Peggy and Jay Rightnour. (Family Photo)
February 28, 2014

When I was a girl, phones were attached to the wall and people were tethered to them by a six-foot cord. My young mother and her best friend, my godmother, Margaret “Peggy” Rightnour, were always on the phone. My sisters and I knew exactly how far away to stay when we interrupted their calls: just out of reach of a swat on the rear. “When will you get off?” we would ask, as if we had something more important for Mom to do. It was simply that we couldn’t stand someone else having her attention for long.

The story goes that during one of their long calls, Mom poured Peggy a cup of coffee and asked if she wanted milk. I sometimes wonder what they could have been talking about, so many years ago, for all those hours. In our multitasking world, I can’t imagine being so engrossed in one thing.

When Peggy died Feb. 11 at the age of 70, I thought about how she had had such a presence that my mother could forget that the two of them were talking on the phone. When I spoke at Peggy’s memorial service, I shared that story and my sense that we can always be present for each other, if we want to, even when we are not in the same room.

Like me, Peggy was a native of the D.C. area. People who come here for work or politics often decry this as a transient town, but the fact is many of us were born here and stayed here. Peggy and my mom met in grammar school, then went to high school together at Notre Dame Academy on North Capitol Street. It has since been absorbed by Gonzaga, my father’s alma mater.

Family lore has it that my father was 16 when he spied my mom in a courtyard below, cleaning erasers. At some point, he managed to meet my mom and Peggy at a carnival. My mom was a blonde, Peggy, a redhead. My father won tickets for the parachute ride. Thinking he would ride with my mom, he was unhappy to find himself accompanied by her older brother’s friend instead.

As Dad tells it, he was high up on the ride, looking down. From there, he could see Peggy and my mom below, heads tipped back in laughter, waving.

At the service, many people commented on the journey of Peggy’s life. A girl from Brentwood, she eventually traveled to every continent. A few years ago, she and her husband regaled us with stories of their trip to Antarctica. Another time, when they were in Egypt, she e-mailed photos of a balloon ride in the Valley of the Kings. As a girl, she never left the East Coast. But once she began to travel, nothing, it seemed, could stop her.

Along the way, she raised children, doted on grandchildren and pursued a career dedicated to helping vulnerable older adults access essential services. Because I write about aging, our professional lives often intersected.

So did our political lives. We joined candlelight vigils to protest the war in Iraq. We campaigned for Democrats. During Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, we signed on as poll watchers at a local polling place. And when he won, we joined the celebration at a nearby hotel.

For the last 10 years of her life, Peggy coped with breast cancer. Anxious to show my support, I recruited other women in Annapolis to join a team for a two-day breast cancer charity walk. Over the course of several months training, we forged friendships and bonds. We called ourselves Dance Hall Daze, and, at the end of the second day of the event, Peggy met us a half-mile from the end of the course. We walked together through the celebration, under an archway of balloons, and gathered with the team for wine at a hotel near the convention center.

I did that walk four more years, vowing that as long as Peggy kept fighting cancer, I would keep walking. But my knees gave out, and her cancer recurred and could not be reversed. She tried what treatments she could, but they failed in the end. Until her retirement in August, even while undergoing chemo and radiation, she would go to her office, determined to keep helping people who needed her.

She had cancer, but it never had her.

People talk so much about what does not happen in Washington, or about the ways living here turns people into power-loving, self-interested characters. Washingtonians are so much more than that. People like Peggy — hardworking, generous, kind — are proof of who we really are and the lives we build and share.

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