Sunday, August 21, 2011

Shirley Jean Stryker Mueller 1928-2011

Shirley was the only child of Cornelius "Neil" and Gertrude "Petie" Stryker and became my aunt when she married my mother's brother, Richard Mueller.  They were my Uncle Dickie and Auntie Shirley.  Yesterday morning she passed away, apparently of a stroke, in her sleep.

My thoughts of course are with my cousin Connie Mueller Fiorelli, her husband Paul and their two daughters Dina and Julia.  Like her mother, Connie was an only child but she has an extended family to rely on, too.

We were a small extended family.  I knew no relatives on my grandfather's Mueller side, but my grandmother Helene Andrews Mueller had two brothers, Harry "Hap" and Leonard, and I knew their wives and children, who were my mother's cousins.  My mother's two brothers, Ted and Dick, also married into very small families.  Shirley, as I said, was an only child; Ted's wife Barbara had just one half-brother who was only a few months older than I.  Therefore I knew the in-laws -- Neil and Petie Stryker, and Ken and Jessie Kenshol -- as well as I knew my own grandparents.

Neil Stryker passed away before his only granddaughter and namesake, my cousin Connie, was born, but I remember him, and of course Connie's grandma whom we all called Aunt Petie. 

And it's because of that small extended family that I have such wonderful memories of my Aunt Shirley.

Shirley grew up in a house on the corner of Lunt and Olcott in Edison Park, Illinois.  Her parents lived there until Neil died, and we had many many family holiday dinners there.  The house still exists and was recently for sale.  The online listing included a number of interior photos, and while I was a bit shocked at how small the house was compared to my memories -- I last saw it when I was seven, so my perspective was appropriately scaled down -- much of it was still instantly recognizable even 55 years later.

Some things are different though, which is to be expected.  Gone is the breakfast nook in the kitchen that looked out over the backyard, a breakfast nook painted in bright red enamel.

I loved that house.  Even though I was only a child, it fascinated me for so many reasons.  Years and years later, long after Uncle Neil had died and Aunt Petie moved into the duplex in Niles with Uncle Dick and Aunt Shirley and Connie, long after Connie had married and Aunt Petie passed away, I started to write a novel, a kind of modern gothic about a house haunted by spirits seeking the truth about an old injustice.  The more I wrote, and the more details I added about the fictional house, the more it was beginning to resemble that house in Edison Park.  But this was the early 1990s and there was no Internet and Bing and Google, and so one Saturday morning I picked up the phone and I called my Aunt Shirley to ask her about the house.

There were things I remembered so clearly, but there were other things I didn't.  She filled in details, and she was also surprised at how much I did remember.  Both of us had a good laugh when I told her how terrified I was of the grinning mouth -- it's difficult to describe -- that sat on the kitchen counter to hold the dish scrubber.  And I had been absolutely enthralled by the fairy princessy blue upstairs bathroom which I, as the only one of the cousins who had reached the magical age of seven, was allowed to use. 

She talked about the crystal door knobs, the walk-in closets, the perfume shelf in that blue bathroom.  I talked about the landing on the staircase where the doll case stood.

We had a marvelous and fun conversation, and at the end, Aunt Shirley promised to sketch out the floor plan for me so I'd have it as a guide when I wrote the rest of the novel.

But there was one other detail, a silly and totally inconsequential detail about that house that my aunt grew up in that remained with me.

There were window shades in that breakfast nook, I suppose because the window faced east and the morning sun could be strong even in Edison Park.  The wooden booths were painted bright red, perhaps to match some of the tulips that grew in the backyard the window looked out on.  And also to match that red was the pull on the window shades, a little nothingness of a piece of red plastic in the shape of a pair of wooden shoes with red tulips growing out of them.  (The Strykers were Dutch.)

Why would a child of no more than seven years notice such a tiny thing, let alone remember it?  But I did.

Aunt Shirley laughed with me at the memory.

A few days later, an envelope arrived in the mail, a slightly bulging envelope.  In it were three pieces of ordinary paper from an advertising tablet, with the floor plans of the first and second floor and basement neatly drawn on each.  What caused the bulge in the envelope was whatever was contained in the smaller envelope inside, on the outside of which was written "A memory?"

Inside was the plastic shade pull, its cord neatly wrapped around the plastic wooden shoes and tulips.

How could she ever have known?  How did she get it?  When did she get it?  I don't know.  I don't know.  I just know that she sent it to me and it was the one single thing from that house that I remembered more clearly than anything.  Nothing at all could have meant more to me.

It wasn't my house, and she was only my aunt by marriage.  But something, something magical, made that connection from that very special lady.

Connie, Uncle Dick, Dina and Julia, I know that you are missing her more than anyone else possibly can, and my thoughts and love go to you all.  May you find consolation at this sad time in knowing that there are others she touched in special ways, too, in ways that continue to reach out and bring smiles with the memories.

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