by Anne Miller –
As we sat over coffee in the quaint Switchboard Café on Salt Spring Island, Elsy Perks spoke of the time when that coffee bar used to be the telephone switchboard she operated almost seven decades before. This modest 96 year old mused about her times growing up on Salt Spring. Our conversation revealed the characteristics and attitudes that have led to her living a long life.
Elsy grew up on a farm which provided a livelihood to her family and a rich foundation for a girl’s future. Within this fertile setting, young Elsy discovered her innate love of nature. She nurtured the chicks, milked the cows and built gardens. To this day, she recalls her exhilaration seeing flowers blossom from the bulbs she planted in the fall. She loves springtime when all of nature comes to life including “the chorus of frogs in the fields. Such lovely, gentle music.”
Those first 18 blissful years ended abruptly with the declaration of World War II. The local boys went to war and even girlfriends enlisted. Elsy’s loyalty to her parents and the working farm kept her from joining the war effort, but left her disappointed and rather lost. Eventually, she married and operated a florist business with her husband. As a florist, Elsy was self-taught. She recalled being asked to make a blanket of flowers for a casket. Without a clue where to begin, it was trial and error, asking associates for advice. After much stress, the blanket was a success!
Farm life taught Elsy to be self-sufficient, practical and independent, qualities that served her well during challenging times. Faced with being a single parent of young boys, she used her skills and smarts to carry on. “When I was on my own, without much money, I had to fend for myself, to think about what I was going to do. I just took the bull by the horns and carried on as best I could to keep things together for the boys.”
Being resourceful and creative has helped. To generate income over the years, Elsy has made feather “fascinators” for a hat shop, worked in a bank, rented part of her house, taken in ESL students and established a garden boutique to showcase and sell her art and crafts, including her paintings. “I always feel I can make do with what I have.”
I first met Elsy when she was ready to leave one project and take on a new one. She was selling her home of 15 years, a home she established on bare land when she was 72. She had purchased an oceanview lot, had a well drilled, a foundation built and a house barged in from Victoria. Over the years, she created an enchanting flower garden and welcomed garden tours. She also had an addition built onto the house and operated a Bed & Breakfast. At 87, Elsy was ready for another change, “a new project,” she said, so she sold her home and moved to a smaller one.
I asked Elsy what she’s learned along her journey. She told me that there are going to be potholes along the way but that’s life. She said one must be prepared for them and “really appreciate what one has.” She thinks of her two wonderful boys, who are doing well. “I’m very lucky to have them.”
Elsy is a forward thinker. When contemplating her future, she clearly doesn’t want to sit back in a chair waiting for life to end. In fact, she feels that’s probably why she has such a hard time with old age. “I just don’t want to give up!” In fact, with eagerness, she anticipates another chapter of her life encompassing her family, her art and her garden, albeit in a gentler way. “Ah, to think one still has a future; that’s exhilarating!”