Wednesday, February 3, 2010

In Memory of Dabney Lancaster Stellmann

On January 11, 2010 my dear friend Dabney Lancaster Stellmann, known to me forever as Linwood Johnson, died in her home.  She was sitting with her six-year-old son, John, doing a crossword puzzle on the couch.  Her husband, Peter, who was madly in love with her, was in the basement with their 10-year-old son, Ryan.  John went to the basement and said, "I think Mom's dead," and she was. Out of nowhere, for no reason, without any explanation.

Dabney is the funniest woman I know.  We were friends since we were 12 years old and starting 7th grade at Roland Park Country School.  I loved her dearly.  Her boys were the most important thing in the world to her, and it is more painful to imagine them without her than to imagine the rest of us without her.  She was a spark, and a comic, and a loving friend who was wittier, wiser and more creative than she ever gave herself credit.  There are many things I would love to call and talk to her about; we'd laugh our heads off.  It is hard to believe she is not here any longer, when she was more alive than almost anyone I knew.  She was buried on Saturday, January 16, 2010. 

Jorie Rice Cogguillo, Molly Whitaker O'Donovan, and I were asked by Peter to offer our reflections at her service.  Below are our eulogies for our dear friend, Dabney.

To Linwood, From Johnson, with love

I can't even begin to imagine the number of conversations that have taken place in the last five days, as friends, relatives, even casual acquaintances, talk about Dabney and share their recollections of her, gathered over a 46-year life.  How did she end up an integral part of so many lives? How did she leave a story behind for everyone to tell as if it were their very own?

Dabney brought you into her world--a madcap, funny, self-deprecating, absent-minded world where a car was always breaking down, a cake was always burning, a pipe was always bursting, the driveway was snowed over--but she never complained.  In her world things happened, and you had to just take them in stride and keep laughing.

Dabney was the keeper of our history.  It was not a job given to her but one that fell naturally, unavoidably, to the woman who had an amazing sense of recall and the uncanny ability to remember the details of events from years ago.

Now, with Dabney gone, we have lost a bit of ourselves--our past is no longer so easily retrieved.  Our collective history is diminished. So many times this week I have tried to remember anecdotes from long ago and I could not.  And I have said ruefully,
Dabney would know this.  Only she has this gift.  She could fill in the gaps, make the past come alive again, make us feel young and simple and uncomplicated.

And perhaps that why we all loved being around her, because when you were in her presence, you  became that person you were before life became more complex.  The lightness of her aura completely enveloped you and you felt unburdened and carefree.  That was the joyous world that Dabney inhabited, where we were forever young, forever 16 or 25, when the future, and adulthood, and its consequences were still an arm's length away.  When you were with Dabney, you felt the beauty and the simplicity, the absolute lucidity, of your youth.

Dabney was not a journalist but she chronicled her life and those of her friends and family in fairly exacting detail through her art.  Her creative gifts allowed her to track her life--and yours--through cartoons and paintings.  She captured the details of one's lives, their children, their pets, their spouses, with her beautiful portraits.  Whether she knew it or not, she was again the unwitting historian--crystalizing a moment in time for generations of those who asked her to paint for them.

When life was sad, or ironic, or hysterical, Dabney pulled out her pen and dashed off a cartoon to document the moment.  I was a beneficiary of many of these; I have a manila envelope in my basement labeled The Dabney File.  In it is a friendship full of letters, cartoons and drawings, each one capable of bringing back an era, or an event, or a relationship as if they had happened last year.  And no doubt in the drawers of her house, in her sketchbooks and easels, she has left behind this same tribute to Peter, Ryan and John--writings, jottings, artwork--that help keep her memory alive.

Dabney is summed up in a few lines from a piece called
Morning Poem by Mary Oliver.

If it is your nature to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails
for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.

Dabney's imagination, her grace, and her gift of friendship touched down anywhere, and everywhere, because it was her nature to be happy, and to be generous with her happiness.  And that legacy, and that smile, are just some of the gifts she is leaving to all of us.

Reflections from Jorie Rice Cogguillo

We always knew Dabney had a lot of friends but in the course of this past week, we started to realize she really had a lot of friends.  Besides her family and high school friends, she also had her UVA friends, her Squam friends, Boys' Latin friends, Peter's friends, preschool friends, baseball friends, Channel 2 (have I missed anyone?).   To know her was to love her.  When you were with her, she made you feel special and sought out - and she couldn't wait to tell you some funny story or idea.  She kept us all connected and she had an amazing amount of love to give - most of all to Peter and her boys -  but to all the people in this room, as well.   

Well, what we've been thinking about lately, is how did she have the time for all these friendships?  We know that she had mastered the art of housecleaning while talking on the phone, but we're still trying to figure out how she was able to keep all these people in her life and still have have time to play with John, throw a baseball with Ryan, drive all over the county, paint portraits, run 5 miles, and cook a great meal at the end of the day.   Dabney had a talent and a gift for friendship, for making us all feel special, and for taking the time for all of us. Maybe we didn't realize all that she was capable of because she was never one to toot her own horn.  She didn't need the spotlight but she was always the life of the party.     
Of course, Dabney was known for her sense of humor.  How many times do you get to laugh until your stomach hurts?  Well, for me, Dabney was usually there.  The four of us had been meeting for lunch or dinner for quite a few years now, sharing the ups and downs of life, and I always left the table still chuckling over some funny story or one-liner.   Can't you picture that twinkle in her eyes and that sideways glance just before she came up with something funny and unexpected?  She had that wonderful, quirky sense of humor that just brightened up your day.  How many times have I been talking to one of my sisters who said, "Oh I saw Dabney in the grocery store and she said the funniest thing..."   Well, running into Dabney could turn your day around; I think she could find the humor in almost any situation.     

I've been friends with Dabney for a long time.   She and I went to Calvert, Roland Park, and Virginia together.  We've had a lot of fun together and I know that a lot of you can say the same. There's been some drinking, some crazy late-night ideas, some petty theft, and maybe even a few brushes with the law...  but I don't know if any of us imagined what a good mother and wife she would turn out to be.  Dabney loved her boys and always kept her sense of fun.  She got her family off to a great start.  

Well, I never actually thought of Dabney as a role model ( I'm not sure our teachers at Roland Park did) but I've realized in the last few days that that's what she was.  Dabney made our world a better place.  She had a spark that lit up our lives.  She could turn difficult situations into a punchline.  The love she had for her family, her attention to friendships, her creative energy, her sense of fun, are examples to us all.  Here's what we can learn from Dabney.  Time on the phone is not wasted.  Lose the agenda and find the time to make that call, get lost in your artwork, and enjoy that conversation in the grocery store, carpool line, baseball stand.  Treasure your family.  Find the humor in the everyday.  Have a margarita.    

The Pilgrimage to San Juan de Los Lagos

It was Sunday, January 31. I was lying in bed, awake, around 6am.  From somewhere far in the distance I could hear drums beating.  First there were cannons, fireworks, and then drums.  It was getting louder.  Once it was clear it was very close to the house I ran up to the rooftop.  Through the branches of the large ash and jacaranda trees in our backyard, I could see shadows in the street behind our house.  There was some kind of procession with people marching and solemn music.  Back down the spiral staircase, off the bedroom terrace, through the bedroom, downstairs, out the big iron patio doors, through the garden, and out the backdoor.  Just in time to see a parade of pilgrims carrying a large glass box on their shoulders with a saint inside, Nuestra Senora San Juan de Los Lagos, waving Mexican flags, chanting,  and a whole group of men beating on drums. I stood outside in the dawn in my bare feet, in my nightshirt, catching the start of an annual pilgrimage that takes place all over Mexico and lasts for nine days.  The 80-year-old maid of our friends, Bill and Sue Dettering, takes off work to walk the full nine days to San Juan de Los Lagos in the state of Jalisco.  (A landscaping team told us they couldn't start work in our yard until their guys returned from the pilgrimage in  mid-February.)  A few stragglers gave me a buenos dias: a group of teenage boys, then a grandmother in the typical outfit all older San Miguel working women: thin, printed house dress covered by a plaid apron with pockets and flat, black shoes, walking with her two granddaughters, in nylon parkas with fleece-lined hoods and blue jeans.  I watched until they had gone down 20 de Enero, turned the corner at Pila Seca, and disappeared into the dawn.

From Wikipedia:
Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos is located in the state of Jalisco, in central Mexico, 76 miles northeast of the city of Guadalajara. The small town of San Juan de los Lagos is the second most visited pilgrimage shrine in Mexico. The sanctuary's history begins in 1542 when Father Miguel de Bologna, a Spanish priest, brought a statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception to the village. The town was then called San Juan Mezquititlan Baptist but its name was changed to San Juan de Los Lagos in 1623. In that year the daughter of some local Indian peasants fell ill, her parents prayed for her health, and the young girl recovered. Following this miracle, the statue began to be venerated by an increasing number of pilgrims including Indians, Spanish and mestizo. During this period the statue acquired its own local identity as Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos. Between the early 17th century and the middle of the 19th century a pilgrimage fair was held each year on November 30 to celebrate the original installation of the statue in the shrine, today San Juanita de los Lagos is over 800 years old.

At the end of January and beginning of February each year a great pilgrimage occurs to the shrine and the city grows many times in size. This festival is attended by more than a million people, many of them walking, from all over Mexico. During a week of festivities there are hundreds of temporary stalls selling pilgrimage icons, multiple bands of musicians playing around the great basilica, fireworks demonstrations in the evenings, and a palpable feeling of spiritual joy descend on the town.

Pilgrimage Reasons: If a family member falls ill or undergoes a serious surgery for example, you can promise the Virgin to make the pilgrimage if that person makes it out okay.

Sunday at Roger's Ranch

One gorgeous Sunday afternoon (January 24) we left downtown San Miguel for a day in the campo.  Our friends, Roger and Rosana Jones, who have lived in San Miguel for 20 years (Rosana is actually a native and met Roger, a New Englander, as a teenager at La Fragua bar while hooking Mass with her sister).  They bought 250 acres of undeveloped land on a mountainside past the town of Jalpa.  About 10 families piled into a bunch of pickup trucks and SUVS, with coolers of beer, bowls of salads, and the makings for quesadillas and tacos.  The property is about 40 minutes from San Miguel, off the road to Queretaro. 
The spot was magic--green land up the hillsides, and scrubby cactus and acacia trees leading down to a canyon with a river running through it.  We all hiked together to the river: Liz and Fernanado with Romy and Fernandito, who let nine kids ride in the bed of their truck for the last couple of unpaved miles into the property; Michelle Dutch with Cookie, Grace and Gunner (poor Boobie is stuck in Iowa starting a marketing division for Hearst Publications); Ann Holtby and her three boys; Rose, Ronnie and Adrian, who run the cooperative that ran Camp Gaia; Dr. NocheBuena, who treats arthritis with bee stings and magnets; lots of assorted Mexican friends of Rosana; Roger and Rosana's bilingual daughter, Isabella, who's in Redd's class; and a fascinating  dude named Michael who was born in Cyprus (calls himself Greek) but grew up in Tanzania and was schooled in Zambia.  He flew to school by small plane, like Finch in Out of Africa.  When the colonialists were kicked out of Zambia, all his privileges were taken away.  Almost overnight, he was forced to eat the local paste and grubs like the rest of the kids.  No more fancy food.  Sam had a remarkable insight: "In Baltimore I felt like I was one of the more interesting people.  Here I feel like one of the least."

Roger and Rosana bought the property, complete with three or four little stone huts, from a family next door.  The dad was swept away on horseback by a flash flood in the canyon recently.  His grave, cross and little white mausoleum adorned with pink plastic flowers, are by the trail head as you turn to go down to the river.  The rest of the extended family still lives in the stone houses next door to Roger--no running water, no electricity, no plumbing.  The youngest child, Alejandro, led us into the canyon like a native tracker.  He's five, and this entire world is his backyard.  He and his sister travel by burro out of the mountains down to Jalpa for school each day. 

Down in the canyon the kids popped in the freezing water in their jeans, then decided they weren't too shy to strip down to their underwear.  We spent an hour or two in the sun, then hiked back out of the canyon, the kids in their boxers.  It was a riot.  No one was really self-conscious, even though there were girls around too.  When the slow poke adults got back to base camp, Bo, Griffin and Gunner had already started a bonfire.  I had no idea they even knew how to light a match.  Bo was standing by the fire poking it with bamboo sticks, in just a long grey t-shirt and bare feet.  We made them throw sand on it to bring down the flames.

The adults sat under these big shady trees drinking wine and eating tuna fish with carrots and potatoes and cilantro cheese on hunks of organic bread, and slices of apples and jicama on skewers, dusted with lime juice and ground worms.  Seriously!  The shaker looked like chili powder, but it was a local specialty from Oaxaca of roasted, pulverized grubs.  Alejandro's mother, Marie Elena, cooked inside Roger's hut for us, making a pollo verde on homemade tortilla over a wood fire on rocks.  His older sisters, too young to drink legally, joined us for a cerveza.  They were beautifully dressed and groomed; if you saw them on the streets of San Miguel, you'd never know that they live 40 minutes from town, ride donkeys to school, pee outside, and wash their clothes and hair over a pot of boiling water.  

I don't know that we can ever come back to Baltimore.