My mom Shirley Summers passed away on November 7, 2009. She was 82 years old. Mom helped to cultivate a lifelong love of story and art that helped me to become a writer and collector of tales. I was asked to tell a little about mom’s life at her funeral in San Bernardino, California last month. I’d like to share that with you.
My mom, Shirley Nell Burson was born on June 12, 1927 – just three weeks after Charles Lindbergh made his historic flight across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis. Her parents were Clarence Elisha and Anna Tabitha Burson and they lived in a small town called Des Moines, out on the dry, rolling prairie of Northeastern New Mexico. She had two older brothers, Daniel Sherman and James Milo.
One of mom’s earliest memories was the death of her own mother on Good Friday, 1931. She often spoke of her mother and how she wished she had known her better. After that tragic event, her father – a World War I veteran – did his best to support the family. To do so during the Great Depression, he often had to be away for long periods of time. During those times, mom would stay either with her grandparents, G.S. and Emma Lou Seaton in Des Moines, or her uncle and aunt, Glen and Ethel Green in Raton, New Mexico. As a girl, she experienced the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. She followed the exploits of Amelia Earhart. One of the first movies she remembered fondly was Gone with the Wind.
Sometimes mom’s dad was able to bring her and her brothers to where he was living. Around the time she was 12, they all moved to Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Later, when she was a teenager, they would move to Olympia, Washington. While there, her oldest brother, Daniel, enlisted in the United States Army. Mom remembered coming into the kitchen on December 7, 1941 where she saw her dad and brothers listening to President Roosevelt as he spoke about the attack on Pearl Harbor on the radio. Dan was on his last leave before he was to be discharged from the military. He was recalled and went on to spend a distinguished, lifelong career in the army.
As a young adult, mom went to live with her cousin and a friend in Glendale, California. She earned a living as a beautician. Afterwards, she moved back to Raton, New Mexico. In 1948, she went on a blind date with a young veteran who worked in the Santa Fe Railroad roundhouse in Las Vegas, New Mexico named James Kenneth Summers. On November 9, 1948, dad wrote the following to his parents:
“I suppose that this had to come sooner or later, and I’m quite sure you were not looking for it to happen now. As a matter of fact, I kind of thought I’d make it through Leap-Year myself, and thus prolong another addition to the family. Well, you are going to get an addition to the family, a nice new daughter-in-law. My only hope at present is that you will like her as much as I do. I do not, however, think that you will have much trouble liking her, because she is a very likable girl. Her name is Shirley Burson, and she is not only a very sweet girl, but she also has a great deal of common sense.”
He went on to write:
“By the way, I’m not going to try to sell you on Shirley, because I’m the one that will have to live with her, and that appeals to me very much. She had about the same kind of life that mother did before her marriage. No mother, the daughter of a Rancher, that can cook and sew real well, she’s a nice girl, likes me very much, and as far as I’m concerned, she is the girl.”
They were married ten days later on November 19, 1948 in Raton at her grandparents’ house during a heavy snow storm. Mom wore a blue dress, following the old saying: “Wear blue and your marriage will be true.”
Mom and dad lived in Las Vegas for a time before moving to Cleburne, Texas. On June 25, 1951, they welcomed their first child into the world, James Dean Summers. Two years later, on December 30, 1953, Kenneth Dale Summers was born. The family moved to San Bernardino, California in 1956 and lived there until 1965. At that point, they moved to Barstow, California. On November 13, 1966, they welcomed their third child, David Lee Summers. The family moved to Pomona, California in 1970 and finally returned to San Bernardino in 1971. During those years, mom’s talents as a seamstress were put to work making clothes for Dean, Dale and me. As dad said in that letter in 1948, mom cooked real well. She made the best fried chicken and gravy, New Mexico enchiladas, fried apple pies, and chicken with homemade egg noodles.
Dad bought mom a quilting frame during this time and that led her to a love of quilting that would stay with her for the rest of her life. She also took an interest in ceramics. Mom loved soap operas and would take a break in the middle of the day to watch As the World Turns and Guiding Light. She was an active participant in Boy Scout activities with Dean, Dale, and me. She was also an active member of Central Christian Church.
In August 1973, Dale married Anne Kuennen and in June 1974, Dean married Jan Knickerbocker. From then on, Anne, Jan and their families were an important part of mom’s extended family.
On October 1, 1980, dad passed away suddenly from a heart attack. Needing to make ends meet for herself and for me, mom embarked on a new career. She started a business, making ceramics and teaching others to do the same. She occasionally took other jobs, cooking and sewing, but her ceramics business was her primary occupation.
In 1990 when I was in graduate school, mom moved to Seattle, Washington. She lived in the basement apartment of her son Dean’s house and devoted herself to quilt making. I was married in May 1990 and Kumie Wise was brought into mom’s family.
She enjoyed visits from her grandchildren: Kelli Jean, James Daniel, Amanda Jane, Sarah Anne, Megan Elizabeth, Myranda Tabitha, and Verity Mika. Their pictures adorned the main room of her apartment and she made beautiful quilts for all of them.
During her years in Seattle, mom was an active member of the Japanese Presbyterian Church. She was especially proud of her work, knitting hats for the homeless. Perhaps that fact best sums up my mom. When visiting her, I typically found a hot pot of coffee waiting, a willing ear ready to listen, and willing hands ready to help with whatever was needed.