Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Remembering Aunt Molly on Her Birthday

She was my hero: an independent woman, a professional writer, a happily single person who lived her life exactly as she pleased.  She had a wonderful sense of humor, a deeply caring sense of family -- my father was her beloved brother, my mother her best friend and we -- Mike, Tai, and myself -- were her partners in adventure -- whether it was a day at the beach, a weekend in her apartment eating Swiss cheese and semi-frozen boysenberry pie for dinner, a trip to Yosemite or an afternoon listening to her spin fun poetry as we lay on the grass watching the clouds.  We always called her our third and best parent.

If she were alive today, this would be the 94th birthday of Elizabeth Catherine McCoy -- Molly to her family -- who was born on July 12, 1917 in Tucson, Arizona.  She was a bright and lively child, whose memories of life in Tucson were limited to the smell of the desert after a rain and the comfort of her Daddy's lap as he sang softly to her.

                                              Molly as a baby in Tucson, Az about 1918              

After her father died, when Molly was only four, the family moved to Los Angeles so that her older brother Jim could support the family by acting in movies and singing and dancing in vaudeville. Molly did a little film work as an extra now and then, but she mostly concentrated on her studies, skipping three grades in school and graduating from high school when she was 15.  She was already a published writer by then, winning national short story and poetry contests.  After their mother died, Molly and Jim worked odd jobs to pay their way through UCLA where Molly got both a B.A. and a Master's degree in English literature.

When the U.S. entered World War II, Jim became an Army Air Force pilot, assigned to the ranks of test pilots at Wright Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, Ohio.  My mother joined him as an emergency services nurse. Molly moved east to be with them -- and got a position as a civilian speech writer for Air Force generals, a job she kept for more than 30 years, transferring back to several different Air Force bases in California when I was in high school.

And, in the meantime, she began a successful sideline of writing television plays for shows like "Climax", "U.S. Steel Hour" and "Alcoa Presents."  She wrote mystery short stories for magazines and poetry for literary journals.  One of my favorites was one she wrote about the bomb shelter craze during the nuclear scares of the late Fifties and early Sixties (below):


Even when she lived in Ohio, Aunt Molly was a constant presence in our lives -- with regular phone calls, witty letters and much anticipated visits at Christmas and for a month during the summer. We treasured every day we had with her.  She did things with us that our parents never had the time or energy to do: we would go to the beach for a glorious day of swimming and sunning. Holding hands, we  would dash into the waves with her, running until someone fell down and pulled all the others down, too. We would sit on the sand and she would make up fun poetry, which I memorized on the spot. We would go to plays and musicals.  She wrote phony press releases about my idol Cyril Ritchard and made up fun poetry about him.  After seeing him at the Metropolitan Opera in "La Perichole", where he made his entrance on a donkey and was the only performer on the program listed without a vocal range beside his name, she wrote a poem that was based on Lewis Carroll's "You Are Old, Father Willam!" and sent it to me.

                       Lines Largely Inspired by Cyril Ritchard in "La Perichole"

"You are sauve, Cyril Ritchard!" the spectator cried
"You sparkle like finely cut glass.
Do you think, in such case, it is seemly or wise
To Enter Act One on an ass?"

"In my youth," said the actor "I played a long run
On a moth-eaten llama who'd spit
When I flatted a note or butchered a line
Right into the orchestra pit."

"This irascible beast, though I found him a trial
Taught me poise not to say savior faire
So now I can ride on whatever I please
Without turning a vice regal hair."

"You're so charming!" the spectator breathed with a sigh
"So why do you incessantly play
Rogues, scoundrels and cads of such villainous ilk
One should shudder at what you portray?"

"In my youth," said the Thespian, chortling with glee
"I studied the harp and played heroes
But I found that the audience always applauded
The fiendishly fiddling Neroes.

"In the course of the years, with great cunning and skill
I mastered the difficult art
Of the consummate knave
With superb joi de vivre
Who can steal both the purse and the heart!"

"You sing like a bird," mused the spectator. "Yes...
Your notes are both firm and full-blown.
But pray tell me your range -- are you tenor or bass
Or a shading of baritone?"

"In my youth," blared the Player, sustaining a note
Til the plaster dropped off of the ceiling.
"I knew an old diva as deaf as a post
Addicted to drinking Darjeeling.

"She taught me to sing by striking the pitch
On the top of my head with her cane.
And after two lessons, I sang like a lark
And reeled like a one-legged crane.

"She inculcated rhythm by beating the tune
In my face with an old ivory fan.
You may question my range
But in volume and verve,
Cyril Ritchard need yield to no man."

"You dance like Nijinsky!" the Spectator gushed,
"Combining both grace and abandon
So one is never sure what part of the stage -- or the stalls --
You are likely to land on!"

"In my youth," gasped the actor, performing jettes
Like a grasshopper far flown in wine.
"I learned my first steps at the Brisbane Ballet
From a kangaroo named Clementine.

"She was gifted and droll and, perhaps, on the whole
As patient as any a tutor.
But her temper was worse than an old Irish curse
When one's pas de deux did not suit her.

"One flip of her tail, would send me full sail
Well into General Admission.
So I learned to be quick as a fox with a chick
And as agile as nuclear fission."

"You're fantastic!" The Spectator grasped his lapels
"Yet you seldom come out to the West!
How can you inflict such a dearth of Ritchard
On an area otherwise blessed?"

"I have answered four questions and that is enough!"
Stormed the Actor, magenta with rage.
"Unhand my lapel and undarken my door...
Be off or I'll kick you down stage!"

Continuing to honor my tween-crush on Mr. Ritchard, she gave me two boxed sets of his readings of "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" when I was 12.  And she told me that she thought I had chosen my idol well.

Many years later, in 1981, I wrote down, from memory, the poem above and gave it to her with several others as a Christmas surprise.  The photo below shows her rediscovering her own fun poetry.

                                    Rediscovering her fun poetry - Christmas 1981                

But life with Aunt Molly wasn't always fun and laughter. Sometimes she taught us hard and necessary lessons.

One day, when I was five or six, on an expedition to Vroman's bookstore in Pasadena -- to this day one of my favorite places in the world -- we were driving through a predominently African-American  neighborhood when I pointed out a man walking along the sidewalk.

"Hey, Aunt Molly, look!" I cried, pointing.  "There's a nigger!"

In an instant, she pulled the car over to the curb, shut off the ignition and turned to look at me, her face burning with rage.  Her voice was quiet and intense. "Don't you ever use that word again, do you hear me? That is a terrible word. It is full of hate and ignorance. Don't ever say it. Don't even think it! People of all colors deserve the same respect. Don't let me ever hear you say that again!"

I shrank back against the window, my throat aching, blinking back tears. "But Father says it all the time! That's all he ever calls black people," I whimpered.

"Your father is wrong," she said, her eyes never leaving mine. "You know I love your father very, very much. But he's wrong about this. And it's just as wrong when you say it. So promise me..."

"I promise."

"I love you, my little LYC..." she said, wiping my tears as she stroked my face tenderly. "I want you to grow up to be a good person."

When I was small, I would ask her how much she loved me and she would reply "I love you this much, up to the sky and beyond!"

She had pet names for all of us. I was LYC (or Little Yellow Chicken), a nickname bestowed when I was toddler with light hair, a piping voice and a touch of shyness. Mike was "Kool Kat" or "Man" because he was fascinated by beatniks and, in the midst of our chaotic family environment, aspired to extreme coolness.  And Tai was "TF" or "Tiny Fungus" because she tended to cling to Aunt Molly relentlessly whenever she was around.  Our nicknames persisted into our middle age.

And she had her own way of dealing with our teenage surliness and angst.  My brief form of teen rebellion, when I was 13, was to become aggressively religious. I went to Mass every day. I wore a jangling clot of religious medals and scapulars around my neck. I prayed with my arms in the form of a cross in the backyard at sunset. And I had an annoying habit of quoting the Bible constantly. My parents were irritated, but decided this was better than sex, drugs or rock n roll.  Not Aunt Molly.

 One Saturday, during our weekly shopping excursion to Pasadena, Aunt Molly was trying on shoes at Robinson's.  "What do you think of these?" she asked, extending her foot in my direction.

I heaved a put-upon adolescent sigh and said "Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, save loving God and serving Him alone."

There was a beat as she looked at me for a silent moment and then said "Am I going to have to take you home because you're being such an incredible pain in the ass? Or are we going to have a nice lunch after this?"

"We're going to have a nice lunch!" I said quickly, with a smile.  And I never quoted the Bible to her again.

                                            Aunt Molly - pictured in the late Fifties                      

But it was Aunt Molly, soon after that, who agreed not only to drive me in to Hollywood to see the movie "The Nun's Story" but also to sit through it without complaint. It was Aunt Molly who encouraged me to dress with style. It was Aunt Molly who taught me to drive in her exceedingly cool, brand new 1962 Impala. It was Aunt Molly who taught me my most important lesson about writing.

"Do you think this is good?" I asked her one day when I was 11 or 12, extending a school essay in her direction.  

She handed it back to me. "What do you think?" she asked. "Do you think it's good?"

I gaped at her, open-mouthed and mumbled "I don't know..."

"You need to know," she said. "Don't ever depend on anyone else to tell you whether something you write is good. You have to know it yourself, in here." She touched her heart and then her head.

Still, after my first quarter at Northwestern, under the incomparable eye of Elizabeth Swayne, my first and best writing teacher there, Aunt Molly looked stunned as she read my final paper for the class. "My God," she said quietly. "This is good....really good! What did she DO in this class? I can't believe how she cleaned up your writing...it's wonderful!" And she embraced me.

One of Aunt Molly's greatest lessons to me -- to all of us -- was embracing life. She delighted in every aspect of her life -- from the garden she planted in her first and only house to family gatherings to her friends.  She loved a good party and was no stranger to romance. "But the men of my generation don't appeal to me," she confided one day. "They want to be waited on. They want a woman to serve them. No thanks! My life is my own -- and I love it!"

                      Family gatherings revolved around our beloved Aunt Molly                             

She so loved life that, even in her eighties, she couldn't imagine dying.  "I haven't decided when I would want to die," she told me one day as we dove into fresh strawberry pie at her favorite local restaurant. "I love the spring and flowers and I couldn't go and leave my garden untended.  And summer is just about my favorite time -- with supper on the patio and a day at the beach. I couldn't miss summer. And fall is so great, with the leaves so colorful and Halloween and Thanksgiving and the promise of Christmas. Oh, I couldn't miss Christmas! That's my favorite time of year. I would have to stick around for Christmas!"

                                    Molly, Mike, Bob and me shortly before Molly's death          

And so she did.  We had a wonderful family Christmas celebration in 2003. Mike picked her up at her home and they stopped for a tour of Vroman's on their way to my house.  We sang carols and laughed and exchanged funny gifts and enjoyed a non-traditional Christmas dinner of spaghetti because she had asked for it. 

Then Bob and I drove her the 100 miles home to Redlands. As we visited briefly at her place, she looked at me suddenly and said quietly "If I get really sick, will you please arrange in home care so I can stay at home? I love my home and I never want to leave it."  I put my arms around her, suddenly noticing that she felt fragile, that I was taller than she.  

"I promise," I said, kissing her and quietly wishing I could hold her in my arms forever.

It was an easy promise to keep.  On January 5, 2004, she dressed carefully for a belated holiday lunch with her good friend Magda, who lived around the corner.  While waiting for Magda to pick her up, she sat down in her favorite chair to do that day's New York Times crossword puzzle.  When Magda arrived and got no answer to her knock on the door, she let herself in with Molly's hidden key.  At first, she thought Molly had fallen asleep.  Then she touched her hand and felt the coolness of death.

Later, going through Aunt Molly's belongings, I found notations in her desk diary that she had had episodes of angina in the middle of the night throughout the month of December 2003. Her heart was failing and she knew it, but never said a word to us.  She willed herself to be with us for one more holiday season and then, when the season was nearly over,  she slipped away.  We noticed that she had nearly finished that New York Times crossword puzzle before she died -- and she was getting everything right. It was the perfect way for her to leave this life.

We buried her ashes in a grave beside her mother's, the day before Mother's Day in 2004.  With tears and laughter, we read some of her poetry and talked about how much we loved her.

That love is still the topic of conversation whenever Mike or Tai or Bob and I talk of Aunt Molly.  And sometimes it just hits me -- with the hint of a warm summer breeze or the smell of the desert after a rain or sitting on a beach and remembering our runs into the waves. Suddenly, just for a moment, I'm a wistful child again. And I say quietly "I love you, too, Aunt Molly...up to the sky and beyond!"



  1. In all honesty finding the correct words to use for how much I enjoyed this post is a challenge.
    This tribute to your lovely Aunt Molly has me in love with her and your writing. What a marvelous life of memories this sweet Aunt gave you and your siblings. I know too that as much as you loved and enjoyed her it was most certainly a two way relationship of a beautiful love you shared with each other.
    So glad that I was lucky enough to enjoy this story and the love in which it was written.

  2. A loving tribute to a wonderful Aunt Molly who loved you both in a soft and hard way, who never skipped a lesson when there was a need for one. I especially chuckled at your rebellious teen moments, your sanctimonious preaching, and the way she handled them.

  3. I'm all welled up with tears of joy at reading this beautiful tribute to an aunt anyone would wish to have. How blessed you were to have such a wonderful woman in your life.

  4. Kathy, this is one of the most beautiful posts you have ever written. In it your beloved Aunt Molly lives again for us all and I know how much I would have enjoyed knowing her in life. The poem on Cyril Ritchard is wonderfully funny. No wonder you love her so.

  5. Thanks so much for your wonderful comments! She was such a blessing in our lives. And, yes, Maggie, the relationship was definitely a two-way one. We wrote her letters, called her and went to visit whenever possible. At every phase of life, we let her know how much we loved her. And, as she grew older, it was a pleasure to do for her and to reassure and support her as she had done with us. My brother Mike commenting to me about this post said that he only hopes he can age with the grace and dignity that she did. By the way, he named his daughter Grace Elizabeth in memory of Molly and gave her the nickname "Maggie" so she has her own family nickname, just as Molly did.

  6. This was not only beautiful, but powerful. After reading this, I found myself wishing I had known your aunt Molly, and, in a small way, you gave me the gift of knowing her by posting this. What an interesting person and what a full life she had. Thanks for posting her take on the old Fr. William poem! Her version was hilarious!

  7. Your Aunt Molly sounds like quite a woman and way ahead of her time. What a great friend and role model for you. This is a beautiful tribute and I enjoyed getting to know her. Thank you.

  8. This was such a awesome post I had to come back tonight so my daughter Christi could read it.
    She loved it as I did