TITLE: Genoa (revised)
By Lauren Bombardier
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If anyone has a wild hair, it's my sister. In fact, she has an entire head full of wild hair. She can't do anything with it because each strand has a mind of its own—much like she does.
You'd think that someone with a sensible name like Mary Jane Jones, my sister, would follow suit. The very thought makes me laugh! There is not a sensible bone in Mary Jane's body. I can't tell you how many times, after one of her escapades, our mother would say, "Mary Jane, why can't you use the sense God gave you? Do you think Genoa would ever do something like that?" And she'd point her finger at me while I tried to squeeze into the corner of the settee. I'd prop my book up on my knees and try to re-immerse myself back into whatever world I had been dragged from by the sound of my name.
Genoa. Yes, that's my name. My father had a bit of a dramatic spirit and decided that his second daughter would have a name worthy of notice. Aunt Helen often told me that I didn't have a name for days because my father wanted to find just the right one. He was poring over the map of Italy one day and he came across the city of Genoa, and that is what I've been called ever since. Aunt Helen said it just rolled off the tongue and spilled into the room, filling it with delight.
The day after my eighth birthday, my father decided that life was too dull in the small town where we lived. I remember the night he left. The pounding of his footsteps woke me. Mama was crying and he told her to be quiet so she wouldn't wake us up. Her sobs grew softer, but then she started begging him to stay.
"Don't leave, Tony, please!"
"I gotta get out of here, Louise. You just don't understand."
Mama's voice got harder. "You're right! I don't understand. Why you would leave your wife and two little girls for--what? Adventure?"
"Escape." Papa sighed the word. "I need to go. This place suffocates me. I need something bigger, something – more."
"More than what you're family can give you?"
"Yes." I heard a shuffling sound, and then Papa spoke again. "Lou, you and the girls come with me. It's not you I'm leaving, it's this place, this town." Mary Jane sat up in her bed. I hadn't realized she was awake until then. "We could go places. We could travel the world. Let's go to Italy!"
"The girls need to go to school, Tony. How are they to get their education?" Mama's voice was firm. "No, we're not leaving."
All was silent for a moment, and then Papa said, "Fine."
More scuffling noises, then I heard Papa run down the steps and out the front door. A car door slammed, and then Papa rushed back up the stairs. I heard them whispering outside our door. Mama said, "Don't you dare wake them up!"
"They're already awake, Lou." he replied. He opened the door and came into our room. Kneeling between our beds, he spoke to us. "You heard it all, didn't you?"
I nodded and looked at Mama standing in the doorway. "Yes, Papa."
"Where are you going?" asked Mary Jane.
"Well, I thought I'd go to Italy. See if there are any cousins left."
"Sounds like fun." she said.
"Well, I tell you what. I'll save up what money I can, and I'll send for you. How 'bout that?" He smiled at both of us. Mary Jane nodded, but I held still. "Ah, girls. My girls. Will you miss me?"
"Yes," answered Mary Jane.
"Of course you will." He hugged Mary Jane, and then he looked at me. I kept my mouth shut. "Good bye, Genoa. I love you." I turned over in my bed. After a moment, I felt his hand on my head and I heard him whisper a prayer. The tears didn't come until I heard the car drive away, then I couldn't hold them back. Mary Jane sat on my bed and stroked my hair until I fell asleep.
The next morning, Mama sat at the kitchen table with her tea, same as always. Her eyes were puffy and her nose was red, but she never said a word about the night before. Mary Jane chattered on about school as she ate breakfast. I looked at her. Had she any idea how her life had changed? I looked back at Mama. She moved to the kitchen sink and stared out the window. As we left the house for school, we heard something shatter, then silence. Mary Jane and I looked at each other, but didn't speak. She turned and headed towards school, leaving me to my thoughts. A few days later, Mama's sister moved in with us, and we never spoke of that night.
In high school, Mary Jane had a friend named Jerry who dogged her steps and hung on her every word. He was always a willing accomplice to any scheme she had. Once they let all the cows out from the Nelson Dairy and drove them into town. The cows milled around downtown and ate all the flowers the garden club had planted. Mary Jane and Jerry watched from the roof of the courthouse, rolling with laughter as Mr. Mueller and Mr. Lee tried to round up the cows. "Your mother will here of this!" yelled Mr. Lee in his Chinese accent. He shook his fist as they howled with laughter again.
"Hey, Genoa!" shouted Mary Jane as I stepped out of the library. "Watch out for that—!" My foot landed squarely in a fresh cow pie. Mary Jane would have fallen off the courthouse if Jerry hadn't grabbed her, she was laughing so hard. Mama was so mad at her after that incident, she wouldn't speak to her for a week. Mary Jane let it slide right off her like water off a duck.
She'd always sneak out at night to be with Jerry and a few other friends. She'd crawl out of bed, still dressed, and slip through the window while I'd watch her from my bed. She never asked me to come with her, and I never asked her where she went or what she did. I'd hear about it at school the next day, though. The halls would be noisy with her latest exploit.
"Did you see what Mary Jane did?" A giggle. "She painted Mr. Hanson's face on the water tower. He was kissing her—!" Saved by the bell.
"That Mary Jane Jones is so wild! The way she was hanging off that bridge—I thought she was gonna fall and die!" A sigh of admiration. "Man, I could never do that!"
Even my only friend, Emmy, would be buzzing about it. "Genoa! Did you hear—?" Yes, I heard it all. I had heard so much that it all blended together. I would just shrug it off and stick my nose in my book as I headed to class. As soon as we got home, I went straight to our room to do my homework while Mama would rail at Mary Jane until both of them had enough. Mary Jane would slam out of the house, and Mama would crash around the kitchen, complaining to Aunt Helen as soon as she came home from her secretarial job. I would come down to help with supper, and I heard every word as Mama went on and on, asking us what was she going to do with that girl?
We graduated from high school the same year, though Mary Jane was two years older. After high school, I went to college to become a secretary. It was a nice, sensible job for a girl like me, Mama told me. She said she was proud of me, and she knew she'd never have to worry about me. Mary Jane decided to go to Hollywood to become an actress. Aunt Helen, Jerry, and I took her down to the bus station, and waited with her. She kept looking around, waiting for Mama to come say good-bye, but Mama never came. With a sigh and a smile, she gave each of us a hug. I think I saw Jerry wipe a tear from his eyes as she turned from him. "I'll write!" she promised as she hung out the window of the bus, blowing us kisses.
She did write us one letter. It was a newsy letter, full of hope and a young girl's dreams. I brought it home from the post office and read it out loud while Mama sewed on quilt squares and Aunt Helen shelled peas. When I finished, Aunt Helen said, "Well, that was a nice letter. I'm glad she's having such a good time!"
"Hmph." replied Mama. "She needs to take her head out of those clouds and find something better to do. She'll never make it out there."
But Mary Jane did make it in Hollywood. She was never able to write a full letter again. She got so busy, she could only pen a few lines on a postcard. "Having a grand time! Tell Aunt Helen I met Sean Connery!" And I would. Each postcard was from a new place and I put them in my scrapbook.
I would go to see her movies. Jerry often came with me, but I soon grew tired of listening to him sigh every time she came onscreen. Aunt Helen would come too when she could. Mama never came. She didn't approve of the movies, she said. I stopped asking her to come.
Mary Jane came home once. She showed Aunt Helen and me all her fancy clothes, and told us the latest movie gossip. She tried to talk to Mama, but Mama would just answer in one-syllable words. Mary Jane was supposed to stay for the entire summer, but she left after a week. She said she wanted to take the rest of her stuff with her, so Aunt Helen and I helped her pack and we carried everything to the taxi. Mama didn't say a word to any of us, especially not to Mary Jane. Even when Mary Jane stood at the door begging Mama to say something, Mama was firm. She even turned her back. My sister stood there, rooted, shock written on her face. For Mama to be stubborn was one thing, but to turn her back—! Tears slid down my sister's face as she ran to the taxi, almost running into Jerry. He had come every day to visit. She never looked back. Like my father, she left us. That night, I cried like I had when Papa left, but there was no Mary Jane to stroke my hair until I fell asleep.
The next morning, Mama was in the kitchen and I saw her swipe at her cheek as I came in. She turned to me when I asked if I could help and refused to acknowledge she was crying even as the tears spilled from her eyes. We didn't speak of it again. Soon after, Jerry left town, and the next we heard was the Mary Jane and Jerry had gotten married.
It's been ten years. My sister still sends me postcards and I still put them in my scrapbook. She still does movies, but not as many. She and Jerry have three kids, and they all seem to be very happy.
One spring day six years ago, Aunt Helen came into the kitchen and announced that she was getting married and moving to California. She'd had it with small town life and wanted to see the big city. Mama stood at the stove, too stunned to move. I didn't know what Mama was thinking, but I was happy for Aunt Helen and told her so. She gave me a grateful smile, and we went to her room so she could pack. I remember her telling me that she knew I had dreams, and that I should never let anyone tell me what to do with those dreams. Maybe I believed her, I don't know. I'm still a secretary, though there are times I wish I could follow her to California.
Mama's still here. She's not as strong as she used to be. She lost something the day Mary Jane left. She prefers to sit in a rocking chair while I cook our supper, and she quilts to pass the time. Just last evening, as I was putting her to bed, she asked me why I didn't marry and have a family of my own. I asked her who would take care of her if I was gone? She patted my arm, "That's my Genoa. Always the sensible one." Then she closed her eyes and fell asleep, leaving me to sit beside her and wonder if I really had been the sensible one.
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