Never Met a Stranger: Goodbye, Shirley


By T.W. Burger

As we say down here in the South, it’s all over but the shouting.

A couple of days ago I mailed out the checks, splitting my Aunt Shirley’s estate into five checks and mailing them to the people named in her will. It seemed like a fairly paltry goodbye.

Of the rowdy and scattered clan I belong to, Shirley was the best. In some individual cases, that was not hard to do, but even among our classier members, she outshone us.

She had been born on the cusp of the Great Depression in a grubby little steel town on the Ohio/Pennsylvania line, one of five surviving kids born to George, a steelworker with a staggering capacity for cheap booze, and Lena, a housewife and, in hard times, a domestic.

Lena died in 1933 from complications from a self-performed abortion as my mother was giving her blood. Mom was 13. The doc promised her that her blood would save her mother’s life. More than 70 years later, on her own deathbed, she believed that her mother’s death was her own failure.

My cousin Lynn phoned shortly after I sent out the news that Shirley had left us.

She was weeping.

“Well, the Millers are having a big party in Heaven right now,” she said through her tears.

I’m not entirely sure what percentage of Millers made it to heaven, but I have no doubt that Shirley is one of them.

In polite conversation, the Miller family would all be described as “strong-willed.” They described themselves, accurately, as “bullheaded.”

Martha, aka “Bunny,” my mom, was famous as a child for stealing carrots, hence the nickname, and for beating the bejesus out of any boy foolish enough to pick on one of the sisters. Chauncey, aka “Bing,” didn’t much need help and could take care of himself. Mom spent some time in WWII in the United States Coast Guard, part of the time as the equivalent of a drill sergeant.

Shirley worked for nearly 50 years at a local steel company, becoming what some have called the matriarch of the office and specializing as a buyer, a job that required Shirl to enroll in metallurgy courses on her own dime.

Shirl graduated from high school in some forgotten Texas town, where she worked in a haberdashery before moving back home for the job at the steel mill. A couple of years living in Texas apparently did her little real harm.

Shirley was the most selfless person I have ever known, always thinking of others before herself, always going that extra step. She would scoff if I tried to say so, which probably meant it was true.

The closest thing to a selfish act I ever saw her perform involved her love of golf. Even into her 80s, Shirley was a passionate golfer. During tournaments on the TV she would explain how well – or badly – a player was doing. She was particularly fond of Arnold “Arnie” Palmer, a pro from somewhere back in the Jurassic, whose hometown was only an hour or so from Shirley’s.

Shirley had a nice color TV, and she was perfectly willing to share it…unless there was a tournament scheduled. She had a special glare she kept for any fool ignorant enough to suggest that maybe it would be fun to watch something else.

She frequently drove herself down to visit us in Athens, refusing to stop for the night. She’d just show up after driving straight through in one of her big V-8s. I would try to figure her average speed on a calculator and never got a satisfactory answer that included a factor of a little old lady behind the wheel.

One of my persistent memories about Shirley’s little bungalow was how very often it was overwhelmed by the smell of up to 160 pounds of beef brisket baking in her kitchen for one of the endless rounds of church potlucks she took part in. It was maddening in the very best way, especially to those of us who were perhaps a little more fond of good food than was good for us.

In the early 1950s, Shirley married her soulmate, Curtis “Corky” McDonald, a slender man 10 years Shirley’s senior, quiet in the extreme except at parties, where he became startlingly rambunctious.

She lost him to the ravages of Alzheimer’s, during which he often would fly into bewildered rages and lash out. I stopped a couple of those punches and held him until he settled down. He had one hell of a right hook.

Corky died in 1982. Several suitors tried their luck, but Corky was the only one who met the grade. Shirley’s remains lie next to his in a venerable old oak-cluttered cemetery in western Pennsylvania. Those of us who knew her are forced by necessity into getting by on the memories we have managed to save. They won’t be nearly enough.


T.W. Burger was raised in Athens. He graduated from Athens High School in 1967. He worked as a driver of everything from fork trucks to garbage trucks and concrete mixers, has been an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant.

He has been a newspaper reporter since 1985, mostly in Gettysburg, PA, with various stints at other publications. Semi-retired, he is still working as a freelance writer and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek just outside of Gettysburg.

He is the author of "The Year of the Moon Goose" is currently writing “Never Met a Stranger.

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