When I first met Mrs. Cook, she was in her late 80s – I lived across the street from her from 1991 to 1993 in Fort Lauderdale, and she was living in the same large wooden house she had been living in since 1926.
That was the year of a big hurricane in South Florida, and Mrs. Cook had many stories about that hurricane and others she had survived.
Mrs. Cook was married to one of the first attorneys to work in the then-tiny community of Fort Lauderdale.
She landed in Fort Lauderdale from her native Kentucky about the same time the writer Ernest Hemingway landed in Key West, less than 200 miles south of Fort Lauderdale.
Mrs. Cook was a real character, and she was a living example of one being able to have a satisfying life well into what used to be called simply “Old Age.”
Soon after her husband and her had their three children, Mrs. Cook’s husband had died, leaving her to care for the kids herself.
This was at the time of the Great Depression, and Mrs. Cook used to regale me with stories of those days.
As I write, I am trying to think of Mrs. Cook’s first name, but all that comes to mind is “Mrs. Cook.” If there was one older person I always spoke with using reverence and respect, it was this woman, who could definitely be described as “feisty,” the term often used for describing older persons who happen to have a lot of energy (I just remembered her first name: Bessie, but I always called her Mrs. Cook, with much respect).
I don’t even now have a photo of Mrs. Cook, but I still have her big cooking pot she received for a wedding present in 1926, and gave to me in 1991 as a sign of friendship.
I may take a photograph of that pot to accompany this piece; if it seems strange to be seeing this pot, it is a very tangible memory I have of our friendship.
I last saw Mrs. Cook about 1996, before she had moved out of her old house and moved in with her son, who lived in Plantation, west of Fort Lauderdale (in 1993 I moved into a new home on a nearby street and, for several years, continued to make visits to see Mrs. Cook).
Mrs. Cook was one of the best neighbors I ever had, and I will share some of her stories with you now.
Mrs. Cook and I went through Hurricane Andrew together, or at least we were together until hours before that monster storm hit, when she left her old house to spend the night of the ferocious storm with her son in Plantation.
As Andrew was approaching South Florida, Mrs. Cook told me about one of the hurricanes she went through in that old house, that stood on three lots, and looked, when I knew her, like a house you might find far out in the country today.
“It tore the roof right off the house,” Mrs. Cook recalled. “I remember sitting at the table in the kitchen, with an umbrella over my head, trying to keep my little baby dry.”
She and her husband replaced the roof, only to have it ripped off by another hurricane. They replaced that roof and had metal cables tying it down, and it survived all the hurricanes that were to come.
Mrs. Cook was old enough to experience earlier periods of hurricanes – periods that compare with the number and intensity of recent storms such as Andrew, Charley, Hugo, Katrina and Rita.
Mrs. Cook never failed to tell me how lucky I had been to have lived in South Florida from 1979 to the early 90s, with having to only go through one bad hurricane, that monster Andrew (Andrew dipped twice in the last 24 hours or so or its steady 155 m.p.h. Category 5 winds, with gusts over 190 m.ph., would have made a beeline for our homes).
“We had three hurricanes here in Fort Lauderdale in 1948 alone,” Mrs. Cook said. “You haven’t seen nothin.’ “
Mrs. Cook was a schoolteacher. She worked hard to support herself and her children after her husband died.
“And that was during the Depression,” Mrs. Cook said. “But we had some times. I always heard the Lord looks out after fools and children, so I guess we were OK.”
In the 1930s, Mrs. Cook got behind the wheel of a Chevrolet and drove her kids and herself all over the western United States, visiting the major national parks.
“You should have seen the looks I got from people, when I came driving up with my three kids and myself, and no husband,” she said. “You just didn’t see much of that sort of thing back then.”
Mrs. Cook had a storage room filled with meticulously numbered boxes of photographic transparencies from trips she took from the 1930s to the 1980s.
She paid $3,000 in the early 1960s for an “Around The World” trip by jet airplane. We spent hours one day in that old house as we looked at the slides from that journey alone.
A few years before I met Mrs. Cook, while authoring an art column for a South Florida newspaper, I met the renowned sculptor Duane Hanson.
He fits into this article, I am thinking as I write, because I knew him during one of the most productive periods in his life – which happened to be when he was ages 60 to 70.
Both Duane and Mrs. Cook were very down to earth.
I had known about Duane and his work for more than 15 years before I met him. Duane lived in the-then small town of Davie, west of Fort Lauderdale.
When I first learned the noted sculptor Duane Hanson lived in Davie, I thought, “Duane Hanson lives in Davie?” (Duane passed away in 1996 – you can learn much more about the man and his art by searching the Internet for Duane Hanson.)
Anyway, when I first introduced Duane to Mrs. Cook, they got along well immediately.
Here was this famous artist, who had met heads of state and ambassadors and other dignitaries from such countries as Sweden, Japan, England, Germany, and his native United States, and the retired schoolteacher Mrs. Cook, and the two hit it off famously as they say.
Duane presented Mrs. Cook with a signed poster from a recent exhibit in Hawaii, and Mrs. Cook was just thrilled. They then proceeded to talk for more than an hour about their lives, including their travels.
I think Duane and I both realized how special Mrs. Cook was.
I was doing a lot of wine writing and wine photography when I knew Mrs. Cook.
On one occasion I received several bottles of very fine Spanish sherries to sample.
I remember giving Mrs. Cook a 375 ml bottle of an oloroso sherry. I figured the bottle would last her for weeks.
About four days later I noticed the empty bottle in her kitchen.
“That was very good, Paul,” she told me.
But Mrs. Cook did not drink to excess. She had to be sober to drive her recent-model Chevrolet all over the place, which she did until she was about 92, and her eyesight made that driving unsafe.
As I now recall Mrs. Cook, the words are just flowing. She was a true friend.
She had a little black and white dog in her fenced yard that would always bark to let the neighborhood know when the mailman was making his rounds.
I suppose Mrs. Cook has passed on by now, but she certainly lives with the memories I have of her.
I can see myself speaking to her across her fence, with her little black and white dog by her side, as it always was.
Here’s to you, Mrs. Cook – you’re not forgotten.