By Patricia Barnhart
When I was a child in the late 1950s, the community I lived in was far removed from the world as it is today. It was true that polio was still rendering public swimming pools vacant and iron lungs occupied. But to its credit Paper Mate had just perfected the leak-free pen, “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry” was in the White House, and rock-n-roll, amidst a flurry of new and exciting words and beats, gave us kids a peek into what our parents considered sin. A little something for everybody.
The neighborhoods too were different. For one thing, they existed. Families lived in houses that were built, not from a standard book of blueprints, but from the ideas and financial abilities of those who would occupy them. There was no speculation, no flipping. Folks lovingly built or had built a structure, often unassuming, where they could raise a family, wash their Chevies on weekends, and as a matter of course, get to know the people next door. It was a handshake world back then. And it was in those times that I came of age. Even now I tend to see that summer through child-colored glasses, rather than the clear lenses of knowing that I put on for the first time that year.
There was, on our block, a house, cottage really, that had stood vacant for some time. The stigma of its previous tenant had rendered it suspect and therefore difficult to sell or even rent. The prevailing rumor was that the last occupant had been a witch. In whispered tones the speculation sprinted from eye of newt to a traditional familiar in the form of a sleek, black cat. I knew nothing of the former, but the latter, well, I had seen the feline companion of Jaydin, for that was her name, many times in the garden at the side of her cottage, twining itself around her legs and once leaping into her waiting arms. I did not know the woman; she belonged to the boys of the neighborhood. They adored her and left blossoms on her fence braces whenever they could. Wildflowers plucked from vacant lots or sometimes cosmos or snapdragons stolen from their mothers’ soil.
Jaydin had repaid the young men’s devotion with tales of enchantment and iced tea. If she removed the occasional wart or dispatched an especially nasty bully for her adoring followers, there really was no proof. It was the kind of fanciful tale that often exists on its own, with no basis in reality. Certainly, Wendell, reportedly one of the recipients of the white magic, never confirmed nor denied it. As for me, none of this was relevant. Growing up “girl” in the 50’s was enough of a challenge without adding the possible existence of witchery. I was occupied with carving out an identity for myself with parents who constantly said the sky was the limit, while living in a town where the prevailing expectations for women favored marriage, soap operas, and family. In that order.
My first glimpse of Ellen Gregory, the new occupant of the tainted cottage, was on a Sunday afternoon. A Bekins van had pulled up to the vacant house two down from ours. It was mid-June and the movers ferrying chairs and couches from curb to cottage had big loops of sweat stains under their arms. And right there, in amongst them, like a director in a play, arms fluttering, cautions being given, was a creature the likes of which our simplistic town had never seen. She was a bird of paradise in a flock of starlings, the lone orchid in a sea of dandelions. She was magnificent!
I was a polite child, taught never to pester, although I was always given full credence in my own home. I knew it might be considered intrusive, but I went anyway. I stood back, near the edge of the property, and watched as this woman, this vision of color and movement and surety, fairly vibrated with energy from mover to mover, from road to house, then back again. Her dress was calf-length, fuchsia in color, a cloud of light silk spilling, swirling about her. Around her neck she wore a chartreuse feather boa that took on a life of its own, trembling like the wings of small birds. Her shoes were not sensible — four inch stilettos the exact color of her neck piece. She glanced at me once, lifted her bangled hand, fluttered the fingers, then once again returned her attention to the furniture and her new house. I stayed there until the van drove away and the front door was closed. Then I went home.
The next day was Monday and since it was the first week of summer vacation, I was free. Just as there was a band of boys in our neighborhood — twelve and thirteen-year-olds — there was also a loose-knit bevy of girls, slightly younger and therefore rendered by age and gender uncool to hang out with except by others of their own kind. Wendell was the undeclared leader of the boys and my closest kid neighbor. At eleven I was on the cusp of an age-appropriate friendship with him. Sometimes we would speak over the back fence that separated our two homes. Most of the time, especially when his friends were over, Wendell ignored me. Monday was such a morning. No words came floating over the wooden partition even though I could hear him moving about in his yard, so I took myself down the road to a nearby creek where I was allowed to play unsupervised. The waters were shallow, barely covering the moss-slick rocks. Later in the season they would dry up entirely. There were no fish, just an occasional water skipper that could provide me with hours of intrigue. Those were simpler times.
I was joined mid-day by two of my friends, sisters from a block away. We splashed our way through another hour, then headed back for some lunch, our stream exploration having rendered us tired and hungry. It was then that I remembered our new neighbor and I asked my companions if they’d seen her yet. They had not. So it was decided to overshoot my driveway in favor of a quick peek to see if she was up and about. My description had intrigued them and my friends were as eager to catch sight of the newcomer as I.
And there she was. Sitting on her front porch in what was, no doubt, the only rattan chair for miles. Her costume, for from the beginning I thought of her as dressing for a daily part, was a light blue, made of some wonderful material I had never seen before. It draped itself, sleeveless, clinging, to her figure in soft folds. A pastel lightweight scarf just a shade darker circled her neck. And she said to us in a voice that both whispered and carried the distance, “Ladies, how kind of you to come visiting. May I offer you some of my shade and perhaps a soft drink?”
Up close she was just as exotic as her clothing, with bold, sculpted features, large dark eyes, dazzlingly auburn hair, full lips. Her eyebrows were tweezed and darkened, cheeks blushed tastefully with rouge. She was beautiful and she said her name was Ellen Gregory and she was glad to make our acquaintance.
When it came time to tell our names, my friends blurted out Jenny and Jackie Bowerman. As for me, I hated my name. I hesitated. Ellen tilted her head at me and waited. “Izette, ma’am,” I finally answered. “Oh, dear,” she said, frowning slightly. “You’re most definitely not an Izette! We’ll have to do something about that, won’t we?” To this day I can remember the heat in my face, the flames on my cheeks, the bone-deep shame of being saddled with an unlovely moniker dredged up from some old family genealogy. “No, no, no, that just won’t do.” She frowned slightly, placed a long, lacquered fingernail against her chin and tapped as she appraised me. “You have lovely skin, young lady, with just enough freckles to save you from great beauty. Great beauty, as I’m sure you know, is more trouble than it’s worth. No, you need a name that is just as pretty as you are, but unique.” Her eyes became unfocused as she thought, and as she thought, my friends and I were spellbound, caught up in the momentousness of the occasion. I was being reborn!
“I have it!” she announced. “A bit of your old name, for something that horrid must come from a depraved sense of family history and family should not be denied regardless of its insensitivity. Something old and something new. Izetta! See how that extra vowel adds a new dimension? Izetta has a lilt to it! And I don’t believe I’ve heard it before, so it is something we made up, and if that doesn’t make it special, I don’t know what does! So nice to meet you Jenny and Jackie and Izetta! My name is Ellen Gregory, but please, I feel we’re going to be great friends; call me Ellen.” I had been christened! And her dazzling smile was my confirmation.
From then on Izetta was who I was. I corrected everyone until my new name became second nature by dint of repetition and it was if I had never been anyone else. My parents, I’m sure, were amused but played the game as well. And they could not deny that with my sudden and unexpected new name, came a confidence that had not been there before. If I took to wearing scarves in homage to my mentor, well, it was just part of the transformation.
The days of summer lengthened then began to grow shorter. The heat stayed with us and my companions and I spent hours on Ellen’s front porch. Between frosty glasses of ginger ale and girl talk we did become friends with the odd woman in the tastefully outrageous attire. Shy at first, we learned to trust her with our questions about life, something of which she surely knew. Questions we could not ask our mothers, Ellen always answered. Honestly and without judgment. She treated us like the adult women we so desperately wanted to be. At the critical juncture of adolescence, our budding breasts, our roller coaster emotions, our unformed but forming selves cried out for nurture, for explanation. Ellen gave us what she could and she gave it with respect. She gave us pride in being young and female and it was a gift we treasured.
Our days would begin, often as not, at her front door and would end there too. In between was the creek, a back yard — my friends’ or mine, it didn’t matter. The bond that Jenny and her sister Jackie and I had before that summer was strengthened along with our developing sense of self. For the first time we were mistresses of our own universes and we had Ellen, she of the haute couture, the endless and varied neckwear and jewelry, to thank.
And thank her we did. We took to leaving stemmed flowers on her fence much like Wendell and his band of boys had left Jaydin. And I don’t doubt for a moment that we loved our patroness any less than they had loved theirs.
It was another Sunday. My parents and I were just getting back from church. There were two police cruisers at Ellen’s cottage, parked near her front gate, lights flashing. From the front door she emerged, flanked by two officers. She carried herself with dignity. When an officer pushed her into the back seat of one of the squad cars, her glorious, red hair fell to the curb. It was a wig. Her shining, sunset locks were not her own and she was revealed — bald, but unbowed. She reached down, grasped her hair, and with a quiet resolve that bordered on nobility, refitted the shocking blaze to her head. She looked up then, saw me watching, wiggled her fingers in what was to be a gesture of goodbye. As I stood there, the blue and red lights disappeared down our street, away from my neighborhood, and out of my life.
Her name was not Ellen, of course, but Allen — Allen Gregory Dupree. Ellen, for that is what I insist on calling her even to this day, was a person of infinite kindness who asked little but to be allowed to live her life as the gender she preferred rather than the one she had been born with. The endless scarves hid the lump in her throat, her Adam’s apple that would have given her away.
We heard later that a policeman from several towns over bragged to one of our own officers that they had run one of those cross-dressing, Nancy-boys, out of their community a couple of months previous. The description matched that of Ellen. Our officers and the local selectmen met and decided that in our town such an anomaly was not to be accepted. They used different words. Ellen was driven to the city limits and allowed to exit the car, to make her way to the next town and the next and the next in a kind of never ending search for tolerance. Later that same week, a Bekins van came and hauled away all of her possessions.
And so it was that a week later, I received in the mail a package addressed to Izetta Collins. When I opened it and searched through the gauzy paper, I found the chartreuse boa. I lifted it out and watched as the rustle of air once again turned it into a thousand tiny wings that flew on and on.