Saturday, March 1, 2014

fifteen facts about noni

She used to sing on the tops of pianos while my grandfather played. Her songs of choice were about philandering house cats and houses of ill repute. 

She was a great lover of food. I remember she'd be in my mom and dad's kitchen, visiting, Noni at one end of the counter and Mom at the other. As they chatted, Noni would idly eat six or seven chocolates out of a box there on the counter and then complain that, "I don't know why I don't lose weight. I'm never hungry."

We share first names. Whereas my nickname is Gigi, hers is Jeanie. Genie? I never knew how she spelled it, actually. Coco called her Euge. Which always sounded to me like he was calling her Huge.

When I was a kid, we'd fly to Virginia where Noni and Coco lived on a lake. Coco and we kids would be in the water all the time, skiing, floating, swimming. When we tried to get Noni to swim, she'd say, "Oh no, I don't go in the water." Then at some point during the month-long visit (we all knew it would happen and were waiting for it) we'd be on the boat and whoosh, Noni would go over the side, into the water, and come up laughing.

A consummate story-teller, always a great holder of court at any party, she was the best teller of jokes that I know of. Especially dirty ones.

She made homemade peach ice cream and blackberry pie.

In the hospital on the last day she was feeling chipper, she said she'd been sitting with her memories and told us the story of how my grandfather proposed to her. I'll try to remember and paraphrase. He said, "Eugenia? I think I'm in love with you. What do you think of that?" She said, "I think I'm in love with you, too." He said, "Well, then! I think we should get married." Then stood up and fell down the porch steps.

She lived all over the world, from Holland to Japan, and she loved to travel, particularly to France, where she and Coco would rent a house and shop for local ingredients and Noni would cook gourmet meals. She and Coco both spoke French. When we were kids, visiting them at Lake Holiday, they'd go into French anytime they wanted to say something children shouldn't hear.

For ten years, she lived in a retirement community called Park Plaza. She was so friendly and energetic that she was pretty much the poster child for the place. In fact, pretty much literally. -->

That's a vanilla shake she's drinking there. On one of her last days, the director of Park Plaza offered to go get her one, but she wasn't much interested in food anymore. She was just interested in lying peacefully with her memories, with her loved ones holding her hand, and waiting to go join Coco.

Her dogs, Lady Sassafrass and Elsa, were the start of our family's short-lived tradition of owning miniature dachshunds. Elsa was larger and loved sleeping in the sunshine, often on the floor of their float boat. Because of the resemblance, Noni and Coco lovingly called her the Fat Pig in the Sun. Sassy lived a very long time and was the kind of lap dog who would jump up and down, chairside to Noni, scratching at Noni's leg with her front paws until Noni let her up onto her lap. Noni was a doggy pushover almost as much as I am. I remember evenings at Lake Holiday, Noni, Coco and us kids having vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce, and when she was done, Noni always put her dish down for them to lick. 

Friendly to a fault, always wanting to talk to everyone, she was known to chat with folks in stores and casually explain to them (and reveal) the password to all her bank accounts.

I said she was a great lover of food - I really think of her as a great lover of life. Equal parts spunk and refined lady of the world. Summers at Lake Holiday were some of the most wonderful days of my childhood. Highlights were the so-named Moonlight Cruises on the boat with Pavarotti playing on the tape deck. And the one night each year when we'd sleep on the boat. Crabs for dinner, packed by Noni into a picnic basket. The bucket on the bow for if you needed to pee in the middle of the night. We'd anchor in the Beaver Finger, where the beaver house was, so that, early in the morning, we could wake up in the chill and watch the smooth water for signs of beavers. Usually Edina would see one first. I'd look and look but only catch the slap of a beaver's tail hitting the water as he warned us to keep away from his house, and then he was gone.

Highlights of family parties were always when Coco sat down at the piano and played our family songs, by ear, with everyone singing along. "Egyptian Ella." "Rickety Tickety Tin." "With Her Head Tucked Underneath her Arm." Noni's solo came late in the proceedings. You always knew she'd have to be coaxed to get up there and perform, but you always knew that, in the end, she'd do it.

On the last day of Noni's life, I was already back in Portland, having said my goodbyes. She went as she'd wanted to. At home and at peace. And on that last day, when she was asked if she wanted anything to eat, she said, "Chocolate."


  1. Oh GOD Gi...that part about her casually and so cheerfully giving out the passwords to all of her accounts is just so true!! :)

  2. Wonderful, Gigi.

  3. What a wonderful tribute. You won't remember me, Gigi, but I met you many years ago on a visit to your grandparents' house. I'm K, your Aunt Eugenia's college roommate. But I certainly remember your "Noni" - and "Coco", too. Euge and I visited their lake house in Virginia several times while it was still under construction. I remember helping Coco build a stone wall one weekend - I needed a rest LONG before he did. Noni served us a wonderful picnic lunch with Pilsner beer. She was a fabulous cook and her table was always so elegant. I think I had Nasi Goreng at their house twice, two of the finest meals I've ever had. I don't recall her penchant for chocolate but Euge and I laughed together so often after watching her discreetly consume an entire stick of unsalted butter, slice by delicate slice, as we chatted together in her kitchen. I think of her every time I refill the butter dish. I remember that foto of her on the piano and her risque jokes & stories, "equal parts spunk and refined lady" - exactly as I remember her. I always loved the story of the night she and Coco met, when she left the ballroom holding hands with her date ahead of her and that of her eventual husband, Coco, surrepticiously behind her, - all three descending a stairway together, as I recall.
    I have so many fond memories of your grandmother from my college years and I'm so saddened by the loss. My deepest condolences to you and all the Cooke family.

  4. Thanks, everyone - and particularly you, K, for these amazing memories! I'm kind of overjoyed to hear such similar memories to mine shared by someone outside the family. Although I never would have expected the butter thing. Wow! Ha! And I can't believe Coco had you building a wall. We built walls for Coco too. Wow. Thank you so much for sharing.

  5. Loved reading K's thoughts.. and revisiting the night Mom met Dad, and the threesome descending the of my favorite stories! Thinking about her penchant for risque jokes brings to mind one particular joke that she told.. which I won't tell here (but ask me in private) which she could never get through on one try.. she would start strong.. then start to laugh.. regroup.. try again.. laugh harder.. then announce she was going to wet her pants.. oh, yes.. it;s a good joke!! xoxo, sweetie!

  6. If I may, a few more memories have come floating back:
    Your Grandmother visited us at W&M several times while we were at school there and she always treated us to a lovely dinner in town. One time, another friend of ours mistakenly assumed that she had been invited, too. Your Aunt Euge was appalled and so indignant at her presumption, but your Grandmother was utterly nonplussed and so gracious. She wouldn't let on at all that her invitation had not extended that far, sparing the clueless girl a mortifying faux pas.

    Once she treated us to the Raleigh Tavern where we ate Peanut Soup and Sally Lunn bread. Your Noni was such a fine cook that she could decipher the secret ingredients of any dish just by tasting it, smacking her tongue a few times against the roof of her mouth. I remember being so impressed when she announced that the iconic Peanut Soup began life as nothing more than a lowly chicken stock base - mystery dispelled !

    Your Aunt Eugenia always was, and I'm sure still is, a voracious reader. She would often chuckle fondly at her mother's choice of favorite bedtime reading: a lovely new cookbook to explore. I do that too now -such a guilty pleasure - eschewing the day's grim news for the latest issue of Cooks Illustrated instead. And I think of your Grandmother whenever I do it

    Another food practice of hers that I have adopted: the first time I really got to know your Aunt Eugenia was one evening early in freshman year when she invited our entire floor to her room to share a box of Whoopie Pies your grandmother had sent her that day. I'd never had one til then, they were divine and I mark that occasion as the true beginning of my lifelong friendship with your Aunt E. Last fall, I baked a batch myself and sent them to my young nephew, who was very homesick at his new boarding school. I heard they went over well and helped our Neddie break the ice with his dorm mates - another of your grandmother's legacies!
    I remember her many shopping excursions to Hechts and Dillards where she would buy "smart" looking outfits for Eugenia and Lanaux. When safely out of earshot, Eugenia would say to me, "but Mother, we don't want to look SMART, we want to look FUNKY."

    "You can't afford NOT to buy it" was your Grandmother's oft quoted mantra about shopping. I think of her every time I apply that rationalization to an
    impulsive bargain. (And I've never regretted any of those purchases.)
    Another time she bought an ordinary wool cardigan for Eugenia (and I think a matching one in another color for Lanaux). She had these luscious (and genuine) fox fur collars sewn on to them, big and fluffy. I think Eugenia's sweater was an emerald green. I just loved it and I think I wore it more than Euge did.

    There was another time when the family attended a major milestone birthday party for an elderly relative. It may have been "Aunt Helen's" 100th - a very noteworthy occasion in any event. Somehow your Grandmother acquired several dresses, circa 1912, that had belonged to the lady. She soaked them in Biz, restored them to their former glory, and Eugenia and Lanaux wore them to the party. There's a foto of them, wearing the dresses, looking like a Sargent painting in them.

    Your Grandmother made a lasting impression on me, as you can probably tell. She was a wonderful lady and I'm so grateful for all the opportunities we had to spend together in her company, Eugenia and I.

  7. Oh, these Noni tales are so great! I've heard so many from the family, but these are quite precious, too - and so wonderfully told, K. I do believe Aunt Helen's dresses are in our possession now; a few years back Noni gave them to Gigi to wear. (And they're still waiting for me - the husband - to do some repair/alteration....) The Whoopie Pie anecdote was so dear. Made me tear up a bit, the passing on of the kind gesture to your nephew. Lovely.

  8. Yes! I wondered, too, if those dresses are the ones you're talking about, K.

    Thank you so much for these stories. Wow. Such a gift.

    And Mom, yes, you're going to have to tell me that joke!

  9. I'm so glad I checked back to see if there were more comments on this blog! K, I'm loving your memories! Gigi was at that party for Aunt Helen's 100th, and the dresses Gina and Lanaux wore are the same ones mom gave her a few years back. Mom was a great one for buying all of us girls clothing we would rarely (never) wear.. I still have things hanging in my closet.. it occurred to me the other day that I can now donate these things.. even though I knew she would not know if they were still in my closet, I felt disloyal to get rid of them..heh..