I’m going to tell you about my friend, Shirley Marks, one of our local characters.
She passed away unexpectedly one random morning last week. Sure, she was in her 80s, and was looking a bit worn and thin lately, but don’t be fooled — she was still a firecracker. Truly, I didn’t see this coming. She called me just a couple of days before she died, and I still can’t quite grasp it.
Last Thursday morning, Shirley got up like every day, decided to bake brownies and called a friend to come over and share them. He lived a few blocks away and started walking. By the time he arrived, Shirley was gone. Just sat down in a chair and … passed. He called 911, and when the emergency crew arrived minutes later, the brownies were still baking. One of the firefighters turned the oven off. And that was that. Apparently her heart just … stopped.
How do I summarize my strange and special relationship with Shirley. For starters, it’s her fault that I’m working at the Express. She started reading my column about a million years ago when I was writing for the Valley Tribune, and when the editor’s position opened up at the Express, she called publisher Charley Wallace right up on the phone and demanded that he hire me. Although Charley’s fond of saying that he hired me because I was breathing, I’m sure Shirley had something to do with it, because you just didn’t say “no” to Shirley.
Shirley was one of the few people who could call me in the thick of press day, and our office manager would know to put the call through. My standard for taking a call on press day is “Unless they’re bleeding, take a message.” Except Shirley. She called on press day just the week before last, and asked me to type up a letter to the editor on the spot while she dictated it over the phone. I sighed, said “Sure,” and started typing.
Consider that I’m known for neither patience nor charity on press day. There’s only a small handful of people who can get away with interrupting me on a Tuesday and leave with all their fingers. Shirley was one.
Shirley’s phone calls and phone messages always began with her signature gruff and gravelly, “Debra.” As if to say, “Pay attention.” Sometimes what followed would be a command to attend a certain function, but usually it was glowing praise: “I loved your column this week! I cut it out and sent it to my congressman!” (She still cut things out and mailed them — how cute is that?) She’d always remind me, “I’m your No. 1 Fan!” and would then say “Bye!” in such a way that you could hear her smile.
She literally was my No. 1 Fan, going back more than 20 years to my Valley Tribune days, and so I thought it only befitting that upon her passing, I dedicate this column to her. Shirley wasn’t merely some wacky old lady. She inspired me. She taught me a thing or two, and I want to share them with you:
* Wear what makes you happy. Fashion? Pssshh. Sparkles, zebra stripes, wacky hat — wear them. Funky embroidered peasant dress? Wear it. Red and turquoise jogging suit? Wear it. Crazy Christmas sweatshirt covered in glitter and sequins? Wear that too. People think you’re nuts? That brings us to the next lesson:
* Who cares what people think about you. All that matters is what you think about you. Be yourself, and those who like you the way you are will stick around. Those who don’t will fall away. You’ll end up surrounded by people who lift you up rather than tear you down.
* You won’t get what you want if you don’t ask for it. And sometimes demand it. Shirley called me up one cold winter morning in 2003 when our country was poised to go to war in Iraq, and informed me that we were going to a peace march in Sacramento, and told me what time to pick her up. She also informed me that we’d be stopping for ice cream on the way home. Marching across the Tower Bridge to the State Capitol with her is one of my favorite memories.
* Go out to lunch with friends. A lot. Good food, good friends, good times — in the end, what else is there, really?
And, last but not least:
* You’re never too old to drive a red convertible. And make it a Jaguar.
Sadly, my No. 1 Fan didn’t get to read this column devoted just to her, but she knew how fond I was of her. I nominated her for Winters Senior Citizen of the Year in 2010, and when she won, I not only wrote the story about her for the Express, but also delivered her award speech. She was just glowing that night. Overjoyed and sparkling. Her big, wide smile was never bigger or wider.
When I interviewed her for the story, she told me the key to staying healthy and active was to keep moving.
“If you sit down in a chair, you’ll just stay there,” she said.
How bittersweet and ironic that she passed while sitting in a chair.
On many occasions, I’ve thought, “When I get old, I want to be like Shirley — wacky, carefree, living to please no one but myself, and having a good time regardless of what anyone thinks.” But now, I’m thinking, “When I die, I want to go like Shirley — the smell of baking brownies wafting around me, and the joy and anticipation of visiting with a friend … no pain or fear, no trepidation … just sit down, take a breath and then … soar, soar away … leaving behind a trail of smiles, sparkles and sequins.”
I will miss you, Shirley. But dang, I’m glad I knew you.
— Email Debra DeAngelo at firstname.lastname@example.org; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.ipinionsyndicate.com