Nicknamed “Bubbles” by her friend Peter Tompkins because she was the “shampoo lady” at his Provincetown Hair Deezines Salon on Bradford Street for 19 years, Roberta Irene McKay died on June 17, 2023 at Seashore Point Wellness and Rehabilitation Center after a brief illness. She was 93.
Born on May 6, 1930 in Provincetown, Roberta was the daughter of the late Edgar F. and Mary C. (Avila) Sawyer. She grew up at 165 Bradford St. in a family with, as David W. Dunlap wrote in Building Provincetown, “a terrific Provincetown story.”
Her grandfather Carlos Avila, a fisherman from the Azores, was stranded one winter in Provincetown. He took a room at 165 Bradford St., where he met Jenny Flores and decided “he liked Cape Cod better than the Azores.”
Their daughter Mary Avila married Edgar Sawyer, and they had six children, including Roberta and a son Carl, who Roberta remembered diving for coins “thrown from passengers getting off the Boston boats.”
Roberta and her sister left school early toward the end of World War II to work in the city as domestics, one for a doctor’s family, the other for a lawyer’s, according to Roberta’s daughter Irene. When the sisters got off the bus in Quincy, they asked a group of sailors if there was a cobbler’s shop nearby where Roberta could get her tight shoes stretched.
One of the sailors, James Richard McKay, took a fancy to Roberta and asked her out. She said no, but he persisted. They married and had Irene in 1948. Richard stayed in the Navy for a few years after the war; Roberta and Irene joined him in Italy, where a second daughter was born. When Richard left the service, the family returned to Provincetown.
In 1961, Richard died suddenly of a stroke at 35. Roberta never remarried. “She loved him so much,” said Irene. “He was the love of her life.”
Roberta worked many jobs, including at the Viking Restaurant, the Mayflower Restaurant, and Edie’s Coffee Locker. But she worked the longest as manager of the Governor Bradford Restaurant, from 1970 to 2020 — a proud 50 years.
Referring to herself as one of Roberta’s “restaurant misfit children,” Mary Spingler wrote in an online memorial how “Bubbles was the best boss. Always fair. We felt like misfits, but she treated us like her own. Whatever we needed, she was there. And we loved her.”
Roberta was a loving person, proud of her two daughters and extended family and passionate about cooking. The Friday fish fry at the Bradford became a legend.
After a visit to her home, her friends and family, for whom she would bake and cook, would always leave with a “goodie.” She was kind to all she encountered. Her motto was “Be nice to everyone!”
Roberta leaves daughters Irene and husband Dwight “Fuzzy” Russell of North Truro and Audrey and husband Charles Luster of Provincetown. She is survived also by grandchildren Heidi Edwards, Jennifer Lopez, Dawn and husband Robert “Gus” Schnitzer, and Lee P. Russell and wife Kaitlin; and by great-grandchildren Makayla Alexis, Emmalynn Schnitzer, and Madeline Schnitzer. In addition, she leaves many nieces, nephews, grandnieces, and grandnephews. Grand-dogs Biscuit Russell and Tucker Schnitzer miss her greatly.
She was predeceased by her parents and husband and by siblings Carl, Edgar, and Raymond Sawyer, Edith Roderick, and Shirley Lopez, and by her dear friend Peter Tompkins.
One of Roberta’s last wishes, her family said, was that her friends do an act of kindness for a neighbor, friend, coworker, or stranger. At Roberta’s request, there will be no services.
Roberta’s family expressed thanks to the staff of Seashore Point for their many kindnesses during her last illness.
Memorial donations in Roberta’s name may be made to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, 262 Danny Thomas Place, Memphis, TN 38105.