Humor, Dignity and Thoughtfulness

Funeral services for my sister-in-law, Anne Louise Bayly Berman, were held this past Sunday at Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington DC.  Here is what I said in my eulogy:

When I first met Annie Lou, I was mildly suspicious of her.

This was due primarily to my natural protective instincts on behalf of my kid brother MJ.  Like many older siblings, I want the best for my brother. Translated, this means that I tended to view his romantic partners through a particularly critical lens.

But I must confess that part of my skepticism was related to Annie Lou’s personality.  I think it is fair to say that I had never met anyone as relentlessly positive and upbeat as Annie Lou.  Anything my kids did, no matter how annoying, she greeted with enthusiasm.  Any idea I floated was a decent one.  She was game for just about any plan.

When it quickly became apparent that MJ was serious about Annie Lou, I took my parents aside and expressed my concern: “When do you think we will meet the real Annie Lou?” I asked.  “No one could possibly be this nice all the time.”

As I got to know her better, I realized that I had indeed met the real Annie Lou.  At her core, she was a person who, unlike me, constantly sought to identify the best in people.  She really was that nice. 

Now, sometimes, we use the word “nice” as the faintest of praise, to denote someone who is mild and inoffensive.  But Annie Lou was anything but milquetoast.  In appearance, Annie Lou might have blended in seamlessly with the other young moms of Northwest DC.  But beneath that exterior was someone with a unique sense of style and broad interests, including culture both high and low.

Annie Lou was, in a word, cool.

But beyond her coolness and her affability, what I respected most about my sister-in-law was her integrity.  Her sense of decency extended both near and far.  She was a generous and warm protector of her family and others in her immediate orbit.  She was also interested in promoting the greater good, be it the Horace Mann school community or Baby Love DC or her hometown of Washington, which she loved so dearly. 

Over the years, my mom, the great Michele Berman, has talked about how Annie Lou changed the Berman family.  Now, I wasn’t aware that anything in particular needed changing – I thought we were doing pretty good before Annie Lou came along. 

But my mom, as always (or nearly always), was correct: Annie Lou was a binding agent.  She not only created special individual connections with each of us, she also actively sought to strengthen our connections with each other. She was, to paraphrase Reggie Jackson, the straw that stirred the drink, the dynamic force that brought disparate elements together.  

The word I have heard used most often over the past few days with regard to Annie Lou’s passing is “unfair.”  And when we are confronted with events that don’t square with our sense of justice, we often turn to religion to help us make sense of them. 

Unfortunately, I am not a religious man.  What little spirituality I have is an ad-hoc mixture of Judaism, Quaker ideas I picked up in high school, and mumbo jumbo lifted from cheesy science-fiction films like Star Wars. 

But here are three things I believe.

I believe that in her own small way, Annie Lou was a light unto the nations, a moral exemplar for those of us who had the good fortune to see her kindness in action.

I believe that all of us gathered here today will carry a little spark of Annie Lou forward with us, whether it be her generosity of spirit, her relentless search for beauty, or her strength in the face of adversity.

Finally, I believe that the force is particularly strong with these ones.  Charlie, Teddy, Scottie and Nell – I envy you.  I envy you because of all the people in the entire world, you have the most Annie Lou inside of you.  In the days to come, I know that you will tap into this secret super power to become the best people you can be.

One of things that I have always loved about my father is his clear thinking about what success in life looks like.  Although he was and is a successful businessman, he never sent the message to MJ or me that we should measure ourselves by the money we made.  This is a trait that Annie Lou shared.  In the mission statement that she created for her family, she made this abundantly clear.  “With humor and dignity and thoughtfulness you can have a great life,” she wrote.  Humor, dignity and thoughtfulness.  Annie Lou’s time with us was too short, but by embodying the values of humor, dignity and thoughtfulness, she showed us what it means to lead a great life.     

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