by Anam Chara
When a father and husband is left alone as a widower with two children, he can deal with his son well enough, but he knows nothing about raising a daughter—not even where to find those special things that little girls pray for…
Wednesday evening, February 13th…
I peeked in to say goodnight,
And then I heard my child in prayer:
“And for me some scarlet ribbons,
Scarlet ribbons for my hair…”
Steven lightly rapped his knuckles on the door to his son’s bedroom.
“Lionel, I need you a moment.”
The door opened.
“Son, I know it’s short notice, but I have to go back to the office for something. So watch the house and take care of anything your sister needs.”
“Sure thing, Dad!”
Steven paused at the door of his daughter’s bedroom and waited a moment before looking in.
“G’night, Emily,” whispered her father. “I love you!”
As his father closed the door to Emily’s room, Lionel noticed a sad look on his face. Indeed, his dad appeared to be holding tears back from his view. The son had become used to his dad avoiding eye contact with him by now. The boy’s features very strongly favored his mother—too much so, perhaps—while Emily took mostly after her father’s side of the family. Anyway, Lionel knew that his own striking resemblance to Mom had to have been painful for Dad all these months.
“Dad, are you okay?” asked the son.
He simply shook his head, still avoiding eye contact.
“No, I’m not doing too well just now,” he admitted. “It’s really hard without your mom sometimes.”
“I know. It’s hard for me and Emily, too. We all miss her.”
Tomorrow would be St. Valentine’s Day, the first since…
“Son, I’d better go now,” said Steven. “You know what to do while I’m out. I trust you to keep your little sister, yourself, and our house safe—in that order!”
Lionel tried to ask him about something, because he had also overheard Emily’s prayer, but his dad was out the door too quickly. So the boy retreated to his own room, keeping vigil until his father returned home.
Wednesday evening, approaching midnight, February 13th…
All the stores were closed and shuttered,
All the streets were dark and bare…
In our town, no scarlet ribbons,
Not one ribbon for her hair…
If he’d been thinking clearly, then Steven would have gone shopping before returning to his office. Instead, he went back to his office first and now the shops had all closed for the evening, save for the town’s twenty-four hour pharmacy and a nearby convenience store. So, he gave his search up in exasperation and decided to begin heading homewards, stopping at the church on his way.
Steven parked his car in front of Trinity Lutheran Church and pulled out his handkerchief, vainly seeking to clear the tears from his eyes and face. He pushed the car door open and shivered a moment as the cold, wintry air of yet another lonely North Dakota night rushed in, daring him to continue the task that he’d set for himself. But he simply tucked the scarf more securely around the collar of his winter coat. With that, he stepped out of the car, shut the door and walked along a groomed path around behind the church where he stopped at the newest grave in the snowy, old churchyard.
“What do I do, honey? Emily just wanted hair ribbons for tomorrow. But I don’t know the first thing about raising a daughter,” he said looking down at his wife’s grave marker. “I just wish you could have held on longer for her sake. And I can’t help but cry when I look at our son. Lionel looks so much like you, Marie—his hair, his eyes, his face! Every time I see him is both a joy and a sorrow—too much to bear sometimes.”
He dropped to his knees and then fell forward kissing the cold layer of snow on his wife’s grave. A moment later, Steven straightened up and exhaled, his breath condensing in the cold night air. His memories went back to a hospital room the previous summer…
“Steven, listen to me,” Marie had addressed her husband, gathering what strength she could. “You’re going to need help with raising our children, especially with Emily. She’s a girl. I’ve seen how insecure you can be with her at times.”
“I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I grew up with just brothers. I’ve never known anything about girls growing up.”
She smiled at her husband. “Don’t be so afraid of making mistakes with Emily. You’re still her daddy. She loves you.”
“I just wish I knew more about raising a girl,” said Steven.
“I’ve taught our Nell as much as I can about taking care of you and Emily—”
“Uh-huh,” replied his wife, weak and about to lose consciousness. “When she’s ready, our Nell—”
“Who’s Nell?” he asked again, believing that she might be slipping into delirium.
“She will come when ready—our Nell—to keep our home—taught him—taught her—let him be her—how to take care of you and Emily—he and she both—my love—”
Steven noticed that his wife’s face had suddenly lost even more color. Marie was not so strong as she had been. Worried that her decline was becoming more rapid, he pressed the call button she held in her hand.
Marie just smiled at him and gripped his hand with what little strength she had remaining. Steven bent over and kissed her as delicately as he had their first time.
Steven stood up suddenly from Marie’s grave as the bells in the church tower tolled midnight. He was very cold and pulled his coat tighter and scampered quickly back to his car. Yanking his glove off his right hand, he thrust it immediately into his pocket for his keys. Yet his fingers seemed numb in the few seconds it took to get the key into the lock and open the door.
So he drove home silently, recalling how just a year ago, he and Lionel had conspired to smuggle a bouquet of roses, a heart-shaped box of chocolates, and a beautiful new red dress and matching shoes into the house. Uncertain how to buy a dress and shoes for Marie, he had been so proud of his son, who bravely agreed to model the daring frock and the stylish stiletto pumps at the boutique. The boy had the same size and build as his mother and dutifully offered no resistance to putting on the dress and shoes to help his dad shop for the special gifts. The sales clerk was shocked that Lionel volunteered to try the dress on and she seemed genuinely worried that he might twist an ankle in the four-inch (10 cm) heels.
Yes, afterwards Steven had teased his son about it some, but Lionel had borne it all stoically, betraying hardly any embarrassment at all. That day he understood how willing his son could be to put others’ needs and happiness ahead of his own. Steven was surprised that his son wearing a pretty dress and high heels had proven an occasion of fatherly pride, and before that evening was over the light teasing pro forma had given way to honest praise for his son’s brave and manly assistance.
Yet now, the distraught father again berated himself, as he couldn’t even find a simple hair ribbon for his little girl. Had he become so helpless? How could he continue to raise his children? And it was too soon to start looking for a new wife for himself, a step-mother for them.
Nonetheless, he would take Emily and Lionel to dinner tomorrow night. As wounded as he was, he had promised his remaining family an evening together. He would keep that promise no matter what!
Thursday morning, wee hours, February 14th, St. Valentine’s Day…
Through the night my heart was aching,
Just before the dawn was breaking,…
She smiled at the cute little red and white dress with the Valentine motif and the dainty white camisole and rhumba panties trimmed in red that she had selected for her sister. But laying out Emily’s clothes had been easy compared to the next step.
Nell gently leaned over her little sister’s bed, hoping that she could tie a ribbon on Emily’s sleep braid without waking her. Mom had done so all the time. But Nell had tried to copy not so much her actions as the warmth and gentleness that their mother always radiated. Still, Nell hadn’t yet learned that little girls could dance ever so easily between the waking and dreaming worlds.
“Is that you, Mommy?” sleepy little Emily asked. “Are you an angel now?”
Nell smiled at her sister and gently placed the tip of her index finger over Emily’s lips and then her own.
“Shh!” Nell shushed the little girl. Quietly she whispered, “I’m just Nell. Mommy sent you these lovely scarlet hair ribbons. And Daddy told me to help with anything you need.”
“Ohh!” Emily assented to the teenaged girl resembling both her brother and mother.
“I tied a pretty scarlet ribbon on your braid, Emily,” said Nell. “And I’m leaving more ribbons on your bed, too.”
“Would you thank Mommy for me?”
“Mm-hmm,” hummed Nell. “I will.”
“Does Mommy know I miss her?”
“Yes, she does.”
“Does she know I love her?”
“She always has.”
“You look like Mommy,” said Emily, smiling at Nell.
“I know,” the teenager answered. “That’s because she was my Mommy, too.”
“Ohh!” the sleepy little girl yawned.
Nell bent over her sister and kissed her on the forehead.
“Goodnight, Emily,” she said tucking the blanket around the girl as her mother had taught her. “I love you, my little sister.”
Thursday morning, just before sunrise, February 14th, St. Valentine’s Day…
I peeked in and on her bed,
In gay profusion lying there,
Lovely ribbons, scarlet ribbons,
Scarlet ribbons for her hair…
Steven couldn’t quite believe the sight before him, so he silently tiptoed to his daughter’s bed, just to make sure of it. As he picked up one of the scarlet ribbons, a chill surged through him, colder than the frigid winter air outside. These ribbons were not hallucinations but very real.
“Is that you, Daddy?” his daughter asked, her bright blue eyes looking up at him.
“Where did you get all these lovely ribbons, Emily?” Steven asked her, hiding his anxiety towards the apparent miracle.
“An angel brought them,” Emily related credulously. “She looks like Mommy. Her name is Nell.”
“Her name is Nell?”
“Uh-huh! And she looks like Mommy. And she looks like Lion, too,” Emily said, using her big brother’s pet name. Until recently she couldn’t quite say his given name correctly. Of course, it became easier when she figured out that he really had two names said together. He was Lion as a boy, but Nell as a girl. Daddy always called him by both names, Lion-Nell. Mommy did too, except when Lion wore girl clothes. Then Mommy just called him Nell. Sometimes grown-ups could be so strange…
Steven wondered for a moment. Nell? Was it that Nell? Had someone else been in the house? But the ribbons were not there when he had looked in on Emily earlier. No she meant ’Nel! Steven silently berated himself for getting it wrong. His daughter had always had trouble with her brother’s name. Sometimes she’d say Lion’, while at other times, ’Nel, because until recently, she couldn’t quite say Lionel. Steven relaxed now that he’d figured it out. He had been looking for Marie’s Nell instead of Emily’s ’Nel.
His precious little girl was nodding off again. But she needed her rest. Steven had no idea how busy Emily’s night had been so far. After all an angel’s visit was very serious business to a four year-old child.
Thursday afternoon, just before sundown, February 14th, St. Valentine’s Day…
If I live to be a hundred,
I will never know from where,
Came those lovely scarlet ribbons,
Scarlet ribbons, for her hair!
Lionel dropped his backpack on the floor and then stretched out on his bed. He held in his mind’s eye the look of wonder on the faces of both Emily and Dad when she ran out of her bedroom, squealing in delight and clutching handfuls of the scarlet ribbons found all over her bed when she awoke this morning.
Perhaps girling himself up in the middle of the night had not been the wisest course of action—Dad might have caught him dressed as Nell before she were ready—but since his little sister awoke while he was giving her the ribbons, doing it as Nell had been the right call.
Since Dad would be taking him and Emily out for dinner that evening, Lionel needed to be ready when they came. Dad would pick her up from daycare on his way home. He just hoped that his little sister had not done too much damage to her pretty red dress.
Going to his closet, Lionel started to reach for his white dress shirt, but stopped. Behind a pair of locked garment bags that held his—or Nell’s—secret, he noticed the shiny glimmer of red satin. Mom’s dress! He’d modeled it for Dad when they’d gone shopping for a St. Valentine’s Day gift for Mom only a year ago. His father had thought him embarrassed, and therefore brave, to wear it. But Dad had been grateful that he was willing to try the dress on, so that they could get an idea of how Mom would look in it. But he didn’t think that Dad had ever guessed that modeling the dress was like a moment of heaven for him.
When his mom first caught Lionel wearing some of her clothes, she had been upset, but quickly she understood that her son was simply curious. Then he began to take a deeper interest and an enjoyment in crossdressing. For some reason, she thought to encourage Lionel’s more feminine interests.
So for more than two years, Lionel and his mother had spent quality time—mother-daughter time, with him as Nell. Mom had taught him how to dress, to walk and to talk as a girl, and how to think as a girl.
Dressing up and playing around the house as a girl had been fun for Lionel, and Mom had taken him and Emily shopping to nearby malls a few times while Dad was away on business trips. But she had also taught him that, as much fun as being a girl was for him, that a day might come when he, as Nell, would need to embrace the responsibilities that came with girlhood, like being a big sister to Emily and keeping house for Dad. Then as he thought about his time with Mom, the truth hit him hard—very hard. She had to have already known that she were ill and that she might not make it and that, as dutiful as her son was, Nell could help take care of Emily more easily than Lionel—and Dad as well. Mom had been training him to take over as a homemaker.
Lionel took the beautiful red dress out of the closet and lovingly laid it out on his bed. It had looked lovely on his Mom and almost as nice on himself—on Nell. He felt trepidation as he resolved to go forward with the next step, as if he were a new superhero donning his costume and cape for the first time.
So, Lionel first put on Nell’s training bra, panties, and pantyhose before stepping into the shimmering dress of red satin. In his closet, behind his own shoes, were the pair of red, ankle-strapped, four-inch stiletto-heeled pumps that Mom had worn with the same dress a year ago. He had also tried them on with the dress that he and Dad had bought Mom for St. Valentine’s Day.
Having buckled the straps around his ankles, Lionel, not quite yet Nell, carefully stood up and turned to face the mirror, teetering atop the four-inch heels. He cried beholding the beautiful thirteen year-old girl looking back at him. Even though he hadn’t yet styled his hair or made his face up, he was still his mother’s daughter.
“So! I’m a boy in a dress!” Lionel affirmed, addressing his own feminine image in the mirror and giggling as he carefully struck a series of poses, although still a little insecure in the stilettos. “Well, then I’m the prettiest janegirl in North Dakota!”
He wondered, how many of the girls that he knew at school could wear four-inch heels? How many would go out with him if they knew he liked dressing up en femme? He hoped to find a girlfriend who’d be cool with it. Then they could even borrow each others’ clothes and go shopping together.
Next, Lionel went to his parents’ bedroom and sat down at the vanity that had been his mother’s. Dad had continued to preserve it, almost as a shrine—not the best use for such an important tool! Maybe Nell could convince him to move it into Lionel’s room? Besides, Dad had not even thought to look in its drawers and hidden compartments for the pretty scarlet ribbons. Mom had kept various colors of hair ribbons there in small plastic boxes.
He brushed out his hair and began to weave it into a French braid, securing it with pretty hair ribbons—scarlet, of course—at the crown and tail. As Mom had taught him how to French braid his own hair, wearing it thus was sort of a legacy to him—or to Nell. It was Lionel’s favorite feminine hairstyle, and he took great pleasure in plaiting his hair. He hoped that when he found a girlfriend, she’d let him braid hers, too.
Now all that remained for Lionel’s transformation was to apply some minimum of cosmetics to his face. Not too much—as Mom always said, less is more! He finished with a strawberry lipgloss for that shiny, wet look. Then he spritzed a little of Mom’s favorite perfume about himself. He smiled at Nell looking back from the mirror and did a little finger wave to her.
Nell got up from Mom’s vanity and went back to Lionel’s room, more dancing than stepping down the hallway, even in the high heels. Mom had given her a set of jewelry, a chain with a heart pendant and a matching pair of post-type earrings. She kept them in their box at the back of the top drawer of Lionel’s dresser. She retrieved them and put them on, adjusting everything in the closet mirror. She smiled giddily at her image. After tonight, Nell was sure that Dad would let Lionel get his ears pierced, so that she could start wearing some of Mom’s earrings.
Nell laid out clean clothes for Emily, just in case what she had worn to daycare earlier didn’t quite hold out. For the next hour or so, she walked around the house, practicing in the stiletto heels, and had time to finish Lionel’s homework due the next day. Then after a while she heard the key turn the bolt in the door.
The door opened and a little girl in a bright red winter coat ran straight towards Nell. So she knelt down and her little sister came into her arms.
“Nell!” Emily squealed as they hugged. “You’re wearing scarlet ribbons, too!”
“Of course,” affirmed Nell, kissing her sister on the cheek. Glancing at the door, Nell saw their father’s face turn an ashen white. She stood to greet him, holding Emily by the hand.
“Good evening, Daddy!” said Nell. “Remember me? You’ve seen me wearing this before.”
Mouth agape, Steven dropped his briefcase to the floor. He recalled how his son had modeled the same dress and shoes for him a year ago. Since Marie had passed away, even looking his son in the eye had been painful for him as a father.
“Lionel? Is that you?”
“Tonight, you should just call me Nell.”
“Mommy sent her!” Emily beamed, holding tightly to her new sister. “She’s an angel!”
“You look just like your mother did in junior high school,” their father said to Lionel.
“Thank you, Daddy.”
“But why are you wearing—?”
“A dress?” Nell smiled as she stepped up to her father and hugged him. “Because it’s Saint Valentine’s Day and you’re taking us out to dinner.”
“Well, suppose someone sees you?”
“You’re absolutely right, Daddy! It would look so stupid for a teenaged boy like Lionel to be seem out with his dad and little sister on Saint Valentine’s Day,” Nell argued. “But for a father to be seen taking his two pretty daughters to dinner on the same occasion can only bring him happiness and smiles from onlookers.”
Steven grinned and chuckled to himself as he knew that his son had certainly thought this through. “I mean, suppose someone we know sees you dressed like a girl?”
“Daddy, I'm not ashamed to be seen like this. Mom taught me how to be a girl and I’m proud of it.”
“Lionel—Nell, let’s sit down for a moment and talk.”
“Okay,” she answered him as she knelt to talk to her little sister. She unbuttoned the girl’s coat and helped her take it off. “It’s getting colder, Emily. I laid out a pair of tights in your room. You might want to go put them on before we go out to dinner. You can change your dress, too, if you want. Just yell if you need help.”
Emily ran off to her room after Nell kissed her cheek. Then Nell and her father sat down on the sofa. He noticed that his son smoothed the back of his dress as he sat down and, demurely crossing one leg over his other knee, stretching the skirt of the dress out modestly.
“Lionel, you’re a boy!”
“I know, but that’s the fun of it! And I like dressing up as a girl.”
“So, going out as a girl is important to you, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Daddy. It is.”
“Because you and Emily need me like this,” replied the teenaged girl to her father. “Mom taught me how to be a big sister to Emily and an older daughter to you—and a homemaker. She knew you’d need help raising us, especially Emily. After all, you had only brothers growing up. You don’t know the first thing about being a girl.”
“And you do?”
“Well—as for many of the basics, yes!” Nell continued to outline her case. “Mom spent more than two years teaching me how to dress, walk and talk, think and feel like a girl, how to get my little sister ready for her day, and how to cook breakfast for us in the morning, dinner in the evening, and to pack our lunches for you to take Emily to daycare and to go to work.”
“Lionel does all that, anyway.”
“Yes, his hands do it, but my—Nell’s heart and mind guide him.”
Steven paused a moment. He couldn’t quite think how to refute his son’s—his daughter’s logic, but he wasn’t so certain if he should. Apparently, Lionel (or Nell) and Marie had thought this through a while ago. And it seemed to have been constructed for the family’s benefit.
“Son, do you have to dress like a girl to help out your sister and me?”
Nell—or Lionel—looked at her dad a moment.
“I don’t know, Daddy,” she replied. “I think so, but I’m not sure. But right here, right now, even if it’s just for tonight, I need to be the girl in front of you. Is that alright?”
“I’m okay with it for tonight,” he said, flashing a quick smile at his son. “You do make a really pretty girl.”
“Thank you,” she said. “It means a lot to me that you think so.”
“Your mom had hinted to me that someone named ‘Nell’ would show up when she was ready to help us out. I’m guessing that you’re that Nell?”
“I guess so,” admitted Lionel, “but I don’t know what all Mom told you about me dressing up.”
“That was about all,” Steve told him. “At the time I thought she was getting delirious. I never had a chance to ask her more about it.”
“She would take me and Emily shopping sometimes,” Lionel recounted. “Then she would buy me dresses, skirts, blouses, and shoes of my own, even some lingerie. She taught me how to dress like a girl, style my hair, and put makeup on.”
Lionel’s father smiled. “You learned your lessons well. But is there more to why you want to dress like a girl?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you know what transgendered means?”
“I read about it on the Internet with Mom.”
“Are you transgendered?”
“I—I don’t know,” the teenager said. “I don’t—I don’t think so. But I love dressing up like a girl.”
“Did Mom think so—that you’re transgendered?”
“She never told me for sure,” said the teenager. “Mom said it didn’t matter to her and she loved me the same if I were a boy or a girl or a boy dressed like a girl. But she thought I made a pretty girl and should dress up as long as I want or need to.”
Steven was certain that Marie would have encouraged him that way, by keeping it open-ended, and never closing a door unless absolutely necessary. She wanted their son to explore life and learn it on his own terms whenever possible. And then, he recalled a single phrase that Marie had said when he thought she was delirious: “let him be her”!
Strangely, now Steven even felt somewhat proud of his son’s crossdressing. He was quite good at it and looked so pretty and feminine, almost as if he should be a daughter. Then a wistful feeling surged through Steven as he regretted not ever having seen Marie together with Nell. He was sad to have missed it as his wife and son had an unusual relationship of which he’d been unaware. The mother’s image would always shine through their son (or daughter?), yet in his mind’s eye he could only wish for what might have been.
“Well, you can’t go to school in skirts or dresses,” said Steven, quietly resolving to look up the case law about it. “Not for now anyway. But at home, feel free to be whoever you need to be.”
“Then you’re saying I can dress as a girl at home as much as I want?” Nell asked him to clarify.
“Yes,” her father answered nodding slowly. “As for going out elsewhere, we’ll play it by ear.”
“So you’re okay with me like this?”
“No. Not exactly, but I think it would be wrong to make you stop,” the father said. “Besides, I don’t want you to hide Nell from us. I saw the look on Emily’s face. It’s not just about you or me. It’s about us all as a family. I don’t think I’ve ever seen your sister quite so happy to see you as Lionel as she just was for Nell.”
The look of pure joy on Emily’s face, the twinkle in her eye when Nell greeted her, was the first moment of simple happiness that Steven could recall since Marie had died. To forbid Lionel to appear as Nell might lose not just one, but maybe two daughters.
Then Steven looked into Nell’s eyes. He saw the twinkle that had been always been present in Marie’s eyes that she had shared with her son and daughter. But Nell now displayed that same twinkle, otherwise absent since Lionel’s mother had passed away.
Nell looked at her father as if she knew what was transpiring within his mind.
“I miss her, Daddy.”
“I know, honey. I do, too.”
Somewhat awkwardly, Steven hugged his son, or maybe daughter—he still was unsure which—to help shoulder some of the grief that he knew his progeny still felt, and then kissed Nell on the forehead.
Bolting upright from the couch, Steven sniffled, held back his tears and went to the vestibule closet.
“We have dinner reservations and now I have two daughters to show off. So let’s get going. I need to make a few other fathers jealous tonight!”
Nell giggled at her daddy’s remark. Then she saw him bring her mother’s favorite snow-white winter coat, beautifully lined in faux fur, out from the vestibule. He held the coat open, offering it to her, just as Lionel had watched him offer it to his mom so many times before. The wave of feeling that she felt just then was different from anything that she had yet known as Nell or Lionel. But approaching her daddy, she saw a look in his eyes confirming her acceptance. Even if he wasn’t happy about Lionel becoming Nell, his dad wanted happiness for whomever prevailed between them.
As her daddy helped her to put the coat on, Nell called out to her little sister, “Emily, are you ready yet?”
The little girl came running into the parlor. “Nell, lookie! I did it myself!”
Nell noted that Emily had buckled her shiny red patent leather maryjanes on quite correctly. However, the tights were twisted a little, so she knelt down and help her sister adjust them.
“Daddy, just so you’ll know Lionel’s okay, dressing up like a girl ranks somewhere between baseball and ice hockey for me.”
Hearing that Steven felt reassured and maybe even a little more relieved as he escorted his girls out into the cold evening air.
He smiled, for the first time in months, as a tear streamed down his face. And then looking up into the sky, he apologized to Marie:
“Please forgive me for thinking that I knew how to raise a son!”
Scarlet Ribbons, music by Evelyn Danzig & lyrics by Jack Segal.
Recording by Harry Belafonte
© 2013, 2017 by Anam Chara
Originally posted on BCTS on Wednesday 02-27-2013 at 03:03:45 am (-0500)
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