John Coffey, man-about-town in New Haven who had rooms in his prime at the Hotel Duncan, who frequented the Owl Shop tobacconists, Blessings for its celebrated threecourse Peking duck, Yale Rep and Yale football; who was an avid squash player at the New Haven Y and a devoted member of the Broad Brook Health Club, aka Pete’s Steam Bath, in rural Yalesville; who sold industrial strength HVAC and refrigeration equipment for a living, spent his last 45 years with the love of his life, Clare Peckham, in New London and Eastham on Cape Cod and then overlooking Lords Point in Stonington.
He succumbed to Alzheimer’s in 2016 at age 85. I knew John and Clare quite well. She was librarian at The Day for two decades. She died in 2015, a year before John, who was cared for at the end at a nursing home in Waterford.
A woman in John’s life I did not know was his sister. Her name was Joan Coffey Weisskopf and she lived in Kapolei, Hawaii. She was John’s surviving sister among four siblings born into a poor Irish Catholic family in the projects of New Haven during the Great Depression.
Joan taught English for 30 years in Charleston, S.C., the Philippines and finally Hawaii. What I do have from Joan is a five-page, typed letter she wrote to her brother, whom she called Jack, on his turning 50.
To me, it is a treasure for its language, its descriptive recollections, its nostalgia and its endearing reflection, and affection, younger sister, by two years, to older brother.
Although it is not properly local by the paper’s circulation area parameters, Joan’s letter is both universal and intimate. Here are passages from it: “Fifty! Ridiculous!” she wrote on Oct. 20, 1980.
“Fifty was grandparents, maiden great-aunts, shadowy, shaky uncles — strangers emerging from the web of family. Fifty was foreign.
“Our father died at 37. You and I led the funeral procession into the church — Ed and Kathleen were kept away as too young — I felt no emotion; the body in the coffin was a mannequin to me. He’d been away too long. But he was closer to you — I never asked what you felt.
“Mother was widowed at 33 — how old that seemed then, how young now — how much she shouldered and how gallantly and thanklessly she carried the load. Four children — ranging in age from five to ten — to bring up alone. I would have gone out of my mind. She made her mistakes — as do we all — expecting too much of you as her first born; wanting me, as her first daughter, to be more like her; indulging her two babies. But she always had guts and intelligence and style — and I’ve always admired her and been a little afraid of her strength.
“Do you remember when the circus came to town? Mother couldn’t afford the admission price for us all, so she woke us up at 4:30 a.m.
one morning, and took us, along with assorted neighborhood kids, on a series of buses to the circus site in Hamden. There we watched, for free, the tents go up with magical ease; the ponderous elephants descend the ramps from railroad cars; the cooks in the
meal tents produce a fragrant breakfast of sizzling bacon, flapjacks, eggs, muffins and aromatic coffee. We saw lions and tigers and horses and monkeys and midgets and strong men and fat ladies and sad ladies and all the gray, weary pre-dawn people that were the whorl of the three-ring circus.
“Remember Sundays? — 8 a.m. mass, herded by the nuns into the front pews where we worshipped under their watchful eyes, drowsing through the faltering sermon of the frail, doddering monsignor; the leisurely homeward trek; the scents of mother’s Sunday dinner: roast beef or leg-of-lamb or loin-of-pork, her gravies, browned potatoes, lemon meringue pies — Sunday finery, Sunday comics, Sunday socials.
“Remember St. Francis School? Smelling of chalk and mildewed maps and faulty plumbing? … The interminable praying — prayers before school, before and after recess, before and after lunch, before going home. We used to have to actually kneel down on the dirty floor next to our desks so the girls always had smudged knees. … The regimentation: we marched everywhere in straight lines arranged according to size.
“Remember buying double-dip chocolate ice cream cones at Sullivan’s Drug Store? Forays along North Front Street to Grand Avenue and across the river to Greek’s for a truly monumental extravaganza — the triple banana split? Buying loose cigarettes at a penny apiece at that hole-in-the-wall grocery at the corner of Peck and Maltby streets?
“So many images of those crowded, growing up years that I’ve never sorted out — But when I remember Connecticut, I feel the shock of icy ocean water in June, and I smell Sperry’s Pond again, and I hear the children along the Quinnipiac; I feel snowflakes on my eyelashes, and I see the ice-sheathed trees blinding in the sunlight after a snowstorm, and all the world is white and wild and whispering promises that never will be.
“And I remember you and me, we were always young and sure and lithe and firm — and we always would be. How could we ever develop bald spots, soft spots, dimpled thighs, creased brows, drooping jowls, mottled noses, hanging clothes, neuroses?
Not we! Fifty? Ridiculous!
“Love and Happy Birthday, Joan.”
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.