Oh, the joy of knowing and loving Sharon

“You old enough to drink?” she whispered, with a mischievous grin on her face and a Miller Genuine Draft in her hand.

“If you are, there you go,” she said, laughing, as she sat the gold can by my foot. “If you’re not, don’t get caught.”

It was my first time sitting on hallowed bleachers in what was historically known as The Wilkinson Section at the races. I was young and dumb and unaccustomed to this ritual.

But I had a guide to help me navigate.

Sharon K Wilkinson, also known as Ronnie’s Sharon (because there were two Sharons in the family), also known as Aunt Sharon, was that guide.

Oh the joy of having Sharon as my mentor.

“I’ll teach you how to be a Wilkinson,” she told me on that hot summer day, while she smoothed down the side of her hair. “You’s will get the hang of it, dang it!”

If anyone knew how to be a Wilkinson wife, she certainly did. She was married to my husband’s horse-riding, gruff-talking, car-racing, tractor-collecting Uncle Ronnie.

“I’m just a good hearted woman in love with a good-timin’ man,” she’d laugh, referencing the Waylon Jennings song she said described her life. “We’ve had our ups, we’ve had our downs, but damn it, I love that old man.”

Oh the joy of hearing Sharon describe marriage.

As the time grew near for me to become a bride, the bond between Sharon and I grew. At the time, she owned a little flower/craft trailer next to Uncle Ronnie’s mechanics shop. Having that ability, she offered to help me make all the flowers for my nuptials with her nephew.

We’d spend hours at the kitchen table, talking and making bouquets. We’d gossip over drinks and then she’d eat Doritos to hide the fact she’d been “drinkin’ on the job.” Uncle Ronnie, she said, wouldn’t approve of that. Turns out, he hated the smell of Doritos even more than the scent of Genuine Draft.

“Keep those things away from me,” she exclaimed. “Whew, the old man doesn’t like me eatin’ those chips! He says you’s and I are up to no good!”

Oh the joy of becoming Sharon’s friend.

A few years later, when my husband and I owned a bar and grill in Elgin, I needed help over the lunch hour.

“I got some time to kill,” Sharon exclaimed one afternoon as we chatted. “I can sling around some specials.”

And so began our working relationship. Every day, from 11 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., I cooked and Sharon slung around the specials.

She’d cluck around the tables, telling the co-op guys they needed to work harder, telling the ladies their “hairs looked good,” and telling the old guys their lunch tabs were getting too high.

“Time to pay the piper,” she exclaim, waving their bills in the air until they were pleasantly shamed into handing over the cash.

“And don’t forget to tip me! I don’t come cheap!” she’d lovingly rib them, until she had an extra dollar in the pocket of her blinged-out jeans.

Over the course of one particular year, the lunch crowd spent their food-eating time watching the OJ Simpson trial on the big screen. She’d offer her two-cents worth about his guilt and rant in the kitchen to me about how long the trial was taking.

The day the verdict was supposed to come in, she ran to the kitchen, waving a dish towel and yelling at the top of her lungs, to me, “The jury’s in! The jury’s in! Let the damn cheeseburgers burn!”

And so I did . . . I stood next to Sharon in the main room in front of the TV, with smoke rolling out of the kitchen and smoke rolling out of her ears on that infamous day.

Oh, the joy of being Sharon’s co-worker.

Later on in life, we moved away from Elgin but every time we returned we were greeted by intense hugs from that fabulous lady wearing a Husker sweatshirt, with her shiny earrings dancing about as she complimented us on our looks.

“Good lookin’ people, that’s what I’m talkin’ about,” she’d say, never realizing that she was probably the most beautiful in that entire room.

She’d fill us in on her exploits at bingo, while beating us at pitch.

She’d sigh if she ate too much pie and say it was time to “get the old man home before it gets dark and he gets cranky.”

Oh, the joy of being in her family.

When Uncle Ronnie died, Sharon was determined to celebrate his life and not just mourn his death. Despite her bad back, she got up and danced with each of her Wilkinson nephews to her trademark Waylon Jennings song . . . right there during the funeral, smiling and remembering the man she’d spent decades with.

When it came time to leave the cemetery, she patted Ronnie’s coffin and told him “I’ll see ya’ in just a little while.”

Oh, the joy (and sorrow) in Sharon’s promises.

The last time I saw Sharon, we were sitting at her little kitchen table, on chairs that I swear had been there since the 1970s. She was still talking about painting the walls in her bathroom (which was her never-ending goal that resulted in painting every wall in the house and then changing her mind). She was worried about all the apples falling off the tree in the back yard and subsequently going to waste. Someone patched her roof and a red Cardinal was living outside her kitchen window, she said.

And she was a little lonely.

“The kids come to visit all the time and I go down to the center for lunch and I get downtown every day, but things just ain’t the same, ya’ know?” she said, as she reached out her hand for me to hold. “Damn it, I miss the old man.”

We talked about her old life and her new life. We talked about how she used to be able to “dance up a storm” and “nowadays I can’t do a darn thing without taking all my medication.”

When it was time for me to leave, we embraced on her front porch and I told her that I loved her.

She looked me deep in the eyes and said I was supposed “to watch after My Patrick.”

I knew what that meant . . . since my husband’s teenage years, she’d declared that he looked like her celebrity crush, Patrick Swayze.

I promised to look after Her Patrick, but also warned her that looking after my guy was about as hard as it was for her to look after her guy when he was still here.

“Good point,” she said, throwing back her head in laughter. “Oh hell, do what ya’ can! Just you’s two remember I love ya.’”

For some reason, this past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about Sharon. I don’t know why necessarily. She’s been gone for about two years now. It’s probably because I heard an old Waylon song on the radio and I could picture her dancing and swinging her purse in the stands at the races. I’ve been thinking about the good times in her little house on the west side of town and the way her laughter pierced the noise of any and all venues. I remember her hard working attitude and how she really, honestly, truly cared about us all.

Oh, the joy of knowing and loving Sharon.

 

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