ARLEE — Janet Elizabeth McGahan died of cancer Friday evening, Aug. 17, 2018, surrounded by her family in her home on the Jocko River. She was laid in a larch and fir casket her sons built and buried in a grave her grandchildren dug. She was 73 years old, and the center of a small universe.
Janet was almost born in the Wilma Theater. Her parents were watching “The Affairs of Susan” there one spring evening in 1945 when her mother started having contractions. Janet was born 20 minutes later at the old Thornton Hospital.
Her father, James Spittler, was an inventor and a salesman. Her mother, Elizabeth Polleys, was a third-generation Montanan whose family ran the Polleys Lumber Company in Missoula. Janet was the fourth of six children, and is survived by her siblings: Maggie, Jim, Catherine, Mary and John. Janet grew up between Missoula, Las Vegas and Redlands, California, where she roamed the orange groves, fearless and shirtless, with a bow and arrow.
When Janet was 11, her mother had a stroke in Redlands. The family was at the baptism of Janet’s newborn sister, Mary. As her mother fell forward in her church pew, Mary’s bonnet fell into Janet’s lap. Her mother died at the hospital that night and Janet lost her guiding star.
Janet was 18 when she met Scot Crawford in California. He remembers being as dazzled by her as he was by the San Bernardino sun. They married the following year and returned to Missoula, where Janet studied Russian at UM. Later, they had two boys, Simon and Duncan. Janet and Scot divorced after 14 years, but their mutual affection and admiration endured to her death.
In 1981, Janet married Jerry McGahan who had two children, Jay and Jordan, from his first marriage. Janet and Jerry had two daughters together, Romy and Hilly, and were married for 35 years. In 2016, Jerry died of prostate cancer in the same room that Janet did. She was his devoted caretaker until the end. Jerry used to say they were two people cut from the same stone. They are buried next to each other in their apple orchard.
Janet and Jerry ran a beekeeping business called Old World Honey. During the winter, while the bees slept, she and Jerry packed the family and their provisions into a Subaru and drove to the Sonoran Desert in Mexico, where they camped on a beach. Along the way, Janet conjured up meals for the family, using gas station microwaves and empty tofu containers for plates. She could always inject fun, flavor and beauty into the otherwise mundane.
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Above all else, Janet was an artist. She found art wherever she looked—the shapes in linoleum, the rocks in a river, the colors in a shadow. She sketched students when she was a substitute teacher in Arlee in the 1980s. Later she painted. She was taught and inspired by the late Chinese painter Tu Baixiong. Janet connected with people through art on visits to India, Bolivia, Peru, China, Mexico, Cuba and Haiti. She painted rich oil portraits and landscapes, and vivid watercolors of elk, foxes, bears and birds. Her work hung on the walls of the Dana Gallery in Missoula and the Hangin Art Gallery in Arlee. She was a member of the Montana Watercolor Society, the Oil Painters of America and the Killdeer Artisans Guild.
Janet was also a patron saint of wounded animals. She once rescued an orphaned yellow-bellied marmot by the roadside. She called him Marmaduke, and fed him peanut butter and graham cracker sandwiches. She nursed a fallen baby squirrel back to health and tolerated his delinquency until he eventually left her for good. She raised and released countless pigeons, robins, and other birds that cats ravaged or the world otherwise discarded. She once brought a pigeon with a head injury down the Smith River. For five days it rode the rapids beside her in the raft. Every few hours she fed it with an eyedropper. For the last three years, two lame cedar waxwings roosted above her microwave. They fluttered around the kitchen and ate dried cherries from her palm.
She was tough. She fought four rounds of cancer in 30 years. She could work all day, chink a log cabin, build a slate chimney and raise a family on humor, very little money and the occasional ice cream soda. She was unabashed. She found things that were lost, she never forgot a birthday and she cooked a killer carbonara. She loved watching the Arlee Warriors play basketball.
She’d want you to know: you can find a gift for anyone at Ace Hardware; venison steaks are best fried in garlic, tamari, thyme and lemon; it’s a sin to reveal too much of a good movie’s plot; half a paper towel will always suffice; birthday cake is most efficiently served with your bare hands; and it’s okay to bump another car’s bumper when parallel parking, especially at a rummage sale.
She was a treasured friend to her mechanic, the baristas at Le Petit Outre, the employees of the Good Food Store and countless others around Missoula and Arlee. She leaned into the world and cultivated a kinship of kindness.
Janet was a great appreciator, which meant she was always rich. She was always excited to do, see or learn something new, which meant she was always young. She stayed to the end of a party and always left with everyone thinking she loved them most of all.
She had six children, 19 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and a murmuration of friends, but her heart was never too full to let in another person. Some wonderful furnace inside her generated inexhaustible supplies of love. You only had to see the flash of her smile to know she was crackling with it.