Speaking her name

A long time ago, September 11th was just a date on the calendar.

Eight years ago, it became a symbol of the horrific terrorist attacks that happened in New York, Washington, and a town not far from my hometown in Pennsylvania. That town, Shanksville, was where one of the hijacked planes crashed before reaching its destination (the White House).

There’s a great project, The 2996 Project, and its mission is to take the focus away from the perpetrators and refocus it on the people who lost their lives that day. That’s accomplished by having talented writers and bloggers research their lives and remind us in words who they were. It’s a magnificent idea that many in the blogging community are embracing.

I hope that fellow bloggers will understand that I am not participating in this wonderful project, because there is someone very close to me that I lost on a very different September 11th two years ago.

I want to tell her story, too, so that people will not forget who she was.

Her name was Shirley (named, as the story goes, after Shirley Temple).

She was born and lived at the crest of the Laurel Mountains, not so far from Shanksville. Her father was a coal miner, albeit a unlikely one: tall, bookish and sickly. She was the middle child, with all that being a middle child entails.

Shirley’s family moved dozens of times in her formative years. A different part of town, a different school. They were as poor as poor could be, even after the Depression “ended.”  To escape, she watched movies and buried her head in books, which she loved.

m polka dot copyShe was a teenager in the 50s, and struggled to make friends during those almost-constant moves.

She was an attractive girl with dark hair and a quiet smile, mostly German heritage with a great-great-great-great grandmother who was Native American.

During the summertime, her dark features, seasonal tan and permed dark hair meant that people believed she was a light-skinned woman of color – and treated accordingly for the mid-50s. Her lifelong sense of fairness and open-mindedness was shaped by the nastiness she encountered from strangers (and worse yet, sometimes, from people she knew).

At 17, she met a sailor on leave from the Navy. They met on a Friday and by the end of the weekend, he’d proposed. They were married soon after, and in 1957, a year later, they welcomed a daughter.

Eventually, they raised four children. They moved away from Johnstown and the mill and mining region, and settled in a residential area closer to Pittsburgh. While her husband worked long hours as a computer programmer, she made a home for her family and her children.

It was a home like any other home of that era, filled with people who were human, who loved and worked hard, who lied and made mistakes and tried, every day, to be the best people they could be.

The suburbs in the late 60s and 70s could be a really challenging place, with so much turbulence in the air. Cities were a tumultuous ball of conflict; in the suburbs, that conflict simmered under a veil of propriety and a mask of contentment. It was a culture where drug use was everywhere, and Shirley had to steer her kids through that bumpy patch of road. Sometimes she succeeded. Sometimes she lost the battle. And on a few occasions, she almost lost herself in the struggle.

As her children graduated and headed off to college, one by one, she experienced a renaissance. She got her GED and then went on to college herself. She loved the classes and the chance to learn.

She’d always wanted to write; the movies she watched and the books she’d read inspired her. She made a go at writing short stories in the horror genre. Some of her work was published in compilations and quarterly publications, but she grew disillusioned by the rejections to her query letters. Eventually, she put her typewriter away.

Shirley was a phenomenal listener. “Empathy” was her middle name. Her children were occasionally frustrated when friends would come to visit, and spend time with Mom instead!

That empathy came in handy when she eventually became involved in her life’s work. She volunteered at a thrift shop, and it was her favorite place to be. She made lifelong friends, raised money for community works like food pantries, and became a mentor for more than a few lost souls.

Shirley’s children graduated from college, got married and had their own children. She loved being a grandmother, and her grandchildren loved their “nanny.”

Like her father, health was a gift that seemed to elude Shirley over her lifetime. She fought cancer for years, and coped with the emotional and mental side effects of that battle. A lifelong smoking habit and struggles with high blood pressure and diabetes led to a heart attack at 50 and another one in 2004, when she had quadruple bypass surgery. She looked and felt great after recovering from that heart attack, but in early 2007, her body began to give out. Cancer returned to her kidneys, and then her brain. And on September 11th of that year, Shirley passed away.

The ones she left behind remember her and carry her memory with them. Shirley’s youngest child shared her love of fictional worlds, of movies and of books you could lose yourself in for a few hours. He was a gifted writer even at a young age.

Like his mom, he let that interest in words sit on a shelf and gather dust for years. A few years before Shirley died, he rediscovered that interest. He sent query e-mails to newspapers and magazines, and to his joy, his work was accepted.

And to this day, two years after Shirley’s passing, he thinks of his mom when one of his queries is accepted, or when his byline appears in a newspaper, or a magazine, or on a Web page.

Shirley, if you have not already guessed, is my mother. I miss her every day. And I don’t want people to forget the amazing, warm, complicated, complex, loving person that she was. Ever.

So this was my memory project.

There’s a song by the Pretenders, “Hymn to Her.” The lyrics always remind me of the bonds between parents and children, and of my mom.

And she will always carry on

Something is lost / something is found

They will keep on speaking her name

Some things change / Some stay the same


  1. Tears have welled in my eyes all day, thinking of my own dear mother who would be 87 today, and who I lost in March of this year. She made her living in nursing, but she was so creative and inventive, and encouraged her children and nieces and nephews in all of their endeavors no matter how hair-brained or foreign to her.

    Thank you for sharing your memories. I am touched.

    Thanks, MJ. I hope your memories are a comfort to you, and a celebration of your mother’s life. She sounds like a great lady.

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