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Saturday, October 11, 2014

In Memoriam: Geneva Elizabeth Raney Charbonneau (1925 - 2014)

Remembering my mom: Geneva Elizabeth Raney Charbonneau

The novel I wrote based on my parents' marriage

This is a very difficult blog to write - in fact, I've put it off since Mom's death on June 4th of this year. I would like to celebrate her life, but the last seven years were awful years for me and, at first, for Mom as she spiraled down into dementia. "What's wrong with me?" she ask me more than once, panic in her voice, during the first couple of years at Guardian Angel. "You have no memory," was all I could say, unable to comfort her, but knowing that within seconds she wouldn't remember what either of us had said. Just once, early on, she said, "I wish I could do it over again," meaning her life. And I wished she could have done it over, too. For she had interesting life, but not a happy marriage, though to many she appeared joyful and funny and warm. She was able to project that about herself. Was I the only one who knew of her anguish throughout much of her life?

She gave birth to me on October 12, 1945, 69 years ago for those of you who can't count. That was the most important day of my life, so thanks, Mom, even though your doctor wanted to go duck hunting and so brought on your labor before we were ready. I almost died and you could never have more children.  Dad refused to pay the doctor's fee, and it was never pursued. The breadwinner could do that in those days if he felt righteous enough.

Geneva Raney, known as Jean, was born at home in Yardley, now part of Spokane, on March 20, 1925. The youngest of six children (the oldest, James, died at age 10 from blood poisoning from a blister on his heel). Her mother was 42 and already deaf, her father 38; they always seemed old to her.
Felts Field in Spokane, Mom looks to be about four.

Siblings Louise, Paul, Mary Agnes, and Denny. Mom is the smallest (c1933)
Her father worked for the Northern Pacific in the roundhouse in Yardley as a mechanic. During the Great Depression they were like so many other familes - poor. If my grandfather had one of his glum days, he'd stay in bed, miss work, and not get paid. Grandma would pick cucumbers for ten cents a bushel basket. Mom didn't have a new dress until she was in high school. Grandma made their slips and underpants from bleached flour sacks. The three girls slept together when they were children and, if she felt bullied, Mom would eat crackers in bed and scatter the crumbs under the covers to make her sisters miserable.

She attended Holy Names Academy (as I would later) and though not a very good student except in French, English and Literature, still she seemed to have a pretty good time. She graduated in 1943, in the middle of the war and immediately got a job at Western Union in downtown Spokane, working swing shift. The streets were crowded with soldiers coming through to Seattle and sailors down on leave from Farragut Naval Training Base up on Lake Pend d'Oreille in Sandpoint, Idaho. One evening two Australian soldiers approached her girlfriend and her on their way to the bus stop. "Would you like to 'ave a cuke?" one asked. "What?" she said. "A cuke . . . you know a Cuka-cula." She did enjoy the war years. When my father, Albert Charbonneau, returned from New Guinea in 1944, where he'd been a tail-gunner on a B-24 Liberator, flying 48 missions, they married on November 20th.

They look happy enough here. I took this photo in 1949.

One of my favorite photos of Mom

First it was bad dreams and memories of his plane crash-landing on a coral reef in the middle of the South Pacific in Japanese-infested waters. One engine had stopped working on the way to drop their bombs on Japanese-held islands; on the way back to Port Moresby, another engine went out, unfortunately on the same side. The crew was rescued by an Australian amphibian plane the following day because the navigator had sent out their position. Dad suffered from insomnia and the noise at Kaiser Aluminum where he worked made him keyed up and nervous. We moved up into the hills of Idaho when I was six.

When I was in the seventh grade, Dad was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Oh, yes, he heard voices. Mom had to go to work to support us. Eventually, Dad received benefits as a disabled veteran.

After I left home and went back east, they celebrated Christmases alone, but for their dogs (c. 1969)

She was happy that day. Me, Grandma, my son Donovan, and Mom (1971)

Mom with brothers Paul and Denny (maybe the late 1970s)

c 1984

She loved her vegetable and flower gardens, and her grandson Donovan.

Mom with brother Paul and sister Mary Agnes

Sad day in October 1994 at luncheon after Dad's funeral. Mom, Donovan, Me & husband Jay. Why are we smiling?

By 2007 Mom's dementia couldn't be ignored. Jay took an early retirement from the University of Wyoming and we moved up to Idaho. I stayed with Mom for five months. She didn't know me most of the time, was frightened and hostile. By the end of those months I realized she could no longer stay in her home of 50 years. She could no longer locate the one bathroom in the ranch-style home, believed she was in a stranger's house, and begged me to find her a safe place.

She couldn't remember any of the names of her seven cats. They all looked alike to her. But she was broken-hearted to leave  her dog, Charley. Charley's name and the name she called me, Kerry, were the last words she was able to say near the end of her life. Also, "Be quiet."

This was the photo Jay took November, 2007, the day I put her into assisted living and I think this will be the last I show here. I was in a lot of psychic pain myself.

And so seven years passed and her world shrank until it was as if she were an infant again, unable to walk or talk, hand-fed and diapered. A few years into her stay, she'd focused on me for a few seconds, enough time for her to say, "Don't let me die." She had the best care anyone could ask for and, while I was present Death did not come. But Jay and I hadn't had a vacation for 8 or 9 years and were feeling old. So, we decided in February to go to Scotland for two weeks in May. After we left, I got a call that Mom was being put on hospice because she had pneumonia. She'd had it in March, but had beaten it with some antibiotics. Five days before we were due to return, she slipped away. "The old man's friend" pneumonia used to be called. She was not alone when she died. The day before, Donovan sat with her and offered up his prayers for her. The caregivers I had grown fond of when I came every week to feed her lunch, were themselves fond of Mom. They were there to ease her from this world into whatever lies beyond.

The novel I wrote back in the 1990s is about Mom's struggle to protect her family while married to my schizophrenic father. I mention it here because I believe I accurately portrayed the various facets of her personality and the events that were a part of her life. Mom once went to a support group for family members of schizophrenics. The people there were all parents of schizophrenic children. "Aren't there any spouses?" she asked. Someone said, "Nobody stays married to a schizophrenic."  "Well, I did," she answered. Dad died one month short of their 50th wedding anniversary, though the novel doesn't go that far. It's available on Amazon as a Kindle download and in paperback  here


  1. That was a great tribute to your mom and I hope it helped you to tell this story. Enjoy today, Kerry, you deserve a wonderful fall day.

    1. Thank you, Mike. I know you were fond of her, too.

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you, Sue. You'll have to face it soon with your mom, too, I know.

  3. Well done, Kerry! Your mother never let her inner most feelings ever surface around me. She, like her mother before her, always was concerned for her guests, making certain that they were fed and warm. My few visits with her are wonderful memories. Mine go back to her time in high school when she would play with Sandra and me at the Nora house. I prefer these memories to those of less happiness. Thanks, Pat

    1. Thank you, Pat. Your being the first grandchild in the family, everyone was crazy about you, Mom said. She especially enjoyed babysitting you as a girl.

  4. Oh Karen, this must have been so hard to write. My heart aches for her, for you. The pictures are fabulous--bring it all to life. That 1971 picture--your braid, your son! The four generations! So poignant,

    I started reading A Devil Singing Small last month--really a page turner, no surprise there, then reached a point where I had to put it down for a while, some things hit really close to home for me. But I will finish it. xo, Jen

    1. Thank you, Jen, so far away across this wide country.

  5. Don't know how I missed reading this until now. Yours is the third story like this that has touched me in the past few weeks. It is beautifully written, and I really like the photos. They are the haunting presence of memories forgotten and of hard difficulties overcome. It says so much of her that she remained by your father's side. No one begins to fathom the meaning of "in sickness and in health...for better or for worse."