Every Woman Needs a Champion
by Carole G. Vogel
This story first appeared in Good Housekeeping (May 1989) and was reprinted in A 2nd Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul (Health Communications, 1998).
Every child needs a champion—a person who cherishes them and supports them every step of the way. My champion was Lillian, a woman near my mother’s age, but a close friend of my grandmother’s. Her lakeside vacation home abutted that of my family’s so I came to know her well over my childhood summers.
My earliest memory of Lillian occurred when I was three. Lillian’s only daughter and my older sister, both tyrannical six-year olds, refused to let me climb Lillian’s apple tree. They dragged me across the lawn by my hair and called me a big baby—a crushing insult to one recently out of diapers.
Lillian rescued me. This attractive, brown-haired woman scooped me off the ground and plunked me down on the lowest branch of the apple tree. She called me “Ca-Coo,” a nickname she had bestowed on me before my first birthday. Then she brought me a cookie—a Viennese crescent from the best bakery in New York—and initiated the first of a life-time of serious talks.
Over the years, I found solitude in Lillian’s apple tree and comfort in Lillian’s company.
“Come, sit down, Ca-Coo,” she would say. “Tell me all about yourself.” Although busy with her own friends and work, Lillian took the time to listen to the trials of a not-eager kindergartner, a defiant tomboy, an awkward adolescent, and a rebellious college student. While my own parents were pulling out their hair and threatening to disown me, Lillian never criticized. She never stopped calling me Ca-Coo, and she never stopped offering Viennese crescent cookies from the best bakery in New York.
Lillian took an interest in my dating life. I paraded a line of boyfriends through her door and she always served my favorite cookies and made my suitors feel welcome. When the inevitable break-ups occurred, she helped pick up the shattered pieces, and never said, “I thought he was a louse to begin with.”
When I finally settled down with the man who eventually became my husband, Lillian prepared a five-course dinner for just the three of us. She called me Ca-Coo and for dessert served Viennese crescent cookies from the best bakery in New York.
I married while my husband was in grad school and the only work I could find was a part-time teaching job in a private school. The money didn’t stretch far and I felt poverty-stricken. Lillian called one day, and said, “Ca-Coo just listen and don’t say anything. I have $500 for you sitting in my bank account. If you need money for any reason, just call and I’ll send it to you. No questions asked.” Then she hung up.
Suddenly, I felt rich. I had a buffer. I never used it. My husband finished school, got a real job, and we started a family. Lillian oohed and awed over our children as if they were her own. After the birth of each, she reminded me of the emergency fund she held for me. I was touched. Hard times had fallen on Lillian—her husband had died and she had to sell her beloved vacation home. She was still short on cash, but as always, long on love. I knew that if I ever called, the $500 would be mine.
I did call Lillian lots of times over the years. The conversations would always start the same.
“Hi Lillian! This is Carole.”
I know she knows who I am but I play the game. “Lillian, it’s me, Ca-Coo.”
“Ca-Coo, darling!” she responds with joy. “Tell me how you’re doing.”
I smile despite myself. She will never let me grow up.
When I am in my late twenties, I tell Lillian that I want to become a writer. She responds enthusiastically and becomes my greatest cheerleader. When my books are published she buys them in bulk and mails them to me to autograph. She then dispatches them to her friends and relatives. It does not matter to her that I write children’s books and that the recipients are full-grown.
When I am 33, I injure my back and cannot leave my bed. Five months elapse before I am operated on and then another two until I am ambulatory. Throughout this ordeal, Lillian calls me weekly and gives me pep talks. I have little new to say. Our relationship gradually changes. Lillian opens up to me and I become her confidant. Finally, I am able to give back some of the support she has given me.
When I am well, I bring my children to visit her. Time has not robbed her of her good looks and ability to dress meticulously. She still calls me Ca-Coo and serves my children Viennese crescent cookies from the best bakery in New York.
A couple years pass and I have had another book accepted. I decide to surprise Lillian by dedicating it to her. I tell my editor I want the inscription to read, “To Lillian, for always being there.”
In January, I visit Lillian for a weekend. She doesn’t look well. She hasn’t been eating right. She yells at me for growing up. Everything I do or say displeases her and I leave depressed. I call her a few weeks later. She has company and cannot talk. She says she’ll call back later but never does.
I come down with mono and pneumonia. It has nothing to do with Lillian. I am so busy with my family, my writing, and my friends, that I have neglected myself. I spend the next two months trying to regain my health. I think about Lillian occasionally but haven’t the energy to call.
Finally, I am well again and scurry about trying to catch up on all the things that I couldn’t do while ill. I call Lillian’s number but no one answers. I try for several weeks without success and decide she is probably out of town visiting her daughter.
In June, my grandmother takes me aside. “Lillian has metastasized breast cancer,” I am told. “She is dying. You weren’t told sooner because we feared you would have a mono relapse.”
Within the week, I go to see Lillian. I walk into the hospital room and instantly realize I am in the wrong place. Huddled in a wheel chair is an old, balding woman so emaciated she appears to be a concentration camp victim. As I am about to apologize for disturbing her, the woman begins to speak in a weak, cracking voice.
“Ca-Coo!” she says. “I’m so glad you came. Sit down and tell me about yourself.”
We talk for an hour. She tells me that soon she will no longer be. I tell her I know and that I will miss her. I promise never to forget her.
Upon leaving the hospital, I stop at my family’s vacation cottage and walk next door to visit Lillian’s old apple tree. Lightning has struck it. It stands half-dead in the garden.
My newly-published book is waiting for me at home. I open it to read the dedication. I am glad that I have made a lasting memorial to Lillian. But the dedication isn’t there. My editor has inadvertently left it out.
Three weeks later, my champion is dead. After her funeral, I return to Lillian’s apartment with her daughter and several of Lillian’s close friends and relatives. My favorite Viennese crescent cookies have been set out on the table but I cannot eat one. I feel destitute. My buffer is gone. There is no one left to call me Ca-Coo.
* * * * *
Another year passes and the pain of Lillian’s death loses its raw edge. One summer morning, my doorbell rings. Standing by the front door is Audrey, the three-year-old daughter of a close friend.
“Come, sit down, Munchkin,” I say. “Tell me all about yourself.”
Audrey dashes to the couch and plops herself down. She waits impatiently while I open a box of Viennese crescent cookies from the best bakery in town.