Marjorie McKenna, 83, music lover, provocateur
Marjorie Colville McKenna of Washington, D.C., a Ridgefielder from 1961 to 2007, died on April 1, as her beloved robins — banished two days earlier by a freak D.C. snow storm — regrouped outside her window to herald a warmer day, the first reliable promise of spring.
Our mother, Marjorie McKenna was a writer, a thinker, a stirrer-up of trouble when things were calm. She loved music and birds and puns. She was aural and heard everything. Moving to Washington was an unexpected assault on all her senses, but especially her hearing: city sirens, garbage trucks, mail trucks backing up: Why must they do that? Every day!
Our mother took great delight in word play. She did the double-crostic at the back of The National Review religiously. Every week, out would come her black Flair pen—an expression of bravado in the face of one of the world’s most difficult puzzles. We’d find copies of the magazine around the house, folded open to the back page. Or it might rest in her lap, lying on her delicately crossed knee as she pensively sifted through the minutiae of her sharp mind, black pen poised to nab the appropriate answer as it came into range.
Our mother treasured books and learning. A highlight of her week was the Monday morning trip uptown in her VW bug with a pile of novels in the back seat to be returned to the Ridgefield Library. She’d always come home with a replacement stack from the One-Week Book Shelf. Every day when the yellow school bus dropped us at home on Silver Spring Road, we’d run through the stone-wall gate to find our mother reading in the little chair by her bedroom window, or at the kitchen table in our 18th Century New England farmhouse, a cigarette burning between her fingers.
Our mother loved her World Book Encyclopedia and Childcraft collection she acquired as a door-to-door encyclopedia saleswoman. She was a Zone Five Tiger for World Book, a traveling proselytizer for the tightly written descriptions of everything you could ever want to know. Our mother was not that good at many things but she was damn good at convincing young families that no home with children was complete without the worlds that leaped out of the pages of World Book.
For her, those worlds opened through words and sound: the birds, the Canadian geese loudly honking their departures in V-formations in November, and proclaiming their return with the arrival of chilly spring in March. In spring, the windows thrown open, we’d hear Chup, chu-dup and she’d ask, “Do you know what bird that is?” Or, she’d fill the house with the sounds of Beethoven, Glenn Gould playing Bach, Benny Goodman and Ella Fitzgerald, Porgy and Bess, La Bohème, Vladimir Horowitz playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with Arturo Toscanini conducting, Van Cliburn playing anything. “Do you know what this is?” our mother would quiz, both a rapt student and guide to her children’s musical education. Connie usually got the prize.
She prided herself on her strong alto voice, her ability to remember the words to the entire American Songbook and more (to the tune of Humoresque ):
Passengers will please refrain
From flushing toilets while the train
Is standing in the station. I love you.
We encourage constipation
While the train is in the station.
Moonlight always makes me think of you.
Our mother became daringly unconventional in a town that was middle-of-the-road. First gradually, she would poke and question an assumption. Then, as she thought about it more, she would become downright obstreperous. When she was working on one of her beloved tour-de-force letters to the editor, the editors at the Ridgefield Press would be alerted that something was coming, it was coming, it was coming and at the last minute on Wednesday afternoon at 4:40 off she would tear off to deliver it to the waiting reception desk. We think they got an enormous kick out of her. You couldn’t help but laugh at her witty arguments and turns of phrases, all aimed precisely as she went in for the kill.
She would make us sit and listen to poems, op-eds, particularly well-written articles. She was outraged by racism (affected by a year in childhood spent in Mississippi), poverty, injustice anywhere, along with appliances that did not perform as promised and expensive D-cup brassieres that didn’t make it through the spin cycle. Her hilarious letter to the bra manufacturer brought four replacements by return mail. Snobs, elitists, people who felt entitled were infuriating to her.
She had to fight for it. She had to fight for every scrap of love, recognition, attention, deference. She would not be ignored and she was hard to ignore.
She clearly knocked our dad’s socks off, as he would say, when they met over a vacuum cleaner in a rooming house in Chicago. He was a 36-year-old veteran, a Yale-trained chemical engineer and late bloomer on the marriage front, who was establishing himself in business four years after the war. She was a 19-year-old, petite, red-headed bombshell, working in the filing department of Lee Jeans. (She liked to tell the story of the time her boss caught her at her desk, knees crossed, with an emery board in hand, casually shaping her nails. “Well, it’s the filing department, isn’t it?” she explained. She was fired.)
Within four months, they were getting married, to the shock of his proper, lace-curtain Irish New York family. She converted to Catholicism for him. By the time she was 24, she was the mother of three little red-headed girls, living in a ranch house in Park Forest, Ill., a post-WWII planned community where houses and families sprouted like daffodils.
They moved to Ridgefield, Conn. in 1961, occupying an old, low-ceilinged farmhouse built in 1795. This sparked a new, life-long avocation for my parents as collectors of antiques and history. They cherished the old house’s connection to the past when it came to be known as the Jared Nash house after the discovery of Nash’s 19th Century diary and its annotated publication in the Ridgefield Press. How we all cherished that house!
Our dad was a planner, so moving back to the East Coast, to a town with an excellent school system, was part of his life design. For our mom, it was something of a miracle.
Marji Kay Colville was born Aug. 12, 1930 in Grinnell, Iowa to Emery and Ruth Colville. Her father died at the height of the Depression when she was five and her mother struggled to support the family and remarried an Army officer whose alcoholism and abusiveness colored the family’s war years as they moved from military base to base. Marji left home at 16, never finishing high school. Thus her life as Mrs. Arthur J. McKenna was a work of studied creation. From scratch, she learned to keep house and please a clannish family that believed in high standards and good appearances. Quickly sensing the limits of this life, she also joined Park Forest’s nascent League of Women Voters. She taught herself to cook, and not just simple meals, but the recipes of Craig Claiborne and Julia Child — oh, Julia Child, her mimicked high voice a soundtrack in our kitchen. She learned to drive on Ridgefield’s winding roads. She learned how to raise children as though they were loved and filled with potential, something she had never known.
Then, when her children were old enough to be independent, she learned who she really was, and what she really thought. Her take on the world was not exactly what my dad had bargained for. She went from being a Goldwater Girl, taking her first plane ride to San Francisco in 1964 as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, to being an ardent feminist, an inaugural member and then vice-chair of the National Women’s Political Caucus, the National Organization for Women and a proud convert to the Democratic Party in a few short years. Before shedding her ill-fitting Catholic Church affiliation, she put on a black armband and marched outside a confab of church leaders on retreat at Manresa, calling for women in the priesthood. She fought for girls to be admitted to the Ridgefield Boys Club. With her new friends in Ridgefield’s women s movement, they formed The Ladies Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society.
All this awakening made for lively dinner table conversations every night. Our friends loved to come to our house; they d end up at the kitchen table in long heart-to-hearts with our mother. On more than one occasion, we remember feeling a bit upset when we realized our friends were more interested in our mother than in us.
Despite her in-your-face challenges to of some of the closely held values our active-Republican father held dear, he loved her until the day he died, saying, “There’s my bride,” when she would appear in his sickroom doorway.
She was an intellectual, he said, drawn to ideas and expression. She arrived in Ridgefield just as many in the town were working to broaden its cultural identity. She served on the boards of the then-forming Ridgefield Symphonette and the Keeler Tavern Museum, where she also created and wrote the newsletter for many years. She was passionate about the town’s history and was involved in political and civic life, serving on the Ridgefield Tax Review Board from 1979 to 1987, the last four years as chair. She also was elected to the Zoning Board of Appeals in 1993.
In 2007, she moved to Washington, D.C., to be closer to her daughters. She is survived by her three daughters, Katherine McKenna (John) Ambrosi, of Woodbourne, N.Y.; Constance E. McKenna (Max Sadtler) of Derwood, Md.; and Barbara J. McKenna (Laurent Gosselin) of Washington, D.C.; and five grandchildren, Vivian, SB, Catherine, Cassandra and Arthur. Her husband Arthur J. McKenna died in Ridgefield on April 6, 2000.
Burial will be at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Ridgefield in early June, with a memorial service at that time.
—by the family