1998: Christmas Remembered
|Our strong band can ne'er be broken
It can never die
Far surpassing wealth unspoken
Sealed by friendship's tie...
I had recently begun my transition, full of rough edges and vocal or visual cues to my old identity, in 1994 when I attended a reunion of my graduating class at Greenwood, Mississippi, High School. That reunion was a major help to me in building my self cofidence. It's not easy, being accustomed to going everywhere without any confusion or confrontation, and then facing a large number of persons who know my special history. It could have harmed me as easily as helping me.
Fortunately, the reunion in 1994 was one of the highlights of my transition year. So many of my classmates went out of their way to make me comfortable. The women were very much at ease with me, and treated me as an equal. The men - well, maybe some of them weren't totally at ease with my presence, but they conducted themselves as gentlemen nevertheless. Only a few persons - all male - turned away without speaking to me. But they had the decency to say nothing, and not create a scene. I felt very grateful for the warm welcome from my friends.
Now in June 1999, the time had arrived for another reunion. I looked forward to it for months. Some of my friends thought it strange that I would travel so far for such a brief time. I saw the reunion differently: a chance to reclaim my past.
Certainly, Phoenix is a wonderful place for me to live now. I love my work; I'm gaining professional recognition and security I never had before. Arizona and the West are full of more interesting and gorgeous scenery than I can ever explore. I have an abundance of wonderful new friends and co-workers.
What I do not have is a past. I can tell people, "I grew up in Mississippi," and they nod, "that's nice," but for all they care it could be one of the moons of Jupiter. There aren't a great many Mississippians in Arizona. There's no one with whom to sit and leisurely reminisce. Do you remember when we used to go to Thompson-Turner's at lunch break for a fountain Coke? Or that time in Mrs. Walker's Latin class when...No, no one remembers. I miss that in my life. I never thought I'd be so anxious for a return to my roots.
Greenwood, I should state plainly, is no Jackson (see F.N.E.J.), thank goodness. Jackson imagines itself a modern city, full of its own self-importance, living in the fast lane. If you depart from the cookie-cutter normality of the upper middle class rat race, Jackson will mug you and leave you bleeding.
Greenwood knows its place. It's a small Delta city which gives its citizens modern amenities - several good internet service providers, for example - but retains its sleepy, friendly charm. Greenwood doesn't try to be New Orleans, Memphis, or even Jackson. It's just the Land of Cotton, a very tolerant place in all areas except race (and getting much better there, I found). I was very interested to find out just how tolerant.
I flew into Memphis and drove a rental car to Greenwood on Thursday afternoon. Thursday night was a real pleasure, as I met my friend Drenda at the annual Greenwood Balloon Festival which coincided with reunion weekend. We watched the "balloon glow" and listened to the Krackerjacks play until midnight, picking up several more friends along the way. It was everything a relaxed evening should be.
Friday I slept late, worked on my tan, and treated myself to something I really can't find in Phoenix - fresh farm raised catfish, fried to perfection. I'd been looking forward to catfish and hushpuppies for weeks. The meal lived up to the anticipation. I stopped at Dancing Rabbit Books, the wonderful independent bookstore owned by my classmates, Carol Ann and Meredith. I loved browsing the local and Mississippi authors, and bought a used copy of Eudora Welty's "Losing Battles."
Joan, our class secretary, still lives in Greenwood and has taken on much of the responsibility over the years for planning our reunions. She's a major reason why we all keep coming back every five years. The Friday night "casual party" was at Joan's lovely home on the bank of the Tallahatchie River. I wore a Carole Little sundress, in earth tones from the clay and olive pallette, with a mid-calf hem slit on the left to the upper thigh. It blended perfectly with matching sandals and my new deep Arizona tan.
This time I had no anxiety over attending the party as I had had five years ago. From the very beginning I had a marvelous time seeing all my old friends. Especially pleasing were the reunions with others who had not attended other recent reunions. I still got a guilty pleasure at the looks of amazement, and at Bonnie's "I'm freaking out, I'm just freaking out."
I've been my true self for five and a half years. I'm quite accustomed to being treated as a lady, and have come to take it for granted. I can't even remember getting up and going in to work or school in my old role.
It's hard to imagine there are persons who still see me in that old role, and probably always will do so. I've kept making improvements to the continuing renovation project that is the body Becky, and not to brag, but I think I've done fairly well. How anyone can look at me and use the term "he" - even if an embarrassed correction follows - is quite the mystery.
I smiled graciously: "No problem. I understand." Perhaps that person won't make the mistake again. I know they don't mean anything by it - the great majority of them.
There were still a very small number - three, to be exact - of men who were uncomfortable with my presence. As in 1994, they turned away and went the other way rather than speak to me. I can deal with that also, as long as there's no hostility.
My mind drifted back to tenth grade. We were gathering in the auditorium for weekly assembly. My assigned seat was on the front row, in front of a classmate named Rusty. Rusty didn't have much tolerance for the little teachers' pet - intellectual. He began to get my attention.
"Hey," he started, tapping me on the shoulder. I turned around. He continued, "I made an A in Industrial Arts. What do you think about that?"
I didn't see it coming. "Well, that's great," I told him. "Congratulations."
"I was talking to ___," he continued, mentioning one of the girls in our class. "I told her about my A. She said, 'Boys don't make A's.'"
I really should have seen it coming then. I must have been one of the most naïve fifteen year olds in Mississippi.
"I told her, 'I know one who does,'" Rusty said, and mentioned my name. His voice became louder as more students turned to hear him.
"You know what she did? She just spat and said, 'He's not a boy. He's a queer.'" Satisfied with his humiliation of me, Rusty sat back with a big grin on his face.
I was truly speechless. I wanted to retaliate, but I couldn't. Rusty was much bigger and stronger than I was. Had I been close to his size, I might have attacked him right then.
This I remember: if my wishing could have made it so, Rusty would have ceased to exist at that moment.
My memory of this incident had been rekindled some weeks prior to the reunion. It surfaced when I had been talking with Margaux about the horrible killings at Colorado's Columbine High School. Without denying the monstrosity of the crime committed by the two misfit boys, we found ourselves wondering, "what could have driven them to do what they did?" And we opened up the whole question of teasing.
I believe Harris and Klebold represent the far extreme of what can happen when young people tease and torment other young people. In 1962 I was at the other extreme: suffering silently but wishing grand malevolence on my tormentors. Knowing my temperament and convictions, I'd never have gone further than that.
I wonder how many times Harris and Klebold had been called "queer" by their classmates. I remember, in the first few days after the murders, CNN was interviewing a group of Columbine football players. The young giant on camera, completely missing any lessons to be learned from the incident, was saying, "They were really creepy, with those black trenchcoats and that makeup." Behind him, in a sort of Greek chorus, one could hear his friends joining in, "Faggots." "Yeah, they were faggots."
They just don't get it. They reduce the isolation of two eccentric boys to a crude sexual allusion. Do alpha males always do this?
(Interestingly, when CNN replayed the interview later, the background epithets had been edited out.)
Enough for now. My happiness doesn't depend on their approval.
All the balloonists were up and out early Saturday, letting me relax until later than usual. After one more trip to the tanning bed (hey, I need to look like I live in Arizona) I dressed and drove a few miles east of town for one of the unforgettable highlights of my trip. I first intended to spend about an hour visiting Mildred Hester, but one hour stretched into three and I didn't want to leave this delightful friend. I'll write about her in more detail. Finally I said goodbye - with some tears - so she could have her meal.
Back at the bookstore I met with royalty. (Barbara Daniel McIntosh is a "Sweet Potato Queen." Read the book if that stirs your curiosity.) Meredith showed me the turn-of-the-century office building she and Bailey had renovated. The tremendous amount of work they put in over two years made a gorgeous showplace of a modern office.
The Saturday night party was, as always, at the Greenwood Country Club. My outfit was a two piece Adrienne Vittadini: soft rust velour short sleeve top over a long straight skirt, copper with a stylized rust floral pattern. I had serendipitously come across the perfect pair of shoes to match at Biltmore Fashion Park. I thought it came together well; photos to follow.
Even more of my friends attended the Saturday night party, some coming from even farther away than I did. The evening was not long enough. I could have spent hours more catching up on years of news with more than thirty of my old friends.
And yes, if you've read "The Real Life Test" and wondered if I had better luck on the dance floor this time - I did. Life is good, and I'll be replaying that movie in my mind for a long time.
I was back in my room around 1:00 A.M. after many hugs and tearful goodbyes. The emotional impact of the weekend grew more intense as I realized what a great blessing I had received. To be surrounded by old, dear friends who know me and love me, in the face of all I've experienced in recent years, was even sweeter than I had expected.
Our past is still part of us. My life did not begin in 1993, although emotionally it sometimes feels that way. From 1946 to 1964 I lived in a special place among special people. I didn't realize until now how special they are.
I can't wait until 2004.
The weekend concluded with my meeting Meredith for a beautiful service at the Church of the Nativity, then stopping on my way out of town at the cemetery. I love you, Mabel and Errol... Mama and Daddy.
Greenwood High School, Alma Mater,
And I love all y'all too, my old friends who shared this weekend with me:
Seated left: Dudley Evans
Seated front: Becky Allison, Gail Tyler Easterwood, Marilyn Hinton Hammond, Linda Fleming Cram, Joan Colvin Nored, Sis Redditt Hemphill, Sheila Iskra Jones, Janet McLaurin Doty, Marilyn Elliott Hull, Laura Chassaniol Stainback
Standing second row: Dorothy Oldham Henson, Barbara Daniel McIntosh, Marcia Kantor Kossman, Ina Goldberg Fried, Brenda Poole, Linda Poole Moore, Barbara Jo Freeman Vickers, Pat Chambless, Meredith Carpenter McBee, Mackie Lipscomb, Carol Ann Box Adams, Wallie Stuckey, Rebecca Allen Farris, Drenda Parfitt Maciulaitis, Brenda Lay
Standing third row: David Pittman, Bill Utroska, Kenneth Dunn, Billy Randall, Curtis Allen, Jim Staten, Mary Frances Biggers Zamora, (front) Sharon Rasberry Palm, Brenda Snare Null
Standing fourth row: Barry Chatham, Alec Valentine, Billy Ramsey, Kenny Creswell, Victor Hobbs, Don Morris, Andrew Boswell, Penny Phillips, Tommy Haynie, Bonnie Baker