Saturday, January 05, 2008

"My Darling Ellie ..."

One of the most magical things about being in the book trade is how frequently a special book or piece of ephemera will gravitate to its perfect home. Perhaps none has done that so spectacularly as something I got last year -- some would say “by accident.” However, I think it was meant to come to me, so I could be the conduit to its new and perfect home. If I hadn’t already known this, I would soon have learned it, as tangible proof arrived in the mail at Christmas -- a gift so amazing I had to share it, as well as its bittersweet story.

It all began last winter when I bought a box of turn-of-the-century Delineator magazines at an auction. I knew there were five or six in the box, but what I did not know was that underneath lay a small trove of ephemera consisting of a few letters, a utility bill receipt, a membership card for the Rosicrucians, a packet of old negatives from a pharmacy out west and a beautiful luggage label from a hotel in India. Delighted at my unexpected good fortune, I immediately set the magazines aside and sat on the floor to savor it all, beginning with the letters. As most booksellers who deal in ephemera will attest, most found letters are not keepers. While I personally enjoy reading about getting in the crops and the improvement of Grandma’s influenza, most people aren’t nearly so charmed.

But these letters were special -- I could feel it. They were addressed to a woman aboard a Japanese liner in the Pacific Ocean. The writer was from a college in India and the date was 1933. Carefully, I opened the first envelope and extracted a single sheet of thin paper written on both sides in flowing, if hard to read, script.

“My darling Ellie …”

Words as melodic as a waterfall tumbled from the pen of a poet. By the time I finished the last one, my spirit was in Ghandi’s India, overcome with sadness for these two star crossed lovers who could not possibly have remained together. The writer was Indian, the object of his affection an American. Sadly, the stub from the utility bill confirmed what I already knew. Thirty years later the woman was still Miss Ellie -----. Held up to the light, the negatives showed a woman in western clothing of the 30’s surrounded by the architecture and saris of India. There was no sign of an Indian lover, but how could there be? Such a thing was unthinkable then. An interracial love affair must be secret, a treasure in one’s pocket.

For several weeks I vacillated on what to do with the letters and the rest of the items, but finally decided to list them for sale. Almost immediately they sold to a long time customer from New Mexico, a geneaologist, who saw them initially as an interesting project. Right away she began digging into Ellie’s past and every so often would report back to me with her findings. Ellie was a Midwesterner, a teacher. She lived out of state all of her adult life, but was buried in the Midwest. A little tidbit here, a scrap there, but it wasn’t until April that Cindy called with the big news.

“Tess, the letters are not from a man. They’re from a woman. This was a lesbian affair. I’m positive of it.”

At first I was surprised, but almost immediately I knew she was right. “Yeah, makes sense. “ I said. “Remember that part about 'I wish I could have cooked for you?' No Indian guy in the 30’s is going to say something like THAT!” We laughed and quickly adjusted to this new dynamic.

What an intrepid woman Ellie must have to have been to ventured on such a journey alone and then to have formed such a dangerous liaison. Not only was it against the rules of the day to cross racial and religious lines, but to cross the gender line as well was potentially explosive. After this discovery, however, Cindy seemed to hit a dead end as nothing more was reported, though we did from time to time ruminate on "our girls" and wonder how it had ended and whether hearts had been broken. We hoped they hadn't, but felt sure they had.

Then in December a manila envelope arrived in the mail from New Mexico. I opened it and extracted a clear plastic sleeve. On the top was a photo of a temple, clearly in India. My heart raced. Immediately I knew what this was. Cindy had had the packet of negatives developed and sent me a few copies for Christmas! There were three pictures in all. The second showed a tall, strangely compelling woman in a sari. I knew at once it was her, the poet with the astonishing command of language. For a moment I studied her face. She was not pretty in the traditional sense, but a quiet strength, an inner light, so radiated from her that my first response was to whisper, “Oh, look at you! You’re beautiful!” I could certainly see why Ellie had been drawn to her. What I was not prepared for, however, was Ellie herself.

Ellie proved to be a short, dumpy woman in a polka dot dress wearing a straw hat from which dangled a clump of artificial cherries. She was seated on the ground next to the extraordinary woman in the sari enjoying a picnic for two. There was no question about the relationship. Had we not known before, we’d have known then by the way the woman in the sari regarded her, her hand laid so lovingly on Ellie’s arm and Ellie’s obvious discomfort. In one of the letters mention had been made of Ellie’s fear of discovery and here it was --captured by the camera in black and white. How different these two were, I thought, and yet who is to say what draws two people together? The woman in the sari would not be one to be taken in by surface beauty - that much is clear --so Ellie, too, must have been a woman of substance.

Of course we still don’t know how it ended and probably never will. All we know is that a few scraps from the past revealed a seventy-five year old secret which Cindy and I both feel morally bound to keep. For this reason I have changed Ellie's name and obscured the face in the photo. It was our privilege to share it, but the secret belongs to Ellie and her lover. It is, and will always be, their treasure in the pocket.

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