle age would greet me with the most twinkling hazel coloured eyes and her charming but shy smile. Jean was of medium height, quite slim with wavy shimmering white hair. She had the family nose, originally quite patrician, except hers had been broken at a younger age. This injury wasn’t fixed and so it became her most prominent feature. Some of the family said that Jean was an old maid because of this broken nose. Despite this or maybe because of it she seemed the kindest, gentlest, sweetest soul who just seemed to be so happy to see me come through her gate after school. Almost without fail on the days I would be walking home from school or riding my bike I would play along the gravel road investigating the wildflowers, orchards and wood lot that were between the one room school and Jean’s farm.
Jean lived on the farm with her brother Percival long after their parents passed away. Her mother Ida and my grandfather Walter had been brother and sister. Old tried and true farming rituals and routines were the basis of their life . The large yellow brick farmhouse was quaint and spotless. A plain but serviceable back kitchen was my favourite spot to visit with Jean on rainy days. This is where she would clean the eggs, prepare the garden produce for preserves and do her cooking on a big old range stove. An enormous aluminum tea kettle was always simmering on the stove ready to make our tea. The stove seemed to be quite snazzy to me compared to the rest of the old-fashioned equipment. A hand pump and deep sink were part of the scene. Through the dining room door was a large table covered with a lace tablecloth and a protective clear plastic sheet along with set of heavy wooden dining room chairs. To one side of the dining room was a very narrow kitchen pantry with white cupboards to the ceiling filled with dishes . A grey counter top ran the length of these cupboards making a surface to organize cups and saucers before they were neatly stowed away. Jean also had a full length deep freezer which was another remarkable appliance compared to the simple features of the rest of the house. The front porch was enclosed and filled with red geraniums that were stored there until late fall and then over wintered in the basement. I didn’t go into the bedrooms as I was entertained happily in the yard , dining room or that perfect old back kitchen. I have a faint memory of my Aunt Ida as a quiet invalid in those other rooms in the rest of the house. That was just the way things were. Jean must have worked very hard to manage her farm work and her mother’s care. Percival worked in the field and the barn and left the rest to Jean.
Jean never said a great deal but enjoyed visiting. She would ask simple friendly questions from time to time but mostly I recall her letting me babble on with all my stories and nodding her head. She would say things like,”yes, yes, yes’ or ‘oh, oh oh’ as I would fill her in on my day at school or tell her about the things I had seen along the way to her place in the woods or by the side of the road. She probably got a real charge out of all my imagination and fantasy about fairies and elves that I insisted lived under the bridge beside the school. When she had little barn kittens to show me she would be so excited to share them. She seemed to have all the time in the world to put up with me. I would have long afternoon visits with her and then carry on my way to get home for supper. Sometimes I took so long my Mom would have to drive over to get me.
As the years took their toll, her brother Percival was injured in an accident and then had a stroke. Jean continued to care for him until he passed away. Eventually Jean became too frail to manage on her own and went into nursing home care. She also suffered a stroke and was unable to speak. When I last visited her at the nursing home she brightened up when she saw me, eyes twinkling and nodding her snowy white head. Fingering the pink geraniums I’d brought her she said ‘you, you, you’. Trying her best to smile and take part in the visit she made me feel like a little girl again.
Dear Jean, you were a lovely friend, and I miss you. After all these years I’m finally home from school. All those years of being a student and eventually a teacher for thirty one years I kept on telling those stories. Oh, and just so you know, I have your enormous aluminum tea kettle put away in my pantry.