My Aunt Shirley was a fallen angel. A sinner and a saint. An old soul blessed with the virtue of forgiveness. She forgave her father for using her young body; for stealing her innocence. And she did not allow his darkness to reside in her. Instead, she ripped her roots from the tainted earth and blew like a tempest through her youth. At 12, she would fix herself up like a movie star and go to Pacific Ocean Park in Long Beach, where she got sailors to buy her cotton candy and take her on the roller coaster. She was a child pretending to be a woman. Mature beyond her years.
“She looked just like Ava Gardner,” Mom used to say. “I wanted to be like her, but I was so quiet and shy. Shirley was the opposite. She was something else.”
Something else. A force of nature. Wild child. Free-spirit, hippie, poet, beatnik. When I was little, I heard my aunt described in all of these ways. Her Gypsy looks added to her mystique. She had high cheekbones and dark eyes that glittered with mischief. Waves of black hair framed her extraordinary face. Her skin was olive and her lips were red. Aunt Shirley was fascinating—and as different from my pale, blond mother as a cheetah is from a Labrador retriever.
About a year after her father stopped abusing her sexually, Shirley left home. With a few clothes, a little bit of money and an over-abundance of courage, she stuck her thumb out on the highway and was gone. Was she running away from her dad? Escaping her childhood? Or was she running toward a new life filled with adventure?
“At 14, she just ran off,” Grandma Winnie said later. “Didn’t really ever talk about it. Didn’t leave a note. Gave no reason–nothing. Tore my heart in two. I prayed to Heaven she’d be okay.”
Time passed and no one heard a word from Shirley. It was as if she’d vanished. Only years later would the story come out. Shirley spent a couple of weeks hitchhiking around and finally ended up in Miami. Free from all family restraints, she was now writing her own script. She changed her name to Linda. And when the opportunity came to join an animal oddity show, she took it.
Hired as the ticket girl, she traveled with a crew of carney folk from town to town and state to state. Among the curiosities on display in this small circus were an albino alligator with blue eyes, several of the world’s smallest deer, a two-headed goat and a big white Brahma bull named Bing. There was a monkey show and a flea circus. And lots of teenage boys around Shirley’s own age who were charged with setting up and tearing down the show.
When the animals weren’t on display, Shirley would visit with them. She fed cigarettes to the deer and sang show tunes to Bing the bull. Most nights she ate dinner with the man from the monkey show. He’d make a big pot of slumgullion using whatever meat and vegetables he had on hand. They ate it right out of the pot with hunks of bread, surrounded by screaming monkeys. The way Shirley told it, one of the little monkeys was in love with her, always wanting to sit on her lap or shoulder.
These were exciting and interesting times for young Shirley. She made many friends and felt safe with most of them. She saw the world and had money to burn. It wouldn’t last. The owner of the show was a drunk who’d inherited the business from his father. One day he invited Shirley into his trailer for a friendly visit. Then he tried to force himself on her. But he was drunk and old and she was not. Shirley slapped him and ran. The man pursued her, determined to get what he wanted. So Shirley grabbed a sledgehammer and turned the tables. She chased that lecherous creep all over the camp.
“You’re fired!” he finally yelled.
“You can’t fire me. I quit!” she screamed.
Shirley grabbed her few belongings and the money she’d saved and stormed off. Most of the teenage laborers left with her. They found themselves homeless and jobless in the middle of Wichita, Kansas. But they were young and unafraid. And as luck would have it, a Wild West Show happened to be in town. Shirley and the boys joined up—she selling souvenirs and they doing whatever odd jobs were needed.
Fifteen. On the road. Surrounded by males. It was inevitable that Shirley would seek out a protector. The lucky fellow was a broncobuster named Winky, ten years her senior. It became known at the Wild West Show that Shirley was his girl. Both of them did their jobs by day and at night they’d get a room and eat a good dinner in whatever town they happened to find themselves. It was romantic and exciting. Until Winky began to get restless. He wanted to become a real rodeo star. Not some dandy player in a make believe show. So, he told Shirley he was moving on.
“I’d love if you came with me,” he said.
“I will,” she said. “But only if you marry me.”
Winky refused but Shirley held firm. Next thing she knew, he was gone. Heartache for Winky blossomed into an obsession. Determined to find him and restore the love they’d shared, Shirley started hitchhiking to every town she knew of on the rodeo circuit. Eventually, she ended up in Reno, Nevada. She never found Winky. Instead, she met a charming Irishman named Danny Kelly. He was handsome, funny and a career bank robber. Shirley felt like she was in a movie. She fell hard for Danny and three days later they married.
For a while, Shirley was dazzled by the dangerous life of a robber’s wife. Several times she even waited in the getaway car while Danny and his boys pulled a stick up. But gradually, she grew weary of their hard, fast life. And then she got pregnant. Danny was thrilled. Shirley was terrified. This, she knew, was no life for a baby. It ended as quickly as it began. Shirley took off without a word and hitchhiked back to Los Angeles. No note. No phone call. Nothing.
Her head full of visions of motherhood and domestic bliss, Shirley reunited with her family and settled down in Long Beach to raise her son. Her life there was anything but tame, however. She began hanging out with jazz musicians, smoking dope and writing poetry. Her son, Michael Kelly, was born in 1950 when Shirley was 18 and at her pinnacle of hedonistic experimentation. She loved her son, but was out of control. Michael grew into a wild young man on the streets of Long Beach. By the time he was 20, he was following in the footsteps of a father he never knew. Shirley’s boy, the son of a bank robber, became a bank robber himself.
As a young girl, I idolized my Gypsy poet aunt. I pictured her feeding cigarettes to deer, robbing banks and hanging with beatnik musicians in dark jazz bars. Her courage terrified and amazed me. Shy as I was back then, I felt sure I’d never be as brave or as interesting as Aunt Shirley. She’d set an impossible standard. As I grew older, I saw another side to my aunt. One that made me love her even more. Because until the day she died at 73, Shirley believed that humankind was headed toward an age of enlightenment. Despite the abuse she’d endured as a child, and later (I would learn) as a woman, Shirley had an abiding faith in the goodness of people. Yes, she was careless and often neglectful. But she was never cruel. Nor bitter. Nor even cynical. She looked out on a world full of violence and pain—and she saw something worth saving. She embraced the most broken among us and forgave even the darkest sins.
Once, I asked Aunt Shirley about her father. “Do you just hate him?” I wanted to know. She looked at me with mild surprise. “No,” she said. “He couldn’t help what he did. He was just a hurt little boy. No, I forgave daddy a long time ago.”