My husband and his siblings are fond of sharing the many stories about "Aunt Jessie," a close friend of the family. Although Jessie never had children of her own, she doted on those of her friends and family. My sister-in-law relates the tale of being 8 years old and hiding in the bedroom closet to dodge Auntie's generous hugs and moist kisses... only to discover her brother was already there, hiding as well!
I had the privilege of meeting Jessie many years ago, and despite our age difference, it was as if we had always been friends. Her warmth was all the more remarkable given the hardships and losses she had experienced in her life.
Preparing the mise for Jessie’s Date-Bran Muffins brought back fond memories of this remarkable woman. I contacted her niece, Susan Jewett, who still resides in Toronto, to learn more.
Jessie Keys in 1990 (left) and 2005 (right). Photo by Susan Jewett
Jessie Keys, née Clarkson, was born in Melville, Saskatchewan, in 1912, the eldest of five children. Susan speculated that’s where her kitchen career began, helping her mother feed a busy farm household. As a young woman, Jessie came East to attend secretarial school, after which she earned a diploma from Toronto Bible School. She then married Frank Keys, a minister, and they moved from church to church in the small towns of Ontario. “To my mind, she always loved the role of being the minister’s wife,” Susan stated, imagining that Jessie further honed her culinary skills by hosting members of the congregation and organizing church suppers.
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Sadly, Frank struggled with depression, and ultimately took his own life. So Jessie went to work, becoming an administrator for Presbyterian Ministers’ Life Insurance Company, where she met my father-in-law, a new hire, and helped his family settle in. “I recall having Canadian Thanksgiving at her house the year we moved,” my husband noted. “And Jessie gave me my first cup of coffee—I was eleven—served in a teacup. With two cubes of sugar and real cream, it was delicious!”
“We had more than a few meals prepared in her wee home on Taylor Drive,” remembered my mother-in-law, Celia Finestone. “Jessie would cook, and I played her piano for her. She was always a generous person with her time and her means.” Her generosity extended to advocating on behalf of people with mental illness, giving counsel to those with depression or contemplating suicide. “She had a very encouraging, nonjudgmental way about her,” Celia stated. “I met a few people who declared she had saved their lives.”
Susan agreed. “She had an openness to knowledge and changes in society—very unusual for a woman of her age. I could talk with her about current events: world issues, violence against women, gay rights, discrimination. She was a great reader, and she would want to discuss the books after reading them. One book, Ru [by Kim Thúy] was in a Canadian literature competition. She was so excited to be reading a book that was being discussed on TV that she read it twice. She was 100 at the time.”
Despite retiring at age 70, Jessie remained very active, serving on the boards of service organizations and churches, practicing yoga, reading, knitting, and traveling. “Against my better judgment, she drove until age 97!” laughed Susan.
Until her passing at age 102, Jessie “always liked to be dressed up,” recalled Susan. “Hair done, beads on, touch of makeup... just in case someone visited her.” But even more memorable was Jessie’s deep affection for people. “One of her expressions that I love to this day, that always makes me smile, is 'Consider yourself kissed.’ She would say it often. I say it now too.”
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