“Our Mimi” is how many Island residents think of that energetic wisp of a woman, who for two decades, played such a pivotal role in this community. Just about everyone who lives here knew her, or of her, but may not have realized that Mimi’s real name was Mary Jane Gross Brennan.
Mimi, who was 85 and proud of it, said she got the nickname because her cousin, Bud, couldn’t say “Mary Jane,” so he called her “Mimi,” instead. It stuck. And what a perfect moniker for the woman who — in recent years always wearing that down vest — darted hither and yon around the Island, like a sprite or a red-headed pixie; stopping at the Reporter’s office to drop off photos for her weekly Island Seniors column, then to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for a housebound friend, flitting across the street to the post office to deliver a mailing for the League of Women Voters, over to Mashomack for her regular stint at the Visitors Center, putting together a poem for her Poet’s Corner followed by a run to Geo-Jo’s for a quick chat about an appropriate movie to show at the Senior Center then down to the ferry and over to the hospital in Greenport to visit with Islanders there.
That was typical Mimi, pint-sized, in perpetual motion. Someone once commented that she was like a hummingbird, landing briefly, here, there, farther over there, but she kept going. Even after she became seriously ill — and she reacted to her illness with her typical wink and shrug — Mimi kept moving forward until she was forced to stop.
Three days before she died, a long-time friend went to visit her. She was weak, he said, but feisty as ever, “sharp as a tack.” She laughed with him and even sang him a song. That was Friday afternoon. On Monday morning, April 20, she died.
Word of her death spread through the community by text and telephone and in the parking lots of the post offices and the IGA and at the counters at Schmidt’s and the pharmacy. Friends and acquaintances expressed their sorrow at her passing and then, after shaking their heads and murmuring, “How sad,” began sharing stories about Mimi.
Often self-deprecating, making you laugh at her own expense, Mimi was a wit, in the truest sense of the word. A reporter once described her as “the Dorothy Parker of Shelter Island.” Mimi’s humor could be gentle, but more often it was biting, occasionally risqué; however, it was her timing that was astounding.
While others might think of the perfect comeback three hours after it was needed, Mimi was nimble, fast on her feet.
Don Dunning related an encounter with Mimi’s sharp wit in a profile Charity Robey wrote about him for the Reporter in January. He said that after he found out he’d been elected to the board of the library he ran into Mimi, who congratulated him. He told her he was kind of shocked because he didn’t even read that much, to which Mimi immediately responded, “I was shocked too, because I didn’t think you could read.”
That was classic Mimi at her playful best, but she took seriously her various and varied activities including, among others, working with the Senior Citizens Foundation, the Silver Circle Social Club, the League of Women Voters, the Historical Society and Mashomack Preserve. And she took seriously her family. How proud she was of her sons and their wives. And then came Kara. Our Mimi would shine from the inside out whenever she spoke about her beloved granddaughter.
Former Islander and Suffolk County Poet Laureate Daniel Moran commented online after reading of Mimi’s death: “People do not often realize that the vitality of a small community is often in the hands of but a few people. These people go quietly about the business of looking after things, being the first to volunteer for everything, and dedicating themselves to the welfare of others, people who never say no to a request for their help … Mimi Brennan was among the best of those people.”
She seemed tireless. Less than 10 years after moving here full time, she was lauded by the Shelter Island Lions Club as its 2005 Citizen of the Year. Even then, people lined up to share their Mimi stories. At that event Mashomack Preserve Director Mike Laspia characterized Mimi as the “mainstay” of the children’s education program, and spoke of her roles at the Preserve, which included serving on the Board of Trustees and three of its sub-committees. This week, Mashomack’s Tom Damiani said that since 2005, Mimi had logged a total of well over 2,000 hours of volunteer work.
Joanne Keresak, owner of Geo-Jo Video, shared a special relationship with Mimi who was a regular customer because she would visit to pick out movies to show at the Senior Center. “She was an inspiration,” Joanne said. She admired Mimi’s brains and her sometimes “bawdy” sense of humor.
Politics was a favorite pastime and passion of Mimi’s and when she settled on Shelter Island she brought her Brooklyn experience, knowledge and enthusiasm with her, becoming active in the Democratic party.
She organized political meetings and campaigns, passing around petitions, standing on brisk October Saturdays at the elbows (and sometimes below the elbows!) of candidates at the post offices and IGA, registering voters, getting them out of their homes and to the polls and at the end of a long Election Day, gathering information from various precincts and delivering numbers to wherever the Democrats were waiting and holding their breaths.
One candidate of the dozens here who have benefited from Mimi’s political savvy is Supervisor Jim Dougherty. The League of Women Voters (Mimi was a founder) shared an email from Supervisor Dougherty when it notified members of her death. Here is an excerpt: “I recently read an article where it stated the term ‘iconic’ has taken first place as the most overworked word in the English vocabulary, but I will unhesitatingly say Mimi was truly an iconic figure on Shelter Island, tirelessly making volunteer contributions and quietly helping people in need on a personal basis. And Mimi showed her individuality, courage and personality in her final, very difficult months and was a constant inspiration to many of us …”
This past weekend Sy Weissman talked about his long-time friend. “Mimi did so much that no one even knew about,” he said, describing how she “took the initiative” on projects and programs for our senior citizens, how she got them started and off the ground, helping not only with her time and talent, but financially, as well. Sy spoke about her sense of humor, her energy and vitality.
“Mimi was a believer in lost causes,” he said, adding, “and we have lost one of Shelter Island’s most important natural resources.”
It’s easy to recall, when remembering Mimi, a line from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a play in which she once appeared, because the words could have been written about “Our Mimi:” “…and though she be little, she is fierce.”
Mary Jane Gross Brennan, a wife, mother, grandmother, teacher, friend and activist; our Mimi, our Grumpy Grammarian with her gamin-like charm and that blue-eyed sparkle, may have left us, but the signs that she was here are everywhere. And generations to come will be all the better for it.
“There was a full moon
The other night.
I lifted my hand
And gave the moon
A victory sign.
We shall live forever.”