Last week I had the delicious pleasure of interviewing one of Kamiah’s more interesting community members; Janet Cruz is in the process of relocating to North Idaho, and in doing so, is leaving the important task of keeping up with her legacy of beautifying Kamiah to members of the local garden club.
Having not been formally acquainted with Janet, I based my initial impressions of her on brief encounters here and there over the years. As I held my hand out to greet her and introduce myself right and proper, my gaze slowly shifted from her welcoming expression to her ample sized home tucked into the hillside that is virtually surrounded in growing things. She took my hand in a firm handshake and I have to admit, my first thought was how capable she seemed, and very forthcoming.
I observed a sensible woman on every level; her wardrobe was utilitarian and comfortable right down to her well-worn slip on shoes that had no doubt seen her through more than their fair share of gardening hours.
“So I guess you’ll wanna take some pictures,” said Janet, already heading to the back yard. Repositioning my camera over my shoulder, I caught up to her fast pace just as she was opening the gate.
My jaw dropped as I scanned the one-acre plot, lit up with vibrant color from corner to corner. While only a fraction of flowers were blooming, I could imagine the cornucopia yet to bloom. Still following her further in, she began her tale on how she acquired her home more than 50 years ago.
“Guess how much it cost to build it,” Janet said, glancing down at her weathered palm before she responded to her own question. “$10,000,” she added with a smile.
“When they were building Dworshak Dam, there were a whole bunch of people working on the dam and there was no place to buy or rent because there were all those workers looking for a place to live,” said Janet. “At that time also, you could not get a loan to build a house.”
With the help of a specialized loan, Janet and her husband AJ (Amodo Jocson who passed away in 2014) were able to realize their dream of building a home in 1968.
“It used to be a park,” she said, motioning to the blooming landscape around us. “It’s pretty fitting that it looks like this now, in a way, it still is a park.”
Ducking under the branch of a budding fruit tree, Janet continued her tour of the garden, pointing out different species of flowers as she went.
A perpetual gardener at heart, Janet’s obvious enthusiasm for growing things has been the corner stone of her health conscience lifestyle.
“I run up and down this hill probably several times a day, and I do a lot of carrying heavy things,” said Janet. “I’m 82 years old and people are always saying, ‘Let me carry that for you,’… I don’t need help carrying my grocery bags,” she said with a chuckle.
When you meet an obviously healthy, active, fully capable senior citizen, you automatically begin to wonder just what they do to get those results.
“I think just being here and all the work that this yard requires; digging things, and pulling and weeding and planting, mowing the lawn, it keeps you moving every day,” answered Janet.
“I noticed that in my age group, most people are not healthy anymore; they’ve had hip replacements, knee replacements, heart trouble, diabetes, they have Alzheimer’s. I contribute my health partly to getting exercise, but also because I raise a lot of my own organic food,” she said, her voice trailing off as she checked to see if I was following her to the vegetable garden.
Janet says her involvement in the Kamiah Garden Club was beneficial in many ways, teaching her the importance of growing your own food and how to make sure your produce has the right amount of nutrients.
“When I started the garden club, I put an ad in the paper that said ‘cut your grocery bill in half and double your nutrition by raising your own food.’ I’ve gardened my whole life, but it’s amazing how much I’ve learned since we’ve been doing that,” added Janet.
She says one of the main things she took away from her many years in the garden club was the important information on how to fertilize your garden and what to use to achieve the best results.
While it’s undeniable that Janet has a gift for growing things, she says she’s always liked making things beautiful. “There’s a theory that I subscribe to, when you have an ugly living situation, it encourages vandalism. If you have an attractive place to live, it discourages vandalism,” she said, shifting her thoughts to the Kamiah revitalization project.
Over the years Kamiah has evolved into a charming community with its quaint colorful store fronts, cheery flower boxes, and other aesthetically pleasing features, many of which Janet had a hand in.
In 1987, she was chairman of the Kamiah Revitalization Committee that organized beautification projects including volunteer artist painted murals and the installation of flower boxes on Main Street.
Scanning the many pages of Janet’s resume, I noticed a common denominator to her many accomplishments in the 50+ years she has called Kamiah her home. Her love for growing things created a platform which compelled her to pass on her knowledge to anyone who wanted to better themselves and their surroundings.
“People were saying they wouldn’t last, kids will just come and ruin them,” said Janet of the flower boxes in town. “Well, they didn’t!”
After a thoughtful pause, Janet added, “I think making your town beautiful is also a way to make your kids more respectful of the community.”
“What do you think you’ve enjoyed the most about all of the projects you’ve worked on?” I asked her, observing her astute manner as she pondered the question.
“Well, I helped design the stage in the park and planted a lot of the flowers there,” she said, brushing some dirt off her knee. “I guess that’s what really inspires me, making things beautiful!”
As the interview was coming to a close, I asked Janet just what she was going to do to keep busy in her new home up north, to which she replied, “I don’t know…I imagine I’ll have a garden again but it just won’t be as big. I’ll have to find something to do for exercise; maybe I’ll join a dance club or something!”