Dec 10

Tribute to my Aunt, Shirley Dempsey Stephens

My beloved aunt Shirley shed her body on the evening of December 6, 2017. She died after a short bout of lung cancer that spread to her brain, and complications from her existing COPD. Her decline was fast, and I am thankful for that, having seen people linger – and suffer.

Aunt Shirley was my “cool aunt” from a young age. She was an astrologer and she lived in NYC. She lived on the one side of the George Washington Bridge in a huge apartment building for many years with her only child, my cousin Kim. I always enjoyed her stories. Back then I was less interested in the earlier part of her life and more interested in which rock stars she partied with. I knew she had been to Woodstock, and still loved good rock bands. She told me how her neighbor was Frankie Valli and that he wasn’t very friendly, and how her friend had dated Geraldo Rivera who was a complete ass. She talked to me on a level I could understand about astrology and the esoteric. And she always treated me – and everyone else – like we were the most important people in the world. She never talked down to me because I was a child, and thus I was always glad to get a few moments to speak with her when she visited.

But Aunt Shirley’s early life was just as interesting, and I am fortunate to have gotten more of a snapshot of that in the past few years. She left home (in Mississippi) to be a stewardess for Eastern Airlines in the late 50’s. She told me how they served 5 course meals to the entire plane, how she had to fold up newspapers for each passenger, and how if they deviated even one bit from the dress code (which was quite formal then), they would be reprimanded.

And ladies, she told me about one of her early flights when as she was folding newspapers the pilot came up behind her and grabbed both boobs. Her reflex was to turn around and slap the shit out of him with her newspaper. He had her removed from the flight and it was lucky she wasn’t fired. Yes, that was acceptable back then, but she reacted beautifully didn’t she?

Later she married her first and only husband, Bill Stephens, who was a pilot for Eastern. Their marriage did not last but they remained friends and I got to meet him as an adult before he died. I like that they had remained friends even though the romantic part of their relationship was no longer there. She even took his dog Izzy when he died (which ironically had been his previous wife’s dog, who had also died). Poor Izzy is missing a lot of people at this point.

Sometime in the early 60’s she was recommended to the Kennedy family to be the stewardess on their plane, The Caroline. She said she got a call one evening, was immediately subjected to an FBI investigation, and reported the next morning. She was The Caroline’s stewardess until a few months before Kim was born, and ironically about 6 months before JFK was assassinated. She told me once that Jackie was very nice, that Joan was the nicest of all and gave her a pair of sunglasses. She really thought a lot of both JFK and Robert, but said that JFK did not talk very much so she didn’t know him well. In her later years, she was contacted several times to provide interviews but declined them all. She said she had nothing negative to say about that family and assumed that anything she did say might be twisted.

She told me on one visit about how she felt that JFK and Robert both really wanted to do right by the people. I got to hear the story about when Mississippi was integrated, and Bobby had intended to go down to the capitol to oversee things due to the volatile nature of the day. He gathered the crew together and told them that they could decline because it would be dangerous. But she said to me “I told them that The Caroline was my plane and where she goes, I go.” They never go to to, though, due to death threats against Robert.

We also had a love of intellectual things in common. Aunt Shirley was an expert Words with Friends player, and this fall she taught me how to be a better player. In fact, during one visit, she made me try every available letter and space to get the most possible points! She also taught me how to play defensively, and really enjoyed a good challenge. I already miss her on my WwF game board.

On my last visit, she insisted on giving me some things. Oddly, the one thing I forgot is what comes to mind because I find it funny in a way that is unique to me. She pointed to her book shelf and said “Do you see that metal thing?” Me: Yes Her: Do you know what it is? Me: (studied it a second) The Loch Ness Monster? Her: Yes! Me: (Laughing) How many people give you the correct answer? Her: Not many.

I really could go on and on, but the bottom line was that Aunt Shirley was always a delight, and always made it a point to be cordial and kind to everyone around her. She was still a New Yorker at heart, but mixed with some southern hospitality. I wasn’t able to be there on Tuesday, but even from a hospital bed, she requested one last party. She had her son-in-law get his best bottle of wine and she drank several glasses while some nice people played and sang for her, and friends and family filtered through saying their goodbyes. I hear she even spoke more than once to her former beau who still lives in NYC. They also remained friends, and both said their goodbyes. She was totally lucid then but after she went to sleep that night, she slipped into a coma and then into her next adventure around 8pm the next day.

I didn’t think I had tears left, as I have not truly grieved anyone but Erin. But I have cried for missing her several times already. But I know I’m not the only one who is #MissingShirley .

I love you Aunt Shirley and miss you so much, and I will until we see each other again <3

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