When I was young and married, I had the idea to video tape several hours’ worth of interview with my maternal grandparents. In these interviews, I asked them about their childhoods, parents, my grandpa’s military service, and their marriage and children.
And then I tucked those VCR tapes into our fireproof safe for twenty-five years — until a few weeks ago, at which point we got a brand new old VCR and got those time capsules out to and enjoy a visit with my sweet, (albeit a bit constantly grumpy) adorable grandparents. I must say, it is fascinating to be an adult and look at my grandparents as adults with similar problems and feelings. As I listened this time, I heard them with ears I never could have had when I was just a child foisted off on them while my parents did who-knows-what for lots of weeks and weekends and the three of us played at least 123,459 games of dice. I remembered none of these details from a quarter of a century ago when I had first interviewed them so looking back felt like a strange and lovely visit back in time packed with information and arguments about who remembered the details correctly.
My sweet 4’11” grandmother was named Geneva Mae (which is pretty much the best name that ever happened I think and quite honestly, I find it very funny that I was instead named after my grandFATHER whose name was Allison — drop one ‘L’. Yes, you read that right. Just super glad I didn’t get his middle name of Eugene. :o)
But this story is about Geneva Mae. She was the eldest of twelve siblings born to a couple of characters who spent their many children’s growing up years moving about the country several times a year around the time of the Great Depression. From seemingly random place to place all the way from Michigan to Florida and back, they traveled setting up a tent in an orange grove and a field in Indiana and who-knows-where-else, depending on the charity of churches to glean boxes of food for their constantly growing family. Geneva, the oldest, fed and cared for the flock of siblings while her parents disappeared for days at a time doing who-knows-what until they returned in a hurry to get the heck out of town before whomever was after them could catch up with them.
She told stories of living in the basement of the Muskegon County Courthouse (in West Michigan) having been given a place to stay since apparently her father supplied the judge(s) and police with white lightning!! In that basement, she would play near the huge paper incinerator where courthouse paperwork disappeared. One day in 1922, little four year old grandma found $40 amongst the papers. I cannot imagine how much money that would be today, but I have a sneaking suspicion that her dad, the moonshine runner, would’ve preferred she didn’t do the honorable thing and turn it in, but she did. And the folks who got their money back were so grateful that they bought her a little dress and some roller skates on which she thoroughly enjoyed whizzing about the courthouse basement. What I wouldn’t give for a picture of my little grandmother on her skates. And boy, do I wonder about these living arrangements in that basement!
We’ve all read enough books and seen enough movies to understand that the prohibition era and moonshine runners got romanticized as we envision flappers and speakeasies and Bonnie and Clyde. Geneva’s life felt more like desperation and poverty and misery than all that. Seems like someone always pays the price for other people’s carelessness. And I do believe she got married to the first guy with a real offer just to escape her sad existence. Obviously, there are a couple Al(l)isons who are slightly to greatly glad she did!
I wonder if anyone has any historical data about the courthouse! You can bet next time I visit the area of my family’s history, I’ll have to go take a look-see.
Have you ever learned an interesting story about your family’s past? Feel free to share!
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