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Mary Lewis Coakley

AT LEAST I HAD A GOOD BEGINNING: I WAS BORN on December 8th, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Appropriately then, I was named Mary and can, with gratitude, claim Our Lady as my patron. Moreover, I was born in what I like to think of as her state, Maryland, though it was named for an earthly queen, not the Queen of Heaven.

My early childhood days belonged to that dignified and leisurely era preceding World War I. We lived in a large, rambling house set atop one of the rolling hills of the countryside near Baltimore. I remember many things about the place--how the majestic storm clouds looked as they blew up from the valley, how the sweet poignant freshness of spring felt as I hunted violets by the brook, and how the woods became a fairy forest of crystal when winter's ice sheathed them down to the last tiniest twig.

And my family--I remember mother in those days as a person of great energy, vivacity, and charm. She delighted to give parties in the big house, and my brother and I would sneak down the hall in our pajamas to peer through the banisters at the beautiful ladies waltzing below, and listen to the gay ripple of laughter. My father, though quieter than mother, is also in the foreground of my memories. Honor, honesty, principles, and simplicity-these are the words I instinctively connect with him. He was truly an old-fashioned gentleman.

There were four of us children, three girls and a boy. My brother Charles and I were close in age and affection. Riding our bicycles up and down the driveways, romping with the dogs on the lawn, building forts in the sandpile, exploring in the woods, we were inseparable.

Books and story telling were also an integrant part of our lives. I remember how thrilled I was when, at about age four, my nurse said she would teach me to read Peter Rabbit by myself, and I remember equally well my disappointment when, try as I might, I could not learn that very morning. Indeed for a long time afterwards I had to depend on her, and on my patient older sisters. They often read to us, and my sister Katharine would also tell us vivid and vibrant tales.

Mother, too, frequently read aloud in the evenings, but for the benefit of my sisters, and from such authors as Dickens and Thackeray. I listened fascinated, if not entirely comprehending.

On other evenings mother played the piano. I can close my eyes and see her even yet, humming as she played, just as I can see father seated at the dining room table discussing politics, the war or State's Rights, "the safeguard of our liberties." Incidentally, when my family mentioned "the war," they were as likely to mean the Civil War as World War I. In Maryland, a border state, brother had fought brother in the Civil War, and their descendents, still intense in their loyalties, retold and almost relived the tragic struggle. I heard tales of a great uncle who had died for the Confederacy at Manassas Junction, and mother often recounted her experiences as a young girl in North Carolina, visiting a sort of legendary character, an old uncle of hers, Colonel Kerchner, who had run the Blockade.

In short, my childhood from this vantage point of the Space Age seems to have been lived in another and more romantic world.

Since mother had been educated by the Visitandines, it was inevitable that her three daughters would go to a Visitation convent, too. I, Mary Bertha Lewis, began my schooling at Mount de Sales Academy. "Cranbrook," our home was two miles from the nearest car line, and four miles from school, so each morning father would drive us over, or when the car refused to start, as often happened in those days, the horse and carriage had to serve.

It was during my years at the Mount that I began to write a novel about World War I, but I abandoned it at Chapter Two because, I solemnly decided, I didn't quite understand how army generals ran wars.

When I was twelve, financial reverses brought changes, and for business reasons we moved to San Francisco. Once there I entered school at the Convent of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, and for the disciplined teaching of those nuns I shall ever be grateful. And though I enjoyed school, study, and the competition for grades, I was just as interested in frivolous affairs. Among them, was a girls' club. When we, its members, conceived the idea of publishing a club newspaper, I became editor. Since no one bothered to contribute, I ended up writing it entirely myself-on foolscap paper. The nuns, who in the first place objected to a club as cliquish, were shocked when they discovered that my newspaper "poems" were all about boys. At fifteen or so, what else is there?

But there were other interests. I was truly moved when, shortly before I left high school, my sister Rosina entered the Discalced Carmelites. She is now at Carmel of St. Joseph, Long Beach, California, and her prayers have helped me greatly through the years. I was delighted when my Sister Katharine and her baby arrived for a visit with us in San Francisco. She had married and moved to Memphis, where she and her family still live.

After high school came college--Dominican in San Rafael. I had an outstanding English teacher there, Sister Catherine Marie. She encouraged me to write, and her words did make an impression. I never quite forgot them.

But I had not been at Dominican long before a dark chapter in my life began. My brother Charles was struck by a car and killed instantly. He was fifteen and I seventeen at the time. A year later, father became ill, was operated on, and died within a week. Suddenly, there was just mother and I at home.

Mother broke up housekeeping, and we spent the next year in travel, going first to Memphis to visit Katharine who was expecting her third child. Though in later years I took many college courses at the University of San Francisco and at Sienna College in Memphis, I never again returned to formal college.

On my twentieth birthday I married. The marriage was blessed with two sons, but Henry Charles died as a baby. Our other son, Joseph, is now grown up, and married to a fine girl. They have five 'Littlers" of their own, and live in New Orleans.

In 1939, my first husband having died, I married William Drummond Coakley, and moved to the east coast. Our present home is in suburban Philadelphia, in Wyncote.

Before I took up writing I thought of myself as a typical housewife, although I remember with amusement a query of Joe's at about age ten: "Why don't you act like other mothers and bake cake instead of teaching Spanish?" At the time, I was giving a few members of a woman's club weekly lessons in my erratic Spanish.

It was some years later, when Joe went off to the Jesuit college of Spring Hill in Mobile, that I turned author, and the account of my life from here on is largely an account of my writings.

I began to write not because I had found for the first time a few spare hours daily, but because my husband Bill inadvertently supplied the impetus I needed. When we married, he was one of those pagans who have no particular religion. Then one blessed day he was given the grace to make an about-face, and turn toward the Faith. In trying to help him fit God into the center of his life, I myself saw the old familiar truths with more clarity. It was a conversion for giddy me as well as for Bill. And it was exciting! I wanted to rush out and shake all the Christians I knew and say: "Look! In the very faith we claim to profess are all the answers."

Instead, I sat down at a typewriter and put my thoughts on paper. The result was a book entitled Fitting God into the Picture. Because I dedicated it to the Blessed Mother I didn't have a prolonged struggle finding a publisher. Bruce brought it out in 1950. It was a Catholic Literary Foundation choice of that year.

Immediately a bit of printers' ink rubbed off on me, and that, as every one knows, is habit forming. I went on writing, trying my hand next at articles. These have appeared in numerous Catholic magazines.

My second book, published by Bruce in 1953, was Our Child-God's Child. A chatty thing, it discusses with other mothers the perplexities of trying to guide a child through the mazes of this bedeviled world. It didn't win me fame or certainly not fortune, but it did come to the attention of Bishop Fulton Sheen, and it was he who suggested the subject of my third book. He thought it might be an apostolic work to write a biography of Lawrence Welk, a TV personality who, while breathing the heady air of Hollywood, remains a sincere and devout Christian. In 1958, under the Doubleday imprint, there appeared Mister Music Maker. It made the best seller lists as well as ran serially in several metropolitan newspapers.

Presently, I am under contract to write four booklets for Doubleday's Catholic "Know Your Bible" series.

I suppose now that I'll always go on scribbling, but I don't know why. I'm forever complaining about it. Every day is a grind. I bang away at my typewriter all morning long, or until my back begins to ache, and the emptiness in the pit of my stomach reminds me of lunch. After a bite to eat, I may try other pursuits, but eventually, and often that very afternoon or that night, I'm back at my desk reading the morning's output. Sometimes I read it aloud to long-suffering Bill, because (bless him!) he is my most constructive critic.

Always I begin the reading eagerly. Why am I eager? That's another riddle. Usually the idea which had seemed so clever in conception, once written seems to have all the appeal of a warmed-over cabbage; the passage intended to be gay and witty, seems as sprightly as a page torn from the telephone directory; and the part supposed to contain meaty thought, sounds as though it came from the brain of a moron.

But what happens? Next day I'm there at my old stand, the desk, deleting, amending, and so on, and on, and on. It's nerve wracking, it's tedious, it's constant, but yes, it's fascinating!

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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