Thursday, September 18, 2008


When I travel around the country doing events, I often ask people if they know Coleen Salley. If they say, "I think I might have met her," I know they have not. Because you never forget meeting Coleen.

The first time I saw her was on an American Express commercial when they showed her telling a story to some children at Maple Street Book Shop in New Orleans. She was captivating--her raspy voice telling the story of an alligator. That was a few years before I attended a party at her home in the French Quarter. Lucky me, our encounters kept happening over the years. And I'm so thankful for the stories.

The one that I kept asking her to repeat was the story of her father as an orphaned boy. Some relatives had taken him in and put him to work on their farm. One time they sent him with one of their young children to visit some older aunts. When the aunts learned of how her father was being treated, they refused to put him back on the train and decided to raise him themselves. I've simplified the story, but when Coleen told it, she placed me on that train with her father. She was a great storyteller.

The story I wanted to hear repeated, but never did, was the story of her husband and how she fell in love with him in Germany. In their short marriage, they had three children. The marriage ended tragically when her young husband died in a car accident. She told the story with such a range of emotions, the last words ending softly. There was no denying it, he was her one great love.

She returned to Germany. I had assumed she was visiting friends there, but when I asked her about it, she said, "Oh, no honey, I go back for the memories."

I've only met two of her children briefly, but I know them well from her stories. She raised them to embrace life with gusto. They each have inherited her strength and adventuresome nature.

To Coleen, life was an adventure. She traveled often and had just returned from a cruise when I spent a few days with her in April. She was the kind of person who didn't let the parades pass her by. Heck, she was the grand marshall of the parades. She even had a Mardi Gras parade named after her.

I don't have a godmother, but I'd like to think this last decade, Coleen had been mine. She offered her wisdom to me and I welcomed it. She taught me about the importance of attending events and doing school visits, but also warned me about doing too many of them. "If you don't write, no one will want to hear what you have to say."

She opened her home to me anytime I was in New Orleans(unless she was doing her taxes. Then she wouldn't even let me take her to dinner.)I'll always remember that first time I stayed there. After an evening of Coleen's stories, I fell asleep to the sounds of the French Quarter--the clomp-clomp of the horses pulling carriages, people laughing as they walked by, a sad saxophone song.

Coleen loved living in the French Quarter. She'd always dreamed of living there. One of the reasons she kept her drapes open until bedtime was that she had wished more people had done so for her when she was a visitor. So as a resident, she offered visitors a peek into her life.

When she told me that, she said, "And do you think they look in? No! They walk right on by without a glance!"

She loved food, wine, and eating in good restaurants. When she learned I took a friend to The Court of Two Sisters, she frowned and lectured me. "You took her to a tourist trap? Why, Honey, you could have taken her to NOLA's or Galatoire's..." On and on she went naming restaurants I'd never considered. I didn't have the heart to tell her, we'd eaten a good meal at the tourist trap.

When I was with Coleen, I always felt a little naughty. Maybe we laughed too loud in a quiet restaurant or ordered the creme brulee when we'd already eaten a huge meal. She had a way of coloring outside the lines. My daughter received a cussing box from her for graduation. Shannon also remembers several years ago when we were sitting in her courtyard. Coleen opened a bottle of wine. Shannon was seventeen and Jerry and I said it would be okay if she had a little. Coleen filled Shannon's glass to the rim.

She was a great cheerleader for books and writers, and had a special place in her heart for those she thought had been overlooked. She even championed an out of print book back into print. One morning, she read that book to me in her living room. To this day, I can't read Oh Lord, I Wish I was a Buzzard without hearing her voice.

Once I heard someone say that our lives were a pie and each slice represented a segment. I'd like to think the slice that included Coleen was the one with the whipped cream on top. In Louisiana we call a little something extra, lagniappe. Coleen was my lagniappe.

The title of this post may seem odd for a piece about someone who just left this world. But I didn't write this post for those folks who knew her. We all have our Coleen stories. Each of us believed we were her most special friend. Coleen was one of those rare people who made you feel that way. And she could count hundreds, if not thousands, as friends.

I wrote this for those of you who didn't have the opportunity to meet her. The nice thing is you can have a slice of Coleen pie, too. She left behind a lot of stories and some of those are in books. Aren't we lucky?

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