Family Stories

Ode To Aunt Shirley

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Whenever the chickens saw her coming, feathers would go flying as they nervously scurried and flapped and ran in all directions looking for a hiding place. The same tiny woman with the big voice and the skinny legs that scattered the grain, occasionally got one of them by the neck never to be seen again. And apparently that wasn’t lost on the chickens as the sight of her seemed to set off some sort of silent alarm.

That tiny woman was my mother’s sister, my Aunt Shirley. She died yesterday afternoon at the age of 79 of ovarian cancer. She died in her sleep, peacefully and without pain. At home in her beloved farmhouse and surrounded by her four children, she slipped easily from this world and into the next. And for that we are grateful.

Aunt Shirley was one of those people born exactly into the correct time and circumstance. She was born to be a farmwife and by all standards, she excelled. By the time she could walk, she could catch a chicken, wring it’s neck and fry it up for dinner. She was the oldest of five children, and at her mother’s knee she learned how to tend a garden, put food on the table and look after her siblings. And then at the tender age of eleven, her mother died leaving her to become a mother to her own siblings.

What I will remember about Aunt Shirley is that like my mother, she had impossibly blue eyes and an easy smile. She was a small person with a slight build, but had a gentle sort of authority about her — the kind of authority that tames small horses and wild children, that no doubt came from running the farmhouse and helping her father raise her siblings. Her face was beautifully etched with the years and weather-worn from a life spent working outdoors. She always spoke at a startling decibel, perhaps from years of shouting over the wind and acres and her voice was baritone and gravelly from living on a steady diet of black coffee, cigarettes and little else for 60 years.

She wasn’t overly affectionate, but she was friendly and always made you feel welcome in her home. And, as my mother likes to say, she could outwork seven men. She didn’t know how to sit down and rest and it was a blessing that she didn’t have to until the very end, because to sit and be waited on, to her, would have been life’s ultimate cruelty.

She wasn’t one for going to church, but she had a heart to serve and the gift of hospitality. No matter that you might have shown up unannounced, she would magically put together a meal fit for a king. Which was not good news for the chickens. She loved everyone she knew with eggs from her chickens and with the bounty from her garden. She always had something fabulous growing somewhere — apples, cantaloupe, tomatoes — and would insist that you “Go pick ya some, they’ll just rot if you don’t.” And then if you didn’t pick what she thought was an ample supply, she would march you back out to the garden and load you up.

In her 79 years of life, she seldom ventured beyond the bounds of the county and as far as I know, she never really cared to. She had her farm, her garden, her chickens and her horses to tend to and that was all she needed. She had four children, six grandchildren and a multitude of nieces and nephews who were all crazy about her. And she was smart enough to know that beyond the blue skies and cornfields upon which she gazed from her kitchen window for more than 50 years, there wasn’t anything, anywhere, better than that.

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Photos:   Aunt Shirley and Sean on the steps of the farmhouse and above, the never changing view from Aunt Shirley’s kitchen window.

42 thoughts on “Ode To Aunt Shirley

  1. Wow AM, that was just beautiful. You must make your loved ones so proud.

    My deepest condolences to you all. I’m sure your Aunt Shirley will be forever missed.

  2. I am so sorry for you sweet Aunt Shirley, when I clicked on the link to her mom all I did was sit and cry, and cry. It reminded me of my Grandma who had 4 children at home and also died of Ovarian cancer. She was brought to the hospital by her husband and children and the same exact thing happened she kissed and kissed her children and knew she would not see them again. I have two precious girls and can never imagine what that would be like. God Bless the strong women in our lives.
    deezie

  3. This is a beautiful ode to your aunt. No one could ask for more when they pass on. That is life as it really is, gravelly voice and all.

    She reminds me of my Grandma-in-law. She’s a wonderful cook and sweet lady, but also a farm wife, just like your aunt. If she finds out there’s a possum or armadillo or racoon in her garden, she grabs this old wooden spade handle (sans spade) and rushes outside and beats the critter to death. It’s an amazing process. I’ve threatened more than once to videotape her for posterity.

  4. What a wonderful tribute to a wonderful woman. I’ve thought before about how little a distance Jesus covered in his 33 years, and yet the impact he had. Your Aunt Shirley was a simple woman, comfortable in her own skin, and it’s obvious she touched many in spite of never traveling far.

  5. Wow, beautifully written. I now feel like I know her myself … and am happy about it!

    I’m so sorry for your loss, however, glad that she went peacefully in her sleep. There’s no better way I guess.

    You and your family are in my thoughts today as you go through this difficult time.

    Thank you for sharing Aunt Shirley with all of us.

  6. AM, you have such a gift for telling about the beauty of living a full life – be it yours or someone else’s. Thank you for the glimpse into this loved woman’s life and sharing your tribute with us. I’m so sorry for your loss, sweet friend.

  7. If there ever was a perfect person to write a tribute, it is you. I’m sorry for your loss, but I am thrilled she led such a full life. This was an excellent post.

  8. I started reading this post and then linked to the one of your grandmother. After I wiped the tears from my eyes (I felt like I was THERE), I continued on with this one. I feel like I am mourning Aunt Shirley. You really made me feel like I knew her.
    thanks for sharing and please accept my condolences.

  9. What a beautiful post about your aunt…I know this was not easy to write…aunts are like distant moms….and hard to let go. I’ll be thinking of you and your family.

  10. I’m sure there’s a big empty place in the heart of your family right now. I’m so sorry. She sounds like a very special lady. I will be praying for all of you.

  11. I’m so sorry to hear about your aunt passing away. She sounds like a wonderful person and I’m sure all of you will miss her so much. Thank you for sharing her story with us.

  12. What a beautiful eulogy. Thanks for sharing, I feel like I knew her.
    Great writing, that’s what keeps me coming back! Oh, and the humor, not today, but usually the humor. 😉

  13. I want to be just like that: “And she was smart enough to know that beyond the blue skies and cornfields upon which she gazed from her kitchen window for more than 50 years, there wasn’t anything, anywhere, better than that.”

    Content where God has put me, just as your Aunt was content to be and do with what God had given her.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Elisa

    http://www.laundry-alternative.net

  14. I’m so sorry for your loss. Your family’s full of admirable women, it seems. Thanks for letting us know about your aunt’s life. She probably never guessed that so many strangers would someday be inspired by her eulogy – you’re a good niece.

  15. Oh, I’m sorry for your family’s loss. My own mom is 79, so of the same era except that she was a city gal. (Not of her own choosing!)
    This was a wonderful tribute to your Aunt Shirley.

  16. You speak so beautifully of her… Now I know she must have been a very special person… and she must be missed a lot all around…
    Your ode is full of love and respect…
    “Qu’elle repose en paix” (=May she rest in peace)…she deserves it…

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