Nurturer, Quilter, Cousin, Friend: Remembering Marian
This week we lost a person very dear to our family. And I lost a piece of my living family history. I’m still in disbelief, as Marian was diagnosed with cancer a little over a month ago. And now she’s gone.
Marian was more than my father’s first cousin. She was a sister-friend to my mother, caretaker of my brother as a child, and one of the few people my father trusted in this world outside of his immediate family. She spoke honestly and frankly, even when it hurt for us to hear the words. She knew what was right, and she spoke up when something was wrong.
She was my spirit guide, 42 years my elder, who told me that no matter what happened in my family’s past, I should be proud of my last name. Coley is a good name, she said, and I should never shy away from it. She told me I was definitely a Coley—because Coleys always had a dog around. She was right on that point.
Over the years I’ve marveled at Marian’s youthfulness, even as the ninth decade crept upon her. The last time my mom and I saw her, she couldn’t believe she was 92. “I just don’t feel that old,” she remarked. Her cheeks were smooth and supple, which she attributed to her daily ritual of Oil of Olay and Estée Lauder. I hope I look as good as she looked at 94, if I’m blessed to live that long.
Born in 1926, Marian’s coming of age spanned the Great Depression and World War II. She was an independent woman who escaped the drama of our North Carolina family in the mid 40s and married Chuck, who drew her into the wilds of Minnesota where she lived until her last breath. She was a war bride, proud of her husband, and together they had a son, Chip. Together they fostered more than 40 children over the years. She adopted two of them, Brenda and Robin, and their family became five. Taking care of people was what she did best, of which she was the most proud. She nursed Chuck and Brenda, who both preceded her in death. Marian survived two bouts of cancer. It was her third diagnosis with cancer that took her away from us on February 23, just three weeks after the passing of Robin’s husband, Barry, who also had cancer.
Until she got sick in January, she still drove to Wal-Mart and the grocery store in Wadena. She visited her longtime Amish friends, including her good friend Mary, and made regular purchases of fresh milled flour, jellies and syrup from their tiny country store. The Amish ladies helped Marian clean her house and shared her love of quilting. Marian was a master quilter, her craftmanship hung from every corner of the house. She also carved ostrich, emu, pheasant and duck eggs into Christmas ornaments and gave them as gifts. Her love for Christmas was boundless and filled with family, and every Thanksgiving they would help her retrieve the decorations from storage.
Marian’s house was always open for visitors. She loved talking over rhubarb cake and a cup of coffee at her dining room table, surrounded by photos of her family. Until the pandemic, my mom and I visited her every summer, helping freshen up paint on the front steps, cleaning her garden furniture, or helping her get organized for a yard sale. The pandemic prevented our visit last year, so we taught her how to video chat on Facebook; she thought that was cool. I wish we’d done that more.
Marian attended her small Methodist church every Sunday until sheltering in place kept her at home. She often bemoaned that she only had one good friend from her women’s circle still living. Annabelle is left to hold the torch for them all.
Marian relished time spent with her grandkids and great-grandkids—her “Greats.” Even as she neared 90, she held her youngest great-granddaughter in her arms like she’d held her first child 70 years before. Marian had a heart big enough for everyone. She was particularly close to a family a couple of blocks away whose twins she helped care for from newborn to college; the family referred to her lovingly as Grandma.
I am so fortunate that I got to know Marian more intimately the last few years. She was one of the last living relative who knew my grandfather, who I wrote intensely about in my graduate writing program. Marian made a couple of appearances in my thesis, first as a four-year-old watching the traveling circus parade on the streets of Albemarle, NC, in 1930 with her mother Lola. She watched in awe as my grandmother rode bareback in a garnet silk robe on a white horse, and my grandfather the clown frolicked through the crowd. Marian made another appearance in my story at 15 when my grandmother died, and she was witness to the pain that pierced my father’s fragile nine-year-old heart. She read my 120-page thesis that detailed our family story in one sitting, emerging the next morning in tears.
I got to know Marian through the stories she shared with me in her last years. She lived a long life that was not always easy. She met all her challenges with that Coley tenacity, pushing her light forward through the darkest of places. I’m grateful for the pride she instilled in me. She made me believe I could do anything.
Marian’s departure is a profound loss, but I now count her as another of my guardian angels, someone whose voice will leave a lasting echo in my heart. I am a better person for having known her. Rest in glory, Marian. You are missed with a sadness as big as your heart.