Jan Gandy: She Took Life’s Lemons and Made Something Sweet

I winced a bit when I started writing this piece because I’m pretty sure my friend Jan Gandy would not approve of what I’m about to say about her; a humble, hard-working, unselfish, behind-the-scenes woman.

I’m going to write it anyway. She died last weekend, so she’s not here to stop me.

Please forgive me, Jan.

Jan Gandy in happy times. Photo courtesy of Mary Forbes.

Jan and I first met more than 30 years ago when she and I were volunteers for the then-Carter House Auction committee. We had the responsibility, along with some other writer-types, to create the auction catalog, and to adhere to a theme. Whether it was Hollywood or a safari, every donated item had to fit within the theme.

This was before I went to college, got my degree and became a journalist. Back then, I was just a young mother who liked to write.

Jan was a gifted wordsmith who effortlessly slammed out one witty description after another without breaking a sweat, while I sat there, stumped, pen poised, waiting for inspiration.

She was naturally curious, and also a wealth of information with keen interests in art, museums, history, cooking, gardening, theater, travel, books and movies. But most of all, her favorite interests were family and friends, and figuring out ways to make others’ lives happier.

I was just one of Jan’s many women friends, but I was pretty sure I was her favorite. At least that’s the impression she gave me. Yes, I knew she had other friends in a Monday craft group (who had their own identical gecko pins), and other friends in a quarterly book club, and other friends in the Horseless Carriage group, and other friends with whom she and her husband Tom would share Christmas dinner, and probably lots of friends I knew nothing about. Typically, all we random other friends didn’t co-mingle, except for big things, like a major birthday or anniversary.

I don’t know how she kept us all straight, but I’m fairly certain that like me, they also received birthday cards and Christmas cards from her. Nothing fancy inside, just, “Love, Jan” and “Love, Jan and Tom”. I knew that no matter what else ever happened in my world, in July and December, I could count on a card from Jan.

Last night I went to my friend Mary’s house to look at her photo albums in search of some photographs to accompany today’s piece about Jan. This was not an easy task because even on her best day, Jan was not a fan of being photographed. The last thing in the world I’d want to do is embarrass Jan with some unflattering photos. Mary had stacks of albums open on her kitchen table ready for me. The open pages contained many photos of Jan, well, none of just Jan, but all shots of Jan with other people in various places near and far. Cruises, road trips, trips to the coast, trips to Hawaii, and even trips as far away as New York and Ireland.

Clearly, these were Jan’s favorite friends. Or at least that’s the impression Jan gave them.

One photo made me laugh as I recalled going to the Gandy get-away, a place that’s been in the family for generations; a beautiful piece of mountain property by a pristine lake, with a focal point of one large cabin and a few smaller sleeping cabins. This is a gorgeous retreat, and the primary cooking is done outside. But the biggest adjustment for me was that there were no toilets or showers inside the cabins. Rather, there was one fancy outhouse and a little out-building that contained a shower.

Jan Gandy in the center (brown jacket, black pants) flanked by a variety of friends at the Gandy get-away. Photo courtesy of Mary Forbes.

That night, when Jan showed us where all we women friends would sleep, she introduced us to the concept of chamber pots (large coffee cans), unless, of course, we’d rather leave the warmth of the cabin in the middle of the night and walk through the cold dark to the outhouse. Hello, chamber pot my old friend.

Jan was a talented cook, and one of my most cherished recipes is the one she shared with me many years ago for lemon curd and scones. Last week I made a batch of Jan’s lemon curd. How could I have known that a few days later, Jan would be gone?

I never made these recipes without smiling as I read them, because they’re just SO Jan, especially the scone recipe.

Jan’s recipes for lemon curd and scones are among Doni’s favorites.

Knead twice (any more will make the dough tough) … With a serrated knife, cut dough into 8 wedges (BUT DO NOT SEPARATE). … Use real butter…. Scones are like biscuits – best eaten right away.

Jan and I agreed on almost everything, except who had the better carrot cake recipe. I liked mine better, because it’s more chunky, and she liked hers better, because the ingredients were more finely chopped.

About 10 years ago Jan and I decided that our lives were so busy that if we didn’t schedule a date each month to catch up, we’d never see each other. That’s when we started our monthly breakfast meetings at the Country Waffles restaurant on Athens Avenue in Redding. For the record, we never had waffles, but usually ordered the same thing: scrambled eggs, hash browns, toast, sausage and coffee. We also had a booth to ourselves for about two hours, where we’d bring each other up to speed about what was new.

She was so proud of her family, and was absolutely smitten with her grandchildren. She spoke about them so much and in such glowing detail that, without sounding too stalkerish here, I feel that I know them well.

From right, Tom, Todd, Jan and Joel Gandy. Photo courtesy of Todd Gandy.

I don’t recall exactly when things started going badly for Jan, health-wise, but it’s been within the last 10 years, maybe eight. Little by little, the vibrant, energetic Jan began to fade away, though when we got together, whether for a movie, a play or breakfast, she did her best to remain cheerful and upbeat. She was loathe to talk long about what was ailing her, and I suspect she was like that with her other favorite friends, too.

She developed a bizarre medical condition that remained a miserable mystery as she went from doctor to doctor, medication to medication and treatment to treatment on her quest to find a cure and ultimate relief. Nothing worked, and to make matters worse, sometimes the treatments and medications delivered terrible side effects of their own, worse than the original condition.

I don’t want to get into the details of her illness, because Jan was a private person, and I’m already in eternal hot water for writing about her today. But suffice to say that with each day, week, month and year, she felt worse. On the day I learned of Jan’s death, as I cried, it dawned upon me that I truly could not remember the last time I heard Jan say she felt great.

The end of her life also brought an end to her profound suffering.

The spark remained, but the illness took its toll. Photo courtesy of Todd Gandy.

The truth was, although Jan was the master at putting on a happy face to put others at ease in the presence of her dis-ease, she felt like crap for years and years. Yet through it all she continued to carry on, arrange family gatherings, meet with friends, even attend holiday parties, and, one of her favorite things of all, she took her grandchildren to their music lessons, something she made sure happened, because it was important. Last year, even while feeling horrible, Jan made sure she was part of a family trip to Hawaii.

The Gandy family in Hawaii, April, 2018.

She took life’s lemons and squeezed them dry and strained out the bitter parts and added great amounts of Jan’s natural optimism with every ounce of energy she had left, until her body betrayed her completely, and her illness finally claimed her.

Jan Gandy was just 71.

How can someone like that, so good, so full of life, so wise, so kind, so funny, so self-deprecating, so sure she had the best carrot cake recipe, be gone? I do not know. But I do know that my life, and the lives of so many, will not be the same without Jan Gandy.

When I think of Jan Gandy I will remember her cute laugh, and her beautiful smile, and the way her eyes accordioned at the edges when she was happy. I will remember Jan bringing her home-grown pumpkins to my house at Halloween. I will remember her advising me to choose my grandmother name quickly, before the first grandbaby, so the name wasn’t chosen for me, as her grandmothers’ were: “Big Grandma” and “Little Grandma”. I will remember how she showed up for so many things in my life, whether it was as an audience member when I had a bit part in a play, or as a guest at my second wedding, or as a shoulder to cry on when that marriage crashed and burned.

When I think of Jan Gandy, I will remember that besides her friends, she leaves behind the true favorites: her husband Tom, sons Todd and Joel, her daughter-in-laws, and, of course, she leaves her greatest pride and joy, her four cherished grandchildren. To them, she was Nana.

To me, she was my friend Jan, someone who had the ability to convince us all that we were her absolute favorites.

When the sadness of losing Jan overcomes me, I will seek comfort in her recipes, like these two I’ll share with you today for lemon curd and scones.

And if that doesn’t work, I may have to see if I can find her carrot cake recipe and give it a try. Who knows, I may decide I like hers best after all.

Jan would have liked that.

Jan Gandy’s Lemon Curd

2 cups granulated sugar
4 eggs, well beaten
1 cube (1/4 lb) butter
Finely grated rind and juice of three lemons (2 T. rind & 2/3 cup lemon juice)

In double boiler, combine sugar, lemon juice, then butter cube. When mixture  is hot add beaten eggs and cook, stirring, until thickened. Pour into sterilized  jars. Keeps refrigerated up to 6 weeks.

Jan Gandy’s Buttermilk Scones

2 c. all purpose flour
1/3 sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
6 T. unsalted butter, chilled
1/2 c. buttermilk
1 large egg
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
2/3 c. currents or raisins (optional)

Preheat oven to 400. In large bowl, stir together dry ingredients. Cut butter into 1/2 inch cubes and distribute over flour mixture. With a pastry blender or two knives (scissor fashion) cut the butter into the mix until it resembles coarse crumbs. In a small bowl combine buttermilk, egg and vanilla — add this mix to the flour mixture and stir. Add currents.

Knead twice (any more will make the dough tough). With floured hands, pat dough into an 8-inch circle on an ungreased cookie sheet. With a serrated knife, cut dough into 8 wedges, BUT DO NOT SEPARATE.

Bake 18-20 minutes, until top is light brown and a toothpick comes out clean with inserted into the middle of one wedge. Remove from oven and cool 5 minutes before removing from the cookie sheet. Serve warm or place in an air-tight container.

Basic scone-making hints: Use fresh baking power and soda. Use real butter and be sure it’s unsalted. Don’t over-knead or scones will be tough. Scones are like biscuits – best eaten right away. I have frozen them, but they must be tightly wrapped so no air gets to them. For variation try different dried fruits besides currents and raisins – craisins, dried cherries and chopped dried apricots or peaches are great.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate, Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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