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Friday, January 14, 2011

True Blue

My mother’s younger sister, Dorothy Chilcott Jackson, lived in New York in the 1950s and ‘60s working in publishing for one of the photography journals, either Modern Photography or Popular Photography and running with the hip, intellectual crowd in the Village. I don’t know much about that aspect of her life, having been so young, but I wanted to convey what a remarkable person she was. When I was little I called her Aunt Dottie. At about 13 she insisted I switch to “DJ,” her initials, which is what my older siblings had taken to calling her. She loathed the dotty-sounding Dottie; to me, DJ sounded cool, and it made me feel very grown up to call her that.

DJ was wonderful. She was funny and fun to be with. She possessed such a quick wit and zest for life; I loved being around her. Everyone did. In addition to being my aunt, DJ was also my godmother. I always felt we had a special bond on account of this. But one of the great things about DJ was she was able to convey this to me without diminishing her love for her other nieces and nephews. She adored us all.

DJ was, I realized much later in life, a lesbian. It was never an issue—even with my very prim and proper grandmother who I’m sure was much less naïve than one would think—and was never discussed openly, but it seemed entirely normal. I think the way the adults handled it with acceptance and lack of interference is responsible for how tolerant I and my siblings have always been about homosexuality. DJ had had beaux in New York when she was a gamine twenty-something and I’m not sure when she made the switch. As long as I can remember, Jane was there. I wouldn’t call DJ butch, though she preferred jeans and kept her hair cut short, she wore dresses and lipstick, heels and jewelry when situations called for them, but when I think about it, her energy was male. She was a lifelong tomboy and did things men (back then at least) did: sailing, fishing, constructing things. I don’t believe she ever hunted; she was a gentle soul and most likely it wouldn’t have appealed to her, but I’m sure she would have been a crack shot (like her maternal grandfather) and could have done it if push came to shove. She was sporty and loved physical activity, especially alpine skiing. She liked fast cars, Labrador Retrievers, Maine Coon cats and most especially young people for whom she had a special affinity.

She was multi-talented: an astute writer, terrific photographer, talented graphic designer, excellent and adventurous cook. She had a natural élan and great taste both in her environment and clothes (something she and her sisters inherited from their inherently stylish mother) with a tendency toward ethnic touches. She was independent, self-sufficient and brave, building her delightful cabin in Vermont herself. It was a simple, yet handsome structure, vaguely Scandinavian that could easily grace the pages of one of the hipper shelter magazines today. She was a consummate New Englander. She knew how to live off the land, digging for clams, fishing for flounder and picking berries in her beloved Maine. She would take us all along on foraging adventures, teaching us these skills. Some of my favorite memories center around her wonderful shack in Birch Harbor. Others are from Silvermine, Connecticut in her cozy house that always smelled like wood smoke, where we celebrated the most wonderful Thanksgivings and I played office in her home office and swung in the exhilarating hilltop swing. Later in palatial New Canaan, twirling around in her Arne Jacobson egg chair by the slate hearth, swimming with the dogs in the beautiful grotto-like indoor pool, changing in the hysterical, orange carpeted (floor, walls and ceiling) changing room, lying on her bed watching movies on TV with her and Jane.

When things got tough, after the devastating break up with Jane and she was strapped financially, she worked in a sardine factory in Maine making fast friends with the locals. They loved her, loved her authenticity, her warmth, her integrity, her particular charm. For her it was an adventure and a means to perfect her already spot on Down East accent and collect Maineisms.

Since her death in 1984, I’ve wondered so many times what she would have thought of this and that. She suffered through Nixon and Reagan and Vietnam. I remember her derision at certain jargon—she hated “the bottom line,” for instance. There have been so many choice examples since then that she would have enjoyed raking over the coals—what she would have made of Dubya-speak, I can only wonder at and regret not knowing. But I see so well her delight with the good that has transpired (the Internet, the end of apartheid, Obama), I feel her absent comfort during the hard times (9/11, the deaths of my parents) and hear her scorn expressed through a wicked sense of humor (the Bush years, Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney).

I think part of the reason she died when she did was she’d had so many disappointments, both professional and personal and was just exhausted by the struggle and gave up, allowing the cancer in her gut nurtured by worry to carry her away. It is one of the great sadnesses of my life that she died so early on. I miss her very much.


  1. A lovely tribute. She sounds like one of those people who was both ahead of her time and very much of her time.

    My brother, who was very much a history buff and a computer geek, passed away in November 2001. Because of his pain meds, he was never aware of the events of 9/11. I would love to have seen his reaction to events since then, the rollercoaster of politics and world events and the explosion of the internet and social networking.

    I do think there's a family karma associated with how parents model acceptance of their relatives and friends who are "different" in any way, particularly in sexual orientation. It must boost the confidence of young people grappling with their identities to know by example that their families will accept and support them no matter what.

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  3. This was written to me by a gay friend about my lovely mother (DJ's sister) who died in November. It makes me treasure her all the more:

    "You know something Sarah,...
    One time when I was quite young, mom dropped me off at your house on 84th st. for the afternoon, your mom watched me while my mom was busy doing this or that. Rebecca was sewing, and I asked her if I could make a cape for my teddy bear and she obliged, (she did most of the work) when we were finished it was a beautiful little cape, like a dracula cape, I think Rebecca understood me or just went with it, with me, later after my mom had picked me up, she got really mad, and I knew that she was going to be, so it was no surprise to me, she didn't want me to sew or be close to a sewing machine, or do anything girlie, and to her- that was close enough, but I remember that experience so vividly, and that Rebecca was so accepting and just allowing me to do that with her, she was doing it anyway. I'm not sure if I am able to describe the subtle completeness of this story, but what I really want to say is that Rebecca seemed to accept me as I was, and that was such a gift to me at that age, when I felt like expectations were so high and it seemed that I could never match them. I think your mother was very perceptive and kind and in such a small way in a short span of time she was there for me and I will never forget that."