Respect (Self)

Self-Portrait in Glass. Photo by Callen Harty.

When I was a boy I worked for several years for a retired teacher named Etta Kelly.  She had moved into the house across the street from us when I was younger and had developed a friendship with my mother.  She was in her 70’s when we first met and everything about her was light.  She had pale white skin, perfectly white hair, a giant white car, white dog.  She radiated.  After a short time across the street Mrs. Kelly moved several blocks away, but one day called and asked my mother if I would be willing to do some work for her.

What she wanted was for me to come to her house every day after school and on mornings during the summer and assist her with anything and everything that she might need help with that particular day.  This included digging in the garden, cleaning, moving furniture, running to the post office or grocery store, carrying items from one part of the house to another, cleaning the cellar, weeding, and whatever else might be needed.  In return I was paid $5.00 a month (though after the first month or two I almost always got an extra $5, $10, or even $15).  I don’t know how that would translate with an adjustment for inflation, but even then it wasn’t very much.

But there was something I needed more than money at that time in my life and Mrs. Kelly provided it to me.  What she gave me was an adult who cared for me, listened to me, and respected me.  My real pay was in the conversation that occurred every day after I finished my tasks.  There would almost always be ice cream or some other treat–usually ice cream–and a bottle of Coke.  While I ate and drank Mrs. Kelly and I would sit and talk.  Sometimes I would work for a mere 15 minutes to half an hour and we would talk for an hour or more.  In the winter we sat at her kitchen table.  In better weather we sat in the back yard with chairs facing the city park where other boys played basketball and other sports.

Mrs. Kelly knew so much about the world and I loved listening to her tell stories, particularly recollections of her youth at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.  But she also loved listening to me.  She truly cared what I had to say and I don’t know that I had ever had that before.  At the time I was an awkward and uncertain youth, very unsure of myself.  I was insecure, and to be honest didn’t like myself very well.  As time passed I grew to accept myself and I always credited her with teaching me self-respect.  I wondered for the longest time how she could possibly have instilled that in me.  Of course I now realize that she didn’t teach me self-respect.  She gave me respect and treated me as an equal and because of that I grew into my own sense of self with more confidence.  I also remember her talking often about not caring what others might think of me as long as I was true to myself.  Because of that I grew confident in my opinions and world views and was willing to stand up for what I believed to be right, a trait that has followed me to this day.  I think she would have been proud of the man I became.

Mrs. Kelly passed away after a long hospital stay in 1972 when I was 15 years old.  I heard the news at my aunt’s grocery store and it absolutely devastated me, even though I knew it was coming.  My mother had said that Mrs. Kelly would not come out of the hospital and Mom always had a way of knowing these things.  Still, I cried all the way home from the store and carried that grief with me for years.  I had lost a genuine friend who had reached across the generations to befriend a kid who needed her presence at that time.  But I was left with more confidence because of her and perhaps I didn’t always love myself as much as I should, but I knew that I was loved and valued.  Never has another job paid me as handsomely.

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About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Both are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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One Response to Respect (Self)

  1. Touching indeed, Callen. At some point, I’ll relate how I came to play fairly well in a remarkably short time. It has some features in common with this story.

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