Waxing poetic…. The story of a legendary story teller
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By ANNETTE HARVISON
People often say they want to collect the stories of their elders to pass down along the generations. Just recently, I shared a story of a family that turned collective stories into a book. There’s a lady in Leakesville who is full of stories from the past, having known many people from all her years of living here. Lots of people know her, and at one time in her life, she touched the lives of many youngsters as they made their way through Leakesville Elementary School.
Thelma Coaker moved to Leakesville in 1948. She graduated from Gulfport High School in 1946, though some of her family lived in Greene County. She visited often, and eventually a young man caught her attention. Thelma married the man, Alton Dubon Coaker. During their first nine years, the couple lived on what is now the Old Avera Road. A move in 1957 led them to Leakesville “proper,” in a great spot overlooking the Chickasawhay River. They raised three children in that house, and it is full of memories tucked away in every nook and cranny. Though it doesn’t look the same as it did when they made it their home, for Coaker, there’s no place like it.
“I remember the way the neighborhood used to look when we moved here,” Coaker said. “There used to be houses all through here (the river bridge area).”
“We had to move the house back when the bridge was built.”
Many people in the area do not know about traveling over the old river bridge that began at the boat ramp. Riding across the old rickety bridge on a school bus must have been quite an experience Coaker imagines. With the construction of the new bridge, the layout of one end of town was forever changed. Now, all these years and changes later, Coaker said she enjoys watching the traffic as people pass by going on about their busy days.
“I sit out here on the porch and watch the cars go by,” Coaker said.
In the years before now, when she was making her way to the peace of sitting on her porch, and even now, Coaker has been making stories. In fact, she had a special way of sharing some of her favorite stories- through poetry. Coaker said she has always enjoyed poetry and can even remember the first poem she ever recited when she was in second grade. She can still recite that poem.
Each one she has written shares a special part of her life. They are poems about people that have touched her life, places that have touched her life and even about events in life.
“I wrote my first poem in 1970,” Coaker said.
Several poems were collected in a binder, typed from a handwritten source, which wasn’t revealed at the time. Those that know Coaker well knows she has a sense of humor, which was evident even in the first work kept neatly in a sheet protector. At one point in her life, she had very dear friends for which she wrote a McKay family ‘Twas the night before Christmas. This poem wasn’t the only poem written about someone she knew. Coaker also wrote a poem about her Avon representative who often brought a smile to her face as well as many other dear friends.
One poem became Coaker’s favorite. It is about a place that has always brought comfort and peace to her, and it is a place that was there for her in childhood as well as when she was venturing out into her own life. Many people in the area know of the small white church that sits alongside the Old Avera Road, Clark’s Chapel. It’s a picturesque reminder for the community of days gone by, and Coaker has wonderful memories from her time there. The poem written in honor of the church was framed with a painted picture of it that hangs on her wall.
“That’s my favorite poem,” Coaker said. “I loved that church.”
Coaker wrote a poem about life in her home without indoor plumbing or electricity. Those things didn’t matter at the time because the home was filled with love. She carries that same love of life with her to this day and shares it as often as she can. She still has her quick wit and a great sense of humor. Coaker talked about her life with a light in her eyes, and the years of her past were as present as the day I visited her. She even gleamed when she showed off the cases of memorabilia from her days as a Teacher’s Assistant at the elementary school. So, for all those students who wondered what Mrs. Coaker did with your gift, she still has it on display.
“I loved all my students,” Coaker said. “I loved it when they would bring me something.”
Though she doesn’t get out and about like she used to, she still does a lot to be 91. Her son, P.A., stays with her and has been doing some spring cleaning around the house while he has been home due to the pandemic. He said his mother just wants to see the river again, and he is working to make that happen. He admires the spunk in his mother and won’t ever forget the many pecan pies he would get from her while on the road working.
“She still gets up to cook,” P.A. said. “She made eggplant casserole the other day with fresh eggplant.”
“Yesterday she cooked hamburger steak with onions and gravy and mashed potatoes,” P.A. added.
Coaker gets up early and makes her coffee so she can sip it while she watches the early morning traffic going in and out of town. She doesn’t write much poetry now, but the stories she shared through her works showed a little of the life in a small town that she loves. She said she had great 80th and 90th birthday parties, and she hopes she can have just as much fun at her 100th birthday party. In the meantime, Coaker will keep adding to pages of her story.