Contributed by K.T. McKee
It is estimated that Margaret Elaine “Pegge” McDonald took in more than 50 children who needed homes over a 50-year span in Alaska. At age 92 on March 3rd, she finally “went home” herself after a 15-month battle with lung cancer at her “happily ever after home” on Bodenburg Loop.
A loving home was important to her, after all. When she was less than 2 years old, her own father put her in foster care during a contentious custody fight with her mother. A couple of years later, after her mother had gotten her back, her mother left her to fend for herself in a rented hotel room in Seattle on New Year’s Eve. She survived on sour milk and dry oatmeal before she was found in the room a week later by a housekeeper, her family said as they gathered at her Butte home a week after her passing.
That hotel employee took her to her own family’s posh Seattle home where she learned proper dining etiquette and how to behave in public. Four years later at age 8, she was bounced back to her biological father after he’d remarried to a woman with three of her own children.
“Of course, my mother was not the favored child,” Pegge’s daughter, Peggelee Kendro, said. “I’m sure she struggled with that for many years.”
And although she managed to graduate from high school with nearly perfect grades at age 16 in 1942, she was run out of the house as a newlywed when she became pregnant with her first child, John.
“After that, the state took custody of my brother, John, at birth because of her age until she turned 21,” Kendro said.
But despite her rough younger years, the former mill worker, Drake Hotel elevator operator and Navy ship welder kept moving forward, landing in a small cabin on the river outside Cordova. She hauled her own water and floated barrels of fuel down the river to her house.
“She worked as a waitress for our father, Jim Christensen, who had a bakery and restaurant there. She ended up marrying him and ran that place with him,” Peggelee said, adding that the two later opened another bakery in Eagle River after having three children together.
After Jim died from a heart attack at work at age 56 in 1967, the 40-year-old mother of four got a job at the bakery in the Carrs store and got to know one particular customer who’d come in regularly to see her.
“Every time he would come in, he would get himself one little roast and one little loaf of bread, so she noticed he must have been a single man who knew exactly what he wanted,” Pegge’s granddaughter, Calla Christensen, said. Peggelee figured they were meant for one another.
“It was a match made in heaven because Roger is very quiet and my mother was very wild,” Peggelee said with a laugh. “So, they evened each other out. He worshipped her.”
It was after Pegge married Roger McDonald 49 years ago that they began taking in children from McLaughlin Youth Center and those with developmental disabilities from Hope Cottage.
“My daughter, Fanetta, has cerebral palsy and she took in a lot of children that did have cerebral palsy or needed individualized care,” Peggelee recalled.
Fanetta, now 49, said her grandmother, Pegge, always instilled in her the confidence she needed in life.
“She would tell me I could do whatever I wanted to do and to not let my disability hold me back,” Fanetta said, sharing a story about a man with one hand that her grandmother had introduced her to, who taught her at 2 years old to tie her shoe with one hand.
Peggelee said her daughter had applied for about 40 jobs at the Anchorage School District and had only been hired part-time to fill in for absent employees every now and then. Pegge taught her to never give up on her dreams.
“Finally, just before her grandma died, she got to tell her that they finally hired her as a regular employee,” Peggelee said with pride. “So, now she does the job every day and the district staff are so amazed that she actually shows up.”
Pegge McDonald left her family and workers from Mat-Su Regional Home Health and Hospice many treasured legacies.
Her granddaughter, Angel Strik, shared via Facetime how much her grandmother loved to share her own knowledge with others.
“There were a lot of things she had to learn on her own, usually the hard way, and I feel like whether talking about gardening or prizes she won at the fair with her vegetables or the canning that she did and the baking, nothing ever went to waste because she was raised in the Depression, so there was never even one berry left on a bush that couldn’t be put to good use,” Angel said from her home in Indiana. “In January of 2017, they gave my grandma only about four weeks to live and we were all devastated. They called in Hospice because they thought there was nothing else they could do for her.”
But Pegge had other plans. She had much more wisdom to pass on.
Not only did Angel make a video of her grandmother giving instructions on how to make the perfect pie crust, but she taught a couple of Hospice workers how to make pies, as well.
“When she found out a Hospice helper had never made a pie before, she was dumbfounded,” Angel recalled with a laugh. “She had her come over on her day off, so she could teacher her how to make a pie. She always wanted to be sure her knowledge was shared. She would teach me how the flowers worked. Like how the poppies closed when it rained. She left me with lots of gifts like that. ”
Hospice volunteer, Kathy Roberts, stayed with her for four hours at a time and was one of those who made pies with Pegge.
“We did a lot of things together,” the Lazy Mountain resident said. “The most remarkable thing about her is that she raised so many children who were disadvantaged. She gave them a lot of love. At the end of her life, she said she wished she could have saved all the children in the world like that.”
Pegge’s family credits Hospice with not only helping extend her life, but helping keep her strong and busy.
Hospice Home Health Aide, Jenny Klink, said she loved Pegge’s stories and the history many people don’t hear about. She was with her on her 92nd birthday, February 21st, surrounded by 92 red roses Pegge’s son, Kelly Michael Christensen, got for her.
“She told me she started smoking when she was younger only because it was the smokers who got the breaks at work,” said Jenny, who lives in the Soapstone area. “She lived it up until the end. She even flipped me off a couple of days before she died after I’d said something sarcastic to her. But I learned so much from her. She was a very special lady.”
Pegge’s grandson, Kelly David Christensen, said from his home in Utah that he has very fond memories of picking berries with his grandmother and shucking peas on her porch.
“She’d always say, ‘What can’t be cured, must be endured.’ That will always be forever with me,” Kelly said as he got a little choked up.
And she endured her illness right to the end as her husband, Roger, - who doesn’t get around very well - brought her breakfast in bed every morning. And she made it to their 49th wedding anniversary on March 1st.
“When I talked to her on her anniversary, she kept saying she was just so tired,” Angel remembers. “I kept telling her it was okay to just go to sleep. She kept telling me she loved me, and I knew that was going to be the last time I talked to her.”
Her granddaughter, Calla, who wonders if the fluffy little bird that landed on her stoop was sent by her grandmother, said she will never forget her last words to her.
“She kept telling me how excited she was to go home. ‘I can’t wait to go home,’ she’d say.”