‘What a Bunch of Nonsense’

In Memoriam: Frances Wolfe

Frances Wolfe laughs with her daughter Bridget during a reading in March 2017 (Peter Hedlund).

Frances Wolfe — a mother and a baby sister, a voracious reader of short stories and a somewhat pestering patron of the downtown library, a lover of poetry and Willie Nelson, a gardener, a back-deck-sitter, a birdwatcher, a fierce and only reluctantly unarmed enemy of black squirrels, a churchgoer, a caregiver, an unapologetic snoop where the neighbors were concerned, a former Republican, a former Catholic, a former wife, a former smoker, a former teacher, a feminist and a liberal, a knowledgeable and at times overenthusiastic fan of Hawkeye basketball, a cardplayer, a southpaw, a virtuoso storyteller, and a memorable scoffer at so many things she deemed “just a bunch of nonsense,” including but not limited to her son’s cats, Korean food, left turns, and the I-74 bridge — died at her home in Davenport, Iowa, on March 24, 2020. Oh, and the Internet. She hated the Internet. She was seventy-seven.

Wolfe was baptized Frances Siena Cupp and answered to Fran most of her adult life, even encouraging her three kids (unsuccessfully) to use her given name. “I want to be an individual,” she said, “not just another mom.” In her final year she urged friends and family to call her Franny because it made her feel younger. Her husband sometimes called her Françoise, in a nod to her French heritage; she called him the Old Goat. (“Well, he was,” she insisted from her recliner, a full eight years after his death.) Once, in the 1980s, she encountered a male college acquaintance in a local restaurant. “F-cup!” he yelled from across the dining room, causing Wolfe to blush angrily.

“What a bunch of nonsense,” she likely muttered.

Franny Cupp was born at Moline Public Hospital, in Moline, Illinois, on November 17, 1942, the eighth child of Willis Edward and Marie Coletta Jardon Cupp. Six of those children survived to adulthood. The two babies who died haunted her for much of her life; they were siblings she longed to have known. The youngest by many years, she later admitted to having been pampered. Her father owned Service Transportation Lines, a trucking company that struggled early but thrived by the 1940s. Franny got to ride in his airplane and, during the summers, accompany him on fishing trips to Canada. For her sixteenth birthday he bought her a turquoise ’57 Chevy. She was lonely, however, and recalled with warmth an Indian girl named Gladys she befriended on those annual fishing trips. They reconnected briefly late in life.

Young Franny Cupp stands next to her sister Shirley on the day she became Sister Germaine. Also, from left to right, are sister Kathleen, grandmother Anna Armbruster Jardon, father Willis, mother Marie, sister Mary, and a sister-in-law (1949).
Franny Wolfe talks to her son about her childhood on March 10, 2020.
The Dispatch (Moline, Illinois), November 7, 1963, 15

Franny attended St. Mary’s Grade School, in East Moline, Illinois, achieving American Legion honors in 1956, and then St. Mary’s Academy, a Catholic boarding school in Nauvoo, Illinois. She was graduated the class salutatorian in 1960. When asked recently who had beaten her out for valedictorian, she scoffed, “What a bunch of nonsense.”

She loved boarding school. She threw herself into various activities such as playing the piano (she and a friend performed Rachmaninoff together) and learning to properly smoke a cigarette. That first cigarette lit a fuse that burned for six decades. “From these years on my own,” she later wrote, “I gained a strength and determination which would later help me through some difficult periods in my life.”

These included a long-running battle with her father. Traditional in his views on gender roles, he required that his wife manage the household’s affairs on a small weekly allowance and objected strongly to college for any of his daughters. Franny applied for and won a scholarship to Marycrest College, in Davenport, Iowa. “Seeds of [my] later Women’s Liberation activities were thus sown,” she later wrote. About the same time, her parents divorced, leaving her deeply disillusioned. She was estranged from her father for most of the rest of his life. He died in 1992.

Marycrest College yearbook, 1964
Franny Cupp accidentally steps into a friend’s home movie at their college graduation (Tonya Dessert Urbatsch).

Cupp, who served as president of her senior class, received a bachelor of arts degree in English and a teacher’s certificate from Marycrest in 1964. When still an undergraduate, she met Thomas A. Wolfe while doing the twist in the lounge of a bowling alley on 11th Street in Rock Island, Illinois. An Irish-Catholic farm boy, Wolfe had studied history and education at St. Ambrose College, in Davenport.

When he first asked her out, Cupp told him she was busy.

“For how long?” he asked.

After pausing to think: “Thirty-six days.”

On the thirty-seventh day he called.

“He lacked drive for material goods and possessions,” Cupp later wrote approvingly; “he was naïve to social graces; he laughed often; he believed in God; he always told the truth; he said he loved me.”

Rock Island Argus, August 1, 1964, 11

They were married on August 1, 1964, and raised three children, two of whom they adopted. Mr. and Mrs. Wolfe briefly taught together in Walcott, Iowa. Then for a short time she taught African American literature at Central High School in Davenport before quitting the classroom for good to raise her kids. She later worked in the business office of Moline Public Hospital and in the human resources department of the Modern Woodmen of America national headquarters, from which she retired in 2006.

Tom and Franny at Walcott Junior High School, ca. 1965
The Wolfe family, Ocean City, New Jersey, summer 1980 (George Butler)

Wolfe likely was one of only a handful of people who voted both for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and for Jesse Jackson in 1984. Women’s liberation, her husband’s passion for black civil rights, and their shared interest in union organizing all accelerated her transition from right to left. In 1972, the local newspaper published her blistering letter to the editor, responding to Miss Iowa’s defense of beauty pageants. “Women have been brainwashed and exploited too long!” she declared. During the 2020 Democratic primary, she volunteered for the unsuccessful campaign of Mayor Pete Buttigieg and at the time of her death still refused to take his sign down from her yard.

Quad-City Times, April 3, 1972, 4

During the summer of 1993 — the summer of the Great Flood along the Mississippi River — the Old Goat disappeared in the middle of the night, leaving behind only his new address and phone number. He failed even to tell his teacher friends. When they continued to phone the house asking for him, Franny Wolfe simply hung up. This was perhaps the most challenging moment of her life, made more so by the specter of her own parents’ difficult divorce. Before long, however, she pulled herself together. She popped a Xanax, poured a cold gin and tonic, and hired a lawyer, taking the Old Goat for everything she was owed and then some. She kept two things: their house, a two-story colonial they had bought together in 1971, and her silver wedding band. She was still wearing the latter when she died in the former.

The Chicago Cubs’ W flag flies at 2544 East Street in Davenport, Iowa (Google Street View).

Like her ex-husband, Wolfe was raised a strict and obedient Catholic, always surrounded by the church’s pomp and power. But when the OG stopped attending mass late in the 1970s, she did too. After the divorce, she returned, choosing to join St. Joseph’s in Rock Island, where her eldest sister, Sister Germaine, OSB, was assigned. She preferred seven thirty mass, arriving a good half hour early even in the dark subzero depths of winter. She parked across the street and cracked her window just enough to let out the smoke.

Eventually the pope’s stubborn conservatism and the moral rot of the priesthood drove her away again, this time into the welcoming arms of Edwards Congregational United Church of Christ, in Davenport. These, finally, were her people. Wolfe was active in the church until her death, serving as an especially faithful caregiver.

Wolfe with her granddaughter Bebe on the back deck, in 2017

Wolfe spent her retirement holding court on the back deck, tending to her flowers, reading Irish literature (William Trevor was her favorite), and keeping close track of the neighbors, some of whom appreciated her attention less than others. She quit smoking in 2015. The books, meanwhile, piled up everywhere in the old house — Trevor and Alice Munro and Anne Tyler. Colm Tóibín and Anne Enright. Gwendolyn Brooks and Edward P. Jones. Their spines were often cracked, stuffed as they were with cards from friends and reviews snipped out of the paper. Above all, Franny Wolfe loved words. In 1993, after learning her son had read Hemingway’s posthumous novel of lesbian love, she penned him a letter in verse. It began:

Am hesitant about writing to you —
Am upset with what you know —
Reading Garden of Eden is a risqué thing to do and talking to [a certain ex-girlfriend] will certainly hinder your thoughts’ flow.
Wake up — dear son of mine!
Read only literature that is pure of line.
And don’t talk to [said ex-girlfriend] at any time.

Letter from Fran Wolfe to Brendan Wolfe, dated February 22, 1993

In her last months Wolfe dipped frequently into This Is Happiness, an Irish novel by Niall Williams that she recommended to everyone she knew and a few she didn’t. She read its opening page to her son over the phone, luxuriating in its thick, spongy lyricism. Williams writes of perpetual rain in the fictional village of Faha, rain that comes down in drizzles, mizzles, and mists, in drops, dreepings, and downpours. It’s a gorgeous bit of nonsense, and Franny kept saying, “I want to visit there. I want to see Faha for myself.”

And now, perhaps, she has.

Wolfe in her house, in her chair, with her paper, March 20, 2020
Wolfe wrote this two-page essay, titled “Good News—Bad News” and dated July 31, 1973, as a requirement for her second adoption.

Wolfe is survived by her children, Bridget Wolfe, Brendan Wolfe, and Sara Wolfe Womble, and three grandchildren; her sister Mary Cupp Castrey; her church community; her bridge club; her dear friends Raymond and Michael Ball-Trevor and their three children; and her best friend, Beverlie Bergert. She was predeceased by her father and mother, her brothers James Cupp and Eugene Cupp, her sisters Sister Germaine (Shirley) Cupp and Kathleen Cupp Johnson, and two infant siblings. The Old Goat died in 2012. She will be buried next to him at St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Delmar, Iowa.

The Ball-Trevors established the Frances S. Wolfe Memorial Scholarship at the Quad Cities Community Foundation, to be awarded to a graduating senior at Davenport Central High School who intends to study English or writing and has financial need. Read more here. Donate here.

View from the Wolfe plot, St. Patrick’s Cemetery, Delmar, Iowa

Author of Finding Bix (2017), Mr. Jefferson’s Telescope (2017), and Wolfe’s History (2019). Iowan in Virginia.