Baltimore writer Gay Jervey remembers her mother’s most enduring–and exciting–friendship.
Not long ago, I received the news that I had been dreading for months: Myra Shannonhouse, my honorary Godmother, ally and bridge to so much that had come to shape me, had died after the long, wrenching free fall that so frequently accompanies illness, old age and the kind of greedy bad luck that just won’t back down.
I couldn’t bear to tell my mother, Marion, and really saw no point. At the time of Myra’s death, Mom was 88, crippled, shackled to a nursing home and very much in her own, often veiled and faraway world. So without explaining why, I asked Mom to free-associate about her old friend, and, at times, complicated adversary. How would she describe Myra, a person for whom phrases like “larger than life,” “one of a kind” and “force of nature” don’t begin to capture it?
After skipping only the slightest beat (and, I might add, out from under a nebulizer), the first word out of Mom’s mouth was “infuriating.” Her frail voice sharpening, eyes turning cagey and questioning, Mom continued with “loyal” (to a fault, if possible, I heard her trying to say), “loving,” “generous,” “stubborn” and “surprising.” I know that if my late father Trap were looking down from some cloud overhead, he would throw back his head, hands punctuating each syllable and hoot, “That’s for damn sure, LBG (Little Baby Girl). You got that right—all of those and more! God help us all!”
Marion knew what she was talking about. Those words capped a friendship—sometimes dicey, sometimes contentious, but, at its core, always loving—that spanned decades. Myra and Mom met in Manhattan in the early 1950s when they were fledgling copywriters at J. Walter Thompson. (Although on second thought, I have to admit that fledgling is not a word one typically associates with Myra.) From Day One, they were polar opposites, a dynamic that coursed through every minute of their relationship. Mom was a shy, insecure daydreamer from Pasadena, CA, by way of boarding school in the East and then UC Berkeley. Dancing between those very different, often demanding worlds had taught her to lay low and observe—not exactly to be seen and not heard, but something like that.
Myra, on the other hand, liked to own every room she walked into—right then and there. She was a talented, bustling writer from North Carolina who overflowed with the kind of verve, bravado and confidence that, in turns, fascinated and intimidated the introverted, quiet Californian. To hear Marion tell it, every morning Myra would collapse at her desk, with great flair—wisecracks exploding in her wake—reach into her bag for some Alka Seltzer, plop it down with a loud plunk and announce to any and all: “Gawd, I have a bone-crushing hangover. Simply bone-crushing. And I blame it all on those crazy damn boys from Sewanee! Oh, Lord, just put me out of my misery now!”
After awhile, Mom—thinking she could use at least some of the fun associated with the hangovers—urged Myra to host a cocktail party with all of these mysterious (and, apparently, quite soused) Southerners with such strange, Old World names: Trapier Jervey, Ashby Sutherland, Franklin Gilliam and Julius Barclay. Mom, a Yankee at heart, was descended from Nantucket whalers who’d headed west to California in the mid 1800s, and she didn’t believe that people with such formal, gilded names really did exist. She needed proof.
Well, she got it.
On the night of the party in question, Marion spilled a martini on Trap—a cocktail that turned out to have one very long half-life. They were married for 38 kinetic, funny years—often dramatic and puzzling but, in the end, kind and romantic—before he died, too soon, in 1990.
Not long after she introduced my parents, Myra—or Beauregard, as Trap always called her (“Beau-ree!”)—abruptly announced that she was leaving New York to marry some intruder named Royal Shannonhouse. “Who the hell is Roy O. Shannonhouse?!” Dad barked, a story that Myra never tired of retelling. “Where the hell did he come from?!”
The fact that Royal heralded from below the Mason Dixon Line at first did little to ease my Charlestonian father’s view that some unknown and not altogether welcome entity had encroached on all of the fun—and was about to abscond with his Beauree. He quickly got over it, though, and grew to love “Roy O. Shannonhouse” like a brother. Myra and Royal settled in Chapel Hill, NC, where Royal taught at UNC Law School, while Marion and Trap moved first into Trap’s bachelor pad on Waverly Place in Greenwich Village and then to Darien, CT, before landing in Baltimore for good in 1963. By that time, the Sewanee gang had dispersed into mid life and the demands of jobs, children and the long, galloping “etc.” that accompanies those years.
But they all stayed in constant touch, particularly the Jerveys and the Shannonhouses. What started in New York continued at various points all along I-95 and didn’t really stop until Royal’s death four years ago, when the sadly inevitable—aging and decline—stopped it. The Shannonhouses were my parents’ closest friends for 60 years. And now that three of the four are gone, that seems nowhere nearly enough.
My memories of Myra and Royal (sometimes it’s all but impossible not to talk about the two in the same breath) start in the 1960s. When our family would drive to and from vacations with Dad’s clan in Charleston, SC, we sometimes spent a night or two with the Shannonhouses in North Carolina. By the time we chugged into their driveway, my parents were ready to abandon the Falcon Station Wagon that smelled of Sea and Ski, peanut butter, melted Turkish Taffy and spilled Mountain Dew, and divest themselves of their children.
And for good reason: More often than not, my brother, Pete, and I had quarreled over whether the license plate that just whizzed by was from Alabama or Arkansas, settled things by tossing each other’s clothes out the window and then purposely gotten lost in the sweet and sticky aisles of South of the Border—on at least one occasion requiring intervention from The South Carolina Highway Patrol. Not surprisingly, Marion and Trap needed a cocktail or two and a good, old-fashioned evening with Myra and Royal.
My recollections of those visits revolve around a large, rambling house that tumbled with rambunctious, edgy boys, a warm, engaging Mama Bear of a woman with a big smile and even bigger laugh—and a strict but twinkly-eyed father, who tried to imposed good-natured order on his unruly household by docking the boys’ allowances for neglected duties and other transgressions. Pete and I both were none too pleased when Marion and Trap tried to import that practice back to Baltimore. Luckily for us, though, it didn’t stick.
But so much else did.
It was during the summer of 1969 that these quick summer visits coalesced into what I have come to think of as The Official Myra and Royal Era, years full of sometimes silly and subversive but always smart conversation that tackled everything from Maryland’s own Spiro Agnew to civil rights, Thomas Eagleton, Vietnam, George Wallace, Gloria Steinem, Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe, gas lines, Kent State, streaking and Secretariat.
In fact, I can remember the exact day that things around our house on Bellemore Road started to change. It was July 20, 1969, the day of Neil Armstrong’s moon landing. At the time, I played competitive junior tennis and was far more concerned with my skittish down-the-line backhand and truncated service toss—not to mention that cute, roguish tennis coach—than matters of global, much less lunar significance. That famous day, I bounced home from practice to find Myra sitting on the screen porch, as if she had simply always been there, eyes glued to the TV, cigarette in hand. Without skipping a beat, she teased me about the length of my very short shorts, snorted when I told Mom I would have Tab and celery for dinner because I was on a diet, and instructed me to take a seat, stop talking (no small order there), pay attention to Walter Cronkite and watch history being made.
And, for the rest of my life, in every sense of the word, it was as if Beauregard never left that chair.
The Shannonhouses moved to Baltimore that fall, when Royal joined the faculty of University of Baltimore Law School and Myra became the publicity director for a large department store. And from then on, Myra and Royal would inhabit that porch—and the den, the dining room, the living room and kitchen of 818 Bellemore. Thanksgivings, Christmases, Easters, graduations and everything in between. Neither family had relatives in Baltimore, so we became that to each other, taking friendship out of the confines of set dates and organized calendars and into the realm of the familiar and everyday.
Although on the surface they didn’t look like they would enlist with, say, Che Guevara, both couples shared their own brand of eccentricity and iconoclasm that defied ready stereotypes. They favored irreverence, and sly, witty collusion over just going along for the ride, jazz bars and gentile bohemia (albeit at times packaged in Pappagallos and Brooks Brothers suits) over the manicured and predictable.
They stood out.
Over the years, Myra and I became especially close. She wouldn’t have traded her three sons for the world—and often thanked God that she only had boys, because girls were way too secretive, temperamental and complex. But, nonetheless, she adopted several surrogate daughters like “Gayzah” along the way.
It didn’t take long for “Gayzah” to learn that having Myra in your corner could make you feel fierce. At once matter of fact, motherly, soothing and critical, Myra was the sort who gathered up her chosen human strays—those she sensed were wild or lonely and in need of a confidante and believer, those she feared may have been misunderstood. With Myra, Mensa and Martinis met Mother Superior: She cleared a place for you at the table, cooked you dinner, listened to your stories, cagily assessed any problems—and took no time whatsoever to throw her two cents in. Let’s face it, she could boss you around. Last words from Beauree tended to clinch any argument, squelch any doubts, derail any diffidence—or start to, at least. I used to think that she would have made a great actress: Sometimes Myra didn’t just talk, she delivered, with the kind of timing that merited a stage and audience. Which, as it turned out, we all generally were.
Of Beauree’s many gifts, one of her greatest was for unwavering friendship, which could swing into scrappy empathy and cheerleading at a moment’s notice. When Dad and I were locked in the kind of battles that can reduce parents and teenagers to guerillas in the Gaza Strip, Myra trundled upstairs to my bedroom, talked her way though the sullen, locked door and explained that it really was all quite simple: For now, at least, Dad and I were doomed to slug it out because we were just too damn alike.
Then there was the time she guaranteed me—a weeping adolescent mound in the corner of the couch—that my first broken heart would mend; the time she assured me I really hadn’t failed, despite a rejected manuscript I’d poured many years and my heart into; and the time she swore that I’d find my badly shaken moorings after my father died, even as she marched though her own grief at having lost in Trap an irrepressible partner in crime.
Myra was a lady of ferocious appetites—for opinion, jazz, banter, books, argument and laughter. But most of all for safeguarding—closely—those she held dear. Deep in Myra’s DNA was something non-negotiable: If she loved you, she loved you madly, if she didn’t, watch out. As my brother, who also adored her, says, “Myra was all in.” Her memory could be long, she never missed a thing, and her inquisitive, sometimes irascible impulses kept you on your toes.
Because you see, no matter how much she loved you, Myra didn’t shy from giving it to you straight on the chin. And she was the first to invigorate—well, sometimes capsize—relaxed banter with an incendiary barb or two. Not a sugarcoated bone in her body. That said, Trap used to observe that it could be hard, if not impossible, for him to stay irritated with Beauregard for very long—after, say, she had slung one of her mischievous, usually fully loaded (and quite possibly insulting) verbal grenades across a room of unsuspecting party guests. She was just too damn funny and smart—and, frequently, just plain right, no matter how much it may have startled or stung.
I could go on and on about Beauregard. (Come to think of it, I never did learn where that nickname came from). One thing, however, is certain: These days I miss her more than ever.
Because, you see, now it’s Mom’s turn. We recently admitted her to hospice care, and she has all but withdrawn from the world. I am suddenly grappling with this most visceral and final of goodbyes. And I have no clue how to do it. I find myself pushing as much coffee ice cream as possible into Mom’s mouth, babbling aimlessly about The U.S. Open, a wedding I recently attended or her beloved “Law and Order’ reruns that constantly play in her room. I also ferociously knit swatches of blue, beige, pink and coral yarn to drape on her bed—“Marion’s Beach,” as it has come to be known at the nursing home.
And I talk to Myra. She tells me to buck up, buy more coffee ice cream and give her dear friend a sip or two of Chardonnay. In her wise way, my old ally reminds me to be not only sad but oddly grateful for the fact that at my age, there are times when life’s timetables puncture the grief-free moats that we try to surround ourselves with—our vulnerable stabs of protection—as we gradually lose the family and friends who raised us.
Talking to Myra helps me understand that with each loss, my generation laments so many that we’ve already suffered, as well as those we know lurk ahead. In the end, Myra gently suggests, we are mourning our memories—those parts of our past that, all too often, only in hindsight resonate in high relief. Our touchstones. Long gone days with their reassuring constants and safety nets.
And then she tells me to get on with it.
And to keep on knitting.