Eulogy for Nancy Dunning
written and to be read by her daughter, Liz
A lot of people, I think, have moments when they imagine that they have the best mom in the world. I was lucky enough, however, to be absolutely certain – for a long time – that I actually did. My mom was my best friend. We talked just about every day. And, anyone who knows her, knows a couple of things about my mom, one of which was that she was more or less always right. When I was a teenager, that pissed me off sometimes. I mean, seriously, when you’re sixteen and supposed to be going through that phase where you know everything, it puts a crimp in it to live with someone who actually does.
But, another thing that you must know if you met my Mom was that she wasn’t smug about her omnipotence. Like any good superhero, my mom used her powers for good, not evil. To make other people – not just herself – feel good and be better. She taught my brother and I how to do that, too. I hope we were paying attention. I’m pretty sure we were.
My mom also taught me just about everything I know about optimism and joy. Those were things at which she excelled. It started, when my brother and I were kids, with crazy names for things. I bet that you thought that playground on Old Dominion was just the Beverly Hills Co-op. Nope. It was the Super Deluxe Playground. And, back when the Mt. Vernon school playground was that log-thing which is probably now illegal in most states, a trip to the Super Deluxe Playground was an adventure indeed. Every day was an adventure. Whether we were sneaking food into movies when I was younger, or she was singing hilariously bad opera while she made breakfast, my mom made clear that every day had something good in it, something to be happy about.
Even if it was just that they’d just started selling Christmas Blend at Starbucks.
These small events and details weren’t small – they were big. They warranted a phone call. So did a great song on the radio. So did anything that made her smile. These were great calls to receive. Random, sometimes, but great. I mean, who doesn’t want to know that she busted the person next to her at the last traffic light picking their nose in the car? Who didn’t want to hear her joyful voice, her laugh?
She loved to laugh and there isn’t a better feeling than making my mom laugh. Because, if you really got her going – and there are lots of ways to do this – she’d just get to that level where she’s crying because she’s laughing so hard. That’s when you know that you’ve really won.
Bonus points are given if you do that while one of you is driving.
Her gift with joy, with optimism, gave her part of her gift with people. She had, what I jokingly called, her secret decoder ring. That was our short-hand – and there is always short-hand – for her ability to listen, really listen, to people when they talk. And, more than that, to understand what they’re really saying and, who they are and where they’re coming from. That’s why she wasn’t just people’s neighbor, or real estate agent, or neighborhood activist, or columnist, she was their friend. It didn’t take much to be my mom’s friend. She didn’t make you jump a lot of hoops. Or wear overalls and a baseball cap with the same aplomb that she did. (And thank god, because really? Who can pull off overalls and a baseball cap like my Mom? Nobody.)
She wanted to learn more about people and know more people. So she lit people up when she talked to them. And, as a consequence, people mostly did what my Mom wanted them to do, or what she asked of them. Because her ideas were smart. They were filled with the energy and the joy that she carried with her all the time. And they reflected an understanding and awareness of the thoughts and values of everyone involved. So, if you did what she wanted you to do, you were also doing the right thing.
But, mostly, she wasn’t a superhero – complete with secret decoder ring – to me. She was my Mom. She was better at that than anything else. She told my brother, and me, and my Dad that she loved us at the end of every phone conversation. That’s what our family does. And so, individually, knowing that the last words we said to each other were, “I love you,” helps.
There wasn’t a day of my life – and there won’t be one – when I wasn’t sure that my mom loved me, that she believed in me, that she was proud of me. And with or without a secret decoder ring, a cape, or a phone booth to change in, it truly takes a superhero to, in this crazy messed up world, love people so well and so much. So perfectly. It takes all that to be what I have – the best mom in the world.