Dawn: A Charleston Legend


As I witnessed the lives in this family, I began to understand the bonds of love and something deeper that allowed the beauty in all of them to flourish— whether is was in a welfare hotel or a meadow by the river. Gordon had suffered from the isolation of being different and Dawn would not let the world repeat that on her family. Throughout the cruelest twists of fate, Dawn would always say, "That's alright dearie, it will all come out right in...

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As I witnessed the lives in this family, I began to understand the bonds of love and something deeper that allowed the beauty in all of them to flourish— whether is was in a welfare hotel or a meadow by the river. Gordon had suffered from the isolation of being different and Dawn would not let the world repeat that on her family. Throughout the cruelest twists of fate, Dawn would always say, "That's alright dearie, it will all come out right in the end." This book is a testament to that and an insight into what it is to be human.

Dena Crane

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780941711166
  • Publisher: Smith, Gibbs Publisher
  • Publication date: 4/1/1995
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 6.28 (w) x 9.31 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Read an Excerpt

I remember Virginia Woolf arriving at Sissinghurst Castle swinging a large china basin by a knotted linen cloth.

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Table of Contents


Foreward vii

Acknowledgements xiii

Prologue 1

Growing Up In England 3

The Whitney Days 26

Blood Sport 46

Six White Horses 60

Whither Thou Goest, I Will Go 67

The Wedding That Rocked Charleston Society 74

Aftermath 80

The Most Beautiful Day Of My Life 104

Reprisals 111

Where Did Honor Go? 114

Justice Delayed Is Still Justice Denied 119

A Mostly Pleasing Interlude 131

Sadness and Madness 140

Welcome To Catskill: A Motel Of Horrors 145

Doing My Best 155

Peter, The Mill House And A Blithe Spirit 161

Go And Help Lemuel! 165

I Have Earned My Peace 172

Index 185

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First Chapter

"It shall sweeten and make whole
Fevered breath and festered soul."
Rudyard Kipling

I remember Virginia Woolf arriving at Sissinghurst Castle swinging a large china basin by a knotted linen cloth. It was a pond pudding for Vita Sackville-West's lunch.

I was a child. Seeing me standing there—for she liked children—Mrs. Woolf asked me what I was going to be when I grew up. Without any hesitation I replied, "A writer."

"Oh," she said. Then with a twinkle in her eyes, she walked off in the direction of her friend Vita's sitting room in the tower.

Once described as the "longest love letter in history," the novel Orlando, which Virginia wrote, depicted Vita as the hero/heroine, showing over the centuries how the boy, Orlando, changed into a beautiful woman. Had she lived a little longer, Vita would have been intrigued to know that the child Dinky, as she called me, would become a real-life Orlando.

In 1943, when I was six, Vita and Harold Nicolson, her diplomat-writer husband, told me that a writer first has to learn how to research, which meant applying one's bottom to the seat of a chair. Vita also read my first manuscript, "My Cottage by the Sea," a poem I wrote that same year. It was later published in the Sussex Express and County Herald.

The centerpiece of Sissinghurst Castle was the red brick tower that glows sugar pink in the setting sun. Every morning, Vita, the most disciplined of writers, retired to her sitting room in the tower to write. Pictures of Virginia and the Bronte sisters, taken from a painting by their brother Branwell, shared pride of place in that lovely Tudor room with small treasures collected from childhood and in Persia, set out on fragments of faded red velvet. There were vases of blossoms, fresh-picked from the garden which was destined to become one of England's most famous.

One might add that, in view of everything written of their relationship since their deaths, Vita and Virginia were lovers. Vita had many such relationships during her lifetime, her most publicized being with Violet Trefusis, which her son Nigel Nicolson describes in his book, Portrait of a Marriage, and which has since been the subject of a recent British television miniseries. Vita's open marriage to Harold Nicolson was, in spite of everything, a very happy one. Harold lived in London during the week, but returned to his wife and Sissinghurst for the weekends.

My natural parents Jack Copper and Marjorie (Margie) Hall Ticehurst came from different social worlds; but opposites have the habit of attracting one another. They could not live with or without each other. Their love-hate relationship would, in the end, destroy them both as all the strife and tension took its toll. It was a terrible love.

A star football player with more than his share of good looks, Jack was a wizard with the insides of a car. He was training at Major Demsey's garage to be a qualified mechanic. The youngest son of Isabella Brignell and John Copper, he was the darling youngest child of his mother's second marriage. Spoiled silly, he had won numerous prizes in Sunday school for his knowledge of the Bible, and by the time he was 19 years old, in 1937, had achieved the dubious distinction of getting three girls enceinte during the same period of time. One of them was Margie.

The Coppers had not always been poor, as my Uncle George Copper would point out with that little bit of snobbery so prevalent in the British working class. Then, as proof, he would show us the expensive tombstones in Burwash churchyard.

John Copper, Jack's stubborn father, had worked for a time in the early 1930s as a gardener at Bateman's, the home of Rudyard Kipling. Any Sussex-born knew that shallots, an onion-like bulb, by tradition were planted Good Friday, so when The Jungle Book author ordered him to plant them two weeks early, old John exploded. He crowned Kipling with the box of shallots. Then, vowing to get even, he marched off.

At his next job—village gravedigger—John Copper divided the dead into two bizarre categories, friends or enemies. The friends he buried on high, dry ground while he planted the others in the low-lying damp. For Kipling, he reserved the wettest grave in Burwash churchyard. As Grandmother Isabella kept telling him, "Don't count your chickens before they are hatched." She was right; when Rudyard Kipling finally expired in 1936, his body was cremated.

Margie, in her short life (she was 15 when she met Jack), had known better times. When her jolly, easy-going father broke his neck in a tragic fall from a horse one Christmas Eve, she saw Beecholme, the family estate at Old Heathfield, sold almost immediately. Even the beloved family nurse had to go. Though still a child, she retreated into her own world of fantasy, peopled by such characters as those found in the classics, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. As Vita Sackville-West once told me, "Mrs. Copper has a wicked sense of humor. She can tell a story better than anyone. I wish she would take pen to paper."

Margie's younger sister, Gwendoline Martha, known in the family as Babs, and their cousin, Ronnie Ticehurst, were well aware of Margie's vivid imagination. Her tales of witches, goblins and haunted mausoleums half scared them to death.

When Margie's pregnancy by Jack Copper was discovered, it sent her family into turmoil. While those on her mother's side, with their hot Latin blood, were a little more worldly, the Ticehursts were not. Practicing Strict Ebenezer Baptists, they believed that children born out of wedlock were fruit of the devil. Her brother Edward Archibald Ticehurst, 18 at the time, kicked her in the stomach. She always believed that brutal incident had something to do with the way I looked when I was born. Shunned and bewildered, Margie shut herself in a darkened room for most of the long nine months.

When I finally arrived, at home, in my Spanish great-grandmother's curtain-hung bed with only a country midwife in attendance, my clitoris was so swollen that the startled woman did not know whether I was a boy or a girl. In those days, when in doubt, the unfortunate child was automatically registered male, often with dire results. I was named Gordon.

Years later, December 10, 1971, in the London Daily Telegraph Magazine, one of Britain's most reputable newspapers, writer Wendy Cooper explained how such unfortunate things happened. Today, most babies are born in hospitals where any uncertainty would be cleared up almost immediately.

Miss Cooper wrote of a spectrum of genetics that makes each of us, by varying degree, male or female:

For most of us, where the computer has worked correctly, the criteria are concordant and we fall within the normal range toward one end or the other of the spectrum. After that everything is simple. The vital word "male" or "female" is duly entered on our birth certificate and upbringing, conditioning and training directed toward reinforcing our gender role—trousers and trains for boys, dresses and dolls for girls, and soon puberty to ram it home with physical changes.

That is how it should be, but for others less fortunate it can be a very different story. Computer failure at some stage may doom them to life in the somber realm of intersex, where they must struggle with their different physical or mental sexuality in a world that, until recently, had no real understanding of the condition, the causes or the consequences.

In the past, also, nature's mistakes were too often compounded and made worse by man's. It was all too easy for the baby born with an enlarged clitoris and no obvious vagina, to be wrongly assigned as a boy by some busy midwife or doctor, who might never have seen a similar case before. Such a mistake would then often only be discovered at puberty, when the "boy" began to menstruate.

Sometimes it could take even longer to find out, as for Gordon Langley Hall, the adopted son of Margaret Rutherford, forced to struggle with life as a man for nearly 30 years. Finally, in desperation, he went for investigation to the Gender Identity Clinic at John Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore. There the chromosome sex was firmly established as female, and ovaries and a concealed vagina revealed. After hormone treatment and surgery, Gordon emerged as Dawn to a new and far happier life, in which she not only married John-Paul Simmons but conceived and bore a child, and is now pregnant again.

In 1937, for three days and nights, Margie battled milk fever after my unwelcome arrival while her Aunt Elsie Ticehurst sat muttering how she was "a disgrace to virginhood," never herself having been with a man. In time Margie regained her strength to continue her relentless pursuit of Jack Copper, turning up at his football games with me in a baby carriage. In spite of threats from her rich Uncle George Ticehurst and prophesies of hell fire from Aunt Elsie, Margie was victorious. Asking nothing of God or man, she wed Jack Copper at Wadhurst Registry office in 1939. Not one member of her family attended.

When my sister Fay was born, Jack was elated for he preferred girls to boys, a preference I soon noticed. Now a competent mechanic, he put his football days behind him. Loading Margie, their few pieces of furniture and my baby sister into an open lorry they set off to start a new life at Sevenoaks. My first memory is of Margie, my beautiful gentle mother, kissing me goodbye, then being driven out of my life by that awful man who happened to be my natural father. I was left behind to be raised by my grandmother.

My maternal grandmother, Nellie (she had changed her name from the more common Nelly), was no ordinary mortal. She had a Spanish mother who had spent the first 17 years of her life hidden in the Convent of the Decalced Carmelites in the fabled city of Seville, Andalusia, Spain, safe from the wrath of the Duke of Medinaceli, her father. Nellie was brought up with her twin sister, Claradoom, and older brothers and sisters at Hardwick House in the village of Groombridge, near Tunbridge Wells and close to Duckings, a half-timbered farmhouse in Withyham, Sussex, the Hall family home for centuries. My great-great-grandmother, Caroline Combridge Hall had upon her widowhood become one of the first women farmers in the county, bringing new methods and crops to her ancient lands. She was a strong woman. I always identified with her.

My other great-great-grandmother on my mother's side, the 42-year-old Condesa Elisabeta de Mendoza, who became Mrs. James Harris, arrived in the village in 1860 with her new husband who was young enough to be her son. Her daughter Marta (soon anglicized to Martha) caught the eye of Caroline's two sons, Alfred and Edwin Abraham. It was Alfred she chose, but Edwin she really loved.

Over the years Alfred and Martha made a fortune with their water mills in spite of being shunned by the neighbors who were prejudiced against Spaniards. They remembered the burning of Sussex protestants by Bloody Mary Tudor, then wed to the Spanish King Philip II. Unfazed, Martha declared, "If society will not come to me, I will make my own society," which she did until the happy day she gave birth to twins, then a rarity in Sussex. Society then came to her, first in the form of the Countess de la Warr, who arrived in her carriage to see Claradoom and Nellie, and the veil-like caul that covered the latter's little face. Others soon followed, for the caul signified the birth of a special child, one who might possess supernatural powers.

Widowed at 40 and with more money than she knew how to spend, Martha Hall moved to a fashionable villa named Fairview in Cade Street, Old Heathfield. There she designed special outfits for the twins that showed only their ankles, outfits the twins wore as they achieved local fame as female bicyclists. Cycling was a skill Nellie would put to good use later when she gathered news for her paper. Soon they were noticed by the handsome Ticehurst brothers, George and Archie, who determined to marry them. There was only one obstacle to the union; the brothers were not members of the established Church of England. Like their patriarch father, they were Strict Ebenezer Baptists. No member of the Hall family would desert the Church of England for a non-conformist.

In time, George and Archie were baptized at the font in All Saints Church with little Canon Pennethorne obliged to stand on a Jacobean chair to pour water on their foreheads.

George and Claradoom (Aunty Doom in the family) were married first, after which Archie drove Nellie home in his horse-drawn carriage, taking the wrong turn and ending up on lonely Brightling Down. Whether it was brute passion or Aunty Doom's bridal champagne I cannot say, but there among the ling heather Archie and Nellie conceived their only son, Edward Archibald Ticehurst.

Archie and Nellie were wed in a quiet ceremony. It was 1919. The bride wore gray, as British custom decreed that a non-virgin could not be married in white. As a concession, to cheer things up a bit, she wore her mother's bridal veil and Spanish mantilla. As she left from Fairview in her carriage for the ceremony, the rain poured down, while the bells that should have welcomed the happy bride sounded more like a muffled peal.

Beecholme, a wedding present from her mother, was sold and Nellie moved into the newer part of Heathfield that had grown up around the railway station. With three little ones to raise and no money, paying guests seemed the respectable answer. When a boarder, little Freddy Shoobridge, smashed the Condesa's glass fire screen, that business venture ended abruptly.

It was then, in the mid 1930s, that my grandmother slipped into journalism. As she explained it, she knew "everybody who was anybody," so who better to write about them? Out came her bicycle upon which she set out to cover the news. Her working hat was a black astrakhan that had belonged to "poor Cousin Jack Ticehurst" who was lost in the Russian Revolution in 1917. I never did find out how he got there, but few people in that small Sussex village could boast a relative lost in something so terrible. The Bolsheviks had killed King George V's favorite cousin, the Czar, and the Russian Royal family.

Nellie, who had helped out in the days following my birth, loved to boast that at three days old, I was tied in a basket on the back of her bike as she carried me off to cover a story. Her best friend, Mrs. Kate Fox, grew tired of hearing of my early initiation into the Fourth Estate. "Nell," she quietly corrected her, "you never owned a basket in your life. That baby rode in a cardboard shoe box!"

It was Uncle George Ticehurst who built Nellie's bungalow called Havana, "with plenty of window sills for my flowers." I moved there with her in 1940, when I was three. The flowers were a great source of happiness for both of us. "I married the wrong sister," George often told Nellie. Aunty Doom was an introvert with no interest in a social life or clothes. Her greatest loves were historic houses and antiques. Her twin sister Nellie was life and laughter, an extrovert just like George.

Aunty Doom wore mousy brown and a string of big amber beads. Nellie liked color and was always clothes conscious. Even in mourning, her black and white outfits were stunning, and she could trim a hat like a professional milliner.

Poor Aunty Doom, Nellie's identical twin, never looked happy. She lived in a mansion filled with priceless antiques, but empty of love. With her dowry as seed money, Uncle George purchased one stately home at a time, restored it, then resold it at a profit. Aunty lived for her furniture, concocting a polish of beeswax and lavender that I still use today. It was she who early gave me my love for antiques and fine works of art.

Her drawing room was ethereal with a snow white carpet, and real white roses framed the French windows leading into the manicured garden. A white ribbon was hung in front of the door so that none might enter that shrine. Only once do I remember the room being used, when the Bishop of Chichester dropped by for tea, Uncle having presented him with an Old Master oil painting for his private chapel.

Aunty Doom drank coffee while others drank tea, a habit formed with her Spanish mother. Her home, Eldon House, always had that lovely aroma of coffee beans.

As for Uncle George, tall, military-like and an officer in World War I, he kept a young girlfriend named Maisie. When he died suddenly, Aunty made me search among the wreaths laid out in neat rows on the lawn to see if "that Maisie" had sent one. Maisie had not, so I did not have to throw it in the dustbin as Aunty Doom had instructed me.

Aunty, now the richest of widows, refused to follow the coffin to Heathfield Church.

"I am not a hypocrite," she told her twin sister. "You must go for me. The vicar will never know the difference."

"Jolly good show," said my grandmother. "I have always wanted to be chief mourner at a military funeral." And so she was, right down to her crepe mourning veil.

It was a bit confusing for the other children who thought that I had three mothers—my grandmother and Aunty Doom who were look-alikes and the beauteous young woman who arrived once a year from Sevenoaks for a few days holiday. I called grandmother Nellie, "Mummy," and my real mother, "Margie." She was a great beauty, sweet and gentle and kind. Her visits were fleeting. After she was gone I printed by hand all the wonderful stories she told me. As a child I could not comprehend her loneliness, living as she did among the thick chestnut woods of Bailey's Hill, Sevenoaks, where Jack was chauffeur to old Mr. Wilkinson. She would go away and leave me again. She was always leaving me. As sweet revenge I decided never to kiss her goodbye. I was grown and living in America before I could bring myself to kiss her on the lips. How she must have suffered in silence.

Hanging over all my childhood like a dark pall was my physical condition. As the village stationers, Ivy and Elsie Nias, said often of the small child with the mass of golden curls, "Dinky looks just like a pretty little girl!" But then Dinky was a little girl, although my grandmother and Margie guarded the awful family secret as though it were some holy grail. School was a catastrophe, for the deformity was so noticeable where it mattered that I could not even use the public washroom facilities like the other boys at the local Church of England school. Luckily, I lived close by.

In time my voice refused to break as the other choir boys' did. I still sing soprano to this day. Then when I was between 12 and 14 there were irregular bleedings that were, as Aunt Gertrude Hall the Terrible ordered me, "to be bravely borne in secret like having an insane relative that you never talk about." (Shades of her unfortunate brother-in-law, Uncle Alfred, languishing in Hellingly Asylum where she had hidden him.) "Think of the disgrace you would be to all of us if anyone found out," she roared, her voice like the church organ. "Particularly me, as head of the Mothers Union."

There was one in the family who truly loved me, having lost both her baby boys at birth. She was my cousin Rosy, "a rough diamond," as Margie so often said, "but a diamond nevertheless." Unsinkable, she rode her own motorbike, married a man who collected steamrollers and, according to her Aunt Elsie Ticehurst, did a most unladylike thing when she joined the local fire brigade. There on the front of the big red fire truck, perched proudly beside her, I was the envy of the other children, as with bells a-ringing we sped through Heathfield High Street en route to her farm at Cade Street.

"When I grow up, you are going to be my bridesmaid," I told Cousin Rosy, and although I knew she didn't believe me, I meant it.

Little wonder that I lived in the pages I wrote. As a teenager, I worked on a novel and several short stories, including one called "Love Affair" about a vicar's seductive wife named Cora, who ran off with an insurance man. (For some unknown reason I was very hard on the clergy, who in my little stories usually had unfaithful wives. In my stories, I could always be the "heroine," fearing nobody, perpetually looking for my fairy prince.) I looked forward to holidays at Sissinghurst in spite of Jack Copper who made no bones about not liking me. There at the Tudor Castle where eccentricities and strange unnatural loves seemed perfectly normal, I did not feel so out of place. Even as children, Fay and I were aware of the gossip about how "that terrible Mrs. Woolf" had had a lesbian affair with Vita, out of which Virginia's novel, Orlando, had evolved with photographs of her lover as illustrations.

Orlando, when I read it (for the local library allowed me to take out grownup books) gave me a strange, new courage. Didn't my grandmother always dismiss any major problem with the sage-like words, "But it will all come right in the end." Besides, the Hall family motto was "Nothing is impossible with the Lord."

Jack first met Vita Sackville-West during his Sevenoaks years when she had a home called Long Barn at the Weald. He was soon taking care of her car in the evenings. All his life he smelled like an advertisement for carbolic soap, which must have pleased Vita who had once complained, "My God how workmen smell. The whole house stinks of them."

As their working relationship flourished, she told him that she had bought a ruined castle at Sissinghurst and would be needing a full-time chauffeur. Would he like the job, she asked, adding that it was "until the Income Tax goes up." Three decades later, "my wicked old Copper" as she called him, was still in Vita's service, pushing her around Sissinghurst in her final illness, as she rode, "like Queen Victoria."

Jane Brown tells us in her admirable Vita's Other World, which chronicled the making of Vita's famous garden at Sissinghurst Castle, that when Harold Nicolson and Vita moved to Sissinghurst, "Harold, having given up journalism and Mosley's politics, had no job nor expectation of any and found it frustrating trying to convince Vita that they were poor."

It was rather ironic then that their new chauffeur's wife's closest uncle and aunt were rich enough to purchase Heronden Hall in nearby Tenterden together with another large estate, Hadlow Grange, in Sussex.

As for the tower clock, Jane Brown says that it, "like so much of Sissinghurst's routine, was cared for by the faithful Copper."

My natural father had learned early in his relationship with Vita Sackville-West the fine art of being indispensable. He refused her nothing, even when she sent him down to Romney Marsh to examine some gates on a pouring wet day, nearly giving him pneumonia. In addition to his chauffeur duties, he soon became a sort of general factotum. He cared for her flock of Jacob's Sheep, buried her beloved dogs, making their tombstones, and managed to have his finger in every castle pie.

Margie's passion for her husband cooled noticeably when he brought her to Sissinghurst. "My prison," she called it. At 22, she had undergone a hysterectomy. She would always look waiflike and pathetically young. She made no bones about it, she was desperately lonely in her cottage at the castle as the dozens of letters she wrote to me reveal.

The marriage that had begun with so much passion turned into a hell on earth for both of them, with my unfortunate sister the buffer between them, for I visited Sissinghurst infrequently. Once, meeting me on the grounds, Vita remarked, "I don't think they quarrel so much. Do you think that Mrs. Copper married beneath her?" Several wealthy members of her family thought she did. When Cousin Marcus Butler had business with Captain Oswald Beale at Castle Farm within shouting distance of the Copper home, he did not trouble to visit her. "I thought it kinder to remember Marjorie as she was," he told his mother, my great-aunt Alice Hall Butler.

Better known in the family as Aunty Dutch, Alice Hall Butler always was the grand lady. She wore a tiara to the opera and the first high-heeled shoes I had ever seen. The latter caused her to bog down in the muddy garden at Havana. My grandmother hollered, "Jump for your life." She did, landing on the tiled porch in her silk stockinged feet, leaving her shoes behind her.

For years, Aunty Dutch tried to marry off her large mannish daughter Cicely Madge to every eligible curate, doctor or lawyer in Sussex. She finally had to admit that the poor girl was a lesbian. Aunty Dutch then had the audacity to blame Virginia Woolf and the Tunbridge Wells Public Library for the copy of Orlando that found its way into Cicely's hands.

The classics which she had read over and over were still Margie's closest friends. At times she even saw Heathcliff in her Jack. One day Winnie Macmillan, Vita's secretary and erstwhile lover, saw fit to tell Margie that in her employer's new novel, The Devil at West Ease, published only in America, that she, "Mac," was the Devil, "And you are Mrs. Gartacre," she confided to a very sensitive Margie, "the neurotic wife of the vicar who spends most of her days upstairs."

Margie blossomed when I arrived to stay with them, although Jack completely ignored me. Fay and I had an exceptional relationship, exchanging a four-page magazine written with our favorite red ink, during the long weeks we were apart. There were illustrations, too. We liked to draw our romantic Aunty Babs' frilly drawers.

All through my childhood when calamity struck in the family, the cry went out, "Send for Nell." It was with some misgivings then that we set off for Birdsgrove, the villa where Aunty Doom always said the birds were too frightened to sing.

We all feared red-haired Aunt Gertrude, the childless wife of jolly Uncle Jimbo Hall. Years before, the then-17-year-old twins were to have been bridesmaids at Gertrude and Jimbo's wedding in Bexhill Parish Church. No other family members could go, for at home the twins' younger brother, Edwin, lay dying from heart disease.

The bride-to-be, a well known milliner, so intimidated Nellie and Doom, they were about to catch the next train home. However, Gertrude Geary was their match. She locked them in their bedroom. Knotting bedsheets together, they made their escape from a window, their bridesmaids' gowns left on the bed. The twins always maintained that brother Jimbo would have joined them if he hadn't been locked up with his best man, the brother of the bride. So Aunt Gertrude and Uncle Jimbo were married, but she never really forgave the twins.

So when the messenger arrived with the news that Aunt Gertrude was dying, my grandmother said, "Blood is thicker than water. Jimbo needs me. I have to go."

We arrived to a great commotion. Aunt Gertrude's heart attack had been so bad that X-rays had to be taken in her own bedroom, then developed in the neighboring bathroom. Uncle Jimbo was told to prepare for the worst. Aunt Gertrude had slipped into a coma.

"Well," said my grandmother to Jimbo, "is there anything you fancy for supper?" for the Halls loved their food and never let a crisis affect their stomachs.

"Cheese, Nell, cheese. Toasted cheese. She hasn't given me that since the day we were married."

We were soon seated around Aunt Gertrude's polished dining table that had once been the Condesa's, each with a plate of cheese on toast. Uncle Jimbo was like an excited child. He was ecstatic.

"She'll never find out, will she?" Even then he wasn't sure liberation was nigh.

"Don't worry, she's dying."

Hardly had my grandmother spoken when an ominous voice came down from above. "Cheese, I smell cheese."

Well, to make a long story short, Aunt Gertrude recovered, outliving the rest of her generation "Nobody dies unless he or she wants to," she announced, then had her bed moved down into the drawing room where, dressed all in purple right down to the last hair ribbon, she reigned like a queen.

She ran the parish from her bed and the vicar as well. She is on record as arranging the first cremation in the village. She had the ashes of the deceased, a well-known lemonade manufacturer, brought back to her bed in a polished oak casket. Fascinated, I watched as she taped purple pansies on top. Then off to St. Richard's Church the undertaker carried it. An hour later he was back to say he had a church full of people, the organ going full blast and no vicar to officiate.

Aunt Gertrude sent for the police with instructions that the aged vicar had to be taken, by force if necessary, to the delayed funeral service. They found the Reverend Grahame Clark in a tree picking apples behind the Old Heathfield vicarage. He had completely forgotten.

It takes somebody who is disabled to recognize another, so my bond with great-uncle George Ditch was a close one. Uncle Ditcher, as we called him, was the beloved husband of great-aunt Elizabeth Hall Ditch. He made me feel special. When I was between the ages of nine and twelve years old, he planned a fresh project every Saturday for me to carry out. It might be to sketch an old Roman fort, or an expedition to explore lonely Bodiam Castle; off I was sent on my bicycle. Back at Spicers for tea, I recounted my adventures while he listened from his big oak arm chair drawn up close to the table.

Spicers, the Ditch home on Cade Street in Old Heathfield, was a magical house dating from Tudor times with its own secret passage that led to a small hidden room. There Catholic priests had been hidden from the wrath of Elizabeth Tudor. I had explored that old house many times without discovering its secret. How grownup I felt when on my eleventh birthday Great Aunty Liz showed me the panel with its winding staircase behind. "It is my present," she said, "our secret."

Aunty Liz would never get married, the Hall family thought, but she had other ideas. She first met Ditcher in a library at Hailsham. They courted in secret, then wed in Old Heathfield Church after which he made her Mine Hostess at Chiddingly's Eight Bells Inn. Later moving to the Dicker, a neighboring village, Uncle invented a fizzy drink called "Monsters," and predicted a fortune from its sale. The promising venture ended abruptly when Uncle, out rabbit shooting, tripped over his gun. The gun went off, shooting him in the hand and spine. He became paralyzed from the waist down. The couple retired to Spicers to continue their now curtailed lives, but how they lived!

Theirs was the open door through which one never knew who would pass—politicians and gypsies, relatives and clergy. To a youngster growing up the conversation was an education in itself. "Let the child speak," Uncle would bellow while I tangled with the Bishop of Lewes as to whether King Canute's daughter was really in that stone coffin they had discovered in Bosham. "Remember we have to pass on the torch to the next generation."

Aunty Liz wore the shortest of dresses, her black-ribbed stockings rolled down to the knee. A wisp of fine lace was glimpsed at her breast, and at a time when women of her age didn't smoke, she used a long amber cigarette holder. With her gray hair in a bun, Aunty Liz, helped by their bald-headed maid, Kitty Scott, who wore a small knitted cap, made Cuckoo Fair Day the best day of the year.

Cuckoo Fair had been held at Heathfield, formerly Heffle, since medieval times. Legend said that the cuckoo was first heard on the first of April when the bird escaped from a woman's basket. By my time, the fair had become a horse and cattle show held in a field opposite Spicers behind the Half Moon Inn. In the long lane gypsy youths from all over England proudly raced their ponies while we cheered them on, led by Uncle Ditcher who was carried outside for the fun.

All day long Kitty served refreshments—chicken, baked ham, meat pies, cheese pies, apple tarts—all to be washed down with gallons of cold cider and hot tea. Kitty was a character in her own right, just as outspoken as her employers. When some wandering gypsy told Uncle that rubbing the scalp with a raw onion induced hair to grow, there was no peace until he tried the remedy on Kitty. My grandmother said he should have left well enough alone for when the hair grew just as the gypsy had predicted, it was a flaming shade of red just like Aunt Gertrude's.

General elections were also exciting as Uncle backed the Labor party and Aunty the Conservative party. Both fought over Kitty's vote. Everybody laughed when husband and wife each engaged a taxi to take Kitty to the polls and both taxis arrived at the same time. It was Kitty herself who solved the problem, announcing she would go to vote in one, then return to Spicers in the other. Although Uncle and Aunty and Kitty Scott were all long gone when I married, Kitty's cousin, Elsie Carter, attended my second wedding ceremony at Hastings. Mrs. Carter remembered that red hair well.

Our life at Havana, the bungalow my grandmother had named for a Cuban cigar, went quietly on as I learned how to live with my physical condition. I spent ages 3-12 there. Proficient in botany, my grandmother introduced me early to the naming of wildflowers. The local horticultural society show had special children's classes. For my knowledge of wildflowers and grasses I won prizes and pocket money for the year. Bird watching, local history and writing completed my world.

We had a cat, named Charmaine, given us by cousin John Holland, who would live to be 20, and a chinchilla rabbit named Molly who was also a prizewinner. A pet chicken called Moonyeen sat in a wicker chair on the porch. Moonyeen was no ordinary bird. She was rescued, saved featherless from Charles, Aunty Babs' amorous rooster, and carried home to Havana in a Christmas cake box. Everybody laughed when my grandmother bought six eggs from Mr. Bannister the grocer for Moonyeen to hatch in her chair on the porch. But in due time, two baby chicks were hatched from the six eggs, a Rhode Island Red and a White Leghorn. My grandmother's comment was: "You see, even a store hen can make a mistake."

Into our quiet lives, at about this time, came Pamela Pike, a native of Eastbourne, a town on the Sussex coast. I travelled there daily to attend school, where Pamela and I met in history class. Pamela was hooked on archaeology. Her wonderful father took us for digs on the South Downs. Pamela's great love was, and still is, ancient Egypt which was all my grandmother needed to hear. Pamela must give a talk at Heathfield's Agricultural Hall.

Pamela duly arrived looking very grownup, wearing a large floppy hat. I was more nervous than she. How those church ladies loved her. You could have heard a pin drop, so quiet were they. "Better than a church sermon," Elsie Carter said, after listening to Pamela's recipe for embalming a mummy.

My close friendship with Pamela, now Mrs. Dennis Jackson, of Romsey, Hampshire, in England, has endured to this day.

Pamela belonged to the happier days of childhood. I liked being part of the Pikes, whom I considered "a normal family." However, even the time I spent with her family could not dispel the disgrace of illegitimacy, of which pious church-going old women and the Ticehurst Strict Ebenezer Baptist great-aunts constantly reminded me. It didn't make any difference to them that my parents had long since married and I had my father's name on my amended birth certificate.

Only once do I recall my grandmother weeping and that was when the new curate called all in a dither. I was to be confirmed, yet he could find no record of my baptism. I had been baptized at St. Bartholomew's Cross-in-Hand Church with Margie's best friend, Dorrie Humphrey, as godmother, and it should have been recorded in the church register there. To this strange young man my grandmother had to unfold the sad tale of my birth. Although my parents had married, making me legitimate, nobody had thought to change the baptismal entry. I was still listed as Ticehurst.

My grandmother always had enjoyed such good health that when at 60 she began to fail it seemed all so unreal. She was suffering from terminal breast cancer. In 1949, Margie came home and together we nursed her. It was a horrible time. The memory of blood stained sheets in the bathtub will always be with me.

The night that Grandmother died, Margie ran from the house while I stayed in my room watching a strange blue light that encompassed the mantlepiece. Grandmother was buried on a foggy December day in the same grave as her young husband. We had sung "Fight the Good Fight," the Hall family hymn, then followed the white oak coffin surmounted by a bronze cross down to the churchyard.

Havana was sold. I was homeless. I cycled to my grandmother's grave and wept.

The contents of Havana were sold at Heathfield Market. There is nothing so sad as seeing much loved possessions lying discarded as dead soldiers after a battle. Even her precious portrait of her close friend Lord Baden Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, was there—it had always hung over her bed. In this case my grandmother's long battle was over; mine had begun.

At age 12, with no home and a father who didn't want me, I turned as I always have to my church where a rich old lady, Jessie Mountain, took me in. She lived alone in a red brick pre-Raphaelite house with William Morris wallpapers. I retained my independence by taking up some of my grandmother's newspaper reporting and helping a nice lawyer named Shirley S. Hodson in his office (I did the old English lettering on deeds, wills and indentures). My ambition was still to be a writer; I was working on a novel in which Margie came through thinly veiled as the beauteous mother, with me the ugly unwanted child.

Still hanging over me was that same deep, dark secret of my true identity. Always I wished it would vanish like a bad dream, but it didn't. With the exception of dear old Pamela and Tony Stapley, a local boy who shared my affinity for animals and whose mother had gone to private school with the Hall twins in Royal Tunbridge Wells, there were no other close relationships with my peers. There couldn't be. For my part I was mortally afraid of anything physical. I put all thought of sex out of my mind. Besides, those bleedings were frightening.

Uncle Ditcher was carried into Heathfield churchyard not long after my grandmother, and Aunty Liz disbanded Spicers. His death left another void in my life. Aunty Liz went to live with her son George Alfred Hall Ditch, whose nice wife Lily gave her breakfast in bed every day for the rest of her life.

Aunty Doom moved to Royal Tunbridge Wells where she lived out her life as a happy rich widow at Sandrock House, once home to her own grandmother, the Spanish Condesa. In Heathfield where I lived in an apartment called St. Anthony's, only Uncle Jimbo and Aunt Gertrude remained. I was 15 when I was summoned to Birdsgrove to help with preparations for their golden anniversary.

Aunt Gertrude, who had not officially left her bed for years (although there were those who were sure she walked through the rooms every night), decided on the great day to receive the gentlemen of the press, eager to see what the legendary Mrs. Hall looked like. They were surprised, for Aunt Gertrude, who used no cosmetics except face powder, was remarkably well preserved, her untinted hair still flaming red. She wore a French nightgown of purple crepe-de-chine with hair ribbons to match.

We perched poor fat Uncle on a slipper chair by her bed for photographs. Then suddenly, without warning, Aunt Gertrude said, "Gentlemen, I've been married 50 years and am still a virgin."

Later, after a good supper of boiled beef and carrots, Uncle Jimbo died in his sleep. The question was, who would take care of his wife? They need not have worried for she had already decided. Looking me straight in the eye, Aunt Gertrude said, "You."

"Me?" I stood like somebody just sentenced to die.

"Yes, you. I know, as you know, that you are a girl."

Aunt Gertrude thought she had won, but then went too far. "I don't like dogs. You will have Freddie (my Chihuahua) put to sleep, thus as a special privilege you may sleep in your dear Uncle's bed."

What she never understood was that I, too, had a mind of my own. I went home and wrote Aunty Alice Copper Bonkowski, Jack's sister in Detroit, asking her to sponsor me so that I could emigrate to America. Then I auctioned the contents of St. Anthony's and together with the proceeds of my grandmother's small insurance policy had just enough for the fare. One sunny morning, Freddie and I slipped quietly out of Heathfield. We sailed from Liverpool to Canada, then caught the train to Detroit.

When I reached Windsor, Ontario, to cross into the United States, I was met with bad news. Uncle Walter Bonkowski had been killed by a hit-and-run driver. My sponsor was gone, and I was stranded in Canada. After finding Freddie a good home with an elderly couple who spoiled him into a good age, I took work as a teacher on an Ojibway Indian reservation at Gull Bay on Lake Nipigon where I worked for a year. Looking back, the more worldly Ojibways thought "teacher," as they called me, very young and innocent. It was 1953, and I was only 16.

There was a wonderful old lady called Poor Old Grandmother whose ambition was to have a coming out party (she was then 82) because she had been told that Princess Margaret had had one. I also met a small boy named Charley who knew everything and a femme fatale, Angelic Majada, with the proverbial heart of gold. Before the Indian mothers went fishing through holes in the lake ice in winter, they brought their babies to the schoolhouse for me to mind. Still in the tignokens (cradle boards) they would hang them in a row from pegs set in the wall! Out of these experiences I was able to write my humorous first book, Me Papoose Sitter and later two children's books, Peter Jumping Horse and Peter Jumping Horse at the Rodeo.

My Ojibway days terminated abruptly when the bush plane in which I was travelling made a crash landing in a snowbank, breaking my shoulder. After a spell in a hospital run by a jovial group of nuns who only spoke French, I was determined to legally enter the United States. While waiting for my working visa I was employed first as a general reporter, then as the obituary editor for the Winnipeg Free Press; the latter was no easy job with so many hard-to-spell Russian and Polish surnames in that midwestern city. As the crime reporter was then living in sin with a clergyman's daughter, I often helped him at nights when he slipped home to see her. At the Winnipeg Free Press I received the valuable training to always meet a deadline on time.

I left the newspaper in 1955, when my working visa was finally granted. I entered the U.S. at Noyes, Minnesota, on a Greyhound bus. Through Editor and Publisher, I had found a job as society editor for the Nevada Daily Mail in Nevada, Missouri, whose able city editor, Ken Postlethwaite, taught me a lot. My first big story to go out over the wires was an interview with President Harry Truman's maiden sister, Mary Jane, who was visiting close friends in the city. When I phoned for a story she agreed on the condition I wouldn't mention politics. I didn't. My article told of Harry and Mary Jane playing piano duets together as children. From my grandmother's stint at the Southern Weekly News I had learned that human interest stories were always the best.

A year later, when, regretfully, I finally moved on to New York, Ken wrote in an editorial that a reader who had lived all her life in Nevada phoned in to say that I knew things about the city that even she didn't know! I have always thought that Nevada, Missouri, was the real America, honest and true.

In New York City, I worked as an editor with General Features, a newspaper syndicate, then, missing the excitement of a daily newspaper, with the Port Chester Daily Item. During this period I wrote a modern "morality" play, Saraband for a Saint, being my interpretation of a medieval miracle play. It was performed in the chancel of St. Martin's Episcopal Church, in New York's predominantly black Harlem. We had a professional director, Kim Andrews. The story was about two young soldiers, one British and white, the other American and black. I had never been to the Deep South where one scene was set, so I was totally ignorant of the role it was soon to play in my personal life. The action took part in a bombed Italian church during World War II where, seeking shelter, the two men recall their lives. The theme was brotherly love. Bishop James Pike likened my writing to that of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). The British soldier was filled with hate for the beautiful mother who had deserted him as a child. His black companion had, by contrast, been brought up surrounded by the love of his old grandmother who was criticized by her fellow blacks for the care she lavished on a lovely old white woman. In a flashback, the southern granny appears to say, "Everybody needs to be loved by somebody, and old Miss Abby needs me."

The two acts linking the play together were enhanced by the tenor voice belonging to Raymond Smith, a doctor with the U.S. Veteran's Administration. A man of 36, he shared his love of nature and ecology with me on Sunday afternoons, taking me for drives into the more rural parts of New Jersey. I never see a wild dogwood that I do not think of Raymond. He was a true friend, a life-long friend.

For some reason the play received much press publicity. Diverse celebrities as Joan Crawford, Helen Hayes, and boxer Sugar Ray Robinson sent their good wishes. A Broadway theater group came in, and for no recompense, wired the church for sound. And, Dr. Francis Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury, invited me to Lambeth Palace to discuss the play. It was a great experience, especially when he gave me a personal tour of the palace, pointing out the portraits of his predecessors. It was history come to life. I thought how much my fellow history buff, Pamela Pike, would have loved it.

There was one funny anecdote at dinner. The dessert was a crisp caramel torte. When the Archbishop of Canterbury attacked it with his fork, it jumped right off of his plate and onto the linen table cloth. Picking it up, he looked at his wife and me. "I am going to eat this with my fingers," he said with a smile, "and I suggest that you both do the same."

Excerpted from Dawn: A Charleston Legend by Dawn Langley Simmons. Copyright © 1996. All rights reserved.

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