Monday, August 3, 2009

My memories of Illinois

Okay, the photo is when I was 6 years old in Tyler, in this case pushing a stroller with my brother in it, but the memories are three years earlier in Olney, Illinois. See that was my earliest recollection about my "difference."

We lived in an apartment, a two story house in Olney, Illinois. Our landlady took a room upstairs, and shared our kitchen, but mostly the bottom floor was ours. I'm always a bit surprised at how much I actually do recall from those days. The landlady had her own toys that had belonged to her children. She often brought them down for me to play with. Occasionally I would wander up to her room, only to be met with by a scolding, first by her and then later by Momma. "My room is off limits child. Go downstairs to play!" She would tell momma and so came the second scolding. If she remembered to tell Daddy when he came home from work on the weekends, then a third one was in order as well.

Two vivid memories of this house were both about animals. One was the white squirrels, a genetic diversification causing the squirrels in Olney to be white rather than the usual grey or black. Not to be confused with albino squirrels either. There was a ladder built up the tree outside that the squirrels ran up and down. They were so tame and were protected by law. Those squirrels would eat out of my hand much to my delight. I'd try to pet them, but Momma warned me they might bite. Once I climbed up that tree only to be stranded there. Mom noticed I was missing and ran out and gulped down a scream lest I be frightened and fall. Daddy came home about that time, and his assistant climbed up the board ladder and rescued me. Momma was yelling and hugging me all at the same time.

The other memory was the rats. We had coal heating, the old fashioned kind where the coal was actually shoveled into a steamer in the basement. One winter it got dreadfully cold, and large sewer rats made their way into the house via the space around heating ducts. Well one night I walked into the kitchen and was reaching for some food on the table, suddenly I saw the rat sitting there eyeing me up and down as a possible meal. Goodness I screamed bloody murder. To this day, I am imprinted with the memory so vivid and am deathly afraid of rats. When the conscious mind can catch up, then I can deal with them, but don't let one surprise me.

Still another time, Momma had the screen door latched and was in the kitchen working away. She loved to sing quietly as she worked back then. Funny thing is, I'm the same way, though I am no way as quiet. So I survey the situation, and push a small chair over to the door, climb up on the chair, unlatch the door, then headed across the very busy street in front of our house to the gasoline station down the street. They saw me coming across their drive and ran out and snatched me up. One of the guys there always teased and played with me which is why I wanted to go visit in the first place. He sat their entertaining me while asking where my Momma was. Meanwhile the other picked up the phone and called Momma. Back then it was not uncommon for the service station folks to know their customers, and indeed in Tyler our service station owner was also best friends with my parents. "So where is your child Mrs. Wicks?"

"In the living room, why?"

"Here, say hello to your Mommy."


No response. Half a minute later, she was coming through the front door. She thanked them profusely, then scolded me promising if I ever pulled such a stunt again she'd wear my butt out good.

One other memory before I get to the main event. Momma had raked the yard and was burning the leaves at the curb. I was wandering around on the grass nearby and put the basket over my head. Yeah, I know, stupid move. I wandered towards the curb and stumbled and fell into the fire. So my shirt is on fire, and I'm running full force screaming. Behind me Momma is running trying to catch me. She throws me to the ground and puts out the fire with her coat. Well the hospital was right across the street and the burns were minor. But sheesh you don't forget being on fire.

But here is what I recalled when I began this blog entry today. I used to play next door with a girl named Mary Jane. We always had fun, whether making mud pies or doing tea with her dolls. On one particular day, I announce I am the Momma and she agrees to be the Daddy. So I slip into her best Sunday dress and we are sitting having tea. Here comes Momma up the stairs and she is talking to Mary Jane's mom. "Get ready, time to come home!" She rounds the turn and sees me all dressed up in Sunday's finest! Her face and demeanor change. "Get OUT of that dress and c'mon." I see a look in her eyes. It is one of fear, something Momma rarely ever displayed. Of course I was too young to know that then.

So a couple of days later, she is tucking me in. "That's my little boy."

"Momma. I'm a girl." There is that same look of fear which confused me completely.

"No you are not! You are a boy and that's that! I'll have no more of this foolishness!

That was the day all of us began trying to butch me up. They gave me Christmas presents of cowboy stuff, footballs, anything he-man. I played with it out of a certain obligation. Still the notion that I was a girl never ever went away, though I sure tried hard enough over many years. I butched up and talked deep even before my voice changed and really tried to be that manly man everyone wanted. In East Texas I adopted the accent, partly out of self defense because I was "different" and the kids were brutal. As puberty neared, I realized I was gay too. By then I really knew I was in deep doo, living where we did. So the act continued for many years longer. Best starring role in a gender she does not fit...

Telling all this, I simply must bring some fairness to my parents. I was 3 years old in 1950. That was before most Americans even had heard of gender identity issues. It simply was another time, and the possibility that their child might be one of those homosexual deviants must have been truly horrifying. This was before gay liberation. I truly believe today they were just looking out for me, no matter how frustrating it all was for me back then.

Before Skip died, he looked through my old photos, and was struck by the sadness in my childhood eyes. That was true of course, though not the whole truth. It's easy to portray the negative parts of our lives as if they all were that tragic. But I still had a childhood, played with my friends. I think the really oppressive sadness did not show up until around the third grade. Even then, I could resort to the world of imagination and find some joy. We humans really are very adaptive I think.

Still when I am in a retrospective mood, I wonder out loud, what would it have been if they understood transsexuality (and being gay) and I could have lived honestly and without fear in those days? How would it have been different? I suspect quite a bit so. But that is for another person to learn, in a different time.

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