Ann Dillashaw Botts
March 2, 1942 - October 12, 2007
We are as different from one another as night and day, sometimes, those of us who are a part of the Dillashaw clan. We live all over the United States, and come together once a year at a beach somewhere in the Southeast. Our numbers grow yearly, with spouses and children and grandchildren there are around 60 of us now. We haven’t yet managed to all be at the beach at once, but we come pretty close – there were over 40 of us in Ocean Isle this past summer. Ann Dillashaw Botts has been a central figure among us for all of my life, and I know for longer than my 32 years.
We generally get incredulous looks from others when we talk about this family reunion – that we all want to be together for that long, that we use vacation time and money to get ourselves there because we enjoy being together, all of us. I know now, as an adult, that many other families would never choose this time the way we do. It’s what I’ve always known as family, though – whether we gathered at Grandma’s or Nita’s or the last many years at the beach: We’re important to one another and worth each other’s time and energy. There’s always a whole lot of laughter when we’re together, often tears, always heated discussion about religion and politics and family. Everyone’s perspective is heard and even asked for. People leave the room sometimes in the midst of a difficult, passionate discussion. We’re all very far from perfect and we do hurt each other.
But at the end of day – no matter what has happened or not happened – we all sit down and eat together, every one of us. We hold hands in a big circle around the room, give thanks for each other and the food to be eaten, we pray for those who aren’t able to be with us that week. And then we eat together. In all of that diversity, in all of that passion, even when emotions are running high – it all gets brought to the table together in one body. Somehow, over the years, we’ve figured out that our diversity is our greatest gift. All of that diversity lives together, in all the beauty and brokenness and love that human community and family is about.
That moment, when we’re all in a big circle around the room, the very brief moments it takes for us to all find a hand to hold and get ready to pray is the only time it’s ever quiet. At the center of this family has always been the women. It’s not that my dad and his brother are unimportant – but the passions and voices of their mother and their sisters dominate by sheer numbers alone. Grandmother died several years ago, now, so it’s lately been the five sisters who’ve been the foundation of the family. Some of my earliest memories are of my aunts sitting at one big table or another – all talking at once and somehow all managing to be a part of the 5 or 10 conversations that were taking place. Aunt Ann’s voice was always present, often laughing, always a key part of any conversation.
It’s only been in recent years that I’ve recognized quiet space in the midst of what is generally a pretty loud family. This past summer, in particular, I noticed the quiet spaces within the sisters – my aunts. The absence of Ann’s voice was created a space no one else’s voice could fill. By then, she was no longer able to speak and so her voice was noticeably absent from every conversation. But while her vocal silence was not been voluntary, her sisters, brothers and children, nieces and nephews - all chose to be in this silence with her from time to time. One after another, I would see each of them take turns sitting with her. Sometimes each of the siblings would talk to Ann – who could understand, but not respond – by telling stories or recalling tales of their long lives together. Often, though, there would be a simple, sacred silence as they sat together in the porch swing overlooking the ocean or side by side on the couch.
In all of the heartbreak of Ann’s forced silence, I saw what has always been true: this wild and loud family’s life is grounded in the silence that invites God to be in our midst. Each one of my aunts refuses to let any of us eat until that moment of silence and prayer happens. Even though it may be only a fleeting moment that passes before chaos reigns again, that moment is central to life for each of them, and that core practice of praying before a meal – inviting the Holy One into our midst - now permeates all of our lives. Those quiet moments of prayer and stillness that have been foundational for decades gave the strength and peace – even in profound grief – to be with Ann in her silence, and to know the silence is sacred, that we were sitting with one another surrounded by and infused with the stunning grace of God. Those sacred moments of quiet continue to hold a wildly diverse family together across generations and geography.
When I remember Aunt Ann, I remember her unquenchable spirit, her sparkling smile, her passion for life, her ready laugh, and her unconditional devotion and love for her children and grandchildren – and her sisters, and brothers, and nieces, and nephews, and friends. I’ll remember her on the dance floor, on a night out at the beach, with every man in the place wanting a turn by her side; I’ll think of her deep love for Judy, Tina, Andy, and Kip and their families; I’ll see her face around that great big family table in the center of her sisters and brothers; I’ll hear her voice telling stories of her teenage escapades, and then listening to her laughter as Pat told stories about Ann’s remarkable ability to avoid Claire Dillashaw’s lectures on appropriate behavior for young women; I’ll remember the light in her eyes and the smile on her face as her children and grandchildren surrounded her.
And, I’ll remember the quiet: Ann’s hands holding those beside hers as we gathered in our family circle, her head bowed in prayer, her steady and silent strength that brought her through many heartbreaking challenges and also enabled her to know extraordinary joy. Aunt Ann’s place in our circle was taken from us far too soon and far too cruelly, and I know the grief in that will continue to find us for months and years to come. Until we join her on the other side of God's great embrace, I pray that as we grieve and remember Ann, we may be able to live in the grace and the love her quiet strength and ready laughter always gave to us.