It was a shining Saturday morning in 1953, and my parents, my little brother, and I arrived at my mother’s parent’s farm in Peebles, Ohio from our home in Columbus, Ohio, as we did nearly every Saturday morning. I jumped out of our car and went in search of my beloved seventeen-year-old Uncle Dean, my mother’s youngest sibling. I thought it odd that he hadn’t run out to greet us as soon as we pulled up to the yard of the farmhouse, but was at that moment still unaware of any cause for alarm. I combed the rooms of the farmhouse, the grounds, the barn, and other farm buildings, but strangely, he was nowhere to be found. My heart flattened like a leaking balloon. “He went to see a friend, but he’ll be back in a little while,” my grandmother told me. Well, I’ll just wait for him then, I said to myself as I plopped down on the steps to the front porch, my heart prepared to leap into somersaults of gladness as soon as I saw the plume of dust kicked up by his car on the long gravel road leading to the farm. “He went to get Nellie,” I heard my grandmother say to my mother through the open window just over my left shoulder. Who’s Nellie, and why is he bringing her here? I wondered. “He sure likes that girl. He told me they want to get married,” my grandmother added. Until that moment, I didn’t know what a broken heart was, much less how a broken heart feels, how it makes a shining day turn dark, and all the cluster of days ahead unbearable. I didn’t know that those Mondays through Fridays when we were apart that he wasn’t as true to me as I was to him. I didn’t know he had another life in which I wasn’t its center. I didn’t like this whole idea one little bit, because he belonged to me, exclusively; everyone knew he was mine, and had been since the day I was born. I was prepared to do battle with this Nellie-person, to prove to her so definitively that he belonged to me that she would run away and never come back. I deserted my sentry post on the front steps and dragged my heavy heart into the house and threw myself on the couch, face down. I waited—and waited, my spirit a fusion of tears and fight.
“Tick-tock; tick-tock,” the clock on the mantle sounded, each sequence conducting a sad song in my mind. But presently, I raised my reluctant face to seventeen year old Nellie Compton as she walked through the door, and something primal shifted inside me. Like lead turning into gold, my tears, my anger transformed to another element I didn’t know existed, a part of me full of enigma, and yes, new promise. Barefoot, scraped knees, torn shorts, and tangled mop of flaxen hair, I was just a little kid, a tomboy, a precocious package of burning energy without an inkling that life would be any different than it had been until then. I didn’t know I was in search of a model for my own budding femininity. She walked through that door, and in an instant, I was aware of soft smooth skin, lustrous hair, fetching clothes, and lipstick. She was a farm-girl, but nevertheless, pulled together in a way no girl from her remote existence in Adams County, Ohio, USA ought to be. Long legs up to her armpits, a halo of ash-blond hair, her blouse tied stylishly in a knot beneath her breasts, she gave new meaning to a pair of rolled-up-at-the cuffs blue jeans. All at once I loved her, and not because of her special place in my Uncle Dean’s heart, but because of the special place she had nestled into in mine.
At odds with her beautiful physicality, she was wholly unaware of the stunning figure she cut. Her innocence was easy to recognize in her spectacular but bashful blue eyes, in a soul sweet but cowering, uncomfortable, wary of people. She seemed ever on the hunt for a way out of a terrifying place, to be in conflict with a demon inside herself. With the passing years, like a shade pulling down on a window, we watched sadly as the gemstone sparkle of her eyes faded more and more behind her lowered eyelids and her glorious head tipped away from us on its axis. I think that because she sensed I was so star-struck by her, and similar to her in some ways, she allowed me to get close to her as few others ever did. The first time I saw Princess Diana of Great Britain, she reminded me of a young Nellie Compton—the same fashion sense, the glossy blond tresses, the uncertain blue eyes, the lowered frightened chin.
During a marriage of nearly four decades, Nellie and Dean raised their daughter Deana, worked hard on their own farm, and Nellie fought the demon inside herself valiantly. But it won eventually. Like her mother, her mother’s mother, several of her mother’s siblings, and one of her own siblings, as well as a number of other members of her mother’s family reaching back to earlier generations, Nellie became a victim of Alzheimer’s Disease. We couldn’t help but wonder if some mean tentacle of it had been doing its dirty work on her since her teen years, therefore accounting for the quirk in her personality. We lost Nellie to the illness 46 years after that day she became a standard for me of lovely femininity. I will remember her that way, always. –Linda Lee Greene, Columbus, OH 4/22/2018
Award-winning artist and author, blogger, editor, and interior designer Linda Lee Greene is on social media at the following:
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