Janet Taylor Purdie 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,
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
From The Scarboro Heights Record, V4 #1