In Her Heyday

Rachel E. Cooke, Registered Nurse, 1927. –Rachel Cooke Wilson Collection

In the second decade of the 20th Century, at least in rural Nova Scotia, there were two—no, make that three—careers open to young women. Marriage was the course of least resistance and hardly considered a career. The others were teaching or nursing and Rachel chose nursing. While her mother had been what was called a “practical nurse”, by Rachel’s time she could become certified as a “Registered Nurse” which she did at the Children’s Hospital in Halifax. She went on to do continuing studies at Corey Hill Hospital near Boston. During her time at Corey Hill, she met a wealthy patient named Mary E. Wickham who offered her a job as her personal nurse. Possibly it was a polite term because Mrs. Wickham didn’t need a nurse. She needed someone to accompany her, make travel arrangements for trips through the Panama up to California’s ports of call; spend winters in St. Augustine, Florida, and go to Wyoming in summers. “Mrs. Wickham never owned a home,” Rachel once said, “She always lived in a hotel.” Her husband, D.O. Wickham, had become a New York merchant and financier through Standard Oil of New Jersey, if the reports are correct. On one passenger list sailing from Rotterdam to New York in 1914, Mr. and Mrs. D.O. Wickham gave as their home address the illustrious hotel, The Waldorf-Astoria.4 Rachel remained in the service of the widowed Mrs. Wickham as long as the older lady lived but in those days first names were never used. The older lady was always Mrs. Wickham and Rachel was always Miss Cooke.

Serving the wealthy doesn’t make a person one of them, but it offers worlds of exposure that few girls from Portaupique Mountain could hope to experience. Perhaps in those years Rachel acquired poise and honed an unflappable, all-purpose capability. Certainly, she had the opportunity to discover how differently people lived their lives.

After Mrs. Wickham, Rachel went to work for the Abram Garfield family in Cleveland Ohio. Abram was an architect, son of the assassinated American President. One of the perks of working for wealthy families was that she owned her own car. In a black model-T Ford, she would drive from Cleveland to Nova Scotia on summer holidays where she carried on a years-long romance with a man from Bass River whom she later married. Rachel would have known that a career and marriage were mutually exclusive for women in those times; one or the other but absolutely not both.

She might have served a lifetime in the employ of well-to-do patrons, being passed down to younger generations like a treasured heirloom. Unlike an heirloom though, her service was paid work but the prospect of doing this for the rest of her life must have paled by comparison to the appeal of directing her own household. In 1939, she and Arthur Wilson married in Cleveland though they intended to return to live in Nova Scotia.

In Her Heyday

1939 wedding for Rachel Cooke and Arthur Wilson. –Rachel Cooke Wilson Collection

Within three months of their marriage and for a second time in a tumultuous century, a world war broke out and its shadows were cast into unimagined corners. Even in Bass River, window blinds were required to be opaque so as to camouflage the presence of habitable areas from rogue bombers scanning the port of Halifax and the Bay of Fundy. Also for the second time, local Red Cross efforts were mobilized to support soldiers overseas, organize blood donors, prepare “letters from home” for soldiers, ship items they had knitted and quilted for the boys overseas. In its era, it was a remarkable civilian enterprise.

At home, the Red Cross also offered assistance to local people even after the war had ended. There was, then, no sick-pay, no publicly-funded pension plans or publicly-funded health care. Elderly people were cared for at home, even the chronically ill and disabled. Items such as adjustable beds, bed pans, walkers and crutches were a boon to the infirmed as well as their care takers. These were all made available by the local Red Cross—volunteers to a person—who acquired them and loaned them out as needed. Rachel’s garage became the storage space for all this equipment and her phone number the contact.

After eleven years of marriage, a scratchy phone call came from Southern California to Bass River to say that Rachel’s only sister-in-law was seriously ill. The children could hardly manage and the California folk knew no one else to turn to so she and her husband borrowed the train fare for Rachel to go to the Mexican border. In 1950 the trip took a week. Once there, her nursing skills were put to good use. Her organizational and diplomatic skills were also well employed because she persuaded her sister-in-law to return with her to Nova Scotia, though personal property needed to be sold and custody settled. The oldest child, already of-age, would remain in California and the younger one would accompany her dying mother back to Nova Scotia. The sister-in-law was carried to a berth on the train in southern California by her twenty two year old son who performed this last service for his mother. Everything had been arranged by Rachel as they set off for Chicago: meals and morphine; smooth transitions between changes-of-trains. Wheelchairs, taxis, and finally in Nova Scotia, Mounties with a stretcher carried the patient to a car bound for Bass River. There, she’d be carried upstairs in a chair to a waiting bed. All this was managed by Rachel as though she did it every week and at the end of that week, she and her husband had acquired a belated and instant family.