TAMPA — In the late 1960s, Shirley McKay packed her husband, her toddler and her dreams into a battered VW bug and headed for San Francisco.
They stayed a couple of years, long enough to fill a photo album with their new friends, guys wearing berets and earth-toned sweaters, playing chess.
"These cool young people, at an amazing time," said her son, Todd McKay. "Trying to figure out who they were and what they were all doing."
Ms. McKay would take many more such trips without specific destinations, because to do it any other way would spoil the fun. Even at home in Tampa, she was always moving on with some next adventure: A new pile of books to read in her townhome. Another round of drinks with girlfriends, undertaken with a zeal that defied her age and eventually her health.
Ms. McKay, a forceful woman who found her calling in human connections, laughter and a generous spirit, died Monday, a result of multiple organ failure, her family said.
She was 69.
Born Shirley Casper in 1944 in Waukeegan, Ill., Ms. McKay moved to Tampa with her family as a child. She graduated from the Academy of the Holy Names. She attended Florida State University, but partied a little too much to be able to stay.
Ms. McKay transferred to the University of South Florida, where she graduated. She married Donald McKay, who became a lawyer after their return from California. They lived in Oldsmar, then Tampa, and had two more sons.
She enjoyed motherhood but felt trapped, her options suddenly foreclosed. Domestic life "sort of chafed her spirit, I think," said Todd McKay, 47.
She drank more.
Her 10-year marriage ended. Ms. McKay fought back — and not just for herself.
Teenagers who had gotten kicked out of their homes, or whose homes were hellacious, could take the spare bedroom until they figured it out. Kids not her own called her "mom" for decades.
Two summers in a row she loaded her three sons, then elementary and high-school age, into a rickety rented motorhome, headed approximately for Maine.
"She was totally fearless about that kind of thing," said Todd McKay, a lawyer. The RVs broke down in the worst places, including a mall and a toll booth on the New Jersey Turnpike.
A few years later, Ms. McKay went back to USF, this time to get a master's degree in counseling psychology. She stopped drinking during those years, her son said. She worked for a couple of years as a counselor, which suited her honesty and ability to listen.
Outside of work, she could level friends or family with a blunt assessment or make them laugh uncontrollably. "If you were in a situation and something seemed a little off, I could cut my eyes over to my mom and she was already there," her son said.
"Then you felt validated by that: 'Okay, something weird is happening here.' "
She had one serious relationship after marriage, after which she decided she had no need for romantic relationships. Been there, done that.
She read classics by Faulkner and Jane Austen, broken up by hundreds of mysteries.
She drank more.
Her family urged her to see a doctor about increasing circulatory problems. "This was a very headstrong woman," her son said. "You would say, 'Hey, maybe you'd better get that checked out.' And she would just nod her head, 'Okay,' and not do it."
As the word spread last week, teenagers she had rescued decades earlier learned that "Mom is gone." The postwoman who delivered her mail broke down and wept.
And her sons — two lawyers and a commander in the Navy — are remembering the single mother who inspired the best in them, even as she struggled herself. "Without being self-congratulatory, I think we would all ascribe our success to her," her son said.