Dancing granny Brangman still got the moves
When Shirley Brangman whispers “hold me tight” to her dance partner, she means it.
She's 92, sometimes her knees buckle.
“I've been dancing for most of my life,” she said. “I first learnt to dance standing on my father's feet at someone's wedding.
“I was ten. My grandparents, Ida and William Bell, also loved to ballroom dance and won competitions.”
In her younger days, she'd go out ballroom dancing three or four times a week in different hotels around the Island. Along the way she won a competition or two.
“In my 80s, I was dancing at the Pembroke Community Centre, but then the doctor recommended I stop because of my bad knees,” she said. “But I just love it.”
Now she contents herself with dancing with family and friends on occasion.
She has trouble sitting still. After her retirement from reception at 80, she belonged to six different seniors clubs and attended meetings with nine. “Then my daughter said it was time I stopped running around to all these clubs,” she said. “I thought, well if something happens I'll have only myself to blame. So now I mainly just go to the Joy Club at the St George's Community Centre and two others.”
In 2003, she was named Glamorous Granny, a competition run between Bermuda's senior citizen clubs. She wore an elegant, lavender gown she'd had stowed away for 30 years. “I wore the dress when I was maid of honour at a dear friend's wedding,” she said.
If she's enjoying herself now, it's because she didn't have much time for socialising in her younger days. She started earning her keep at the grand age of six.
“My aunt would have me come and babysit,” she said. “She would give me six pence or a shilling. I would put it into a gift club programme and sometimes I'd have as much as 12 shillings by the end of the year.”
She grew up on Laffan Street in Hamilton, an area known as Brooklyn in the 1930s.
“We were located where Holmes Williams and Purvey is now,” she said. “The Bermuda Railway Company eventually bought up all the property.”
She was raised largely by her grandmother as her parents, Adelia and Shirley Robinson, worked as domestics for a wealthy family in the United States.
“I was named after my father,” she said. “He said his child was going to have his name, no matter whether it was a boy or a girl.”
At 15, she was hired to be a Ludlow operator with the Bermuda Press. “The Ludlow machine made the bold letters in the paper,” she said. “It was only dangerous if you didn't set the type properly as you were dealing with hot metal.”
She earned about 25 shillings a week. “In those days you did whatever you could to make a shilling,” she said. “Money back then wasn't what it is today.”
During her long working life, she was also a hostess at the Royal Hamilton Dinghy Club, a waitress at the Spot Restaurant and a receptionist at Dunkley's Dairy and at optician Michael Keyes's office.
Her grandmother taught her to sew at an early age, and it was a skill that stood her well later in life.
“When I first left school at 13, I took in dressmaking work,” she said. “I had a knack for it. When I got older, if I saw someone wearing a dress, I could get some fabric and make up that same dress out of my head.
“My two daughters, Belinda [Tartaglia] and Beunice [Crockwell], never wore a store-bought dress their entire childhood.
“I made everything but their underwear. One day, a lady came up to me and said, ‘Did you make the dress you're wearing? You sew well. I need a wedding dress for my daughter but don't have a lot of money'. I said, ‘Sure, I can make a wedding dress', even though I'd never done one in my life.”
When she saw the material, she panicked. “I had never worked with lace or satin,” Mrs Brangman said. “I said Lord help me through this. I told a lie to say I could do it. I was too proud to ask anyone to help me.”
But it was a fairly simple dress to make and she finished it quickly.
“I ended up also doing the bridesmaids as well,” she said. “After that I did six more wedding dresses for people.”
She married in 1949, but divorced five years later.
“I am most proud that when my children's father left me, I was able to take care of them and keep a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs,” she said. “People would say ‘Why don't you apply to welfare?'
“I said I will work for what I want. I felt the good Lord had given me strength to do what I was supposed to do. If he didn't think I was capable of taking care, he wouldn't have put it in my lap.”
But she had to work very hard to stay above water.
“Sometimes I think to myself, ‘How in the world did I do it?',” she said. “I worked one job during the day, and walked home to see if my children were all right. A neighbour usually watched them. Then I would walk back to town for my evening job. When I returned home at 11pm, I would sew into the wee hours of the morning to earn some extra money.”
Mrs Brangman did that for nine years, and has no regrets today. She thinks it was good for her, because it kept her busy.
In the 1960s, she married Rahul Green, but was widowed after ten years. She married Archibald “Woody” Brangman in 1978.
“We owned Woody's Drive Inn in Sandys,” she said. “It was a happy marriage. We were friends for about 12 years and only married for ten. He had a massive heart attack and died in 1988.”
Mrs Brangman thinks the secret to her longevity might be her healthy lifestyle. “My advice to young people would be stop eating all the food they put out in the supermarkets,” she said. “I make my own salads and soups. I do my own cooking. I try to eat healthy. I don't eat a lot of meat; I eat a little bit of chicken or fish.”
Today, she is an active member of Trinity Church in Hamilton Parish, and sings in the choir.
“I've always loved to sing,” she said. “I've never been shy.”
Over the years, her volunteer work has included tagging for the Orchid Charity, driving seniors to appointments and knitting shawls and blankets for people in need.
“I always try to help wherever I can,” she said.
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