Traces of a Man Who Disappeared
Reprinted courtesy of The New York Times, July 8, 2013.
I’ve been an antiques dealer for 25 years, so the phone call inviting me to visit a sprawling estate sounded routine.
Another wealthy owner who had died. Another mansion. Another lifetime of things the surviving family members didn’t want. Another ending to another life.
Sorting trash from treasure is what I do and I love it.
The estate was not far outside of Chicago’s westerly city limits and an architectural oddity. Acres of long fallow fields were split in two by an endlessly winding driveway. A small pond abutted a private forest. Once an enormous barn, the main house was made up of 20-plus rooms that covered three floors, all overstocked with the relics of lives well lived. It would take weeks to empty the massive house.
The closets were packed with the clothes of an old couple. Plain to fancy dresses in one, men’s suits and worn work clothes in another. Where her tastes seemed a bit garish, his were subdued. A mismatched couple? A case of opposites attracting?
In the basement was an enormous professional-caliber dark room, its contents crammed up against the ceiling tiles: Boxes of vintage cameras, lenses, old printers, film developing tanks and drawers of home-processed photographs. The quality was impressive, the amount of equipment suffocating. If it was a hobby, it was an interest that bordered on obsession.
The huge kitchen was as bright and as colorful as an embossed Victorian postcard. It had been designed by a feminine hand so strong and sure, I could feel her presence. How many hours did she spend preparing the thousands of meals on the huge Mission Oak dining table?
After dinner he could have played the large pipe organ, which barely fit into the far wall of the paneled room. I could envision her knitting or reading, the music echoing throughout the mansion and into the nearby woods.
When I opened a random drawer beside the kitchen sink, the contents startled me. Inside were hundreds of political buttons, and they were an odd mix. The oldest were mostly for Republican candidates, while the newer ones were Democrats.
The man overseeing the estate sale approached me as I sorted through them. Within moments I had bought the contents of the drawer.
“So what’s the story?” I asked. “He was a Republican, she was a Democrat? Not so Green Acres?”
“Not exactly,” my host replied. He appeared to be uneasy about something. “There’s a story if you want to hear it,” he said, pausing. Then he pointed to the wide planked staircase. “You see the closets upstairs filled with clothes … her clothes?”
“Well, those are his clothes, too,” he said. “The men’s and the women’s — all his. He built this incredible house, constantly renovating. Lived alone here his entire life. He was born a boy. Well, mostly a boy. Back in the ’40s, the doctors did the best they knew; gave him some type of corrective surgery. But he still wasn’t more one way than the other, and in the end his folks decided to raise him as a boy.”
I was frozen by his story. “I can’t imagine the challenges, the stigma he faced,” I said. “He must have been very brave.”
“Oh, he was,” my host answered. “Stubborn, but always a gentleman. He owned a large business in town for over 30 years; very successful, employed dozens of people who respected him, even after what happened. It was the bravest thing.”
He took the buttons from my hands and looked into the drawer. “My wife and I knew him from church,” he said. “We knew him before, you see. He and I would talk sometimes, but I knew he wasn’t happy. Then about 10 years ago he decided to make things right and get the change. At 60.”
“He had a sex change at 60 years old?” I asked, pricking myself on an “I LIKE IKE” button.
“Funny thing about these political pins,” he said. “For most his life he was a far-right Republican. He and I didn’t agree on much. But after he had the sex change, she became a Democrat.” He laughed. “Much easier to get along with then, I’ll tell you that.”
A mansion remodeled time and again. Tens of thousands of photographs recording changing images. A lifelong Republican man reborn a Democratic woman. Was this not a more amazing find than any crazy quilt?
I tried to fit together the reality of what I had just learned with the objects I had misjudged. What happened in his life for him to make this metamorphosis to her finally? How did she endure the pain and sadness, the hatred and rejection? I thought of that phrase you hear so much these days, “Being L.G.B.T. ain’t for sissies.”
I know a little bit about that. I’m 54, grew up in the 1960s, and was what they called a “different kind of boy.” In high school (I was 5-foot-2 and 120 pounds) I was chased home, slammed into lockers and was beaten up more than once. When I got to college in the late 1970s, I was determined to have a fresh start and formed the first L.G.B.T. group on campus. Not out of some great ideal, but from loneliness. Where were other gay men like me? I count myself lucky to have come of age at a time of so much progress.
She was not.
Though we were just 15 years apart, our worlds were entirely different times.
My host stared out the kitchen window. “It’s easy to hate people you don’t know,” he said. “But I did know her. I did. And she was wonderful. Most of her employees came to accept her. Surprisingly even some of the church people. She was that loved.”
He reached into a kitchen cabinet for a box. “I didn’t understand much of it back then,” he said. “His life, I mean. But I so respected her. In the end you have to become the person who makes you happy.”
Then, together, the two of us carefully placed a lifetime of buttons into an old shoe box. A ladies’ shoe box.