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  • Sara Tucker

Excerpt from “A Mother’s Diary 1936”

Sumner and Kate (Crockett) Cooley and their sons, William and Robert.

Editor's note: This introduction to the Depression-era diary of Kate Crockett Cooley was written by her son Robert more than twenty years ago. Bob is now 93 and lives in Taos, New Mexico. He is an accomplished painter who enjoys sailing and traveling. When he and I began corresponding, in 2017, he had just returned from Namibia. —Sara Tucker


By Robert Cooley

I recently acquired, and have been reading for the first time, a diary which my mother kept from 1936 to 1940. We were living on a small farm in Vermont at that time and although I was only a child I remember many of the events she describes.

It was a very different world then, perhaps more so in rural Vermont than in the rest of the country. It was the middle of the Depression, a difficult time for everyone and especially so for Mother, with two small children, a husband without a steady job, and living in a community which was somewhat foreign to her. Reading her diary and remembering those days I realize what a strong and resourceful woman she was.

My mother had been born Kate Crockett, in East Tennessee. I know from early photographs that she was pretty, a southern country girl who had met and married my father, Sumner Cooley, while on a trip to visit her married sister, Mae, in Florida. At that time, in the midtwenties, Sumner, who had been born and raised in Vermont, was building houses in central Florida and doing well at it. There was a land boom, and he and a partner were taking advantage of it, putting up small stucco houses and selling them at a profit. Unfortunately, like many booms, it was followed by a bust. By 1927, the year that I was born, the housing market in Florida had collapsed, and soon after, Sumner moved his wife and their two young sons back to Vermont. Everything was packed into the big touring car and they headed north.

It must have been a shock to Mother. New Englanders are apt to be an insular group, not welcoming to outsiders, and her southern-mountain accent would have immediately set her apart from the slow-talking Vermonters. Indeed, my father and his parents were probably the only Yankees that she had ever met. Her standard of living had also taken a drastic turn for the worst. She had married a successful contractor in Florida; now she found herself with an unemployed carpenter in Vermont. Additionally, she had never known truly cold weather, and the Vermont winters could be brutal.

Sumner’s father, William, had retired from farming, and he and my grandmother, Anna, were living in a two-story house in the central Vermont town of Randolph. Our economic situation dictated the living arrangements, and we moved in upstairs from them. I’m sure that there was friction; even as a child I sensed it. My grandparents were not a warm couple. Typical Vermonters, they had both been brought up on farms, and the simple, austere life had molded them. In their survivor’s world, emotions were seldom expressed. Indeed, I don’t ever recall seeing my grandfather laugh; a smile was the most one could expect from him.