Mary Arthur, Cooey and I

| March 28, 2012 | 2 Comments

  8:20 a.m. the door to my aunt’s home opened and a small woman wearing a blue print dress and carrying a navy blue handbag came into view.  It was she!

She turned toward our house and slowly began climbing the hill before the sprawling lawn to our house.  Once it was definite that she was coming our way, I dashed inside the home and screamed, “She’s coming!” 

My declaration was met with sighs of disgruntlement, slamming of doors and scurrying feet.  Mother had warned us.  Father had staged his retreat about an hour earlier. He knew the drill. 

 My brothers and sister set furiously about, completing their work. Even mother was subdued and a little fidgety. Hulda, our cook, who weighed a good 250, moved quicker than ever thought possible to her suite and slammed the door shut just before the bolt latched.

Grandmother was coming!  

Over the years, people have asked me about my maternal grandmother.  Her name was Jessie Jackson Batcheller. Her grandmother was Mary Arthur McElroy, the sister of Chester A. Arthur.  Because Chester was a bachelor, Mary Arthur served as first lady under the condition that she would only use her maiden name.

Grandmother’s only brother married the only daughter of Diamond Jim Brady.  The Peter and Anne Brady Jacksons lived in Santa Barbara, where most of the family still resides.  Because their sons Palmer and Peter attended St. George’s and Yale, the Jackson clan spent an inordinate amount of time in Albany. They were both big draws for the local ladies. The boys stayed over on their vacations.  The parents made a point to stay whenever they came east.  Palmer was Senior Prefect of the school in his senior year at S.G.  I spent many hours under the long reach of his Senior Prefect Plaque, located in the Assembly Hall.

To all her children and grandchildren, Jessie Jackson became known as Cooey.  Sometimes, the nickname seemed irreverent.  However, it was the name she liked.  It was always a good laugh to watch long-standing friends struggle to call her Cooey.  But, she insisted. 

Cooey was not a woman to be denied.  She was short in stature, just over five feet tall with a robust laugh but a jaw that could firm up at any time. 

If I had to describe Cooey, I would simply say comfortable.  Cooey made every child, grandchild and guest feel comfortable, a quality my mother was fortunate enough to inherit.  Nobody departed Cooey’s company feeling anything less than better about themselves and life in general.

Some of her exploits defied the woman we knew.  One of he most telling stories, which always brought my grandfather to tears, resulted from her request for a new oriental rug in their house on State Street in Albany.  Grandfather called to surprise her and announced the oriental would be arriving within the hour.

 Apparently, Cooey had intended to shop for the rug on her own.  She was somewhat skeptical.  When Papa mentioned that it was quite beautiful and 24 feet in length, Cooey softened but he struck the right chord when he said that the design did indeed have a blue theme.  Blue was magic.

Sure enough, the carpet arrived by truck at 11:45 a.m. just before the lunch hour.  The gentlemen delivering the carpet probably thought they would be dropping it off and heading to lunch.

Cooey intercepted them at the front door. She was unsure that Papa knew anything about oriental rugs.  It could not be conceived that any rug or any furnishing that she had not personally seen and approved would enter the residence.

She promptly directed the delivery men to unroll the rug on State Street, a request that the delivery men believed to be beyond their job description.  Cooey was insistent.  Her request became more ardent and according to Papa a bit shrill.  The delivery men looked at the lunch hour traffic backed up behind their truck and decided there was no escape. The one thing they would not do was drive back to the shop with the carpet in tow.

There was a discussion that the rug was already paid for and “what difference did it make whether she liked it or not?”  As soon as he mumbled the words, he realized his error.  That thought brought a new edge to the table and Coeey was not about to waiver. She responded, “Well, the way I see it, you can take it back to your boss and I will come to tomorrow and inspect it, or you can roll it out right here.”  This was not the reaction these fellows had in mind. 

The patient delivery guy began counting to ten over and over again.  Before too long, they stretched the rug down State Street.  The backed up drivers were furiously honking horns and calling out. The brave came to see what was happening.

The delivery men shook their collective heads vigorously and pointed at an unfazed Cooey.   Every protestor was asked their opinion of the new rug.

The delivery pace picked up when an officer of the law happened by the scene.  He was waving frantically while berating the drivers of the truck.  He crossed the carpet to have a closer discussion with Cooey.  He made his point quite authoritatively. He was not to be deterred. The truck had to move.

As he hovered over Cooey, she thanked him for his patience. “ Your wife is a lucky girl to have such a patient husband,” she proclaimed. “ I wonder if you could tell me how it felt to walk on this oriental.” 

The flabbergasted policeman answered quite firmly that he was not in the business of evaluating carpets on sprawled out across State Street.  He asked grandmother for Papa’s work phone number. 

Cooey responded that he did not need Papa’s number because he was not “an expert about oriental carpets.  He is in the steel business for goodness sake. His opinion about the rug carried no weight.”  She shrugged and had the men bring the carpet into the house.

I am not sure when Cooey actually started coming around on Saturday morning, but it was before I was born.  Apparently, Cooey’s  Saturday routine solidified when my older brother was three.  When the weather permitted, Jay was placed in a temporary, circular fence on the main lawn just beneath my mother’s favorite magnolia, which later became known as third base.

Apparently on one of her early Saturday excursions, grandmother left the McCahill house and was walking toward our house when Jay saw her coming up the hill.  Even at age three, Jay always had a propensity for undressing in public. He developed his technique on the front lawn in that fenced-in area.  Grandmother was surprised to see him buck naked and waving his shirt at her calling Coooooeeeeey!  When a week later he repeated the call in the same attire, grandmother became Cooey on the spot.  She would have it no other way.

When I was old enough to understand her Saturday visits, they became quite distasteful.  Her purpose was to inspect the condition of each child’s room and bathroom in the McCahill and the Doolittle households. Jay and I often outfoxed her by not taking a bath for six or seven days. In her small handbag, rested her sparkling white gloves. We came to despise those gloves.

My mother always reminded us it was Saturday and that “you know who” will be coming.  Cooey never failed.  You could set your watch by her. We arose early, ate quickly and hustled to our rooms with dust cloths and a broom or vacuum.  The routine amounted to a weekly scorecard.

In my closet, the shoe shelf was angled with the front edge about six inches off the floor and then climbing subtly up the back wall.  It had an elevated edge at the front.  My older brother, Jay, assured me grandmother never looked under the bed or under the shoe rack. He said Cooey did not like to kneel.

Sometimes, I felt I had tricked her just enough. I marveled at my cleverness.  The deal was that no child could leave the house until we had corrected our cleaning miscues.  This often interfered with mother’s plans but never with father’s.

On this particular morning, I had an important tennis match with Joe W. Gerrity, Jr.  I started my cleaning the night before.  I was hoping to escape before Cooey got there, but my father left hurriedly and left me stranded.  When Cooey arrived, I overheard her tell mother that Papa had not returned from Pittsburgh the night before but he would be arriving on the afternoon train.  He was disappointed to miss my tennis match.  She added that all the McCahill rooms and bath inspections were “superb.”   We had come to expect that from Michael and Martha but certainly not from Woodsie and Philip.

When my sister’s room failed to pass, my stomach began churning. Of course, Jay had a special, although not very deserved, place in Cooey’s heart.  Given the right circumstances, I certainly could have stood naked on the front lawn and yelled COOOOEEEY over and over again. In truth, I actually tried that early one Sunday morning at about age 17.  My delivery did not receive a warm reception.

Anyway, much to my chagrin, when Cooey entered my room, she already had her white gloves covering her hands.  Usually, she made great ceremony of putting them on and removing them when her inspection was completed. It was bad enough when she would stand on my desk chair and check the top trim around my entry door, over the clothes closet door and atop the toy closet door. 

But, it was unprecedented that she would check under the shoe ledge and under the bed. On this particular day, she went to her knees early.  “Oh Hiland,” she kept repeating. “Oh Hiland, this is not good.  Oh Hiland this is… a disappointing effort.  I suspect that if you put this kind of effort into your tennis match with young Mr. Gerrity, the outcome will be quite disappointing.”

“I will be better at the tennis.  I promise.”

“Well, that may be but you should surely call young Gerrity and postpone your play until tomorrow.”  I trembled under the humility of it all. “Besides, the circle could use a good mowing.”  When she left the room, the dam burst.

Eventually I called Jody. I told him I could not play until Sunday.  “What’s the problem?”

“You would not understand.  I… I have to help my grandmother.  She’s not herself today.”

“Cooey?”  I knew he was thinking he did not want any part of this.

“Yes, Cooey.”

“Okay then.  Tomorrow it is.”  He hurriedly got off the phone.

On Sunday, we started at 10:00 p.m. on one of the back courts.  Surprisingly, Cooey and Papa were both there, sitting on one of the green, spectator benches.  Papa was wearing sear-sucker pants and jacket.  Cooey held a sun umbrella. 

It was a picture etched in my memory. It was the first time I beat Jody.  I do not remember ever losing to him again.

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2 Comments on "Mary Arthur, Cooey and I"

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  1. Ann says:

    Great storyline Hiland! :)


  2. John Conway says:

    This is fantastic stuff. It stimulales my memories of the wonderful Albany area and the friends I’ve had for so many years. Keep going.


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