Jean Tompkins celebrated her birthday for the one hundredth time last week.
Having come to life in 1918, she experienced the Roarin’ 20s, the Dirty 30s, the Second World War, and then the 70-or-so years to follow.
Growing up in the olden days meant living without electricity, treating toothaches with homemade liquor, and $30 monthly mortgage payments.
That mortgage was for a five-acre farm in Pitt Meadows. Jean’s late husband Mel, who served as a welder in the air force, purchased the property through the Veterans Land Act in the early 1950s. Before moving to Pitt Meadows (and a brief stint in Burnaby), Jean had spent her youth living on a farm in rural Saskatchewan.
And she got the full farm experience. All eight of Jean’s siblings were girls, “so naturally we had to compensate on the farm,” she said. Her family of 11 shared a three-bedroom home. It was illuminated by lanterns and heated by coal.
She remembers when the coal fire was dying down; it would still be hot but wood was required to start it up again, because filling it with just coal could put it right out.
“We lived next to the coal mines. My dad would go pick up coal and fill our shed to last all winter,” she said. “Some of you young people don’t realize what some of us had to go through when we were growing up, but we were so used to it, it never bothered us.”
Toothaches could be bothersome, though.
“When we lived on the farm and we had a toothache – I couldn’t go to the dentist right away and see what he’s going to do. We live five miles out.”
Fortunately, Jean’s mother knew how to brew her own liquor.
“So you know what she said? ‘Take a little bit of whiskey, put it on your tooth an that.’ And you know what, that cured our toothache many a time.”
Apparently it was common for rural folks to make their own booze.
“My mother learned to make it, everybody made it. Our neighbour made whiskey and sold it. They couldn’t afford to buy it.”
As a driver, Jean was always in the fast lane. She only forfeited her licence last summer, and she did so voluntarily. Her daughter Marty says it was only a matter of luck that she never got a ticket. Now that she relies on Marty for rides, she’s a bit of a back-seat driver.
“Aren’t you going to pass him?” she’ll say from the passenger’s seat. “You’re not going to follow him all the way to Kelowna are you?”
At her most recent visit to the doctor, Jean was told that she’s in perfect health. She only ever came down with the flu once, and it happened shortly after the only flu shot she ever received.
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How can somebody maintain such vitality at the age of 100?
“Drink wine, of course,” is her answer, though she never consumes enough to get drunk.
Jean became a dancer in the mid to late 1930s, right after she moved out of her parent’s house around age 18 or 19 to live in Weyburn, Saskatchewan.
“When I worked in the hotel there, there was nine of us girls. ‘Okay, are we going dancing this Friday?’ We’d all get together, get somebody with a vehicle to take us and we went dancing.”
A vehicle was necessary to get to the dance hall, known as The Bush, as it was four or five miles out of town.
“It was in the bush alright, there were trees all around,” she said. “It was our favourite spot for dancing.”
Dancing was one of the very few ways young people knew how to have fun back then.
“That’s all there was to do. If you didn’t go dancing then what?”
Marty wonders why her mother, who loved dancing, married her father, Mel, who was an awful dancer.
Jean did manage to teach him a few moves, but “He didn’t dance the polkas or waltz’s and that. He just had the one step or two-step, that’s it,” she said.
Jean met her future husband at The Bush on the day before he enlisted in the air force. Even though he was about to leave the province to join the Armed Forces, he made sure to get her address and write to her.
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The two were happily married from 1945 until Mel’s death in 2004.
“As my mom got older she’d be out on the dance floor, just giving it to my dad,” Marty recalls. “He only went in one direction. Steps never went any other direction except back and forth.”
With 100 years worth of memories –some of them older than jazz – it’s not easy to recollect them all.
“Did you think I would think about keeping track of some of this? No, you never ever thought that it would be nice to know this in later years. A person doesn’t think about that, you’re too busy trying to make a living.”
One of the ways in which Jean made a living was through the sale of her paintings, despite not becoming an artist until she was an empty-nester in her late 50s or early 60s. She only retired from painting last year after creating hundreds of works depicting the beauty found in nature, namely of birds.
Marty would frame her mother’s work and help to sell it (a few paintings still remain in the inventory).
It might come as a surprise to learn that 100-year-old Jean is a big fan of wrestling.
“If anybody ever tackles me I’ll know what to do.”
She’s still active in the kitchen and enjoys whipping up cookie batters, though Marty does the actual baking.
Jean always kept a large garden – so big that Marty remembers her mom would be canning 1,000 jars before every winter.
The family tree has many more branches thanks to Jean. She has two children, six grandchildren and six great grandchildren. Although she’s single she says she is not looking for a boyfriend at the time being.
It was 1990 – back in her early 70s – when Jean became a resident of Oliver, and she still lives in town on her own.