John Ingraham Gardner (Jigs)
September 14, 1933-February 24, 2022
Jo Ann Gardner
Jo Ann Gardner was John Gardner’s wife and partner for many decades. She shared in the hardships and the adventures of farming in Vermont and in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, with him. They have supported each other in both of their worthy literary accomplishments. She has typed every essay that appeared in The St. Croix Review.
Little by little my life has been taken from me. First his body, which I helped wash and dress, was taken from me on the evening of February 24, from the schoolhouse where we had forged a new life together for two decades after our 30-year sojourn in Cape Breton, and where I nursed him for his last two weeks of life. Then they came to retrieve their supplies: the hospital bed person (Jigs laid on it less than a day before he died); the oxygen supply people who gave him, literally, the air to breathe; then some of his clothes went, as did some of the books from his vast collection. Everything that left was a part of me. Part of myself has been sundered. My only consolation is that I nursed him at home after lengthy hospital stays. His greatest wish was to return home, to sit in our kitchen again, where he used to read or look out the window to see the gardens and the roses we both loved. The big schoolroom where our bed is became a field hospital, filled with lengths of tubing for the electric oxygen machine and with the accumulating disposable supplies. If I could wish for anything besides him being once again by my side, I would take back the field hospital in all its inconvenience, to be able to sit by his bedside holding his hand. He looked out the window beside the bed often, he closed his eyes often, too, and he slept — he was in and out of consciousness toward the end. He had started on his journey to another world away from me. When he could hear me, I told him many times over that I would always be with him, that he was my life. And he knew it, and wondered at this love and devotion. He knew he had been blessed. Finally, he passed, dying from congestive heart failure.
John, or Jigs (a family nickname from his initials), was born in Passaic, New Jersey, and grew up mainly in an urban or semi-urban environment. His father was a lawyer, well known in local politics. His father was a State Senator, and a veteran of World War I, when he served as a pilot. His mother was one of the first to serve in a WAC division in World War II, when she drove a jeep and was wounded. His family fell apart after the war, and Jigs, whose brother and two sisters had already left, bore the brunt alone of a broken home. The scars never left him.
Jigs graduated from Williams College in 1955 and returned to teach there in the early 1960s. In the class of ’64’s 50th anniversary publication, in a section devoted to their most memorable teachers, Jigs was one of the select. His style was brash. He challenged complacency: “ . . . are any of you football players? . . . We reluctantly raised our hands. . . . You will fail this class. . . . ” and although initially put off by his confrontational approach, his students remembered him for the way he had brought out the best in themselves, and they were grateful for what they had learned. He took them, as one student put it, through a roaring trip of some of the greatest English and American literature.
Although he had taken a different path into academia, he had had a taste of farming in his adolescence when he worked for a farmer down the road in the country where he lived for a time after his family split up, and it planted a seed. As he expressed it in his essay, “A Country Adolescence”:
“. . . . I gave up that [country] life without a qualm. In the last year I lived in New Jersey, before I went away to college, I was hardly ever at [the farm at] Waln’s Mill. . . . Meanwhile, the fireflies were thick in the creek bottom, there were oats to be combined and hay to be made, a marsh hawk hunted the meadows, and the boy with the .22 was missing from the hedgerows and the field. I shake my head when I think of it, but it had to be done. I had to turn away from that life to seek what I thought would be my fortune in what I thought was the world. . . . I had to go away to come back. . . .”
The pull toward the country grew in him. After an interlude following his teaching career, we moved ever deeper into the countryside, acquiring many skills along the way, not only for farming, but for living with the land in the mushrooms we gathered in season, the dandelions we dug for salad greens, the soap Jigs made from his own lye, the vegetables we canned, the wild fruit we picked and made into preserves, and on and on.
And so in 1971 our family (Jigs, me, and our four children) moved to Cape Breton Island at the northeastern tip of Nova Scotia. On 100 acres of difficult land we established a horse-powered farm that produced dairy products from a small herd of Jersey cows. One by one the children left, and by 1978 we farmed together, partners-in-all-things, harvesting hay, cutting wood, planting gardens, collecting and preserving the bounty. Then in 2001when we could no longer hay without help, we decided it was time to return home to the States. We settled in the Adirondacks in an old schoolhouse to which we added a big kitchen, the heart of our house. It is well known in the area for its extensive gardens and kitchen hospitality. Together we made gardens for the County Fairgrounds, the local nursing home, the health center, and — on the back of an envelope — Jigs designed the beautiful Ballard Park garden in the town of Westport where I still live.
Although a farmer, he was a lifelong teacher who made an impact on everyone who came into contact with him. Many people came and went in our Cape Breton and Adirondack kitchens. They sat down at the long picnic-style table (one of two Jigs made from telephone cross ties) and joined us for cups of tea — Jigs’ famous brew — where lasting friendships were formed. Our Czech friend recalls visits to Cape Breton when our water hole for the animals dried up and he helped haul water in buckets uphill from the stream in our woods. He remembered, too, when he and Jigs had cut wood together on our rickety wooden horse — the harmony in their moves together was a total trust in each other’s skills. He learned about endurance, and gained skills that never left him.
Teacher, farmer, writer, he was all of these. His very first published essay appeared in The Nation’s August 15, 1959 issue (25 cents). Called “Time, the Weekly Fiction Magazine,” it was a razor-sharp literary analysis, using the skills he had learned as a student, that showed how Time presented not objective news but dramatic fiction, casting people as heroes and villains according to its political preferences. It is as prescient today as it was then. His essays on country living and farming have been published in magazines in the U.S. and Canada, including Rural Delivery, Farmstead, Harrowsmith, Country Journal, and Green Prints. Since moving to the Adirondacks, his essays on farming and literature have appeared in Farming: People, Land, Community and The St. Croix Review, where he was Associate Editor. He co-authored our book, Gardens of Use & Delight, about how we developed a beautiful landscape from scratch on a hard-scrabble farm in the backlands of Cape Breton. Several of his essays were published in 2017 and 2019 by Breton Books in collections of memoirs by Cape Breton authors.
The minister, Fred Shaw, who officiated at the burial, recalled that in a conversation he and Jigs had together three years ago, Jigs requested that Proverbs 30 be read at his service. Fred looked through that chapter and could not figure out exactly what Jigs wanted, so he narrowed it down to a few verses, hoping that was what he intended:
“Two things have I required of thee;
Deny me them not before I die:
Remove far from me vanity and lies:
Feed me with food convenient for me” Proverbs 30:7-8.
The minister made these comments on this passage:
“Jigs, as you know, was a seeker of knowledge and truth. He spent his entire life acquiring knowledge. A true lifelong learner, if he read a book that spoke to him, he would return to it over and over, and reread it. In each reading he always learned something new.”
As early as 1959, in an exchange of viewpoints published in the Washington College newspaper, he wrote a piece with the brash title, “Be Divinely Irresponsible,” in which he made a declaration that became his lodestar:
“When collective stuffiness is peddled at your door, do not be lulled by the pitch that ‘This is the responsible man’s brand.’ Examine it, turn it upside down and inside out: it may not be for you. Go your own way and find yourself where you can. Be responsible only to the dim gods within you, be divinely irresponsible to the chatterings of the mere men around you.”
Jigs loved America, and when we returned from our sojourn in Canada after three decades, he kissed the soil of his country as soon as we crossed the border.
He was a particular student of American history and reread many times works on Lincoln, his life, his work, his eloquence. His bedside book in the hospital was the two-volume Library of America, Lincoln: Speeches and Writings (1989). Herndon’s two-volume work, Abraham Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life (1892), had a special place on his desk. He regarded the best Western novels as a serious literature, America’s unique genre that told and retold the eternal struggle between good and evil. His favorite Western writer was Ernest Haycox whose Bugles in the Afternoon he reread many times. And he loved to watch well-made Western movies. But he had strictures: they had to be from the 1930s — 1960s, stretched to the 1970s, but rarely beyond; as little sex as possible (none was an ideal); no swearing; no graphic violence. He agreed with director John Ford’s supposed dictum: “When reality impinges on legend, print the legend.” His favorite Western movies were often Ford/Wayne collaborations. He (we) watched “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” many times, as we did Gary Cooper in “High Noon.” We also re-watched Clint Eastwood’s take on the classic Western formula in “Pale Rider” (mysterious stranger appears, battles for the oppressed, cleans up, rides off into the distance). He wasn’t above watching and rewatching B-Westerns, especially those with Randolph Scott in Budd Boetticher films.
Although he had always answered the question of his religion with an offhand manner, either with “none” or “atheist,” when he was in the hospital he answered this question with his final, unequivocal answer, “Protestant.” Raised in the Episcopal Church, once a choir boy, a lifetime of separation did not completely sever his connection. This gave me direction for his burial and service, but fate intervened, and the event took on a life of its own. His burial had a Jewish connection in that he was, in accord with Jewish law, not embalmed, and his coffin, as mandated, was a simple wooden pine box put together with dowels and pegs, with no metal parts, to hasten the return of the body to the soil in accord with the passage in Genesis 3:19: “from dust you come and to dust you will return.” He never denied his Protestant roots (a WASP he would say), but when he married a Jew he gained something else, another dimension, that became a part of him, too. So, his burial, you could say, was Judeo-Christian.
It was a bitter, cold day when 20 stalwart friends and family gathered at the country cemetery to pay their respects. Jigs never did anything the easy way.
Besides his wife, he leaves behind son Seth, two daughters, Nell and Curdie, and nine grandchildren. He was pre-deceased by son Jesse. A summer event is planned.
He loved poetry, especially the evocative poems of A. E. Houseman that he used to recite when he drove a wagon to the woods to cut logs for our winter supply in Vermont. Jesse remembered these trips, and a few years ago he gave his father a framed verse, evocative of the fragility, of life that he had beautifully written out by hand:
“Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.”
Rest in peace. *