Will the Circle Be Unbroken

The night Mama died, she was at home. She had gone into a coma which the doctor said would be the final stage. I had been with her for the last few weeks of her life. Once she knew nothing more could be done for her, she seemed to want to get it all over. She was rushing to meet death. That night, a nurse staying at the house asked me and my cousin Jeanette to go buy aspirin suppositories because Mama had a fever. It was after 9 pm and we couldn’t find an open drugstore. Desperate, we drove to the pharmacist’s house (this was a small North Carolina town where this was possible). By the time we returned, Mama had died. 

I was upset I hadn’t been there with her when she died. Because she died so soon after we drove away, I suspected the need for aspirin suppositories was something the nurse dreamed up to get me out of the house. The nurse recognized signs I couldn’t so she knew Mama was close to death. Maybe she thought Mama wouldn’t let go if I were in the house. Maybe she was trying to spare me from seeing Mama actually die. I don’t know but I’ve never forgiven her. Had I been less stressed I would’ve refused to leave the house.

The preacher was the first person to arrive. He and I stood by Mama’s bed. I was sobbing. He told me that if I lived my life in Christ, I would see her again. Those words were no comfort to me.

Close to midnight, the funeral home people came to pick up Mama’s body. I saw them come in the front door and walk to the where I was standing. Their dark suits and somber expressions freaked me out. I said to Jeanette, “My God, they look like undertakers!” She looked at me in an odd way and said gently as though I were in need of being carefully handled, ‘well, of course, they are.’

I still didn’t understand, had not yet accepted reality. I asked the men if they could leave and come back in the morning for Mama. Did they have to take her so soon, I asked. Jeanette, the preacher, the men in the dark suits with the somber expressions seemed embarrassed for me. Then I realized that something incredibly final had happened. Of course, Mama couldn’t stay until morning.

I was unprepared for the depth and intensity of my grief after her death. It was a daily assault. I had no tools for handling it. I didn’t know how to express it, how to move beyond it, how to live with it. One song got me through this time: Will the Circle Be Unbroken. I had a version by the Sisters of Glory that I love, and I played it over and over. I marched around the room singing, crying, and beating on my tambourine. I sang loudly. Maybe I even wailed. And I didn’t just do this once and my grief was gone. It became my daily ritual. Sometimes still, 29 years later, I still repeat this ritual of grief.Lois 1960


A Worn Path

A Worn Path

Mrs. Butcher believed in getting up early.
She got up before the birds,
took her cup of coffee (which didn’t
count toward her ration of 1/2 glass of water a day)
to her small screened porch where
each summer morning she listened
to the choir of birds
that loved her garden as much as she did.

My brother, when he was four, decided
he’d get up with the birds, too, and join her.
And in that hush before the music,
in the dark before light,
he walked the well-worn path
from our back door to Butcher’s back yard
in his pajamas. When he arrived,
she had a cup of sweet milky coffee waiting for him.

I like to think of that moment of peace
for my brother.
The two of them a sitting still life.
She, gray-haired,
stately, the age of our grandmother;
He, an angel of a child in seer-sucker pajamas,
sipping their coffee and
listening to the birds sing.


My Cousin Peggy

December 29, 1963, I was a bridesmaid in the wedding of my cousin Margie. I’d never been a bridesmaid and didn’t know what a bridesmaid was supposed to do other than look pretty and walk down the aisle. I was thrilled Margie’d asked me but wasn’t sure I’d look pretty enough.

I had a suspicion I could be pretty if I wanted to badly enough. But I knew it would require a great deal of effort and pain. The first problem was my fine, baby fine hair. Doing anything stylish with it requires a lot of patience, something I’m lacking. As a result, I’ve generally worn it as simple as possible.

For Margie’s wedding, though, Mama got someone to do my hair who managed to get it to look attractive by teasing and spraying and lifting. Mama did my makeup, at least what little I’d allow her to do. When I was ready for the wedding, Mama said I looked beautiful, so beautiful that on our way to join the wedding party, she was going to stop by her niece Peggy’s house so Peggy could see me.

Peggy was only seven years younger than Mama and the two of them had grown up together. Peggy and Mama were close and now Peggy had become important to me and my brother. Her first son, Eddie, was born two years after my younger brother. We all grew up together. When I was a freshman in high school, Peggy, her husband and two sons moved a few houses down from us on Jackson Street and their house became another home for me.

I loved Peggy for many reasons. One is that she was fun and had a great sense of humor. Another is that she treated me like an adult. She loved to stay up late as I did I so on weekend evenings I’d go to Peggy’s as often as Mama would let me to watch late-night TV with her. She seemed to enjoy my company and never hinted that perhaps it was past my bedtime or acted like she wished I’d go home. It was always fun at Peggy’s house. Sometimes we’d make fudge, sometimes we’d pop corn, sometimes we’d look at magazines and talk about things we liked. Peggy loved old houses and antiques.

That day as Mama and I got in the car to go to Peggy’s, I protested. I didn’t want to go. I felt the last thing Peggy needed was to see me in my bridesmaid dress. To this day, I don’t know what Mama was thinking. Maybe she thought we should do what we’d do if Peggy weren’t sick and if she weren’t sick, then it would have been a normal thing to have stopped by her house and shown her how I looked. Maybe Mama thought it would be a diversion for Peggy. Maybe she thought Peggy would be cheered by seeing us getting on with our lives. I don’t know. All I knew was that I didn’t feel right about it. It seemed frivolous in the face of something as serious as dying. How could we be living life and doing things like this while Peggy was dying? It wasn’t fair.

As I walked into Peggy’s bedroom, I was scared. It was mid-day but the bedroom was dark. Peggy was lying in bed looking so weak and sick. I was as uncomfortable as I’ve ever been in my life. I didn’t know what to say to Peggy. There was much I would’ve liked to say about how much fun I’d had with her, how much I loved her, how grateful I was to her for the way she always treated me, and how much I’d miss her. But I couldn’t say those things. I couldn’t have said those things without crying. And I wasn’t sure they’d be the right things to say. What were the right things to say? Mama acted like everything was normal. She talked to Peggy as she always had. And Peggy responded as she always did although she more weakly than she would have normally. I was quiet, in turmoil, self-conscious and feeling so out-of-place in my bridesmaid dress sitting by Peggy’s bedside.

We didn’t stay long. Mama left the bedroom and was talking to the family. I was following her but Peggy called me back. I returned to her bedside. She looked at me and said, ‘Dottie Jean, thank you for coming today so I could see you. You’re beautiful! You can hold your own with anyone when it comes to looks. Don’t ever feel you can’t. Be confident that you are beautiful.’ I held her hand and thanked her and left. She never knew the impact of her words. What she did see and knew was me, Dottie Jean, and how I felt and what I needed. It was as though I had visited the Wizard of Oz and asked for beauty and was granted it with a ‘Certificate of Confidence.’

I relived that visit many times and thought about her words. I appreciated what she said but what profoundly affected me was her generosity, her unselfish generosity. She wasn’t thinking about herself. She was thinking about me and trying to make me feel better! She was dying but wanted me to feel better about myself! She was in pain but wanted to leave me with something to help me with my deep insecurities. She was giving me one last gift, one I’d forever remember.

I was never able to tell her how much her words meant. She died three weeks later in the early morning hours of Jan. 23, 1964. She was thirty-six. I was away at college. My brother was a junior in high school. He told me he’d been unable to sleep that night because of thinking about Peggy. He said at one point in his sleepless night, he got a strong sense of her presence. He felt her spirit was visiting him to say goodbye. He was comforted by this. Always generous of spirit, she gave him a gift he’d always remember as well. [Read more…]


For Julian Harter

You were the first.
Many others have followed.
We were in the 7th grade
sitting near each other because H
is so close to K.

You were our paper boy
who tossed the late-afternoon
Salisbury Post onto our porch.
Small for your age,
but tough, even though you struggled
to propel the too-big-for-you bike up Jackson Street.
Sometimes you peddled standing up,
your lips pursed, tightly closed.
Your throw was always precise.
Clunk — it landed on the edge of the porch.
Swoosh — it slid to the exact point where
I’d open the door and pick it up without
stepping onto the porch.
You never threw it into the bushes
like some others did.

One summer day
after you threw all the papers,
you pedaled your bike with its
empty wire basket to Rogers store.
Mr. Rogers later reported that you drank
5 or 6 Cheerwines while resting
on the curb outside
next to your bike.
Everyone thought it was because it was such a hot day
and you had on those stiff boy dungarees
you always wore.

That evening you died,
a 12-year old boy,
an only child.
Your parents were older,
your mother, never the same.
She felt she should’ve known
that you were a diabetic.
Some in town thought so, too.

You were the first.
Many others have followed.

And H is so close to K.

c. Dorothy Kirk, 2013


Foreign Territory

From 2009. I like it.

I am in foreign territory. Not only is the landscape unrecognizable, I don’t recognize myself. I’m doing things I’ve never done before, thinking things I’ve never thought before, feeling things I’ve never felt before. I have access to many nuanced emotions where previously I had simple binary emotions such as happy/not happy. I surprise myself by stating what I want unapologetically. I am doing things I previously would have thought were too selfish. All this excites me but it scares those closest to me. They are not sure they like what they are seeing. So now what do I do?

I teach project management and one of the principles I teach is the Swiss Army principle: ‘When the map and territory differ, believe the territory.’ I want the students to understand the fallibility of all plans, no matter how much time they put into developing or how much pride of authorship they have. At the end of the first day of the project, the map and terrain will not match. What do they do? Novice project managers believe the plan and ignore reality. If the plan says they are in Paris, then they must be in Paris. The people do not speak French, there are no familiar landmarks. In fact, the landscape is a desert one. Nevertheless, the inexperienced project manager will still report to management that they arrived on time and within budget in the dead center of Paris. I teach them that they have to constantly update their map as reality unfolds. Change the map. Keep it current. It was never meant to be more than a tool to force them to think through the trip and prepare for the risks.

Why did I aim for Paris and land instead in some foreign country?

The answer lies in the stories of the past and in a concept I read about recently in a book my coach Doug Lipman recommended. The book is Spider Speculations by Jo Carson and the concept is the concept of agency, the ability to act in one’s own behalf. It is the ability to respect oneself and one’s inner conversation. It means pursuing one’s mission instead of taking the path of least resistance. Doug asked me to explore why I started singing lessons. He humorously pointed out that if one were to say to me, ‘Dorothy, you’ve got to get your life together’, they would never suggest singing lessons as a way to do that. Yet that is what has happened.

Clues to understanding this new terrain are everywhere. Yesterday, I found a jewel of a clue reading the book, Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach. He said, “To have a voice is to have a self and to have a self is powerful.”

When I started my singing blog, I subtitled it ‘Finding my voice. Telling my stories. Creating possibilities.’ I started on this journey not consciously realizing that finding my voice would mean finding myself. Nor did I have an inkling of the lengths to which I would go, the risks I would take, the betrayals I would commit on behalf of my newly-found self. I found her and I will not let her go again. I will not let her be driven away. She will not be the uncared for child who wanders away unnoticed.


Lies and Consequences

In his new book, The Road to Character , David Brooks talks about development of the moral, internal self as opposed to the ‘resume self.’ In his interview on NPR, he tells that when he asked a high-level manager what question he asked candidates in a job interview. The manager said, ‘Tell me about a time you told the truth and the truth hurt you.’

I thought about my answer to that question. Naturally, it’s a story.

When I was five, I told my aunt Virgie and Uncle Bill that Mrs. Lelia Butcher, our neighbor and my babysitter, had locked me in a closet and left me there all day. Knowing ‘Butcher’ as they did, they found my account hard to believe and questioned me closely impressing on me the seriousness of the charge. I knew it was a lie but I was too afraid to own up to it. I was in a corner and had to stick to my story.

I was unprepared for what happened next.

My aunt told my mother and the two of them confronted Mrs. Butcher. She vehemently denied it. They came back to me and said Butcher said it was a lie and she was deeply hurt that I’d say such a thing. Then, they called Butcher to come over and talk to me. She was crying and so upset. I felt really bad. Did I cause her pain? They made sure I knew that yes, I was the cause.

I knew I’d get a spanking and other punishment but I felt so bad to see Butcher cry and realize I’d caused that that I told Mama and Virgie that I’d lied. Not caring about the punishment, I said, ‘No, she didn’t lock me in the closet.’

I told a lie that hurt Mrs. Butcher and then I told the truth which hurt me, too. I was happy to see Butcher stop crying. Mama and Virgie made me formally ask Mrs. Butcher for her forgiveness. I did. And she forgave me. This ‘asking for forgiveness’ I later learned was a kind of ritual in my mother’s family. It’s a great ritual but pretty humbling. I believe that was the only ‘punishment’ meted out.

Until that day,  I viewed myself as a powerless little girl, the low person on the totem pole. I was surprised that I had some power, the power to hurt people I cared about. I decided it’s a power I didn’t want.


Mother’s Day

A friend posted on Facebook that she was feeling sentimental today, Mother’s Day. Me, too. I’m usually sentimental on Mother’s Day. My mother is always on my mind. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her many times. Many days I talk to her, sending some thought her way with hope that it will cross the brain/spirit barrier (something like the blood/brain barrier). On days like today, I say to myself I’d give up many years of my own remaining life to spend an hour with her again although as I write this I realize that I’d be bargaining away the gift she gave me, my life.

I could tell many stories about her and those of you who know my stories, know I have. Spalding Gray said ‘One of the ways to reincarnate is to tell your story.’ I tell stories to reincarnate Mama, Daddy, Sonny, ….. all of them. But I’d have to tell an infinite number of stories to reincarnate my mother as her spirit was too big. She was an energetic, fun, outgoing, and loving person. Whenever an image of her pops into my head, she’s laughing. She laughed a lot. And as she was dying, she said, ‘I’ve had a happy life. I’ve been happy.’ Knowing some of the difficulties and hardships of her life, I wondered how she could say that. But this wasn’t a lie. She was happy, genetically happy.

I spent a large portion of my early life trying to have an identity of my own and the only way I could see to have a different identity was to be quiet, introverted, reflective …. something different from Mama. Now that her big self no longer overpowers me, I’ve become more like her although I’ll never be the extroverted, people-loving person she was. I’ll never completely ‘loosen up’ as she encouraged me to do. Maybe that’s something I’ll grow into.

Mama told me two lies. In both cases, she believed what she was saying. The first lie was ‘Dottie Jean, you have brown eyes just like me.’ And I believed her for 65 years until one day someone pointed out that I had green/hazel eyes. Why did Mama tell me I had brown eyes? I found the answer looking through some memorabilia. When I graduated from high school, Mama gave me four gifts with four notes, each gift representing a milestone in my life: high school graduation, college graduation, wedding day, birth of my first child. For the birth of my first child she gave me a baby rattle with a note which said: ‘This gift is for your first born. May it have the color of my hair and the color of my eyes, and look like me, period. All my love and best wishes for the future. Mamma’ That her child have the color of her eyes was important to her. I still have the baby rattle because I never had that first born child but I do know ‘it’ would have been one lucky baby to look like my mother.

She told me the other lie when  I was in my early 40’s and trying to talk her into taking some action on something when she looked at me and said, ‘Dottie Jean, you’ve got to remember, I’m just a little biddy person.’

Mama, I say to her today, that was a big, fat lie. You were big, ‘the big L’ we used to call you. Big Lois.


Baby Rattle Mama Note0001 Lois Engagement0001


Buzz Interview – Atlanta Fringe Festival

‘This is a great, (short) interview with Dottie Jean Kirk – a storyteller that you will continue hearing about! And if you are anywhere close to Atlanta, catch one of her performances of her original show, Shine Baby Shine,the weekend of June 4-7th during Atlanta’s Fringe Festival. You will be entertained, moved and grateful that you experienced it. ‘ ~ Connie Regan-Blake

Buzz interview


I Didn’t Always Love my Brother

Dottie Jean and Sonny, summer, 1947

Dottie Jean and Sonny, summer, 1947

I didn’t always love my brother. At first, I hated him.

I was the only child and the only grandchild in town. So for 3 1/2 years, I’d been the center of attention for a group of adults who’d been waiting for a baby to adore. I’d come to think the universe had been created for me to be the center of and worse, I believed this was the rightful order of things.

All this changed when my brother busted his way into my world. Our introduction, traumatic and painful for me, changed my world forever. None of this was his doing but my child’s brain didn’t realize that.

He was born in January, 1947. Back then, women stayed in the hospital about a week when they had a baby. That week I stayed with my grandmother and missed Mama something awful. My grandmother knew this so at the same time each morning she drove me to the hospital and parked on the street beneath my mother’s room. We got out of the car and stood on the street as children weren’t allowed in the hospital. Every day Mama was waiting at the window of her 3rd floor room. I got out of the car and waved to Mama each day. She looked like a vision of an angel in her white hospital gown looking down on us from above.

When the day came for Mama to come home, I was running over with excitement. When my grandmother and I got to our house, several people were already waiting. My mother’s older sister, Virgie, was there along with the two older ladies who lived two doors down from us, Mrs. Lelia Butcher and her sister Louise. They’d both been married but were now widows and neither one had had any children. Virgie, who also didn’t have any children, Butcher and Louise were surrogate mothers to me and later to my brother.

It was cold and sleeting so we watched for Daddy’s car from the living room. Soon he pulled up and behind him followed an ambulance. An ambulance? Was something wrong with Mama?

Two men got out, opened the back doors and pulled a stretcher out. All I could see was a dark maroon blanket covering the entire stretcher. Was Mama under that blanket? Was she dead? All my life I’ve leapt to dark conclusions and this is where that leaping began. When they stepped onto the porch, I started wailing, wailing in the most frightening way.

Everyone asked, ‘What’s wrong, Dottie Jean’? but I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t breathe. It was as though I had been stricken. No one could figure out what was wrong, no one, that is, except Mama. As soon as the stretcher was in the house, she pulled the maroon blanket off her head and said, ‘Dottie Jean, it’s me. I’m OK. They covered my head to keep the sleet off me and the baby.’

Sniveling and trying to catch my breath, I walked over and looked at him, not that there was much to see, and decided I wanted nothing to do with him. Because of him, I’d been separated for a week from Mama. Because of him I’d thought Mama was dead. I hated him.

All day family, neighbors, friends paraded in to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ over the baby. For the first time in my life, I was ignored. I tried to act like I didn’t care but I did. I wanted it to be Mama and me again.

I had no special time with her that day. Before I went to bed, she hugged me and said we’d make up for it the next day.

When I woke the next morning, I called out to Mama. But nothing came out. My throat and neck hurt so bad. Every attempt at calling out came out sounding like a scratchy radio.

I was too weak to get out of the bed. After a while Mrs. Butcher opened my door. When she got a good look at me, she hurried over to my bed, felt my head and throat and then said, ‘I better call the doctor. It looks like you’ve got the mumps.’

Doctors made house calls then and when he came he said I had double mumps. As he was leaving, he said I’d have to be kept away from my mother and the new baby until I was better.

The final blow. My perfect little world completely destroyed now. First, I’d been separated from my mother for a week while she was in the hospital, then I thought she was dead under a maroon blanket and now I had no idea when I’d see her again.

What got me through those ten days of isolation is that Mrs. Butcher and Louise. They brought my meals on a tray always with some surprise…. a note from my mother, a little toy, or something special Mrs. Butcher had baked.

After I recovered from the mumps, Mama tried her best to make me happy at having a little brother. She asked me to hold him and placed him on my lap. He started screeching and wouldn’t stop until Mama took him back.

I tried to avoid him but whenever no one was looking, I’d walk by his crib and give him a good, hard pinch.

He didn’t seem to hold a grudge against me for pinching him, though. Whenever I walked by him, he tried his best to get my attention. He’d be lying on his back, waving his arms and feet in the air, laughing and cooing, trying to get my attention. He was just so darned cute that before long I was smitten.