I first met Nicki while moving in across the way from her house. Our children were both ready to launch from the nest, and my family was realizing a long held dream of relocating into the mountains. We loved that the house was at the end of a dirt road with only 3 neighbors surrounding us. 21 people (mostly our obliged family and friends) and 7 dogs all helped us move in. As we parked the first truck in the driveway in the late afternoon, and everybody got out stretching and looking around, it was clear that there was some sort of shindig going on right across the dirt lane. Live music and a stream of voices drifted over the gravel road. People in masks and costumes flowed and mingled in the open meadow of the household’s sprawling, fenceless yard. Soon a just past middle-aged woman, with wild bleach blonde hair marched across the dirt and grass to announce to us that she was our new neighbor, that she was having a mardi-gras party that night, and we and our whole crew were invited.
“It must have been meant to be a welcome party, too!” she cackled in a way that would become her patented harbinger howl for my husband and me.
Oh Nicki could laugh- she’d throw her head back, and then loudly, without reservation, allow her whole body to get in on the fun. It was very much like watching a new baby’s smile, not yet contained to the mouth and eyes- only with sound effects to match. One could almost always hear her coming from a long distance. Yet instead of finding her mirth obnoxious or annoying, it was simply contagious. She was immediately warm and welcoming. She provided me inspiration, debate and friendship in an all-in-one package. Nicki was a woman of many talents from making her own tea to writing grants for local artists and musicians. She worked as a Child Protective Services field agent, and she and I (as a teacher) had endless discussions about the children in our lives, while debating the possibilities of saving anyone else with all of our good intentions.
Nicki was also practical to the point it made me flinch at times. She once brought home a “rescue” rooster named Poppy who immediately set to intimidating all of our enclave’s pets and visitors, crowing and beating his wings. He had a way of running so aggressively toward his target it appeared there was nothing to do but beat a hasty, undignified retreat. One day we (my husband, me and several of our neighbors) were all in our front yard watching Poppy torment our new puppy, Libby. Libby’s nips and growls were getting very close to the rooster, who refused to retreat or give up antagonizing the pup. I mentioned my fear that one day Libby might get too close and hurt or kill Poppy. “Oh, then we’ll just have chicken soup that day” Nicki responded in her matter-of-fact voice- “after all he has had a good time in these days of running free.”
Unfortunately, Libby did get a hold of Poppy and by the time we found him, there was nothing much left from which to make soup. A bit despondent and feeling sorry for the loss of the spirit of cockiness and such entertainment as Poppy provided us, I walked over to Nicki’s to relay the sad news.
I knocked on Nicki’s door holding a teapot/cup ensemble that had been given to me as one of those wonderful, full-of-love gifts given by students to teachers at the end of each year. These gifts symbolize the reverence and support of unique and amazing families that come to the cooperative preschools where I have taught. I accept them and the love that is their intention with graciousness and deeply-felt thank you notes…and then I often “re-gift” them to someone who will truly enjoy them and not resent dusting them. I will always take the love, but have no need for more “things” that I have to maintain. I hate dusting.
This was my “re-gift” explanation to Nicki, as she opened her door. I told her that I was there to apologize, and I didn’t know the appropriate gift for “I deeply regret that my dog killed your rooster” occasions, but this re-gift made sense since she made her own tea and all. She threw her head back in her trademark laugh and replied “Ah Hah! Shameless re-gifting…I love it!” She then had me in for tea, played happy birthday on her new flute (at 67 she decided to take up the flute) and told me that we should have a tea party the next week-“wear a hat” she said with a bright, crooked grin and a wink.
We had our tea party and a few other adventures, and I became ever more in awe of Nicki. She and her partner owned a house in Mexico. She flew with a friend who owned a small plane, and they went several times a year. Whenever they traveled down there she gathered fire-fighting equipment (one of her sons was a firefighter) or food or children’s clothing for the poor village where her vacation home was located.
A few weeks after our tea party- to which we both wore the most outrageous hats we could put together- another 85 year old neighbor, Ralph, called to ask me if I knew if Nicki had gone to Mexico. “Yes, Ralph, she left today, she brought down some children’s clothing this time, and she should be back in 2 weeks or so”. Ralph was quiet, then clearing his throat, he said “Honey, I don’t want to alarm you, but I just heard of a small airplane crash on the radio- it sounded like it could be Nicki and her pilot friend.”
In my head I didn’t think it was possible, but made Ralph promise to call me if he heard anything. My stomach felt full of sand and a large lump lodged in my throat as I hung up. I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to get more information from the NTSB, but since I was not a relative, and since the bodies had not been identified, I wasn’t able to gain any knowledge on the accident. Right as the evening sun turned the sky an awesome melon-pink, I saw a small car pull into Ralph’s driveway. I watched the person get greeted by Ralph, and then witnessed an embrace whose sorrow-sculpted body postures gave me more information than I wanted to take in.
The phone rang shortly after and Ralph’s shaky voice told me: “Ah honey, it was Nicki and Ron, there were baby clothes all over the hillside- they are both dead.” Stunned, and not feeling the tears sliding off of my chin until they splashed on my hands, I hung up the phone and sat down with more weight than I knew I had.
The next days were a blur. Nicki’s grown children and grandchildren came and stayed at her house and mine. Lots of tears and heart pangs gripped me as I found out over and over just how many friends and strangers had been touched by this woman’s life. The funeral was a celebration: A photo display honored Nicki’s days, from surfer to telephone pole climber, from 60’s Woodstock mom, to child advocate; it was a glorious declaration of a life fully lived.
I came home from work a couple of days after the funeral and greeted my husband. “Hey, Nicki’s kids wanted you to have something from her for all your support over the last couple of days” he said, pointing to the kitchen table.
On the table sat the teapot ensemble I had given Nicki weeks before her death.
“I, um…did they…Michael, did they say why they gave me this thing in particular?” He shook his head, “No, they said they just wanted to give you something to remember her by and this was what her daughter decided to give you.”
That ultimate re-gift now sits on my corner cabinet, a constant reminder of some of the best conversations I’ve ever had. I dust it with tender pleasure.