“Oh, honey!” Meet Belle of Steel #16 June Simmons Phillips

June Phillips never met a stranger in her life.  Her attribute as the penultimate people person made her one of the most successful women’s wardrobe mavens in Fort Worth, Texas. If one needed the perfect outfit, you called upon June. June loved to work.  Her career in women’s wear sales spanned over sixty years in some of Fort Worth’s most iconic boutiques.  The patrons of Wally Williams, Edison’s, Margo’s La Mode, HR Lowes, and Leon’s knew that no matter what the event, June would have them impeccably dressed.

june phillipsbestAs for her own style, avante –garde fits the bill.  June always made her own unique fashion statement with beautifully cut suits, designer dresses, and matching scarves, hats, shoes and jewelry. Her signature was her hats. In her later years, she didn’t like carrying a purse, afraid she would leave it somewhere.  Her ample bosom served as storage for her lipstick, cell phone, keys and credit card, which she would never leave without.

Growing up as an only child of two adoring parents, June considered her father a driving force in her life. She believed he taught her the tenants of life without gender stereotype. Once, he tied boxing gloves on her to show her how to take and throw a powerful punch.  Matching her up with a boy her own age, he taught her to spar.  The young boy reached back and threw June a hard punch to her face.  It hurt and stung, making her cry.  “That’s okay,” her Dad said.  “That’s how it feels. Now let him have it.”  June wiped tears away from her face and delivered a blow hard enough to knock the young boy off his feet.  She got a thumbs up from her “Pops.”

It was this steely toughness and plucky grit that gave June the strength and courage to take on any challenge handed to her.  Behind her perfect makeup, ruby red lipstick and lovely skin, she was no showy flower, she was one of the most brutally honest and remarkable women her friends had ever seen.   June was a consummate story teller.  They always began with an intense flash of consternation in her eyes. When relating life lessons from her parents, her eyes filled with tears. She described her childhood as “14 carat gold.”  As for time with family? She was heard to frequently say “Hold your memories close, for they are golden and never to return.”

June loved to sing. Loudly. She was admitted to Julliard School of Music.  But having met a dashing young man, her plans changed after her father’s warning. “You can leave home, study with the best, and have a songster’s career, or you can choose to have a family. Not both.”  June chose family and never looked back. She sang at every party and gathering.  Remarkabley in Pre-Vatican II times, she was ensconced as the only divorced and Protestant member of St. Peter’s Catholic Church choir.

June sized you up with a knowing eye, engaged you with a bright smile, and drew you in with a mesmerizing gaze. As a customer, she’d have you instantly pegged.  “Hi, honey, what’s your name?” was her classic opening line.  Managing to engage and delight, she almost always  closed a sale.  June educated herself about retail, her merchandise and her customers. With a heart for people and lovely things, she was truly interested in making someone feel like a million bucks.  She would bring out two or three choices of outfits, carefully selected for her customer which they simply “couldn’t live without!” She would tell you what looked right and definitely identify what didn’t. She’d match your personality with your zodiac sign.

One particular June story which gives way to her scrappyness had to do with the proceeds from sales. June worked on commissions and worked hard for them. After one particularly successful sale, during which she sold two ladies thousands of dollars of merchandise, another clerk claimed they were her clients. “Oh, no they’re not, sister. I emptied those ladies pockets with my skills. Those were my loyal customers. I know them like I know the back of my hand.  Which soon is gonna make its way to your  face if you don’t give me back my money.”  This led to an actual rolling-on-the-floor, hair-pulling, nail-scratching brawl at Wally Williams. At one point, her foe ripped off June’s hair clip. Her perfectly coiffed curls fell to her shoulders. Although the other woman was quite larger in stature, June got in her licks. Once the manager broke it up, June straightened her skirt, put her hair back up in the clip and threatened, “Honey, if you ever try that again, you better run for your life!” Wherein, the clerk quit and was never to return.

Cultivating deep friendships, June endeared herself to her companions. She doted over her second husband, Allan. Thirteen years her senior, she knew from the moment their eyes met in an elevator, that he was the love of her life.  They lived in a petite, two bedroom home just a few blocks from June’s parents, to whom she was still very close.  When Allan went to collect June’s things, he was surprised there were not more clothes and shoes.  “Oh, honey.  It’s not all in the bedroom. There’s a whole ‘nuther mess of it up in the attic.”  June’s father wryly pointed to the ceiling.  Alan had no idea now he would store box after box of hats, shoes, and racks of clothes.  He suggested that maybe she should give some of it away to charity.  But June didn’t see obstacles.  Only solutions.  “Honey, why say no, when yes means so much.”  With a sheepish grin, Allan gave in.  But before loading them up, he consulted with his brother on how to turn the spare bedroom into a closet, suspending multiple racks from the beams in the ceiling.

In 1975, while working at Margo’s La Mode, June hand-picked her son’s wife. A lovely, young eighteen-year-old blond with peaches and cream skin walked into the store shopping for an Easter dress.  When June first spotted her, she strode over and remarked, “Honey, you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.  I think you would be perfect for my only son.” Sure enough, a few months after dating, Lisa Ferguson became Raul Pena’s wife.  Having been married for over forty years, they now have two adult children.  June adored matchmaking and love stories.  Intent on finding her grandson a mate, one day she rang him up. “Nathan, I’ve found the perfect girl for you. She is beautiful with brown, sparkling eyes!”  Skeptical, Nathan asked “Okay. Where did you meet her?” June’s answer? “Oh, honey. I haven’t met her yet. She’s the underarm deodorant model in my magazine!”

Despite her strength and independence, June never learned to drive. Allan took her to and from work.  June also didn’t like to cook. So every night, they would eat out deliciously, many times meeting up with life-long friends.  Her quick wit and salty tongue would have everyone at the table in stitches.  The staff and owners of her favorite spots knew and loved Miss June and Mister Allan by name.  Often describing them as the grandparents they never knew. Their booth was regularly reserved and waiting.  In fact, The Café, a longtime Fort Worth eatery on Montgomery Street served as the breakfast version of “Cheers” -where everyone knew their name.  A poem that June wrote about the establishment is posted on the cash register.  When June became ill, The Café had their customary breakfast delivered to the hospital. june phillips

June loved Halloween and many of her friends and colleagues recall her festive Halloween parties. Their quaint home was annually festooned with pumpkins and colorful goblins. June’s costumes and witch’s hats were notorious. How ironic that in 2016, on her most favorite of holidays, June was given her death sentence.  Experiencing some vertigo and recent falls, June received a horrific diagnosis. She had the worst of all brain cancers, a glioblastoma, Stage IV.  At age 79, rosy-cheeked and in perfect health, she was incredulous that she was told she had only months to live. To her shocked family and friends, she remarked “Nobody lives forever, honey! I’m not afraid to die. But I’m gonna give this thing a helluva fight.”

She chatted up folks until the day she died. While having an early morning blood draw, she queried her phlebotomist, “Honey, when’s your birthday?  What’s your sign?” holding out her arm.  “I think I’m a Scorpio,” the tech replied.  “Oh yeah? Me too, honey. That means we’re resourceful, brave, passionate, and stubborn as all get out! But a true friend.”  The lab tech smiled. Yep, that was June.

On one of her last days, she held the hand of another Belle of Steel, Edmee Baird.  ‘Honey, let’s say part of the rosary.”  June was a Catholic for that day. They began the Glory Be. Edmee had tears in her eyes, “But what am I going to do without my best friend?” June’s voice was stoic. “Don’t cry for me gal. You’ve got more life to live.  If this whole thing is terminal, I’ve had a good one.  I have a wonderful son.  I hand-picked his wife.  I was given a second chance at love and have a fabulous husband.  I’ve lived life to the fullest every day.  If this is it, it’s all been grand.”  They completed a decade of the rosary.  June died the next day.  AgeView Press is proud to celebrate the indominatable spirit of Belle of Steel  #16, June Phillips. She forever left her mark and cast her spell of love on her corner of the world.

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Grief, Time and Love

Sometimes in life you can’t understand a concept until going through it yourself. Death of someone you love. Extraordinary grief. That has been the case for me since Jan of 2017.  January 9, 2017 rocked my world as I knew it. My youngest son, Harrison died from complications of Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy after a freak fall. I haven’t really been able to write since then. Nothing. Nada.harrison senior

Within my very small circle of friends and my family I have seen others lose someone close. A grandparent. A great aunt. A distant cousin. Significant others to them, but clearly not close enough to me for understanding. Many had lived long lives or suffered greatly before death. As an ICU/trauma nurse I have experienced death plenty of times in my career.  Held the hands of they dying. Comforted those who have lost someone.

The age old adage is that time is a great healer. It will get better. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I have learned that grief is not something that ever goes away. It will always be present and within you. It is now one of the major threads in your tapestry of life. Recently, I had heard as much from my daughter, who has attempted to comfort me. Hah, it should be the other way around. But she has a profound and deep understanding of emotions. She also saw a grief counselor.

Then I came across probably one of the best, most concise and honest explanations of grief from a blogger and author named John Pavlovitz.  It is called The Grieving Need You Most After The Funeral.  This blog post touched my heart and soul, because it is absolutely true. The reason you have not seen blog posts from me, nor new books or articles coming out. I have been able to write nothing. Create nothing. There has been this terrible black cloud that has been over my outlook on life existence. Despite my strong faith. It was only that faith that got me through that first year. 20663603_10159152365365182_7502417785234300432_n

That and the unending support from my daughter and her partner.  We soldiered through the first year and planned a bucket list trip of my son’s that he never got to take, Yellowstone. It was a pilgrimage of sorts to experience what he had always read about in National Geographic on the earth’s wonders. It helped squelch the grief down to a manageable level. But it didn’t erase the grief completely.  At that point, I thought there was something wrong with me.  I always seemed to be stuck in second gear. I was doing the typical, counting the grief anniversaries.  His birthday.  The first Thanksgiving and Christmas without him.  Seasonally decorating the tombstone. No mother should ever have to do that.21199750_10159255561795182_8843416713551446220_o

I got through the initial pain by numbing it with wine. Medicating it with comfort food and doing nothing but gaining weight. The grief was still there. What a monster. I forced myself back to church. I could still imagine the where the casket had been draped in front of the alter. But somehow I felt closer to him there. My trips to the grave site became less frequent. I knew he was in heaven and often I would look out at the stars and sky and talk to him.

     As we approached the anniversary of his death, I knew I had to plan a trip. No way could I be at my farm and relive every moment of that day. Nor at work, as I manage an ER. An ER and then brief two hours in ICU were where his heart played its final beat. I took my daughter on a NYC excursion of craziness. We needed all the distraction we could manage. Both of us had returned to work. My other two sons too; back to the Navy and FBI. We got through that awful day. Surely 2018 would lessen and finally see that grief subside.2nd anniversary

    But there is the caveat of the article. Know this. Realize this. Grief never goes away. The time you need your friends and family are the mundane and ordinary days afterward. For weeks. For months. For years. We have survived anniversary number two. Yes we are now those people. Marking the time from a loved one’s death. The blogger, John Pavlovitz had a great quote in that post. “Death is a date in the calendar, but grief IS the calendar.

I have learned to be kinder to myself. Lower my expectations. Love more. Live more. Judge less. Try to just put one foot in front of the other and move back into life. I dreaded another Christmas, but opened my heart to it. Expecting it to be lanced, I was surprised. The last Christmas I spent with Harrison was filled with joy. I had worked night shift Christmas Eve, but he called me and wanted to go to mass.  He asked to speak to the priest afterward.  He told him how cool it was that the Christmas sermon was all about going from the darkness into the light.

After nine years of waiting, Harrison’s Medicaid checks had finally kicked in. He paid for his college and for the first time bought little Christmas presents for everyone. He wanted to go to my parents home for the day.  During the gathering, he leaned over his wheelchair to me with the biggest grin on his face. “I get it, Mom. I really get it now.”

I looked at him inquisitively. “What do you mean?”  He explained. “I’ve never gotten to experience the happiness you feel when you watch someone open something that you have given them. Not until today.  That’s joy. That’s Christmas.” My Harrison gave me the best gift ever, actually feeling joy. Self actualization.

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     That first Christmas after his death, I busied myself with activities, to avoid the grief monster. This second Christmas, I was struggling. I just couldn’t get back to feeling happy. So instead I threw myself into planning my parents 65th wedding anniversary. Then after two years of blank pages, writing.  I created two very special memory books, one for my parents anniversary and one about the Make-A-Wish safari trip Harrison got to take with us. It was the first time I had been able to re-look at those pictures. I made myself go to a family gathering on Christmas Day.  And Harrison gave me the best gift ever – again. Joy. I felt joy again for the first time since his death. My daughter interpreted the message. He is telling you to give back. As much as you can, move from the darkness and into the light. Learn from his life and his death. Learn that in grieving we learn to love.