Monday, November 16, 2015

Priscilla Taylor Cooper, R.I.P.

On 14 November 2015, our beloved mother, Priscilla Taylor Cooper, was commemorated at graveside burial services held at the Wallkill Valley Cemetery in Walden, NY. She had died of congestive heart failure on November 5th, two months and three days after the death of our dear sister, Diana Winslow Cooper. Eulogies were presented by her sons, Douglas, Clifford, and Christopher Cooper, and close family friend Philip John Nodhturft, Jr. Written versions appear below.

April 3, 1917 – November 5, 2015
Douglas Winslow Cooper

“The lovely shall be choosers,” poet Robert Frost assures us, but their choices may not work out well for them. My mother’s life might be an example of this. Then, again, maybe not. I think she would have maintained that she had lived a happy life.

In 1917, Priscilla Taylor was born brilliant and beautiful into a middle-class family in New York City. Although warmly welcomed by her parents, Ralph and Irene Taylor, she once said that her elder sister, Janet, was never seen smiling in a photograph after she was born. Both sisters were saddened by the death of their mother, Irene Driscoll Taylor, when Priscilla was only two years old and Janet, five.

The girls went to live with their maternal grandmother’s family in the Boston area. Her father worked as a stockbroker in NYC, visiting on weekends. In high school both girls excelled. Money had been put aside for their education, and both girls went to college, not common in the 1930s. Janet became a teacher.

First, Priscilla spent a year in art school, learning that she did not have nearly the artistic talent needed for success there. Chagrined at having “wasted” some of the college funds, she went to U. Mass Amherst as an English major, did four years of study in three years, and emerged second in her class, magna cum laude

She eloped and married a schoolmate, Alfred Page, who soon became an accountant and a drunk. They had a child, Douglas Alfred Page, “to save the marriage,” and I did not. I nearly died of hydrocephalus shortly after birth, and her devotion to me and his lack of concern doomed their relationship. They soon separated. They divorced in 1945.

During the rest of World War II, she was effectively a single mother, who worked in the post office in NYC, and at some time she also modeled dresses and furs. Pictures of her in my mind and in my home are of a beautiful woman.

Soon after the war ended, she met and married a very intelligent man, Michael J. Cooper, a New Yorker with a recent law degree, who chose to work instead as a salesman for the next 15 years. He converted from Judaism to Christianity and had a difficult relationship with his family, the working-class Coopermans in lower Manhattan. He also proved to have an anger management problem that, for example, once led to his choking me, when I was around age 10, into unconsciousness. [Later in life, he had physical confrontations with my other siblings, too.] There were many angry marital arguments, enough to make one doubt the value of ever getting married. I was in love with my mother, and she often defended me in such disputes.

Michael Cooper did not adopt me, but he did insist I not be reminded of his step-father status, and I swiftly forgot it, being passed off as “Douglas Winslow Cooper,” a name I had to legally change to in my mid-thirties, when seeking a birth certificate revealed to me that Michael J. Cooper was not my father and that my mother had deceived me for three decades. There were numerous other family secrets that eventually cause discord.

During the post-W.W. II decade, we lived in a two-bedroom apartment on Riverside Drive, by the George Washington Bridge. Nick, Diana and Cliff were born during that time. Being a salesman is a feast-or-famine occupation, and Mom often had to push to get her husband out the door to work. Money was tight. Although we always had the cash to pay the $40/month rent, we often owed money to the local grocer. At one point, Mom tried to sell her blood, but was rejected: she was too thin. 

During this period, Mom wrote an anti-segregation story published in the Amsterdam News, a Negro publication in Harlem. Later on, she wrote many other unpublished stories and even completed an unpublished book, a line-by-line explanation / translation of Hamlet.

After 1954, there followed a period of moving from place to place: next to Inwood Park in northern Manhattan for a year, six months in an uninsulated home lacking running water, in a beautiful mountain setting in Middleburg, NY; a year in Mount Vernon in Westchester, two years in a country home between Walden and Montgomery, and two years in Walden itself, where my youngest brother, Chris, was born. Mom was 41. 

As soon as I graduated from high school, in 1960, we moved to Gardiner. My step-father had recently resumed being a lawyer, and he continued at this until his death twenty years later. Soon, Mom became his legal secretary in the part-time law office he maintained in Rosendale, NY, where they had moved after a year or two in Gardiner. She also wrote part-time for the Kingston Daily Freeman newspaper.

In Rosendale, my mother was delighted to have forty-some acres, with a pond, a place for many dogs, cats, ponies, horses, chickens, even a goat. She loved her children and she loved animals, and this somewhat rugged setting was ideal for all of that. It was not ideal in other ways, however, including being so secluded that my step-father’s angry outbursts could readily be hidden from the public. Eventually, despite therapy, he killed himself, in 1981, and a few years later, Mom and Diana moved to Tucson, which they came to love, except for an occasional snake. Nick, Cliff, Chris, and I had all graduated with one or more college degrees, and we lived elsewhere. Diana worked as a nurse. Mom and Diana loved the weather and their pool and the scenery and the Saint Bernards they had as pets, but an invasion by a family of snakes one season was enough to drive them back to New York’s Ulster County, where they had lived before. 

So, in 1993 Mom and Diana moved to Wallkill, and they lived together there until 2010, when Mom need to be cared for at my home in nearby Walden, and Diana stayed in their Wallkill home until she died September 2, 2015. Until 2010, Mom and Diana lived together for all but a couple of years of Diana’s life.

Mom drove until she was nearly 90, stopped by the consequences of a hip replacement surgery. She fell a few years after, cracked a bone, and became bedridden, moving in with Tina and me, daily hoping to return to her home in Wallkill. Eventually, she needed a pacemaker and a ventilator, became virtually quadriplegic and her last year was a mix of sleep and only partial awareness while awake. She had loved life, and she had lived to be 98. We deeply appreciated the around-the-clock care she received from our nurses.

What to make of her life? Despite losing her mother at age two, she was well cared for in childhood. She was saddened by numerous family funerals, however. She had beauty and brains and money enough to go to college, where she excelled and greatly enjoyed it. She chose a schoolmate to marry, and he became a drunkard. Her next husband was also very bright, but with a different problem, harder to classify. She wanted many children, and she had five. She wanted to live in the country, and she spent decades there. She was a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant who welcomed all her children’s friends and lovers, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity. She loved and was loved by my wife, my dearest Tina Su Cooper, of Chinese ancestry. Mom was intensely self-reliant, self-sufficient, and would never want sympathy from anyone.

Priscilla Taylor Cooper was special, much loved, and will be greatly missed. She loved her children and grandchildren and two of her daughters-in-law. May she rest in peace, along with our dear sister, Diana, who so recently died, and eventually with the rest of her family…in good time. 

Eulogy by Clifford Taylor Cooper 

First, I thank my brother, Doug Cooper, for his noble, selfless service in caring for my mom for all these years. He complied with Mom's desire to live as long on this Earth as humanly possible, no matter what her condition. Doug provided a safe sanctuary in his home by Lake Osiris. He did what no other one in this family could have done. The stress and strain were incalculable. He had the noble fortitude and took on the financial responsibility that no other sibling could, nor wanted to, bear. Thanks , Doug. You are a saint.

To Mom's nurses, all of you, thank you. It was always comforting while I was living in California, to know that I had professional, caring "pros" guarding over my mom...much like Marines guarding a depot. Thanks you, again.

Mom was beautiful, brilliant, witty and politically savvy. She instilled the proper tenets of life in all her children:

  1. The first tenet was that life is precious (and as Doug states is a corollary: that is because and why it is finite). 
  2. God created all things---Mom would say, "look at a tiger, a giraffe, a goldfish, all intelligently designed by the hand of God, and that's not an accident."
  3. Family (broadly defined) is the most important group, and here I include such close friends as Michael Chamberlain and Phil and Ginny Nodhturft. All other relationships fade with time. Only family stays with you.

Some anecdotes about Mom, especially her wit; the entirety would be T.N.T.C., which from my days as a bacteriologist [before his law degree and then his career in automotive sales finance management] means "Too Numerous to Count":
  1. A solicitor called her on the telephone and prefaced his spiel with, "Mrs. Cooper, don't you want to be a millionaire?"  In all sincerity, consistent with how she lived in a non-materialistic fashion, she responded, "No!"
  2. She loved Christmas and made sure that each of her children got the same number of presents. During one such celebration she became concerned I was one gift short. I reassured her that it was O.K. with me, that my "pile" was plenty high, although I too feared I may have come up short. She searched and searched throughout the room and the discarded wrapping paper, and sure enough...found one more, mine, behind the tree. 

More broadly, my mom always "found the gift" for me; that's the way she was in life, and that's why I'll cherish the countless memories of the fun times we had, and I'll miss her and love her forever.

I love you, Mom.

A Tribute to Mrs. Cooper

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