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  • Sara Tucker

Remembering Gertie

Gertrude Small Cooley, 1940s, Randolph Center, Vermont.

Gertrude Small was not a farm girl. She grew up in the town of Windsor, Vermont, and was working as a postal clerk in Randolph Center when she met a young farmer by the name of Harry Cooley. They married in September 1916. She and Harry raised five children on their Vermont farm during the lean years of the Great Depression and sent them all to college. They paid for tuition by taking in summer boarders, a job that Gertrude managed with the help of the children. Here, Idora, the eldest of the Cooley children, remembers her mother.

By Idora Cooley Tucker

The light is beginning to fade, but it will not be dark for some time on this warm, mid-summer evening. Our family is gathered in the living room of our farm home, everyone cleaned up after the day’s activities, clean clothes and all. We hear the sound of an approaching car. Mom goes to the door to welcome our guests and usher them into the living room, where chairs have been placed all around the periphery of the living/dining room. Ruth is tuning her violin, as she will be one of the performers at our annual musical soiree. I am at the piano, making sure that the piano music is arranged as it should be. I, too, am one of the performers; in fact, I will be first on the program, playing a duet with one of our “paying guests” or in other words “summer boarders.” I am eighteen at the time, home from college for the summer. Ruth is seventeen, also home for the summer. John, the youngest, is only nine. Charles is 12, Marion 13. Our cousin, Buddy, a very talented musician, also 12, often joins us at these musical events. The whole project, from its earliest beginnings when Mom began to teach me to play the piano, to the present and beyond, has been nurtured by Mom, although she maintains a very low profile on performance evenings.

Within a few minutes everyone has arrived. There are several family members who have come to listen, as well as a dozen or so friends. All of our immediate family is present, even though some of my siblings are not yet old enough to share their growing proficiency on an instrument of their choice. They will become part of the program when they are a bit older. Also present on this occasion is the family of my duet partner. His wife and child are summer-long boarders; his sister and brother join us from New York City for two weeks during the summer. The room is full, every chair occupied. Mom disappears quietly to the kitchen, arranging snacks on plates and making cool drinks.

My sister Marion is the self-appointed emcee for this evening. She stands, smiles graciously, and announces that the first number on the evening’s program will be a duet played by her sister (me) and Izzy Salomon. This is no surprise to anyone, as we do this every summer. The duet is the opening movement in a Mozart Symphony, arranged for piano duet, and it is the only thing I have ever heard Izzy Salomon play. He plays the treble clef (the upper part of the duet) and cannot read the bass clef. A few years ago when Izzy learned that I could play the piano he began to practice on our piano, even though he did not live with us at that time. Moreover, he always expected that I would sit at the piano and wait for him to practice his part until he was ready for me to add my part. I resented this, as well as his assumption that I would be available to practice with him at any time of day, even though he showed up with no prior warning. So I was never happy about performing with him, but I did it because it seemed to me that everyone expected me to. So that’s what I did on this occasion. Anyway, it’s soon over.

Marion next announces Ruth’s number. Ruth is a music major in college. She plays piano, violin, and has a lovely singing voice. She can do any or all of those things, depending on how many others will be on the program.

After Ruth, Marion announces each performer, the number varying from year to year as each sibling becomes more proficient on his/her instrument, for each of us learned to play an instrument.

A highlight of the evening for me is the performance by Blanche, Izzy’s sister. She is a very accomplished pianist, teaches piano in New York City where she lives. Her music of choice includes such composers as Scarlatti, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and many others. On this evening she has chosen some Beethoven, something she has been working on throughout her visit to us. I am simply enthralled. How I would love to have lessons with Blanche. But it would be many years before I had an opportunity to study piano with anyone