Eulogy of Anne "Nancy" Milani
Anne Jane Milani … Nancy … was born in Newark, New Jersey, March 14, 1934. She was the second of five children born to Marie and Bill Donnelly, Jr.
Nancy can be defined by the word ‘family’. She has left behind those of us who weep in bereavement, selfishly missing her, but knowing she has moved on to a better place. She leaves behind her beloved husband, Jack – married for 63 ½ years -- and her finest accomplishments -- her children: Mary, Peggy, John, Andy, Bill, Bobby and Dave. The 15 grandchildren left in her legacy are: John & Jason; Matt, Mark & Amy; Erin & Andy; Katie, Nick & Caroline; Gabby & Jack; Keel, Jacey, & Jake. Sadly, she was predeceased by two of her grandsons: Billy and Joey. Nancy is also survived by her three great grandchildren: Maddie, Johnny and Viola. And finally, mom is survived by her four siblings, Marie, Joan, Clair and Bob. She was predeceased by her younger brother Bill.
“Nancy, I hope you never feel this bad in your life.” These were the final words her father spoke to her the day before he died. Her father was 35 years old and his death came just 6 days before my mom’s 10th birthday. He left his wife Marie with five children under the age of 11. It was in this moment that mom’s world was shattered.
In the aftermath of her father’s death, the family would move from Bloomfield, New Jersey, to the house on Sanford Avenue in Newark. This move would involve the loss of her Bloomfield friends and a transfer of schools in the last few months of the school year. When my mom would speak about this time in her life, it was always with a terrible sadness. It’s in moments of deep suffering that God’s mercy is revealed. It came from Sister Delphine – her new 5th grade teacher at Sacred Heart School. Sensing my mom’s loneliness and despair upon her dad’s passing, Sister Delphine took Nancy aside and taught her how to crochet. It is not surprising that throughout my mother’s life, she would find great comfort in crocheting – a place where she could enjoy stillness -- forget about life’s hardships -- and all the while -- create something beautiful and special.
My mom would meet her beau, Jack Milani, at the Cricklewood Luncheonette, a place where all the guys from Seton Hall would hang out. My mom had gone there with Aunt Joan, and my father saw Nancy across the room and he asked Aunt Joan: “Who is that girl?” “That’s my sister,” Joan said, “and you should go over and introduce yourself.”
He did and their meeting would see Jack walk Nancy home that day -- accompanied by Joan and her future husband Uncle Vic. Nancy was 17 when she met Jack. By 19, she was married to him, and by 29, she would deliver their seventh child.
Mom married an Army officer – but really, she married the Army. Over the 30 years of my father’s Army career – the family moved 23 times. As my boss in the Army used to say: “That’s a lot of curtains that don’t fit.” By my count, we lived in 11 different states and one foreign country. We lived in apartments, quarters, rented homes, owned homes and a couple of us even shared a cardboard box on Grandma McNabb’s dining room table. And yet, no matter where we lived, my mom always made it feel like home.
My mom conveyed to me recently, that the greatest loneliness she felt in her life, was when my dad departed for Vietnam, leaving her alone with seven kids under the age of 12. My dad was 35 when he left her for the war. Nancy had already experienced the pain of losing her own father at 35; the thought of her children potentially experiencing a similar trauma -- must of been disquieting and overwhelming.
As we mourn my mother’s loss, I think it important to remember that each of us defines the proud moments of her life. Mom celebrated our successes with us, and she mourned our failures and losses as well. Six of Nancy’s children and three of her grandchildren would become commissioned U.S. Army officers. All would earn an Army scholarship to college. Two of her sons would serve in Desert Storm.
Her grandson Jason would graduate from West Point and serve as an infantry officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Three of her children would retire from the Army. Her seven kids would accrue 13 undergraduate and graduate college degrees. One would become a published book author. And remarkably, all the achievements of her children occurred under the guiding hand of a lady who never went to college. I remember Mom proudly telling me that she graduated from St. Vincent’s Academy with high honors. Indeed Mom, you did more than that -- you graduated from life -- summa cum laude.
My mother worked hard and made many sacrifices so our lives would be better. How she managed to put dinner on the table every night, work as a licensed real estate agent in three states, constantly move the family, set up new homes, new schools, join sports leagues, attend all of our games and meets, join the bowling team, lead scouts, choir, CCD and make our lives meaningful and rewarding -- is simply beyond my comprehension.
Even more incomprehensible was her ability to fight the good fight. She survived a liver transplant, heart valve replacement, 13 other surgical procedures, six pregnancies, diabetes, twins, -- the kids broken arms, stitches, motorcycle accidents, car accidents, ruptured fire hydrants, stolen golf carts and Dad’s sailing. She was tough – but aren’t all Jersey girls? Her DNA test revealed that she was 73% Irish, 15% German and 12% Middle Eastern. Translation: 100% pure fighter. Every time I thought my mother was down and out, she would pull a Lazarus and come back from the dead. Even last Saturday, after eight days of hell in the ICU, she was sitting up in her chair eating pudding. And I thought to myself – “damn if she’s not going to pull through again.” And she almost did. Nancy passed away 24 hours later, on a glorious and beautiful Mother’s Day. She was a fighter until the end and she passed peacefully surrounded by her family.
My mom didn’t run a company, or a non-profit – she wasn’t a famous scientist or inventor, and she definitely wasn’t a politician. She was however -- and to borrow crocheting terminology – she was the ‘loop, wrap and chain’ -- that held us all together.
There comes a time in any crochet project when you realize you made a mistake a few stitches back, or worse, a few rows . . . or worst, MANY rows, and the only way to remedy your mistake is to unravel all the stitches back to that point and start again. There’s no way around it. And as annoying as it is to see all your progress being pulled apart, sometimes the only way to move forward is to unravel, deconstruct, and then start again, stitch by stitch.
Mom was my great unravel-er. I suspect for all of us -- mom did a lot of unraveling. Even though the process of unraveling is frustrating and painful, mom endured it along with us, putting us back together in a stronger more purposeful way.
While Nancy has moved on, so much of her is left behind – her love of her Catholic faith, her cooking, her love of puzzles and word games, her laugh, her sense of humor, her smiling face – her crafts … needle point, clothes – who could forget our bicentennial bell bottoms and matching vests? Dad’s Tiger vest or his Big Red One socks -- or embroidered shirts, scarves – a lot of scarves. Curtains, valances -- afghans, blankets -- even grocery bag purses and St. Patrick’s Day Shamrocks -- you name it – mom made it and a lot of it. All these things will forever be a reminder of her creativity and genius.
If you ever feel like you miss mom, grab one of her afghans and wrap yourself in it. She has embedded her thoughts, her hopes, her dreams – her very essence in the material of every creation. A part of her soul permeates through each pattern and design -- and its texture and feel – is our connection to her strength -- her courage -- her love -- and her faith in each of us.
In a conversation with my mom two years ago, I asked her how she wanted to be remembered. She said: “I just want to be remembered as a nice person who was always friendly.” Mom, I think you nailed it.
I’ll end with this poem that I received from a family friend this week:
If roses grow in Heaven, Lord, please pick a bunch for me.
Place them in my Mother’s arms, and tell her they’re from me.
Tell her that I love and miss her, and when she turns to smile,
Place a kiss upon her cheek, and hold her for a while.
Because remembering her is easy, I do it every day.
But there’s an ache within my heart that will never go away.
Rest in peace, Mom. We love you!
Your loving son,
An interview with Mom on her life.