My son and I flew into Milwaukee Saturday morning to attend the memorial service for my tiny fireball of a sister-in-law, Shirley. She was my son’s favorite in-town aunt, the cool older sister who took my “was-band” to see the Beatles in 1966, and my willing accomplice for sneaking a cigarette at the side of the house.
Shirley lived a life ten times her size. She was known for her spunk and her contagious laugh. Like the fictional Ms. Frizzle, of The Magic School Bus, Shirley believed that life was about taking chances, making mistakes and getting messy. She loved adventure and would be the first to tell you “Never say ‘never.’”
The day after Harry was born, she drove to the hospital first thing in the morning, picking up my elderly Aunt Anita on the way. Waiting for a nurse to wheel Harry into the room, Shirley paced in eagerness. But Anita, in the raspy voice of Marge Simpson’s sister, Selma, reminded Shirley that “age before beauty” applied to baby-holding. Shirley acquiesced, telling Anita, “Okay, but you only get him for two minutes and then it’s my turn.” They traded baby Harry back and forth for an hour.
When Harry became Student of the Week in second grade, his teacher wanted to know where he’d like to go, if he could go anywhere in the world. He picked Hawaii. And when she asked him whom he’d take along, he blurted out “Shirley!”
That year Shirley gifted Harry The Gas We Pass: The story of Farts. And it was she who giggled non-stop as he read with pure joy his new, educational book about body function. We looked through that book again over the weekend.
Shirley loved pink flamingos. A couple of the plastic variety decorated her yard for years. When Harry had to choose which animal he wanted to report on in fifth grade, it was no surprise he picked the flamingo. His dad and I got to keep the final report. He wanted Shirley to have the accompanying paper mache flamingo he created in art class. When she moved into an assisted-living apartment earlier this year, Harry’s pink flamingo went with her.
My sister-in-law’s cocktail meatballs were among the best appetizers of all time. I remember how mad my mother was at Christmas the year Shirley forgot to bring them to the family party. But Shirley was quirky about sharing that recipe. I begged her. My cousin Kat pleaded with her. But the answer was always No. When Kat confided she’d finally landed a copy of Shirley’s meatball recipe by trading her for another one, I told her she had to give it to me. She resisted, but finally agreed with conditions: I could never make the meatballs for an event Shirley would attend, and I could never tell Shirley I had the recipe.
It’s true Shirley occasionally left the house forgetting to take something with her, but she never forgot what was important in life. While she was a social worker for 30 years before her retirement, helping people was more than a profession; it was her nature. She saw the good in everyone and the positive in any situation.
I’ll always remember that Shirley and I shared a special bond. One that united us from the first time we met. His name was Elvis Presley.