A Thanksgiving Story

I had a great friend named Shirley.

Shirley was married to my Dad’s cousin Carl. My parents and Shirley and Carl were not really close when I was a kid. Both my parents are from very large families. They saw the majority of their brothers and sisters (combined total close to 20) and cousins (too many for me to count) quite often, but many other relatives were spoken of, but seldom seen. Shirley and Carl fell into that category.

In 1988 when my then husband, two boys and I moved to the sleepy town of Cape Coral, Florida my Dad kept encouraging me to call Carl and Shirley, who lived nearby. My Dad is the kind of fellow, who is always trying to connect family and friends, whether or not the folks involved are interested. (It is a trait I now realize we share!)

At the time, I did not want to call them, they were my parents’ age and I assumed we would have little in common, and since my Dad hadn’t kept in close touch, I thought they would perceive it as odd, or even worse – invasive to hear from a “long lost” relative. So, I ignored my Dad’s consistent, long-distance reminders until he phoned one day and told me he had called them and told them we lived in the same town. I felt I could no longer hide, and I soon found myself reluctantly dialing away.

A gravely voiced Shirley responded in a very off-putting manner upon hearing who I was and why I was calling. My heart sank, my cheeks reddened, and my blood began to boil as I faced the fact that I had once again sucked into one of my Dad’s “great” ideas. I don’t remember anything of our first conversation, other than Shirley’s cigarette-infused voice and very weak promises on both our parts to get together in the future. Duty done, I moved on. (I know I have mentioned Shirley’s  voice twice, but it was quite memorable and truly a part o who she was.)

To this day, I do not know who made the next overture, but thankfully one of us did, and that gesture led to a warm, wonderful, and loving relationship with two of the finest, most caring, and interesting folks I have ever met. (Thank you, Dad.) When Shirley loved you, she did so fiercely; when Carl cared, you felt it in every vein of your body.

Over the next few years, we combined families, holidays, and celebrations of all sorts.  We began a Christmas Eve tradition when we invited them to our home along with our dear friends Nellie and John, who had earlier and easily become honorary grandparents to our two boys and great mentors and dear friends to us. The two couples hit-it off immediately and became fast friends. Nellie and Shirley bonded in a way that survived the passing of husbands, distance and Alzheimer’s, and spent years enjoying good coffee, wine, confidences and conversation.

We also got to know Shirley and Carl’s great sons, (my cousins)-in-laws, and grandchildren and my parents reconnected when they visited us and later through calls and letters.

One of my favorite memories of Shirley is her absolute and steadfast belief in Santa Claus. This tough-talking, hard-hitting journalist never relinquished the particular delight her belief brought her. She demonstrated that belief to us by hiding our sons’ Christmas presents at their home for years – including bikes and twin water beds! Shirley would call around Thanksgiving to let me know they had the space and the desire to house whatever Santa might be bringing that year.

You always felt that being Shirley’s friend was an honor, a privilege of sorts. She did not seem to embrace many people – but cared deeply and stood by those she did, making each feel special and valued. She was never shy about voicing her opinions, which was great because her intelligence and insight were woven within, and she never tired of disagreeing with you about yours. The best thing about Shirley was you always knew who she was and what she stood for. If you liked her fine, if not, well fine, too, and could you please just move along.

One of Shirley’s pet peeves was people in her kitchen while she was entertaining, I learned to stay out! One of her favorite words was “lovely”, as in “Oh Pat, that is lovely.” She used it to describe ideas, beliefs, food, friends, and furniture.  And again, you knew she meant it.  She loved buttery Chardonnay, shrimp, and bagel chips.

In 2009, my dear friend Nellie and I visited Shirley in Columbus in the nursing home where she was spending her days after realizing the onset of Alzheimer’s was limiting her lifestyle options. The disease was slowly robbing her of her beloved memories, but not her spirit. Ten minutes after seeing Nellie, she was sneaking cigarettes, sipping wine, and telling us her thoughts and delighting in memories we shared that were hazy, but still present for her.

We were planning a return trip to see Shirley this summer, but oh, so sadly she died three weeks shy of our planned visit. She knew we were coming though, and although it was a small thing, that knowledge has always made me feel better.

So why am I telling you this now?

Because I love stories, and yesterday, my sweet and wonderful friend Marci sent me a photo of her Thanksgiving table in-progress and in the center was the tall hand-blown gold glass vase that Shirley had given to me years before when she was preparing to leave Florida, after Carl’s death, and move back to Ohio. I had passed on the vase to Marci, the color and size had been perfectly matched for Marci’s fireplace at the time.

And, now through a series of serendipitous events, the vase was the centerpiece of Marci’s Thanksgiving table in the town Shirley was born, raised her sons, and loved – Rocky River, Ohio. Marci and her family moved to Rocky River just over a year ago. When I saw the photo, I realized that, in a way, Shirley would once again be in the town she loved for one more Thanksgiving dinner.

I thought the blending of past and present and the friendships the photo represented was touching and well, perfectly lovely. I thought you might, too.

May your Thanksgiving be lovely, your tables be laden with goodies, your chairs be filled with family and friends and your heart be warmed with memories.

Happy Thanksgiving.

PS If you would like to read more about Shirley click here. Little odd to be posting her obit, I agree, but her story and life are worth sharing. 

One Response to “A Thanksgiving Story”

  1. Mary T. O'Connor Says:

    Thank you, Patrice. It was lovely, Pat. Happy to have waited till after the Thanksgiving.


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