Newspaper databases add new papers to their files all the time, so even though I’ve searched my direct line ancestors before, I continue to check now and then to see if new items are available. This weekend I hit pay dirt, finding two stories about my grandmother Marion Stokes Cooke (1902-1960) in The Chat, a newly added Brooklyn, NY paper on Newspapers.com.
First was “Miss Cook Celebrates Her Birthday Anniversary” from 1923. It tells me their address, that both parents were living, describes the decorations, and gives a guest list with names I recognize as including cousins. By this date, my grandmother had already graduated from Pratt Institute with a certificate in Trade Dressmaking. Some of the other guests were possibly classmates.
The second story from 1927 describes the wedding of my grandparents as “one of the prettiest weddings of the week.” It includes her address, that only her mother was listed as a parent, that only my grandfather’s mother was listed as a parent, describes her dress (which she made), marriage location, and lists members of the wedding party – which included cousins of not only the bride but also the groom.
Everyone in town called her “Miss Susie.” I called her Grandmama.
Susie Lanier Keel was born 31 August 1906 in the rural community of Everetts in Martin County, North Carolina. She was named for her aunt Susie (Sudie) Peal Lanier and her middle name became a family tradition, passed down to daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter. Susie was the seventh child born to farmer William Jesse Keel and his wife, Sarah Annis Peal. Of their eleven children, only four survived infancy, and she and her older sister Mary Magdalene (Maglene) Keel were particularly close.
She wanted to be a teacher when she grew up and history was her favorite subject in school, she told my father. According to the 1940 census, Susie completed four years of high school, two years more than her husband, William Marvin Myers. They met in Robersonville, NC, at the movies and something sparked between the social farmer’s daughter and the quiet man from Hertford. They were married at the Baptist preacher’s home in Williamston on 23 July 1926. Grandmama told me that what she remembered most about her wedding was that her parents didn’t come. I believe that was because she was pregnant; her first child (my dad) was born seven months later.
Susie spent her life in Martin County, raising sons William and James and daughter Jeanette, and burying a fourth child (Joseph) who died at seven months. When first married, she and her little family lived with her parents, Bill and Sarah (Sade) Keel. By the 1940 census, though, the head of the household was her husband, not her father. Both parents continued to live with her until their deaths in 1948 and 1952. This was not unusual for the generation or the community.
But money was tight. Bill Myers worked for the local tobacco company and Bill Keel hunted and fished, providing food. Susie also worked most of her life, sitting in the window of the local dry cleaners doing sewing alterations. She also brought work home, doing piecework for a local dressmaker. Once when I was feeling guilty about hiring someone to alter my own clothes, I realized that she made a living because people hired her, and that she would probably approve of my helping someone else survive.
Grandmama not only raised her own children, she also raised two of her grandchildren after her daughter remarried in 1960. She and my grandfather opened their home to a new generation, as they had opened it to an older one years before. I was jealous of them because they spent so much time with her and I only saw her about once a year; trips from New Jersey to North Carolina didn’t come easy.
Susie Keel Myers loved her God, her family, and her friends. She cooked wonderful Southern meals and drank gallons of sweet tea on the porch, visiting with friends and family. She grew up in the Primative Baptist Church but spent her adult years as a member of the Williamston Presbyterian Church. She loved to sing, especially hymns, and was a good and supportive friend, respected and loved by her family and community.
Grandmama died on 10 December 1987 at age eighty one and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Williamston next to her husband and sons and close to her parents. My life is richer for having had her in it.
Gnarled hands of my parents taken in a hospital waiting room in 2006
Two young girls taken by an intinerant photographer in North Carolina about 1910
But this one is my current favorite: my grandmother Marion “Mimi” Stokes Cooke, taken about 1924 in Brooklyn.
I love my grandmother’s direct gaze in this portrait. She faced life head-on with her head held high, confident and clear-headed. Life wasn’t always easy for her but you can see the strength in her eyes.
She was the eldest child and adored daughter of Robert Thomas Cooke and Jane Morrison. She was born in 1902 and lived in Brooklyn and Queens with her parents and younger brother Leighton until she married my grandfather in March 1927 and moved to Newark, New Jersey. She died of colon cancer in 1960 at age 58 when I was five years old.
Mimi was the first member of our family to go to college, graduating in 1920 with a diploma in Trade Dressmaking from the Pratt Institute School of Domestic Arts and Sciences. She made dresses, coats, even bathing suits, for herself and her daughters, and smocked baby clothes for me. The wedding dress she created for my mom and her sister was beautifully and intricately made of satin and lace.
When she married in 1927, she moved into my grandfather’s childhood home, complete with a mother-in-law who refused to allow Mimi to cook meals until World War II rationing became too hard for her to deal with. Mimi developed a treasure trove of dessert recipes for my grandfather’s sweet tooth and I’m fortunate to have her recipe box, though some would be hard to make now since directions are sketchy.
My grandmother was all about family. She had a large complement of Cooke cousins and during the Depression, her mother and grandmother moved from Brooklyn into a house a few doors down the street so she was able to see them often. She was playful with a sweet smile, and enjoyed vacations at their beach home in Manasquan. We lived an hour away when I was a child and she and my mom were able to see each other often. She died too young.
Although I have many pictures of my grandmother, this one is my favorite. I love her eyes, her soft but not quite perfect hair, the big flower on the dress that I imagine she made herself. She looks like someone who knows herself and is looking straight ahead at life.