Sunday, December 18, 2011

Remembering Shirley Miller

Remarks given at memorial service, 12/17/11.

Frank Sinatra had nothing on Shirley Miller. More than a mantra, “My Way,” was likely Shirley’s theme song. It practically played on loud speakers in any room she walked into.

Shirley was my grandmother. She decided when I was born that she didn’t want to be called “grandma” or “granny,” or anything of the sort. She decided to let me try to say her name and go with whatever that effort produced. “Shuey” was what came out and it is how she has been known by our family ever since.

Shuey was fiercely independent, yet never drove. In fact, never even got a driver’s license. But it never slowed her down. She could always get where she wanted to go. If her late husband Bob Miller’s autobiography had a sub-title, it might be “Driving Miss Shirley.” But he never minded. He always seemed to be having a good time and you could find him reading a newspaper with a cup of coffee at about any antique or gem show.

If you ever rode in a car with Shuey around Easton, or Towson, or Baltimore, you know that she could, and did, turn every building, or home, or store into a personal landmark. “Where Dr. Detrich’s office is, that’s the house we grew up in.” “That’s the house where Cousin Nellie lived.” That’s where mother moved.” “That’s where we got Berger’s cakes…” She was a walking oral history of a place, which was put to good use when she worked with curators, archivists and volunteers with historic photographs at the Historical Society of Talbot County.

Shuey was resourceful. She collected, as she liked to say, “anything there is more than two of.” Dolls, jewelry, Christmas tree pins, Cameos, books—we’d be here a while if I tried to list everything. When she found something at an antique show, she would figure out how to get it. She might trade for it. She might go down to the basement of their Towson house and make slipcovers or curtains to make extra money.

Shuey was not one for sitting around, there were too many things she wanted to do. At Londonderry, she planned trips and social events, helped with movie nights. She was big on movies. I love the story she would tell about her mother, who went to just about every movie they showed at the Avalon Theatre. She figured out which seat was the very center seat in the theater. And that’s where she sat. If someone was in her seat, she asked them to move. You can see where Shuey got parts of her personality.

Because of her tenacious collecting and shopping personality, around Christmas time, she was the secret weapon. She was given a list of whatever the must-have hot gift was for my sister or me. And she was there when Toys ‘R Us opened, throwing elbows and acquiring the gift, by all means necessary. I think she got them all.

Christmas time has always made me think of Bob and Shirley. They were really the best part of the holiday. On Christmas Eve, they drove to Oxford from Towson. We waited to see them turn the corner onto our street. We helped them unload the car of presents and suitcases. We had dinner and they were there the next morning when we woke up—Shuey with her tea and Pop with his coffee. This time of year will always make me think of them.

This past Sunday, I went over to her house. She wasn't doing well. Wanted company. We watched the Ravens game and they happened to be playing the Colts. Shirley and Bob were big Baltimore Colts fans and they attended almost every Colts home game together. She could tell you all about the old Colts and this past Sunday was talking about Art Donovan.

I asked her if she ever, after all those years of cheering for the Colts, ever thought she'd be pulling for Baltimore to beat the Colts. She said, "Yep. As soon as they left town."

That's a statement that encapsulates Shuey well. She didn’t dwell on things. She moved on to what was next. She let you know what she thought and didn’t add any words or soften a sentiment that she meant to be hard. I will always love, and learn from, her directness. She’d probably tell me I’ve already said too much.

On Monday night I watched a documentary about the writer/philosopher Walker Percy. He is the kind of writer she and I would have talked about—she would bring me book reviews cut out of the Baltimore Sun. Percy’s first novel was called “The Moviegoer,” which instantly made me think of Shuey and her mom. She stayed in my head and thoughts for the rest of the film, very clearly. It was later that night that she died.

I’ve since picked up the book and been reading it, thinking of her. There is this idea in “The Moviegoer,” which says we all have a search, that is the thing that “anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”

My sense of Shuey is that she was never sunk in the everydayness of life. She lived, daily, on her own terms. She did and said the things that she wanted to do and say. She spent time with the people she loved and enjoyed. And she truly lived the life that she set out to live.

Tomorrow is her husband’s birthday. While I am sad that we don’t get to spend Christmas with Shuey, I am happy to think that she gets to spend it with Pop. I will always picture them together. Probably reading the Sun, drinking coffee and tea, wearing festive sweaters. I like to picture them in their house in Towson, where they spent 62 years. It was the first house I knew with a green house. I’m pretty sure she’s got one now, too.


The Velveteen said...

that's really, really nice Mike. Touching tribute to an obviously awesome woman.

Michael Valliant said...

Thanks, VT! She was indeed.