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.    

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