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Notes From the Underbelly

Bony Back Childhood

By Eric A. Carlson

"If you were lucky you got the squirrel's hind leg, but my father usually got that. We got the bony back or the brains."

--Jeanne Wood

JEANNE WOOD posed in front of a large Salvador Dali print signed by the master himself. The author of How Teddy Bears Came About was proving to be more interesting than the average bear, her stately Sunnyvale mansion giving no hint of an impoverished Missouri childhood, seemingly scripted by Charles Dickens.

Flashback, 1956: Elvis Presley's pelvis gyrates on The Ed Sullivan Show, prompting Sister Divine Heart to motion to little Jeanne to cover the lower half of the TV screen with a piece of cardboard--thereby saving the girls of St. John Vienny Convent from temptation. Jeanne was content to be holder of the cardboard ... because she could peek. If a girl's behavior was exemplary, she might be accorded the privilege of fanning Sister Divine Heart, as she sat monitoring for sin.

The Sisters of the Good Shepherd ran a tight ship, but it was welcome relief from her stepmother. Jeanne's real mother died giving birth to Jeanne. Jeanne's father remarried a woman whose depth of hatred was revealed in admonishments applied daily to Jeanne and her brother and sister: "You're only good for work." Making Stepmother unhappy resulted in hands being forced into lye, stabbings with sharp sticks, hair pulled, or banishment to the chicken house.

Jeanne relates, with a wry smile, that "chicken-house banishment" was a blessing in disguise. She got along with the chickens, and the chicken house was close to the garden. In the dead of night she would crawl into the garden, as her brother and sister stood guard, to dig up vegetables. Welcome relief from gnawing hunger.

When Stepmother wasn't reading Zane Grey novels or playing the harmonica, she bedeviled the children. Jeanne recalls that when she was 5 years old she was tasked with killing a chicken--with an axe. Wasn't Davy Crockett all of 8 years old when he killed a "bar"? Anyway, the first step in beheading a chicken is to put it to sleep. This is accomplished by placing its head under one wing, then rocking gently. Place chicken on tree stump; whack off head.

Jeanne was placed in the care of The Sisters of the Good Shepherd (after a series of foster homes) when it became apparent to authorities that arriving at school covered with bruises and stab wounds was not the result of falling out of bed.

Girls entering St. John Vienny Convent (now St. Bernard's School in Bixby, Okla.) were separated into two groups--clean or unclean. A preliminary medical examination made the determination. Unclean girls were not allowed to consort with clean. The girls never left the confines of the convent. At least not until they were 18--when the choice was theirs to leave or stay. Jeanne chose to leave. After several days in an isolation room (so as not to contaminate the others) the doors opened ... and Jeanne walked out.

Jeanne arrived in San Francisco with a small cardboard box under one arm, containing all her possessions. As if a character in a quiet fairy tale, she got a job in a restaurant during her first day in "The City"--when she overheard the owner complain, "I could really use some help." This was all the break Jeanne would need. A tiny bit of leverage with which to start a life.

Jeanne married and moved to Sunnyvale in 1961. Her first husband died young, of cancer. She met her second husband, Howard Frederick, at the Los Gatos Lodge. Jeanne cringed when she told me this because at the time, circa 1980, the Lodge was considered to be a "meat market." Jeanne and Howard love to travel; they regaled me with tales of Italy. Jeanne writes children's books, and signs her email with X's and O's.

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From the October 19-25, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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