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Jantje (Jean) Devries.

Courtesy of the Family

Jantje (Jean) Devries: Mother. Homemaker. Friend. Letter writer. Born Oct. 20, 1926, in the Netherlands; died May 3, 2019 in Listowel, Ont., of complications from a stroke; aged 92.

If someone had told Jantje Pikstra that she would one day marry a handsome man and raise 11 children, she would have said, “Well, maybe.” However, if she had been told that she and her husband would sail across the Atlantic far away from her family, it is likely she would have said, “No, I don’t think so.”

As the eldest of five daughters, Jantje’s responsibilities were many. She completed Grade 8 – a significant achievement at that time. When not doing schoolwork, she was her mother’s helper, caring for her sisters.

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Jantje met Jolle Devries when she was 21. They went for a walk to look at tulips and became enchanted with each other. After the war, there was limited opportunity in Holland and once their papers were approved to come to Canada, Jantje wasted no time: “Now we go to get married, Jolle!” Once they arrived in Halifax, they took a train to Brampton, Ont., where they worked on a dairy farm for one year to pay for their passage.

At the Christian Reformed Church in Brampton they met other Dutch immigrants, many who became lifelong friends. After a few years, with enough money saved, they purchased their first home in nearby Oakville.

The couple’s first child, Robert, arrived in 1950, after which Jantje experienced an ectopic pregnancy and had an ovary removed. This didn’t stop her from having another 10 children, one born every couple of years. Her last child was born after an eight-year hiatus, when she was 48.

Jantje was the quintessential stay-at-home mom, remarkably talented at gardening, sewing and knitting. She did not enjoy cooking but everyone was welcome at the table. “What’s another one or two more?” she would say. Her backside was the view her children remember while waiting at the kitchen table, where she laid out simple, delicious fare, such as meatball soup and stamppot, a mix of potatoes, vegetables and meat.

Instead of cooking, Jantje wanted to work in the garden, watch I Love Lucy or write one of her “stream of conscience“ letters to family and friends. She was thrifty and talented: One winter she transformed a man’s large overcoat into coats for daughters Louise and Jo-Anne. But she could be frugal to a fault: Instead of buying Q-tips, she used the rounded end of a bobby pin and bathroom paper to clean her children’s ears.

On Saturday nights she would line up half of a King peppermint for each child to take to church in the morning. She was always quite concerned with how her children looked and when her teenage daughters developed their own style, she could be disapproving.

In 1975, the family moved to a 100-acre farm near Listowel, Ont., where Jolle started a new construction business in combination with his first love – farming. Jantje enjoyed the welcoming rural community as her children began to leave home. When John, their third child, took his own life at the age of 33, she relied on her faith to uphold her but never came to terms with his death.

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In early 1987, the couple retired to a bungalow in Listowel and she would welcome grandchildren to her table for soup and boeterkoek, Dutch butter cake.

When Jolle died in 2011, they had been married for 62 years. She moved into assisted living. Eventually, dementia set in and it was a blessing when she didn’t fully comprehend the loss of her oldest daughter, Grace, in 2018.

Jantje may have feared that she would never see her family again after leaving Holland but she created her own and it grew to include 26 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren. She loved all unconditionally and devoted her life to them.

Written by Emma Devries, one of Jantje’s daughters, with her siblings.

To submit a Lives Lived: lives@globeandmail.com

Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide

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