Celebrating Mom's 100th birthday

Warren O'Brien & Sadie Lee McCoy on their wedding day, March 23, 1946, Phelps Presbyterian Church
Tuesday, August 7, 2001: McCoy Homeplace, Phelps, Kentucky

My mother reclines with her coffee cup in the farmhouse where she grew up in the McCoy Bottom. Where I lived almost the first five years of my life.

I record our genealogy and Sadie Lee McCoy’s personal history—the purpose for my visit to Peter Creek, a stream that flows from the peak of Big Creek Mountain to the Tug River bordering Kentucky and West Virginia.

Mom names her maternal grandparents and their twenty offspring, ten each. I came to know most of my forebears during childhood summer vacations south.

At last, Mom comes to the McCoy/O’Brien branch of our family tree. She hesitates for we’ve seldom mentioned Dad after their divorce in 1967 and his burial in March 1995.

“How did you and Dad meet?” I nudge.

“Well, Warren worked the farm with Dad and my brothers.”

“You mean Dad farmed with Grandpa Floyd and my uncles here in the McCoy Bottom?”

“And across the creek where I was born. Dad always hired hands. After his mining accident in 1932, Mom needed more help because I was only ten years old and Sarah and the boys were younger. Dad said he liked the way Warren worked.”

“How did Dad work?”


“And that’s how your romance began?”

“The baby of nine children, Warren O’Brien was a snotty-nosed boy back then.”

“Well, when did you fall in love?”

“I guess it began when Warren came home from the War. Some of our boys didn’t make it back, and that hurt real bad. I went with Granny O’Brien and her family to the Williamson Train Station to welcome Warren home. Everybody on Peter Creek was glad to see him.”

My granny, Ollie Jane McCoy, poses on her piano bench before the house where my mother was born

Monday, January 10, 2022: My Homeplace, Addison Township, Michigan

Today is Mom’s 100th birthday. I remove her wedding photo from the living room bookshelf. My parents smile, arm in arm, and I am comforted.

Dressed in his Marine uniform, Dad seems eager and able to build a family and prosperous life with his bride. The rosettes attached to the tulle skirt layered over Mom’s slender, satin dress puddle on the floor around their feet.

I remember the Scarlet O’Hara eighteen-inch waistline contest Mom said she won while in high-school and recall her southern resilience.

In the day when most war brides wore their best dress or suit for their wedding clothes, I marvel at Mom’s fine bridal gown, headpiece, and veil.

I refer to my notes from that August day twenty-one years ago. “Mom and Dad knew how to make money. Dad kept two milk cows and fifteen beehives. Mom opened her own store with a gas pump. She sold livestock feed, Dad’s comb honey, and her pound butter.”

Indeed, dear Reader, my forefathers knew how to use what they had to prosper. However, what my mother mentioned most from March 23, 1946, was this: “Dad held onto my arm and walked me down the aisle with the help of his leg braces.”

Sometimes, hard work is nothing less or more than a blissful moment we encourage another branch of our family tree to grow.

The store Granny opened on the road above the McCoy Homeplace (roof visible to right of gas pump)

Benefits of neighborly ambulations


Stoney Creek on a cold, sunny winter day

Upon the conclusion of this past gardening season, I determined to resume frequent walks on my country roads come January 2022. Primarily for the benefits of fresh air and exercise.

Which includes a wave to neighbors while they muck their barns, visit their mailboxes, or call for their dogs. And a chance meeting with a familiar face passing on foot or behind a steering wheel cheers me like a bright, blue sky on a winter day.

So, later I’ll layer my clothing and lace my boots for a muddy stroll in sunshine. Incidentally, my fondness for mud throws back to childhood when Mom praised my mud pies with a genuine smile. 

Which explains my preference to saunter slushy, hilly, pot-holed roads rather than groomed trails. I’m most content walking along Stoney Creek that resembles Peter Creek, the stream that flows along my natal Kentucky home.

Now, I cannot attribute my desire for outdoor recreation to my mother. A fair-skinned Scot-German who avoided the blazing sun, Mom excelled in domestic skills such as cooking, baking, sewing, and creating wedding cakes.

Her second of five daughters, I did not inherit Mom’s steady eye and hand. I cannot embroider the smallest piece without puckering the fabric, or draw a straight line.

Long ago, my few pathetic knitted and crocheted efforts ended up in the trash can. My inventive mind sees serpentine lines.

For instance, it’s taken my dyslexic brain decades to befriend the lettered keyboard. The battle first emerged in my sophomore Beginning Typing class with Mr. Walling when my grade regressed from a B to a D.

This disqualified me from the J.V. cheerleading squad for a miserable month. Meanwhile, I practiced typing after school under Mr. Walling’s critical supervision.

Truly, I could’ve never accomplished a writer’s life in this modern world without the intervention of the word processor, cursor, and backspace keys.

However, when I turn into my second mile, I’ve forgotten my search for the notched F and J keys. With each step, the voice of sound reason returns—encouraging words that ease the stress of my limitations and lift me to higher places.

As the waters of Stoney Creek tumble over rocks and fallen logs, they speak sweet comfort, joy, and guidance to my mind, soul, and spirit.

Today, I’ll bundle up with a burdened heart for a steadfast and loving friend; a mother who held vigil with her husband in a hospital for several days, praying for God’s will for their elder son.

Dear Reader, amongst the numerous blessings of dodging icy patches is communion with my Lord, Jesus—to pause along open fields, forests, and Stoney Creek and appeal to Heaven for the sick and bereaved.

And to remember God’s mercy and grace found within my family’s losses, count them worthy to offer up in prayer on behalf of my heartbroken friend and her family.

I’ll walk along “Rivers of Living Waters” and pray for my friend and her grandchildren’s comfort.

For the healing of the nations.     

Seismic moments


The box with our Christmas Dearborn ham

My drive south to Nino Salvagio’s fabulous market in Troy usually takes thirty to forty minutes. Yesterday afternoon, however, Rochester Road south of Tienken teemed with what we locals know as “Light Show traffic.”

Incidentally, the town of Rochester erected a sign to alert southbound motorists just in case we didn’t notice the storefronts alight in brilliant colors. Having observed the swelling popularity of this Christmas spectacle the past decade, I surmised the sunny, mild December day lured folk downtown early for a parking spot.

As my car rolled down Main Street, families and couples strolled sidewalks looking into windows and waiting at corners to cross.

A young couple caught my eye at Fourth Street. I admired her mastery of four-inch heels (perhaps five); his confident stride in skinny jeans. My romantic streak detected obvious signs that the blonde and her date were sweet on one another.

At last I parked close to Nino’s entrance, eager to choose our Dearborn ham and other specialties one finds inside the mammoth store. Of Southern heritage, I dare not attempt to bake biscotti for guests and gifts. Mom’s fruitcake, yes. Her recipe yields three loaves wrapped in brandied cheesecloth: one for my husband and me, and one each for our two daughters.

Perfectamente, as my high-school Spanish teacher would say.

In this joyful mood, I entered the paradise of fruits and vegetables piled high on tables. Praise God for fresh strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries out of season! And pineapple to garnish our main course! For red, green, and orange bell peppers!

Concerned Nino’s might run out of Dearborn boxes, I aimed for the meat department and promptly placed a ten pounder in my cart. Congenial laughter behind the fish counter drew me to the Lake Superior whitefish, my husband’s favorite of all fresh and saltwater food.

“Can I help you?” asked one of the many fish guys.

“Yes, thank you. How many whitefish filets do you recommend for two?”

“Well,” he said, holding up a sample, “whitefish is thin, so I’d say one for each.”

“I’ll take two, please.”

Forty-five minutes later, the check-out bagger packed my order including fresh-baked croissants, Great Northern beans, molasses, and ingredients for Buckeyes (AKA Peanut Butter Balls) and Magic Pan Cookie Bars. Finally, I unloaded the ham box and whitefish and paid my bill.  

Home from the northbound Light Show, I unpacked my groceries and discovered the bagger overlooked our featured dish for Christmas dinner.

“We have it in the cooler,” customer service said when I called.

Now, for almost two years, We the People have experienced a bombardment of unprecedented seismic moments that challenged our equilibrium—our trust in God, neighbor, and government. Another roundtrip to Nino’s didn’t faze my emotional Richter scale.

Indeed, dear Reader, our traditional Christmas ham presented another chance to join again fellow pilgrims in the midst of celebrating this most wonderful season.

Joy to the world! The Light came to us two thousand years ago. Let Heaven and Earth receive their King!

Sublime fury and tender mercies

My daughter Ruth and I on the steps of the Beethoven Platz monument, Vienna, Austria, May 1990

"We mortals with immortal minds are only born for sufferings and joys, and one could almost say that the most excellent receive joy through sufferings.” Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770 – March 26, 1827) 

If you tuned in to WRCJ’s Dave Wagner and Peter Whorf this past week, you learned a few things.

“Dr. Dave” said Beethoven’s December natal date remains contested. Therefore, they broadcasted the station’s tribute to Ludwig Wednesday and Thursday afternoon, December 15 and 16.

               Brilliant idea—a double portion of my favorite classical composer.

              In honor of his contributions to the symphonic orchestra, Wagner and Whorf included WRCJ’s year-end fundraiser in their programing. In the spirit of good humor, they offered a Beethoven bobble-head and socks. For a small monthly donation, they covered the patron “from head to toe,” as Wagner jested.

             Wednesday, I parked my car behind Romeo Printing as Wagner introduced what I consider the most tender and merciful of the composer’s works. Forgetting its title, the slow piano score nonetheless called me into a hallowed place of rest and reconciliation; comforted me much like King David’s Psalm 23.

“You can feel and hear Beethoven’s tenderness in this slow sonata,” Wagner confirmed at the conclusion. Whorf agreed.

I paid the printer for my order and drove up to Dryden for tea with friends, both excellent vocalists. “Did you know Beethoven was born December 15 or 16?” I asked.

“No,” they replied.

Later, while dabbling in curiosity, I discovered Jane Austen shared Beethoven’s commonly accepted birthdate.

Remarkable. My favorite female novelist took her first breath December 16, 1775. Did Miss Austen hear her contemporary perform his sonata of tender mercies? Was it Beethoven’s sublime piano that provoked Austen to write, “There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart”?

              More fiddling on the web answered, “probably not.” Ludwig and Jane walked in different spheres five hundred miles apart.

Austen left this world on July 18, 1817, ten years before the maestro. At age forty-one, she bequeathed future, world-wide readers a collection of six novels, still best sellers today. A model for every aspiring novelist.

I find it fascinating that Beethoven described the opening four notes of his Fifth symphony as "death knocking upon the door." Although deaf, the musician’s heart heard clearly the human condition surrounding him.

Accordingly, soldiers directed more than 20,000 grieving fans the day the Austrian’s funeral bier passed through the streets of Vienna. I imagine those infamous death notes also knocked upon the hearts of those who mourned.

Most remarkably, documentation confirms the four beats of the Fifth symphony, unintentionally Morse Code for the letter “V” for Victory, played a significant role during Allied broadcasts during WW2.

Ever relevant to our human predicaments, I see in part Beethoven’s journey from suffering to his “Ode to Joy.”

Lastly, dear Reader, this brilliant, often tormented man left all who would hear these wise words: “Do not only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets.”

Ah, to know those mysteries within sublime fury and tender mercies.

Wind in the firs


Somewhere along the Christmas season, Johanna Spyri’s Heidi emerges from memory. Not my blue two-wheeler Dad taught me to ride on Detroit’s Joann Street before he bought his first movie camera—meaning there’s no evidence of my prowess in mastering independence from training wheels.

And not my first pair of roller skates, or the matching baby dolls Santa left under the Christmas tree for my two sisters and me.

            Although I adored these presents with reckless affection, the story of the orphan Heidi and her devoted Grandfather holds the strongest significance of a well-given gift.

For Heidi came to me on a mountainside of my natal home in Kentucky which my family had left several years prior for Dad to barber in Detroit.

Possibly the Yuletide of my tenth year, my sisters, cousins, and I played outdoors in peddle-pushers and shirtsleeves. Dad filmed us mothering our new dolls, the main attraction my cousin Candy’s Patti Playpal—the heart’s desire of every girl in 1959.

Sometime in daylight of that ideal holiday reunion with my McCoy kinfolk—and what would be the last time I would stand in the presence of my pretty cousin Candy—she offered me a package wrapped in red paper.

I remember her smile, the embarrassing contrast of her long, dark ponytail and frilly  dress to my tangled bob and dirty play clothes. With regret, I consider again my disappointment when I opened a box to find a thick book titled Heidi.

I’d enjoyed Heidi’s happy ending in the movie starring Shirley Temple, but I wasn’t a good reader. I can only hope I mustered enough manners to return a “thank you” to my thoughtful and long-forgotten cousin for her long-lost gift.

Typical post WW II parents, neither my mother nor father read literature or took my sisters and me to a local library. They entrusted our reading skills and literary education to our public schools.

Although I read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, many Shel Silverstein’s books, and every Christmas Eve Twas the Night Before Christmas to my daughters, I failed to read them Heidi.

Several years ago approaching another Christmas, I at last purchased a 1925 edition of Johanna Spyri’s best seller. One of those lonely Christmases without my children, Heidi, Grandfather, Peter and his goats, Clara, and the wind in the firs kept me in good company.                                                                                               Those jagged peaks that loomed up austere and even terrible in their harsh barrenness became ever more familiar to her as she gazed at them, until they were no longer terrible, but friendly, and it seemed to her that she had known and loved them all her life. (Chapter One, page 42)

Heidi takes me back to the mountainside and grandmother I have known and loved all my life. I hope and pray my cousin Candy knows the same affection.

Dear Reader, inscribed inside my vintage copy of Heidi I find, “Merry Xmas, Uncle Pete and Aunt Tray.”

Christmas. Time to give the gift of the wind in the firs.