SOMEWHERE ON THE SOUTH SIDE OF CHICAGO
May 12th, 1925. Dorothy “Dotsy” Elich was born under the sign of the bull and year of the Ox on the Chinese calendar. If that astrological mumbo-jumbo counts for anything, I attribute it to making my aunt the most stubborn and fiercest woman I know.
SWEET, STICKY DISNEYLAND
“When I turned 20 I told myself I needed to get out of the house. So instead of my sister, who was too fragile to step out the door without a man to guide her, I sucked it up and packed my bags. No risk, no reward. And as soon as I left the tirade of my parents, I went to the only logical place I could think of. Hot sun, smiling faces, cute caricatures running around…They called it the happiest place on Earth for a reason, right?”
Dotsy moved into a worn-down studio apartment about five blocks away from Disneyland California and commuted to work on foot. With the park in the middle of a staff expansion, Dotsy was given the title of “management team member” without even reviewing her (admittedly spare) resume. She thought landing a job so easily, and at the largest tourist venue in America, was just the Disney magic rubbing off on her. She was wrong. The job was a hellish loop: she took inventory of the merchandise flooding the warehouses every day, then dished out Mickey ears and castle T-shirts until her arms wore out. Day after day for a year and a half. Dotsy had scorned her friends for being stuck in a hamster wheel of maternal monotony–cooking and cleaning and kissing their kiddos goodnight–but now she was stuck in the same way they were. Every Monday through Friday, Dotsy plodded through the unforgiving sun watching children prance around with scuffed-up shoes and dried ice cream plastered on their faces like sticky birthmarks. She began to pity herself and despised maintaining a happy-go-lucky facade for kids who barely noticed her.
“I realized that I needed to get out and make a difference in the world. I felt stagnant after a while, slipping further and further into a job and farther away from a career. Disneyland taught me that those words have different meanings–job and career–and God help the poor souls who think they’re the same.”
THE ONLY MIRROR SHE OWNED
Dotsy joined the Marines in 1948 law just as they began to accept women. She remembers how it felt slipping on her uniform for the first time, the crisp, unforgiving fabric hiding her feminine curves to give off the illusion of a straight-cut figure. It made Dotsy feel like those plastic toy soldiers her older brother played with when they were kids: stout, stoic, and able to withstand a nasty tumble down the basement stairs.
“Too many times, being a woman stopped me from doing what I wanted. I stood in my bathroom gawking at myself like I was Narcissus, and in fact, I would’ve put him to shame. That uniform was my escape–a way to be powerful and serve a purpose.”
While every other doll-eyed woman was blissfully frying ham and eggs for her breadwinning husband and gaggle of cherry-lipped children, Dotsy was preparing for something bigger.
“I’d rather go to Hell and back than become a housewife. Every poor woman trapped in that fantasy was starring in their very own Groundhog Day. I had friends whose schedules I memorized because they did the exact same things at the exact same time every single day of the week. Not saying what they were doing wasn’t important–raising the next generation is a noble task, indeed–but I wanted something more for myself: a life of my own.”
A DUSTY LIBRARY THAT HELD MORE THAN A DREAM
According to Dotsy, being a lesbian in the civilian world in the 1950s was just as dangerous as in the Marines; there was widespread homophobia in an era where many women gathered dust like trinkets on shelves. Dotsy was no trinket and she planned to gather no dust.
“It was like owning a speakeasy, except the secret room downstairs was your heart you only let people with the password into. That’s why I moved to California–to open my own speakeasy and stop pretending I ran a run-of-the-mill business without any hidden doors. I couldn’t get away with being gay at home. My parents were smart and more judgmental than that lady on CBS…You like how poetic that was?”
The lady my aunt was referring to, as I later found out, was Judge Judy.
“I had been unsure of my sexuality for a while–I always caught myself drooling over Audrey Hepburn instead of the Ken Dolls co-starring in her films. But the day I met Maggi Kennedy in the library was the day I knew women were the only ones allowed in my speakeasy.”
Dotsy doesn’t remember the name of the library, but she does recall the hexagon path leading up to the entrance and how hard she tried to avoid the tip of her kitten-heels falling into the cracks between the bricks. She remembers the way the dust particles, stirred up by the whoosh of the double doors swinging open, would float around the room like dandelion fuzzies. And most importantly, she remembers the glum face of the front desk clerk that was squashed under dainty hands and a name tag that simply read “Mag.”
“Maggi looked bored to tears the first time I went in there. And if I’m being honest, which you know I always am, she looked just as bored each time after that. Except when I came in. She had this sort of adorable pout–almost as if there was a vendetta between herself and the wall clock across from her. She would angrily stare it down to intimidate the hands into ticking faster than they should so her grueling shift would end. It never worked, of course, but that didn’t stop the girl from trying.”
Their first conversation occurred when Dotsy checked out two books about Belize and international tourism. After Maggi inquired if Dotsy planned on traveling while ringing her up, the small talk that followed quickly evolved into a lengthy conversation about foreign culture. Maggi, who had never been out of the country before, wrote short fantasy novels about the exoticism of overseas adventures in her free time. Dotsy, enamored by this, promised to indulge her with the details of her trip and perhaps photos upon returning. Catching Maggi up on the highlights of her which was something that became a regular occurrence.
Infatuated by Maggi’s radiant smile and intellectual edge, simply pining after her from afar was something Dotsy no longer had the patience for. On a hazy day in September and donned in her Sunday best, Dotsy strutted down that gilded brick pathway with fervor and finally asked Maggi out for coffee.
EGGSHELL LEATHER SEATS
“The kiss happened after a drive-in movie. I was so nervous I can’t remember what was playing to this day. Neither of us had revealed ourselves at that point–we were both riding on the bold assumption that the other was gay. Thank God we were right because after I drove her home in my father’s old Ford I stole a quick kiss on the cheek when it was safe in the dark, and then she stole one back on the lips, and damn me if I was gonna let her have the last one so I kissed her back a second time.”
Maggi and Dotsy traveled. And traveled. And went home to make sure their apartment hadn’t burned down in their absence and then traveled some more.
They saw almost every region in the world in less than twenty years; no foreign language or culture was too daunting as long as the two of them faced the unknown together. My aunt–and I don’t mean this as a hyperbole–is probably one of the most worldly and astute people in America. I remember hearing horror stories about some of her misadventures when I was younger, like when she traveled to China during the 1960’s and lived off processed cheese balls for three days because the first restaurant she visited served her fried pigeon, or when she lost Maggi in France and only knew how to say revoir! and oui oui!
Maggi, whose parents emigrated from Paris, spoke the language fluently and was deigned to be more of a translator than a partner to Dotsy while they were in Marseille. She ordered all of Dotsy’s meals (sometimes “inadvertently” asking for the wrong one if she was feeling particularly thorny) and constantly explained dialogue between the characters on the sitcoms that played on their hotel room TV.
“Maggi up and left in the middle of an evening stroll. I remember bending down to fetch my runaway wallet which had landed on the cobblestone street, and when I stood back up to make a joke about my clumsiness Maggi was nowhere in sight. I wandered the square for the longest twenty minutes of my life before I finally found the bastard picking flowers from a private garden closed off for the night. I wanted so badly to be mad at her but all I could do was stand there and laugh. Moments like those are so small but the ones I look back on most fondly.”
SHERMAN OAKS, CALIFORNIA
And now, after a whirlwind of 96 years, Dotsy resides in a small yet chic bungalow on the quaint side of town. Her traveling is mostly limited to grocery store trips and coffee shop runs, but her frail bones and sagging skin (which, she notes, is a sign that the devil is trying to drag her down to hell) hasn’t taken the zeal out of her spirit. In fact, her mind is still acute enough to point out the sentence fragments and dangling participles in the writing that I send her; she’s probably going to have a field day marking this up when she reads it. Reading is a hobby she initially loathed but begrudgingly came to love since the written word was Maggi’s lifeblood as a writer. After Maggi’s death in 2017, my aunt has made exercising her brain her top priority in order to preserve the encyclopedia of memories they’ve made together.
“Maggi’s been gone for four years and I miss her more than ever. But I’ve got her here with me every time I wake up and every time I go to sleep. Her book collection still takes up half the shelves in the house and her stories are kept in the desk I do all my brooding on.”
She pauses to flip a page of something. Possibly a photo album.
“People nowadays seem to be obsessed with minimalism and throwing away everything they own until they’ve got nothing left. But I say a big fuck you to that. Pardon my francois. Because when you’re dead and gone, your imprint on the world goes with it. Memories are only good when you’ve got a working brain to keep them in. Maggi survives in my head for now. But when I’m dead she will still be alive through the things she owned and the things she touched and the things she loved and I think someone like her, and hell, maybe even someone like me, deserve to keep on living.”