Friday, June 06, 2008

Sherrill ("Shay") Schneider Perry Cheda

I guess few people outside her family have known Sherrill Schneider Perry Cheda so long as I have. There are great gaps in that knowledge as Sherrill would leave and return to San Francisco, but whenever we were together, anywhere, it was one of those friendships where it was as if we had just seen each other the day before. I have not liked having memories flood in on me along with tears, as I know that those memories are triggered by the hard fact that I will not be able to have new moments that will become new memories.

It occurs to me that Sherrill could always be both middle class and a rebel – that is, she was neat, efficient, in control, yet she could not tolerate stupidity and lashed out against it like any rebel. In college, until we were in a writing class together, I knew her only at a distance, already doing library work while going to school, long blonde hair down her back. Nothing is straighter than a librarian, right? And yet she was threatened with expulsion because she dated a Black man (things were that backward in the 1950s), and our college mentor Professor Alan Hollingsworth had to come to her defense. Sweet and rotund University President Hermann Welles was not so backward as his university, and invited her to tea.

Recently I had to remind her WHY she once walked down to the dining room in her dormitory completely naked. She forgot that this was provoked by a campus cop who came up to her on the lawn around the dorm and told her it was against campus regulations to be barefoot. I am sure she found it perfectly logical, and I agree, that she would reject something that stupid by walking around completely naked.

Sherrill’s politics were certainly progressive, but I loved her describing her political awakening. Given a ride from the Library, she was undoubtedly speaking intelligently when the woman giving her ride assumed, “You’re a Marxist, of course.” “Of course,” said Sherrill, then went off to find out whom Marx was.

As I waited with a room full of males for a new writing class, the men complained, “Damn—too bad there’s going to be a woman in the class. We won’t be able to be open and frank.” Needless to say, with her first story, Sherrill proved herself a hundred times more open and frank than they would dare to be.

Leap forward to San Francisco, the end of 1959. It became an ongoing joke that I was in Men’s Underwear when she ran into me again, holiday help at Macy’s, working “in Men’s Underwear.” “You’re expecting,” I noticed. “Yeah,” she said, “Motherhood—what a fucking joke!” (Of course, that was not how she really felt, and she proved to be a champion-level mother.)

In a homosexual panic I had run away from the Midwest with almost no money, and my Macy’s holiday pay did not last long, and, as I was awaiting my draft notice, and no-one wanted to employ someone about to be drafted, I barely survived for several months after that, got more and more thin, and Sherrill made sure I had a good meal with her and her husband at least once a week. At the same time that Army was a shadow looming over my life, and most days I was living on one bowl of fried rice a day, I also tripped into the state called “coming out,” becoming conscious only then of why I had to run away to San Francisco, the place where one might half-way come out in a sane way at a time when homosexuality was defined both as “criminal” and “mentally unbalanced,” and homosexuals were often imprisoned, or were self-destructive. In regard to that, recently we exchanged some long emails, provoked by something I wrote about that period, and I thought to thank Sherrill (Shay) about her love for her gay friends: “Thank god for people like Sherrill Schneider Perry Cheda,” I wrote, “who created a little pocket of acceptance that was more healing than you will ever know!!!”

In conversation when we were in the same city, or in lengthy correspondence when she lived in distant cities, Shay helped me keep my sanity. As I recently emailed her son Marc, “I guess you know that for 20 years or so, Sherrill was my muse (although she probably laughed at the notion) where I wrote everything for her, with the thought that it would be read by her eyes.”

If my thoughts about a political matter or a personal matter were a bit of a jumble, talking with Sherrill would clarify my thoughts beautifully. And coming from a background where I did not really understand the nature of personal relationships I will never forget how she showed up at my apartment one day to educate me: “You know, if you want to be a friend, you have to let the other person know: You have to take the initiative some times, contact them, and let them know.” I did love Sherrill so it was embarrassing that she had to tell me that I had to let her know that. She was very wise, and there has ever been only one person -- Shay/Sherrill -- that I could ask the most knotty question and come away with a feeling of clarity, things "sorted out" -- I won't have that now.

At a time when Sherrill’s ultimate feminism was about to burst from the cage of her work as a librarian, while parenting her children and maintaining a house, I was fortunate to live for a few months in her household on 6th Avenue, off California Street, where I came to love her two sons, quite small at that time. (I will skip over those stories – sweet Andrew, feeling how that marriage, while the conflict was still subliminal, was coming to an end, could not keep from expressing his anger – or maybe he was just being creative when he found my paints and painted my shoes; or how Marc presented a puppet show for his parents, letting them see what was going on with them in his portrayal of them.)

While so much was sapping her energy, keeping her from herself, Sherrill created gourmet meals for the soirees she staged: Later she herself did not remember the noted people I met at her soirees, among them the first progressive leaders of the gay and lesbian community, Hal Call, who had a magazine, Mattachine, for gay men; and Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin (soon to have their marriage of 58 years made legal -- Mayor Gavin Newsom will probably marry them again, this time for keeps). Lyon and Martin were among the founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian rights organization in the United States ( Del Martin was their first president).

Those of us who were dazzled by her anger, before she burst free of all that was making her angry, are guilty of missing some of her magnificent rages. I passed along, and many of us still use the words she used one day when overwhelmed by dependents and obligations, she stopped and stood still in the whirlwind of people’s needs, and shouted, “Why am I surrounded by nothing but idiots!?”

Too many memories and too many stories – As when we went to see Louis Malle’s THE LOVERS, and Sherrill, still in her Acting-Out period (I learned from her how to Act Out, and found it quite liberating) commented loudly for others to hear, “This is ridiculous romanticism,” as the heroine, played by Jeanne Moreau, left her husband and ran away with her young lover – and within half a year, Sherrill had left her husband and run away with her young draft-evading lover to Canada.

Shay, as relatives and friends still called her up to that point, in Canada, became a Feminist leader, radical librarian, and probably wrote and published more than I know...

...many book reviews for the TORONTO STAR, CANADIAN DIMENSION, EMERGENCY LIBRARIAN (I imagine she helped found this progressive magazine). She wrote articles like "Feminism yesterday and today (July 1988). CHATELAINE published two articles that recorded the transformation in her life, which reflected the transformation in all women's lives: "How to Raise Liberated Children," then 'On the Way to Liberation," which the magazine subtitled, "one housewife-mother-librarian's personal and painful journey from martyr mom to liberated person." She also co-authored in CHATELAINE, with her friend Phyllis Yaffee, "Needed: Canadian Textbooks." So often a librarian over the course of her life, her articles appeared in the CANADIAN LIBRARY JOURNAL ("That Special Little Mechanism," "Feminism and Professionalism in Librarians," "Indian Women," etc.)

Sherrill went so far as to finally settle out into that wonderful place beyond anger, where she no longer had to be a raging fire (as I once described her in a verse). If I am not mistaken, after seeing the play LILIES, she was one of the people who made certain that it was turned into one of the best gay films ever made.

In Toronto, she met and married the great rock of her life, her husband Karl Jaffary.

Her sons could not be more wonderful, sweet, kind, compassionate, and loving -- as well as intelligent and talented!

I am glad that her children’s children had a chance to know their grandmother as she was even more in love with grandmothering than she was with mothering.

Sherrill was such a pillar in my life – so much so that my life grew well around that pillar so that I am strong and sane without that pillar now that it is removed. The name for that pillar, often referred to when I spoke with present friends, was “Sherrill, my oldest and best friend, who lives in Toronto,” something I will no longer be able to say without adding more words that I would hate to say. I said to some friends I love: “How do I drop into everyday conversation: Oh, by the way, one of my guiding stars has fallen out of the sky?”

There is no way to describe how much I loved Sherrill as I cannot step back from her, she is too much a part of my mind and heart and flesh and blood, and I cannot step away from myself and look back to see which parts are her.

And we are both Hoosiers.

Unfortunately, I am a writer, and I can only deal with things like this by processing them through writing, while what is in my mind is Sherrill’s bird-like face, her song-like, chirruping voice, her waste-no-time, no-nonsense attitude that nevertheless was very loving. Now she is distant in a different way, further away than Toronto – “Oh, don’t go on, now you’re getting silly,” I hear her say, and I am cheered.

So long as I am here, she is here to stay. My love to her family who have always kindly welcomed me into their loving environments.


mcheda said...


Andrew just told me the news. I’m devastated. Thanks so much for writing such a wonderful memorial. It brought back so many memories. I’m a little too incoherent right now to say anymore.

Mike Cheda

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful way to pay tribute to my sister. I loved reading about your memories of Sherrill and who she was to you, and I love your referring to her as Shay. Shay is who I remember from my teen, and younger years.
Sherrill has touched so many peoples lives, and there are so many things that I don't know about her, and that I would love to learn. Maybe when this wound starts to heal, you will share some of them with me.

Much love, and thank you so much for writing this


P.S. Yes, I do remember you from my stay in San Francisco. I think you took me to my 1st ballet.

LadrĂ³n de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

I remember your previous tales of her, particularly the stories of campus days. I wish I'd known her or of her in my (not always happy) days in Toronto.

mouse (aka kimy) said...

what a beautiful tribute. my eyes are awash.....

what a life and what a legacy to have left behind....

(obviously I am catching up from my recent to older posts - as you can tell on my comments.)


Andrew Perry said...


Thank you for writing so wonderfully of my mom. It is comforting to read your memories of her.
Sending you love.


Shirley said...

I was too intimidated by Sherrill to ever claim that I was her friend, but certainly I was influenced by her and became a braver person because of what she did as a matter of course in her daily life. It did my heart good to read your moving tribute. You are lucky to have had such a good friend.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,
A friend of mine mentioned coming across your blog and so I came to check it out. I've really enjoyed reading some of your early memories of Sherrill as a young radical.

Thank you,
Nora Jaffary

Anonymous said...

Much after the fact I've stumbled into your blog and read this about Shay. As a sister-in-law our paths didn't cross much because of distance and money or lack of it for travel. Consequently as much as I liked her I didn't know her. But to my mother, her mother-in-law, she was a dear friend who wrote real letters to her. I loved your notes about her here. It fleshes out many things about her. And yes, I will miss her.
Gail Perry Saul

Anonymous said...

Dear Jim,

Coming up soon on two years of a world where she no longer has the power to exist and function, yet her essence continues with us.