Part 3 of 3 Parts
Part 1: Elizabeth in Charleston
Part 2: A musician on the go -- then gone
Part 3: A long-sought reunion
CHARLESTON W.Va. -- George "Geo" Bartlett was gone.
No one knows the lonely roads and byways, the towns and states, that lay between George's exit from Arkansas and Elizabeth's arrival a quarter-century or so later in Charleston, West Virginia.
They could not have been easy years. The roadmap of her travels might well be said to be written in her gaunt, wiry frame, the trail-worn clothes she wore day after day and a face crisscrossed with lines.
George had walked off from his Arkansas family in 1983, at age 29, after he told those who loved him that he would rather be a woman. When he left his home state far behind, he also left George behind.
It is not clear when he began to call himself 'Elizabeth' full-time, among other names. But he was determined to dress and identify as a woman, whatever the fallout to his life and to all who'd known him as a handsome young musician whose music had once been talked up in Rolling Stone.
It is also not clear how deeply Elizabeth suffered from some strain of mental illness, which contributed to her wandering flight from all she once knew.
What is known is that sometime early in the first decade of the 21st century what looked to be a stooped, but tall homeless woman missing many teeth shuffled into town. In her hands, she clutched a handheld recorder. She was still making songs.
Back in Arkansas the years rolled by. The Bartlett family undertook the hard work of acceptance, beseeching heaven to look after a long-missing brother and son.
"Not a day would fly that we didn't think about him," said Sharon Bartlett, one of George's three sisters. "We believe in intervention prayer. We just prayed for his safety. We prayed he was not hungry. We prayed he had shelter."
He apparently made it to Boston about 1980-81, to record at the studio of Ric Ocasek, band leader of The Cars, who had praised young George's music in Rolling Stone. Ocasek did not respond to several Gazette queries sent to his management firm.
Then, George apparently deserted that city, too, said Sharon.
The reason they know he was gone from Boston is that Ocasek and their father had a phone conversation and the singer "just basically told him he had left," she said. "We don't know if they were disgruntled with each other, if he left on a bad note or what."
George spent some time in a little town in Arkansas in 1983 where his mother lived. Then, he disappeared.
Family members went on with their lives, always looking over a shoulder for him. George's father, initially disturbed and angered by his son's revelations and now heartbroken at the estrangement, tried finding him through the social security system.
Somewhere along the way, George apparently legally changed his name to "Leah Elizabeth Wingfield." The family learned that Leah Elizabeth Wingfield had begun receiving disability checks, possibly as a result of what middle sister Leigh Ann believes may have been a diagnosis of schizophrenia. "I don't know for sure. But he had a disability check," she said.
The family made a video they hoped might reach George if they could pierce the government bureaucracy and get it to him. Leigh Ann recalled its making.
"My dad actually said, 'You guys will address her as "Leah."' It's so heart-wrenching -- we're all crying and my dad is begging Leah: 'Come back to your family!' He's saying, 'If you will come back we will accept you as you are.'"
The video never got to him. Jim Bartlett died in 2006, without ever seeing his son again.
"We married and raised our families," said Sharon, oldest of George's sisters. "He didn't know he had nieces and nephews. We just lived our lives the best we could without him."
One decade passed, then two. The family's prayers included one very specific one:
"May George find kindness. May he be embraced by kind people that will accept him and care about him."
And lo and behold, that prayer was answered.
Elizabeth's time on the Charleston streets, often hanging about Taylor Books or the old Capital Roasters, was not without incident.
"I heard she could get angry and even that she had thrown a shoe at one of the café workers," said her friend and benefactor Leslie Clay. "But in my four years of knowing Elizabeth she was never once mean or angry toward me. I imagine she sometimes just got fed up with the way people would treat her."
After Clay and her husband Carl Agsten decided to head to Central America for mission work, they donated a small home on Dixie Street to Covenant House. They bought it first for Bill Dunn -- a street person known as "Aqualung" -- as a place to call home. Elizabeth moved in after Dunn disappeared one day.
So, now Elizabeth had the people at Covenant House looking out for her, among them Briana Martin, Phil Hainen, Amy Weintraub and Crystal Good. They guided her to more supervised housing and assistance, trying to figure out how best to help.
"We were all just eager to win her friendship and win her trust," said Weintraub, then director of Covenant House.
Elizabeth could be inadvertently destructive while tinkering and trying to make things, she said. "She might take apart the thermostat to use it as a new camera she was trying to invent. It wasn't intentional destruction."
She also made songs, took phone pictures, concocted little sculptures out of spoons and knobs and stuff as gifts.
"She would bring me videos she'd made. They were often disjointed and impossible to follow. But it did give you a hint she was desperately trying to communicate. That's part of what made her so endearing to all of us," said Weintraub.
Good, Covenant House's assistant director at the time, recalled her first Elizabeth encounter. One chilly day, she spotted Elizabeth on the street in a skirt, thin stockings and sandals. Good purchased a pair of warmer stockings at a drugstore. She went to give them to her.
"She absolutely refused," Good said.
Years later, they had a more fruitful meeting, one that would reverberate across several states and lives. One day in late fall 2009, Elizabeth walked into Good's office. In her quiet, small voice, she said: "I want you to help me find my family."
"I took a deep breath and I said, 'Well, how long has it been since you've seen your family?'" Good recalled. "It was this huge number."
Elizabeth hadn't seen them since the early 1980s.
What finally prompted Elizabeth's wish to reconnect? Perhaps her closeness with Leslie Clay's family, holding Clay and Agsten's children, sitting at their Thanksgiving table? Was it her age, now in her mid-50s?
No one knew for sure. But Good knew what to do next.
"I said let me get started. I Googled a couple names. I called. I left messages. I said, 'This is Crystal in Covenant House in Charleston, W.Va. We may have a relative here with your same last name.' Just a generic message. You also had to be careful about identity and things like that."
When she came to work the next day, "I had at least 30 messages on my phone," Good said. "It was like an Oprah moment. So, I was just an instrument, I was just the connector. It was just meant to be. What struck me was the messages -- they were so happy."
George's youngest sister, Lisa, had last seen him when she was 13, during a hot Arkansas summer in 1983. He taught her how to drive his standard-shift white Mustang, she remembered happily. "He took me to some hills and made me drive home!"
When he wasn't roaming, he might sit Indian style in his room, incense burning, lost in thought. She can still visualize his Bible beside him, underlined and marked with his notes.