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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 of Blanche’s caliber and by then it was too late to turn me into a real musician.

Back to our summer musical evening. Whenever Blanche was present she accompanied all of us, performers and guests alike, in an enthusiastic rendering of some Gilbert and Sullivan. If Blanche wasn’t present I filled the role of accompanist, but Blanche was way better than I.

On this occasion, Marion announces that the conclusion of our program will be some choral music from Gilbert and Sullivan with Blanche at the piano. She hopes that everyone will join in as much as they can. She calls our attention to the refreshments that Mom has caused to appear on the table. She thanks everyone for coming, and thanks all the performers. Guests go home happy and all of us are proud of ourselves although at the time we didn’t realize how much we owed to Mom for bringing us to the point of being able to proudly entertain others.

At that time (late thirties) other farm families, our neighbors, had nothing in their homes to compare to our musical life. Many homes did have a clunky piano, usually out of tune, with the felts largely missing, thanks to mice and moths. Some homes had a fiddler. Those two instruments were enough to provide music for neighborhood parties or for family singing of hymns, Christmas carols, folk music, whatever the family liked and the accompanist could play. There was no plethora of canned music such as exists today. Our Mom, a town girl, studied piano before her marriage. In fact, I know that she played in a recital just a few months before my birth. I still have the dress that her mother made for her to wear in the recital. For a few years after her marriage she taught piano to a few children, including Ruth and me when we were old enough.

I remember lying in bed when I was very young, listening to Mom play the piano. It was Mom who taught us to sing little nursery rhymes, and it was Mom who often accompanied Ruth and me on the piano when as children we sang at community functions. She staunchly defended a teacher who wanted to include some music in the classes she taught, whereas many of the local parents felt that to be a waste of time. She arranged the music lessons for all her children and helped us to find time for regular practice.

Not only did Mom have to learn on the job how to be a farm wife, but she also brought to her children certain niceties of living that she had learned growing up as a town girl. Our musical education and our appreciation of music is an example of what she brought to us that was not experienced by most other farm children. Both Ruth and I continued to be actively involved with our musical lives well into our eighties. Marion played the piano for the rest of her short life. My two brothers learned in their early lives to appreciate music and those who became musicians. Our cousin Buddy, a real musician, is another story.

The prenuptial visit

I don’t remember this visit. My parents were not yet married when Mom was invited to have dinner (probably called supper) with the Cooley family, about to become one of that family herself. It’s one of those stories that our elders told us so many times that we feel as if we actually remember being there.

Mom was a little worried about the occasion. There were five Cooley boys, Dad the oldest. All of them had already earned the distinction of being academically talented. Mom, shy little town girl with one sister and no brothers, worried that she might not be able to hold up her end of this get-acquainted meal and the evening afterward.

Came the appointed evening and all went well during the meal. The younger brothers warmed to Mom and she to them. Nothing particularly remarkable about that. The surprise was about to happen. After enjoying their meal and he conversation, all the boys and their mother picked up books and sat down to read. Grandpa was cut from a different piece of cloth. He contented himself with a magazine. I hope someone helped their guest to find something interesting to read.

Years later, Mom told us that although she was surprised at this turn of events, she was also relieved. From then on she got along well with the Cooley family. She did, however, realise for the first time how different her family was from Dad’s family. If her parents had been entertaining a young man who was about to join the family, it would have been an evening of celebration. There would have been a special meal. There would have been a good deal of conversation all evening long, with jokes and laughter. Perhaps there would have been some group singing, maybe a game of cards.

Dad’s betrothed was a town girl. She had never lived on a farm, much less managed a busy farm household. She had to learn that on the job. Did anyone give any thought to that detail of the arrangement? If so, in telling us of that occasion Mom never told us about her feelings on the subject. Nor did I think of the worrisome aspects of what she had ahead of her until in recent years I have come to realise how much she had to learn and of how well she learned it.


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