google-site-verification: google65e716d80989ba07.html The Moment I Knew - Mariann's Story | The Armchair Genealogist

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

If you would like to have your story published on the Armchair Genealogist for our feature The Moment I Knew, click Everyone Has a Story  for all the details.


Marta said...

I have enjoyed your story. I also read the piece you wrote for The In-Depth Genealogist. Being from Ohio and moving South myself, I can understand your care in approaching your South Carolina relatives. When I first moved to Georgia in 1978, I was described as "rude and ugly". I don't know if it was what was expected of "Northerners" or if I truly was behaving badly. Life is different 34 years later. I do find that family is sacred to people born in the South. I thank them for helping me to learn some of their appreciation of family.

Stephanie Pitcher Fishman said...

Once again, I am absolutely taken in my Mariann's story. I just love not only the path but the storyteller. Thanks, Lynn, for highlighting her. :)


Mariann Regan said...

Marta, thank you for reading! I agree that sometimes the South feels like another country--exotic, maybe, and with customs you have to get used to. I "moved North" in 1964, to CT, so now my Southern relatives tease me and call me a "Yankee." Perhaps the label of "bad guys" on Southerners before & for the Civil War has made them hold extra tightly to their ideals ever since. It's a continuing labor for South & North to better understand each other. I have a cousin in the Raleigh NC area, where many "Northerners" now go to retire. She tells stories of two cultures brushing up against each other!

Mariann Regan said...

Stephanie, I am so grateful to you for encouraging me all along, and welcoming me to the In-Depth Genealogist. It really helps me to feel understood. Maybe it's true of family historians more than other writers, but I found this story, like the book, hard to write and even wrenching in places. Maybe genealogists, immersed in the past, especially love hearing from readers in the present. Your writing always sounds so fresh and natural, it's like opening a window to read your posts!

shellt said...

What a wonderful story and so beautifully told. I too have southern family and love learning about the southern ways and culture. It makes for a wonderful adventure in genealogical research.

Debi Austen said...

I am in the early stages of transcribing the letters between my paternal grandparents from 1917-1919 and it is fascinating! I do feel a little bit like I'm eavesdropping and I often 'scold' my grandmother when she writes about 'her cousin'. Grandma, which cousin? Where did they live? What were they like? I've read about my 2nd great grandmother and my great grandfather's illnesses and deaths and I almost weep because I know what's going to happen next.

When that's done, I also have a gazillion letters written to/from my dad during WWII - to/from his parents and from my mother. My mother is still living and while I feel funny about doing this now, I probably should so she can be available if I have any questions.

I don't know what my next step will be when I'm done transcribing (I have a LONG way to go) but I've been toying with a book of some sort. I'd love any suggestions on how to put that together!

Mariann Regan said...

Thank you so much for your kind words! I've seen your blog, The Southern Sleuth. So I just read your latest post and signed up to follow your blog. I viewed your youtube there of the one-room schoolhouse. My grandmother got her teacher's certificate, too, in the 1890s, I suppose a generation later than Olivia. There surely are a lot of sides to "southern ways and culture," even among Southerners.

cindy said...

How I enjoyed this article with the gentle unfolding of the story which draws the reader in! Mariann I appreciate your writing, so heartfelt and honest. It's a pleasure to read your work!
Thanks to you too Lynn for the feature!

Mariann Regan said...

I know what you mean about the eavesdropping part; I felt that too for a while. When I typed up the grandfather-grandmother courting letters and made for copies for the family, one cousin even told me, "Would grandfather like to have his private thoughts on display before everybody?" But she came around before long.

The letters were like a piece of literature for us. They were saved to be read, I think, and for their deep emotional value. In a way, our grandparents may have wanted their descendants to know what an ideal and adventurous courtship they had--otherwise, they could have easily destroyed the letters. Then, too, the letters from 100 years ago seem so tame and polite by today's "standards" that there is nothing at all shocking in them--not to mention that the WWII letters were censored by the Army.

As to how to put the letters into a book, that's a wonderful question. First idea: In "The Armchair Genealogist," Lynn has a great blog about how to write a family history like a novel--fairly recent in her archives, probably. Second idea: the popular current novel "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" IS a series of letters--that's it's structure. Third idea: My family memoir is set up by themes, and stories within each theme. Within that, there are two stories about letters. The links on the bio will take you to the paper or ebook format of Into the Briar Patch. All in all, You're not alone -- everyone wonders and worries about how to structure a book!

Lynn Palermo said...

@Debi, the best thing you can do is have a wonderful open loving conversation with your Mother about the letters. It will help you write your book when it comes to that point and in a manner that will honour your Mother and Father. In the meantime develop your writing skills, reads lots of memoir examples as suggested by Mariann and learn the skills of structuring a book. At lot of work yes, but I assure you it is the journey of a lifetime. Thanks so much for sharing your story with us. Hope we can continue to help you in your journey of bringing your Mother's letters into a book format.

Marian Pierre-Louis said...

Wonderful piece. I love that your journey of family history evolved beyond that to one of human nature. I need to read that book!

Thanks to Lynn for hosting such an incredible series of writers. Your nurturing and drawing out of authors' stories is inspiring!

Laura Cosgrove Lorenzana said...

Mariann, what an incredible story. And what a challenge to defy an unspoken rule in order to learn what you knew in your heart would help you move forward. Perhaps that's what's in your genes though, that toughness to get through the challenging times. I love how you write.

Of course, I wouldn't be an Archivist if I didn't ask what became of all of those fabulous original letters? I've worked with several clients to save and share both photos and documents; you know how to find me if you'd like to know more.

Mariann Regan said...

Thank you, Cindy, for your very kind words. I enjoy your writing also -- it's always bubbling over with enthusiasm, and you've mastered so much great detail. I just read your blog about your ancestor in the War of 1812 -- very informative.

Mariann Regan said...

Thank you so much for your response, Marian. I admire your writing and your genealogical pursuits, and your words mean a lot to me. I'd be honored for you to read my book, and even review it if you do reviews. I'm so impressed by the friendliness and encouragement that I've found on Twitter in just a few months, with so many experienced and kind genealogists. It's been amazing. That must be what people mean when they talk about social media "tribes."

Mariann Regan said...

Laura, thank you! As you must know, I respect your views and find your own posts powerful and heartfelt. Your tweets come across as kind, savvy, and witty. (And maybe you're right about genes and toughness--or at least stubbornness.) Of course, as an professional archivist, you have spotted the relevant elephant (did I say that?) in the room: All those letters are still in boxes. Your offer is kind, and I certainly do need to know more. I'll be in touch. Must work faster! :-/

Jana Last said...

Mariann, I can't believe I missed reading this before now! What a beautifuly written story! Dividing your mother's special belongings must have been incredibly difficult for your father, your sisters and yourself. I'm so glad your father let you keep those letters.