Mourners from far-flung communities honored Ann-Marie Matthews on Saturday, remembering her willingness to help, her warmth and her determination. Matthews, the aunt of musician Dave Matthews, died in Waynesboro on Wednesday of ovarian cancer. For the past three years, Ann-Marie and Neven, her husband of 42 years, have spent most of their time in Florida, but maintained close ties to Waynesboro. Her impact on the city was so enormous that it remains fixed in people’s minds as a standard for public service.
“She was what we should all try to be,” said Waynesboro councilman Frank Lucente, who worked with her on a number of Boys & Girls Club special projects. “If everyone could be like her, this place would be a utopia.”
The family’s community was much wider than Waynesboro or even this country. The Matthews family came to the city from South Africa in 1987 to escape the growing political turmoil in their homeland and to be near family in Charlottesville.
Ann-Marie plunged right in, devoting her considerable energy and talent to community service. She continued to do so throughout her 25 years as a full-time Waynesboro citizen.
“That’s just the way she was,” Neven said. “Whenever we talked about moving, she said, ‘Give me six weeks and I’ll be as busy as I am now.’ She was absolutely fearless about meeting new people and it didn’t matter at all if they were very different from her. When we moved to Florida, she formed new and very deep friendships with all kinds of people.”
Ann-Marie and Neven were haunted by the inequities and suffering in the home they left — a place Ann-Marie missed and cared about throughout her life. They returned there often. “Once you see someone’s background like that, you begin to really know them,” said Karen Fairchild, a close friend who, with her husband, Charlie, spent a month in South Africa with the Matthews family.
“She was a bridge,” said The Rev. Ed Piper, the Unitarian Universalist minister who co-led her service Saturday afternoon: “a bridge between rich and poor, black and white, America and South Africa.” Several speakers at the service spoke of her courage. “In fact, it seemed almost impossible to believe that our strong and resilient Ann-Marie could actually be dying,” Piper said.
In addition to her love of public service, Ann-Marie had a fierce love for her large family. Several of her daughters and other family members spoke about her steadfast affection and care, and her role in keeping the far-flung Matthews family together.
Dave Matthews spoke of how his own daughters loved Ann-Marie and Neven, and how he always left their Waynesboro home with regret. He also drew a lesson from her death: “It reminds us how short life is, how quick it all happens, and how much we should treasure each special moment,” he said.
Others talked about the warmth and generosity of the Matthews household. Piper said he’ll remember forever the living memorial service the family held two weeks before Ann-Marie died, where they each had a chance to express their feelings in her presence. Her hospice nurse and Presbyterian minister Karen McLean, who helped Piper lead the service, spoke about those final days, recalling the openness and generosity of Ann-Marie and the Mathews family. “There was always something brewing in the Matthews’ kitchen,” McLean said. She mentioned the family’s South African cure-all, ginger tea, as well as various visiting family cooks and a few culinary disasters.
There was a reflective and spiritual side to Ann-Marie, The Rev. Piper reminded those at her service: “Her spirit was too large to be contained,” he said She found the Unitarian Universalist Church because of her passion for social justice, had a steadfast yoga practice that led her to advanced study and a visit to India, and was devoted to the life and words of Jesus.
“Ann-Marie had fervor and a heart on fire for all she was passionate about,” said yoga teacher Lyn Walker, who said Ann-Marie (whose yoga name was Annapoorna) was her yoga mentor.
In the end, Ann-Marie continued to inspire even as she was dying, McLean said: “She taught us all about grace.” Daughters Catherine and Melanie both had a chance in her final days to ask their mother what she had learned from her life. “She told me it was all about relationships,” Catherine said. “’Love, love, love,’ was her answer,” Melanie said.