Shelter Island profile: Carolee Gray, a life of family, service and lots of fun
Above the kitchen sink in Carolee Gray’s West Neck home, a heron painted on a window blind peeks out from the tall grass toward a conch. Nearby, a painting of a seahorse hangs in a frame on the cabinet, and a shell tucked into a nook above the back door is so accurate you’d swear you could hear the sea in it. In the corner of a hall closet is a picture of a robin feeding her young.
In the dining room of Gray’s house is a pen-and-ink drawing made by his father over a century ago. Watching her father’s work takes her back 80 years to her childhood and the source of her interest in painting.
“I would sit in the kitchen with him and say, ‘Daddy, draw me a squirrel.’ ” she says. “He could draw anything.” A drawing, hung in her grandmother’s living room and then in her mother’s bedroom before it came to her, will pass to her granddaughter one day.
At 90, she is in the prime of artistic life.
Ms. Gray has lived on Shelter Island for 35 years. Her husband Gordon died ten years ago after difficult years of caring for him by Mrs Gray. She is lucky to have family nearby; his son Michael lives in the hills with his wife Dede, granddaughter Claudia and Claudia’s new baby, Devon.
She is learning to speak to her great-granddaughter. “I taught him the other day to say, ‘Oh phooey. “”
Mrs. Gray has mischievous tendencies. Her modest blue-green shirt seems to shimmer, and on closer inspection it’s covered in sequins. She insists that the goldfinches in her bird feeder are performing a pole dance. She wonders if I know how long a hummingbird’s tongue lasts (I don’t) and says, “As long as their beak.” I googled this.
She grew up in Princeton, Indiana, one of four girls in her high school who received engagement rings on Christmas of their senior year. She married Gordon Gray, a boy she had known since she was 9, and delivered groceries to his family. In those days, if a bride worked, it was probably because her husband didn’t earn enough money to support them, so she didn’t.
Ms. Gray was just 20 when their son Michael was born shortly before they left Indiana in 1952, leaving both families behind. “I always say Gordon raised me and Michael raised me,” she said. “Mike was a baby when we moved, which broke everyone’s heart. I have a small but very close family.
Gordon started working for Sears as a front desk clerk and grew over the years to become an executive in the automotive division at Sears Tower in Chicago. When he moved to Sears, the family moved with him. Nine times.
“Every time I moved it was a crisis,” Ms Gray said. “I made a nest, I was happy to be there, and it was still a disaster. It wasn’t the move itself, Sears took care of the whole thing. She said.” You make friends and it breaks your heart. With the exception of Wayne, NJ, I wasn’t upset about leaving New Jersey.
After Gordon’s early retirement from Sears, they moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee and ran an auto parts store. “I learned more about a car than I ever wanted to know. Being down South, we were considered Yankees. One of our best customers once asked me the difference between a Yankee and a Fucking Yankee. He said a Yankee is someone who comes down south and a fucking Yankee is someone who comes and stays. I said thank you.'”
She helped customers in the front of the store, while Gordon worked in the back. “A shade tree mechanic would come get a part and say, ‘I want to talk to one of the guys. I’ll tell Gordon someone needs you.
And that’s where Ms. Gray’s tough-guy childhood nickname came in handy. “He would listen to the customer and then say, ‘Butchie, go get what he wants.’ I knew exactly what they wanted and where it was, but they didn’t trust me to know.
Carol and Gordon moved to Shelter Island to live near their son Michael and his family who had already lived in the heights for many years. In 1988, the Grays joined the Presbyterian Church when she passed by on a Sunday with the windows open and heard the choir.
She served on the committee that chose a new pastor after Bill Grimbol’s retirement in 2012 (she dubbed it “the preacher-gatherer committee”) and helped provide and serve meals to the homeless in Co-op with Southold Presbyterian Church. She served as an elder for two terms and served as a deacon.
After Gordon died in 2012, Ms Gray asked Mary Lou Eichorn, a friend who owns the Cornucopia gift shop, if she had any ideas of what she should do with herself, and Ms Eichorn suggested to paint. “So I painted sand dollars with scenes from the North and South ferries,” she said. “They are selling very well.” During her decade of peak creativity, in addition to decorating her own home, Ms Gray painted wooden boxes, framed pictures of birds and sea life, and step stools for friends and family, some of which have, as she says, “Floated in the air.
“Sometimes I forget to eat. I don’t have a studio, I have a card table set up in the bedroom. I took out a snack and all of a sudden it’s 5 o’clock and I haven’t eaten it. I paint instead of eat.
She often writes a cheeky greeting or an inspirational message in the objects she decorates. For a friend, she wrote: “Butterflies are God’s confetti sent to earth in remembrance of His Love. Then there was the toast she included with a painted box for former City Council member Chris Lewis, “Cheers and brassieres.”
When someone suggested she couldn’t write that in Chris’s box, she said, “Look at me. I can do what I want to do.
Round Lightning — Carolee Gray
What do you always have with you? A spoon ring Gordon gave me.
Your favorite place on Shelter Island? Right here in my chair.
Your favorite place is not on Shelter Island? Kennebunkport, me.
When was the last time you were thrilled? When my great-granddaughter called me Nana.
What infuriates you? People riding bicycles in the middle of the street.
What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? This year it was my birthday, April 8th.
Favorite food? Homemade meatloaf.
Favorite person, living or dead, who is not part of the family? Chris Lewis. She is educated, interesting and fun.