Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Faith Gave Me the Sky

No, I'm not going to write about my faith in this or that. I'm going to write about my aunt, Faith Lucille Kemper.

An old maid, Faith lived in a spacious two-story house in Alma, Nebraska, where she'd been born. Her small-town world limited her life. She never married, because most eligible Alma men were dead, thanks to World War I. Instead, she went to business school, then worked in the Post Office.

I loved to visit Faith, she was so congenial. I'd stop to watch the wild cats scarf down food and water on her back porch. If I stepped into her house and the radio featured Paul Harvey, I had the good sense to sit down and listen to him tell us "the rest of the story."

One day when I had grown and visited Faith, she looked up at me as I came indoors: "How's the sky?"

"The sky?" I stared at her. "I don't know. I didn't look at the sky."

Faith squealed. "You didn't look at the sky?" Her hand flew to her chest. "Why I always look at the sky when I'm outdoors."

I believed her. She kept track of the weather like some folks watch pennies.

Strangely, after that visit, my last one, the sky seemed irresistible. I seldom stepped outdoors without ogling it to see if clouds had rolled in, or not. As its fierce beauty unfolded for me, I heard myself say, "Thanks, Faith, for giving me the sky."

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Mustard Sandwiches

A retired railroad conductor turned historian, Dennis Wilson, spoke recently in Storm Lake, Iowa, about the Orphan Train movement.

"It was a crude system," he noted, "placing some children in good homes, but others in nightmare situations." He estimated that 20 percent of the kids placed were abused.

But Wilson doesn't see the system as cruel. "It created a chance, that's all. The Orphan Train system put its faith entirely in the kindness of strangers. What was better, leaving them in the gutters?"

He also questioned whether society treats children much better today, citing estimates of 30,000 homeless children in New York—nearly the same as when the Orphan Train movement started.

To read the Iowa Pilot-Tribune's description of Wilson's program, click here: http://www.stormlakepilottribune.com/story/2456012.html

His program mentions two riders who became governors, Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, "leftover" kids, Street Arabs, and "bad blood."

And mustard sandwiches. That's what the early orphanages often fed children.

Thursday, November 2, 2017


When I get to feelin' sorry for myself, for the awful lot that life has handed me, I just read the newspaper and cheer right up. Earthquakes, hurricanes, wild fires, cars into trees, a toddler who accidentally killed his father—no matter what my rotten luck, nothing this bad has ever happened to me.

Or I turn to humor, maybe read a Pearl by Cousin Minnie: "The doctor must have put my pacemaker in wrong. Every time my husband kisses me, the garage door goes up."

Or I read this story about the Chappells, parents of ten. Three of their children have Batten disease, an inherited neurological disorder. It steals their kids' ability to see, to swallow, to move and to remember. Life support postpones the inevitable.

So one weekend, the Chappells set up three hospital beds in their living room. They comforted their children, then stopped tube feedings and watched their children slip away: one on Friday, one Saturday, one Sunday.

That really put the brakes on my feelin' sorry for myself. No matter what  atrocious lot life has handed me, I've never had to watch my child die.

Thursday, October 26, 2017


I am delighted to find my poem among those chosen to encourage Nebraska readers next year. My poem? The ever popular "Pricksong." It's in Nebraska Presence: An Anthology of Poetry, edited by Greg  Kosmicki and Mary K. Stillwell.

This anthology as been chosen by One Book One Nebraska. It selects literary works for Nebraskans to read and discuss, featuring books with an Nebraska author or Nebraska theme or setting. Last years' choice, for instance, was John Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks

And this year's: Nebraska Presence.

Am I in good company. The poetry anthology features more than 80 contemporary Nebraska poets, including Ted Kooser, Pulitzer Prize winner and former Poet Laureate of the United States, William Kloefkorn and Twyla Hansen, both Nebraska State Poets. It also features poets—Greg Kuzma, Marjorie Saiser, Grace Bauer, and Greg Kosmicki—who had their poems read on Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac. Widely noted poets Hilda Raz, Roy Scheele, Steve Langan, and many others grace its pages.

Thursday, October 5, 2017


What do Hugh Hefner of Playboy fame and my mother, both dead now, have in common?

Not much, but my surprise is that they share anything at all.

Hefner's mother, Grace, was born in Holdrege, Nebraska, population these days about 5,000, and home of The Nebraska Prairie Museum.

My mother lived 24 miles south of Holdrege in Alma, Nebraska, home to about 1,000. Dad, in his trucking days, had an office in Holdrege. Mom piped carloads of stuff into its Nebraska Prairie Museum, a higher class museum than any in Alma's Harlan County. 

One day, wandering around the Museum I noticed a doll's wicker carriage that looked like one I had as a child. Curious, I read the tag. My name was on it—one more item Mom had loaded into the museum.

But none of this has anything to do to with Hugh Hefner.

What does connect the Hefners and the Coffeys is this: Over the years, the Hefner family donated $181,000 to the Holdrege Memorial Homes, a nursing and assisted living center at 1320  11th Avenue. This home is where my mother chose to live in her later years.

Granted, Hugh Hefner and mom's ties aren't close, but even this intimacy would have upset my mother. She looked way down her nose at Hefner and his Playboy Club with its naughty girls, just as she looked down her nose at my sexually explicit novel Marcella.

So I suppose I could say Hefner and I have more in common than he and my mother. But I won't say that. I can't have her turning over in her grave.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Suicide Lite

"He shot his head clean off," my aunt cried about my Uncle Lyle. Bone fragments scattered red and white on the kitchen floor.

We used to call this conduct "suicide," the act of killing oneself on purpose. But no more. Now it's not Lyle, not even the gun but PTSD from World War II that's the perpetrator.

Decades later, my sister Margaret's older son, Thom Dent, plopped down on the doorstep of a girl who had snubbed him and blew his head off.

Suicide? No. Just teenage hormones.

Then my mother killed herself by refusing to eat. She had grown tired of her weak brittle bones repeatedly shattering.

Suicide? No. Death by osteoporosis.

This July, my sister Margaret Dent died. A few weeks later, her younger son, Steve Dent, donned his good business suit, drove to the edge of town and began to play "All the Way," Margaret's favorite Frank Sinatra tune. Then Steve shot himself through his heart.

Suicide? "Grief killed him," I said, but no, my therapist cried, "Rage!" 

Earlier that July, my cousin, Thomas D. Coffey, put a bullet in his brain. He was 66, in physical pain and eating pain killers.

Suicide? No. A victim of the current opioid epidemic.

Remember when we stopped saying "dead" but used the euphemism,  "passed," instead? 

Now "suicide" is the bad word. We seem unable to bear the brute thought of self-killing so we downsize to PTSD or hormones or grief or rage or opiates as the killers, not people.

I call this Suicide Lite. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017


We met in Charlotte where we lived, me indoors and she in the woods. I left dried food out for her. Several neighbors did, too. 
Then our manager called a meeting. "Leaving food outside will draw raccoons, and by law, I can't kill a raccoon. Someone has to adopt the cat." In the long-drawn-out silence, I volunteered. 

I drove my little tabby cat to be spayed. 
"What's her name?"
Name? My favorite cookie popped to mind: Snickerdoodle.
"Snickerdoodle! What kind of a name is that?" The agent bent over her paper. "It doesn't even fit the space." But she made it fit, and Snickerdoodle became my cat's name.

Back at home, the phone rang. "Pick up your cat. We can't spay her. She's pregnant." Snicker's second pregnancy, neighbors said.
I postponed my move to Nebraska and gave Snicker the floor of my clothes' closet for her birth quarters. She produced four squalling kittens. I found good homes for all, and still hear from Kay Golden about the kitten she took.

Off to Omaha we went. I bought a big house with a walk-in basement. Soon Snicker shifted a brick to open a long hiding space. "Got to fix that." I knew I couldn't pull her out if she chose to hide there.
Then two plumbers drilled with a jackhammer into my floor only a few feet from Snicker's tunnel hiding spot. Was she in it? I couldn't tell. If so, I couldn't get her out, so the men finished their thunderous job.
The drilling traumatized Snicker. I blocked up her entrance, but the damage remained. The instant the doorbell rings, Snicker, fearing a jackhammer, flees. She'll come out for no one, not even my friends.

The rest of Snicker's life unwound quietly. She liked to talk to me. She bumped Paco's leg encouragingly when he ate salmon. She fled outdoors when she got a chance, but came home. 
Recently, though, at fifteen years old, her life turned nasty. She looked at me, her left lid closed tight. When it opened, her eyeball was black. 
Paco, beloved of Google, said, "Look it up." 
"Look what up?"
"Cat. Black eye."
I snorted, until Paco told me my cat had cancer. Melanoma. That explained Snicker's black eye, her sudden weight loss, her inability to defecate or urinate.
I called Dr. Pete, my visiting vet. He led me to his office-van, sat me on a chair, and put Snicker on my lap. He raised a bottle of blue liquid. "A little will put Snicker to sleep so she won't have to feel her organs close down."
Her head flopped down, Dr. Pete administered a second shot, and Snicker died in my lap.

I went back in the house and thought. "You can sit around moping about this or you can…visit the Nebraska Humane Society. 
I adopted Ruby, a spayed three-year old female, an orange tabby with white boots. She looks nothing like Snicker. She's not tiny; she's long legged, athletic. 
Today I hung a full name on her: Rubyfruit Jungle.
Warm wishes,


Marilyn June Coffey