Everyone who dies leaves behind memories. My mother did us one better: she left behind her memoirs.
Mom started to write some years back, while attending Harvard University's Institute for Learning in Retirement. When she heard about a workshop on Cape Cod through Brandeis Women, she jumped at the opportunity to become part of the tightly knit group who would spark her recall. The vivid portrait she created over the next six years helped sustain her family when, on Mother's Day 2006, she lost her eight-year battle with nonsmokers' lung cancer.
Shirley Mae Kramer—in Yiddish, Shuli Masha—was born in 1922 at Boston City Hospital. Her parents, Mary Bronstein and Nathan Kramer, had married when Mary was 18 and Nathan was 25. Mary's family had immigrated from Vilaika, in Lithuania, when she was 10. Nathan's older brother Sam helped him come over from Shepatovka in the Ukraine, so he could escape the pogroms and the mandated 30 years in the czar's army.
Nathan enlisted with pride in the United States Army, serving as a doughboy in France and earning a Purple Heart. By the time Nathan and Mary met at a dance, he was working for Uncle Sam as a pipe fitter. And while the "streets weren't paved with gold," Shirley writes, they believed "anything could happen."
Mom grew up in apartments in Roxbury and Dorchester. When her father's iron work slowed down, he borrowed a few hundred dollars to buy the first of a series of variety stores Nathan and Mary operated, working in shifts to tend to their daughter.
An only child, Shirley spent a lot of time alone, reading…stopping after school for an order of chop suey to go…coming home to listen to Myrt and Marge on the radio, or Chandu, the Magician…or spending Friday nights at the Shawmut Theatre for a double bill: vaudeville and a movie. She'd stroll through the Franklin Park Zoo on her own, eating Indian nuts or pumpkin seeds, and most of all developing her characteristic curiosity.
A course in Merchandising at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School gave Mom an opening to work Saturdays and school vacations at Jordan Marsh, spraying unsuspecting customers with samples of Honolulu Moon cologne. It was at the Burke that she took a fashion design and sewing course, which kindled thoughts of a future career. She enrolled in The Modern School of Applied Art for their course in Fashion Design, winning a job at the Kneeland Street dress house Warshauer and Frank, where she earned 25 cents an hour as a design assistant.
Perhaps it was the stylish Mainbocher uniforms that convinced my mother to join the Navy, or her father's pride in serving his adopted country. She enlisted in the WAVES, set off for boot camp in New York (whetting a lifelong appetite for that city that she handed down to her children and grandchildren), and took the long train ride to Memphis. In September 1945, she and my dad, Charles Broner, married in uniform at Boston's Hotel Fensgate—he on a 45-day leave from his Army unit in Puerto Rico, the Navy matching the leave for my mom.
The newlyweds lived for a year with her parents before finding their first apartment in the Back Bay. Shirley was in heaven: Symphony Hall was around the corner…Jordan Hall…and Brigham's, for a hot fudge sundae after a movie at the Uptown Theatre. Charlie set up his own accounting firm. Three daughters came along: Emily (now Emily Rubenstein), me, then Audrey. After renting in Brookline and Watertown, our parents bought the home in Belmont where they would remain for 38 years.
Ours was the mom who baked the brownies, led the Girl Scout troops, and made the drive to camp reunions…even in the middle of a raging blizzard. She taught us to appreciate Chinese food, Broadway, and books—preferably several at once, and well into the night. Her piles of the New York Times were her worst vice. Except for a brief flirtation with hair dye, she was without artifice—a straight shooter from the get-go. She was active in ORT and Hadassah, and everywhere she went she made fast and loyal friends.
Mom showed us that having an identity of one's own was important for a woman and that a world of careers lay open to us. In 1968 she re-entered the working world as assistant to the master of Harvard University's South House (today, Cabot House). For 16 years she planned and supervised lectures, concerts, and other events, thrilling as she rubbed shoulders with brilliant thinkers, writers, and performers. In the process, she became mother hen to a generation of students, bringing them to Belmont for a home-cooked meal, lending her assistance and her office supplies to their protests against the war in Vietnam. As these students went on to greatness, she would warmly remember them as "my kids."
Then came my parents' retirement years—first in Wareham on Cape Cod; later, summers in Falmouth and winters in Boynton Beach, Florida.
Mom's memoirs recall her reaction to her diagnosis of stage four small cell lung cancer: "Me? I'd had a few experimental cigarettes but didn't know hold to hold the silly things. And the degree of sophistication smoking provided didn't warrant the money I'd burn, then 15 or 20 cents a pack."
Shirley met her fate the way she'd met life all along: head on. She went through chemo and radiation, losing her gorgeous white curls. When she'd had enough, she stopped the medication. Her hair grew back, only straighter; no more cursed wigs and scarves.
She beat the odds and lived her final eight years to the max, never once complaining. A clipping in her memoirs sums up her philosophy: "Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body…but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming 'Wow! What a ride!'"
She continued to devour books, write her memoirs, and enjoy her family and her friends, right up to the end. "Good friends are like stars," reads another clipping. "You don't always see them, but you know they are always there."
"Always there" is also how she describes her sweetheart of nearly 61 years: Charlie, forever at her side, in the words of their song, "As Time Goes By." "He is a mensch," she writes, "thoughtful, kind, sweet, and hard-working. What he has done for me these last years is above and beyond 'in sickness and in health.'"
Shirley's memoirs end with these words for her family: "I wish I could stay forever to see how you and yours develop. But I know in my heart that you are fine men and women and you will always do me proud."
That's a promise from all of us who loved her, as we bid a sad farewell to this remarkable, spunky woman.