“God willing, this will be my last time at the hospital.” Speaking to me from the shotgun seat was Genevieve Jones, a customer I was transporting back to her home in Derby Line. This is as far north as you can drive in Vermont without leaving the United States of America. The village — if I got my facts straight, always an iffy proposition — is actually north of the 45th parallel, the negotiated boundary between the U.S. and Canada. At some early date, a surveyor screwed up, and it was never corrected.
I glanced over at Genevieve and saw an older woman who appeared to have faced life head on — with no nonsense, pretense or fakery. Her hair was an earthy, reddish-ginger blend, her only adornment a pair of simple silver, oval hoop earrings. She was from “the Kingdom,” no doubt — which means, in my book, as Vermont as you can get. As an immigrant to the Green Mountains, I hold a deep respect and affection for the rural Vermonters whose spirit remains at the core of this uniquely special place.
“So Genevieve,” I began, changing the subject from whatever had brought her to the hospital in Burlington, “you still working up in Derby?”
“Well, first off,” she replied with a smile, “you’re gonna have to switch to ‘Gen,’ because there ain’t anybody who calls me Genevieve, even at the hospital. And, no, I had to quit working a couple years ago on account of this kidney problem.”
“What kinda work did you do?”
“You want the short version or the long?”
“Might as well hit me with the unabridged story, ’cause we got about two hours to Derby.”
Gen chuckled and said, “Well, for years I was a waitress in Newport, but I left in the early ’60s for a better-paying job in Massachusetts. I worked down there for about six years, but I never really liked it. I just missed Vermont all the time. So I quit and came back to live with my brother, until I could get my own place. I’ll never forget — as soon as I hit John’s couch I got terribly sick for a week. I could barely stand on my feet!”
“You must have been exhausted from the move,” I suggested.
“Yeah, maybe, but I think I just weren’t used to the air up here anymore. That’ll do it, ya know.”
“So what did you end up doing when you got better?”
“Went back to waitressing, this time at the East Side restaurant in Newport. This is when they were still downtown. They moved to the waterfront at some point, and I stayed on.”
“And that’s been your work your whole life — waitressing?”
“Nope, I didn’t say that,” she chided, with a twinkle in her blue eyes. “I left the East Side to work as the secretary to the local union — I think it was the tool and die makers. Then, when that dried up, I cared for a couple of old folks in the area — you know, under the table, like. That led to a full-time job at an old-age home in town, run by nuns. They had me doing everything. Eventually, the sisters encouraged me to get my LPN certification. It took me six months — had to drive to classes at night in Morrisville. And that was my last job, like I told ya, until I had to quit.”
There’s a variety of paths to Derby, and I decided to take Route 100 through Stowe, all the way to Lowell and points north. When we reached Lowell, Gen perked up again.
“Yup,” she said, “this is where I grew up with my younger sister and two older brothers. Our dad was a cattle dealer. He would go up to the weekly auctions in Newport.”
“Any of your siblings still alive?” I asked.
“Nope, I’m the last one left. My brother, John, died a few months ago. He shot himself in his bedroom.”
“Oh, Lord — that’s horrible,” I said.
“Well, yeah — it was that. He’d been terrible sick and in pain for a couple years. I guess he just didn’t want to be a burden on his kids anymore.”
Gen paused and seemed to wince. This memory was still achingly fresh.
“Funny thing is, he called everyone in the family that morning. Now, of course, we realize he was saying good-bye.”
“Did you ever have children?”
“Not of my own, no, but I raised a boy and girl of one of my nieces. She had died in a drug overdose when they were still toddlers. So I’m kind of the only mother they’ve ever known. I’ve got a couple of beautiful grandkids now, too.”
As an immense, weathered barn came up on the left, Gen said, “Oh my goodness — this used to be the local dance hall. I guess it was a roller rink, too, at some point. Oh, I used to love dancing when I was a girl. It’s where I met my husband. That’s where he courted me.”
“Has he passed away, too?” I asked.
“Nope, Jim’s still alive. We divorced on June 19, 1969. He’s remarried and lives in New Jersey.”
It wasn’t clear to me why Gen remembered the exact date of her divorce. It could be that the split from her husband had been a lifelong source of pain. On the other hand, it could represent the complete opposite: her joyous day of liberation. I believe that June 19 is celebrated in the African American community as Emancipation Day, so that would be appropriate.
On a ridge outside the town of Irasburg, I noticed some creatures grazing in an enclosed area. I said, “Gen, do you see those critters up there? What the heck are they? Emus, maybe?”
Gen began to laugh. “Emus? Gosh, no. Those are elk. I know this farm. They began raising elk a couple years ago. I guess there’s money in it. A few years ago, these same folks kept a moose. Well, not exactly kept it. More like the moose just liked it up there or some such. I guess Fish and Wildlife gave them all kinds of grief about it because you can’t keep a moose as a pet.”
That’s when it dawned on me: I could probably point out any farm, any building, any field, and Gen could tell me something about it. We were in the Kingdom, and for Genevieve Jones, this land was in her blood.