Mary Ellen comes home from her honeymoon to a surprise she can’t laugh off.

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Mary Ellen in her wedding dress.

Chapter 15: A Wedding and Two Funerals 

Mary Ellen had a few ideas about improving Herb, and he knew he needed improving. But he was taken aback when she told him he would have to get rid of his gold tooth. That tooth had cost him a lot of money. But he agreed to have it replaced. Here, at last, was somebody who believed in him.

“One more thing.”

“What’s that?”

“We have to travel. Go places.”

“Like where?” he asked, thinking maybe Minnesota. The boys said the fishing up there was great.


“Paris, France?”

“London. Venice. Bombay.”


On August 19, 1927, Hitler held his “Day of Awakening” rally in Nuremberg and on May 18, 1927, in Bath, Michigan (a village of 300 people), a member of the school board blew up the local elementary school killing 38 children, seven adults, including himself, and injuring 58 others.

On the brighter side, three days later on May 21, Charles Lindberg flew an airplane across the Atlantic; in October, movies started to talk and in Kansas City, Mary Ellen Coleman and Herbert Harry Knapp pooled their savings, and bought a house: a bungalow, two bedrooms and one bath, with a partially finished bedroom upstairs at one end of the attic. On December 7, they were married.

Herb warned her several times that it might be a short marriage. “My father died at 27. I’m almost that old myself.”

He was only half-joking. His father’s early death haunted him.

She told him to let her worry about that.

A few days before the ceremony Herb caught a bad cold. The doctor prescribed castor oil. It didn’t help. On his wedding day, he was feverish. Jack guided him through the ceremony. Gwen Wurth, Mary Ellen’s linotypist friend, sang “Always.”

Hannah was invited to the wedding but didn’t come. She was miffed because her granddaughter had not sought her permission to marry. Her behavior wasn’t proper. Why it was hardly any different from eloping. As Hannah always said, “Like mother, like daughter.”

Nettie stayed away, too. She never did anything to cross her mother.

Bessie was there. She had to be. She was “tied to her mistake.”

Frank wasn’t invited.

“Dapie”—Grandpa George—gave her away. He arrived, fortified by a few whiskies, gave her a check, and then walked her down the aisle. Later, she found a framed poem from him among her gifts. It begins; “Sun ain’t always shinin’ overhead. / Sometimes God has clouds up there instead.” She treasured it all her life.

After the ceremony, Herb was still sick, but he wasn’t going to let that interfere with their honeymoon—to Niagara Falls, naturally. He bought a new bottle of castor oil and put it in the cloth pocket on the inside of the front door of his car. But when he parked at their hotel, he was so sick he forgot it was there. When he slammed the door, the bottle broke against the frame of the front seat. He didn’t notice. And though he locked the car, he forgot to shut the windows.

Next day the newlyweds found two cats in their car—but it seemed like a dozen. The car reeked of castor oil and cat piss. Herb was humiliated. Mary Ellen laughed. But back in Kansas City, she got a surprise she couldn’t laugh off.

Rummaging through her purse for the key to the front door of the almost new bungalow that she and Herb had pooled their money to buy mortgage-free, she froze. The door was being opened from within.

Bessie had grown restive as her daughter’s wedding approached. She didn’t like the idea of living alone. Had she not sacrificed a place in her own mother’s household and put up with Frank all those years just so her flibbertigibbet daughter could exist? And what was her reward? To be abandoned? Was that right?

She brooded. Then it occurred to her that it wasn’t practical for her and her daughter to be at the expense of two different establishments. It wasn’t necessary. And anyone indulging themselves in what wasn’t practical and necessary was showing off—was “getting above themselves.” Therefore . . .

“Well you can just move yourself back.”

“I a’ready sold the house.”

They stared at each other. Where else could she go? They both knew Hannah would never let her move back to her house.

Mary Ellen looked to Herb for help.

“An’ the furniture,” added Bessie.

Herb didn’t know what to do. He had often felt guilty about running away from home and leaving his mother with his stepfather. When that man died, Herb invited her to come see him in Kansas City. She did, bringing along a woman friend. Herb paid for their hotel and showed them around town. But shortly after she returned to Joplin, she died. He knew if he’d stayed home, he wouldn’t have been able to help her. She didn’t want any help. She’d made that plain. But he still felt like he had deserted her—and his grandparents, too. So under the present circumstances, taking them all in all, he could not bring himself to refuse to let his mother-in-law stay.

Seeing his answer, Mary Ellen ran into the bathroom and shut the door. The past that she had put behind her had circled around and got ahead of her!


George died in 1929, before I was born; Hannah, in 1937, when I was six. Gram and Auntie, no doubt honoring their mother’s wishes, did not include Mary Ellen in the ceremony at Hannah’s gravesite.

Certainly, Mary Ellen hated Hannah, but she hated being left out—being denied recognition as part of the family—even more. Her mother, aunt, and two of Hannah’s neighbors rode in the limousine to the cemetery. Mary Ellen and the man she had married without Hannah’s permission tagged along in their car at the end of the procession. At the gravesite, someone said, “Wait, here’s Mary Ellen!” and tried to push her forward, but no one made room for her. The service continued. Bessie wouldn’t look at her.

For a couple of years after Hannah died, my father would drive us all out to the cemetery on Memorial Day. Gram, Auntie, and my parents would sit on the grass near George and Hannah’s graves and eat a picnic lunch. Mother would keep my baby sister beside her. But I dodged about among the tombstones, silently pretending to be an Indian. Mother repeatedly told me not to run over the graves. It did no good. Dodging among the tombstones was the only interesting thing I could find to do, and it kept me away from the grown-ups and their silent, secret quarrels.