When Rita was trying to decide where she would move from her last house, and considered leaving Kilmarnock to come up to Knollwood, I said, “But Rita, all your friends are down here!” She wasn’t worried: She told me, “Oh, you make friends wherever you go!” And she was right: She made many new friends here, and she found old friends from as long ago as high school: and here many of you are today.
Rita made friends wherever she went. She kept friends once she made them so that wherever she moved to she carried old friendships into her new ones, building relationships among many people. She was ebullient and generous, funny, playful, and above all, she was authentic. She loved fine things, luxuries, and comforts, yet she adapted with courage and resilience to losses of all kinds, from losing almost everything in a flood, to the death of her son, and so much else in her 93 years.
She loved sleeping late, rum and cokes, taking naps, reading, doing her nails, Jeopardy, creating art… She didn’t like: pictures of herself, chipped fingernails, swallowing pills, being ‘incarcerated’ during Covid, or meanness in any form…
Leslie remembers her creativity, generosity, and humor, recalling that when she was young, her mother happily made all her clothes because she was too small to fit in store-bought; and she remembers her putting cotton balls inside homemade fudge drops to give out on April Fool’s Day! She recalls Rita as ready for anything, any time.
Robin remembers her aunt as giving the most fun and appropriate presents for every occasion, keeping her company when she was sick in bed, and that she was always up for a game of cribbage, any time, anywhere.
Rita taught me so much about how to be in this life, throughout her life. When I was a child, I learned more during one meal at her dinner table about how to treat animals than I did from anyone else: she treated their dog Duchess, who may have been begging just a little bit, with such tenderness and respect. I watched her through the years turn this utter devotion toward all her dogs and cats, toward her friends and family, and even to her houseplants.
When I was a teenager, she modeled for me as no one else, how to be a strong woman: One of the most magnificent things I ever saw a woman do came after a big family dinner at her brother John’s home. John took all the men upstairs for cigar time, and Rita became impatient, wanting to spend time with her new husband Ford. She changed into her tennis outfit, opened the door to the study, and smacked three balls across the room. “Tennis, anyone?” she asked with a sweet smile.
As an adult, she was my favorite drinking buddy—she was many people’s favorite drinking buddy, perhaps even some of you here. One time when I had over-partied at their island home, and she found me in bed in the morning still drunk, she didn’t judge: she comforted and revived. She never judged me, or anyone she loved, fully accepting us with unconditional love just as she did her animals.
When I was an older adult, and helping her sister, my mother, through a grueling dying process, Rita was my strength and my sanity: We provided mutual support during this devastating loss for both of us.
Through my whole life until she died last summer, as she did for so many of us, she provided inspiration, refuge, boundless love and countless laughs. It is a source of lasting joy that I got to spend many months over the previous fifteen years visiting her in the Northern Neck. Some of the happiest memories of my life come from these times: simple lunches, jigsaw puzzles, quiet cribbage games, deep talks, spontaneous adventures, sunset cocktails along the bay or the Rivah at the beautiful homes of her many friends, even if her friends weren’t home! She always kept a snakebite kit for emergencies, pulling out a couple of airline hootch bottles as needed.
Her gifts to me, and to others, were boundless, and live on in the values of compassion, unconditional love, joy, mischief, humor, strength, and acceptance that she modeled for me and for everyone whose life she touched.
I’m not alone in my adoration of Rita. To know Rita Wherry Cleland Stephens was to love her. I speak for her daughter Leslie, for her sister-in-law Clara, for her nephews and nieces: Leonard, Bruce, Robin, Gary, Jack, Bill, and Amanda, who knew her all or most of their lives. She made each of us feel special with her love and attention, and she will always hold a singular place in all of our hearts.
After struggling for months to recover from a debilitating stroke, she courageously chose to relinquish her attachment to living. She was at peace with her life ending, and made time to say goodbye to as many of her beloved family and friends as she was able. In death as in life, she was a remarkable person, wise, courageous, adventurous, ready for anything.