Sunday, March 22, 2015

Local News

Leather & Lace  

Scott friends and family fill Rotary Hall for Celebration of Life

By Anne Russell, Rosedale/Voice photos

 

Jean Scott goes face-to-face with Adrian Dix in January 2013. Below, Patti Macahonic together with Scott in April 2013.

 

lost my oldest friend a few weeks ago. Not oldest in terms of duration of the friendship, although we were going on 14 years. No, my friend Jean was simply the oldest person I had ever known, two months short of her 103rd birthday.

 

Jean had been a social activist longer than most people have been alive. She devoted her life to causes that promote social justice, women’s equality, and the rights of the common person.

Many know the public Jean, but I was lucky enough to get to know the private Jean, as we forged a strong friendship borne of mutual admiration. I love to hear stories, and she loved to tell them, so for a decade and a half I heard many chapters from the story of Jean.

Back in 2001 I was a busy mum, juggling kids, marriage, and a full-time job, when I met Jean. She called me up at work, having somehow got my number, and demanded to know: “What is the university planning to do to commemorate Person’s Day this year?”


My boss, who knew her, told me to do anything Jean wanted.

First Jean had to educate me about the Person’s Case of 1929 and why there even is a Person’s Day, commemorating when the Privy Council recognized women as persons under the law. Then I helped her find speakers, order refreshments, and promote the event, which went quite successfully.

Fascinated by the impact this octogenarian had had locally, provincially, and nationally, I decided to nominate her for an honorary doctorate at the local university. That continued our formal relationship a while longer, and I was delighted, as was she, when the nomination was successful.

That could have been it for Jean and I, but I was intrigued by this feisty senior who seemed to have personal experiences relating to every major event of the 20th century. The Titanic? It sank in the weeks before she was born. World War I? She could remember her uncle going to fight in it. The Spanish Flu? It nearly killed her father. The Depression? She scraped through it doing menial labour. World War II? She had a dalliance with a German POW. The 60s? She helped arrange health care for the hippies on Vancouver’s Fourth Avenue. The 70s? She was a driving force nationally in feminist issues.

I didn’t have time for a new “old” friend, but I was won over by her energy, her relentless positivism, and her verve, and we quickly became close. How could I resist? Besides, I figured, she was almost 90. How long would this friendship go on for anyway?

Although I escorted her to many public events and she loved them all, the best parts of our friendship were the private moments.
 

Gwen O'Mahony and Scott at the Chilliwack Cultch on her 100th birthday in March 2012.


She became a treasured elder in our family, and loved nothing more than being invited to share dinner around our table after a country drive out to our house. (She loved food in all forms, had a robust appetite, cooked for herself into her 100th year, and the last word I heard her speak was “delicious” as the nurse fed her some pudding.)

I wasn’t her only friend, of course. She was so effusive that many were drawn to her positivism. Jean had a healthy ego and an extremely strong need for her voice to be heard. I think she lasted so long partly because she couldn’t stand to think of a world without her.

Her drive to share the narrative of 20th century women’s experience through the lens of her own life led to her writing and self-publishing Brown Sugar and a Bone in the Throat, her memoir of growing up in poverty, overcoming abusive relationships, and emerging into a political consciousness that inspired her to speak up for others. One of my proudest achievements was helping to stage a public reading of the book, with my daughters reading the part of young Jean and women friends of every age reading the other stages.
 

I also enjoyed taking her to visit my son’s Grade 3 class as a living example of a 100-year-old, who proved to them that centenarians CAN dance (AND play the ukulele).

Jean was a living link to many stages of Canadian history and an inveterate name dropper who had known Pierre Berton, Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence, and every left-leaning politician, it seemed.
She demonstrated how to grow very old gracefully while remaining extremely engaged with loved ones and community, all the while retaining a sense of humour, vivaciousness and a lust for life. (Did I mention she was also a notorious flirt?)

When she began suffering with heart trouble late last year, she told me:

“All this time I never knew I HAD a heart, it just kept ticking away and giving me no trouble. Now the bottom half works but the top isn’t doing so well, and apparently you need your WHOLE heart to work.”

I replied: “Oh, believe me, your whole heart has been working hard for a long time! Just look at how you’ve shared it with so many people.”

Having lost Jean, but not begrudging her passing (she was 102 after all) I reflected on her attitude towards life, which is part of what kept me so eager to continue to be her friend.

I recently read that only 10% of those born in 1917 made it to age 85. Jean, born five years before that, made it to almost 103. So she outlived her peer group by a long shot, but stayed connected to the world by continually making new friends from all generations.


Jean Scott flanked by Patti MacAhonic (L) and Gail Johnson at Gwen O'Mahony's constituency office opening April 2013.

 

So in the hopes that we should all have the good fortune to live life to the fullest for as long as we get to be here, I offer you some life lessons from our friend Jean:

1) Embrace life with passion
From an early age (I know, because I listened to her stories and read her book), Jean met the world with excitement and unbridled enthusiasm. From the brown sugar she recalls sneaking from the barrels in her father’s grocery store, to the beauty of the blossoming fruit trees on Spadina Avenue, to the many types of music that she played and enjoyed listening to, to men she flirted with and the women and children she engaged with and encouraged, Jean brought a certain gusto and appreciation to everything she encountered.

2) BE engaged, with your causes, your passions, your community
I often thought that what was keeping Jean alive was one more project, one more cause. She moved to Chilliwack in her late 60s, ostensibly to retire, but took on project after project, all of them for the betterment of the community. I know she did this in her six previous decades as well. The Chilliwack Museum, housed in our heritage city hall thanks in part to Jean, the transition house movement, the Academy of Music, the local NDP chapter, the Heritage Singers, the Carman United Church, and others all benefited from her devotion to causes that Jean cared about and that helped others.

 

3) Inspire others to care about the things that matter to you
Jean didn’t have Facebook or Twitter to spread the word about her projects and causes (although someone – not me – did create a Facebook profile for her that you can check out if you want). No, she spread the word about her causes the old-fashioned ways: letters to the editor, photocopied flyers (she would say mimeographed), telephone chains, and fiery speeches. A few years before I formally met her, I encountered her at the campaign offices for the Alliance for a Better Chilliwack, where she was improvising lyrics to a campaign song for the municipal election coalition. Whatever approach she used, she was always inspirational, infecting others with her enthusiasm.

4) Value education
It brings joy to my heart to know that something I instigated brought joy to Jean’s heart. Receiving an honorary doctorate from UFV was one of her peak life experiences, because she had always regretted not getting a university education. But Jean was a lifelong learner. One of her prized possessions was a plaque with a quote from Michelangelo that said: “I am still learning.” Among her favourite sources of knowledge and culture were CBC Radio, library books, concerts and theatre outings, and courses taken through UFV partner Elder College.

5) Appreciate friendship and family
Anyone who was friends with Jean became friends with her entire circle by proxy. For years I heard stories about Spencer and Sonia and their kids and grandkids, her sisters and nieces and nephews, long-lost relatives who came back into her life, and friends Sharon and Phil Blaker, Pat Carfra, Jean and Jim Servizi, Doug Wickers, Bobbi Jacobs, Brenda Janzen, and others. She thanked me every time we saw each other for being a good friend to her, and always insisted on hugs and kisses. She was appreciative of every outing, especially one Christmas Eve when she was snowed in – unable to get to Langley, and we brought her out through the storm for prime rib at our house and an impromptu trip to the Rosedale United Church’s candlelight ceremony. And she remembered incredible details about me and my family –- not always accurately -– but very vividly. For years she mistakenly thought my daughter Molly wanted to be an architect and would tell her about famous female architects. When two of her sisters died in their 90s a week apart in 2008, she felt so adrift that she sought formal grief counselling. On her last good day, she asked me to bring my kids to see her, so the next day I did, on what turned out to be her last -– not so good -– day. But she still beckoned my girls to her bedside and grasped their hands for a final loving connection with her radiant being.

6) Be grounded
Jean loved social life and the adrenalin buzz that came along with it but she also appreciated the basic good things in life, such as home-made food. Up to the age of 100, the woman could take a butcher’s bone and an onion and come up with a tasty soup. She didn’t understand why you’d buy muffins from a store when you could make your own. Until she left her own home with a yard she grew a bounteous garden. Simply listening to music, singing, playing the piano, or meditating on a poem or a prayer also grounded her. And of course there was the soothing company of her cat Nicky -– unfriendly to so many but so devoted to her.

7) Spread love and joy as part of your daily life
You couldn’t be friends with Jean without hugs and kisses -– on the lips! But I also saw her share love wherever she went. She would have kind words for the waitress, ask after the taxi driver’s family, encourage the many UFV students she met at events, throw cheerful words out as she pushed her walker down the hall at the Lynnwood, and profusely thank the nurses as they tended to her in her hospital bed. A fine example to follow!

8) Share what you know
When I was interviewing Gwen Point, the new Chancellor at our University, she told me that her grandmother told her this: “What you know has no value. It’s like sand falling through your hand unless you pass it on to others.” Jean understood this, and was forever teaching others, about the importance of women’s rights, major achievements in the labour movement, local history from both Chilliwack and her prairie homes of Rocanville and McAuley, and lessons learned from years in the trenches fighting for the common good.

9) Make sure your voice is heard and your story is told
Not all of us have the gift of rhetoric and a whole autobiography itching to be written, but we all have a story. Jean’s keen desire to tell hers so that it would not be forgotten led to her writing her memoir. That should inspire us all. You may not write 20 chapters, but your story shouldn’t die with you. All of our stories are important. History is the collection of individual narratives. Start telling yours to your family and friends so that your stories and the experiences and wisdom that shaped you lives on in their hearts.

And speaking of hearts, here’s the final life lesson we can learn from Jean:

10) Keep hope in your heart
Jean was an eternal optimist, despite a life filled with struggle. She NEVER gave up. As she languished at home with the heart trouble that eventually led to her demise, she told me she had to get better so she could host one more birthday party in April. So as we celebrate the equinox today, one month from what would have been Jean’s 103rd birthday, let’s all take a little hope in our hearts home with us.

 

 

The Original Feminist - Friday, March 30, 2012

 

See photos below from Scott's Celebration of life March 21, 2015 at the Rotary Hall at the Chilliwack Cultch.

 

 

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