Summer Shipp was so much more than a murder victim

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How do you re-create the story of someone who died much too suddenly, leaving a grieving family and friends . . . especially someone who disappeared and was apparently murdered?

Consider the case of Summer Shipp.

I joined her family and friends this week in listening to testimony in the murder trial of Jeffrey Sauerbry, accused killer of Summer. It was a high profile case, even though it had almost been lost in the cold case files of the Independence Police Department since Summer disappeared while doing door to door market research back in December of 2004.

Summer’s daughter, Brandy Shipp Rogge, kept the case alive by seeking the help of such national notables as Nancy Grace and Montel Williams in the search for clues to her mysterious disappearance. She quit her jobs and spent most of her savings in undertaking a full time search for her dear mother.

The search ended in 2007 when two fishermen on the Little Blue River, only a 13 minute drive from where Summer was last seen, found parts of her body and items presumed to be hers. Summer was no longer missing. But the mystery was by no means solved.

And, despite testimony this week from a man who claimed to have listened to Jeffrey Sauerbry confess to her brutal murder, an Independence jury found the accused man (who is already serving a life sentence without chance of parole in another murder case) not guilty of Summer’s murder. There was not enough evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that he had committed the heinous crime.

So the challenge now becomes how to fashion a fitting memorial to Summer’s memory as some form of consolation to her family and friends.

The only way to do this monumental but crucial task is through the stories her friends and family will tell of her. Summer Shipp’s contagious smile lit up the billboards plastered all over Kansas City back in 2004 and 2005 in an attempt to find her. She was that full of magnetism and a joy of life.

As I attempt to do justice to Summer’s memory in the next few months of writing her memoir, the stories her friends and family retell make me feel like I missed a lot in not knowing her in life. Her friend Brian told me over a lunch break during Wednesday’s trial how she almost exasperated her friends by always insisting they notice a beautiful sunset. Her daughter even got a little tired of her mother literally making her stop to smell the roses in her front yard every time she came to her house.

Brian told another story about how Summer loved going to movies with her friends, even after she no longer owned the Bijou Theater in Westport.

“She would pop a bunch of popcorn, put it down her shirt and pretend to be pregnant and then share the popcorn with all of us during the movie.”

What a fun-loving woman! What a joy it will be to discover her life and stories in writing her memoir.

Summer Shipp was so much more than a murder victim. Even now she will live on in the memories. And that’s why it is so crucial for each one of us to record our stanzas as we live them. We don’t know when we will no longer be alive to sing them.



Widow Journal: Older, solo women ‘don’t get no respect’



Rodney Dangerfield had it right. Only he had the wrong gender.

I am now finding that being a widow at age 66 is a recipe for invisibility, especially where business dealings are concerned. Then again, maybe it’s not just widowhood, but being older in general.

The perfect example of this showed up in a scene from the Netflix original series “Frankie and Grace” starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. As the two newly divorced seventy-ish women discover, service and retail workers do not even see them if there is a younger woman or a man at the counter . . . until and unless they make a scene and demand to be waited on. Then they’re just dismissed as cranky old ladies and the subject of much eye-rolling and disgust.

Well, I joined the ranks of cranky old ladies this week as I waited at my car dealership for a simple oil change and coupon-induced free car wash. For the first hour in the “lounge,” as they call their waiting area, I entertained myself by eating my sack lunch, finishing a good book and catching up on friends’ Facebook posts. I had barely finished when the nice young man told me my car was ready. As I paid the bill I was told the car had also been subjected to some recall electrical work and that it was washed and ready just outside the door.

Well his “right outside” and my version slightly differed. I had to hike all the way to the end of the lot. There it was; my unwashed car. Only slightly agitated, I returned and informed the young man that my car had not been washed, returned my keys to him and he said it would be taken care of.

Two hours later, after being so bored I actually played a few rounds of Candy Crush on my iPad, I got up and went into the service area to see if I could spot my car. I sighed audibly when I found no sign of it and returned to the lounge. I was alone in that gray room. All the people who had come in later than I had were already long gone.

By now totally irritated, I returned to the service desk and told the young man that if my car had not been washed, I wanted to forget about it. I needed to get home and a four hour wait was long enough.

The car was not washed. He gave me some lame excuse and said they could wash it next time, but he was certainly not concerned or even apologetic. I grabbed my jacket and purse and huffed out of there without a word. But I showed those young whippersnappers at the service counter. I peeled out of that parking lot, by golly. (Too bad they couldn’t see or hear it. They have no windows in their office.)


But all the way home I fumed, recalling how nice those same guys used to be when I was with my late husband for service appointments. They were so deferential and even called him by name. They were always anxious to please because their jobs depended on us giving them a 10 rating in a follow-up email survey. Maybe they’ve done away with that survey business. And now the only service or retail person who calls me by name is the lady at the local pharmacy.

Yes, I have joined the ranks of invisible older women. We evidently don’t deserve to be treated courteously because there is no man backing us up with male firepower. Then I recalled how my late husband had helped several single women with vehicle issues—looking over a potential purchase for some and negotiating prices for others. He knew well how to get good service and was not shy about making demands and even being extra assertive when necessary.

I guess us older gals need assertiveness training, or maybe a list of men we can call on for backup in times of need. My husband used to joke about starting a “Rent a Husband” business for situations like I had just encountered. Even then he saw the need, and not just for car repairs and purchases. He saw the need for women to have some savvy while working with home contractors and for navigating complex legal and financial dealings. He ran out of health and time to follow that entrepreneurial path.

As I got closer to home, in addition to recalling the famous Rodney Dangerfield quote about lack of respect and the scene from Frankie and Grace where Lily Tomlin jumps over the convenience store counter to get a pack of cigarettes, a famous scene from the movie Fried Green Tomatoes popped into my head. You know the one . . . where Kathy Bates’s character has just been denied a supermarket parking spot for her rambling old Cadillac by two young chicks in short shorts driving a VW convertible. As the younger women laugh at besting an older lady, their cute little convertible gets rammed into oblivion by Bates’s Cadillac. And with a sweet smile, she explains “I’m older and I have more insurance.”

So after chiding myself for an un-Christian attitude and forgiving the young men for their lack of respect at leaving me in the lounge for hours unnecessarily, I decided to consider getting a little more respect by taking my business to another dealership. Maybe an old widow still has some economic power, even if she doesn’t have a man to fight her battles anymore.

Delightful surprises could lurk behind the anticipated ‘Bah Humbug’ of a new widow’s Christmas



For many recent widows and widowers, the idea of celebrating their first Christmas without their spouse opens a window of dread akin to being force-fed a fruitcake.

As unique individuals, we have different ways of dealing with the grief of finding ourselves alone during a holiday dedicated to family celebrations and long-held rituals and traditions. Some of us may refuse to do any holiday decorating, including any kind of Christmas tree. We may hole up in our widow’s quarters and shut out the world, wallowing in self-pity. Totally understandable.

My high school friend Don, a widower for many years now, admits he hated the idea of Christmas, since he had spent every holiday with his beloved Mary since age 17. He felt like his life was over when the holidays rolled around after her November 1 death. All his memories were wrapped up in her and he just knew he could never top the life he had once lived.

He knows now he was wrong. His daughter would not listen to his protests that he just wanted to be left alone for Christmas. He spent the holidays with her and his son-in-law’s extended family, including his Jewish and Lutheran parents. It was such a different celebration, it temporarily took his mind away from his sorrow. Each holiday since has been a little easier, even while he never forgets to honor his late wife’s memory.

For another high school friend, Donna, doing something different over the holidays helped her get through that first Christmas without her husband. “Trying to make everything the same brings up too many memories.” She reports that instead of the big family dinner, her family had a chili cook off and hit the Dollar Store for silly gifts as prizes for games. She also made a special remembrance tree ornament for herself and each of the adult kids.

“Also remember that there will be times when your spouse’s death is going to hit like a ton of bricks,” she advises, adding the examples of hearing a certain song, seeing a Christmas movie, a gift, anything. “It’s okay to have some mini-breakdowns,” she concludes.

For myself, this first holiday without my husband is punctuated with distractions. I am having the kitchen re-decorated and trying hard not to get sheetrock dust and glue anywhere near the ingredients for holiday confections that I insist on making, just like I have every year since I was old enough to follow my own mother’s example. I will never forget her making beautiful Swedish tea rings decorated with frosting and green and red maraschino cherries to give as gifts to friends and neighbors . . . (and she was German, not Swedish, but they were works of art that I drooled over).

This first year I have tried to follow the admonitions of my church to make Advent a mini-Lent through almsgiving. I went through the massive and unnecessary multitudes of our holiday decorations and gave many of them to a local nursing home. I will be going to that same nursing home on Christmas Day to have dinner with my husband’s stepmother, even though she will not remember the celebration a few minutes after I leave.

On Christmas Eve, the time I dread the most, I will be singing with a choir at two services, then having a few of the members of the group to my house for a buffet. One of them is a man who just lost his wife after a nine-year battle with cancer and is himself suffering from Parkinson’s, and the man moved this week into an assisted living facility.

I predict, that with this activity, I will fly through the holidays relatively unscathed and land in the doldrums of January just in time for a meltdown. But why borrow trouble, right? If my friends and acquaintances can get through a tough time, I certainly can too.


For now, as the days dwindle in the lead-up to a major annual event, surprises and delights are surely in store. New memories will be made, especially with a 15-month-old grandson whose wonder at twinkle lights and a fat bearded man in red can be soaked up vicariously and eagerly, along with some cuddles and kisses. A new vulnerability will lead me to do things like I did this morning and be moved to tears by an article in the newspaper about slave labor in Thailand that produces much of the shrimp we eat.

The rawness of emotion that I now wear on my sleeve like a Girl Scout badge may allow me to feel and experience precisely what I need in a season dedicated to remembering the birth of One who will dry our tears and lead us to a reunion with all our loved ones.


I’m grateful for toilet tissue



In all the Facebook posts about gratitude, have you ever seen someone express thankfulness for toilet paper?

Well, think about it. Where would we be today without cushiony, perforated tissue (disregarding arguments about which way it should be placed on the holder)?

Anyone who has ever traveled to a developing country and had to rough it outside the confines of a luxury hotel can tell you what a precious commodity Charmin is. In Brazil, way back when as I learned to rough it as a Peace Corps volunteer, toilet paper came only in the consistency of ugly crepe paper. Once used, it could not be put down the toilet for fear it would clog up the works, so it was confined to a wastebasket, providing a constant room un-freshener. (Sorry, was that too much information?)

Ask your grandparents or parents their opinion of the evolution of bathroom dry goods. For them, toilet tissue may loom large in the comforts of life. It represents a move away from cold, smelly outhouses and Sears and Roebuck catalog pages; or worse, shelled corn cobs.


Now to the object of this discussion: This week, as you gather with family members and stuff yourselves into oblivion so you can watch the football games with eyes glazed over from satiety, ditch the usual drama and talk to your elders. If you can’t record their anecdotes with a digital recorder of some kind, make mental or physical notes about their wisdom. What are they grateful for? They probably have not expressed their gratitude on Facebook so how else will you know what they deem their life’s blessings?


For an ex-mother-in-law, I’ll bet that sliced, store bread would rank right up there with her first automatic washer. For her, it represented the ultimate luxury and freedom for her own mother from the daily grind of getting hands to elbows dirty with flour. It might have even been a badge of privilege to open a school lunch box to reveal: Viola! A sandwich made with store-bought bread instead of that coarse homemade stuff…. plus a scorer of brownie points with less fortunate classmates.

Our ancestors and elder family members probably found God’s blessings in similar mundane details of daily life . . . things that we have been taking for granted for decades. How will we know what those blessings amounted to unless we ask? How will their voices sing to us from the grave unless they are recorded in some way?

It’s time to draw up a new set of resolutions, well ahead of the New Year. Resolve to talk to your elder relatives, listen to their stories and record them in some way. Find out what they appreciate about toilet tissue. Soon you will be looking at this commodity with more gratefulness, through the eyes of those who saw its advent with much thanksgiving.


Widowhood: Free to be a sports fan again

The Halloween pumpkin my son carved this year was frequently photographed by trick-or-treaters' parents.

The Halloween pumpkin my son carved this year was frequently photographed by trick-or-treaters’ parents.

During the 21 years I was married to my late husband, our lives revolved around our newspaper, gardening and maintaining a home, 20 acres and assorted outbuildings, plus a number of domestic animals. Seldom was there any room left over for sports.

But in a previous marital incarnation, sports was a family pastime. If it was Sunday, males and females alike gathered around the console television in the large living room of some family member. If food preparation was occurring in a kitchen, there was always a reassuring murmur of a familiar sportscaster as background music. If we were on the road or on vacation, the radio was always tuned to a baseball game, professional football or baseball match or college ball.

I grew up in the pre-Title IX era when girls were cheerleaders or pep club members and our main form of physical exertion took place in a school gym, while wearing ugly one-piece gym suits with our names stenciled on the pocket; this followed always by a requisite shower.

Only when I got married the first time did I put my foot in the sports waters, trying my hand at golf and a few coed softball leagues. I was a miserable failure, except for making the winning catch to end the season in a women’s softball game. But I learned to be a great spectator.

And now, thanks to the Kansas City Royals, and a newly echoing house, I’ve rediscovered my lost sports affinity.

Those who study the stages of grief always note that having a television or radio on at night helps fool us into thinking there’s someone else in the house. It can be a comforting noise, especially if you’re tuned in to an athletic competition. Golf is a sure cure for insomnia (why do those announcers talk in a whisper, anyway?) NFL football is a great background for fixing an autumn Sunday meal, even if it’s only a meal for one. I’ve learned that baseball playoffs and a successful World Series can chase the blues away magically. So thank you, sports teams, for giving me a new temporary distraction and focus.

These days I read sports articles to the end, especially since they’re the dominant front page story. All the while I marvel at a segment of journalism that gets to break the rules of headline writing and sentence structure. This is journalism that is entertaining yet informative. Until I read Sam Mellinger’s front page story this morning, I had no clue that eight of the Kansas City Royals’ playoff wins were achieved in the sixth inning or later after coming from behind, sometimes by two or more runs. In fact, our home team is the “greatest rally team in more than 100 years of playoff baseball.”


So, I join thousands, perhaps millions, of newly rabid fans in World Series excitement and pride. I can now surprise my son by occasionally talking baseball. And I am so glad our colors are royal blue, as that is one of my Color Me Beautiful complementary shades. I was waiting to buy my t-shirt until it could say “World Series Champs.”

My only challenge in watching last night’s game was calming down my dogs. Every time I yelled, they were ready to go into action and kick some butt. However, I believe the Mets were on the receiving end of some of that by some wonderful royal blue dogs.


New chapter continues: Letting go of symbols and possessions

For widows, the farewells continue with the shedding of physical reminders of a mate's life.

For widows, the farewells continue with the shedding of physical reminders of a mate’s life.

It seems like a year has sped by instead of only three months since a new life chapter began, preceded by a death. I never dreamed that getting rid of my late husband’s truck would fill me with despair.

Every day since July I looked out my kitchen window and saw a symbol of the presence of a male at this address. Trucks are usually guy things and Lemonade Man was a great admirer of shiny hunks of metal and chrome.

We recently went a whole six months with only one vehicle. We saved a bunch of money that winter and early spring, even though we no longer had access to four-wheel drive. Inevitably, I watched his eyes scan the line of trucks at a local dealership until one day he spotted a must-have: a Toyota Tacoma already equipped with a tonneau cover,  bed liner, chrome running boards and a backup camera. It came to our house to live, even though a neighbor offered to loan us his truck anytime we needed one.

But it sat in the driveway mostly, because diabetes had reduced my husband’s vision to 20/scary. When he developed mobility problems due to muscle wasting, we purchased a big hunk of corrugated aluminum that fit in the receiver hitch of the truck and folded down to accommodate the mobility scooter he had bought years earlier in anticipation of diminishing health. That carrier was on the vehicle the week he died; never once was it used.

For weeks I had put off the inevitable trip to the nearest Car Max. Finally, I admitted there was no way to drive two vehicles at once, continue making two payments or hold on to a truck just for snow days. Delighted with the offer of purchase, I made arrangements for a ride home, dug out title and payoff information and drove that cute white thing one last time, luckily avoiding another trip to the gas pump. The low fuel light came on just as I turned the corner to Car Max.

So with things going so well, why was I so tearful? I had to choke back a flood of sadness as I signed on the dotted line and watched that symbol of married life driven to the back lot for whatever its ultimate fate would be.

It was one thing to empty a dresser full of brand new underwear or to clean out the garage and donate my late mate’s tools and fishing poles to relatives and charities. The truck was totally different.

Suddenly the singsong rhyme I had just read to my grandson (after reading it to his dad every night 30-some years ago) popped into my head. Except that “Goodbye Moon,” by Margaret Wise Brown now had totally different lyrics. Here’s what happens when reality smacks a widow in the head . . . a head with an already morbid sense of humor:

Goodbye Truck (with apologies to Margaret Wise Brown)

On the great steep driveway

Was a cute white truck

And nearby a flower bed

With roses of deep red

And there were two little dogs and a white cat

Waiting inside for the man with the hat

To come in and fetch them for a ride

Or at least acknowledge them with pride.

But he didn’t come in and greet them with a hug.

He couldn’t, you see

He had left with me

Three months ago next Thursday

For just a short hospital stay.

But he didn’t return

And today it was time

To drive to Car Max and say…

Goodbye white truck.

Goodbye and good luck.

Goodbye yard projects

Goodbye plans to haul things.

Goodbye future door dings.

Goodbye visits and vacations

And hoped-for trips to far-off stations.

Goodbye to the man who was co-pilot.

He always said when he was alive

As I backed down the drive,

“Don’t hit my truck,”

Because one time I did,

In the dark,

Not knowing he would park

Right behind my car in the garage.

Goodbye truck

Goodbye mate

Goodbye to a physical representation

Of good times and bad

Goodbye sweet dreams of all that we had.

So long symbol,

Goodbye physical reminder

Of one whose end could have been kinder.

I know someday I will see you anew

In another time and a special place

Perhaps with a turn of fortunes and luck

You’ll again have a heavenly new truck.


Mundane memories and the first solo road trip


Since my husband's death, it's my job to wind his grandfather clock...a job I seem good at forgetting.

Since my husband’s death, it’s my job to wind his grandfather clock…a job I seem good at forgetting.

Widows and widowers often mark their progress along the recovery road by specific milestones or “firsts.” These markers could be as simple and mundane as forgetting something silly, due to the distracted and preoccupied mental state we’re in at the time or to the fact that the forgotten tasks or items never used to belong to us before death intervened.

It was my late mate who always wound the grandfather clock I bought him on our first anniversary. In fact, during his lengthy illness, it became the source of an argument one day. He chided me for letting the weights get almost to the bottom of the clock case. In my typical overwhelmed caregiver mode, I retorted, “Winding the clock is the least you could do.” Yes, I know, shame on me in retrospect. Later, we always joked about that moment.

I came home from an overnight trip Saturday to find those weights almost at the bottom of the case again. That discovery followed an earlier realization that I had driven to and from Columbia, MO with less than a quarter tank of gas in the car.

I could no longer blame my oversights on my mate as being his job assignments to wind the clock or play cop to my forgetfulness where the gas gauge is concerned.

Despite the gas tank level, the trip that emptied it was one of the previously mentioned recovery milestones…the first trip away from home since my husband’s death.

Traveling is usually far from the radar of couples dealing with a prolonged illness. Pain and suffering can keep you homebound or racking up frequent flier miles at hospitals or urgent care clinics.

In spite of his disease and discomfort, my husband and I managed over the past few years to make occasional road trips to a professional meeting. We enjoyed renewing friendships with colleagues and getting a much-needed change of scenery and perspective on those rare occasions.

Shortly after my mate died, I decided to make reservations to attend the same professional gathering. Guilt over being the surviving spouse and some grave misgivings almost caused me to back out. But the dog-sitter had already been paid, so I pointed the car with little gas in the direction of Columbia and was soon basking in the warmth of familiar friends and stimulating workshop presentations. Affirmation soon showed itself in the form of an In Memorium program that I had forgotten was always part of the annual meeting. My husband’s name was on a list of colleagues who had died during the year, so I was grateful to be present at the program.

Twinges of pain and loss did crop up at odd moments during the trip. I noticed the little sample size soap and shampoo bottles at the hotel bathroom that my mate would have insisted on bringing home. Then there were the multiple pens and notebooks he would have snatched off the registration table and the many t-shirts and other freebies he picked up at the trade shows. I just discovered a truckload of those freebies stashed away in a forgotten corner of the house and now get to figure out what charity or what trash bin to transfer them to.

As I checked out of the same hotel the two of us stayed in just a year ago, I headed back west, anxious to greet the dogs and cat back home and retreat to the familiarity of my hidey hole home. But impulsively I took the exit ramp at Rocheport to grab a bottle of Grape Goose Grape Juice from the winery. Sadness soon descended at the memory of doing the exact same thing a year ago with my mate.

With the help of a Barbara Streisand CD on the car stereo, accompanied by someone suddenly freed from fears of singing off-key, I made my way back home. The sun was shining through glorious, fleecy clouds. God was present all around and hope was in the fall air. Recovery milestones are ticking by as quickly as the mile markers along I-70. There will be another one to check off on the day I don’t need reminders to wind the clock or check my gas gauge.

Widows and widowers have many opportunities to journey through grief into freedom and new joy.

Widows and widowers have many opportunities to journey through grief into freedom and new joy.