"I was born Alice Mae Johnson in 1932," she began. "It was January 17, to be exact. I’m told it was a cold day. I was the ninth child of 10 born to my mother and father. The tenth child, my baby sister Illa, was stillborn. Many births happened at home especially if you were poor. At least they did in the small town of Paradise Falls, Tennessee, where I was born. We were all born at home. Complications happened. Without a doctor, people did what they could. Of course, there’s nothing one could do when a child is dead in the womb.
“I can still see it, you know, the little house where I grew up. Three rooms plus the kitchen and bathroom. Can you imagine one bathroom, not to mention the lack of privacy and us kids? It was all we knew though. The house had a broken porch, falling apart on one side. It had not weathered a particularly bad winter very well. We weren’t allowed to walk on it for fear of falling through. We used to test that theory, my siblings and I, by walking on the damaged area as far as we dared. It was kind of exhilarating actually, thinking we might fall through. There was fear that made your heart pound a little faster and a feeling of bravery when you went the farthest and nothing happened. That became our challenge, going a little farther than the one who had previously gone the farthest. My father would have punished all of us if he had caught us doing it.” Jack could tell by the relaxed and pleasant look on her face that it was a good memory.
“Paradise Falls was a small town. There wasn't much work to be had. My father had to drive 15 miles in one direction to the local log mill. My mother was a housewife. That's what women still did in small towns back then.
"She never said anything to me about it, but I think there was a sadness in my mother every time she looked at me because she remembered that she had another daughter after me who was not here. Don't misunderstand, Jack, she was a good mother. She did her best to provide for her children. Having nine of them to take care of during the depression took its toll. You're familiar with The Great Depression aren't you, Jack?"
"Yes ma'am, but I've never met anyone who lived through it," he replied from the edge of his seat on the sofa where he had moved forward to get closer to her as she told her story.
“When I was born we were only three years into the depression. No one was building anything so there was no business to keep the log mill open. My father lost his job. I don’t know to this day how we managed to survive all the days of heat and cold and barely enough food, but we did. My parents took turns standing in the bread lines. I remember us having a garden. My mother used to preserve food in jars. That’s how we survived.” She had sadness on her face as she remembered this time in her life.
“As the economy began to recover, my father was one of the first people put back to work at the log mill. That happened in 1938. I was 6 years old. I don’t remember him going back to work as much as I remember he wasn’t home all of the time anymore and we had meat to eat again. I do remember the time of not having meat and then having it again. It’s a vague memory. Thankfully, I was young during the lean times. The young have a tendency to forget - or not remember. I just played with my sisters and brothers. When you’re young, you don’t feel the pressure that an adult feels. There were times I remember being hungry, but not so hungry it was unbearable. We were children. My older siblings felt the strain of the depression more than I did. A year later World War II started. My two oldest brothers, William and Charles, were both sent to fight.”
Listening to what she had lived through was overwhelming to Jack. He was so captivated he involuntarily sat back on the sofa for the first time since she started telling the story.
“Am I boring you yet, Jack?” she asked as she paused her story.
“Nothing about today is boring, Miss Genevieve.” He looked at her with the sincerest look he had probably ever given anyone. “Please, keep going. This is better than any class I’m missing.”
“You’re sweet, Jack.” She smiled at him as she collected her thoughts and prepared to continue. “Well, Charles died on the battlefield and William died in a hospital back in the States from his injuries. It was a head injury. I never got to see either one of them again. I always hated that. It’s like a hole left in the part of your heart that always longs to see your family. Do you know what I mean?” Jack nodded his head in response. “When you never get closure, the hole is always there.
“When I was 10, my mother had a stroke. It was summer. She was working out in the garden. Even after the depression, we continued to plant the garden. The country was at war. Money was precious and the money tree was an elusive sapling that was very picky about where it set down roots. My family learned a great appreciation for growing our own food and not wasting money. Mother never recovered. When she died, my father was distraught. He loved her very much. He never really recovered himself. He started to drink. Not heavily at first, but as the years passed he drank more and more.
"My older siblings were very good at taking care of us younger ones." She had another moment of staring off into the distance, lost in some memory from her past.
"Miss Genevieve, are you alright?" Jack asked, sympathetic to her sadness.
She looked at him sitting across from her. She contemplated her situation. He wished he could do something for her, but instead she gave him a smile that soothed him. "I'm fine, Jack. Thank you."
"For what, Miss Genevieve?"
"For listening to me. I haven't talked about my life for quite a while. It's been a long time since anyone cared."
"I think you're amazing, Miss Genevieve. I’m just glad you're willing to tell me."
"Where was I? Oh yes, my older siblings. So you know that Charles and William had passed on by now. My oldest sister Mary took care of us after my Mother died. She was 20 by then. Mary and my brother, George, were the only two siblings no longer in school. It may seem odd to you, Jack that we continued with school but my father wanted each of his children to have an education. He wanted a better life for each of us. That’s what parents always want isn’t it? I bet yours do too.”
“Yes, ma’am. They want me to do the best that I can. They don’t want me to waste my life stuck in a shitty…” he sucked in a sharp breath, shocked. He was embarrassed and ashamed to have cursed in front of her. “Excuse me, bad, situation. I’m sorry for cursing, Miss Genevieve.”
“It’s okay, Jack. You were just speaking the truth as you see it.”
He looked at her, astonished. Aside from his grandparents, he had never been comfortable around older people. He found her so easy to be around, to talk to, to listen to. Of course, it probably had something to do with the fact that she was a movie star and just sitting there listening to her talk about anything would have been an amazing experience. It was a bonus that she had such an interesting life story to tell.
“I want to skip ahead if you don’t mind, Jack. The rest of my adolescent/young adult story is mostly the same as any one else’s. I walked to school everyday as many do in small towns. I graduated from high school in 1950. I didn’t really have a reason to stay in Paradise Falls. I was the last one in school, you’ll recall, so it was time for me to live my life. I had aspirations. I wanted out of my small town. I had fallen in love with the movies. Under their spell is probably more precise. I lived for the new issues of Modern Screen and Photoplay that I could get in Henderson, the next town over from Paradise Falls. I loved the pictures of the movie stars. Everything was so glamorous. I don’t know why I thought it, but I thought I could be an actress too. I could just see myself on the screen. I was brazen enough to think that Vivien Leigh had nothing on my Scarlett O’Hara.” She shook her head in disbelief at her own audacity with a twinkle in her eye and a smirk on her face. “Ah, youth.” She filled the pause with a breath. “Anyway, I had worked every summer during high school and I had saved some of my earnings. So I decided that if I wanted to be an actress, I had to move to Hollywood.”
The buzzing sound coming from Jack’s back pocket called a halt to Genevieve’s story. He gave her an apologetic look as he retrieved his BlackBerry®. It was a text from Henry. It didn’t surprise him. He hadn’t seen Henry since the night before when he had run into his arms clutching him like a scared lover. Skipping out on school that day had been just another avoidance. What did surprise him was the fact that it was 4pm. He had been listening to Genevieve for hours. He had to get home.
“I’m sorry, Miss Genevieve, but I just realized it’s 4 o’clock. I have to get home.”
“That’s alright, Jack. Today was lovely.” She smiled up at him as he quickly stood up from the sofa to leave. “Come back soon won’t you, Jack?”
He smiled down at her. “Can I?” he said like a child that had just been told he could have anything in the store he wants.
“Of course you can. Maybe you could even bring your friends with you.”
“Henry and Kevin? I’m going to tell them all about today. I’ll ask them to come with me next time.” He crossed to the door.
“Wonderful,” she said. She looked very happy as he turned back to look at her. He was suddenly aware of the music again.
“Miss Genevieve? The music? It was also playing last night. Who is it?”
“That’s Bing Crosby, Jack. He was very popular in the 1940’s. I was very fond of his music. I guess that’s why I enjoy playing this record over and over. Or maybe it’s because when I met him, he was even more smitten with me than I was with him.” She raised her eyebrows and gave him a look that seemed to say Whatdya think about that?
He couldn’t help but smile at one more interesting, completely unexpected element of her life.
He had a sheepish grin on his face as he gave her a wave goodbye.
“See you soon.”
He shut the door behind him and cautiously ran down the stairs. He made sure to shut the door and latch the gate before running toward his house. His mom wasn’t going to be home for at least another hour so he ran straight to Henry’s to recount everything that had happened to him today.
©2010 Michael Rohrer