my name is dora Witherspoon but most folks know mme as the turtle lady. a long time ago, i rescued a snapping turtle the size of a truck tire from the middle of highway 41, a move deemed so foolish it became local legend. i can’t say i’m partial to it, but here in the south, nicknames stick like bottomland mud.
i’d like to tell you a story from my younger days. i’ve been a storyteller my whole life, but i wasn’t ready to tell this one until now. it happened fifty years ago—in 1962. Parts of it are hard for me to share, but the fact is that i’m old now—eighty years of age, if you must know—and probably running out of time. i want young’uns to know about my time and place, the people i knew, and a world that’s all but gone. i want them to know that one person can come along and change your life, and that being a misfit, as i was, doesn’t mean you won’t find friends and your place in the world.
Her nAme wAs JAckie HArt, and the first time i set eyes on her was across the counter at the post office. she’d moved to Collier County with her husband and kids from, of all places, Boston. Before we knew it, she turned things upside down faster than you can say “Yankee carpetbagger.”
From the get-go, Jackie was a troublemaker in the eyes of the town fathers, but to the few of us who gave her a chance, her arrival in town was a godsend. she started a little reading group, bringing together the most unlikely people in town, including me. We were all outcasts, but as a group we became strong.
none of us saw these changes coming, though. Jackie was like a late-afternoon storm on the gulf, the kind that comes from nowhere and sends even the old-time fishermen hurrying to shore. she was a surprise, that’s for sure.
i’d been working at the post office for about a year, since my divorce, and there were days—like the one when i met Jackie—that were so slow, i swear i could’ve watched my fingernails grow if i’d had a mind to. By two o’clock there wasn’t a thing to do but watch the horseflies dodge the slats of the ceiling fan. i wasn’t supposed to, but i started reading magazines that hadn’t been sorted yet. First i studied mr. Freeland’s copy of Time magazine. But then i couldn’t resist peeking at Vogue. no one got Vogue. Whoever the person was—a mrs. J. hart—was new in town. the rest of the hart family didn’t get much mail, but i had already noticed that mrs. J. hart got all kinds of stuff that had probably never—until now—passed through the sorting station up at Fort myers. The New Yorker. National Geographic (generally frowned upon since it might include pictures of naked african people). and, of course, Vogue.
i kept returning to Vogue. i’m not sure i’d ever seen a copy. i was studying the clothes and models and perfume ads, and breaking post office regulation number 3651 (reading a customer’s periodical), when i heard a polite little cough and looked up. and there was Jackie.
she was wearing an enormous straw hat and a pair of sunglasses that made her look like she’d just left a party hosted by sophia loren on the French riviera. her skin was very white, as if she’d never encountered a single ray of sun, and her hair, peeking out from under her hat, was what my mama would have called “the barn’s on fire” red. add to it the way she carried herself and the result was something we rarely saw in Collier County—glamour.
no doubt about it, she was the most interesting person to show up at my postal counter since mrs. Bailey White was finally let out of jail and moved back home the year before. While the peculiar mrs. Bailey White was a curiosity, the stunning woman now standing before me was something else entirely. You could be sure she’d never been called moosy, a word i often thought of in connection with myself. i felt like a hick in my humble seersucker dress with the self-tie belt, and was glad she couldn’t see my penny loafers. she had what mama called an hourglass figure, which made my flat little chest and rear end seem positively boyish in comparison.
“oh, is that the new copy of Vogue?” she asked, with an innocence that might have been phony but i wasn’t sure. she spun the magazine around and examined the cover.
“hm,” she said. “i do believe this is my copy.”
i would have died of shame except i wanted to see what she would do next. Yet all she did was stand absolutely still, waiting for me to answer.
“Yes, ma’am,” i said, and my voice came out kind of hushed. “i’m very sorry. i admit i was violating post office regulations. Please,” i added, “don’t tell my boss or i could lose my job.”
she took off her sunglasses and looked at me, eyeball to eyeball. her eyes were large and round and skillfully made up. “i would never do that,” she said, adding, “but in the future, could i read my magazine first, please? and then you can borrow it when i’m done? Would that be all right?” everything came out as a question.
i was pretty sure—but not 100 percent—that she wasn’t being sarcastic. i pulled together the rest of her mail and gave it to her. she walked to the door, then stopped. looking back at me, she asked, “What else do you like to read?”
i couldn’t have been more surprised if she’d asked for directions to the nearest pool hall. “Well, um, sometimes i read Life magazine,” i said. and Ladies’ Home Journal.”
“do you like novels?”
i shrugged my shoulders. “i haven’t read too many.”
“Well, once i am settled, i am thinking of asking the library to start a women’s reading group. i was thinking we could call it the Collier County Women’s literary society. Would you like to be part of it?”
“Well . . . sure.” i was not really sure i meant it, although a part of me was deeply flattered.
“What, may i ask, is your name?”
“dora,” i said. “dora Witherspoon.”
less than a month later, i started seeing flyers around town announcing the first meeting. “a women’s literary society—what the hell is that?” my boss, marty, muttered. Jackie had posted a flyer on the post office bulletin board, next to the Collier County mosquito spraying schedule and
the pulled pork fund-raiser that the masons made everyone
suffer through every year.
“it’s just people who like to read books,” i said.
“You mean like the Bible?”
“i don’t know. maybe cookbooks. maybe a few novels.”
“Novels?” marty raised an eyebrow.
“Well, how much trouble can we get in, reading books at the library?” i said, a little irritated. “as a matter of fact, i may go myself.” marty could be condescending, and he was convinced everything was a plot hatched by Communists.
“oh, i guess you’re right,” he said finally.
now i felt like i had to go. Besides, maybe i would learn something new. i wasn’t what you’d call worldly. in fact, i’d never been out of Florida. But i’d had two years at the junior college in saint Petersburg, and while it was just a hundred and twenty miles up the gulf, the experience had been an eye-opener. one of my professors was from nevada. another, from new orleans. my fellow lodgers at the rooming house where i lived were women who had either retired to saint Petersburg or (in the case of one lady, whose story i never learned) seemed to be running away from something up north. From them i learned about places like ohio and Pennsylvania. there was one lady, a mrs. Jamesway, who had a subscription to a big-city newspaper called the Toledo Blade. even though it arrived
in the mail three or four days after it was published, it was
still fun to read.
after i finished junior college, i married darryl and moved to ocala. that’s horse country, in north-central Florida. like me, darryl was from Collier County—i’d known him my whole life. But while i was at school, he started a small construction company and somehow got a job building a gorgeous new estate near ocala for some rich folks from Kentucky.the barns darryl built were nicer than any house i’d ever been in. the owners—a man and his wife in their fifties—talked about impossibly wonderful places they traveled to often, like london, new York, and san Francisco.
any dreams i had for the future ended with my divorce. my parents were dead, i’m an only child, and i was inching up on my thirtieth birthday. i had nowhere else to go except the little cottage in naples that had been in my father’s family for three generations and was spitting distance from the gulf. i needed a job, but the only person who would hire me was my cousin marty, who ran the post office. everyone else treated me like i had mange.
i didn’t have high hopes when i went to the first meeting of the Collier County Women’s literary society.to my surprise, seven people showed up, which was five more than i expected.We sat on folding chairs in a little circle—Jackie, me, miss lansbury (the librarian), mrs. Bailey White (the old lady who had returned from jail the previous year and was always called by her entire name as a sign of respect for her age), a young colored girl wearing a formal maid’s uniform, a woman in her fifties who wrote poetry and said her name was Plain Jane, and the town’s one and only sears employee, robbie-lee simpson, Collier County’s only obvious homosexual.
miss lansbury spoke first. “Welcome!” she said in her brisk, pleasant librarian voice. she wore a sleeveless sheath in pale green with a floral-patterned scarf that was perfectly matched. i tried to guess her age and concluded she was probably about thirty-five. she was still considered new in town—having lived here only ten years or so—and suspiciously single. however, seeing as she was a librarian, people let it go. after all, she was that rare bird—a career girl—and destined to be an old maid, a problem of her own making. she had beautiful black hair thanks to her spanish ancestors. “mrs. Jacqueline hart”—she gestured politely toward Jackie—“who just moved to town from Boston, has spearheaded this new group. mrs. hart, would you like to tell us a little more about yourself?”
Jackie looked surprised but rose to the occasion. “Well, my family moved here exactly one month ago. my husband, ted, is the new business manager for the toomb family. We
have three children—twin girls who are fourteen and a son
who is twelve.”
she didn’t have to explain who the toomb family was. they were one of the most powerful families in south Florida, though a rung or two down from the Colliers. everyone had heard that old mr.toomb, who wanted a better grasp of how things worked in the north, had gone out and hired a business manager from Boston. the man he hired was ted hart, a World War two army veteran who had put himself through college on the gi Bill.
“oh,” Jackie added, “and please call me Jackie.”
“You mean like the Jackie in the White house?” mrs. Bailey White asked lightly.
“Well, not quite like her, no,” Jackie said and smiled. “i have a northern accent, that’s true. But i’m not skinny and i couldn’t hope to be as elegant as that Jackie.”
But the comparison, in one way, was striking. i couldn’t imagine Jackie Kennedy or Jackie hart adapting very easily to life in our little town. People think of naples as one of the richest, swankiest places on earth, but back in 1962 it was a sunbaked southern backwater no bigger than a cow pie. there were maybe eight hundred people living here, a number that grew to a whopping twelve hundred or so in the winter when the Yankees would come down to fish for sea bass and snook. naples was a redneck town and proud of it.
i have to admit that moving here was a pretty raw deal.
i say that even though i’m from Collier County and have at least a smidgen of pride. But relocating here must have been especially shocking to Jackie. she was, clearly, a “Boston girl” through and through. Cultured. Progressive. all that Yankee stuff we southerners find so irritating.
no one knew what to say next, so miss lansbury jumped in again. “Well, i must say i am delighted. thrilled. i think the rest of us know who each other are, right? oh, one more thing: robbie-lee, this is supposed to be a women’s literary society, so you shouldn’t really be here. But if everyone is okay with it, i suppose it’s all right. does anyone have any objections?”
no one did, so robbie-lee stayed.
i was actually more surprised that the negro girl had come. You never saw colored folk at the town library. her being there was bold, even reckless.then again, what would we have done to her? given her the evil eye until she left? made a fuss and told her to leave? none of the rest of us sitting around our little circle seemed to be looking daggers in her direction. maybe the Collier County Women’s literary society would be that rarest of organizations—an integrated one.
i suppose it’s still basically true, but in those days, white people tended to fall into three categories.there were those who went out of their way to harm or hold back negroes in any way they could. then there were those who never gave negroes much thought and really didn’t care. and then there was a small group of white folks who felt badly about the cruel way negroes were treated and wanted to see things improve.
i was raised to be in the last category. my father, who i don’t remember well, was said to be a regular old redneck. But mama was a nurse, and during her training someone had drilled into her head that all people were human and should be treated accordingly. she worked for the only doctor in town, and sometimes, when she was needed at the four-bed hospital, she would treat colored folks who came to the back door. But she didn’t advertise that she did this and told me to keep quiet too. strange to think you could get hurt because you’d been helping someone.
mostly, though, i’d had little interaction with negroes. We lived in different parts of town and belonged to different churches. the supreme Court of the usa had famously decided, back in the fifties, that schools were supposed to be integrated, but here in Collier County they apparently hadn’t gotten the message. the white kids were still picked up by a shiny yellow school bus and taken to their well-kept schools—grammar, junior high, and a new high school north of town. the colored kids were picked up by a bus that predated World War two and looked like it had survived (more or less) hurricane donna. the so-called colored bus went in the opposite direction, to a single school—first through twelfth grades. i had never been there—i don’t think any white person ever had—but i heard the place was a shambles.
now, if my family had been rich, we would have had colored servants, but mama, being a widowed nurse with little money to spare, did her own cooking, cleaning, and ironing. same with everyone else in our part of town. We’d see negroes now and then, but they didn’t talk to you and you didn’t talk to them. i thought they were the unfriendliest people on earth. only when i was older did i realize they were avoiding us to stay alive.
as we sat around the little circle with miss lansbury as our leader, i tried not to stare at the colored girl. i wondered what she would do about the curfew (eight p.m. in the summer, six p.m. in the winter, when nightfall came earlier), which applied only to negroes. But she herself brought up the topic. “my name is Priscilla harmon and i would like to be part of this group.” she had taken off her maid’s cap and perched a pair of horn-rimmed glasses on her nose. she looked like an entirely different person. “i love to read,” she added. We all nodded and smiled. encouraged, she said, “i would like to go to college, maybe Bethune-Cookman.”
“oh, that’s marvelous!” Jackie said. “What would you
like to study?”
“Well, i would . . . i would like to be a teacher. maybe an english teacher.”
i tried to hide my astonishment. i wondered how realistic this was. i knew the answer—not very.
“my only problem,” Priscilla was saying, “is that if you all are kind enough to let me belong to the group, i will need a ride home—you know, on account of the curfew.” she ended with a sweet, hopeful smile that revealed the most beautiful teeth i ever saw.they were the same color as the starched white collar that framed her face.
“Well, of course we’ll take you home, dear,” Jackie said. “it’s not a—”
“You may have to take me home too,”robbie-lee interrupted.“i don’t stay out after dark either.”this was a stunning admission, and the closest robbie-lee had ever been (as far as i knew) to acknowledging his homosexuality.
“Well, someone may have to take me home too!” We all turned and looked at the petite mrs. Bailey White. she had a loud, authoritative voice when she needed to.
“oh, why is that, mrs. Bailey White?” miss lansbury asked. “are you not driving anymore?”
“i’m not allowed to have a driver’s license. that’s part of my parole deal.”
this was quite a conversation stopper, and the rest of
us fidgeted in our hard metal chairs until miss lansbury— thank the lord—took the lead again.
“Well, i am sure we can take care of these transportation issues,” she said, emphasizing the last two words. miss lansbury had a way of making every little thing sound important. maybe that’s something they teach at librarian school.
“may i speak for a moment?” Jackie asked, raising her hand like a schoolgirl. “i want to explain that what i have in mind is a salon.”
“You mean like a beauty parlor?” robbie-lee asked.
“no, dear, not that kind of salon,” Jackie said. “there was a time when a salon meant a gathering of people who discussed the issues of the day. they would meet in the parlor of someone’s huge, oversized house and discuss literature, art, politics.”
“i have a huge, oversized house,” said mrs. Bailey White. it wasn’t really an invitation but more like a statement of fact. still, even the suggestion of meeting at her place gave me the creepy-crawlies, since she had gone to prison for murdering her husband in that very house. i wasn’t sure if Jackie knew of mrs. Bailey White’s checkered past, but she must have picked up on the uneasiness that swept through the rest of us like a rogue wind off the gulf.
“Well, that’s very nice,” Jackie said politely. “Perhaps
someday you will be kind enough to have us over.”
“But does this mean we’re not going to read books?” asked robbie-lee, still a little confused.
“Yes, we will read books,” Jackie replied patiently. “We will be centered around books. But i am suggesting we choose books that make us think and expand our horizons. if we read a book about music, we might invite a musician to perform as part of our book discussion. the idea is to read books that stimulate our minds and challenge us to think about the issues of the day.”
We responded so enthusiastically that we sounded like an amen chorus.
“But if you’ll permit me to say so,” Jackie continued, “i am thinking we really must meet here, at the library, as a way of letting the community know that everyone is welcome. this is not a private club.”
these words were met with a second round of approval. i felt punch-drunk (not that i’ve ever actually been punch-drunk in my life, on account of a promise i made to mama). Private clubs, official and otherwise, were pretty typical in our little town. i looked from face to face around the circle. none of us was Junior league material; none of us had big money; mrs. Bailey White was an ex-con. if you were colored, homosexual, a divorced postal worker (me), or—god forbid—a sexy redhead with a Boston accent newly arrived in town, you were on your own. But Jackie was suggesting that we form our own group. and meeting at the library would give us cover.
a place to belong? here in naples? Just the possibility made me giddy as a jaybird. i began feeling something in my heart that i thought was long gone and buried. i’m not 100 percent sure, but it might have been hope. Want more? Buy the book here.