My Gram, Shirlee Jean Winans, passed away a few days before Christmas at the age of 79. She was predeceased by her loving husband of 32 years, Captain Gilbert L. Winans, US Navy. I always saw Gram’s strong personality and looks as a mashup of Lucille Ball and Bette Davis.
Bette Davis, a Shirlee Winans lookalike
She was very opinionated and animated, liked to pepper her vocabulary with swear words and colloquialisms, and saw herself as someone who stood up against injustice. She was politically active and donated to various nonprofit organizations as well as the campaigns of various Republicans including John McCain and George W. Bush. She absolutely loathed Bill and Hillary Clinton and disliked Barack Obama.
My Grandmother Shirlee had many animated facial expressions. Communicating with her was at times like watching an episode of “I Love Lucy
To her kids she was known as “Mom,” to her grandkids “Gram,” and to everyone else, “Shirlee.”
Shirlee was born May 21, 1935 in Wapato, Washington, the oldest of eight children of Homer and Emily Barry. Her maternal side was O’Leary making both sides of her family strongly Irish.
Her Irish immigrant grandparents were migrant workers, apple pickers, who worked the fertile valley near Yakima, Washington. According to her, she had to move house every few months when her father would gamble and drink away his earnings.
A childhood memory of Shirlee’s was one where she would walk halfway to school and hide her shoes in the bushes, walking the rest of the way to school barefoot. She felt embarrassed because many of the children at her school were too poor to own shoes. She went to elementary school with a mixed group of people including children of immigrants and members of the Yakama Indian Tribe (who the nearby city of Yakima was named after). At an early age she learned tolerance, but this would change during WWII when the US rallied against the “Japs” and the “Krauts.” From her WWII memories and the propaganda she was innudated with, Shirlee would carry a lifelong suspicion towards Asians in general who she called “Orientals,” and after 9/11 she had a deep suspicion towards Arabs, often confusing local turbaned Sikhs who worked in Marysville area gas stations for Afghanis, thinking they were members of Al Qaeda.
As a teenager she played semi-pro women’s softball with the Yakima Apple Queens. After a disagreement with her father, she dropped out of high school and ran away from home at the tender age of 15 where she lived and worked in a hotel in Seattle’s Belltown.
A year or so later, Shirlee dyed her hair, lied about her age and joined the Navy in San Diego, California. This was where she met her 1st husband Richard Powell as he was in the US Marine Corps Stationed nearby.
When living on the military base of Fort Lejune, North Carolina in the 1950s she worked as a carhop, a waitress on rollerskates. When the proprietor of the restaurant told her not to serve black customers, she quit on the spot, throwing her apron on the ground and rollerskating away.
She was born “Shirley Barry” and changed the spelling of her name, Shirley to “Shirlee” to avoid confusion with Shirley Temple.
Shirlee had five children, including two who are Deaf, with her first husband, Richard A. Powell. She raised her family in Alexandria, VA which included two sons of her late second husband, Preston Millard. She was a very social person enabling her to be a successful real estate broker in Virginia and Maryland for many years.
She was an animal lover and through the years owned dogs, cats, chickens, pigs, goats, donkeys and horses. She grew up on a farm so in her retirement she wanted to have a farm atmosphere much to the chagrin of her husband Gil who had to shovel the “horse shit” on a daily basis. Gil told me one of the reasons why he joined the Navy was because in Michigan he had an option of “…either shoveling horse shit and milking the cows or joining the military. So I joined the Navy…and now here I am, shoveling horse shit again.”
Shirlee and Gil had a fluctuating amount of dogs, mostly obese Lab mixes. Duke and Shannon came with her from Virginia when she moved to Marysville, Washington in 1988. After Duke and Shannon, she was convinced that animal names had to have a “y” or “ie” on the end of the name otherwise the animals wouldn’t know their own name. Lucy and Annie soon followed. Then Mokie and Daisy and Buddy and dozens of others through the years. She also had a couple of pot bellied pigs, Barney and Penny. The spot at the bottom of the hill where Gil would bury the deceased animals with his tractor is a veritable pet cemetery.
Shirlee mostly stayed home during her retirement where she would field various family dramas, but had plenty of peace and quiet with her dogs in between. She liked to talk to the television as if the news anchors could hear her. She was always around to listen to anyone’s worries and was quick to help out in any way she could.
When I was estranged from my father for about 10 years, she would help me out if I ever fell into financial trouble. Gil and Gram gave me my first car, a 1982 Chevy S-10 that Gil had salvaged and fixed up. When I moved to Oakland, California in 2002, I gave the truck back to them and they gifted it to my cousin Jonathan, giving me a little money to help me with my move.
Gil and Gram were always there for me and Gram had kind words of encouragement and support for all of her kids and grandkids. She could be difficult to deal with and impossible to argue with, but she was a kind soul and had love for her family and her animals. If you crossed her and became her enemy, she was ruthless and unrelenting. Luckily for us, we were related to her and she bestowed plenty of love on us.
Later in life she suffered from dementia after the death of her husband Gil a few years ago. She would often forget that Gil had died and would ask where he was. She forgot names and faces and was often very frustrated, sometimes violent because of her dementia. She had a brief illness and was placed in the hospital. She died peacefully in her sleep in Everett, Washington on Sunday, December 21, 2014.
Gram had plenty of great quotes which I remember. Here are some of my favorites below.
Rest In Peace Gram, thank you for everything. Miss you and love you Gram.
RIP “Gram” Shirlee Winans, 1935-2014
My favorite quotes from my Grandmother, Shirlee “Gram” Winans:
“Back then the police would just drive you home if you were drunk off your ass” (referring to the few times Washington DC area cops would drive her home instead of arrest her for drunk driving).
“I remember Chubby Checker, he was chubby! He let me sit on his knee. I was drunk off my ass and danced on top of his piano.”
“The only ones who did drugs in my day were the Indians and the musicians.”
“I pay your salary!” (Said to a Marysville police officer who pulled her over for speeding. She blew cigarette smoke in his face and berated him so heavily that he gave up, ripping up the speeding ticket he was about to give her).
“Well, it’s better than a kick in the ass.” (That’s what she would say referring to any small victory, like winning $5 on a lotto ticket).
“Do you know why all The Afghanis own all of the gas stations in Marysville? Al Qaeda.” (When the nation was in post 9/11 hysteria, I was in the car with her, she was referring to a turbaned Sikh working at a Marysville, WA area gas station and mistakenly thought he was from Afghanistan)
“He’s an ornery old fart” (referring to her husband Gil as if he wasn’t there but he was in the kitchen with us and clearly overheard)
“That dumb sonofabitch” (referring to Bill Clinton while watching Fox News)
“Will you look at that dumb sonofabitch” (referring to Barack Obama while watching Fox News)
“I worked hard my whole goddamn life” (how she might end any heated discussion, exasperated, tired of the argument)
Her red bumper sticker: “Clinton” (the C shaped like the communist hammer and sickle)
Gil’s bumper sticker: “I’m NRA and I vote.”
“That’s my little girl,” (referring to her beloved terrier, Sandy).
“How are you, sport? Help yourself to some food in the kitchen, love” (She called any of her 15 Grandkids “Sport” or “Love” as an affectionate nickname. She recalled her own Irish grandmother referring to her as “Love” when she was a child).
RIP “Gram” Shirlee Winans, 1935-2014.