OWED TO SHIRL: Dedicated to Shirley Tanner Wilson

by Gloria Dulan-Wilson

This is one of the hardest pieces I've had to write in some time. But then I’ve never had a sister-in-law die before. So when I received the news of Shirley’s passing, it hit me here I live, deep down in my spirit; in my soul.

I was in the middle of writing an article on jazz when I received the news that Shirley Wilson had made her transition on Wednesday, April 14, 2010. And I remember almost being in a state of suspended animation.

A friend had come across with the new cliche: "spiritually, we never die", and that "death is not a loss but a 'victory.'" As a student of Science of Mind, I know that’s true. But, unfortunately that stuff always works when it's someone else who is having to deal with a death; not when it's actually you going through it.

I've never felt such a very visceral pain, and a deep sense of sorrow as I did when I got the news of Shirley's passing. I started going over and over in my mind how many phone calls I owed Shirley. At least a zillion.

How many times I thought about getting in touch with her, but didn't do so. It was ridiculous when you think about it.

Our children talk practically every day. But somehow Shirley and I had not actually spoken in eons. And now, she's gone. Shirl (as I called her) and I used to be so tight. We'd get on that phone and talk til Ma Bell would yell “Stop!” No matter what it was -- the kids, our men, Ric and Lou (they’re brothers); books, food, philosophy, entertainment, music industry, money (the lack thereof) and on and on and on.

Shirl was perhaps one of the most genteel, supportive people on the planet. She had an encyclopedic mind, and could retain facts and information most had forgotten. Shirl would put up with stuff I would never tolerate on my watch. Yet we were cool with each other's philosophical attitudes. She was attention to detail, I was get it done now. She was resource, I was action. She was a former librarian, I was a former college counselor -- so we were both in the educational realm, married to entertainers.

No one who knew Shirl or me would ever have imagined either of us being friends. I had an Angela Davis-Afro, Shirley had long blond hair. Not a match here. And perhaps they would have been correct had it not been for one little (well not so little) wrinkle in the way God operates: her husband was my husband's brother; they worked together, wrote together and toured together (to put it mildly). So it was virtually impossible for us not to know each other.

Initially, we maintained a rather frosty attitude, giving each other only polite nods and acknowledgment whenever we had to be in each other's presence. Still, that would not have been enough for us to have become close. Had it not been for the fact that our man were nearly "disappeared" in Mississippi, and no one had been able to reach them for two days, that I began to freak out. This was in the 70’s, and Mississippi hadn’t gotten with the program about integration and racism. It was the catalyst that prompted us to communicate, out of sheer panic and necessity.

I initiated the call. Shirl seemed cool about the whole thing at first, then she started crying, and I started crying over the phone, about the possibility of crazy racists in Mississippi possibly harming our men. We called all over Mississppi (this of course is before cell phones and computer tracking), and, using our "whitest" most northern sounding, authoritative voices, making it known that people in New York were prepared to come down to Mississippi and track them down if any harm came to our guys. Six hours and a massive phone bill later, we finally got a call. Our guys had been actually arrested, but with so much fracas, the authorities thought it better to release them.

Not only was that good news, but Shirley and I realized it was the beginning of a great and powerful friendship. Shirl was with me when my handsome son, Rais, made his debut into the world at the (then) Flower and Fifth Avenue, now the Museum of the City of New York. When Shirl was expecting Ciara Dana, her first born, it was I who predicted that she would be born on my birthday, March 21 -- and indeed she was.

Shirl and I used to drink coffee like it was going out of style -- it's a wonder her kids didn't come out the color of coffee beans. And for a person who drank so much coffee, Shirl always was so cool. She could sit calmly and tell little Ricky to sit down 5 gazillion times. He and my son were like worms in hot ashes. They couldn’t sit for 2 seconds. But, while I was chasing my son from under tables and off the backs of booths, Shirl would have a cup of coffee in one hand, and a wriggly Ricky in the other, with that ever present smile of hers.

Shirl who, being a true New Yorker, never got used to the suburbs and driving. She would drive 5 miles an hour on service roads, because she didn't like driving fast, or fast cars and heavy traffic -- you can imagine how long it took to get from point 'A" to point "B".

Shirl and I, bookworms that we were, were always reading something new, erudite, deep. If it was by or about Black people, she generally got it before I did. When I got my first chow-chow, Fuji, she fell so much in love with him, she got his sister Pucci. Shirl has a flair for drama and fashion -- we both loved hats (I always thought mine were better).

When she was getting ready to make a "momentous statement" she would put this smile on her face, pause, say "Ya know....." pause again, and engage you to make sure you were really focusing, "...it was only yesterday that. Marvin Gaye..yada, yada, yada!" Then she'd sit back and wait for a reaction or a reponse.

Shirl's sense of humor and irony made her a unique character indeed. She loved her children, Ricky and Ciara, loved my children, Kira, Rais and Adiya -- while I was yelling at mine and threatening "several heinous methods of corporal punishment", she was never ever rattled by anything they did. She was also so organized and focused -- something I had difficulty mastering because I was always “multitasking.“
She always seemed to be so above the fray.

On the day I learned of Shirl’s transition, a tune began wafting through my head that I could not shake. It kept coming back. As I was crossing Eastern Parkway, it came back with such a vengeance, I stopped on the median and started humming it as if someone was playing it on an ipod or something--"weird, where did that come from?

I hadn't thought about that tune in years. Then later that evening, the lyrics to Symphonic Revolution by Mandrill sang its way through my mind: "Day Ends, Night begins; folks are turning in; say prayers for sins. Say no prayer for me; I need no sympathy. I got love, and a song to sing. I want to sing a song, for every one. How happy life would be if we sing a song. Like a song bird in a willow tree. So content with just a melody. All this is illusion, through the world, through out the nation, it's all wrong. God knows it's wrong. I've got a good solution. A symphonic revolution. Sing a song!"

And I realized that Shirl’s spirit and energy must have just stopped by long enough to say good bye to me. So, to Shirl, forgive me for not keeping in touch the way I should have. To Ciara & Ricky, you were blessed with a wonderful mom, and she was blessed with wonderful you. And to Ric -- my brother, Shirl was truly a class act and a beautiful spirit. I'm glad you were there for her during that terrible journey. My love and condolences to you and the kids. To all the Wilson Brothers - Lou, Ric. Wilfredo, Carlos, and all the Wilson family, you have my condolences, and blessings.

Shirley has joined the angels.
Love to you from Auntie Glo

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