The Story of My Chicks

Birkenstocks sparked a memory of the day I met Chickie, the “mom” who lived across the street where I grew up

Soon after I hit the "Request Lyft" button on the rideshare app, my phone buzzes and my parents' number appears on the screen.

"What's up?"

"Hey, are you out with friends?" It's my sister Anne, who is visiting Mom and Dad in Michigan.

"Not yet. But I have dinner plans. Just waiting for my ride."

I'm standing by a Los Angeles storefront whose electric red letters "BIRKENSTOCK" beckoned me as I left a routine doctor's appointment on the other side of the street.

"You wanna call me when you get home?"

"No, I have to get ready."

The time I spent in the shop may mean I'll be late for a reunion among a group from my old building.

The friendly saleswoman reminded me of the person I associate most with Birkenstocks: another former neighbor, the "mom" nicknamed Chickie who lived across the tree-lined street where I grew up outside Detroit. Walking around the shop, I got distracted thinking about her.

The classic, brown leather Birks on one of the displays sparked my memory of the day I met Chickie at a block party. She wore the original Birks, which I had never seen before. By the end of the party, Chickie knew everyone, everyone knew Chickie and I knew about Birks.

Back then, Chickie's uniform was the expression of a woman who lived true to herself: leggings, a button-down denim shirt, maybe a scarf, usually Birkenstocks—and her thick, dark curls piled high above her plump, tanned cheeks and gleaming brown eyes.

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Her attire was a departure from the preppy polo shirts, khakis and pin-straight bobs that have been typical of my hometown for decades, a style I never personally embraced. The manner in which Chickie stood out represented a signal to me that it was OK to be different. She owned her individuality—from her style of dress to her unapologetic love of rustic, outdoor adventure and the western U.S.—and it drew me to her.

In fact, Chickie's daily presence across the street validated my long-held belief that the right life path for me probably did not look like the traditional lives being lived along the peaceful, beautiful block we shared. I craved far-flung adventure, a creative life and exploration of big ideas.

I wondered if Chickie knew how many styles of Birks they make today. Surely there's no Birkenstock store in Nevada City, California, where she moved after her divorce.

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Chickie's new house in California is far from my own adopted hometown of Hollywood, but when she relocated to the same state, LA felt more like home than it had in some 20 years living there.

As I spotted the shiny, black sandals I ultimately settled on in the store, I smiled as my mind turned to one of my favorite moments of Chickie literally presenting me with a variety of choices: When she asked me to "babysit" her son Dwyer, who is just a few years my junior.

She left us with three gallons of ice cream, all different flavors. Dwyer insisted on watching "The Shining" in their TV room, which featured a large window overlooking the front yard. Not great with scary movies, I went to "refill our bowls" every time a tree branch scratched that window; I tried all the flavors that night.

Chickie listened, remembered details and checked in on people. And she supported decisions I made for myself.

When I accepted a job far away (in Los Angeles) right after graduating from college, she didn't tell me not to go, even though one of her very best friends (my mom) was hoping I would take a position closer to home. Rather, Chickie gave me special moisturizing cream and a handwritten note explaining the gift was for the "dry air out west."

As I was paying for my black patent Birks, I thought about giving Chickie a call this weekend. I'm dealing with numerous crossroads in my life these days and it would be good to hear her voice.

Outside the store just a few moments later, my sister Anne's words come through the phone slowly, as if I can feel every inch they are traveling from Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, to this spot on 3rd Street in West Hollywood.

"I have some sad news."

The tone of my sister's voice prompts a scroll in my mind of beloved elderly family members, several of whom are over 90.

"Chickie died, Melis."

A zing goes up my spine. She's 71 years old and healthy.

"There must be a mistake."

As my Lyft pulls up, my head feels fuzzy.

I get into the car and apologize to the driver for my sobs with a jumble of "terrible news," "friend" and "died."

"I'm glad you'll be with friends tonight," Anne says.

It feels like more than a coincidence that my plans are with people who, like Chickie, are former neighbors who have come to be like family. They also are the only other people I know who wear Birkenstocks.

Later that night, as one of my friends placed his arm around my shoulder, goosebumps enveloped me and the hug indeed felt Chickie-sent. Tears and stories flowed; so did a sense of peace as I shared memories of this wonderful woman and her impact.

Maybe she maneuvered me into that store from beyond, somehow making the sign above the store shine extra brightly to get my attention. Or perhaps I wound up in there as a result of her influence to go with the moment and trust my gut. Either way, I believe she's responsible for me being fresh from a comforting reverie in that store when I learned of her passing.

I named the Birks I bought that evening my "Chicks." I keep them by my door and slip my feet into them every day; doing so reminds me that I was meant to have these shoes, and Chickie in my life. With my feet cradled in the familiar cork, I feel my friend's enduring support to take steps in my life confidently, in directions of my own choice.