Life Stories

With a song in her heart, a grandmother gave music to children

Her Chapel Hill home became haven for her grandkids, free thinking

CorrespondentAugust 16, 2012 

  • Marilou Fay Barns Curtis Born: March 1, 1926, in St. Petersburg, Fla. 1945: Marries Dr. Thomas Edwin Curtis 1952: Moves to Raleigh 1954: Moves to Chapel Hill 1966: Helps found the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill 1977: Earns master’s in botany rom UNC 2002: Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease Died: July 15, 2012

— Marilou Curtis, or Mimi, as she was called, had already raised four of her own children when she welcomed what would prove to be a second generation of little ones into her home. When her youngest child, Liz Holm, gave birth at age 17 to a girl, Jennifer, she became a regular caregiver, eventually taking on the role full time so her daughter could pursue educational opportunities.

A few years later her oldest daughter was widowed, and in the aftermath of that loss, her two other grandchildren found themselves spending afternoons and weekends with Mimi as well.

Curtis, who died last month at age 86 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, had a legacy of caring for others that extended well beyond her family. She and her husband of 67 years, Dr. Thomas Curtis, helped found the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill. Formed during height of the civil rights movement, the church’s mission was to work toward an “intentional community of racial reconciliation.”

“The idea was to have a coming together of two neighborhoods, the blacks and the whites,” said Doris Murrell, a church member who joined within a few months of its creation. “She thought that all people deserved an equal chance.”

Early in the church’s history, there was no physical building, so the Curtis home was often the site of weekly worship. They eventually established what was called the Neighborhood House, deliberately located on the border between Chapel Hill’s black and white neighborhoods. There, Curtis organized classes that all members of the community were welcome to take, ranging from sewing to candle making, driving to vocational classes.

She was a well-educated woman, and she pursued a master’s degree in botany in the late 1970s when her youngest children were in their early teens. She believed everyone deserved the opportunity to learn.

Ultimately, though, Curtis was known to simply live for her grandchildren.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Curtis could be seen driving her brood between her home in Chapel Hill and various violin lessons. People would noticed her station wagon full of children because the children practiced their instruments en route.

In total, she would foster a love of music in all of her five grandchildren – one of whom, Jennifer Curtis, graduated from Julliard and is a professional violinist.

Jennifer Curtis remembers how her grandmother had all of them go through every single piece they had learned to date on Saturday and Sunday mornings – sessions that eventually became an hours-long ordeal, she said with a laugh. And though her cousins did not go on to have careers as professional musicians, they all remain appreciative of her constant encouragement and dedication. She drove them all to soccer and ballet classes, too.

“Even though she did not play a musical instrument, she dedicated herself to helping her grandchildren and other children in the music community gain access to whatever avenues were out there, pushing us to be better but accepting whatever the outcome was in each of us,” said her granddaughter Carmen Biggers.

It was this attitude of acceptance that permeated her interactions with the rest of the world, her family said.

Her youngest, Liz Holm, remembers how her mother instantly fell in love with the baby she brought into their home at age 17 – she had not even told her parents she was pregnant and was already living independently of them.

“She welcomed everyone into her heart, and she didn’t judge,” Holm said of her mother.

She remembers her mom, a small woman who didn’t require much sleep, being the parent who would sit down and really listen to the friends she brought home, often late in the evening.

“Nothing ever shocked her,” Holms said.

Granddaughter Jennifer Curtis shares this sense of appreciation for Mimi’s dedication.

During Mimi’s final hours, Curtis serenaded her, playing many of the songs that her grandmother had most cherished, including Bach’s Chaccone.

“It felt like I was sort of holding her hand in a spiritual way,” Jennifer Curtis said.

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