Facts & Arguments: LIVES LIVED
Mother, teacher, gardener, inventor, steward of the land. Born June 29, 1934, in London, England. Died Dec. 16, 2008, in Georgetown, Ont., of rheumatoid arthritis, aged 74.
by Ruth Watkins
March 4, 2009
Jan grew up in the bleakness of East London. She attended St. Angela's Ursuline Convent School, then graduated with a first-class honours degree in chemistry from the University of London.
In 1963, married with three children - Simon, Ruth and Matthew - she immigrated to Canada with the family. Unhappy as a housewife in small-town Ontario, Jan earned her teacher's certificate and became a high-school math teacher. Her schedule allowed her the joy of road trips alone with her children throughout the United States each summer.
In 1970, Jan took her children, then aged 7, 11 and 12, to Mexico for a year, gaining an opportunity to leave an unhappy marriage and expose her kids to a simpler way of life. They camped in a small yellow camper truck on beaches and pyramid sites, with math lessons beneath a palm tree.
In 1976, Jan bought 2½ acres of neglected farmland at the foot of Rattlesnake Point on the Niagara Escarpment near Milton, Ont. A single homeowner for the first time, she learned practical skills such as how to reroof the chicken coop and replace the plumbing. She made the mistakes of the novice - a finger stapled to the ceiling tiles, a wellington boot sheared by the lawnmower.
Next, Jan tackled the barren clay acreage. She mulched instead of manicured, overplanted in imitation of nature, and learned to prefer native trees. She termed her approach "green gardening." Her efforts were recognized when, in 1995, she won a Niagara Escarpment Commission award for rural regeneration.
At 48, Jan was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. At first it was a nuisance, then it seriously impeded her ability to garden. Jan turned her analytical mind to solving the challenges of living alone with an increasingly significant disability. As each part of her body failed, she developed more creative solutions. Her simplest invention was to have a butter knife dangling from the handle of her fridge door to pry apart the seal so it opened effortlessly.
In 1994, Jan started a support group, Rheumatoid Arthritis InVentors. The RAIV report was pecked out one letter at a time, four times a year, for 13 years. She published her inventions and encouraged RAIVers from Canada, the United States and Australia to "refuse to let the things you can't do stop you from doing the things you can."
Jan never wasted time asking, "Why me?" Her motto was, "Whether you think you can or can't, you're always right," and this attitude gave her the determination to live her final years alone in her house, surrounded by a green sanctuary she could no longer visit when she lost the ability to walk.
Ruth Watkins is Jan's daughter.