As we prepared for my baby sister’s wedding shower, I found myself heartsick for our mother. Ten years ago this summer, we lost her to cancer. The bride is her namesake.
My sister Bonnie Lijane also carries the middle name of our paternal grandmother (Lila Jane) who we also lost early–to an accident–in the summer before my mother gave birth to my sister Bonnie.
Last night as Bonnie’s bridal shower drew to a close, our father stopped by.
He leaned against the island in the kitchen and began telling a story about his mother.
There was a recognizable expression of pride in his voice rather than the conflict that often arose when he spoke of her.
At 5 foot 9, Lila was a formidable woman, even sober, beautiful, bold and big-boned like her father, Amos Burrows, who was a Merchant Marine.
Lila loved a party, but she also had a severe side that intimidated her four sons–and each of their trembling betrothed ones–while almost all of her dozen+ granddaughters (and two grandsons) adored her.
As my father began the telling, a circle of Lila’s granddaughters gathered around him in the kitchen, sisters and cousins and nieces, many born after Lila’s death.
That there could be a story about my grandmother that I hadn’t heard was beguiling–especially given the way that this story shaped Lila’s last day.
“She was at black-tie party,” he began, “Something to do with the hospital… a benefit… and she was introduced to the CEO of a large bank.”
Apparently, after CEO shook the hand of my grandfather, Dr. Salasin, he reached across to shake my grandmother’s hand but Lila refused.
An awkward, uncomfortable moment ensued.
“I don’t like your bank,” Lila said, without explanation,
“Do you have an account with us, Mrs. Salasin?” he asked, surprised by her affront.
“I would never have an account there,” she replied flatly.
“Why?” the CEO inquired…
“You host an annual golf tournament, correct?” Lila asked.
“Yes,” the CEO answered, baffled.
“Do you know the tournament has never allowed a woman official,” Lila said.
“Is that’s true?” the CEO asked.
“I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true,” she replied sharply.
Lila and her friends had applied but been refused because of their gender.
My father smiles at this point in the story–looking around at his captive audience–the women and girls every bit as bold and as beautiful as his mother (though some, like me, not nearly as tall.)
The CEO called the following Monday to follow up on the conversation, my father says smiling, and we smile too.
“Mrs. Salasin, I made some inquiries and you’re are right,” he said. “We have never had a woman official at our golf tournament.”
“Yes,” Lila replied, impatiently.
“Well, we’d like to invite you and your friends to be our first,” he said.
“I’ll think about it,” she said, and hung up the phone.
My father delivers this last line to a chorus of laughter and knowing glances among Lila’s descendants.
Needless to say, she did become the very first woman official for the ILL Golf Tournament, and though our grandfather was originally embarrassed by his wife’s audacity, he saw fit to pass this story on to his eldest son, who saw fit to share it with all of us on this particular day, which just happened to be, we discovered, to much surprise, an auspicious day at that.
There had been more than a little controversy among my sister Bonnie’s bridesmaids in choosing a mutually convenient day for this occasion, particularly as it involved travel for some of us. Ultimately, the seven of us sisters, deferred to what worked best for the bride to be. In retrospect, it appears that Lila had her hand in it as well. (Lila’s hand has always been in many things.)
On the day of the shower, our Aunt Barbara, Lila’s only daughter sent her love from afar. She also had something else to share: She told me that we had chosen to celebrate Lila’s namesake on the anniversary of Lila’s death. No one had thought of it.
Thirty-two years ago, Lila headed out the door with her 3 dearest friends for their fourth year as officials at the ILL Tournament. The women were giddy with excitement, but Lila insisted they stop in to see the newest baby in the house, my aunt Chrissy’s week-old son, Alan.
Chrissy, was my mother’s sister, and Lila had graciously invited her and her husband and their new baby to live in her extra room because they didn’t have another place to go.
Lila and my Auntie Ruth and Fran and their new friend Myra traipsed up the stairs to the room above the garage and oohed and aahed over the baby before getting on the road.
With a broad sweeping gesture, Lila said to my Aunt Chris: “We’re off. The whole house is yours. Enjoy!”
They moved out the next day.
Just after 3 pm that very afternoon, four women perished in a fiery collision atop a bridge, heading into Philadelphia.
Once the bodies were identified, the empty house filled with family.
With children and grandchildren and aunts and uncles.
Though she left of us much too early, Lila lives on.
She lives on in the spirit and smiles and boldness of her children–and their children–and their children’s children–and she lives on in her namesake, whom she never met, and whose bridal shower uplifts this day in the lives of all those who love her.
As my father finishes smiling about his mother, we offer him food from the leftover platters catered by a young man named Alan, a cousin on my mother’s side.
The last head Lila kissed before she was gone.
July 18, 2010, Cape May County
For more on the loss of Lila, including details of “the accident” that took her life and the life of her friends, click here.