PALM HARBOR — Every evening at 6, Jerry Bouchard walked onto the porch of a wooden beach house and rang a brass ship's bell.
Her seven children knew what that meant. It was time to come in from the beach, shower and eat. After dinner, everyone would return to the beach and walk, picking up shells. Then they would sit on the porch and watch the sunset.
For years, the Bouchards spent summers on Little Gasparilla Island, a 7-mile strip of beach as white as a line of toothpaste.
It's where Jerry Bouchard recharged her spiritual batteries, read James Patterson novels and stood beside her children watching sea turtles hatch.
She loved when a big storm approached, when the skies darkened and the wind picked up.
"We stayed on the island in hurricanes," said Terry Bouchard, 50, Mrs. Bouchard's daughter. "The water ran under our house," she said. "Mom would say, 'Oh, this is great! Let's get in the boat!' "
Mrs. Bouchard died Thursday, of lung cancer. She was 77.
As her children reminisce in the days since her death, "Eighty percent of the memories are from the beach," her daughter said.
Jerry Burke was a teenager when her father, an electrician, moved the family from Mississippi to Clearwater. Her peers voted the tiny (5-foot-1) transplant homecoming queen at Clearwater High School.
While working at a doctor's office after graduation, she met Roger Bouchard, who had started a Clearwater insurance company. He proposed on the first date, then repeatedly until she said yes. Roger Bouchard Insurance grew from a one-man shop to more than 200 employees.
They had seven children. Sometimes as a learning experience, she drove them to Play Parc School, the precursor to the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens, which the Junior League had helped establish. They played there with retarded children.
"Before she would take us down there she would talk to us," said son Roger Bouchard Jr., 57. "She would say, 'You know, these people are just like you. They just think differently than we do.' "
She had a wicked side, too. She encouraged the children to scare each other and deceived them with April Fool's jokes. She told each of them that they were her favorite, then told each of 16 grandchildren the same thing.
She dressed casually and made a mean Rice Krispies fried chicken. In conversation, she had a way of getting people to talk about themselves, even if they started out asking about her.
But the best memories for her family start in 1963, when the Bouchards built a house on stilts on Little Gasparilla Island in Charlotte County. The kids played on the beach or worked on jigsaw puzzles. Mrs. Bouchard painted coconuts and embroidered mirrors with tiny shells. Each Sunday, they still dressed for church on the mainland.
A few years ago, Mrs. Bouchard gave her grandchildren a long-term wish list, including that they all: "get a black eye fighting for something you believe in"; "learn about hand-me-down clothes and homemade ice cream and leftover meatloaf sandwiches," and that "at least one time, you can see puppies born and your old dog (or cat) put to sleep."
A former smoker, she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2008. In recent weeks, she said goodbye to family members and told them she had left funeral instructions in her Bible.
Friday night, her children found them, plus messages addressed to more than three dozen family members. She had written specific prayers for some, and told all she loved them.
The family sold the beach house eight years ago. The Bouchards asked their children if any of them wanted to buy the cottage that had once symbolized the best years of their lives. The children thought about their hectic schedules and those of their own children, and declined.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or email@example.com.