Sally Sheklow was a writer and a storyteller, and no one could tell her story better than she could. And tell that story she did.
From 1999 until 2017, she chronicled her life with her wife, Enid Lefton, known in the column as “Wifey,” and her cat (Pussy, of course) in Eugene Weekly’s “Living Out” column. Her larger than life adventures were lived loudly — as Lefton says she herself would have put it — as a fat, Jewish, lesbian, femininist activist.
That was Sheklow, Lefton says, not only proud of who she was, but normalizing who she was. “Her life was kind of out there and that meant me too,” Lefton says. “I made her promise that she would never write about me being naked.”
Sometimes when people figured out who Lefton was, they would exclaim, “You are Wifey?”
She remembers, “So many people knew so much about our lives.”
While Lefton says Sheklow did keep that promise about not writing about her naked, so many other things were shared with Sheklow’s trademark humor and wit.
Once, when Lefton had knee surgery, Sheklow wrote one of her columns as a poem — something she did fairly often. This one in particular was in the vein of Goodnight Moon.
Good night steri-strips and invisible stitches
Dressings, ice wraps, unreachable itches
Good night to the surgeon who says all went well.
Recently, Lefton says, she ran into that surgeon, who still remembers what Sheklow wrote. “People saw their lives reflected” in what she wrote, Lefton remembers. Sheklow’s words brought the community together.
“She’s just always been a writer,” Lefton says, leaving behind boxes of papers and manuscripts. “I keep coming across a sheet of paper with her thoughts or notes about a garden that she saw.”
In addition to her writing, Sheklow had a bachelor’s degree in Speech with a certificate in Women’s Studies, and a master’s in Leisure Studies and Services, focusing on therapeutic recreation, all from the University of Oregon.
She worked for the Willamette AIDS Council, “using her humor and creativity to lead safe-sex workshops and her kindess to support her brothers in end of life hospice,” Kellee Weinhold writes in her euloguy. “She worked at the Feminist Women’s Health Center advocating for reproductive freedom. Her life came full circle in 2000 when she was asked to teach an Introduction to Women’s Studies course at Portland State, which she did until her retirement in 2017.”
Sheklow also organized against anti-gay campaigns and against assaults on reproductive freedom. She helped plan Eugene’s early Pride celebrations, created Balaboosteh — a group for Jewish lesbians that met to explore Jewish feminist spirituality and shared culture — and she founded the improv troupe WYMPROV!, which raised lesbian visibility and money for good works for 27 years, Weinhold writes.
Sheklow came to write for EW thanks to one of the many times she spoke up. As then-editor Ted Taylor remembers it, Sheklow came into the Weekly to talk to him about a story the newspaper published called “Lesbian Until Graduation” in the annual Love and Sex issue.
He says, “She found the first-person story to be flippant, insensitive and disparaging to lesbian life. I suggested she write something more meaningful and nuanced, and so began her paid monthly column that ran in EW for many years and was picked up by other publications around the country and overseas.”
Taylor continues, “Her column was always insightful and funny. She was an engaging storyteller and gave us all a unique view into a ‘normal’ life that dispels the stereotypes. I am grateful to have known her as her editor and friend.”
“She wrote a lot about marriage equality,” Lefton says. And sometimes, despite Sheklow’s efforts, it looked to Lefton like the right to marry was something same-sex couples would never have.
But the two celebrated their own partnership and marriage repeatedly, as Sheklow wrote in her 2015 column, “It’s a Date”: “Nov. 21, 1987, our ‘Did It’ date; April 24, 1993, our March on Washington wedding (symbolic only); June 21, 1998, our Big Fat Jewish wedding (Rabbi approved); March 21, 2007, our legal wedding in Canada (not recognized in Oregon); our Feb. 4, 2008, Oregon domestic partnership registration (legal, but only marriage-lite); and May 9, 2014, the day Oregon overturned its one-man-one-woman constitutional amendment and marriage equality came to our state (woo hoo!).”
Fighting for marriage equality was part of Shelow’s activism, too. Lefton and Sheklow were one of the plaintiff couples in Li v. State of Oregon, arguing that marriage was a privilege under the Oregon Constitution and that the state’s Constitution prohibited using sexual orientation or gender as a basis to deny such a privilege.
The Oregon Supreme Court declined to rule on the case in 2005. But years later, on June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states. That day Sheklow came to EW’s office dressed in rainbow colors and carrying a rainbow flag.
When Sheklow was diagnosed with cancer and was doing chemo, Lefton says, “She realized how lucky she was. She couldn’t imagine going through that on the streets.” And so began Sheklow’s birthday fundraiser for White Bird Clinic’s CAHOOTS program, helping people on the streets, which has raised over $17,000 to date.
Lefton says before Sheklow’s illness, while they had talked about what would happen to their bodies after they died, they hadn’t really settled on anything. But later, Sheklow decided she wanted to be buried, “so people could come and see that she was there, and know her legacy. People 100 years from now could see that she existed.” Sheklow is buried at West Lawn Memorial Park.
Sheklow’s legacy is long, and her own words are the most powerful. In her final 2017 “Living Out” column, she left readers with this:
I send you my thanks and a wistful goodbye
And trust my departure won’t make people cry
I hope you’ll be brave and hang in with good cheer
There’s lots to be grateful for throughout the year
Stay out of the closet, be true to yourself
Get out there, have fun, don’t just sit on the shelf
Keep thankfulness going and joyfully give it
Life is amazing, however you live it.
Learn more about Sally Sheklow’s life and donate to the Eugene Oral Lesbian History Project Outliers and Outlaws Documentary in her memory, at OutliersOutlaws.uoregon.edu/documentary. Donate to Sheklow’s CAHOOTS fundraiser at Flipcause.com/secure/cause_pdetails/MTM2NTEw and donate to Temple Beth Israel Queer Chavurah TBIEugene.org/donate (select Queer Chavurah from fund list). Finally, read about Sally Sheklow’s life in her own words at EugeneWeekly.com/author/sally-sheklow.