Stepping from his black pickup on a misty February morning, Danny Kelly glanced over at Genny, muffled inside her dirty blue sleeping bag in her usual spot near the sidewalk behind his orthotics shop in midtown Sacramento.
The asphalt was damp from thunderstorms; the landscape patched with fog. Genny must be chilled to the bone, Kelly thought. He figured her age at 70, maybe older. He didn’t know her last name.
He had seen Genny around midtown for years, her wheeled metal cart stacked with puzzle books, clothes, thick gloves and blankets. Dozens of homeless people congregated around Pacific Medical Prosthetics & Orthotics, the L Street clinic where Kelly crafted artificial limbs and braces. But none quite like her. She was one of the oldest women he had seen on the streets. She was extraordinarily articulate, though her ramblings could veer in strange directions.
Genny never begged for food or money, but accepted his gifts of sodas and smokes with a crisp thank-you. He often wondered what sort of calamity had brought her to the streets, but she kept those stories to herself. Kelly, soft-spoken himself, wasn’t one to probe.
He ducked inside the clinic’s back door and launched into his daily routine, snapping on the lights and checking his appointments for the day. Wearing blue work scrubs over his slightly built frame, he headed back out to offer Genny coffee, another morning ritual.
She lay slumped to one side on the pavement, still as a statue, facing the Sutter Medical Center parking structure across 30th Street. A few yards to her right, a line of cars idled in the McDonald’s drive-thru. At the Chevron next door, people in business attire filled their gas tanks before rolling out toward the highway.
“Good morning, Genny!” Kelly called out. He kept his distance across the lot, as Genny was particular about her space.
“Genny? You OK?”
He stepped closer, but heard only the sounds of rushing traffic. He pressed Genny’s shoulders. They were limp. He touched her forehead and noted some warmth. But she didn’t open her eyes. “Genny!” he said again, peeling back her sleeping bag and gray blanket.
The paramedics arrived within minutes, but Genny was gone. Dead before they could lift her from her bag.
As he watched them load her body into the ambulance, Kelly cried. Not because Genny was sweet, because Lord knows she could be ornery. Not for her family, because as far as he knew she had none.
He cried because she could have been his grandmother.
Who was Genny? he asked himself. Where were her relatives? How does an old woman who did the New York Times crosswords and spoke like a professor wind up dying on the streets?
Surely, he thought, she once had someone who loved her.
Working the grid
For 20 years, Genevieve Lucchesi made her home on the midtown streets of California’s capital city. By the time she died, at age 77, she had become part of the neighborhood’s heartbeat, a figure as familiar to many residents as the concrete water tower on Alhambra Boulevard.
During the day, she pushed her metal cart across the midtown grid, dressed in castoff men’s polo shirts and sweat pants, her gray hair knotted in a bun. When a spot suited her, often along a busy sidewalk, she opened her folding chair, fetched her cigarettes and settled in with her crosswords, seemingly oblivious to the beehive of car and foot traffic. At night she slept in isolation, under bridges and awnings, in alleyways and empty parking spaces, and in hidden nooks alongside churches.
By all accounts, Genny had little interest in company or small talk. She tolerated the social workers, cops, mental health counselors and church staffers who approached her over the years with offers of help. But she brushed off their suggestions of motel vouchers and bus passes and clinic visits. Delve into her personal life, and she’d respond with steely silence. Like hundreds of others who sleep on Sacramento’s streets, she was a puzzle of intelligence and delusion, endurance and vulnerability, need and stubborn denial.
Marie and James Boyer first noticed her in the winter of 2013, crouching on a curb along 30th Street.
Marie, a retired nurse, and James, a retired chef, lived in an apartment just a few blocks from midtown’s B Street Theatre, and got their daily exercise by walking to the post office on Alhambra and Q Street. Along the way, they often saw homeless people, mostly disheveled young men who railed at invisible enemies. Both held a deep moral conviction to help those in need. So they volunteered at nearby St. Francis of Assisi church and at the Loaves & Fishes homeless services complex, and passed out gloves, socks and other provisions during their walks.
That first time they saw her, Genny was sitting near 30th and K streets, hunched over a book. James was 63; Marie, 67. It struck them that this lady likely was older than they were and navigating the streets alone. Why?
The Boyers began seeking Genny out on their daily walks, and over time the three developed a sort of friendship. But it only went so far. They brought her turkey sandwiches with fresh avocado, apple pie and ice cream. She particularly liked Marie’s baked ziti. But during nearly two years of visits, Genny never surrendered so much as her last name. She clammed up when they asked about family. “Mind your business,” she would tell them.
So the couple stuck to safe topics such as cooking and the weather. Genny knew a lot about food and was picky about her cuisine. She preferred bananas to oranges, and liked a bit of red onion with her tuna salad. “The clue says ‘Baked Alaska,’ and they are looking for the word flambé,” she complained to Marie one day, looking up from her crossword. “But flambé is not baked Alaska!”
Maybe Genny had been a lawyer or teacher or chef, the couple thought. Marie, who once worked with psychiatric patients, suspected she might have bipolar disorder. Genny spoke with confidence on an array of topics, but her thoughts could be disjointed, and she lashed out at the government “mind control” that went along with signing up for debit cards.
The Boyers researched shelters, cheap housing and medical clinics where Genny might get treatment for whatever was ailing her. They offered to help secure Social Security payments and other government benefits she surely was entitled to receive. The first step would be getting her a California identification card. But Genny flatly rejected the idea of going to the DMV and filling out paperwork.
“There are worse things than being homeless, Marie,” she insisted.
Marie couldn’t think of any.
A few times, she and her husband debated inviting Genny to live with them. But for all their compassion, the risks loomed large. What did they really know about Genny? Was she on drugs? How volatile was her mental illness? What if she robbed them blind? What if other homeless people found out and showed up at their door?
So they stayed the course, bringing her meals, taking her clothes to the laundromat when they were moldy, buying a golf umbrella to protect her from the sun and a subzero sleeping bag to keep her warm in winter. They brought her kitchen shears so she could clip her hair when it matted, and made sure she had the Pond’s Cold Cream she preferred for cleansing when a sink wasn’t readily available.
But there was only so much they could do to keep her safe. Genny was a moving target for local police, who regularly cited her for illegal camping. Too many times to recount, the Boyers learned her belongings had disappeared when she stepped away to use a gas station bathroom or buy cigarettes. At least twice, she was beaten over a sleeping space.
One day, seeing bruises on her face, they debated contacting Adult Protective Services, which could have her committed to a group home or some other safe haven. Genny would consider it a betrayal, they decided. “It would blow our relationship, the little bit of trust she had in us,” Marie reasoned. So they never followed through.
The Boyers, and Genny, seemed stuck. The street visits continued.
For most of the years that Genevieve Lucchesi was navigating the streets, her eldest daughter was hundreds of miles away, married and working as a banker, raising a child of her own, living comfortably in central Oregon.
Diane Gokey knew from other family members that her mother was homeless. But she had long ago given up trying to save her. She had painful memories of life with a woman with untreated mental illness, wounds she had no desire to examine. Although she knew pieces of her mom’s story, it was an unfinished portrait. Family stories, old photos and public records offer glimpses into her early years, and her descent to the streets.
Genny’s life began just a few blocks from where it ended, in the heart of Sacramento’s bustling midtown neighborhood. She was born Genevieve Evelyn Burres in 1937 at Sutter General Hospital at 28th and L streets. She had the same dark hair as her father, Frederick, who as a child emigrated from Mexico. She inherited her pale skin and crystalline blue eyes from her mother, Verna, a California native of English and Irish heritage.
Her young parents brought Genevieve home to a modest apartment near 25th and J streets, in the shadow of the Capitol dome. Frederick pulled in decent wages as a diesel truck mechanic, and Verna was a homemaker. The couple took their children to Sunday services at St. Francis of Assisi, and Genevieve and her brothers, Walton and Fred, attended parochial schools.
By the time Genevieve enrolled at St. Francis High, an all-girls school with a rigorous curriculum, she had grown into a dark beauty, flirtatious and impetuous. Bored with her studies, she left school at age 16 and got married in Reno. That marriage, which produced Diane, was brief. She wed her second husband, Leo Lucchesi, multiple times, and gave birth to two more daughters, Rosemary and Cathy.
As far back as Diane could remember, her mother had been subject to dark suspicions and volatile mood swings, but her mental condition never was discussed at any length. When her girls were young, Genevieve suffered what family members described as a “nervous breakdown” and wound up in a psychiatric ward for a few days. When she was older, Diane remembers being told her mother had paranoid schizophrenia. But it’s not clear when or where the diagnosis came, or whether she had ever sought treatment.
Growing up in Sacramento, Diane and her siblings mostly just knew their mother was different. Her purse, bulging with receipts, never left her side, not even when she slept. Sometimes she took her showers fully clothed, saying she feared the CIA was spying on her. She complained of strangers following her and of Peeping Toms.
Life with Leo, who worked as a machinist with Southern Pacific Railroad, was explosive and chaotic. Diane recalls epic arguments, when Leo and her mother hurled kitchen implements and empty bottles. They would smash furniture, batter and bruise each other, only to fall into each other’s arms a few weeks later. During their separations, Genevieve inevitably sought out other men.
She and her daughters were frequently on the run, sometimes packing up in the middle of the night after a particularly nasty fight. Diane recalls attending at least five elementary schools and four junior highs. It was hard to make friends, hard to keep them.
But her mother also had stints as a good homemaker, especially during the holidays. These were happier times when she made fruit pies and German chocolate cake. On Valentine’s Day 1975, she gave Rosemary a card featuring a flower she created out of flocked red wallpaper. “With the pure affection that binds a mother to her daughter,” she wrote in fluid cursive. In winter, she decorated the Christmas tree with gold bows and candy canes. At Easter, she hand-painted eggs.
Diane remembers her mother waitressing at the swanky Firehouse restaurant in Old Sacramento. But she never held a job for long. There were stretches on welfare, when they barely managed to keep the heat on. They didn’t have a telephone.
Even in bad times, Diane said, her mother wore stylish dresses she found in thrift stores and was meticulous about her hair and makeup. Her girls, meanwhile, dressed in Salvation Army donations, and wore holes in their shoes and undergarments.
The sisters learned to be resourceful. When they were hungry, they climbed fruit trees around their midtown neighborhood and filled their pockets with peaches and plums. With the $2 their mother typically gave them to get dinner when she went out carousing, they created meals of canned ravioli or rice with tomato sauce. The sisters never got regular medical care. Diane recalls her mother once busting her in the face when she complained of a painful tooth.
The violence was unpredictable, but regular and frightening. As the eldest sister, Diane often was the one standing between her mother and her siblings, or between Leo and her mother. She recalled once protecting her mother by plunking Leo with a rotisserie spit. Another time, when he had Genevieve pinned to the ground outside, Diane hit him with a tire iron. The struggle left her with a broken front tooth. Genny grabbed the tire iron afterward and bashed Leo’s 1961 Corvette.
Diane remembers being 6, playing out front with her sisters, when their mother burst out of the house, grabbed Rosemary and dragged her inside. “It was for nothing,” she said, shaking her head. “Some typical little kid thing. All I could hear from the outside was my little sister screaming. I stood there listening, mortified, as she got the beating of her life and there was nothing I could do.”
When they grew older, she and her sisters shared earnest discussion about whether their mother was possessed by demons. They talked about bringing in an exorcist but couldn’t figure out how to arrange it. They huddled in the same bed many nights, bracing for the next implosion.
At 14, Diane had enough. She packed up a few clothes in paper bags and left to live with her father, who had remarried and had two young daughters. Life instantly improved. She got new clothes, learned to drive, graduated from San Juan High School. No more screaming. No more beatings.
Back in the Lucchesi household, Genevieve’s behavior became more bizarre. Diane’s sisters told her their mother believed the FBI was coming for her and that she wrote jumbled letters about government plots. She grew gaunt, with deep circles under her eyes.
Diane worried about her sisters and struggled with the guilt. Still, she never considered moving back. “I loved my sisters,” she said, tears in her eyes. “But I knew I had to save myself.”
Cathy left home at 16, and Rosemary not long after. Both sisters eventually married, had their own kids, and tried to put their ruined childhood behind them.
Diane married at 20 and moved to central Oregon, where she took a job as a bank teller, eventually rising to regional district manager. She resisted having children, she said, “because of fear of being like my mother.” She and her husband had a daughter, Stephanie, when Diane was 28.
Genevieve continued to bounce among jobs and men, and became increasingly isolated. Diane’s relationship with her was irrevocably broken, she said, when she traveled to Sacramento in the early 1980s to check on a home she was renting to Leo, who was ill and had supposedly broken up with Genevieve. Instead, she found her mother had moved in and was causing chaos in the neighborhood. Diane ordered her out.
Leo died in 1984, at age 51, leaving Genevieve a small life-insurance payout. She opened a thrift shop along Del Paso Boulevard, but the business quickly failed. She moved in with her father in Citrus Heights, but he couldn’t take her rants. Rosemary took her in, Diane said, but also found her behavior intolerable and booted her.
No one is sure of the exact date and circumstance. But by 1995, at the age of 58, Genevieve Lucchesi had become permanently homeless.
Cigarettes and a scrub
For all the chaos in her family life, Genny’s life on the streets moved with a fair degree of predictability in her later years. Each morning, as silence gave way to the sounds of car engines and police sirens, she rose from her chosen sleeping spot in the midtown grid, rolled up her bedding and began her day. Floating mostly between J Street and Capitol Avenue, she piloted her cart wearing oversized canvas shoes and donated clothing that she tossed once it was torn or soiled.
Right around sunrise, before hospital staffers in baggy scrubs converged on the area, she looked for a place to wash up. Often she slipped into the Chevron station at 30th and K, where the handicapped bathroom was large enough to accommodate the bulging black garbage bag that held her spare clothing, flashlight and other survival gear. The walls were scribbled with graffiti, but the mirror, sink and toilet were intact, and the door usually was left unlocked for customers.
She followed her cleanup with a visit to the station’s minimart, where she routinely plunked down $4.88 for a pack of Pall Malls and engaged in curt exchanges with owner Nachhattar Nagral. “I wanted to ask her, ‘What happened to you? Why are you out here?’ ” Nagral said. But she never got the courage. “I just felt sad for her.”
At night, Genny chose solitary sleeping quarters, often the handicapped parking space behind the Chevron or the parking lot behind Kelly’s prosthetics clinic. When it rained, she found shelter beneath the H Street bridge.
In 2012, with the pastor’s blessing, Genny set up camp in the side entrance to the elegant Faith United Methodist Church on J Street. For months, the Rev. Barbara Horikoshi-Firebaugh had made small talk with Genny whenever the two crossed paths en route to a nearby Subway. She told Genny the church entrance needed to be clear for Sunday services, but otherwise she was welcome to stay. Genny complied, disappearing early each Sunday and returning in the afternoon. She interacted with some of the church staff, once alerting them that a door lock was broken, and occasionally accepted leftovers from congregational gatherings.
The setup lasted about a year, until some neighbors began pressing for Genny to leave, concerned her presence was driving down property values. Horikoshi-Firebaugh made a passionate case for Genny when the issue came before Faith’s board of directors. “I preach about how we’re supposed to be like Jesus and help the poor,” she said. “And now we’re kicking her out?”
After the board voted for Genny’s removal, the pastor approached Genny with a tearful apology. “It’s OK,” Genny told her. “I’ll be OK.”
Life outside was wearing on her body. Her fingers were yellowed by tobacco, and her nails cracked and dirty. Her hair, once her raven pride, grew thin and white. But Genny never seemed hungry or desperate, Nagral noted. The midtown grid kept her fed.
It was not Genny’s style to beg for money or carry cardboard signs advertising her plight. She simply rolled her cart to her desired spot, settled in and let the day play out. As she pored over her puzzle books or crossword page, she accepted gifts of tacos and burgers, hoodies and shoes, gloves and knit hats. People dropped off paperback romances that she read wearing the wire-framed glasses Kelly had purchased for her online.
People also gave Genny money, which she typically stuffed down her shirt. One morning in October 2013, police arrested her at one of her midtown sleeping spots, charged her with illegal camping and took her to jail. When she was booked, according to sheriff’s spokeswoman Lisa Bowman, deputies found $6,681.70 stashed beneath her clothing, with many of the bills virtually glued to her skin. She was given a check for that amount when she was released later that day, Bowman said. Genny took the check. But, with no bank account or identification, she never cashed it.
“What happened to my money?” she would bark after that, to anyone willing to listen. “The government took my money!”
Genny’s distrust of authority tested the limits of the system designed to help mentally ill people leave the streets. Teresa Lorenz is a staffer with El Hogar, a nonprofit mental health group for the poor. More than once, she offered Genny the chance to enroll in housing and health programs, only to be met with a scolding. Genny was adamant that she wasn’t sick. She didn’t need help, especially from “the government.”
There is a scientific name for mentally ill people who do not believe they are impaired. It is called anosognosia, and results from damage to the part of the brain that dictates self-awareness. It is, according to studies, the second-most common reason that people with schizophrenia decline treatment. The first is the negative side effects of the drugs designed to treat the condition.
Sacramento police Officers George Chargin and Michelle Lazark witnessed Genny’s stubborn resistance for years as they patrolled the streets of midtown. It was part of their job to respond to complaints about illegal campsites, rousting homeless people from their sleeping spots. On cold and rainy nights, Chargin and Lazark sometimes sought Genny out to offer a voucher for a hotel room, but she steadfastly refused. More than once, the officers said, they considered taking Genny to a hospital, where she could be held for 72 hours as a danger to herself.
“But I never did it,” Chargin said. “Genny was well-spoken. She answered your questions. She could be argumentative, but she didn’t fight us. On some level, she was taking care of herself.”
‘Are you Genevieve?’
As a young mother, Diane wanted to be everything that Genevieve was not. She read and sang to her daughter, made sure her teeth were brushed and her clothes clean. The family gathered around the table each night for dinner. Stephanie attended the same schools as her friends from first grade until high school. Although Diane and her first husband divorced after 18 years of marriage, they did so amicably. Diane went on to remarry, and Stephanie grew up close with both of her fathers. She knew stability and unconditional love.
And then, as Stephanie entered her teenage years, Diane felt a cold shot from the past. Her daughter was struggling. School suddenly became more than she could handle. She took to bed for days at a time. Her mind went to desperate places, where it seemed nothing and no one mattered.
For Diane, it was a staggering turn of events. She’d been so afraid of becoming her mother, worried she might harbor the roots of some late-blooming mental illness. And instead it was her child who was ill.
In 1996, at the age of 14, Stephanie was diagnosed with clinical depression.
But this wasn’t the 1950s, and Diane’s household was nothing like the one she grew up in. Stephanie’s family rallied around her. The culture had changed dramatically in the decades since Genevieve’s mental breakdown. There were treatment options and insurance support, experts and understanding friends. People talked about mental illness. The stigma had softened.
Stephanie began intensive therapy that included counseling and prescription medications. And, with her mother’s permission, she decided to try to find her homeless grandmother.
Stephanie had heard the ugly stories from her mother and aunts about her grandmother’s mental illness, her tumble to the streets. She also had cousins who had memories of a more loving “Grandma Mums.” And now, going through her own trials, she felt they shared a bond. Were they really so different? Were their fates intertwined? She needed to sort it out for herself.
Shortly after the diagnosis, she traveled to Sacramento, where she and her great-grandfather, Frederick Burres, went in search of Genevieve.
One morning early in the visit, they took a bus ride along Sunrise Boulevard, past strip malls and gas stations, and spotted a lady pushing a mountainous shopping cart across Greenback Lane. “There she is,” Frederick said. They stepped off the bus, and Stephanie ran to the woman.
“Excuse me,” she said, touching her arm. “Are you Genevieve?”
Genny jerked away, then looked directly into Stephanie’s eyes. “You must be Diane’s daughter,” she said, and offered a slight smile.
Genny looked strong that day. Her silver hair was pinned back in a bun. Her blue eyes were clear and her clothes and hands clean. Her cart was mounded with possessions. Stephanie remembers plastic cups, a comforter and several kitty litter boxes that her grandmother used as makeshift sinks.
The two of them settled on a bench along the busy street and talked for hours. Genny asked about Diane and her husband. They discussed politics and international news. When Stephanie asked about her life, the conversation shut down. She decided not to broach the topic of mental illness.
Shortly after that visit, Genny migrated to the midtown area. Periodically, Stephanie would return to Sacramento and seek her out, sometimes driving the streets for hours before finding her. They would sit together on sidewalks and street corners, at bus stops and in parking lots. As they spoke, passers-by would inevitably greet her grandmother by name, sometimes handing her food or $5 bills. “You all right, Genny?” they would ask. She always said yes.
Stephanie was not the only family member who reached out. Cathy and Rosemary tried over and again. At one point, Cathy and her daughter Teresa tracked Genny down to tell her Rosemary was gravely ill. They gave her a roll of quarters and begged her to call. As far as anyone knows, she never did. Rosemary died in 2008, at age 52.
Even after she followed Diane to Oregon, Cathy tried to lift their mother from homelessness. She discovered that Genny was entitled to about $700 monthly from Leo’s railroad pension. She called Teresa, who still lived in Sacramento, and asked her to find her grandmother and deliver the news.
“We have everything you need now to get you back on your feet,” Teresa remembers telling her grandmother. “Let’s get you showered, get your money, get you a place to stay.” But Genny refused, and the conversation devolved into a shouting match. Teresa left in tears.
Stephanie’s last conversation with her grandmother was about four years ago, at one of Genny’s midtown campsites. Her grandmother was dirty and unresponsive. She sat planted on a curb, unwilling to stand.
After that visit, Stephanie gave up trying to change her grandmother’s circumstances. Genny had become too comfortable, Stephanie concluded, with life on the streets.
A slow bleed
Late last year, after a beating over a sleeping space that left her with a black eye, Genny signaled she might finally be ready for a change.
“It’s pretty cold out here,” Officer Lazark, on patrol one late December day, advised Genny. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a nice, hot bubble bath?”
She thought she saw a glimmer in Genny’s blue eyes. “I’ll think about it,” she replied.
A few days later, Genny told the Boyers about a hotel called Vacationland in West Sacramento. She might consider living there, she told them. Marie and James were ecstatic. They told her they would investigate. But when they sought out Vacationland, they found no such business. Once again, they offered to help her get an ID so that she could apply for housing somewhere else. She told them to forget it.
In late January, as she dodged winter rainstorms, Genny grew visibly weaker.
Galen Unruh, director of outreach for St. Francis church, had grown used to seeing Genny around midtown. He found a certain dignity in her determination to live without rules or restrictions. But recently he had become worried. Genny was not moving around as much. When she did, her gait seemed strained.
One January day, Unruh found her curled in a fetal position under a blanket, wedged against the McDonald’s off 30th Street. He knelt beside her. “Are you OK?” he asked.
“I’m bleeding,” she answered, in a near whisper.
“Where?” Unruh pressed. Genny asked to be left alone.
He offered to take her to the hospital. “No hospital,” she said. She had friends who would help her, she insisted. They were coming to see her later that day. He left, and in the days that followed, wondered whether he had done the right thing.
A couple of weeks later, in early February, Sacramento’s weather turned raw. Rain pelted the streets, and trees toppled from the saturated ground. Wind gusted through the grid, briefly knocking out the power.
From their car, on a day when the rain fell in torrents, the Boyers saw Genny huddled beneath the H Street bridge. She seemed to be shrinking into herself. On Feb. 9, a Monday, they found her back in one of her favorite spots, under the prosthetic clinic awning, bundled under two sleeping bags. Her voice was barely audible. She had urinated on herself.
Marie offered Genny homemade chicken soup and a sandwich. Genny complained the soup was salty, but sipped it anyway and thanked her.
On Tuesday, the couple had business downtown and missed their visit with Genny. On Wednesday, Feb. 11, they went to find her. They checked her usual haunts, trolling alleys, parking lots, sidewalks. They came upon a couple of workers cleaning up the parking lot behind the prosthetics shop. Had the men seen Genny?
Yes, one said. The old lady had died that morning in the very place the Boyers were standing.
They pointed to Genny’s belongings, including two carts and a sleeping bag, jutting from a trash bin. The Boyers, in tears, stuffed the sleeping bag into their car and drove to the coroner’s office. They were not actual family, they told the clerk. But they might have been as close to family as she had.
The coroner had identified Genny through her fingerprints. Her full name was Genevieve Lucchesi, the Boyers were told, and she was 77. Cause of death was listed as cardiovascular disease. She had arrived at the morgue with the clothes she was wearing, a Del Taco gift card, business cards from El Hogar Mental Health Clinic and the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, and $24 in cash. She also carried a check made out in her name: $6,681.70 from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department’s inmate fund, dated Oct. 25, 2013.
Genny’s body would be held while the office searched for next of kin. If none turned up, she would be cremated and buried in a common grave with other people whose families never claimed them.
Stained glass and small mercies
Diane Gokey is 60 now, with large, expressive eyes and a stylish bob. She was unaware that her mother had died until a reporter contacted the family. The subsequent family discussions, she said, unleashed disturbing images of a childhood scarred by mental illness.
“I feel like a war veteran going back up the hill,” she said on a recent afternoon. She sat with her legs crossed, a delicate gold cross around her neck, in the living room of Stephanie’s spacious home in the leafy Portland suburb of Beaverton.
Diane agreed to speak about her mother, she said, to help illustrate the destruction that mental illness can inflict on families. She counts herself as an example of someone who survived, even thrived, in spite of it. Stephanie is thriving, too. She is 34, with an easy smile and cascading blond hair. She has a husband and two young sons, loves to cook and decorate, and works as a teaching assistant with special education students. With continued treatment and family support, she’s learned to work through and manage her depression.
“I want people, especially children, to know that there is hope,” Diane said. Growing up was “pure hell,” she said. “But we are here and doing well. There is life after mental illness.”
After learning Genny had died, the family had wrenching discussions about what to do with her body. Diane and Cathy were still angry with their mother but weren’t comfortable with the thought of her lying “on a slab of marble at the morgue,” Diane said. The grandchildren wanted a memorial service.
Diane, much as she had in childhood, took the lead. She made arrangements for her mother’s cremation and began contacting people in Sacramento who had known Genny on the streets. With their help, she planned a service.
And so, on a breezy June day inside the ornate building where a priest baptized Genevieve Evelyn Burres more than 78 years before, a small gathering of family and acquaintances formally put her to rest.
Standing near the altar at St. Francis, beneath a vividly painted mural of Jesus hanging from the cross, Diane gazed at a picture board arrayed with snapshots of her mother’s two lives. On one side was a vibrant young mother posing with her Cleopatra hairdo. On the other a disheveled woman with weathered skin and raggedy white hair, huddled on a curb.
As candlelight flickered off the stained glass windows, members of Genny’s two distinct “families” exchanged whispered greetings. Diane and Stephanie had traveled from Oregon. Cathy’s daughter Teresa came with her husband and young children. Rosemary’s daughter Erica made the trip from Virginia. A handful of Genny’s high school classmates showed up. In all, 33 people attended, including a representative from Faith United Methodist Church, where Genny once slept.
The Boyers were there in the front pew, hands clasped. Later, Marie’s voice quavered as she read aloud from Scripture. “Do not fear, for I am with you,” she recited.
Sister Claire Graham, founder of the Wellspring Women’s Center in Oak Park, presided over the service. She had known Genevieve Burres as a smart and sparkly classmate at St. Francis High. Decades later, Graham regularly spoke to the homeless woman she knew as Genny. She was shocked when she learned, after Genny’s death, that they were the same person.
“Genevieve had a reason for living the way she did, and she will be a motivating force as we go forward and try to make changes in the world,” Graham told the gathering. “My sadness is the disease of mental illness. Untreated mental illness stole Genevieve from us.”
Diane bowed her head for prayer, a whirlwind of emotions racing through her. The hurt and humiliation of her childhood still cut deep. She grieved for that aching child inside her. But she also felt regret about her mother’s plight, about what might have been. It wasn’t right that her illness had gone untreated.
And amid all that sorrow and remorse, she also felt grateful. Over the years, when she allowed herself to picture her mother on the streets, she would flinch at the thought of her isolation. But surrounding her now were all these people who had come to pay tribute. Even homeless, her mother had found kindness, connection, some semblance of community.
So Diane bowed her head and thanked God for small mercies, and for the people who had done their best to nurture a woman they never really knew.