“Now Dear, one doesn’t have to be born with a silver spoon to eat from one.”
I can still hear these words from my Aunt Gussie as I lay in bed talking to her over the phone. We had frequent conversations, typically at night before she settled in bed to watch late night television. With the three-hour time difference – her in Detroit and me in Los Angeles – I’d be finishing dinner. But I would quickly rush to get into my pajamas, grab a glass of wine and stretch out to join her for our weekly chat.
I remember hearing my grandfather refer to certain men as a “Gentleman’s Gentleman,” meaning this person was the ideal man in every way. He was a sharp dresser, very debonair, perfect etiquette, always knew what wines accompanied certain aperitifs and specialty dishes.
So to me, Aunt Gussie was a “Lady’s Lady.” Always in step with timeless designer outfits, matching hats, gloves and of course, shoes or boots. She’d always remind me that an outfit is never complete until we’ve accentuated it with the proper accessories. There was no outing devoid of this lesson, whether she was going to the doctor, dinner or the theater.
Aunt Gussie was such a fashion aficionado that the sales people at Nordstrom’s, Neiman Marcus, Saks and other specialty boutiques would receive new items that they thought she would fancy and send them to her via overnight delivery. If she liked them, they’d charge them. If not, there would be a pile of boxes for me or any other designee to take to the post office.
Several of my friends commented on a framed article of Aunt Gussie that hangs on a wall in my house. The article was from a Spring spread in the black newspaper, The Michigan Chronicle from 1963. The conversation piece was the obvious difference in the way the other ladies are identified, as opposed to our center beauty – Aunt Gussie. While they were listed as Mrs. HUSBAND’s first and last NAME, Aunt Gussie was Ms. Gussie Dickey. She always maintained her own identity, even through eight husbands…yes, I said eight.
Aunt Gussie was an educator. She was a Southern Belle, who earned multiple degrees in education and music and even a master’s in Jazz Composition and Performance from the Chicago Conservatory of Music. She once told me that one of her passions was to play jazz, but her parents told her jazz clubs were no place for a young lady. She said, if it was good enough for Ella (Fitzgerald), Dinah (Washington) and Sarah (Vaughn), why not her? But she relented and pursued a career in education as a teacher in music, then an administrator in the Detroit Public Schools. She also taught private music lessons and played organ and piano at church on Sunday. And she had Bose speakers in every room of her spacious condo to enjoy the sounds of these aforementioned ladies and her favorite harpist, Dorothy Ashby.
During our chats, I’d ask Aunt Gussie how she managed to control unruly children when she was a principal at a grade or middle school in Detroit. Her response was so fitting and I could envision this beautiful, slim woman with one hand on her hip, the other extended with a dominant index finger shaking at the intended subject. “Why… I would just say, I know you don’t want to disappoint yourself by not doing and being your best, now do you?”
I chuckled, “Aunt Gussie, that really worked?” “Oh yes Dear, every time,” she replied. “Then I’d hug them. You had to love the mischief out of them.” Only Aunt Gussie could pull that off!
Aunt Gussie left me in 2008. I was still holding on to concert tickets. I was surprising her with front row seats to see Tony Bennett in Detroit, one of her favorite artists, when she had a stroke and slipped into a coma. On that day, we spoke twice for two hours each. The length of time wasn’t unusual, but unknowingly special.
Today would have been her 96th birthday. It’s amazing how some people’s images and voices never leave you. I can still hear her response as she answered the phone, “Oh, it’s my little one,” which always made me smile.
Some people leave indelible marks on your heart and mind. Gussie Albert Dickey is one of those people. I can’t believe it’s been 10 years. And not a day goes by that she doesn’t cross my mind, with a reminder, whether it’s regarding table etiquette, the necessity for every lady to have a black coat (I’ve got two) or the reminder that “pouring cheap wine in to a crystal glass doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.”
These are truly lessons to live by. As I reflect, Just maybe I think…my Aunt Gussie was right!!