When I was sixteen years old and growing up in a small desert town on the Mexicali boarder, I was lucky enough to get a part-time job at a shop called Mirage. It was one of only a few really cool independent shops in town where a fashion-conscious young woman could find cutting edge clothing options. My mom had taken me and my sisters there many times to shop, and I loved talking with the owner, Vicky. She was one of those people who could light up a room just by entering it. She had impeccable taste and a delightful sense of humor. Beyond that, she was genuinely kind and, although she was a great listener, I loved hearing her talk. She was always so animated when she spoke. She loved talking about her daughter and (then) new grandbaby, but my favorite was when she was planning to head to New York for fashion week. It seemed so odd to me that anyone from our small town would make that trip, but Vicky never seemed to be a ‘small town’ person. She was well traveled (later opened a travel agency) and worldly. Her closest friends who came to visit her at the shop often were fascinating women and, as a teenager new to working in retail, I felt so lucky to be a fly on the wall when they came in.
As one of four kids, one learns early on that people assign identifiers to kids in larger families to help remember which kid is which. My grandmother designated my oldest sister as the smart and beautiful one. She looked the most like my father’s side of the family, so it made sense that she’d get that identifier. My brother, the only boy and the only male grandchild who’d be likely to carry on the family name remained MATTHEW throughout his lifetime. My middle sister LOOKS LIKE MARTHA (Martha is our mother) because she’s the shortest and least physically WILLIAMS of the four of us. Melissa is definitely beautiful, but more German features like the Grams side of the family (Mom) than Welsh/Scottish Williams (Dad) side. I was assigned LOOKS LIKE MELINDA because, while I wasn’t the SMART AND BEAUTIFUL ONE that the eldest sibling is, I was as tall as my brother and looked more like our eldest sister than I do like our mother’s side of the family. Other grown-ups assigned other identifiers too, but they ran a similar theme:
Melinda=Oldest, Smart & Beautiful, The Creative One
Melissa=Looks Like Martha, The Funny One
Matthew= The Boy
Kristol= The Youngest, Looks Like Melinda
Working with Vicky at Mirage never felt like work and it never felt like I was working FOR her but always WITH her. It’s an important distinction because I would have dropped everything my teenage brain was planning to go help out at the store if ever she needed me. I like to think she knew that and that she trusted me. She was the first grown-up to notice that I had an eye for color and design. She encouraged me to explore putting different merchandising plans together to keep the shop looking fresh. Later, she let me design the store-front windows which had me looking into merchandising positions later in college and in my early days in Seattle. Vicky was the first grown-up I’d known who didn’t seem to need to assign identifiers to people. She made a point to learn names, tastes, styles and passions. I wonder if I’d have been bold enough to audition for our school’s rock-band had I not had her cheering me on. When my brother and I were in it together my junior year of high school, we often performed at the farmer’s market and we’d set up across the street from Mirage. Vicky and her friends would be there with glasses of wine cheering us on.
When I left for UC Irvine in the fall of 1990, I told Vicky to let me know if she ever needed me and I’d be there. For my first two years of college, she’d occasionally call and I’d head home for the weekend to see the folks and work at Mirage. I was also working as a waitress at IHOP, so taking off for a weekend got difficult with a manager who didn’t build relationships the way Vicky did. I worked at IHOP through my graduation from UC Irvine with a few other retail jobs smattered in between, but I never had another Vicky. I moved to Seattle two months after graduation and have really made very few trips back to El Centro since. I’m not even sure when Mirage closed and Vicky started her travel business, but I suspect she told me in a card or letter. She surprised me many times with a quick note just checking in. I was a lousy pen-pal.
On June 9th, I posted a blog entitled “The Things I’m Not Dying To Tell You”. I can honestly report that I lived up to my personal challenge to write to my friend every week and to also write to at least one other person each week as well. As an artist, I take a lot of photos and have made hundreds of photo cards that I have sitting in a box near my desk. I occasionally sell them, but more often, I like to gift them to people. I’ve been using these cards for my writing project. I mailed my first two cards on June 9th as promised. The next week, I wrote to my friend and also wrote to three other people who had been on my mind. I mailed out cards for five weeks in a row, but It never occurred to me that anyone might write back. Three weeks ago, I received a note from one of the people I’d sent a card. The following week, I received a thank you note and very nice message from Vicky.
This past week, my daughter and I went on a trip down to Vancouver, WA to visit my middle sister. We took a day trip on Wednesday to explore along the Columbia River Gorge, hiked Multnomah Falls, checked out The Bridge Of The Gods and wandered through the Stonehenge replica which is a WW1 monument in Mayhill, WA. As is often the case when I’m road-trippin, I hadn’t spent time on Facebook in a while (I only have my artist account set up on my phone, so it reeks of effort to log into my personal account). I was excited to share the photos I’d taken that day, so when we arrived back at my sister’s home after dinner that night, I logged on. I was heart-broken to read the post by Vicky’s daughter that she’d passed away the day before. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to be her friend. I was even luckier to be able to say she was my first mentor.
As for my writing project? In the first card I sent, I thanked Vicky for ways she’d very specifically made my life better by having been in it. While I don’t believe the last card I mailed to her reached her in time, I am so thankful that I made the effort to pick up my pen and mail the cards. It’s one more way Vicky enriched my life, and I’m not going to stop sending cards now that she’s gone. It feels meaningful. It feels important. I appreciate the connections I am reviving through the writing project. I received another surprise response to a card I sent last week in the mail when we arrived home from our road trip. As for my cards to Vicky, If I can bring her family any cheer sending cards to them, then I’ll continue to do so in her honor. For Vicky…