Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sharing the Cousin I barely knew

CATHERINE EVELYN COFFEY (1907-2001) was my father's first cousin and the only surviving member of the family to bear the name. She never married and had children, but she did leave a vast number of mysterious and ethereal poems that both reveal and hide who she was. I only met her once, when I was a young teen, and I remain enchanted with my memories of her to this day. In this blog I'd like to share what I know of her and her poetry, and to invite others who knew her to add their memories.

I will begin with a simple biography I wrote for a book my brother and I are about to publish on our paternal ancestors, the Coffey and Flynn families. I will add to it in sections, to be continued.


Born December 18, 1907 – Cleveland, Ohio

Baptized St. Colman’s December 29, 1907

with John and Jane Cooney as sponsors.

Died July 14, 2001 – Detroit, Michigan

I know so little about this lovely lady. I only met her once, in Boston in the summer of 1949 when I was fifteen and she was 42. She was less than five feet tall and at 5’9", I towered over her. She was delightful, bubbly, effervescent, and utterly fascinating.

In 1992, when I was deep into genealogy, I called and talked with her about family. She knew only bare facts and eventually I sent her narratives with what I had learned of the family.

Her father, Timothy D. Coffey, was my Grandmother Margaret Coffey Flynn’s baby brother, so Evelyn was my father’s first cousin. Evelyn never knew what the D. in his name represented. It is possible it was Daniel for his father, or it could have been Denis. Four of the five sons in the family had D. as a middle initial, and we only know that in the case of the oldest son, it stood for Denis.

Timothy apparently was the only Coffey sibling, other than my grandmother, who had children. He married Mary Jane Cooney on January 30. 1907, in Cleveland, Ohio. He called her "Mary Love," and they had two daughters, Evelyn and Rose. He died when the girls were quite small, and their yearning for the father they never knew is expressed quite poignantly in Evelyn's poem:

To my father

(who died too soon)

I don't know

where you are:

where lies the essence

that once was loved

as I am loved;

where stills the heart

that loved ---

in love to make me.

Breath and bone of you

I wear,

you whom I cannot


Dreams you knew,

you left me;

loves you felt,

I bear.

Death has not tamed

the wild heart

or chained the feet

with wings.

There is no where

for you to lie

except in me.

Evelyn Coffey

(Attached to a copy of this poem is this note. Was it written to her sister Rose?

“I wonder if you’ll like it, Honey. It’s the first time I’ve said anything to him, and the thought of it made me cry. All my love, Evelyn”)

Upon hearing of her baby brother's death, Maggie Coffey Flynn wrote to the sister-in-law she'd never met, inviting her to go to New Hampshire and live with her own family. Mary Jane did not accept the offer, but never forgot the kindness, and a correspondence ensued that evolved into love.

Mary Jane supported her girls working as a seamstress. During the summer while she worked, the girls attended a playground program near their home. Evelyn described herself and Rose as "dirty little girls on a playground," when a lady, Helen Jeanette Wheeler, found them. She was president of the Ballet Masters of America and arranged for the children to have dancing lessons as well as appropriate costumes for performances. Eventually she created a scholarship for Evelyn to go with her to dance in New York, where Evelyn performed. Evelyn was very tiny and must have been a beautiful dancer. When she was quite elderly, a neighbor in Detroit described how she came down the stairs, placing her feet like a dancer.


  1. Pat, I'm so glad you've taken this first step. Evelyn had a way, when she delighted in something, of crossing her wrists over her chest, closing her eyes, lifting her face slightly, smiling, inhaling, and exhaling slowly while almost singing a declining Mmmmmmmmmmmmm until all of the air was gone. Then she would look into your eyes and just smile for a minute and say "Couldn't you just "DIE?" She meant that the beauty was more than one could take and live, like seeing the face of God. I see her and hear her now, she who is with her God, delighting this way in your sweet beginning. We will all come to know her in her poems as you share them. She will open like a flower to us, like the gardenia she once watched, through the night, as it opened to her.

  2. Pat, this is delightful! I'm eager to read more that Evelyn wrote. the blog looks great!

  3. Thank you Pat! This morning over breakfast told my girls "Evelyn stories" and of course they were delighted.

    We love that her life, poetry and stories will have a place to be shared and experienced.

    Thank you for taking the first step!