Yesterday afternoon and evening, we celebrated the life of my mother-in-law, Dona Kirby, who passed away last summer. It was a sincere gathering of family and stories with pizza and her legendary chocolate chip cookies.


I knew Dona that last 18 years of her life. That means I must have met her when she was around 70 years old. She had a steady and accommodating attitude. When 9 year-old Tess came to live with us rather unexpectedly, Dona would babysit her whenever and wherever. There was no limit to the amount of time Tess could spend at her house. I was so astounded by her willingness to help, that I even wrote her a thank you note at one point. No matter when you showed up at her house, she was dressed nicely in a pastel blouse and tan pants, not a hair out of place, her blue eyes pretty and alert and in the same pleasant mood.

Her unflappability stayed with her all of her life. At the very end, her breathing took a lot of effort. I was curious about how this must feel to have such belabored breathing. I asked her, “Dona, are you sick of this?” She said, “No, not really. There’s not really anything I can do about it.” She took things in stride.

While Dona cared deeply about her loved ones, she did not buy into the current trend of saying “I love you” easily and often. Whether it was her generation or her style or some of both, she wasn’t outwardly emotive. She acted out her love and showed it daily. She didn’t need to talk about it. Once while visiting her in the nursing home when she was quite weak, I told her we loved her, even though I knew we normally didn’t talk like that. She responded with one word, “Likewise.”

As Joe and I were leaving the house yesterday to head to the cemetery, we pulled back into the driveway so I could run inside and get a box of tissues. Dona was beloved by her grandkids and I knew they might come in handy. The family met at the entrance of the shady Woodlawn cemetery at 4 p.m. and we were escorted to the markers for Joe and Dona Kirby. My husband, Joe and I have had both of their ashes in our wine cellar. It felt good to get them in the ground.

Joe carried the ashes out to a table set up over the hole where they were to be buried. A large tree stump of petrified wood sits next to the family marker. The stump has been a part of the family since at least 1900 and everyone was happy to see it there. The great-grandkids climbed on it, just as their parents and grandparents did when they were young. A stately tree shaded the marker and watched over the proceedings.

Family marker and petrified wood

Family marker and petrified wood

We then headed to my brother- and sister-in-law’s for a casual dinner of Godfather’s pizza, salad and Dona’s chocolate chip cookies. Joe had spent the afternoon baking cookies. Another sister-in-law brought Dona’s cookies too. Dona always had a sleeve of chocolate chip cookies in the freezer for the taking. They were thin, crisp and addictive. With a lot of experimenting, Joe tried to replicate them yesterday. I think he did it!

Joe, trying to replicate Dona's cookies

Joe, trying to replicate Dona’s cookies

My brother- and sister-in-law’s home was open and airy, an idyllic setting for the get-together, so casual and welcoming. The grandkids were playing with fireworks and early on, one sweet boy burned his hand by trying to grab part of a firework that he didn’t realize was ablaze. His calm mom got some ice and cool water for his hand and then went to the drug store and got him some kids’ pain-reliever and burn ointment. His pain was also eased with a patriotic Rice-Krispie bar with red and blue M & Ms.

After dinner, the adults sat in the living room and told stories primarily about Dona and then Joe. They had been married for over 60 years and it’s hard to tell a story about one that doesn’t involve the other. Dona raised five boys tirelessly and without complaint. She baked two desserts/day while the boys were growing up. They were devoured each evening and she repeated the same routine the next day. She would also make more than one entree for dinner, making sure that all the boys had something they liked to eat. When the boys were teenagers, she would listen to the police scanner to see what trouble they might be getting into.

Dona was a contrarian. She could argue the opposite side of any topic at any time. Then, the next day, she could argue the opposite of her previous day’s stance. Her boys learned from her and can do the same, sometimes much to the chagrin of their wives!

Dona encouraged the pursuit of knowledge of her kids and grandkids. Her sister was a nuclear physicist and Dona shared that same intelligence. She was especially interested in science and gave her sons science journals to read. No matter the topic, from anthropology to classical music, she knew something about it and could join in almost any conversation.

It was a poignant and wistful day. The little kids played so quietly and sweetly together. She would have enjoyed the fact that the evening was all about family and that not a tear was shed. I don’t think anyone said, “I love you” either. She would have approved. And once I got home, I returned the untouched box of Kleenex to the cabinet.