Knitting needles flew with precision in Barbara Jane Gardiner’s hands, turning out woolen sweaters, scarves and couch throws treasured by friends and several generations of family members who considered her creations one-of-a-kind wonders.
Seated in the spacious living room of her rural home in Mendocino County’s Redwood Valley, Gardiner, 83, would work on three or four projects at a time, mostly of own design and rarely following a pattern. Her hands moved on their own; her eyes and ears following the other people in the room.
Gardiner, who went by her middle name, died in the fire that destroyed her home Oct. 9 and killed her longtime caregiver, Elizabeth Charlene Foster, 64.
“Jane was off the map artistically,” said her niece, Marsha Branson of San Diego, who frequently visited Gardiner in the ranch-style home her late husband, Eugene Vance Gardiner, built at the north end of Redwood Valley just west of the Russian River.
The home held family heirloom antiques, furniture crafted by her husband and about seven family albums holding photos, postcards, news clippings and travel mementos dating back to the 1850s.
“The loss was staggering,” Branson said.
A gourmet cook, Gardiner canned fruit and vegetables from Eugene’s garden, and enjoyed 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzles as well as classic movies, calico cats and lemon meringue pies. An avid reader, Gardiner was especially fond of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories.
“She had a special gift for making everything beautiful, colorful, festive, heart-warming and unforgettable,” her family said in a summary of Gardiner’s life, noting her “signature smile and high-pitched, jolly laugh.”
One of her aunt’s quirks, Branson said, was sleeping with her bedroom windows open, even in freezing weather.
Married in the early 1970s, the Gardiners lived in Anderson and Crescent City before coming to Redwood Valley around 1980.
A successful businessman, Eugene Gardiner was a hunter and angler who flew his own airplane, accompanied almost everywhere by his wife, Branson said.
Eugene Gardiner, 20 years older than his wife, died in 2006.
“She dedicated her entire life to my Uncle Gene,” Branson said.
Branson, who is retiring next month, said she had planned a trip to Redwood Valley in February to renew her bond with her aunt and Foster, who was known as Charlie.
“Once again I would haul out those albums and stare at those faces of relatives long gone, read newspaper articles about my grandfather and read the journal my Uncle Gene kept as a young man when he lived in Alaska,” she said.
“I am still stunned by what happened to Jane and Charlie and I expect a part of me will be stunned for the rest of my life,” Branson said.
In addition to her niece, Gardiner is survived by a stepson, Robert J. Gardiner, of Redwood Valley; two grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; a nephew; three great-nephews and three great-great nephews.
2016-17 Sonoma County budget
Total: $1.66 billion
General fund: $443.4 million
Salary and benefit costs: $596 million
Staffing: 4,147 full-time employees