Wanda Fortunee Meriems Johnson, traveller, teacher, and mother

Wanda Fortunee Meriems Johnson, 105, formerly of West Brattleboro. Died Aug. 15, 2020.

She was born on Jan. 18, 1915 in Heliopolis (City of The Sun), a suburb of Cairo, Egypt. Her first language was Italian from her Austrian-born mother. Her second language was Arabic, the language of the people of Egypt. Many of her daily expressions, such as “In Ch’allah” (if God is willing) that she shared with our family, were in Arabic.

Then she was exposed to Hebrew, the language of her Jewish faith. Her fourth language was French, when she attended L’Ecole Francaise. Her fifth language was English, when she attended the American College for Girls and the British Evening Institute.

When she was first exposed to the French language, it was a love affair from “le premier mot” (the first word). French is the language that she used to communicate with all the members of her family. But Italian became very important toward the end of her life when she began singing repeatedly several lullabies/songs/rhymes that she learned as a small child, from her mother.

She had three sisters: Olga, Florette and Rose, and one brother, Jojo. All were younger than she, yet all died before her. As a young girl, she took piano lessons, which she continued for many years. Playing pieces by the classical composers gave her and her family pleasure for much of her life.

In Egypt, she worked as a secretary for Metosian (a tobacco company) and Warner Bros. Part of her work involved translating from French to English. Wanda joined a group of people she worked with and traveled to America to attend the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. She was extremely impressed with scientific advances, such as television, which she learned about at the fair.

An American, Robert L. “Bob” Johnson Sr., freshly out of Harvard, was on the same ship as Wanda. He met her, fell in love, and proposed marriage, all in the four days before she was to disembark at Alexandria, Egypt. He was on his way to his new teaching job at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon. Wanda suggested that they could correspond, because she wasn’t willing to commit to anything more serious. She had already been proposed to by a man from Venezuela who promised her that he would provide anything she would ever want, but she hadn’t accepted him, yet.

Bob was honest that he could only provide a simple life. As a university instructor, he only earned $650 for an entire year. He shared with her his dream of becoming a farmer and that too would only provide a simple life. From 1939 to 1941, they wrote back and forth and visited each other, with great difficulty, as World War II was tearing down their part of the world.

In 1941, they eloped at the American Embassy in Cairo, because she knew that her parents would not accept this American who would take her away from them. After five to six weeks in Heliopolis, they left on a ship for America that took 69 days and was full of scary times. She often said that leaving her parents and siblings was one of the hardest things she ever did, and she felt guilty about it all her life.

After Bob worked at several unpleasant jobs in the city, Wanda and Bob moved to West Townshend and began farming, and sugaring with Bob’s uncle, Fred Butler, of East Jamaica. Bob and Wanda now had three children; Cordy, Bobby and Curley (Carol). Their baby chicks lived above their living room, and the sawdust bedding fell down when the chicks scratched.

Then the family moved to a picture-perfect farm in Grafton, and then to Texas for a year and back to Grafton, and then the family moved to a larger farm in West Brattleboro. Wanda took a secretarial job for the director of the Brattleboro Recreation Department and some proofreading jobs and then, in 1959, got a job teaching French in the five elementary schools of Brattleboro. The focus was conversation and songs. She loved putting on musical performances with her young students.

To stay in this position, she needed an education degree. In the late 1950s, Keene State College played a special role in the future of her French-teaching career. Records were destroyed at the college in Egypt where she achieved two years of undergraduate work, but the director of The British Institute remembered her and wrote a letter about the quality of her two years of study. KSC gave her credit for that work, despite the absence of any formal transcript.

In 1964, she graduated with a B.A. in education. She received her M.A. in French literature from Smith College in 1967. Over a period of 18 years, she taught French in Vermont and Massachusetts, to elementary, middle school, high school, and university students. Later, she tutored students in French.

In 1982, Wanda and John bought a cottage in Biddeford, Maine, which ultimately became their gift to the extended family. She and Bob owned and operated The Book Case, a used book store in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass, for 28 years. In that time, they bought thousands of books from scholars in that area. Wanda brought home the best of those books, creating an amazing collection of 3,000 books. In 2001, she donated 1,000 of them to Keene State College for their French department.

When she and Bob approached their 80s, her children designed and built the “round house” for them in South Duxbury, Vt., and moved them in, in 1994. Bob died in 1995 and Wanda lived on with much family support. She died in her home, with her daughter and son-in-law with her. Wanda “did not go gentle into that good night.” She took her role as mother very seriously and did not feel that her job was done. She did not feel that her children, now all senior citizens, could take care of themselves. As her body finally failed her, she had to accept that her children would be okay. Wanda had wanted to be a writer, and she and Bob left her children copies of their love letters, as well as an unpublished memoir. They will be read and shared with her extended family — gifts from an extraordinary life that will keep on giving.