If anyone could read minds, Shirly could. She had a way of looking at you that said she already knew the truth, and you would want to keep that in mind as you opened your mouth to lie to her. Needless to say, you didn't bother trying to lie to her.
She was born in Waltham, Massachusetts in 1922. She married a man less than a week after meeting him, and she says the only reason she waited that long is so she could get married on her parents' anniversary. She was a small woman, four feet eleven inches tall if you asked her doctor, five feet tall if you asked her. She was an avid reader, devouring Harlequin romances and Janet Dailey novels at the rate of several a week. She also loved her soap operas, proud that she listened to As The World Turns way back when it was still a radio program.
She and her husband moved to California soon after they were married, but she never lost the part of her that was "Old Boston." She used words like persnickety and trollop with a straight face, but couldn't pronounce certificate or spaghetti. She was never more irate than when someone spelled her name with an "E." She was a walking contradiction, proud of her independent daughter while still believing that a real woman never walked around while she was smoking a cigarette. She was also a devoted fan of the 700 Club, until the day she heard Pat Robertson describe her grandson, and every other gay man and woman, as an evil that threatened the children of the world. That was the day she stopped believing in Pat Robertson, for he had crossed the one boundary she drew firmly and solidly in her life - he had attacked her children.
Oh, yes, that was the other item of note in Shirly's life. She and her husband were foster parents. Not foster parents in the sense of a child or two living in their home for a time, but FOSTER PARENTS. Over the years, more than one hundred boys and girls found a safe place in this world underneath the roof of Robert and Shirly. Some stayed for a few weeks, some for several years, and some until they were old enough to be on their own. When the family did anything, it was an event. One could hardly sneak into church or a movie unnoticed when there were twelve children walking in behind you. Trips to Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm meant everyone wore matching bright red sweatshirts and counting off when getting in and out of the car. At times the family was large enough to field an entire little league team. There was true safety in numbers as well, for picking on one of the children meant incurring the wrath of the entire pack.
Somehow, though, in spite of the large numbers of children, Shirly made every child feel as if they were the truly special one. Children walked into her life scared, broken, and afraid, and she gave them love. She was a woman who spent her entire life giving to those in need, and she drew her strength from the sounds of children all around her. Many days money was tight, and hand-me-down clothes were a definite, but love was available in a seemingly endless supply.
Now, though, her tired hands are done with their tasks, and her time for work is finished. Once blind in one eye, she now sees perfectly. She often wished she could live closer to all of her grown children, and now she can be with them all every day.
The tears fall freely now, as I remember the love and devotion of my grandmother. She used to tell me that I was the light of her life, but the truth is she was the very foundation of mine. No matter what I tried, or said, or became, my grandmother always told me she was proud of me. She said that I was destined for great things, but nothing I ever do will matter as much as the love Shirly Patriquin gave to her children. She made me special, and I love her very much. I only wish she had told me how I was supposed to go on in this world without her.
I have my doubts about things spiritual, and my faith is questionable at best. But I know for certain that there are angels, for one lived among us for a time.
(Originally presented in Southern Forum, March 1995)