She Paid Attention: Cynthia Ann Stone

by Michael Usey

Henri Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer, and theologian.  After 20 years  of teaching at schools such as Notre Dame, Yale Div, and Harvard Div (where I met him and took communion from him), Nouwen went on to work with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario.  Nouwen wrote in his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son

In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.

What we’re about in this one brief time together is gratitude, expressing to God our grateful hearts to have received the gift of love who was Cynthia Stone.  Were it not for the pandemic, this funeral would be before hundreds because it took three full churches–College Park Baptist, FBC Greensboro, and Guilford College UMC–to contain all the love and joy that Cynthia brought to us.  And all three congregations are full of her friends, who will miss her dearly.  I wrote some of them this week and here’s a taste of what they said about this remarkable woman.  And the outpouring made me realize they deserved front and center since they so beautifully formed a collage of how Cynthia Stone channeled God’s love to all of us.

Randy Henderson wrote: “At the summer camp I attended with Gray, we were in the closing service where she noticed another wheelchair-bound camper energetically singing along to the group’s hymn. Though he was obviously deaf, and signing through ASL, she caught his eye as she joined him in signing too.  All smiles.”  

In the same vein, Jeri Henderson said, “I have so many happy memories of Cynthia! But the thing I remember most is our private girl talks as she called them, and also our giggle outbreaks, especially when it was the not-so-appropriate time. She sure knew how to get to the real me from the start and we became soul sisters early on.  I cherish the time we had together and will carry her in my heart always.” 

Linda Duckworth grew up alongside Cynthia at College Park.  She said to me on Tuesday, “Mary Ann and Maston were close friends of my parents, Margie and Joe Kent. I never remember a time without Cynthia, because we were the same age.  My mom regularly took me with her to visit Mary Ann, and Cynthia and I would play together while our moms visited.  Cynthia was always sweet, she also had the best sense of humor and loved to pick on me.  I could never hide anything that was going on in my life from Cynthia; she had this 6th sense and just knew (and made a point to tell me she knew!).  And Cynthia loved babies and children and took the absolute best care of them. When I was a new mother, I was at peace leaving my newborn in Cynthia’s capable hands in the College Park nursery.”  

Linda continued, saying that “If ever anyone had a knack for making jewelry, it was Cynthia and she would often make me (and others she loved) beautiful necklaces.  She also taught me how to make her special homemade pizza.  When we were young adults, my parents would host parties and activities in the basement of their home for Cynthia, Grey, and friends from their Sunday School class. One of the most memorable ones was when Margie set up the Twister game and everyone got tangled up. Cynthia and my mom had a special relationship.  Cynthia was also close with Dot Whedbe–Dot was one of their Sunday School teachers, as well.  I’m sure that, when Cynthia got to heaven on Sunday, that my mom had the Twister game spread out for her, ready to play, and that she, Maston, Dot Whedbe, and many others  welcomed Cynthia with open arms.” 

Mark File sent me a couple of great photos he took of Cynthia, remarking that she was always fun to cut up with. We all loved her signature Halloween costumes of course – and other holidays when she would wear extra festive accessories. David Soyars, Mark’s husband, remembers with fondness the tattoos (temporary) that she loved to show off! She was often very mischievous! She always made Mark and David smile and laugh.

Chatting with Terri Ramsey at Special Blend on Tuesday, Terri said, “Loved her. Loved her sly smile and playful personality.  She always was playful with me and my girls ever since we first came; she especially played and teased with Sarah when she was very young. We first came to CP in 1998, [Teri said] and she was one of the first people I met.  I loved sitting with her sometimes on Wed night at dinner, talking and visiting with her. She and Blair Ramsey shared a birthday, Dec. 1, and she always reminded us and sometimes gave younger Blair a small token of celebration.  She loved to paint and she showed us her beautiful art.” 

Lisa Elkins’ husband Jerry carries every Sunday at church a large bag of candy as a treat for whomever. She loved the candy man, Lisa said, and she would ask Gray to get Jerry for her when she knew he was there. Lisa was struck by how Cynthia was always smiling and happy every time you saw her. 

Andrea Turner Drew, our chair of deacons recognized that Cynthia was always the greeter when you walked into the sanctuary and even always asked about each family member who wasn’t with you. A better greeter than our seasoned but sometimes stuffy deacons!

Phyllis Calvert told me that Cynthia used to flirt with her son Michael and Philip Jones, another CP teen at the time too, and write them lovely letters.  She loved writing and receiving letters.  

Wayne Jones also said she was very good about writing his sons Philip and Stephen special handwritten notes.  She always reminded him when Wayne forgot to give her a hug. She did not fool around when it came to demanding demonstrations of friendship she felt quite secure in. Wayne still has all the notes she wrote to him (of course he does).

Meg Rudd and Sally Skidmore were her Sunday School teachers for over 40 years at First Baptist in the Happy Hearts class. “Cynthia Stone ran a tight ship,” Meg said to me on Tuesday. She had jewelry for every occasion and holiday, from Easter to Christmas to Halloween. She had corresponding shirts, necklaces and bracelets. She would on occasion be late to their class, and Meg’s husband would tease her saying she was the cow’s tail.  Both remarked how refreshing it was to have her as a friend and student, that her comments were immediate, instant, and unedited, exactly what she was thinking. Sally told me what many of you have said that she had an incredible memory for names.  She remembers fondly the annual Baptist Happiness retreats, where Cynthia played the piano in the talent show. Cynthia could remember the names of people she had met years before even if only seeing them just once a year.  Many of us could envy that effortless recall, no doubt because she connected with each person she met on a heart level. Her direct, straightforward style showed she was a natural extrovert and comfortable around people of all sorts.  In fact, she never met a stranger.

Gray Cockerham said Cynthia was quite simply his best friend for over 40 years.  Aside from her family, it is Gray who will feel her loss the most keenly.  They had so many, many fun times together.  How could he even begin to recount the vast store of memories they shared together?

Cynthia was a lifelong member of College Park. When she was about five years old, she had surgery that caused her to be on crutches.  Cynthia was determined to get to the basement of the church.  Mary Ann and Maston would unload her at the then alley side entrance.  Cynthia would then toss her crutches down the steps and then bump herself down step by step on her bottom. The girl knew how to always find a way.  She wasn’t put off by many obstacles.  Such determination and creativity!

Along those same lines, Cynthia participated in the International special Olympics in 1982 as a delegate from NC. She took special pride that she met Arnold Schwarzenegger and Eunice Shriver Kennedy, and prized such memories.  Her physical activities include a lifelong love of bowling.  She knew to make it fun and squeezed the joy out of every moment swinging the ball.

Mary Ann Stone, Cynthia’s beloved mother and keenest ally, remembers her always being curious.  Cynthia wanted to know how the light worked in the refrigerator.  She pinched her nose in the door trying to see how long it stayed on. As a child, her brother David was afraid of bugs and spiders.  He would call Cynthia over to pick them up and get rid of them. She could be fearless where others were not!

On a camping trip when Cynthia, David, and Annette were young, the campfire sparked outside of the ring, and David and Annette (being young) just sat there in amazement, not knowing what to do. Cynthia calmly and cooly got up and went in the camper, got a box of baking soda and dumped it on the fire. She would always introduce Annette as her sister and proudly remind everyone, “I’m the oldest.” I myself have  heard her say those exact words; I bet you have too.

And apparently she was never lost. She somehow knew exactly how to get home, maybe not by naming the streets, but if you were in the car with her, you’d be directed with easy recall where to go. 

We all knew her as incredibly creative. The first thing her family would bring out for Christmas is a beautiful tree that she made, entirely created with jewelry that Cynthia arranged and placed perfectly. It wasn’t just with jewelry: she painted birds and roosters and landscapes, knitted and crocheted, dabbled at the piano and knew the words to every song. Creativity endlessly poured out of and through her. And Cynthia knew how to enjoy what she had created.  She gloried in it and happily shared it with the world, making it a more beautiful place.  She reminded us of this by example.

Speaking of joy, Annette, her sister, said that Cynthia was “the ultimate trickster. She loved to steal our keys and pinch us while we were sleeping. And we had the best rubber band wars. We would say, “I love you!” and she would respond with “uhuh,” being playfully contrary.  However, when it was time, she could be direct. When they were separated last year, she would say I love you everyday to Annette and her family. She started keeping John and Benjamin when they were weeks old, and through her love and care, she taught them respect for everyone, regardless of who they were.   

Another feature that Annette highlighted was her helpless enjoyment of life’s special moments, and her passionate anticipation of each one. Christmas morning, you would always find her asleep in the chair in the living room. She would never make it the whole night in her bed.” Brian Annette’s husband loved these and so many aspects of Cynthia too.

She was the biggest fan of Disney, especially Minnie and Mickey Mouse. Once, when her family went to Disney World, she bought Mickey ears and as they drove back they could always tell which car she was in because her Mickey ears could always be seen in the rearview mirror. She loved Minne and Mickey and her entire room is filled with their images and paraphernalia. 

As her pastor and friend for 27 years, what stuck me most about her is that Cynthia paid attention.  She lived fully in each moment. She saw people, knew their names and remembered them, asked after all our children by name.  My brief litany of people’s comments hint at the depth of love that she shared with them and the generous way she gave them her attention and care.  She cared about the people in her life and wasn’t afraid to show it.  And she gave attention to beauty too. Her arms were often covered in tattoos of dolphins, butterflies, and mickey mouse, and she would rapidly replace them. And never once I think worried about what people might think.  I loved her sassy side that I’m quite sure she showed to all of us here–how she could take teasing, and then send it right back at you. She had a sharp but loving wit.  Her incredible love for all those she encountered is what we celebrate today, and what we will miss so terribly.

Henri Nouwen, whom I mentioned at the beginning said in his book, Life of the Beloved

We may be little, insignificant servants in the eyes of a world motivated by efficiency, control, and success. But when we realize that God has chosen us from all eternity, sent us into the world as the blessed ones, handed us over to suffering, can’t we, then, also trust that our little lives will multiply themselves and be able to fulfill the needs of countless people?

May God embrace Cynthia Ann Stone back into the divine loving arms as she did with all of us.  Amen.