Shirley was my neighbor, my adoptive grandmother, and my boss. She was the mayor of the small hamlet of a neighborhood that I live in, in the heart of Oklahoma City, off the artery of I-44 and the vein of Penn Avenue. She had lived there since the inception of the neighborhood in 1953, her house being the third one built, and by having outlasted everyone and everything around her, even her husband, she was dutifully crowned the Dame of Wileman’s Third.
I met Miss Shirley, as she would and will be addressed for the entirety of our relationship, not too long after arriving in her village. As mayor, it was her duty and her business to know all who decided to come and live in this small utopian area in the part of the city that was flourishing to the north and decaying to the south. Her little part of the world was on the edge of progress and pain, and even in her 90’s, she somehow willed the powers of the universe to spare her her space. A lady like her garnishes respect, and even in an indifferent universe, even the gods will bow to the needs of a little old Jewish lady that refused to let time dictate her life.
She was kind and gentle, being old and seeing things will cause a person to see the world differently, but she was also stubborn and gritty, also a by-product of living through the times she had, as part of the greatest generation. She was not your typical grandma. She did not bake, sew or read, all those things were too lazy for her.. She liked to argue, because she had loved to live, and she lived quite the life if you would take the time and let her tell you about it. She was Amelia Earhart and Rosa Parks. She was a generation of woman that was femalist before it was popular. She didn’t take her role as woman lightly, and she certainly was damned to be told how she should play it. She was feisty and brave, and if you really need a visual as to what she looked like, just google Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and you will see Miss Shirley’s twin, in the way she looks and the way she thinks. She was a real piece of work, the kind of woman that you probably read about in history books, and she had lived history, and I think that is part of the reason she was the way she was.
I began working for Miss Shirley after about 3 years of living two doors down from her. I was summoned to her house, and yes, that was exactly the way it all went down. I was called, then told, not asked, to come to her house. After a lengthy twenty second walk, I arrived at her front door where she was already waiting for me, door open, and asked to come in and told to sit down. Her “idiot” of a lawnman had just quit her and she was curious as to if I knew anyone that could take over. When I promptly told her that I would be more than happy to mow her lawn for her, she asked how much I would charge. Obviously, knowing that it would only take about 30 minutes of time to mow her small yard, I could not even fathom charging her for the service, but she would not hear of it. “If I can’t pay you, then I will find someone that I can”. She was nothing if not direct with her words, and she made it perfectly clear that I would not work for free. When I told her I would do it for ten dollars, this insulted her even more than the free quote. “Don’t patronize me, if you work hard you deserve to get paid”. So after a hard negotiation process, one in which she felt like she got the better deal, her face suddenly turned serious, and stated, “but you aren’t going to mow until I tell you to”.
And that was Miss Shirley in a nutshell. She wasn’t going to let me mow for free, but she made damn sure that I wasn’t going to take advantage of her now that I was on her payroll. It started out with mowing, and progressed to moving the trash cans to and from the curb, changing light bulbs, and any and all small jobs around her house. Of course, all of this fell under the contract of my mowing service, which is to say, I wasn’t getting paid to do the little stuff, because I was already getting paid to do the big stuff, which was fine with me, and it let her feel like she was getting away with some tactful negotiations.
The other benefit of working for Miss Shirley was the quarterly Sunday brunches at The Cheesecake Factory, with her two daughters and the two gentlemen that used to live in the small house that separated Miss Shirley’s and mine. Brunch was her time to hold court, to be the chairman of the board, and she held her spot with extreme grandeur. There is something about the mind when we get older, a genetic urge to purge all the knowledge we have obtained over the years and educate the younger folk. She would tell the stories that were missed by history books and tell tales that were so interesting, you can’t imagine living the kind of life she had. I can never live enough lifetimes to see and do all the things it seems Miss Shirley did in hers, but she certainly made you want to at least give it try, she made you want to live.
One chilly Saturday morning as I drove by her house, I noticed her front door wide open. That wasn’t unusual, she was an early riser like me, and I would sometimes see her standing at the door, giving me a wave as I drove by, her short stature barely above the bushes that hid her front porch. That morning I did stop, and get out, to see what she was doing up so early, to see if I could mow her yard that afternoon. As I approached the front door my heart stopped, and my pace quickened. She was on the ground, on her back with her walker nearby, and was speaking in a way that I had never heard from her before. She was always strong and coherent with her words, and now, laying on the cold concrete, she was soft and cracking, a sign of dehydration and lack of sleep. She had been there all night, unable to get up, unable to move. My thoughts turned to pure shame as I remember getting home the night before, late in the night, and hearing what I thought was the screaming of the neighborhood cat, only to realize later it was her, yelling for me, to come save her.
She was able to get up, she was able to get inside, and in pure Miss Shirley form, when I insisted she sit while one of her daughters came, she promptly reminded me that she had been laying down all night on her porch, she didn’t need to sit, she needed a shower. This was the only argument I had with Miss Shirley and won. She did see my reasoning behind insisting that she wait for her daughter to get there before she showered. “You couldn’t even stand up on your front porch, what makes you think I am going to let you try and stand up in a slippery shower?” I would bark back, half ashamed of my raising my voice to her, and half proud that I did. And we sat, and waited, and talked, like nothing had happened, like we normally did after I mowed her yard or replaced a light bulb. Miss Shirley and I just talked til her daughter showed up, and I knew then that we probably wouldn’t have too many of those interactions left.
In my lifetime, I have received many phone calls about death. I have buried a father and a best friend, and several others along the way. The calls are never planned nor is the person on the other end happy to give me the news, but the call I got from Shirley’s daughter was different. It has been months since that day I found her on that porch, but with each passing day, her mortality became more real. It’s hard to believe that a 96 year old lady lived in such a way that you didn’t think about her dying, but she did. The end was apparently swift and peaceful, the kind of passing we all hope for, the kind fitting for someone like Miss Shirley.
The days pass and her house now belongs to another. A young couple, early in their lives and clueless to the person that had lived there before. It has been gutted and remodeled, barely recognizable to me, but I know the bones well, I know the spirit that once occupied that place, and it makes me smile. The Dame of Wileman’s Third now lives in the forever Kingdom she so deserves to be in, and in her place is no void or loss. She had the kind of spirit to take up so much space in your own soul, it made you swell, and almost burst with life, and perhaps in doing so, she gave me more life to live myself. Maybe one day, many years from now, when my time is gone and my soul free, I will meet Miss Shirley again and we can sit and talk and catch up, and she will tell me all about the place she now resides, which I am sure she has become mayor of by now.