WHO WERE YOU, PART III
You Were: The Poacher
There once was a time when the forests, meadows, and hills of Europe belonged to a small group of powerful men. The peasants may have plowed the fields, but they didn’t own the land, and most of the crops they grew were handed over as rent. The soil was fertile, but the poor often went hungry. And while the forests teemed with game, only the lords were allowed to hunt. If anyone else was caught with a hare or a deer, the punishment could be brutal.
You grew up in a small village where food should have been plentiful, but people were starving. By the time you were twelve, your father and brothers had all been convicted of poaching. While they languished in prison, you and your mother were left on your own. The Middle Ages wasn’t the best time for two women to live without male protection. But few dared mess with you or your mother. Those who did were found a few days later with arrows riddling their corpses. It was said that you and your mother had a secret guardian. Your neighbors wondered if it might be the same mysterious benefactor who seemed dedicated to making their own lives just a little bit better.
You weren’t at all modest about your prowess with a bow, and you desperately wanted to set them all straight. But you knew your archery skills must remain a secret. Otherwise, the lord of the land might notice that the peasants had started to look a little too healthy. And the bandits who’d once prowled the roads might figure out who it was that had chased them away. And your mother would know just how much danger you were courting every time you went for a “walk” in the woods.
So you kept your mouth shut. When you felt the need to brag, you’d dress as a man and enter an archery contest. But you always disappeared before it was time to claim the top prize. By the age of twenty, you were already a legend in your own time. Too bad no one ever realized that the original Robin was a girl.
You Were: The Eminence Grise
In 1922, you graduated from high school and took a job with the local paper in Sudbury, Ontario. Your hero was American journalist Nellie Bly, and you wanted to follow in her footsteps as an investigative reporter. On your first day in the office, you were informed that you’d be the paper’s new advice columnist.
You weren’t pleased, but you decided to take the job seriously. Some advice columnists try to be funny or folksy. And most never say what they really think. But whenever people wrote to you for love advice or professional guidance, you gave it to them straight. You never hesitated to tell them to quit their jobs, leave their spouses, empty their savings accounts, or flee the country.
At first people found your style a little too . . . honest. Then they started taking your advice. Soon, Sudbury was the happiest, most productive town in Canada. That’s when the government of the United States took notice. (Yes, Canadians. We’ve always been watching you.)
Warren G. Harding was a terrible President—quite possibly one of the worst. But at least he knew it (which is more than you can say for some that we’ve had). Before he went into politics, he’d been a successful newspaperman, and even as President he kept his eyes on the papers. That’s how he found you. A week later, on the last day of July in 1923, you were sitting across from him in the Oval Office.
Harding told you all about the scandals and corruption that plagued his presidency. And one by one, you offered solutions to his problems (not all of them professional—Harding was known as a ladies’ man). If he’d followed your advice, Harding might have gone down in history as a much better leader. Unfortunately, he kicked the bucket three days later.
Of course that wasn’t the end of your career in politics. You were an advisor to every President from Harding to Kennedy. (Though some leaders paid more attention than others.) FDR was referring to you when he said, “I'm not the smartest fellow in the world, but I can sure pick smart colleagues.”
Though you married a movie star (long story), you lived your own life in the shadows, and your contribution to the world has gone unrecognized. But if you look closely at photos taken of US Presidents at historical moments, you’ll find the same attractive blond lurking somewhere in the background.
You Were: The Architect
It may come as a great relief to many of us to learn that even ordinary lives can always take a turn for the bizarre. Even if you live on a farm in the middle of nowhere. Even if you're eighty-six years old.
Until you were eighty-six, you led a wonderful life. You and your beloved husband of sixty-three years owned a farm. You had four children and sixteen grandchildren who all adored you. You baked award-winning apple pies and once grew the largest watermelon ever seen in New Hampshire.
Then, one afternoon, your life got unexpectedly interesting. You were weeding the strawberry patch when you happened to see a bright orb hovering above an old oak tree in your front yard. Some might have called it a UFO. Others might have considered it a message from God. Skeptics would have told you it was nothing more than an optical illusion.
Whatever it was, it seemed to say, "Start here." Not in so many words, of course. It was just a feeling--an inspiration you couldn't have described. You went straight to the barn and began to haul out every old piece wood you could find. Then you ransacked the shed for nails and tools. Around four o'clock in the afternoon, you started to build.
You had never made anything larger than a bird house (a bird house that had fallen apart two weeks after you'd built it). But now there seemed to be a blueprint stamped onto your brain, and your hands worked in ways you'd never imagined they could. Slowly a simple tree house, cradled in the branches of the old oak tree, began to take shape. Your husband and family marveled at your work. Neighborhood children would sneak over after dark to sit among the leaves.
Then, as the days passed, the structure became larger and more ornate. It sprouted fairy tale turrets and gingerbread balconies. Walkways led to houses that now grew on other front yard trees. New stories were added to the first house. A bathroom was installed, complete with a claw foot tub.
Soon news cameras showed up on the scene. Some of the reporters were struck dumb with amazement. A few seemed intent on portraying you as a batty old lady. The neighbors all swore you'd lost your mind. But you didn't care what any of them thought. You'd always been headstrong. And your neighbors had always been jerks.
Then one day you stopped. The tree house was complete. There were five separate structures, each filled with modern amenities. (Countless companies had offered free appliances or furniture.) Walkways or rope ladders joined them all into a single village that sat a full fifteen feet above the ground.
For six months, your tree village was just a tourist attraction. Car loads of travelers would pull up in your driveway to gawk at you and your remarkable construction. If they kept their kids out of your flower patch and asked permission before they took pictures, you'd usually offer them lemonade.
When your eighty-seventh birthday rolled around, your entire family threw a party in your magical tree house. Just as you blew out the candles, a roar could be heard in the distance. The walls of the nearby dam had cracked, and water was rushing through the valley. You watched the family farm disappear under fifteen feet of water. The town a half a mile away, where all of your children lived, was destroyed within minutes.
When rescue helicopters flew over, it looked like your whole family was drifting along inside an enormous, well-equipped boat. You stayed long after the water was gone--until the old farm had been rebuilt.
You Were: A Bearded Lady
(Who Were You? #5)
You've had a BIG personality in all of your lives. In fact, it's been far too big for most towns, including the small Canadian fishing village where you spent the first eighteen years of the life we'll be visiting today.
It was 1850s. Life in your tiny village (so small it had no name as far as I can discern) was brutal, smelly, and unbelievably dull. As a young woman, you faced a life of drudgery that included scrubbing chamberpots, gutting fish, frying fish, and snuggling up to men who only bathed in the sea (once a year at most). You knew you were bound for bigger things. Things that didn't include fish.
So when a traveling "freak show" passed through town, you hopped on the wagon and never looked back. There wasn't anything freakish about you. (Aside from that one little thing you always kept out of sight.) But the show was a very small operation, and the other performers weren't terribly freakish either. There was a man with extra large ears, a woman with six toes on each foot, and a boy with eyes that were two different colors.
What the show really needed was a bearded lady. (They were all the rage back then, but the six-toed woman didn't think the look suited her.) Everyone chipped in with a few trimmings and an artificial beard was assembled.
In each town the show visited, you'd take a short stroll down Main Street and return with an eager crowd behind you. Often, the townsfolk were disappointed to find that your fellow travelers weren't as strange as you'd led them to believe. So you were forced to get the masses laughing before they had a chance to haul out the torches and pitchforks. (Canadians may not have guns, but they always have torches and pitchforks. JK, Canadians.)
The beard let you get away with telling jokes that most women couldn't have uttered without being shunned by polite society. Your fame grew every day, and by the time you hit Toronto, all of Canada was talking about the ribald bearded lady who could make men blush and ladies faint.
While in Toronto, you were discovered by a man who was known as Canada's PT Barnum. He owned a theater devoted to all things strange and curious, and you became his star attraction. Soon the two of you fell madly in love and decided to be married. However, the relationship came to a tragic end when your fiance discovered your beard wasn't real and abruptly called off the wedding.
They say your broken heart made you even funnier. It certainly made your jokes dirtier. But your heart didn't stay broken for long. The man with extra-large ears had been secretly devoted to you for years, and decided the time had come to declare his love. The two of you took your profits and hit the road for Mexico, where bearded ladies were still considered shocking and new. By the time you died in 1900, you were considered a Mexican national treasure.
You Were: The Mail Lady
For the later half of the 18th century, you were the mail lady on a tiny island in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago at the very tip of South America.
One hundred and fifty years earlier, three families had arrived on this desolate isle from points unknown. They had skin the color of old bronze and eyes the pale blue of icebergs. Europeans and Native South Americans both claimed the inhabitants of your island as their own. Your true origins were far more complex than most visitors could ever have realized.
The island your foremothers settled was the last port before the dreaded Cape Horn where williwaw winds drove ships into rocks and sunken ice mountains speared the bellies of boats. Sailors would drop anchor off your shores and wait for the courage to round the horn. They all knew there was an excellent chance they would never make it to the other side of the continent.
While they waited, those who were able spent their time writing letters. Or drinking. Or both. (The 18th century equivalent of drunk dialing.) They wrote to their sweethearts, their mothers, their friends. They ended old arguments, confessed their true love, or promised small legacies to illegitimate children. When the sailors were done with their letters, they gave them all to you.
The title of island mail lady was always passed from mother to daughter, and at the age of 24, you inherited the job when your beloved mother was swept away by a wave. The duties were dangerous, and women were only allowed to start delivering the mail once they had given birth to a daughter of their own.
On your thirteenth birthday, your mother had taught you how to identify the sailors destined to perish at the bottom of the sea. The day after your mother's death, you chose your first husband from among the doomed sailors. You were 25 when your first daughter (and heir) was born, and you began delivering the mail three weeks later.
Trained in survival and all-weather hiking, you set out alone with your bag full of mail, following secret trails carved by your grandmothers. You crossed ice sheets, tundra, and rocky beaches packed with amorous sea lions. You stopped only to sleep and to pay tribute to the three of your ancestors whose perfectly preserved bodies remained frozen along the trail. Finally, a week later, you reached the other side of the continent and a tiny town run by another branch of your family.
Here, the ships would stop once more after they had made the trip around Cape Horn. There were far fewer of them, and the sailors on deck stared at the waves with haunted eyes. Those who had made the trip for the first time wore new golden hoop earrings in their left ears. You gave the mail to the survivors. They considered it a sacred duty to see that the letters were delivered.
You served as mail lady for forty years. Your only vacations coincided with the births of your fifteen children. Though their fathers were all from different lands, each of your sons and daughters had the bronze skin and blue eyes of your island's people.
You Were: The Libertine
After several lifetimes of poverty and misery, you were born to an aristocratic family in Ireland. On your twenty-first birthday, you inherited an impressive title and a mind-blowing fortune. That very evening, surrounded by friends, gold-diggers, and miscreants of every conceivable variety, you raised a glass and shouted, “Let the debauchery begin!” And so it did.
Over the next nine years, you engaged in every vice known to eighteenth century aristocrats. The details might be too disturbing for some of our readers, so let’s just say you had a very good time. Such a good time, in fact, that your fortune ran out before you hit thirty.
The years that followed were dark and lonely. Your “friends” deserted you. You were forced to wear unfashionable attire. You struggled with a terrible snuff addiction that you could no longer afford. Your ancestral home, once filled with servants and toadies, was now empty but for you and a hundred feral cats.
The very worst part? You knew you deserved the misfortune that had befallen you.
We all have lessons we need to learn. Most of us require several visits to earth before we manage to learn them. You, however, needed less than half a lifetime.
One day you woke up with a smile on your face and a million ideas bouncing around in your head. You opened your estate’s orchards to the hungry people who lived in the countryside. You let them plant vegetables in the rich soil of your gardens. You invited an old woman whose house had burned to move into your mother’s old chambers. And you began to take care of the cats that had long kept you company.
Perhaps the cats decided to repay your kindness. One afternoon, you were sitting in your father’s old study when a tabby climbed on your lap. Before you could pet her, she jumped up onto the fireplace mantle, knocking a hideous vase to the floor. (A vase so hideous that it was one of the few possessions you'd never been able to sell.)
What you discovered among the porcelain shards could have financed decades of debauchery. But there was no going back. You had already learned your lesson.
You Were: The Flapper
You grew up in New York City. (It's about time I came across someone from my own neck of the woods!) Your father was a decadent playboy. Your mother was a famous suffragette who had devoted her life to winning women the right to vote. Neither of your parents paid much attention to you. That was just the way you liked it.
From the time you could walk, everyone whispered you’d be wild. And for once, "everyone" was right. You didn’t give a hoot for convention. You had no interest in impersonating a polite little lady. You refused to sit with your legs crossed at the ankles, and you rarely went to school. (It’s not that you had no interest in education. You were just too smart to stomach your prissy schoolmates.)
Instead, you spent most of your childhood hanging out with your parents’ servants. All native New Yorkers, they knew the city better than anyone, and they showed you a world most rich girls never saw. You haggled over oysters at the city’s reeking fish markets. You stuffed your face with dumplings in the hidden restaurants of Chinatown. You knew the location of ever speakeasy this side of the Hudson River, and you weren’t afraid to pick up a few bottles of hooch for your mother’s maid. (Lord knows the poor dear needed it.) And you made a point of learning every dance nice girls didn’t do.
As you might imagine, the older you grew the more scandal swirled around you. But while the grand ladies of Fifth Avenue loved to tsk-tsk at your antics, there was one thing no one could deny. You had serious style.
The cumbersome clothes of the day didn’t exactly fit your needs. And you didn’t have time to spend hours fixing your hair each morning. So you had all your skirts lopped off above the knee and your hair cropped into a sleek little bob. When you didn’t wear skirts, you shocked everyone by donning pants instead. But you always gussied them up with four or five strands of your mother’s best pearls.
Your life was wonderful—and then women won the right to vote. For a few years after that, your mother stayed busy giving speeches to women’s groups around the country. When she felt she’d finally done her part to improve the world, she decided to focus her attention on you. As an ardent supporter of prohibition, she didn’t like what she saw.
You were nineteen, and you hadn’t come home before dawn in years. You devoted every night to drinking, dancing and all-around decadence. Or so everyone thought. You were reported to be the most frivolous girl in New York. The original flapper. But your parents’ servants (your faithful friends) knew the truth. The only secret, illegal nightclubs you frequented were the ones you owned. New York City’s most successful nightlife tycoon was a nineteen-year-old girl.
So when your mother started causing trouble, you took your fortune and hit the road. You camped out at the house of a young French designer who had long considered you her muse. You drove across Europe on a motorcycle with a famous novelist crammed into your sidecar. You posed for countless brilliant but moody painters and even married the best looking of the bunch. Six weeks later you grew tired of him and tossed his portrait of you into the Seine. He painted you from memory for the rest of his life. It seemed that everywhere you went, you inspired everyone you met. But it was your devil-may-care spirit that would prove to be your downfall. As World War II threatened Europe, your American friends begged you to return. You stubbornly refused. As always, you wanted to be in the center of the action.
After the war, at least a dozen people contacted The Finder (below) and begged her to search for their missing friend, or muse, or love of their life. She looked for years, but you were one of the few things she was never able to find.
You Were: The Chef
In your last life, all you ever wanted to be was a world-class chef. You scoured cooking books each night and baked, roasted, and sautéed all day. In the summertime, the heat of the oven made your kitchen so infernally hot that you were forced to strip down to your brassiere and slip, much to the amusement of your husband and children (not to mention the neighbors, the mailman, and various traveling salesmen). And yet . . . every dish you made was terrible. No, not terrible. Disgusting and foul would be a more apt description. Your family would take two or three bites before they rushed from the dinner table gagging and retching. Your children tried to put on a brave face, but they were growing a little too thin (and tired of the grilled cheese sandwiches your husband was forced to make whenever a meal went bad.)
You couldn’t figure out what you were doing wrong. Most things came naturally to you, and you’d come to believe that smarts and hard work were the answer to every dilemma. You had even learned French so you could translate the original recipes. You grew your own vegetables in your backyard. You even kept your own chickens. (Secretly. You lived in suburban Connecticut, where keeping poultry in one’s back yard was seen as a sign of bad breeding.) But despite all your efforts, every meal you made looked and tasted just like dog food.
After dinner, you would toss the leftovers into a bag and leave them on the curb for the garbage man. One night, you were roused from your slumber by the sound of snarling and growling below your bedroom window. You peered outside, expecting a bear. Instead you saw a toy poodle and a German shepherd battling for the last bite of that evening’s duck cassoulet. The poodle was smaller, but meaner and more agile. He gobbled up the last of the dish and bolted away, hurdling over the high hedges that surrounded your lawn.
The next morning, it took a full hour to clean up the mess that the dogs had made. One by one, your neighbors drove by, shaking their perfectly coiffed heads in disapproval. They had tolerated your eccentricities for years. (Cooking in your underwear was just the beginning.) But this time you’d gone too far. You and your garbage were threatening their property values. Humiliated, you prayed that the incident would not be repeated. But that very night, the dogs returned, and this time they brought friends.
You tried everything to keep the dogs away, but there was something about your cooking that drove them all crazy. They started waiting for you to leave the house with a garbage bag in your hands. You were terrified, and your neighbors were furious. Not only was your front yard filled with strange dogs and trash, their own beloved Fifis and Spots had joined the ever-growing crowd.
That’s why, when you first heard the knock at your door, you almost didn’t answer. When you did, you discovered an elderly woman with a miniature schnauzer cradled in her arms.
“He won’t eat a thing,” said the old lady, who appeared to be on the verge of tears. “The doctor says he could die. Do you think you might be able to fix something for him?”
Though you were a little offended, you’ve always had a soft spot for schnauzers and old ladies. You whipped up a boeuf bourgogne and set it in front of the dog. He sniffed at it, then shoved his whole snout into the bowl. Three minutes later, the dish was gone, and the dog was staring up at you with pleading eyes. It was the very first time anyone had ever asked you for seconds.
Once your dog food business made you a fortune, all your snobby neighbors began ringing your bell. You let their dogs in and let them wait in the yard.
You Were: The Beloved
In the 13th century, you were a lady in the court of the Count of Champagne. At the age of thirteen, you married a nobleman three times your age who promptly ditched you for the Crusades. You were young, rich, and bored—a combination that’s spelled trouble throughout human history.
At eighteen, you began to frequent tournaments. You loved the jousting, the pageantry, and especially the melee, where all the knights battled at once. (As dainty and sweet as you may have been, you like nothing more than a nice, bloody fight.) At first you sat in the back with your mother-in-law, your pretty face hidden by fans. Then, one day the old lady stayed at home with a cold, and you made the tragic decision to move to the front of the stands.
That was the same day a new knight arrived on the scene. It was whispered he came from a foreign court. Your friends swore he was English. His dark, gleaming armor fit his handsome form so perfectly that it must have been crafted from quicksilver. And when the young man removed his fearsome helmet, all the girls in the stands gasped in unison. He had milky white skin, hair darker than the blackest ink, and eyes so green they recalled the rich fields of his native land. He looked up toward the ladies watching him from above. Then his eyes found you, and the rest of the spectators disappeared.
Back in those days, it wasn’t uncommon for knights to fall passionately in love with women married to other men. In fact, it was almost encouraged—as long as the love remained pure. From the day of that very first tournament, the knight wore your colors as he wiped the floor with his every opponent. Soon, there wasn’t a knight in the land who hadn’t been beaten—or a lady who didn’t sigh with jealousy at the thought of his love for you.
Still, the other ladies could never have imagined the beautiful letters the knight paid to have smuggled into your room—or the songs he wrote so the troubadours could sing you to sleep. Finally, your mutual desire grew so intense, that you kicked caution to the curb and devised a plan to meet in person.
But the tournament that afternoon didn’t go quite as planned. The other knights of the region had grown bored of losing. As your knight’s horse enjoyed a pre-tournament snack, they added something to the hay. (What it was you never knew.) When your knight mounted his horse, the beast went crazy—bucking and kicking until it delivered its rider straight to death’s door.
You had your knight rushed back to your home (which, I should remind you, was also your husband’s home). Even if he had lived, your reputation would have never survived. But your knight died in your arms, just moments after your lips met for the very first time.
The next afternoon, the tournament stands were abuzz when the knight in the quicksilver armor arrived at the tournament on a trusty new steed. One by one, he destroyed his competition—not just beating each man, but destroying him. There were many knights who never fought again after that day.
The final contest was a match between the two best jousters in the land. They struck each other at the very same time, both blows hard enough to kill. And one did. When they removed the quicksilver knight’s helmet, they discovered a beautiful young girl inside.
You Were: The World's Foremost Authority on Manatees
There was a time when people didn’t think much of manatees. (Those were dark days, indeed!) In Florida, the cuddly sea cows were once considered little more than a nuisance—startling swimmers and blocking boat traffic. You were one of the few who understood—and loved—them.
You grew up in central Florida, on the banks of the Weeki Wachee River. On sunny mornings, you often skipped your high school classes and hurried down to the springs to go for a dip with the manatees. In order to observe them more closely, you’d taught yourself how to hold your breath for several minutes at a time. (If you choose to attempt such a feat in this life, I’d recommend a little practice first.)
It was during one of your underwater encounters that you were spotted by an entrepreneur who was out for a stroll. Certain he’d discovered a real-life mermaid, he was disappointed to see a human girl emerge from the springs. But then inspiration struck, and the man decided to offer you a job.
For the next five years, you were the head mermaid in the famous underwater show at Weeki Wachee Springs. Dressed in a sparkling bikini top and a long, lustrous fin, you dazzled the crowds. After each show, dozens of men would wait for a glimpse of you (and your legs). Elvis Presley even took you out on a few dates. But you preferred boys who weren’t afraid of the water. And Elvis never wanted to get his hair wet.
After playing a love-struck mermaid in a Hollywood film, you finally had enough money to pursue your real dream. It took another ten years, but you earned a PhD in marine biology from the University of Miami. For the rest of your life, you lived on the banks of the Weeki Wachee River with your beloved manatees a certain gentleman whose hair never got a chance to dry.