The Moment I Knew - Mariann's Story | The Armchair Genealogist
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The Moment I Knew - Mariann's Story

Mary Kirven and William M. Sanders

The day I found boxes of personal letters in my parents’ Virginia attic, I had misgivings about investigating my family’s past.

What good could come of poking through other people’s correspondence?  Wouldn’t I be just snooping?

Besides, our parents had always been secretive. Whenever we asked about the family history “down South,” we got faraway looks and vague replies.

It was autumn, 1992. Mama had died of cancer that summer. Daddy, with his usual effort to be meticulously fair, had summoned us three daughters home to Virginia.  He laid out Mama’s possessions on the living room rug and asked us each to take what we wanted. China, silver, scarves, driver’s license, wedding ring . . . a scene of pure pain. We were thinking: No more hand for that ring to adorn.

We were anxious to finish the “divide it up” business. Neither of us much cared about jewelry or silverware, but we badly wanted to please Daddy. He was 80. Proper behavior was his watchword, and we needed to reassure him that he was doing right, that there was peace in the family.

Later that day, we shared wedding photos from the dining room drawer. (Mama had demurred: “Our entire wedding party looks bug-eyed!”) We sifted through bureaus and closets, saving and discarding, finishing a sad job for our father.

Finally, my sister L. B. and I thought to check the attic. We assumed nothing was up there, but just in case . . . we climbed through the hatch into a snowstorm of dust on bare planks. The attic was empty except for two big boxes in the corner. Crawling through the dust, I dislodged the lids. Letters. I inspected some dates and signatures.

“What are they?” L. B. called from the hatch opening.

“Letters between Mama and Daddy when he was in Europe during World War II. Hundreds. And another box of letters by some people in the 1800s.”

“Daddy probably wants his own letters? They’re private,” L. B. said.

But my feelings were sudden and fierce. I wanted those letters. I had been born a few months after Daddy left for the war. My childhood had been rocky, full of sadness and nightmares, for reasons never clear. As an adult, I was besieged by phobias. These letters might hold clues, might help me to heal myself.

L. B. and I agreed that it was right to give Daddy these letters. They were his business, to save or not.  But I wanted those letters. I was prepared to get argumentative (couldn’t I just borrow them?) with my 80-year-old Daddy.

So I began gently: “Daddy, L.B. and I found some letters in the attic . . . “

He interrupted me.

“Take them,” he said. “Take anything you want. That was a long time ago, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it now.”

That was a long speech, for Daddy.

“Love is madness,” Daddy continued, shaking his head. “It sweeps you away.”

I wondered what Daddy meant by that one. Never mind. Gulping down guilt, I took what I could get. L.B. and I slid the two huge boxes down the attic hatch, out the front door, and into the back of my station wagon.

That day, I knew I’d probably learn some family history, but I was expecting basically a personal quest—all about me.

The Kirven Family 1919
Mary -4 years old
Over the next twenty years, my goals expanded.  A genealogical amateur, I stumbled through databases, libraries, and historical societies. The material drew me in. I struggled to understand my maternal Southern family.

Over 1,000 war letters passed between my parents from 1942 through 1946, most written by Mama. She was a woman distraught, pregnant, both her parents dead, her gentle husband snatched by the U.S. Army and sent to Europe. Whose advice should she heed about how to treat her first baby (me)? Her five rough-and-tough older brothers believed in not sparing the rod. Her older sister’s husband died in 1943 and left her with two young children. Mama often wrote that she felt unmoored and nearly out of her mind.

After reading those letters, I began regular visits from Connecticut to the South. I sought out that large family whom I barely remembered.

What had made my mother’s brothers so rough and tough? I took oral histories from Eckard Lee, a 94-year-old second cousin who remembered all his father’s stories from the 1800s. With benign, helpless laughter he spoke of gunfights, throw-downs, whippings, the Red Shirts, and the lawless times of Reconstruction. I reflected on other historical forces: Civil War, Depression, World Wars. And slaveholding. My family had owned slaves from 1800 to 1865. What had that done to them?

How had Mama’s brothers gained such influence over her? Her father had died when she was five. His health had been poor for years, after one tenant—a black man, as it happened—tried to kill him with buckshot in 1908 and almost succeeded. This story had been long buried by the family. My cousins had many versions of the shooting’s aftermath. All were different, all frightening.

I sought books about Southern culture, the tangles of race and violence, and the views of Southerners. Enslave people, but with kindness. Stamp out evil. Impose justice. I found many insistent definitions of right and wrong, but little moral certainty.

That second attic box held courtship letters between my maternal grandfather and grandmother from 1893 to 1897—enough letters for a booklet of 135 single-spaced typed pages that I made for the family. Their words shone with the ideals of two young people straining to fit the molds of noble lover and Southern lady. Sometimes they flared at each other over points of honor. They separated, then reconciled. I read more books—about Southern womanhood, pure and sacrosanct, nurturing enough to redeem even slavery.

I grew to understand and love my Southern family. The more cousins I talked to, the more I learned, and not always from their words. Silences and hints finally taught me that my grandmother had put Mama’s education before saving the family farm. A perilous clash of ideals. In 1933, the bank repossessed the farm machinery while my mother was away at college.

Further insights came through creating my book, Into the Briar Patch, a personal-and-family memoir. During five years of writing, I tested central questions about human nature and psychology. Each chapter now answers a question that arises from its own stories: When people act as they do in this chapter, what precious goodness are they trying to protect?

That question and that structure let me make peace with myself and accept my family’s past. I’ve had to move beyond the trivial, to a mental place where gossip and scandal don’t matter, where we all need mercy and we all deserve compassion and respect.

My whole journey was implied in that moment my sister and I took possession of those private letters from the attic. Through our misgivings, we kept going.

 A family’s secrets can be a window into human nature.

Meet the Storyteller - Mariann Regan 

Mariann Sanders Regan is Professor Emerita of English at Fairfield University in Connecticut. She grew up in North Carolina and has many relatives in South Carolina. She has a BA from Duke, a PhD from Yale, and publications that include articles, stories, literary scholarship (Cornell University Press), and a novel. Her recent family memoir Into the Briar Patch explores the effects upon her South Carolina ancestors of owning slaves, given that slavery is an evil institution. She and her husband, who have two children, live in Connecticut. Her book blog is Reviews of the memoir are at

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