Writer, memoirs coach, gardener, grandmother. Born Nov. 7, 1921, in Aylmer, Ont., died Feb. 18, 2013, in Oshawa, Ont., of cancer, aged 91.
An elderly man once turned to Jean Bishop on a shopping mall bench and said, “This is as good a place to kill time as any, isn’t it?”
Jean was too polite to disagree, but later was upset, saying: “I don’t kill time. There isn’t enough time for everything to be done.”
Her zest for life continued to the end of her 91 years. Four years after she was diagnosed with cancer, she had endured chemotherapy and radiation and astounded her doctor by remaining alive and vigorous.
Farm life set the stage for Jean’s energetic, creative lifestyle. Her father, Eugene Sweet, was a successful dairy farmer in Elgin County. Jean learned an amazing array of cooking, preserving, mending, gardening and other skills on the farm.
As a teenager, she and her sister Dorothy drove a horse and wagon laden with milk to a local dairy each day. Her mother, Aleta Sweet, and aunts Melba and Maud Sweet were role models, dynamic women who raised or prepared almost all their own food and sewed their own clothes.
Those semi-pioneer skills served Jean and her family – husband Rodger and daughters Anne and Ruth – well. Living on the fringe of Oshawa on a two-acre veteran’s lot, Jean wasted nothing. Used milk bags were washed out, filled with tomato juice and frozen for later use. Decades before composting came into vogue, Jean used plant waste to build up rich black soil in her garden, leading to stunning crops including rhubarb plants twice the normal size.
Always open to new possibilities, Jean grew an unusual kind of tuber called the chufa nut. She selectively bred the plants to make the nuts larger. Later, her daughter Ruth distributed chufa nuts across Canada through the Seeds of Diversity organization.
Jean graduated from the University of Toronto in the 1940s, when female students from farm families were rare.
As well as raising a family, she worked at the Oshawa Public Library and developed a vertical reference file system. Jean also turned her hand to writing, with articles in Homemakers and other publications.
Writing remained a lifelong passion. She wrote histories of her church, Kedron United near Oshawa, and of the family cottage on an island in the Ottawa River. She also taught memoir-writing courses for several years at an Oshawa seniors’ centre.
As Jean’s health declined in her mid-80s, and suburban development ended their tranquil lifestyle, she and Rodger realized they would need to move. Instead of a retirement residence, they chose to surround themselves with young families in a new subdivision, where they were helped by dedicated home-care workers. Jean still took delight in planning a colourful garden, helped by relatives and friends.
Jean’s influence lives on. Her daughter Anne lives on a farm in Nova Scotia where she and her partner grow or make most of their food. Her granddaughter Rosemary has worked on organic farms and launched her own line of organic teas.