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