There are many words that well-describe South Surrey’s Helen Watson, among them creative, cheeky and independent.
The cheeky was quick to show itself last Friday, the day before her 100th birthday, as Watson opened her door to visitors and immediately declared an escape plan to dodge talk of her impending milestoney.
A few steps inside her cozy, one-bedroom apartment and her creative side, too, is quickly evident – on the walls, where her paintings hang, on the shelf where a cracked vase she repaired then transformed with colourful paper sits, and in a montage featuring snippets of her art dating back to the 1930s.
“My first pastel was 1941,” she says, running her fingers over the treasured work.
And as for independent, well, that’s just who the feisty senior is.
“I did everything,” she said, recalling such work as chopping wood to help keep her husband and young family warm when they moved to Burnaby from Port Alberni.
Further testament to her independence is the “around 20 years” Watson spent – after the death of her husband, Ken – travelling solo around the province and into the U.S. in her VW “getaway camper,” up until about eight years ago.
There’s little Watson doesn’t continue to do for herself, from housework to gardening.
While she doesn’t paint anymore – a century of living has taken its toll on her hands – Watson has fond memories of selling her paintings in Vancouver’s Stanley Park in the 1980s.
“It was kind of fun,” she says with a smile.
Raised in Saskatchewan until she was seven, Watson’s first job, at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, led her to Ken. They had raised three boys and been married 51 years when he died in 1988.
Sitting in her South Surrey kitchen, the great-grandmother to 12 is reluctant to dwell on the “hard times” of her childhood, which included a number of years in an orphanage, but lights up at the memory of seeing her first airplane.
It was 1921, and she was walking across a field to school, when she heard a roar in the sky.
“I ran across the field and I hid under a wagon,” she laughed.
Art has been a part of Watson’s life for as long as she can remember. When painting, she would often copy from such masters as Paul Peel, including his 1888 oil on canvas, The Young Gleaner. She would also paint from her own photographs, or even combine the two.
Last week, she said she was “in a whirl” from all the fuss made over her birthday, including a surprise party held Nov. 19 at Sunnyside Villas. When she saw the crowd of 40 to 50 in the activities room that day, her first thought was that bingo night had started early.
“Well, there was no other reason for it,” she said.
Thinking about her age, Watson said she doesn’t feel like she’s 100, “but I have a lot of aches and pains.”
She has a simple explanation for her long life: “I’m 100 years because I still have a job to do, I guess.”