Saturday, January 13, 2007

History: Jenny, 1924

I didn't want to interrupt Jake while he was going on about his trip north, but we got our first email to TradingPostStories@yahoo.com this week, and it was a doozy:

Dear Mr/Ms Milligan,

Since you asked people to relate their experiences of the Trading Post Inn I thought you might be interested in hearing my story.

I visited the Trading Post in 1924. I cannot remember the event as I was only an infant at the time, though my mother, who was once my wife, told me about it when I was older. The infant brain cannot accommodate a complete, adult mind and for those early years I remained in the state of an infant, unremembering, unknowing, unthinking, pure appetite and emotion. But the spirit of my former life was upon me and slowly recollection grew, as I grew. I came to remember all of my previous life, but distantly, as of events that took place, literally, a lifetime ago. In amongst the sharp and vivid joys and pains of childhood were interleaved the memories of a whole other world, though they were somewhat fragmentary, and disconnected. I was a child remembering adulthood in the manner that a grown adult remembers his early childhood.

I was an unstable and difficult child. I was sometimes quiet and contemplative, sensible and helpful, mature beyond my years. At other times I was boisterous, aggressive and defiant and I was beaten often. A dreamer some said. Moody said others. Not remembering the event of my transformation, I came to believe that everyone must be like me and I tried to engage the other children in conversation about what they remembered from the time before. But they became anxious and upset when I questioned them thus and when my mother heard me she advised me to keep my “games” to myself. At school I was a prodigy. I took in the three ‘R’s extremely quickly and my teachers were often irritated by the number of things I knew before I was supposed to have been taught them. Being too clever was not popular. There too I learned to keep quiet and just play along. But sometimes I refused to hold back. When I was eight I was sent home from school for insisting that I had met President Cleveland. I explained that this had happened in my other life, but I was firmly told that this was impossible, that heathen Hindoos might believe in reincarnation, but that Christian girls would have such lies beaten out of them.

It was after that that my mother told me the story of the Trading Post. She had been an old woman then and she and her husband had stayed the night in an isolated lodge. The next morning she had miraculously found herself in a different, much younger, body. And where her husband had been there was then a little baby girl. That baby was me. From notes left by her body’s previous occupant she learned that we had been travelling from visiting her family, along with a driver to accompany us, as her husband could not leave his work. The driver, in an adjacent room, had also changed, unfortunately into someone who could not drive. My mother gave him all the money she had on her and let him go to make his way as best he could. Then she telephoned my father, her new husband, and told him the driver had robbed us and ran away. He was furious, but she managed to persuade him that nothing could be done and that it was needless to involve the police, so he sent another two servants to pick us up with the car.

My father had become rich by speculation. But his wealth was largely paper and it fluttered away in the crash of ’29. We lost everything, but were taken in by a distant cousin of my father’s to work on his farm. My father sank into an alcoholic despair from which he never really recovered, but my mother and I flourished. We had been farmers together previously, before I had turned to the grocery business and made my first fortune, and living on a farm again I felt quite at home.

Being a girl, having been a man, was not a problem for me since I grew into my girlishness before recollecting my boyishness. Nevertheless, I was what they call a tomboy. As a little girl I preferred wrestling and climbing trees to playing with dolls or dressing up. There are pictures of me as a fidgety toddler, dressed in the frilliest and fussiest of frocks and held in place for the camera by my mother. I look quite uncomfortable, as if I would rather be doing almost anything else. When I was older I never had interest in frills or ribbons. On the farm all us kids, girls and boys together, wore dungarees and ran barefoot most of the time. I only ever had one very plain dress at a time, for Sunday best. I loved being on the farm, feeding the pigs and chickens, playing in the barns, tinkering with the tractor.

Growing up was not altogether pleasant. Boys who had been fun playmates turned into earnest, boring suitors. What I could do or say became ever more restricted on grounds of being “unladylike”. I had to help with the cooking and the cleaning and the washing and I couldn’t play on the farm any more. I enjoyed letting my hair down at dances, meeting up again with old friends, even flirting with the boys. But they couldn’t compensate for the drudgery I saw ahead of me. I felt then what being a woman would mean for me in a way that I hadn’t before.

The disaster of Pearl Harbour was, I confess, a small blessing for me. When the men were drafted keeping the farm going was high priority and I escaped from the kitchen to work out in the open in the fields. Then I got a job in a munitions factory in a neighbouring county. I lived in lodgings with other women from the factory and we used to go to dances together. I had such a happy time then, away from the confines of my family. Though I loved my mother I was happy to be living independently, making new friends, doing my bit for the war but also enjoying myself. In 1944 I was twenty one. I enlisted in the Women’s Army Corp, trained as a radio operator and saw service in the East until after VJ Day.

Stationed in the Philippines I met and fell in love with a fellow soldier and back in the States we got married. He took advantage of the GI Bill to go to college and become an engineer. I kept home for him and raised four children. In the 60s I got involved in the Women’s Movement and the Peace Movement. With my husband’s support I went to college and studied sociology and I wrote and taught in that subject for twenty years until I retired in the 80s.

Since my mother died, in 1965, I have talked to nobody about my secret. My dear husband passed away six years ago and he never knew. It was startling to me to come upon your website and realise that that place was still turning over people’s lives, so many years after I was there. It feels strangely satisfying to tell my story to someone who might possibly believe it. I can scarcely believe it myself.

In my life I have lived over one hundred sixty seven years. I have had eleven children, nineteen grandchildren, at least twenty eight great grandchildren and more great great grandchildren and great great great grandchildren than I could possibly trace. I fought in the Civil War in the 1860s and I marched for civil rights in the 1960s. I have been a soldier and a mother, a farmer and a teacher, a businessman and a beggar. I have seen so much, felt so much, that my heart feels full to bursting with the wonder of life.

Once I would have thanked the good Lord for the strange blessing he has given me, but now I know how foolish that would be. Nothing but chance took me to that place and if God bestowed an unmerited blessing on me he must have bestowed equally unmerited curses on many others. Whoever got my original body after me cannot have lived long. I was eighty five. And I cannot imagine what could have happened to the original spirit of the baby I became in her new, possibly adult, body, but it fills me with horror to think of her, a helpless innocent deprived of her natural infancy.

No, a different deity reigns at the Trading Post. It is the blind goddess, Fortune. She turns her wheel, raising some up to the heavens and casting others down to sit in the dust by her whim. She turns male to female, old to young. She stirs chaos into the world and we, who are subject to her random caprice, must find love and meaning where we can amid the accidents of fate.

It never occurred to me once to try going back to the Trading Post. Even if I remembered where it was I think I would be too scared, so I salute your bravery at planning a return visit. I hope Fortune smiles on you, but I fear she may confound any attempt to bring her under control.

If you find my story interesting please feel free to put it on your website. But if you don’t mind, I won’t tell you my full name, in case it causes embarrassment to my family.

Yours,

Jenny

Naturally, I'm having a hard time with this, not just because the curse or spell or whatever makes it difficult, even if we've been through the same thing. But... 1924! I've only been able to investigate back to the early 1990s. I don't know if I should skip seventy years of research, or dismiss it out of hand. Or even if this is real, how do I know if there's not something more useful in between?

Ah, well. Fascinating reading, and it certainly points us in some interesting new directions. Hopefully, there's more stories out there.

-Art

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