Debra Gray, an introverted woman known for her devotion to her extended family who quietly supported herself on earnings in restaurant kitchens and at gas station counters, passed away last month. She was 52.
Sandy blond, Ms. Gray was born in San Diego on September 14, 1961. Her mother, Luella Nichols, a homemaker from Texas, left her first husband when her daughter was months old and soon moved to Petaluma. There she met and married Don McIsaac, Jr., the blue-eyed heir to the Tocaloma dairy ranch. Ms. Gray spent much of her childhood in the North Bay, where her stepfather worked as a firefighter and paramedic in Tomales and later as an equipment operator for North Bay Construction.
When she was a teenager, she moved to Simi Valley, a peaceful suburb in Ventura County, to spend a year with her aunt Jo Combs. Shy in the classroom and worried she wasn’t as smart as other kids, Ms. Gray struggled in school and decided against going to college. Ms. Combs, a teacher, convinced her to enroll in adult classes at the school where she worked.
“She was very, very quiet and pretty shy, but once she got a chance to thrive, she did,” Ms. Combs remembered. “I saw her blossom.”
But Ms. Gray’s studies were cut short when her mother fell ill, and she returned to Point Reyes. Ms. Nichols died from cancer in 1980 and was buried in the Olema Cemetery. Struggling with the loss at such a young age, Ms. Gray’s self-confidence around strangers slipped away, but she strengthened family ties as she became a mother figure for her older brother, Terry Gray, and two younger brothers, Bud and Mike McIsaac.
To remain financially independent, she took work as a cook at John’s Truck Stop and Mi Casa Restaurant—where she learned to make a chili verde sauce her brothers couldn’t get enough of—and as a clerk at Ed’s Superette in Stinson Beach.
“She wanted to make money and support herself. She never asked anybody for help that I know of,” Ms. Combs said. “Many, many times over the years I asked her to move back in with me. I told her, ‘You can keep all your money. You won’t have to pay rent.’ She wanted to be up there with her family, with her brothers.”
Ms. Gray married a Point Reyes man, but the couple parted ways after a short time. She met another companion, her best friend for nearly two decades, while working at Olema Liquor and Deli. Andi Baker remembers the day they met—June 19, 1996. She soon applied for a job at the deli, and the two became fast friends. After work, they spent hours together, sitting and talking at the Tocaloma ranch. Ms. Baker brought her beading kit one night to teach Ms. Gray to string crystals, and a nightly ritual commenced.
They spent their days rummaging for unique rocks, marbles and crystals. At one thrift store they frequented in Petaluma, the storeowners eventually caught on when the pair kept purchasing parts of an old chandelier. “They saw us coming and the whole price range changed. ‘These girls will pay anything for this,’” Ms. Baker said. Ms. Gray returned years later and bought the remnants of the chandelier they “had nitpicked and busted piece-by-piece,” she added.
At first, “she strung the worst-designed crystals I’ve ever seen,” Ms. Baker said, but soon, “we were king and queen—queen and queen—with the crystals. We hung them everywhere. She probably has 95 made up right now, ones she made with me.”
The two women were an unlikely pair of friends: Ms. Gray spoke few words; Ms. Baker could chat for hours. Ms. Gray worried what strangers thought of her; Ms. Baker brushed off others’ opinions. Yet both of them had suffered through turbulent pasts, and while they rarely discussed their pain directly, they comforted each other.
Ms. Gray left the deli a few years later to work at Greenbridge Gas & Auto Service. After closing shop each day, Ms. Baker would give her a call. “I’m on my way,” Ms. Gray would say, and they spent hours baking pastries together for the morning sales.
Her nieces and nephews were Ms. Gray’s favorite topic of conversation. The walls of her home were covered with their pictures. After the family’s newest baby was born, she dug up a childhood picture of her mother and placed it in a frame beside the baby’s picture to show the family resemblance.
“She’d worry if she hadn’t seen a nephew in a few months,” Ms. Baker said. “She kept every clipping in the newspaper about the football team, about every achievement her nieces made.”
Even though Ms. Gray didn’t have much money, whenever she went shopping she always picked up a trinket for a family member or a friend. Ms. Baker once mentioned that she enjoyed miniature lighthouses, and then Ms. Gray brought her lighthouse-themed gifts constantly: night lights, cups, lamps, miniatures, at least 55 in all. “She would spend her last dime on Christmas presents for her nieces and nephews,” her sister-in-law Kathy Addleman remembered. And she never forgot anyone’s birthday, even if all she could afford was a card or something from the thrift store, Ms. Baker said.
Though she hated flying and detested the one-hour trip to Los Angeles, Ms. Gray traveled throughout the state to visit her relatives, particularly to see her mother’s family in San Diego or Aunt Jo in Simi Valley. (On one vacation to Lake Tahoe, she and Ms. Combs took a spin on the slot machines. Ms. Combs inserted five quarters and won a $500 jackpot on her first play. “I knew I wanted to take that seat,” Ms. Gray said.) In her early years, she spent many weekends caring for her grandmother, who was homebound with emphysema in the East Bay city of Pittsburg.
The McIsaac clan gathered regularly for dinners on Wednesday nights, sometimes pulling out the eaves on the dining room table to seat as many as 20 people. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, the guys tuned into the football game and the women talked and laughed in the kitchen. While they retold old stories, Ms. Gray made the gravy, mixing proportions she had learned from her mom and that she never wrote down as a recipe.
About three years ago, Ms. Gray was diagnosed with cancer. Confronted with the same disease that had taken the lives of her mother and her grandmother, Ms. Gray retained a sense of humor and never lost her concern for others. When Gary Blevins—an old friend who ended up marrying Ms. Baker—had to administer shots, she would howl in pain. “Ow! Ow! Ow!” As he winced, a smile crept over her face and she hooted and laughed, only kidding. When she lacked the energy to bead, Ms. Gray would recline in bed as Ms. Baker strung crystals. Eventually, Ms. Gray would pretend to fall asleep, so Ms. Baker would also rest her head. Ms. Gray’s whisper, “She’s asleep now. I’m going to bed,” was always the last thing Ms. Baker heard before dozing off.
“She opened her door to pretty much anybody she could mother. And she mothered a lot of people,” Ms. Baker said. “She was my mom, too.”
With help from the gas station owner Mark Reano, who continued paying her insurance coverage even when she couldn’t work, Ms. Gray fought off the disease after chemotherapy and a mastectomy. Sitting on Ms. Combs’s patio after dinner last Thanksgiving, she beamed as she said a recent checkup found she was cancer free.
Last May, Ms. Gray lost her brother Terry in a traffic accident. On the way to a movie in Rohnert Park, she dropped him off to buy cigarettes. He stepped off the center median in an area with no crosswalk and was killed instantly by a Ford Escape. Ms. Gray never seemed to fully recover from the loss.
This year she was overwhelmed by sharp, debilitating back pain. Doctors wondered if the aches were a result of a car accident years before, in which she broke her femur and had a metal rod inserted in her leg. When the painkillers failed to relieve her, doctors discovered in early June that cancer had spread to her spine and liver.
In the hospital, the pair of best friends started a small book of quotes Ms. Gray collected. (“I like that one,” she would say of bumper stickers during drives to doctors’ appointments, and Ms. Baker would dutifully pull over and copy it down.) One of her favorites was, “When you’re scared to go around the corner, but you go around it anyway, you’re courageous.”
During the final two weeks, Ms. Baker took over her position at the gas station. “Aren’t you supposed to be at work?” Ms. Gray asked when her friend arrived at the hospital one day. “Don’t get me fired.”
“Don’t worry,” Ms. Baker replied. “I got you fired yesterday,” and both of them couldn’t help but chuckle about how Ms. Baker had accidentally turned off all the pumps and then locked herself out of the store. Even when Ms. Gray struggled to lift the spoon from her tomato soup, she asked if Ms. Baker had eaten enough before finishing.
When her family surrounded her in the last days, she smiled for one of the last times as she sat up and held the youngest baby, her grand-nephew Weston McIsaac. She died on June 23.
Ms. Gray is survived by her aunt Jo Combs, brothers Bud and Mike McIsaac and many nieces and nephews. A memorial gathering will be held on Saturday, July 12, at 11:30 a.m. in the Bear Valley Headquarters picnic area.