I smile, pick up my phone, and say, “Hi Shirley.” But it isn’t Shirley, its Fred. “Shirley wanted me to call,” he begins.
I met Shirley and Ken Kenneally in 1981 when Cathi invited me to their home for a party. Although the house was set a good way in from the street, I could hear the music from the sidewalk. I opened a wrought-iron gate set in boxwood and followed slate pavers to the door. The woman standing just inside turned her face upwards and said, “Welcome! I’m Shirley.”
Ken was equally warm and I soon realized that this was not just a party, it was family. Shirley and Ken did not have children and so put their energies into supporting the arts. They owned Free Reelin’ Sound: two recording studios in two houses. The party was taking place in their main home, Studio A.
The house is iconic, a masterpiece in concrete and plaster featuring a domed ceiling, and likewise, a domed rooftop patio. It was designed in 1932 by architect Eugene Groves for Mary Holland and is registered in Denver’s Historic Landmarks as The Holland House.
Although Shirley was soft-spoken, she had a magnificent aura that simultaneously soothed and energized. I was smitten. She was three years younger than my mother, and I remember telling one of her longtime friends that when Shirley got old I was going to take care of her. “Get in line,” he said.
Ken was a pilot for United and he owned a small Cessna which brought him great joy. He was older than Shirley and looked a little like Albert Einstein. He exuded wisdom, had a dry wit, and was always surrounded by young people, but his special friend — their special friend — was a musician and artist named Fred.
The Kenneallys often went out to watch their friends play in the Denver bars and I become part of their entourage. One Halloween I dressed as a black-leathered biker chick and joined Shirley, Cathi, and her two best friends, Sandy and Cheryl, to watch Fred play with his band in the boonies south of Denver. The three younger women — they called themselves the Pink Pussies — were dressed as roller derby queens in pink satin jackets and short shorts that Sandy had sewn. Back then, we all took Halloween seriously.
We had the bar largely to ourselves and it didn’t bother us at all to dance with each other. The Pink Pussies waved their arms and slid around on their skates, occasionally grabbing me or Shirley for balance, all of us parading back to our booth between songs to catch up with our pitchers of beer.
On one of those trips between the mosh pit and our booth, I heard a pair of husky-looking women hiss something. I ignored them, but each time we made another pass, they got louder and soon we all heard them say, “Girls don’t dance with girls in Douglas County.”
We laughed it off. We were there to have fun and if some people found that offensive, so be it.
Eventually, I found my way to the ladies’ room in the back of the bar. When I came out of the stall, one of the two women was blocking the door and the second one, furious, pulled a handgun from her bag and stuck it in my face. Without thinking, I grabbed her wrist and twisted the barrel away. She struggled, we both lost our balance, and I wrenched her hand towards the door and shoved it across the sill.
With my total focus on keeping the gun outside the bathroom, I had no idea that the other woman had jumped on top of me. Nor did I comprehend that Shirley had burst from one of the stalls and begun pulling the second woman’s hair. Moments later, the Pink Pussies were in the room breaking up the fight. They recovered the gun and alerted the bartender, who summoned the police.
After the cops arrived and took the two homophobic women into custody, the five of us sat at separate tables and hand-wrote our versions of what had happened. We shared notes on our way home and that’s when I heard about what Shirley had done. I kept shaking my head incredulously. It seemed so uncharacteristic, so surprising. Shirley bristled. “Why surprising?” she said, “I didn’t have a choice. It was two against one!” That night we learned that Shirley, that quiet and unassuming woman, was someone you needed by your side in a bar fight.
The Kenneallys were also into wholesome activities like hiking. I was game, despite being woefully out of shape, and so found myself at the base of Bear Mountain one morning with a gaggle of musicians and groupies.
The object when hiking above treeline is to get up and back before the onset of afternoon thunderstorms — advisable, but not practical with a large group of night owls. But we did our best with Ken at the helm, and I soon realized I didn’t know much about hiking. I sank into the boggy terrain, struggling to keep up, as the peak receded and the sun inched higher. Shirley, on the other hand, seemed made for this sort of thing.
We reached our apex as it began to rain. One of the hikers had brought wine, and another a tarp, and we were soon cozily huddled underneath the tarp, laughing and passing a bottle while thunder rumbled overhead.
Someone remarked on our false sense of security and we all laughed harder. That lighthearted sense of safety was emblematic of the Kenneally magic. Their web of friendship, support, and art sheltered us all from a cold and threatening world.
As luck would have it, I was looking for new digs when the house across the street from Studio A came up for rent and I took it. How wonderful it was to have my mentors so close. It was probably around that time that Shirley told me she suffered from loneliness. I had a hard time wrapping my head around this, so she explained. When she was very young her mother became sick, and her father put her in the care of an orphanage. It was a confusing and lonely time for little Shirley, made worse because the staff was forbidden to cuddle and hold the children. By the time Shirley returned home to her parents, she was infused with an inextinguishable sense of estrangement.
Ken was only 54 when an updraft tore the wing from his Cessna. I was living in Loveland when I got a call from Cathi. I remember watching the afternoon light fade from my wall phone, and the flat tone of Cathi’s voice. “Ken is dead.”
I recalled a recent visit to Studio B in which I had joined Ken for a walk. Ken was his usual straightforward self, and we found ourselves talking about death and regrets. He surprised me by saying he didn’t have any unfinished business. He told me that if he died tomorrow, he wouldn’t feel he had missed anything.
I was shocked. I was in my 20’s and couldn’t fathom running out of wishes or goals. I turned my head to examine his face but saw no sadness or depression, only an all-knowing calm. I shivered and gave a nervous laugh.
Ken’s wake was an extraordinary affair. The grass behind the Holland House was smothered in friends, their voices muted beneath the big trees. Their longtime friend, Charley, stepped up to the mic and said, “We used to call them hootenannies.”
Many of us began wiping at our eyes right then. Every person on that lawn had benefited from Ken and Shirley’s love and generosity. By the time Charley passed the mic, we were clinging to each other. The eulogies went on for a long time. We drank and reclined on blankets as the sky darkened. Fingers gently plucked guitar strings in search of comfort.
After Ken’s death, Shirley spent a lot of time in the air. She would pack a carry-on, slip a book into her purse, and go down to the airport. She came to see Bob and me several times, once in Virginia and once on Maui. Shirley told me that she sometimes flew across the country and back, just to get out of the house and read her book above the clouds. But she always made sure to be in town on the anniversary of Ken’s death so that she and Fred could drive deep into the Rocky Mountains for an afternoon at the crash site.
When Bob entered my life, I took him to meet Shirley and a few years later she stood beside me as I said my wedding vows. After we moved out of state, we made sure to hook up with Shirley whenever we were in town.
When our daughter Emily married, Shirley gave us her back yard to host a family soiree. Shirley had a spacious bedroom built off the back of the house, making sure it blended perfectly with the original construction. She extended an open invitation, one we took her up on many times. It was a happy place, with its floor-to-ceiling view of the lawn and gardens, flush with golden memories.
Fred tells me that Shirley is too fragile to talk on the phone and that they have called in hospice. That Shirley had fallen ill about five months ago and that he has been with her in the Holland House since she was discharged from the hospital. He tells me that they have moved her to the guest room and that a constant flow of visitors has been cycling through to lend support and pay their respects.
I talk with Cathi the next day. She says they are planning a wake a lot like Ken’s. We talk about how this period of hospice may be what it takes for Shirley to accept that she is not alone. She suggests I send a text just to say I love her. “I will,” I say. I put down my phone and think about how many of us are connected through Shirley and Ken. About their legacy of friendship, music, and art.
It was foggy this morning when I drove the shrouded backroads to visit a friend. I shared what was happening with Shirley and she told me about her aunt who is also dying. We both sat silent for a moment. “So much death,” she said, “So much grief.”
I spoke with Cathi on the way home. She had texted me yesterday evening, “Are you still awake?” but I had already gone to bed. I pulled over to talk and learned that Shirley had passed yesterday afternoon. “She died during happy hour, her favorite time of day.”
I switch on the radio and Harry Nilsson is singing, “I can’t live, if living is without you.” Next up is Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” a song that came out when I was coming of age on the east coast.
At home I pull into the pole barn, wet-eyed and ungrounded. Bob comes out to meet me, and when I tell him, he folds his big arms around me. “I’m heading into a meeting,” he says. I wipe my eyes and say, “I’m going to do some stress eating and go for a walk.”
After a bowl of vegetable soup, I stand on our back steps and stare at the ashen sky. I urge my feet into motion and walk towards the woods. High above the trees, I hear the whisper of a propeller plane.