Jennie (Purdie) McCowan
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The Cedar Hedge in its Early Days -- She Had a Plan...

Harold McCowan and Jennie Purdie raised a family of five in the big brick farmhouse at Stop 20 Kingston Road -- Bob, Jack, Helen, Bill and Jim. Harold and Jennie retired in 1951 and built a new home on their subdivided farm at the edge of the Scarborough Bluffs.    Jennie's mother, Helen Annis, had died of scarlet fever complications in 1896 when Jennie was only eight months old.  Even though she never really had a mother figure in her own formative years, Jennie became an exceptional mother, mother-in-law and grandmother herself -- as these words by her daughter-in-law, Nancy, clearly show.


Janet Taylor Purdie McCowan
By Nancy (Weir) McCowan

Born in a period when women in Canada were not yet considered "persons", Janet Purdie McCowan was probably the "mightiest little person" I ever met.

Multi-talented, she divided her time and efforts among her family, her home, her church (St. Andrew's Presbyterian in Scarborough) and other group interests such as the Women's Institute and the Scarborough Historical Society.

Her home was immaculate, and her mind and hands were always busy devising new changes to make it more beautiful and inviting. These ways may only have been a splash of gold paint or changing furniture around in a room, but they usually worked.

Spring and summer found her and Harold in the garden, lovingly planting or tidying up the flower beds. Each year brought something new, perhaps a pond, a swing, a barbeque or maybe only new chair cushions, but that change was usually there.

Being small of stature, Jenny found it difficult to buy clothes to fit properly, but no matter, a snip with the scissors and a few stitches would remedy the problem. She loved to dress smartly, and she loved big hats.

Next to her home and family, her church was most important. She knew more of St. Andrew's history than most people, and also recorded much of it. History was in her blood, and the Scarborough Historical Society benefited from her knowledge and efforts. She loved to dress in old-fashioned costume, and whenever there was a special historical day at the Museum or Church, you would find Jenny dressed in her bonnet and burgundy velvet dress, greeting the people.

I first met Jenny in 1950 when I accompanied my parents to St. Andrew's Anniversary - on the third Sunday in June. I had heard about that Church most of my life, but had never seen it. My parents (Jim and Nellie Weir) and the rest of the family had attended it until about 1923 and so knew many people there.

Apparently, I had nothing better to do that particular Sunday and I went with Mom and Dad to Church in Scarborough. Those were the days when the church members would invite visitors home for a meal and a few hours of friendly discussion. As we left the service, we were invited to come for lunch by Mrs. Arthur Thomson, and the invitation was accepted. Within a couple of minutes of that invitation, we received another from Mrs. Harold McCowan, and when we had to decline "lunch", she said "Well, come for supper and go to the evening service with us." Dad, in particular, loved to visit and talk, so this invitation also was accepted. (I guess that the dairy farm chores at Unionville were being taken care of for the day.)

After a lovely lunch with Dr. and Mrs. Thomson, son Dick, and Mr. Thomson's sister, Abigail Thomson (Aunt Abby), we drove to the spacious McCowan family home at Kingston Rd. and McCowan Rd. where we spent another enjoyable time: Dad and Mother with old friends, and unknown to me, I with my future husband and his brothers.

The years passed quickly and Mr. and Mrs. McCowan became Grandpa and Gramma McCowan. Contrary to the usual in-law stories, mine could not have been kinder or more considerate. I learned a lot from Jenny and Harold McCowan.

Jenny loved people, making her home available to any church or lodge (Kiwanis), Women's Institute or other group that might want to come for a meeting or party. She was The Perfect Hostess.

Although she was perhaps just a housewife (as some might say), she had a mind of her own. I can illustrate this by this little story that she told me about an early period in their marriage. There was an old cedar hedge along the edge of the Kingston Road property. The hedge had become ragged and unkempt, and she wanted it out of there. Harold, however, never had the time or the inclination. He was either too busy in the fields, or else away hunting or curling, etc. So, she put her plan into effect. Over a period of two or three years, whenever Harold was away long enough, she took a spade and worked around a tree or two at a time, cutting whatever roots she could get at. Eventually, that tree, and then its neighbour began to show signs of ill health and began to die. Only then did Harold agree to get the team of horses and a chain, hook onto the trees and pull them out. One by one, inexplicably, the trees in the hedge died, and one by one they were pulled out. I don't know if Harold ever caught on, but at last Jenny had achieved her purpose.

Jenny was very interested in the Women's Missionary group at the church. I believe that at that time, there was a Missionary Group of older women (W. M. S.) who always met in the afternoon, but their purpose was to give money to Missions in Canada and Overseas. They could not use any money for improvements in their own Church building. Jenny and some of the other ladies, (a few of whom were Jean Thomson, Elizabeth Stirling, Betty Hawthorne, Margaret Oldham, Laura Britton and Ella Hunter) decided that there should be a younger group started whose mandate might be both to study and to work for their own church. I think that through her single-mindedness, the ball got rolling, and the first meeting of the new St. Andrew's Women's Association was held at my home at 3100 Kingston Road. (According to Jenny, there had been an earlier Women's Association at St. Andrew's years before, but it had been disbanded.) It was when Bruce was just a baby, so it must have been in 1954. One of the first social events we had was an afternoon tea, also at our home.

Jenny usually had an answer for anything, but there was one time when she was absolutely at a loss for words. From time to time, the Women's Missionary Society gave money (their own personal money) for Life Membership and Honorary Life Membership pins to long-time members. The Life Memberships cost Twenty-five Dollars and the Honorary Life Memberships - One Hundred Dollars.The money was paid to Mission and Service in the person's name, and the pin was presented at a meeting. This particular day, I was asked to go along to the Afternoon Meeting at (I believe) Betty Hawthorne's home in Markham where she and her husband, Tom, had retired. After the worship and program, someone made a little speech, and presented Jenny McCowan with an Honorary Life Membership. (According to Betty Hawthorne: "For the Honorary Membership, the previously given pin for the Life Membership was returned to Church Headquarters and another piece was added to signify the Honorary status.") Jennie had not suspected a thing, and was completely nonplussed. For several seconds she could not speak, and I saw tears well-up in her eyes. She had always been used to seeing that other people were thus honoured, and was completely taken off-guard.

In the room at St. Andrew's which began as the Ladies Parlour, there is a framed poem written by a member of the Presbyterian Women, Mrs. Dorothy (Tris.) Brown. The poem was hand-printed in calligraphy by Mrs. Daphne Kaye, who also decorated her artwork with beautiful sprigs of painted flowers. The poem was lovingly written shortly before Janet McCowan died and was meant to show the respect that the ladies had for her.

Dear Mrs. McCowan, we do want to say,
How much we have enjoyed many a day
In your beautiful home and garden fair,
As St. Andrew's women have luncheoned there.

In June when we came with our many dishes,
Joined by Melville friends and their good wishes,
A gracious hostess welcomed with delight
Assisted by Marion who put all things right.

The beauty-bush welcomed with its blossoms superb,
The silver birch whispered, although never heard;
Mother duck with her ducklings peeked from under the hedge,
And we all wandered down to the Scarborough Bluffs' edge.

Lake Ontario was seen as a wide expanse,
As we gazed in amazement or perhaps a trance --
We've watched Bluffers Park as it has truly grown --
From the lighthouse point and a lawn freshly mown.

Back to the house, stopped by the wishing well,
If roses could speak they could tales tell
Of many who have enjoyed the picturesque grounds
Amd of one whose generosity knows no bounds.

To the Women's Institute and Historical Society
You have given much without notoriety --
In your velvet dress or crisp summer gown
You have always been the "belle" of 'Scarboro' town.

Lunch on the patio or under the basswood tree,
Or inside the house, we will all agree,
A source of inspiration we have found;
Our hostess's good wishes truly abound.

So, Mrs. McCowan, we just want to say --
We missed you this year on our luncheon day;
We thank you for your graciousness in the past --
And want you to know these memories will last.


After Janet McCowan's death in October, 1979, I was moved to write a few lines about this generous and fine Christian lady who was my Mother-in-Law.

A Few Thoughts About Jennie

The minister said "She was no lavender and lace little old lady".

She was small of stature but very large of Heart.

Eyes like nuggets of coal which sparkled at a joke. "We think we can fix you up with a wealthy man". Her answer: "Do you think he'll have me?" (five weeks before she died).

Eyes which flashed with fire of indignation - "Don't ever call my (boxer) dog Ugly".

Hair so fine that "I rolled it up but I know it will not stay".

Feet and ankles tiny and trim. To the doctor - "I was always rather proud of my ankles".

Loved to dress smartly. Checked the dress racks regularly. If she liked it - she bought it and gave away an old one. If the new one didn't fit - a nip here or a tuck there would make it wearable. If the new one was mauve - so much the better.

Her interests were her family, her home, the community at large.

She never forgot a birthday - even when questioned in hospital - she remembered each one.

Her own birthday meant - giving to others.

She liked to take the whole family out to dinner.

"If all's well, we will celebrate one more."

Christmas at Grandma's - (Never called her 'Mom' - wish I had) - anticipated for weeks by all. It always seemed so special. Of course, everyone helped - but she was the Hostess.

Her home was always spotless - due in large part, of course, to a couple of energetic cleaning ladies. One of these sometimes had sharp words with her, but she cried at the funeral. What are friends for?

A "Devil with a paintbrush". No one knew what to expect next -- a brocade chair dabbed with gold paint, a grey wall-to-wall bedroom rug dyed purple, or a china teapot spotted with maroon; but her handpainted china pieces are treasures all.

Her garden was her pride and joy. Some of her last failing energy went towards saving her plants for winter. She loved red geraniums, hanging pots, garden ornaments and purple petunias. Weeds she could NOT tolerate, as every garden helper soon found out.

As there was no age barrier with her, one of these helpers became a lasting friend. He laughed with her, ate with her, made her gingerbread houses at Christmas (one of which her dog enjoyed), and finally he dug her last resting spot and helped to place her there.

The beauty of her home and garden she did not keep to herself. The door was always open to individuals or a group, be they from Lawn Bowling, Women's Institute, Scarborough Historical Society or Church. To be hostess at a party brought her joy.

Alone! How she hated to be alone! If alone at night she sometimes answered a phone call with a gruff man's (or so she thought) "HELLO".

Towards the end, her family and friends tried to surround her with love. Alas, at the end we were not there.

Alone - but not for long. She found her parents, her husband and her God.

"If All's Well", Jennie, we will meet again and "Celebrate One More".

From The Scarboro Heights Record, V4 #1