Her boyfriend's back

By LaReeca Rucker

The scent of pine dilutes the smell of sterility and humanity that hovers about the nursing home. Patients ease their way down the corridor in wheelchairs, but one sits in her room, content and covered in red.

Nails painted red, class ring with a ruby stone, crimson heart hanging above her bed. Her boyfriend gave it to her.

His name is William Coker, and for the past four months he's been driving from Tupelo at least once a week to spend time with Kattath Hallmark, 81. It is a way to make up for the years they spent apart. Hallmark and Coker were each other's first love.

She was born on Jan. 9, 1920, in Ellistown and named after a Biblical city. Hallmark is good with numbers.

"It's taken from Joshua, 19th chapter, 15th verse," she said, referring to her first name, then adding that she wrote the Ellistown News for the New Albany Gazette 50 years ago; contracted polio and lost the use of her legs when she was 16; and spent the 12th grade in braces.

Her brother, Charles, afflicted with cerebral palsy, died four years ago after she spent 27 years as his primary caregiver. He was a seven-month baby. Her mother died when she was 2. March 29 will mark the fourth anniversary of her stay at Graceland. July 10 will mark the anniversary of her 1997 stroke. And it's been 64 years since she was Coker's first girlfriend.

"I remember I loved him all the time," she said, seated in her wheelchair with her hands crossed. Coker, also 81, sat beside her on the bed in her nursing home room. "I just took a liking to him at the start when I was 17."

Four months ago, Coker came to Graceland Care Center with his sister, Rebecca, to visit her sister-in-law, who later dropped in to chat with Hallmark, a mutual friend.

"I knew him as quick as he walked in the door, and hadn't seen him in 64 years," she said. "I just remembered him."

And since that day, Coker has returned each week to visit his first love. " We were both our first sweethearts," he said.

Neither can recall how they initially met, but something managed to keep love alive for both more than half a century.

"Back then we didn't have cars and walked at night," he said. "I went to see her at her house until about 10:30 at night, and then I walked home, and that was about our courtship.

"About the only place we ever saw each other was at her house. They lived in a log cabin. On cold nights, we would sit in the parlor with a kerosene heater and freeze our butts off."

The two dated three years, then Coker moved to Tupelo, spent seven years in the armed forces, got married, had a son and lost track of Hallmark.

She also wed, survived a failed marriage, and took care of her brother until his death four years ago after which she returned the van the church had given them.

"We had six years we went places," she said. "We had a good time. We went to festivals and around. My brother had a battery operated wheelchair and he would tie a rope to mine and pull me down the mall."

"Those were the years she lived," said Coker, who has yet to take Hallmark on a date outside Graceland.

"I've only gotten to go two places after I got up here," she said. "I had to sell my house. I don't have nothing now. I've never went places. I've never even eaten in a cafe. I've never worked anywhere in my life."

Coker plans to change that.

"I told her that if the doctor said it was OK, I was going to rent me a van with a lift and take her to a cafe."

Hallmark said she remembers that she always loved Coker. It was a feeling that did not disappear, even after 64 years.

"It just means everything to me because I've got no family and no one to visit me much," she said.

Coker thinks Hallmark has begun a new life.

"I think she's started living again," he said. "I live alone, and it's been great for me. It's given me something else to think about. I call her about every night. I know that she was my first sweetheart. There's something there always. You're first love is a little something special."