Shirley Louise Benzler (née Strid)
17 December 1931 - 7 September 2015
This is my all-time favorite photo of my Big Sister Shirley. She smolders with Hollywood glamor and appears ready to take on the world. (Eat your heart out, Joan Crawford.)
Both of my sisters are older than I. Shirley, as eldest, has long been Big Sister and Iva, younger than Shirley, has been Little Sister. Even why I had reached my full height (though mercifully not my current weight) in high school, she boasted that she could whip me. I did not challenge her assertion. As we all know, young and strong and swift (even were I swift) cannot stand against old and tough and sneaky.
Shirley loved to skate, whether on roller or ice skates. I could not keep my balance on roller skates, so I was certainly impressed. She moved out, shared an apartment with a girlfriend, had jobs; the independent firstborn. Domesticity was not her thing; if it was more than Hamburger Helper she probably would not want to cook it and the only beef she ate was ground beef. Iva and I inherited the cooking mojo.
Shirley on her tricycle
Life with a baby brother can undoubtedly become tedious. When The Egyptian came out in 1954, guess who took me to the drive-in to see it... along with her boyfriend. Why do I suspect, in retrospect, that Mother sent me as a chaperon? I remember seeing Oklahoma at the indoor theater in 1955. I do not remember who had to drag me along, one sister or both. I do remember my curiosity and anxiety about some Red Skeleton. Hey, I was too young to know the actor and comedian Red Skelton then! For these movies, I was 8 and 9, respectively.
Iva and Shirley with Grandmother Iva Rhoades Safford
Oh, a smartass baby brother, I should add. One day, when I was five, I told Shirley I was bored. She told me to learn the alphabet backward. Was she truly posing a challenge or just getting rid of me for a while? I went away, wrote down the alphabet, practiced like crazy, then returned and rattled it off from Z to A. I can still do it, though not so quickly, and sometimes practice doing it with foreign alphabets. You never know when that sobriety test might come along.
Dad, Grandmother Marie K. (Moberg) Strid, Shirley, and Paula
Many memories center on the cabin that Dad built at Hume Lake, huset på backen (the house on the hill in Swedish). One treat was sleeping on the wrap-around porch in the summer and seeing the Milky Way as one could never see it in the city. And during the Leonid meteor shower we watched "shooting stars." I would entertain my nieces and nephews with short stories I made up, somewhat along the lines of Edgar Allen Poe. Who can resist telling "ghost stories" in the woods, even if we were not out in tents?
I remember playing Crazy Eights with Grandmother Strid. Hume being a strict fundamentalist environment we were not allowed playing cards lest someone gamble. Well, any preteen boy can quickly figure out that if you take a Rook deck and remove the fourteens you have a perfectly fine deck of cards with which to play poker, gin, canasta, solitaire, etc. Grandmother was born in Sweden. Her "J" always came out as a "Y" and, to compensate, her "Y" always came out as a "J." So when she called the (Rook) suit "yellow" she said "Jell-o." The gelatin dessert, of course, was "yellow."
Mugging for my camera. This is cropped.
Her husband Jack was eyeing the whole thing suspiciously.
I mention cards because Shirley loved playing games. She loved crossword puzzles. One night when she was at home, the two of us were playing Scrabble. We were probably up way past my bedtime. She challenged some word I had put down and out came the dictionary. I stumbled across the word "kibe," which means an ulcerated chilblain. Although I have never been able to play that word in Scrabble I have never forgotten it because, as happens when one is running on fumes, we found it hilariously funny and laughed until tears ran. As with all such stories, you had to be there.
I taught Shirley how to play cribbage and the two of us played many games of it. She taught me to play pinochle. I picked up the French game Mille Bornes and we played that. Later Yahtzee came along. Shirley was always up for this, with close friends and with family across generations.
I don't know what I said as we washed dishes but
I probably deserved the slap she gave me.
The wild child was partly tamed from a motorcycle accident that left her with a bunch of metal in her legs. Although the love of puzzles and games remained, and the love of riding on motorcycles behind Jack, in a sidecar, or on the big trike, the fiery energy had diminished.
Shirley at Iva and JR's for Christmas
Since her birthday is just before Christmas, what this cropped photo does not show is a big yellow tag she wore. It was part of a birthday card I had sent her that year and read, "I am the sister of a wonderful brother" or some such silliness. And she wore it.
Shirley and Jack in later years
When Bill and I took a road trip to California for grandnephew Jeremy's wedding to Katie, we stopped in Fresno and had dinner with Shirley and Jack. I had never seen them quite so mellow and loving toward each other and Bill and I cherish the memory of that night. It was so sweet.
Alzheimer's is cruel and was not kind to my Big Sister. She was finally ready to go and in the last hour Paula reports that she was at peace and died in Paula's arms. With these photos I remember the Shirley I knew before the disease took hold. May Heaven's motorcycle rallies ring with her laughter, may San Pascual fix her some good biscuits and gravy, and may she and Aunt Dorothy share loads of stories.
Happy from now on
are those who die in the Lord!
So it is, says the Spirit,
for they rest from their labors.
Into paradise may the angels lead you.
At your coming may the martyrs receive you,
and bring you into the holy city Jerusalem.
Rest in peace, Big Sister.