The following tribute to Florence Cook Brigham was delivered at the Awards Ceremony in 2016:
Many years ago, I promised Florence Cook Brigham that I would never eulogize her in any way, and in the sixteen years since her death, I have kept that vow, and I have no intention of breaking it now. So what I say will be brief, but no less heartfelt.
In the summer of 1978 a thirteen-year-old boy met a seventy-eight year old woman, and for reasons unknown to me, but for which I have always been grateful, we immediately connected. Little did I know it at the time, but the course of the greater portion of my life had been set, with its path directed by this diminutive powerhouse of a woman who had been at the Fall River Historical Society since 1967 and was recognized as the city’s leading historian.
In many ways, my early days at the Historical Society can best be likened to one entering a time-warp, or perhaps Alice and her Looking Glass. I say this, because in those days, the Historical Society was a place still very much governed by the social mores of another age. Things were done in the manner in which they always had been done; no one could explain why, though it was never questioned and accepted as matter of fact. In the late 1970s, coal was still burned in the office fireplace for heat; tea was habitually served in the afternoon; and one was dissuaded from using contractions because Miss Elizabeth Carr, the daughter of an old, much-esteemed Fall River family and a frequenter of the Historical Society, considered them vulgar.
I realize now, looking back after many years, that for some individuals the Historical Society was a sanctuary of sorts — it was as if the financial reversals that had so severely affected the city of Fall River and many of its old guard had never occurred; time stood still, and the old ways still accounted for something.
It is often said that one does not easily forget the teachings of childhood, and I know this to be true. To this day, despite many significant changes, some things at the Historical Society are still done the way they always have been: The mid-19th century Japanese cloisonné temple vase in the parlor is positioned with the green dragon facing out, because Hope Gordon (Thatcher) McIntyre always liked it that way; clocks are wound on Tuesday; silence cloths are always laid under tablecloths; and almond macaroons, baked to Caroline Elizabeth (Slade) Brayton’s original recipe, are served at every membership meeting, just as they have been since 1921.
Mrs. Brigham was an intensely private woman, and shunned any form of personal recognition, and believe me when I say that it would have taken considerable persuading on my part to convince her to agree to an award named in her honor, however fitting. But I know, or at least I like to think, that she would have come around, eventually, and given in to the person she always called “my Michael.”
During the over two decades we spent together, much of it on a daily basis, I can say in absolute sincerity that not a single disagreement passed between us. If it be true that some people are charmed at birth, then, without doubt, my dear Mrs. Brigham fell into that category.
She was my greatest friend and mentor, and not a single day passes that I do not think of her in some way, be it when I hear an expression she often uttered or particularly liked, or pass something in my home that was once hers. The memory may be triggered by the sight of a particularly “gooey” pastry — she could never resist them — or a sugar cube, which she devoured in quantity “for energy,” or an over ripe banana, a cup of weak tea, or even the smell of gasoline, a foul scent to many, but one that she found particularly pleasant.
It was a privilege to know her, and I owe her more than I can say, though it is a debt she would neither acknowledge, nor ever claim.
Perhaps Mrs. Brigham’s greatest nemesis, and the only one that to my knowledge she never conquered, was the genus Taraxacum of the Asteraceae family, commonly known as the dandelion. She despised them. Every day, during the long growing season, she persistently walked the Historical Society grounds, just as she did at home, bag in hand, deadheading the little pests — and when I came on the scene, I was enthusiastically invited, in point of fact, encouraged, to join in. The purpose of this fruitless task stemmed from Mrs. B’s wonderfully naive belief that plucking the florets would prevent their going to seed, thus eradicating the problem. It apparently never occurred to her that seed constantly blew in on the wind, thus firmly embedding their rapidly developing taproots in the soil; if it did occur to her, it was not mentioned, at least never in my presence. It became somewhat of a game to see who would pick the largest quantity, and, despite persistent deadheading, there were plenty to be had.
And so, for nearly two decades, we plucked dandelions, with little effect.
One day, by which time Mrs. B. was well into her nineties, we headed out to our habitual harvest. After picking a few, Mrs. B. stood up, planted her hands on her hips and said, “Michael, let’s forget this. They have got the best of me,” and with that, she headed back in.
I knew then what I had suspected for some time; Mrs. B. was failing. I can best liken the sentiment that came over me to a barb, tied with a bouquet of bright yellow dandelions, accurately hitting home, with me being its mark.
For some time afterward, unbeknownst to Mrs. B., I still deadheaded the dandelions so she would not have to see them.
And to this day, I still do.
Fall River Historical Society
October 13, 2016