Two minutes after my daughter texted the news that Ashley Bryan had died my phone rang. It was Alison, one of my two Boston nieces. Her voice announced that something was terribly wrong.
“Aunt Sheila, my mom isn’t going to make it. She’s expected to pass very soon.”
“Oh no, Alison, I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’ll fly there tomorrow to be with your dad.” My brother has Parkinson’s.
Two remarkable people were leaving the planet at the same time. I sensed a connection between Ashley and my sister-in-law. Both were very special kind, capable, optimistic, and very accomplished people. One known globally to children’s book enthusiasts and one known as an extraordinary teacher to family and friends.
Ashley, who was 98, died on Feb. 4. He was one of my role models. Every summer, it was a special treat to board the Islesford ferry behind my house on Seawall Road, bounding down the path through a field of wildflowers, either with my kids when they were young or taking a friend.
Ashley once told my son, “Stand outside singing ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands,’ and I’ll know it’s you.”He always did.
In Ashley’s younger days — say when he was around 90 — he would joyfully meet me at the Islesford dock, calling out, “Welcome Sheila of OZ!” It was thrilling to see his latest paintings and F&G’s of his forthcoming books.
“I know one recipe, for toasted cheese sandwiches,” he would tell me, setting the table with a pitcher of iced tea and plates of various cookies. Usually, someone would arrive at the door with more cookies and join us. “Come in, Friend,” Ashley would say.
Once I asked him how he was always so patient and nice. He replied, “Everyone has given so much love to me, I just want to give it back,”
Sandra E. Borg Wilensky died two hours ago at Massachusetts General Hospital. My sister-in-law touched the lives of so many — not only as a wife, mother, and grandmother, but as an extraordinary educator.
As a first grade teacher she always said, “I can teach anybody to read.” She didn’t go in for phonics or whole language, but what the child needed. Sandra didn’t like labels. She knew what needed to be done. Sandra was a quiet, effective activist.
I recall customers at my OZ Bookstore asking if I was related to Sandra when she was principal at the Merriam School in Acton, Massachusetts. “Wow,” they said. “She is amazing.”
It was Sandra who stayed up all night to make traditional Swedish dishes for a Christmas smorgasbord for around thirty of her family members, complete with tiny Swedish flags.
Who took care of everybody? Sandra did.
She was a stunning watercolorist. Over and over she painted the beauty of beaches she loved — on Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard. Each painting was distinctive, evoking the beauty of those places. Really, reflecting her inner beauty.
One of the most impressive things Sandra ever did was teaching thirty-nine hours of art classes online from her hospital bed, following her cancer diagnosis in November. Those classes meant a lot to my daughter over this past year. And to so many others.
Who had the strength to do that? Sandra did. My incomparable sister-in-law. I didn’t see her often enough. Whenever we got together our discussions were honest and meaningful. We weren’t into chitchat over our glasses of Chardonnay.
No prejudice for Sandra either. She hired pardoned murderers to work at her school. My brother was scared for her. Sandra knew it was the right thing to do.
Just yesterday one of my nieces told me that her heart was still beating so strong. She didn’t want to leave this life. Her daughters and one granddaughter stayed in her hospital room the past few days. Their names all started with A, so they called themselves The Three A’s and sang to her, including one of her favorites, a song and dance routine to “The Still of the Night.”
As I’m writing this my nieces are working on an obit of their mother’s incredible contributions to family, education and art for all. No flowers please. Sandra would have wanted that money spent on justice for all (Just Mercy, which I once discussed with her), art education for poor kids, or saving the planet for her granddaughters.
Ashley Bryan and Sandra Wilensky were the best of humanity. How lucky I am to have had them in my life.
What a beautiful tribute to Sandra and Ashley. They were so lucky to have your love and support throughout their amazing life journeys.
I don’t often comment on your pieces, but I read every one of them. I love your descriptions of life in Minneapolis and am so happy you can be near your grandchildren. I loved my four years up in Bemidji, Minnesota and with the mega-drought in Arizona, am longing to live in an environment with water and sane politics.
Thank you dear Kate…let me know if you’re ever back in Minnesota.