1974 Sally Dawn Chicki
Chicki was the first person to love me for who I was rather than due to a genetic imperative. As I grew up, she was an ally and a friend; she helped me weather the battles of childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. Chicki took me as I was, without forethought or deliberation. She doled out life lessons like the candies on a candy necklace. In later life, distance and circumstance separated us, but I never doubted that she would help me if I needed her. It was kind of like going through life with a parachute. Just knowing Chicki was in the world allowed me to believe that, not matter what life threw at me, I would land on my feet.
The origin of Chicki’s name was never explained to me, nor did it matter. She was my mother’s younger sister by twelve years. When I was a child, she was called a “change-of-life baby.” Chicki was born well after her siblings; my grandmother was 39 when she delivered her. Shortly thereafter, my grandfather died. My grandmother had two children in college and one entering grade school. Since my grandmother had to work, she enrolled Chicki in a nearby parochial school. The nuns were regimented and had little patience with Chicki’s antics and imperfection (Chicki had a severe hearing loss in early childhood, due to a high fever). She wore hearing aids that were large, fell out often and would emit ear-splitting squeals that would disrupt class. She was reprimanded for turning them off. When asked why she did this, she said, “It’s easier to daydream.” Perhaps the final straw for the nuns was when they found Chicki, a Protestant in a Catholic school, raiding their third floor living quarters. The secret she whispered to me may now, fifty years later, be divulged. Nuns’ panties and bras are sometimes dressed with frilly lace. My version of that take-away moment was that all women are entitled to secrets.
I do not remember a time before Chicki came to live with us; she was simply the reason my sister and I shared a bedroom. Later, I understood there were “problems” between my grandmother and aunt so my parents took her into our family. Chicki’s bright future was briefly dimmed by a man named John to whom she was briefly engaged. All I remember about him is his name and the effect he had on her psyche when their engagement was broken. On Wednesdays, my mother would escort Chicki to see a special doctor that would help her with her mind. Chicki would see the doctor for precisely fifty minutes; I knew this because it was how long I had to read the HIGHLIGHTS magazines that were strewn about in the waiting room. I asked Chicki what she did with that doctor for all that time. She told me they talked. “Sometimes you need someone other than your family and friends to help you understand yourself,” she told me. “It’s okay to ask for help.”
Another lesson Chicki taught me was the value of omission. She had borrowed a friend’s new, red mustang. When she offered to take me for a ride in it, I jumped at the chance. We cruised along unfamiliar streets and neighborhoods. Eventually, we drove between rows and rows of army barracks. Chicki declared that it was time to go home. With her foot bearing down on the gas, we raced down the avenue. At the instant she meant to take a right, she misjudged the corner. The car lurched over the curb, with its tail wigwagging behind. The mustang came off the curb with an earsplitting jolt. Chicki’s right arm, a precursor to seatbelts, stretched across my chest to secure me in my seat. When we resumed our ride home, she strictly observed the speed limits and traffic signals. Just before we got home, Chicki stopped the car and turned to me, “Dawn, there are going to be times when it doesn’t make sense to report every detail of an adventure. Please don’t tell your parents about this little mistake.” Thrilled to be taken into her confidence, I willingly agreed. It was the first time I understood that there could be parts of my life to which my parents were not privy.
In a move that surprised and delighted all of us, my grandmother and Chicki wanted an adventure together. They found jobs and rented an apartment on Martha’s Vineyard Island for a year. Unknowingly, they opened a door that led us home; the Island, its beauty and its people drew us in. My parents ended up buying a summer cottage there. The Vineyard became central to our life stories.
When Chicki returned to our nest, she worked to save money so she could rent her own nearby apartment. The morning she left, I was twelve. She found me kneeling at the foot of my bed in front of an altar I had assembled; there were the doll Chicki brought me from Amish country, a flickering candle, and my Sunday school bible, open to the 100th psalm. Prayed earnestly, I knew that our closely woven friendship was about to change forever. Later, she told me she cried all the way to her apartment because the last thing I asked her was, “How can you leave me this way?”
We entered a new phase of our relationship as marriage and motherhood took more and more of her time and school took mine. Chicki’s life underwent a shift with the birth of her daughter, a divorce, a remarriage, and another new baby. In the midst of all that, she recognized that my home life had grown untenable. She urged me to escape my parents and come live with her. I chose to stay the course for a short time, but then moved to live in solititude in my family’s Island cottage.
Life proved to be generous with me. I met a Vineyard man who made me imagine a future brighter and better, simply because I was in it. As our relationship became committed, we exchanged visits with Chicki and her growing family. I loved watching the kindness her girls would show their mother even when there were disputes. They would never yell from another room. They would run back, plant their feet in front of their mother and make sure she could read their lips when they shouted, “No, I WON’T!”
Chicki’s husband hailed from Texas. His native family pulled his new family pulled west and into a world apart from us. Chicki and I wrote letters but the phone was always a challenge with her hearing. One day, she called me unexpectedly, shouting with her pitch a bit off, “Dawn, I came out of a building today and I dove for the ground.” “What do you mean?” “I have new hearing aids and a plane flew directly overhead. It was the first time I ever heard a plane!!” My eyes welled up. “That,” I thought, “That is Chicki.”
As the years passed, we each became more mired in our lives, children, and jobs. My mother, who now lived on Martha’s Vineyard, became a conduit of news and updates because she and Chicki wrote weekly postcards to each other. When the time came to call hospice for my mother, I called Chicki. I heard her voice and broke. I cried and hiccouped and she couldn’t understand a thing I said. Slowly, slowly, I pulled myself together so she could understand the sad news I was sharing with her. My mother held Chicki closely under her wing right until her death; she sent Chicki the last postcard from the hospital.
Eighteen months later, it was Chicki’s daughter, Rachel, contacting me. She and her sister knew I would want to know their mother was in the ICU. The girls –now women, were sweet to send me daily updates. They called me shortly after Chicki died. They were sitting outside the hospital in their car feeling numb and full of disbelief that they were going home without their mother. We managed to laugh through our tears as we talked about their mother. We plotted to commingle Chicki’s ashes with my mother’s on Martha’s Vineyard. We all agreed that there was a symmetry to that closure.
Chicki’s love for me was a gift of immeasurable value; it had its own breadth and width and depth. She filled in the edges of my life, fortifying, teaching and always, always believing in my worth. She lived her life by loving, giving herself to others without condition, and looking for humor wherever she could find it. The peculiar lilt that her speech had as a result of her hearing impediment branded her love for me. Her “I love you’s” , with their unique intonation were unique and irreproducible. As unique and irreproducible as she was to me.