musings from Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington ... home of The Write Spot

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Remembering Mom in 101 Ways

Mom was born Phyllis G. May on June 20th, 1922.

She disliked her middle name so passionately that she refused to tell me what it was until she considered me old enough to keep the secret.

I've always thought it was a dignified and interesting name.  But I know better than to give up Mom's secret, even now.

Mom was born in Toronto, daughter of Harry and Edna, younger sister of Margaret.

Home was a house on Norway Avenue. (My early memories of the house are of a tiny but comfortable front porch, shaded with ivy).

The family dog was named Buddy.

As a kid, Mom was teased with the trope: "Phyllis May, or she May not."

One of her favourite childhood memories was of a special occasion at her aunt's house where two kinds of pie were offered for dessert. When asked which she'd prefer, Mom was so flustered by the impossible choice between peach and cherry that instead of saying a polite and hopeful, "Both, please," she blurted out "Neither, please," and had to do without.

Mom spent her childhood summers at a tiny cottage on Lake Ontario near Port Dalhousie.

The cottage was called Ramona. It sat on a sandy beach beneath two giant willow trees, and it was her "favourite place in all the world". (Ramona was later expropriated and the area is now a Provincial park.)

Mom loved to swim in the lake.

She was an expert canoeist.

She was pretty good in a rowboat, too.

She would jig for catfish and take them home for dinner.

Fishing was a lifelong enjoyment and Mom would happily sit for hours on a riverbank or in a rowboat, casting or just watching the red and white bobber while she waited for a bite.

She was never squeamish about baiting her own hook.

Mom complained bitterly about the 'mixing bowl' haircuts her mother used to give her. After a long summer at the cottage, she would head back to school with two inches of white forehead blazing between dark hair and suntanned face.

Mom attended Norway Public School and Malvern Collegiate in Toronto. (I'm pretty sure this is her high school graduation photo.)

Phyllis G. Cooke 1922-2007
Phyllis G. Cooke 1922-2007
Canadian producer/director Norman Jewison was three grades behind Mom at Malvern and, even though she'd never gotten to know him, she was always proud to say "I went to school with Norman!" each time a new Jewison film was released.

The May family were founding members of Bellefair Church in Toronto. Mom and I were both christened, confirmed, and married there. (Sadly, the lovely old church is now a condominium.)

Mom sang in the choir there and was an enthusiastic member of the church youth group in the 1930s.

That was where she met my Dad, Philip John Cooke.


Dad was smitten but Mom said he was "much too old" for her.  (When she was eighteen, he was an old man of twenty.)

Dad must have been persistent because Mom changed her mind. They promised each other they'd marry after the war.

Mom worked for Bell Canada, first as an information operator and later as supervisor.

Mom's office was in a basement and she liked to tell the story of Dad coming to meet her after work.  He'd wear his Canadian Irish Regiment kilt and pace up and down in front of their window. "All the Bell Girls thought Phil had the nicest knees in town," she said. (I've often wondered if knees were all they could see from their vantage point below street level. They are nice knees, though.)

Pvt. First Class Philip Cooke
Pvt. First Class Philip Cooke
Mom never liked bagpipe music. She said it reminded her of watching the love of her life march off to war.

Mom wrote to her soldier every day. This clipping was tucked into one of her letters, "Phil -"

I like mink and crepes suzettes...

Mom saved every letter Dad wrote. The two of them would re-read and then burn a huge bag of letters on every furlough home.

Letters - for their eyes only.
Letters - for their eyes only.
Mom always said waiting out the gaps between letters was the hardest thing she'd ever done.

Mom had many fond memories of time spent with her girlfriends during the war years, especially a winter holiday in Muskoka in 1943. (Mom is at the front, wearing white.) This photo must be one she sent overseas to Dad. On the back is written, "Like our Conga Line??? – Silly Asses, that's us."

The Girls - Muskoka 1943
The Girls - Muskoka 1943
Mom's soldier came home from war on February 21, 1946 and Mom decorated the house to greet him.

Welcome home!
Norway Avenue, 21 Feb 1946
Mom's soldier had grown a bushy red moustache while he was away and she wouldn't kiss him until he shaved that moustache off. (Possibly the quickest shave in history?)

Mom married her soldier on April 18, 1946. (Mom captioned this photo, "1946 – Walking down Yonge St. shopping for Civilian Clothes for Phil to be married in." They turned out quite the dapper pair.

Toronto, 1946
Shopping for civvies, 1946
Mom and Dad honeymooned in Niagara Falls.

Niagara Falls Honeymoon, 1946
Newleyweds at Niagara Falls, 1946
Mom and Dad lived upstairs in the house on Norway Avenue for several years after they married.

Mom used to tell me she had always admired a house just a few steps away on Haslett Avenue and dreamed of someday having one just like it.

Her dream came true when the much-admired house went up for sale and Mom and Dad bought their first home together.

The house on Haslett Avenue, 1950
Haslett Avenue, circa 1950
They added a tiny kitchenette with hotplate on the second floor and rented out two rooms to help pay the mortgage.

The hotplate caused a fire one night when I was about three years old. I remember Mom waking me up, bundling me into a coat and leading me out into a cold, dark night full of flashing lights and fire trucks and a tangle of black hoses that tripped me up as we ran.

Everyone made it out safely and the house was soon repaired but Mom made sure that was the last we saw of hotplates and renters.

Months later the house was quarantined while Mom nursed me through scarlet fever.

Some of my most vivid childhood memories are of times spent with Mom in the kitchen.

Once she brought home a roll of craft paper, taped it up along two walls of the kitchen, gave me a box of crayons and let me create life-sized pictures while she ironed.

Mom had an old Singer sewing machine and made most of my clothes when I was young. I remember standing on tip-toe, watching the needle whiz along the seams, breathing in the scents of new fabric and sewing machine oil.

Mom made most of my dolls' clothes, too.  I didn't appreciate it at the time (everyone else had store-bought clothes for their dolls).  Now I understand how special it was…and wish I'd kept them all.

Mom was a constant worrier.

Dad used to say Mom wouldn't be happy if she had nothing left to worry about.

Mom worried about that.

Mom loved to bake.

Mom was often on a diet.

I loved Mom's baking.

Mom and I often dieted together.

Mom made the most delicious peach jam - my mouth waters just thinking about it. (I have the recipe but it never turns out quite the way Mom's did.)

Mom made chilli sauce every fall. It was so good and so aromatic. I remember going to school one day, shy and trying to be invisible in the lineup for class while everyone sniffed and wondered, "what's that smell?"  I'd carried the pungent aroma with me on my jacket.

Mom believed that a splash of cider vinegar would make just about anything taste better.

She was right about pea soup and spinach.

Mom's favourite citrus fruit was lemon. She would happily suck on a lemon wedge while all around her people reacted with shudders and sour faces.

The scent of lemons will always remind me of Mom.

Mom loved animals but was extremely allergic to cats and most dogs.

Our lovely pup, Cookie, patiently endured weekly baths to keep Mom's asthma at bay. (Here's Cookie, freshly bathed and fluffy. That's me beside her, also freshly bathed and fluffy.  I'm wearing one of the dresses Mom made.)

Cookie and me, 1957
Cookie and me, 1957
Mom had a green budgie named Pete and taught him to call the dog. Poor confused Cookie would gallop into the room to see… nobody there.

Mom loved to read. For her, it was the ultimate relaxation.

She loved to sing and play the piano and she shared her love of music with me and my friends.

One summer Mom taught us to harmonize.

Our first gig, accompanied by Mom on piano, was a tour of local senior centres.

Come to think of it, that might have been our only gig.

Mom was a tea drinker – "just a drop of milk, no sugar."

Mom was a good daughter, caring for both her parents and an elderly aunt when they could no longer care for themselves.

In her fifties, Mom went back to work as a kindergarten teaching assistant.

She loved her kindergarten kids.

They loved her, too.

Mom was a knitter. Afghans, sweaters, slippers, baby clothes… she made the most difficult patterns seem effortless.

Mom taught knitting at her church women's group for many years and claimed every one of her students was successful.

Mom tried her best to teach me to knit. She tried more than once. And I tried to learn, I really did.

Mom eventually decided my talents lay elsewhere. (Sigh.)

Mom's family was the focus of her life.

She was especially proud of her three grandsons and loved making memories with them.

Visits to Grandma usually involved a swim in the pool and all their favourite foods for dinner. (In their thirties now, my sons still talk about Grandma's butterscotch puddings with chocolate chip smiley faces.)

Mom enjoyed research and uncovered some interesting bits of family history. I shared some of her discoveries in an earlier post called Family Ghosts.

Mom and Dad loved to travel together.

Florida was Mom's favourite getaway. After they retired, she and Dad spent a month there almost every winter.

Mom was a two-time survivor of breast cancer.

She became a volunteer counsellor for women who were newly diagnosed, sharing her faith and her positive outlook.

Mom's faith was part of everything she did.

After they retired, Mom and Dad gave up the big house on Haslett and moved to a much smaller home in west Toronto.

Mom was house proud.

I was always amazed that nothing was ever messy or dusty, no matter how busy she was.

Then one day I dropped in unexpectedly and found Mom reading on the balcony while Dad dusted the furniture.  Ah-hah!

Mom grew prize-worthy violets and glorious window boxes.

Mom and Dad held hands every day.

Mom always said that she and Dad would be together forever because she couldn't imagine life without him.

When Dad passed away in December 2000, Mom faced the unimaginable.

She carried on with grace, courage, and faith.

Five months later, Mom suffered a devastating stroke.

Mom was a fighter.

She won the battle to regain her speech but would never walk again.

There were times, though, when her mind let her believe she'd been walking again on the beach at Ramona or hand-in-hand with Dad on the Florida sands.

Mom stayed with us long enough to get to know her first great-grandson and, two years later, her first great-granddaughter.

Mom passed away on July 10, 2007. She was 85.

I miss you every day, Mom.


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At 12:19 am, Anonymous Susan McNicoll said...

What a lovely tribute to your mother Cheryl. She would be proud of who you are. You are lucky to have so many photos from your parent's years together. Memories can be such fragile things sometime and yet that is what life is made up of really. Our mothers leave us with so much. I wrote only a bit about mine in my Christmas blog. It may not have been the ideal relationship but she left me with a love of scrabble (and hence words!) and bridge and theatre, among other things. She has been gone less than a year and a half and sometimes I still forget and wait for her call that came at 9:00 a.m. every Sunday morning. I wish both our mothers a happy mother's day.

At 11:52 am, Blogger Cheryl said...

Thank you, Susan. So true that memories are the stuff of life. For Mom and I, the weekly phone call was Tuesday at 7 p.m. I haven't thought of this for years, but I can remember her calling her own Mom at that same time when I was very little. (And I too am an avid Scrabble player, thanks to my Mom.)


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