March 22nd. This is not a typical blog entry. This entry is a memory, a tribute, and a celebration.
In the late ’80’s/early ’90’s I supervised and lived in an emergency shelter for adolescent girls in the eastern United States. It was a 4-bed shelter offering a 6-week program. The purpose of the program was specific, the admission criteria clearly elaborated, and the expectations to stay in the program strict. After a maximum 6 week residency, I was to have no follow up contact with any of the teens nor were there to be re-admissions.
Thankfully, some rules are just meant to be broken.
In the two years of running the program, 62 teenage girls entered and exited our lives. I cared about each and every one of them, but only a few of them needed to be in relationship with me/us and deep abiding bonds were developed with a couple of them.
Nikki was one of the young women who easily, almost seamlessly fit into our family life in so many ways. You only needed to meet Nikki to feel her beauty and intelligence.
I met her when she was 16. She was tough and resilient, exuberant and fun-loving, volatile and passionate.
She was the too cool city kid with orange hair extensions, baggy shorts and rapping attitude. Having tired of fending for herself, she had been denied services by DCYS (Department of Child & Youth Services) and so sat her most determined self in the Mayor’s office until they did something with her. That would be the short story of how she ended up looking totally cute and bright and perky, presenting her best you-gotta-love-me-persona in a Youth Emergency Service shelter where I lived with my partner and toddler.
Nikki was in need of some brighter tomorrows.
I won’t disclose the compelling details of Nikki’s life, but to a white working class rural girl, she stepped right out of a movie scene of stereotyped proportions where life was about inner city poverty, drug addictions and violence. My heart fell immediately into her charming drama; I was in awe of her self-sufficiency, her use of brash and loud to get what she needed. And though she worked her options, Nikki was really just a raw kid looking for warmth, respect, love and protection. She was quite irresistible.
Fortunately, Nikki’s needs and my needs were almost perfectly matched.
Hard and smart, soft and intelligent, Nikki’s posturing had an endearing quality. She had a quick mind and a joy for life in spite of a large load of hard knocks. Without much formal education, she frequently whooped my butt playing along with tv’s Jeopardy and she read voraciously, finding something of use even in what I mistakenly called her trash novels. She talked loud and yelled her exuberance throughout the house in a squeaky scratchy commotion that became so familiar I would come to miss it when it wasn’t there — and, I can still clearly hear her more than 20 years later. She had a crisis every 30 seconds. Or less. She instigated crises in other shelter residents. She called me Mom and loved my small daughter. She ate heartily, lustfully even and scrubbed and cleaned with an abandon reserved for those who didn’t always have the privilege to scrub and clean. She became comfortably proprietorial.
More than anything, Nikki just wanted a home. She wanted to be safe and cared for in meaningful ways. Unfortunately, that was not to be her short-term destiny, despite her ingenuity.
Nikki and I managed to stay in touch for a year or so and then we lost each other. I thought about her often…not daily, but certainly weekly. I fantasized finding her. I even composed mental letters to talk show hosts in the mid ’90’s when they were doing all their reunion shows, thinking Sally Jessy Raphael might bring her back into my life. I did.
Recently, Nikki and I were reunited via facebook and her neverending supply of savvy (it helped a lot that my partner has a rather unique name). The brash teenager who needed to push away most of the world to stay safe, now a persistent and resourceful adult, tracked me down. She is a stunning young woman and mother and daughter. She is an inspiring human being, bright and passionate, philosophical and industrious. She is more beautiful than she knows and so very special in my life.
A poverty of privilege does not mean a poverty of spirit. A struggling mom can provide a sure sense of being loved and a strong sense of morality in a daughter. A daughter who is loved can hand that on to her children. A heart which can love unconditionally remains soft even through times of suffering. Joy in life can vibrantly bubble up through some of the toughest of life’s circumstances. Pure human connection can reach across all manner of socially-constructed boundaries. Love is big.
Today is Nikki’s birthday. I honour her, and offer her my admiration and respect.
I love you dearly Nikki and I’m grateful we were gifted to each other.
This blog post is my gift to you. Happy Birthday sweets.
(P.S. If you are curious about the photo caption:
Me after getting a Ticket in Meridian…doing 91 in a 70 but the cop was cute so I batted my eyelashes he wanted to take me to jail but u know Im hard to resist lol. It’s pimpin pimpin!!!)