I can’t imagine a day going by that some thread of the past doesn’t inform thoughts and actions whether consciously or not. We are all shaped by the people that came before us. I couldn’t help but think of this as I worked my way through my mother’s history and tried to find ways to honor her memory, give insight into some of her quirkiness and express how much she meant to us.
I hope I did so here but it is a little long winded, just as my mother would have liked it I think and if you’ve heard it all before well, that is just like Kirkie too isn’t it?
At the end of the great depression on November 6th, 1933, Margaret Kirk Bragg was born a in the university town of Columbia, MO to the local dentist Harold Ingram Bragg and his wife Margaret Givens Bragg, who was 30 years his junior. Her childhood memories were full of war drives, civic duty and patriotism. She was a girl scout, elected to student councils and popular all-around girl with a sense of community. The first 12 years of her life were under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt and this was probably a contributing factor to her lifelong devotion to the Democratic Party.
My mother was a salt-of-the-earth, polly-anna Midwesterner, and that explains the dichotomy of her life. Annoyingly principled in practice (would never neglect to send a thank you note, pay back a debt or fulfill some obligation,)who was at the same time helplessly romantic in her imagination. After work and paying the bills and being sure that affairs of life were in order my mother spent time imagining or planning all sorts of romantic, tragic or adventurous scenarios. Sometimes these were stories of her ancestors, sometimes a tale she heard from a new friend on the bus, sometimes an embellished story of her own experience or an elaborate plan for a future event.
She loved to plan. Many varied plans for holidays, traveling, or birthday parties. She didn’t wait for someone else to make the plans or send the invite, she realized in mid-life that to be remembered or invited you sometimes had to take the initiative yourself. So she did.
And the reasons she wanted to be invited and remembered were so she could connect.
Her mind was always on the lookout for connections through stories. She could pull out of the catalog of her mind an appropriate story for wherever the conversation went and through an epic telling, that wasn’t meant for casual conversation, would weave the saga to appropriate resolution and if you had been able to follow all the twists and turns you would find it quite remarkable. She would do this with strangers and friends alike and had the most varied collection of people in her life which of course provided fodder for her tales. She was a hunter of stories and would find them wherever she went then would make them her own in the retelling. It made her life rich.
My mother was not afraid to talk about death and dying. Death was simply a fact of life and she was well acquainted with its sorrows. She lost her own mother at the age of 16 and her father passed when she was 18. These were devastating losses for an only child with limited extended family.
After losing her parents her uncle Spencer provided for her during her college years and neighborhood friends The Tinsley’s took her in as an honorary member. The Tinsley’s are famous in our family for the twice yearly boxes sent at Easter and Christmas. About 10 years ago after Mrs. Tinsley passed away my mother received a box of thank you notes written by her over the years to Mrs. Tinsley. These were not just notes but newsy letters which have provided a lot of insight into our childhood years and the difficulties our family faced when we were young and are a wonderful record of our childhood milestones. My mother was an amazing correspondent.
She finished college with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and after working for a newspaper in Kansas City stepped out adventurously and impulsively to the Big Apple to see about a boy. A tall handsome boy she new from Missou that she could have married but chose not to. A boy who to this day regards my mother fondly, in fact they were able to speak shortly before her passing. Bob Leaf has been a faithful friend for 60+ years. But, my mother, principled as she was, could not reconcile his Jewish religion with her own Christian beliefs.
Instead she fell in love and married Peter Christopher Holland an Irish Catholic Bostonian with an interesting history, a large family and classic good looks; who when they met, declared her face “the map of Ireland”.
My parents had similar features with black hair, blue eyes and slight build. My mother and father however couldn’t have been more different in taste, temperament, interests and personality. My mother loved her antiques and family heirlooms which harkened back to her roots, my father loved modern and every new innovation, my mother didn’t have an ear for music, my father was a jazz enthusiast. My father had refined taste in food and fashion. My mother loved, simple food and practical clothing. My mother was neat and tidy, my father put together but messy. My father was reserved and aloof, my mother outspoken, gregarious and clumsy. You get the idea.
Somehow, they made it work long enough to produce the family they both desperately wanted. Despite their personal differences which ultimately ended their marriage we never doubted their love for us.
In 1978, Kirk, at the age of 44 had to forge a new path. She had to become the primary support for her children and if that meant moving 500 miles away that is what she would do. She was not afraid of new beginnings, and having a surly teenager in tow did not deter her from making the decisions she knew she had to make. Second wave feminism was on her side and she ventured out again ultimately choosing Reston, VA to make a new start.
Reading through her journals though I learned she did second guess herself and was afraid of what it might have done to us and how her asking for help might alienate her from family and friends. She imposed greatly on a distant cousin who allowed us to live in their basement the first year we were in the Washington DC area. But she was forever grateful and expressed her gratitude in a myriad of ways.
Ultimately, she was not too proud to ask and was not too proud to depend on government assistance when it was the only means for securing housing and food for her children. She used welfare and subsidized housing for what it was meant for, a helping hand in a desperate time. She was grateful for that help and as a matter of civic duty gave back by supporting local causes volunteering at the polls every year and paying her taxes. Years later she’s been vindicated as each of us validated that what she did was right and good despite the difficulties of the time.
Her resourcefulness served her well. She secured first a receptionist job at WMAL then a position at the Chamber of Commerce and eventually forged her own career. She was often underestimated in her abilities probably due to her own insecurities but she did manage to use her clerical and administrative skills to make a career in Washington DC’s defense industry working for a naval architect as a technical librarian. She was proud of how she kept up with the computer age and marveled at search engines. She introduced me to Google. As a researcher it opened up a whole new world to her.
The hardest thing about her last years was seeing the once fiercely independent head strong woman not be able to carry out her own wishes. She did hone her skills in delegation though and thank God had people who would actually do her bidding. We owe an immense debt of gratitude Tara Byrn who helped my mother a few years ago and to Colleen Dearing who was the most devoted friend and administrator and executor of our mother’s desires.
We three were not always accommodating when called upon but did our best and thankfully there were 3 of us. I did rearrange her room and her condo just as she wanted a couple of weeks before she passed. She couldn’t see but could picture perfectly exactly how she wanted the furniture arranged and made me tell her in great detail that it had been done as she wished.
Her mind was sharp to the very end and on election day two days before she passed she remembered a friend’s birthday and had us deliver flowers and a card. She remembered everything, except what she already told you, she repeated herself often.
She was not a doting mother and did not impose high standards or expectations. She did applaud our every effort, cheer our every success, chastise our indiscretions while secretly reveling at our irreverence, and worried about our stupid, my stupid decisions. But she always had our back, and would defend us fiercely and come to our rescue whenever means allowed.
She also lived her own life found new friends and imagined new stories. She kept up with childhood friends, college friends, work friends and Alanon friends. It is no wonder that she had multiple calls on her birthday this year from the close friends she kept over the years from every season of life. She was an amazing correspondent and was always up for a long phone call to friends. She appreciated everyone who had an impact in her life.
She set the most beautiful table with her antique china and kept it set at all times. She rearranged her furniture whenever the mood struck her, she loved to “play house” as she called it. She liked long walks but hated exercise, loved to tidy up but hated to clean, loved long conversations but hated to be interrupted and often monopolized conversations. She was easily offended yet quick to forgive and even quicker to ask forgiveness. A devoted friend and mother and aunt she loved easily and was simply the most thoughtful person I know.
In her retirement she was able to pursue her love of writing and joined a memoir group and started writing her own. Unfortunately, due to her disease in which her eyesight deteriorated she never did finish but we have stacks and stacks of notebooks of her life, she kept them faithfully and maybe in my own retirement I’ll finish what she started.
She has long told stories of her ancestors and thanks to help from her cousin Alice has traced many branches of her family back through time and geography. I am afraid her children have been a terrible disappointment in this area. We have not shared this love of ancestral discovery but have listened over the years, with growing confusion, of how it all fits together. In my closet, I have a carpet bag of 150 year old letters from my namesake, Martha Hollingsworth, her grandmother, to her grandfather Nathaniel Givens in Hanibel MO that she hoped I would transcribe. If anyone has a penchant for reading Spencerian penmanship in pencil let me know.
Thankfully, her children have not been adverse to perpetuating the family tree. It brought her great joy to see us marry and have children no matter how they came.
She was connected to the stories of the past that brought her into being and looked to the threads that would tie future generations to it. As an only child I think she was afraid of being the end of a generation and felt a great duty to procreate. But it was not simply duty, she loved the idea of family and having children was her dream.
Everyone who knew her knew that in the end she achieved her dream. You all have told us, because she told you every time she saw you, that whatever failure her relationship with our father, she at least had us. But we were not the least in her life. We were the very most. She marveled at each of us in her own way and was the annoying friend who can’t stop talking about her children and grandchildren. It was embarrassing and gratifying and we love her for it.
The Presbyterian in her gave her comfort to think there really are no mistakes in life but God’s hand brings everything about just as it should be. The weeks leading up to her death, were chaotic and horrible, her disease of NF2 continued to ravage her abilities to carry out the simplest activities and while we were trying to figure out how we would get her the compassionate care she needed, Covid stepped in and made the decision for us. It took her quickly and painlessly, enabled Marnie to be with her during that last week and all of us with her in her last days. In some of her last lucid moments, in characteristic Kirkie, she said dying of Covid would be a “good story to tell our grandchildren.”
Indeed Granny, Mum, Kirkie it will be, but that is not the only story we will tell. There are so many more and I pray we will all tell them often.