Our neighbor Shirley, who died last summer, was as indelible a presence in the neighborhood as was her startling makeup and Indian black hair. A tiny woman in brilliant red lipstick and vivid circles of rouge, she walked up and down the neighborhood for at least four hours -- or eight miles -- a day. A vision of perpetual, steady motion, her head bent forward, her frozen shoulder curved behind, she was a moving fixture enveloped in an aura of happiness. “When I’m walking, it’s like I’m in heaven,” she used to say.
No one knew how old Shirley was, except Harold, her deeply protective husband who was retired from his career as a welder for Pan American Airlines and who wasn’t much for talking. I guessed from her height (maybe 4’10”) and sun-stained skin and fragile-looking bones that she might be around eighty. Of obvious Cherokee descent (her hair was obsidian black and her cheekbones angled high), she grew up on Florida’s west coast in deep orange grove territory where, on her walks to school, she encountered all manner of “Swamplandia’s” creatures. When the School Board insisted she ride the school bus, she refused. Her mother stormed the School Board office, arguing on Shirley’s behalf…and won. Shirley walked the several miles and several hours each way, in bliss.
Her mother must have adored her, for when she asked Shirley what kind of dress she’d like for her first grown-up outing, Shirley showed her a picture of Suzy Wong in a frock with a Chinese collar. Her mother sewed the dress for her and added a bauble that Shirley wore around her ear. Years later, she would have a portrait painted of herself taken from a photograph of her in the dress and bauble. This portrait was the beginning point of our friendship.
I, too, am an avid walker. And whenever Shirley and I crossed paths in the neighborhood, we’d stop and chat. Usually about our mutual love of being in nature. “I could live happily under a tree,” she’d say. “I could live happily in a tree,” I’d answer. When I revealed to her that I was an artist, she asked if I’d like to see the portrait. It seems Shirley also loved to paint, and it was this passion, along with her love for the memory of that dress and her mother, that had prompted her to have this special portrait made.
I was eager to see this evidence of Shirley’s history. Waiting outside the chain link fence that surrounded the ramshackle house where she and Harold lived, I contemplated Shirley’s devotions – walking, communing with wildlife, and now, it seemed, art. Harold emerged through the front door carrying the portrait. Even from the sidewalk, I could see that it was elegant and articulate. Up close, I could easily detect not only the determination Shirley possessed in her youth, but also her youthful beauty.
Colorful, dare I say dramatic makeup was only one among Shirley’s notable features. Her black eyes were starkly framed by bangs and braids. A beautician once convinced her to cut off the braids. She compensated with braided wisps which lent her an incongruous twist of urban chic.
Shirley’s smile outshone everything else. I never once encountered her on my dog walks when she didn’t greet me with a grin so generous it could fill a movie screen. “You look so pretty today. I love what you’re wearing…or, I love those earrings…or I love the color of your shirt,” she’d say. And she truly meant it. She was easy to delight.
I asked Shirley if I could bring over my camera and photograph her with the portrait so I could do a painting of her. Harold granted permission and chaperoned the event. Later that year, 2009, I invited them over to my house a few blocks away to see the finished work. The painting is nearly life size, and I titled it, “Shirley, Now and Then.” Harold nodded at it. Shirley grinned and glowed. “You’re a really good artist,” she told me. Then I took a photo of her standing next to my painting of the picture of her holding the portrait and then another photo of her standing next to my painting holding the photo of her holding the portrait. (Very post modern, indeed.) Now, added to her compliments about my appearance whenever I saw her was always praise for my talent.
Shirley and I often talked about animals – my dogs, the squirrels and birds she fed, her own dog, Bonnie. Bonnie was a sweet old pit bull who, apparently, loved to dance. Music was yet another of Shirley’s passions, and she told me how every night she would put on a record and dance. (Learning this was reassuring, because I’d never been entirely sure their house had electricity). Bonnie, it seems, also loved dancing. Upon hearing the music, she would stand up on her two hind legs and “walk” across the floor to dance with Shirley.
For years, Harold and Shirley bought birdseed to spread around the front yard poincianas where Shirley also fed individually-named squirrels and foxes. You might have taken her for St. Francis of Assisi…or Snow White (if Snow White could be a tiny Cherokee woman with vivid lipstick and wispy braids), surrounded by adoring woodland creatures and glowing with beneficence. (Knowing, squawking blue jays perched on Shirley’s shoulders as she tossed morsels to the assembly, their tails a riot of twitching arabesques. Then, money got tight (I assume Harold and Shirley lived on his Social Security), and Harold determined that the wildlife food was too much of an expense. The feedings stopped. Still, a squirrel or two would often trot alongside Shirley on her walks, chattering, maybe scolding, but undoubtedly sustaining the bond.
Long after telling me the story of Bonnie the Dancing Dog, I asked what had happened to Bonnie. Dade County, it seems, had passed an anti-pit bull ordinance restricting the breed from residential neighborhoods, and the dog police had come and taken Bonnie away. Shirley related the story to me soberly, but without anguish or even nostalgia. I was crushed. Shirley resumed her walking.