Thursday, October 21, 2010

Remembering Shirley

At the end of September we got the call that had to come.  Shirley died.  That's her, right there, on her 100th birthday.  The picture that's worth 10,000 words.

Shirley was a lot of things to me.  To all of us.  But first, 30 years ago, she was John's babysitter.  I needed an "experienced adult" to watch over my precious child, and Shirley was it.  I got her name from an acquaintance who would never have shared if she hadn't been leaving town.

Those early years passed in a blur.  Before long, she'd stopped being John's unwelcome non-Mom stranger and become his Shirwee.  [Sorry John, I acknowledge that you don't talk like that anymore.]  She was my helper, wise adviser, and moral support.  She stuck with us through all the busy, growing years, through a move from one house to another, through a big furry [and it turned out, temporary] dog who nipped everyone on the fanny -- even Shirley.  And, after a very short while, she was family.  Grandma #3.  The one who spent as many hours with John as either of our mothers.  [And they were jealous of the John time -- and the John love -- she had in such abundance.]

Like so many of the indispensable people we love, she was absorbed into the family and I suppose sometimes taken for granted.  She tidied my kitchen, watered my plants, folded my laundry -- no one ever, in my opinion, folded laundry as magnificently as Shirley, certainly not me -- and advised me to get the buttercups out of my front flowerbed as quick as I could.  [Too late!]

Devoutly Jewish, she kept Kosher and ate only tuna fish in my kitchen.  We laughed to remember the day, so early in our friendship, when she told me she didn't eat meat away from home.  And I blurted, "Shirley! Are you a vegetarian?"  She took great pleasure in our holiday preparations, though, and always visited after Christmas to see the tree and hang out with the other grandmothers.  She gave John a Christmas tree candle one year and we burned it faithfully until it got so small we had to put it away with other family treasures.  She broadened our horizons.

Time passed.  John grew up.  Shirley -- and, well, all of us -- got older.  Her sister, who shared the other half of her duplex, died. Her family worried.  And finally she moved away.  To Florida.  To a real retirement.  Except I think she still volunteered for years after she left us. Not a big fan of resting, Shirley.

Centenarians are rare.  Shirley was 101 when she died.  Not a span to complain of.  But as I grow older and grow up, relishing, as I now do, the companionship of older, wiser, more seasoned women, I see that it is our nature to yearn for another day.  Even when sight and hearing fade. Even when the pleasures of life are reduced to a favorite taste, the warmth of lamplight in the evening, a breeze that stirs the flowers in a faithfully tended garden. Life is sweet, a gift to be savored.  Laid down with regret even after 101 years.

The photo was taken at Shirley's 100th birthday party, celebrated by a gathering of her friends and family.  Children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren upon all of whom she had bestowed the gift of life.  It was a grand occasion.  Shirley was a grand occasion, all by herself.  She had the remarkable quality of being completely unassuming and at the same time utterly dignified.  One of a kind.

Here's the secret.  I loved Shirley for all kinds of reasons, but maybe the most important one was that she approved of me.  She thought I was just fine.  She believed I was a good mom.  That I was kind.  That I was maybe even a good person.  Most of the time, she thought better of me than I thought of myself.  The world doesn't hold many of those people for most of us. They are rare.  Their confidence sustains us when we are not our own biggest fans.

Therefore, and for all the above-mentioned reasons, I am sad for the end of 101 years.  Time has taken away our Shirley.

And we had no Shirley to spare.


  1. Ann,
    This is Nikki, Shirley's grandaughter. My mom shared your blog with me. Thank you so much for writing such a wonderful tribute to my grandmother. I think she loved your family as much as you loved her.
    Warm Regards,

  2. What a beautiful tribute to my mother-in-law ... Your comments, "She had the remarkable quality of being completely unassuming and at the same time utterly dignified" and "she thought better of me than I thought of myself" so accurately paint a picture of the wonderful, loving, giving, behind-the-scenes person she was in my life too. Thank you for being able to put these thoughts into words for me and, I am sure, many others who knew her. Fondly, Pat Saphire

  3. Nikki, I remember you so well! And it was great seeing you -- completely grown up, I might add -- at your grandmother's party. Your grandmother was always so proud of you.

    And Pat, "wonderful, loving, giving, behind-the-scenes" perfectly describe the Shirley I knew. She would love to be remembered just like that.