Shirley

Thanks to my aunt, who reminded me to tell this wonderful story from December 2010.

As I took my aisle seat on the tiny plane from Minneapolis to Sioux City last year at Christmas, I was greeted by a great big smile and a hopeful set of eyes from the older woman seated next to the window. That woman was Shirley.

I endeared myself early on by helping her out of her jacket and stashing it in the overhead compartment for her. We had plenty of time to get to know each other, as our flight sat on the runway for twice as much time as it spent in the air.

Shirley is a 78-year-old woman from Yankton, South Dakota, though, as I told her, I honestly would have guessed her in her late 60s. She has that spark that my grandmother had; that glint in her eye that betrayed the reality that life had not always been so easy and comfortable, but the fire that assured her if she could overcome that, she could face anything.

She, as they say, had me at “hello.” But I truly fell in love with her spirit at her description of her sister-in-law, who had been born and raised in the north of England before moving to the U.S. “She was real stylish, real stylish. Oh, kiddo… she knew how to dress, she did. And she knew how to use makeup!” Shirley always wished she had gone to visit her, but young children at home in South Dakota had made the trip seem impossible. She has since passed away, Shirley told me with no small pang of regret.

When we found out our tarmac-bound plane was to be even further delayed, we both called our loved ones to let them know to delay their trips to the airport. After Shirley hung up with her son, she started relaying to me every word he had said—while I remained on the phone with my parents and tried to make sense of the little bit of conversation I could hear through the cacophony of voices. She told me about the son who was picking her up, about her daughter, and about another son, the one she had lost. He had a heart condition, the seriousness of which he kept from them as long as he could—until the day his father found him dead in his bed. “That was real hard on Charlie,” she told me. “It was real hard on him…”

Charlie was Shirley’s husband. “Oh, he was an absolutely wonderful man. Just a wonderful man,” she declared, a smile on her face that was full of equal parts gratitude, pride, and sadness. Because he, too, is gone. He died last year, two days after Christmas, while shoveling snow near their farm. They were married 53 years. She told me that he loved to brag to their friends that they never fought once in all their decades of marriage. “But then I’d say, ‘Tell ‘em why, Charlie.’ And he just told ‘em, ‘Anytime Shirley starts to get a little off kilter, I just smile and walk outta the room. No one for her to fight with then!’”

My paternal grandmother grew up on a homestead in South Dakota. Her childhood, and for the most part, her life, was defined by austerity. She was a child of the depression, no doubt. But she could laugh. And she could love. Both my grandmothers shared those two wonderful qualities. Shirley was cut from the same fine Midwestern cloth—her hardships had only made her stronger. I was moved to tears as she spoke about loss after loss, and told her so. She simply smiled and said, though it had been tough, she was “real blessed.” Real blessed.

She was also real talkative. I got precious few words in during our hours together, as I learned about her job at a print shop in South Dakota; how lovely the dress she wore to her granddaughter’s wedding had been (“You shoulda seen me, kiddo. With earrings, and everything. Oh, it was a real pretty dress, honey. I was a sight.”); how she was a 20-year veteran of her hometown’s sensible eating support group, and how now, in her 70s, she mentored newcomers of all ages (“I teach them how to cook some nice vegetables. I’m a great cook.”)

As we got off the plane and my parents rushed up to meet me, I watched out of the corner of my eye to ensure Shirley found her son. I was attached to her now. If her son hadn’t shown up, I would have made my parents give her a ride to Yankton or take her to lunch. Three hours together in a prop plane, and she had become my newly adopted grandmother, adorable in her collared sweatshirt and admiration for well-dressed British women.

At baggage claim, I introduced her to my family, gave her a hug, and wished well to Snickers, her “sweet little dog,” whom she said had kept her company since Charlie’s death. And then we were off, both going our separate ways.

But I’m still thinking of her, all these months later. Spring will be coming soon to South Dakota. She’ll have fresh grass in her yard and leaves on the trees in her backyard that overlooks the river. I hope she’s traveling again soon; maybe that trip to the UK that she had always regretted not taking. I hope Snickers is well.

But more than anything, I pray the people in her world realize how blessed they are to have a mighty woman like Shirley in their midst.

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1 Response to “Shirley”


  1. 1 Jackie 4 April 2011 at 11:19

    I LOVE this post. Human interest stories always get my attention, and some humans are more interesting than others. Shirley sounds like a rare find …. so nice that you had the chance to become friends.


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