Ms. Renee Means Peace

This is hardly a summative piece about Ms. Renee Buettner who is worthy of a volume of books, it’s just my own take on an incredible woman. Here is her obituary. And there have been and will be many more tributes to Ms. Renee. 

When I think of Ms. Renee (pronounced REE-nee with two long e sounds), I think of eye-squinting laughter. I think of “There but for the grace of God, go I.” I think of El Salvador with liberal nuns and sneakers labeled “New” and a ponytail adorned with a ribbon. I think of “rosaries coming out of our ears” and all things Jerry, Mary, Katy, Molly, and Christine. I think of Oscar Romero. And the Super Selectos, a grocery store by the side of a San Salvador road–how she didn’t want to go but the group’s American desires won out. I think of raisin bran and fasting on Mondays. I think of the rabbit on the back of the toilet. I think of the story she loved to tell about seeing an old nun who exclaimed, “You MARRIED JERRY BUETTNER?!” But most of all, when I think of Ms. Renee I think about peace.


El Salvie 2008.

At the start of the new year, I chose a one-word intention of sorts. Peace. I am working to find peace in my thoughts, my words, and in my actions. Of course, on January 25th, its lost its sting a bit. Many of us could probably use a reminder of the resolutions or intentions we set to be better versions of ourselves. Maybe for some of us, it was to be more Renee-like. Celebrating Ms. Renee this weekend is a great reminder of the intention of peace. Because in a word, Ms. Renee was peace, rather, Ms. Renee is peace.

I met Ms. Renee probably many times before I really met her. Aubrey and I were not “cool” at Swan Lake Swim Club, in that we had no friends there aside from one another. Mary Colleen and the Buettners did have friends at Swan Lake. I’m certain over the summers we splashed and tanned along that craggy concrete path, I stared longingly at the large family, including Ms. Renee, that grew even larger with friends.

But when I really met Ms. Renee, I was on the way to my first high school dance. I wore a glittery black dress and a gold necklace that my boyfriend had gotten me from Disney World–it read “Amanda” next to a Mickey Mouse head. I was with that excellent gift-giver boyfriend and my mom must have been with us too. Mary, by some stroke of luck, had been named my high school “big sister” and I was terrified of her. To spend an evening with someone so popular and loud and celebrity-like, I was probably shaking in my shiny shoes.

Then, when we all got to Mary’s house to “take pictures” (like you did), there was Ms. Renee. She immediately calmed me by being silly, and sweet, and by being peace. And it was like my mom had found a counterpart. Another Baltimore social justice worker who was her height (ish) and radiated so much love like she does. If I had to guess, they were both wearing hand-me-downs from one of their daughters. The way Mary was my “big sister” and I was her “little sister” at Mercy, Ms. Renee started calling herself my mom’s “big mom.”

After I got over my fear of her, my friendship with Mary grew into more of an actual sisterhood and Ms. Renee, who mothered everyone but in the gentlest way, welcomed us in too.

I remember running with Ms. Renee around Lake Montebello talking about my then-boyfriend who also happened to be a closeted drug addict. I remember charades in the family room and Katy’s frustration that no one could guess her clue, “My breasts are the size of Europe!” Ms. Renee would just laugh and laugh, so used to her ridiculous daughters who used language she never would. I remember handing out rosaries and “Mouth Under Contruction” shirts to tiny El Salvadoran women and their same-size children. Swimming in the Pacific and practicing yoga outside the kitchen in our temporary home. Sleeping 14 in a room in Central America in July–I’m sure Ms. Renee and my mom were the only ones who wouldn’t have complained.

Ms. Renee might be sainted someday. She may already be an angel. She is and was a friend, a mother, a Gee, an advocate, a voice for those who didn’t have one, a home, a sister–biologically and Catholically, and on and on her ripples continue circling outward.

Now that she is not physically here in her body that betrayed her, her presence almost looms larger as her family and friends gather memories and photos. We remember a woman who couldn’t speak a bad word about anyone, who allowed her actions to talk, who lived by loving, a woman who gave peace to so many. We remember Ms. Renee.

Five Years Ago, on Kennewick Road (by my mom, Nancy)

This is a guest blog written entirely by my mom, Nancy Papa Doran. For another guest blog see: 

It was Thursday night January 23, 2014. After another long day of working at the Baer School and writing notes, I went to sleep around 11. It was 12 degrees outside. It had snowed a little bit a few days ago before, we were in a cold snap and it was not melting.

At 12:30 a.m., (technically, Friday, January 24, 2014) I was awakened suddenly from a deep sleep. There was an odd aroma. I thought it smelled like burnt toast. I noticed that my husband, Dick, was not in bed. I wondered why he was downstairs, making toast. But then I heard him calling me calmly from the bottom of the steps.

“Hey, Nance, Come here.” It didn’t sound too important the way he said it, but I got out of bed, put on shoes but did not even put on eyeglasses. I thought I’d be coming back to bed soon. I dazedly walked downstairs and realized that our smoke alarm was beeping like crazy.

Dick said, “I think a neighbor’s house is on fire.” Aubrey was sleeping upstairs and I called up the stairs for to get up, which she was doing anyway. She came down and was astute enough to grab Joe our dog’s leash and to put it on him. We didn’t know where our cat Kramer was. We got coats and opened the front door, realizing that it was our next-door neighbor’s house on fire–attached to ours, as you know, we live in rowhouses.  Our dear-forever next-door neighbors, The Braceys, Mabel and Clyde. Smoke was pouring out of their house. And they were sitting on their front porch. Mabel was wearing a coat over her nightgown and Clyde was wearing a bathrobe and no shoes. They were in their 70s, both had mild disabilities—cane, walker.

Mabel told us that her land-line phone didn’t work, so Aubrey was trying to call 911, although I think they had gotten the signal from the smoke alarm which was attached to a security alarm. None of the other neighbors were out yet and Dick and I realized that we had to help Mabel and Clyde to get off of their porch. Clyde asked me to go in and get his shoes from the living room. I opened their front door and smoke flooded out. I told him I couldn’t get the shoes. Their car was out front and Mabel had the keys. We walked them down the steps, one at a time, Clyde in bare feet (12 degrees out) and got them into their car. Mabel sat in the driver’s seat, started the car and turned on the heat. They sat and watched their home of over 40 years, being destroyed.

There was a brief moment of silence, except for the smoke alarm. But the fire was getting worse. We thought we should hear sirens. Aubrey got a busy signal from 911 at first but then got through. It felt like 15 minutes, but it was really only about seven, and then there were sirens… lots of them, loud, several trucks. The firefighters were very professional.

Aubrey, Joe and I watched and sometimes went into a neighbors’ house to get warm. Dick was pacing all over the block. The firefighters dragged their giant hoses from the trucks. There was a problem with the fire hydrant on the corner because it was frozen (12 degrees out), but they had other water somehow.  The fire was raging and soon the flames were coming up out of the Braceys’ roof. The firefighters used their equipment to squirt up there.

We had just gotten our solar panels up there on the roof. I thought they would burn up. (They didn’t, the panels were fine.) The firefighters realized that the fire was also coming out of the back of the Braceys’ house. The next thing I saw was the firefighters carrying their big hoses up onto our porch, opening our front door, and going into our house.  I thought the fire was coming through our wall. Dick had several hundred of his favorite books on shelves against that wall. I said to him, “There goes your books.” He surprised me by saying, “They’re only books.”

A little while later, one of the firefighters came out and said that there was no fire in our house. They went through our house so they could fight the fire that was coming out of the back of the Braceys’ house. (With rowhouses, you can’t just walk around to the back.)  After a couple of hours, they were finished putting out the fire. Some of them were still in the Braceys’ house, throwing all of their furniture out of their windows. Crashing, sounds, loud banging, broken glass. Chairs, tables, suitcases, beds, clothes, photos, all being thrown out of their windows. Mabel was a meticulous dresser and had some beautiful clothes.

Some of the firefighters came into our house several times to check our walls for hot spots and found none. But the smell of smoke was overwhelming and all-encompassing. We looked for Kramer in the alley, but found that he had been hiding in our basement. By then it was about 4:30 a.m. Mabel and Clyde went to their daughter’s house on Northway Drive.  We laid down for a little while but it was kind of hard to breathe. For some reason, I got up and went to work. In shock. At work, I was kind of traumatized. I told some of my co-workers about the fire, and they said, “Well, at least everyone is alive.”

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After work, I came home and met Dick and a fire inspector. The inspector said we had to leave. We had no fire damage, just some water drips from the hoses. But the smoke damage was very severe. We had to leave everything, ALL of our clothes, shoes, socks, linens, towels, blankets, pillows, scarves, gloves, books, papers, everything. We had to go to Target to get some clothes to wear really quick. Aubrey stayed with her boyfriend’s mother. Dick and Joe and I stayed with Amanda and Chas for two nights and then our friend Linnea generously let us stay with her for a while, even Joe. Linnea lives a few streets away so we could walk down and see our house and feed Kramer every day before work.

Our house was then taken over by the restoration company. They placed five huge and loud smoke removal air-cleaning fans all over the house and ran them continuously for more than a week. A team of people came in every day and spent hours and hours wiping off everything with special smoke removal cloths–every book, knick knack, picture frame, piece furniture, walls, floors and steps—they wiped everything. We were able to move back in after a couple weeks. About a month after that, the boxes began to arrive. They delivered all of our clothes, shoes, linens, towels, blankets, pillows and all that other stuff—all clean and boxed up neatly with some type of labeling. There were eventually about 80 large boxes brought into our living room. It took forever to unpack them all and there was no time to do it and that’s why I couldn’t work summer school in 2014. Dick’s sister Colleen came to visit that summer to help us with the house. 

As for Mabel and Clyde—it turned out that the fire had been electrical. They had a refrigerator in their basement plugged in near the furnace and that night, it sparked and caught the furnace on fire. The fire was carried through their house via the heat ducts. Thank goodness,  Mabel and Clyde had excellent fire insurance. They were given a furnished apartment over on Goucher Blvd. in the county as their house was renovated. Over the next few months, their house was gutted and they got new everything. I visited them in their apartment every Sunday while they were waiting for their house. I felt so bad for them having to see all their furniture thrown out and losing all of their clothes and family photos. Mabel said she felt bad about us having the smoke damage but I told her, that’s nothing to worry about. At least we’re alive!

In the ’50s, when our houses were built, builders installed fire walls between each rowhouse, a decision for which we will always be grateful. In the time since the fire, we lost both Mabel and Clyde who were incredible neighbors to us and daycare parents for our daughters. We will never forget them, nor what we went through with them in 2014.

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Mabel and Clyde Bracey


We are Siamese if You Don’t Please

How’s that title to start your day? Good luck getting it out of your head! I had to look up those crazy cats again because the only line I could remember was “We are Siamese if you please. We are Siamese if you don’t please.” Those are still the greatest lines but let me tell you, those bitches are mean.

There’s something about lyrics like “We are Siamese if you don’t please,” that transport you back to another time, another place, another body–one with less hair and fewer worries. I’m thinking that first rhythmic drum beat and base guitar combo at the start of “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World. And Sugar Ray singing, “Every morning there’s a hale-lot (sic) hanging from my girlfriend’s vote crossed bed…” (Which I now know are “halo” and “four post,” respectively.)

Like Jakob Dylan trying to sound British; the piano riff at the start of “All My Life” by Kaci and Jojo; the speaking parts of “Barbie Girl”; and me singing Savage Garden in 5th grade, staring out a window like I had a lover to sing about. There are time-traveling powers to listening your favorite Hanson brother own a chorus (Zack, duh). I hear “No Scrubs” and I’m suddenly back picturing my dweeby blue shirt, blue-pantsed, buck-shoed male classmates all over again–“Ya live at home wit ya momma…” No, literally.

If I catch “Where My Girls At” by 702 I feel like I’m riding home from softball practice covered in both dirt and the shame of being slightly below mediocre at softball. “Gone” by NSYNC and I’m at a middle school dance debating whether or not I am ready to “make out” with my boyfriend yet.

Music is important to almost everyone I’m close with. Mary Colleen Buettner is maybe the only exception, but she has lots of other great qualities. The thing about your childhood music, though, is how it imprints on you. It leaves marks and lessons and the most indelible memories. A few years ago, Alice, Caitlin and I went to a Backstreet Boys and Hanson concert. We became eleven year olds. It was magical. I wanted a choker necklace and Steve Maddens with stretchy band tops and chunky soles and a boy with a blonde bowl cut.

One explanation I have is for this phenomenon is that music can be one’s first taste of having an identity. I remember it being a big deal when Aubrey got the Neil Diamond Greatest Hits cassette and I got Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill.” As if I was no longer just Amanda. I was now “Amanda who likes Alanis,” and this is my sister, “Aubrey who likes Neil.”

Liking a music artist went beyond purple as a favorite color or that your favorite food was pizza. Besides, everyone’s favorite color was purple and everyone loved pizza. That didn’t make you special. But music was a whole new world (Yes, I, too, am thinking of Aladdin). You had choices. And likes and dislikes could say things about you. Through those sounds and words and foundation-covered faces, you could now select who you were by which CDs you chose from those Thirty CDs for a Penny clubs.

Then music transformed into a way to connect with friends. You could be a Backstreet type or an NSYNC gal–we were mostly both. Then, listening to those songs thousands of times in a row became a replacement for a comfort object. Ditch the teddy and the blanket for Lance and Justin. They were, after all, singing to us and we didn’t know Lance was gay back then. It didn’t matter that they hadn’t picked out their own outfits, let alone written a single word of their music. They were ours and we were each going to marry one of them. I would have prayed for you if you and one of your friends liked the same one–that was a non-starter.

Then, like many things, as a teenager music becomes a method of rebellion. You can pretend you’re “unique” and chose your own tastes. But it’s just because they’ll slightly upset the adults around you.

We all cycled through this until we finally started to actually like the music we like. The thing is, when I hear those old songs I can’t decide whether I love them because of what they make me think of or if I actually liked them all along. Regardless, it is entertaining to go back and listen. Below you will find actual lyrics from 3LW’s “No More (Baby I’ma Do Right).” I will let them close out this piece the classy way they do. And before you say, “Oh no, not me, I don’t know that song, I’d never listen to that” verify here and see below where I’ve bolded the very best part.

“Yo Yo Yo
A yo, you promised me Kate Spade
But that was last year
Boy in the eighth grade
And you ain’t biggie, baby boy
So it ain’t one more chance
When your friends around u don’t wanna hold my hand
And now you see a girl stylin’ and wildin’ inside the mix
Hoppin out the whips, the whips, the 5, the 6
Yes fly chrome, so pardon my tone
Here go a quarter, go call Tyrone”

Seven Memories from Seven Years Ago

I miss our photo albums and picking up packets of pictures from the Safeway. Photos were so valuable to us then. Aubrey and I would pour over the albums in the living room, as Mom watched nervously, hoping we weren’t tearing apart years of labeling and organizing. Every once in a while you’d hear a “get your grimy mitts off…”

Sometimes I go through old photos on my phone. It’s not the same. But it still conjures up nostalgia and details so specific that I wonder how I can still remember the lyrics to every song by the Backstreet Boys too. Also, it’s amazing how fast the time moves the older you get. I can’t believe these memories are this old. I can’t believe I am 31. I give you: 7 memories from 7 years ago (though they feel like yesterday).


I remember Chas’s roof on Patterson Park Avenue. It wasn’t a real deck but we walked out on it anyway. There was a small black cat who would stop over from time to time and we called him Felix. You could see several Polish Catholic parishes from that vantage point, the buildings downtown, the Natty Boh sign, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the spiky or bushy tops of trees, depending on the season. It was so quiet up there, as if everything down below were frozen because we were up top.


When Chas graduated from grad school, the Ebys and I took a road trip up Route 1 with a side trip into Yosemite. Inside the park, Chris, Chas, and I stayed in a cabin. Aside from listening to coyotes, there wasn’t much to do at night. Chas figured out a way of opening imports on the bunk bed metal frame and we played LCR. A few months later two people staying in the same cabins died of hantavirus, the disease you can catch from mouse poop.

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On the same trip as above, when we made it up to Oregon, we spent a night in Coos Bay. I was particularly excited about that because Steve Prefontaine was from Coos Bay (I knew nothing else about it). I remember this restaurant well. There was a band playing that night that identified as “surf country.” I’d never heard that term before but it was pleasant music. Skip ordered a crab cake because he said he “had to know what you get when you order crab cakes on the West Coast.”

After dinner we all drove to the Indian casino. Cindy and I played the penny slots. A woman sucking down cranberry vodkas and cigarettes told me to try “the ones with the pandas on them.” After I won $287 on one of the panda ones, Cindy and I decided to tip her with a five dollar bill (we didn’t know the etiquette). I will never gamble again.


Grandmom’s birthday in 2012. She loved to conduct us when we sang “Happy Birthday.” We were on the Papas’ back porch. Someone had made mint juleps because it was May and Kentucky Derby season. I remember Gram really liking it. My cousins Ben and Zack are 20 now. I see them here, tiny and childlike. It’s hard to remember. But Gram and her spirit, it’s like it’s in the palm of my hand still.


That Memorial Day we went to Cape May Point for the weekend and stayed in the Murphys’ house there. Aubrey and Chris were somewhat freshly in love. I remember marveling at how cute they were holding hands on the beach and seeing my little sister gleeful and laughing and glowing. Chris also had a mow-hawk on this trip. Now they are parents.


My mom bought me this dress. Every once in a while she buys an absurd item for each of us. There was the sequin skirt, the shirt that shrinks to the size of a butt cheek, she can’t resist. This is maybe one of the best ones I can remember. I wore it to Dot’s Bachelorette Party. We rented a gorgeous house in Capitol Hill and had a glorious weekend of girlfriend time. All night my dress reflected on my chin–that’s not something everyone can say.


Caitlin, Alice, and I went to see Shar when she lived on Main Street in Frostburg. Another walkable roof, you could see the mountains from this one. In the house next to us, earlier that year a couple had fallen asleep after a night out and died in a fire. I remember traipsing around Frostburg like we owned the town then coming up here and feeling so tiny with the Appalachian Mountains so present and huge and there.


I do realize social media allows us to catalog and caption our lives but there’s so much more that we’d never say, because it’s weird to share, or it’s not happy, or it paints us in strange light. All of the realness that make seven years ago feel like yesterday.