I found out yesterday that my half-sister Shirley died. My sister Kay called to tell me. It was peaceful enough, she died in her sleep after refusing to be hospitalized for “low sodium.” I asked Bob what that means, and he said basically your system is shutting down. I have absolutely no memories of Shirley; she was 24 years older, she was having a baby at the same time I was born which I guess happened frequently back then. So, just as soon as I was born I became an aunt. She was out of the house long before our Year of Living Dangerously.
Shirley was the Flapper’s first child. The product of a dare, yes my mother married Shirley’s father on a dare. They met at a wedding in PA, and got along so well their friends dared them to get married. She was 16 years old, and I assume that kind of thing happened all the time too – the getting married at 16 part.
Before the Flapper’s first husband died, she had a son, Brian. At 21 she was widowed with 2 children. At first I thought their father died in the Great War, later I learned he died of a ruptured appendix, before penicillin was discovered. The Flapper moved to NYC with her sister in order to work, and left her children with their grandmother, my Nana.
And this is when the troubles started with Shirley. After awhile my beautiful mother moved back to PA and caught the eye of a young pharmacist at her street car stop. Enter my father, who promptly married her and insisted on adopting her 2 children…although maybe he didn’t since they never took his name. He raised them just like his own – the 4 who followed, Kay, Mike, Jimmy and then me. I told you this is all third hand knowledge.
The family folk tale is that Shirley never forgave the Flapper for taking her away from Nana, the woman she loved and considered her true mother. Certainly holding a grudge was a time honored tradition in our family. The result of this grudge fest is the eternal rift between Mother and Shirley. Show me a family that hasn’t experienced years of ‘not talking’ between relatives; still this mother/daughter feud was stellar in its length and complexity.
Recently I found out that Shirley contracted TB as a young, new mother. She was sent away to a sanitorium and her baby boy, the one who is my nephew, came to live with the Flapper after her accident. It was while looking through old pictures with Kay that I wondered who the baby was, the one who wasn’t me. The Flapper never told me – which is telling in itself – that after giving me up to foster care, while she was still in the hospital, she ended up caring for my nephew at home. Even Kay has no explanation for how this happened.
I was always told that I was never taken from my foster parents, Nell and Jim, because Mother was afraid of losing another daughter to a grudge fest. I have to think, considering our level of poverty, that we were lucky in avoiding placement in an orphanage, all of us. So maybe it was just the Flapper’s pride, which was fierce, that kept her from placing her first grandson in an orphanage. And even though she was bed-bound, crippled by that drunk driver, she would fight to keep him. Kay was 15, so she not only helped Mother with her physical rehab, she helped care for her younger brothers and her nephew. Without Kay, the middle of this family would not hold.
In this picture Shirley is on the far left, and Kay is on the far right standing. I wasn’t born yet.