From my mother’s womb was I untimely ripped at Lennox Hill Hospital in New York City to Betty and Robert Cottingham.
Grew up an only child on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. Mom a bookkeeper. Dad a scenic artist.
I wasted my youth working for the man.
I’m prepared to waste the rest of my years sticking it to the man.
Click here to view a panorama from my wedding to the lovely Veronica.
Thank you everyone for being here. The support of my friends and family, of coworkers and of neighbors at Columbus Park Towers has been remarkable and truly means everything in my getting through this pain-in-the-ass part of life. There wasn’t much opportunity to write my thoughts down, and I’m beside myself trying to do my mom some justice here this morning. And I really really want to. There’s been so much to do and so little time in which to do it — a metaphor for life, really. But as her death notice reads, Betty “lived a full and active life.”
Betty Jane Comiez was born in Syracuse, NY on March 3rd, 1924 to Samuel and Ida Rae Comiez. She grew up in the Great Depression, and her parents did a little of this and a little of that to survive, like selling fireworks at a stand at the state fair. Her mother became increasingly ill while Betty was still a young girl. The family moved to Miami for two years, as the climate was supposed to benefit her mother’s health. But she died, and Betty returned with her father to Syracuse.
Not long after, he became involved with a woman who had three children of her own. My mother felt like an outsider. Trying to fit in, she went with some boys on a double-date with one of the woman’s daughters. Their car got a flat, they got home late, and her father threw her out of the house. Betty took herself straight over to the house of her father’s brother, Harry, and his wife, Gertrude: known to me as Uncle Chick and Aunt Gert. My mom had proudly recalled her Aunt Gert all up in her pop’s face some days later when he came ‘round to take her back home: physically standing in his way and giving him a heroic what for. I think everyone would agree that my mother could be feisty — perhaps a bit of that was born in witnessing the power in her Aunt Gert, her second mother. This past Mother’s day I was telling her that I had grown up with this belief that every woman living on the Upper West Side was a fiercely Democratic, liberal, political, fiery, take no crap kinda’ person. I had many examples to reinforce this perception, some of you are here today; and hell, it was the 60's and the 70’s and people like Bella Abzug were running around here. But I needn’t look further than mom.
Aunt Gert and Uncle Chick had two sons of their own, Donald and Maynard — and Betty became more of a big sister to them than a cousin. When Donald Comiez passed away last year, his death notice tellingly listed her as his sister; a validation which touched her through the pain of her loss.
Betty would still see her dad, sometimes she’d drop by the store he had opened on her way home from school. He’d give her some money to buy some candy or to go to the movies. And she did love going to the movies. She and I met every Friday to see one for at least the last eleven years. We were just trying to figure that out this past Mother’s day - just how many movies we had gone to see together on Fridays and for how many years? Sometimes we’d speak on Thursday night to discuss the options, and she’d always call on Friday morning around 9:30 and wake me up with the details. The last movie we went to see was “Kinky Boots” the Friday before last. It was the third straight week we had attempted to see that movie. The first week it wasn’t playing at a time or location that made sense, so we changed the plan and saw something else. The next Friday her bus took forever and she arrived way too late, which never happened before; again, we saw something else. By the by, she would give me a buffer of ten to fifteen minutes before the time I really needed to meet her. She was always prompt, or early, waiting for me whenever we’d meet. I’m usually running about 5 minutes late wherever I go. So finally, last Friday, I walk into the theater, and she’s sitting there in the lobby grinning and shaking her head: “You won’t believe this,” she says, “they can’t get into the projection booth, no one here has the keys. What the hell is it with us and this movie?” Anyway, the keys came and we got to see what must have been our 1000th movie watched in a movie theater together. Two thumbs up, but we expected more after three tries. We both walked out like: “eh”.
Her father died only a few years after her mother. Betty was still a teenager. But she finished high school, and started working. She wanted to be a journalist. In high school she took several journalism classes, and wrote a few stories which were published in a local Syracuse newspaper. But her work experiences made a bookkeeper of her, which she was for many years before I was born. She went back to work as a bookkeeper after I enrolled in a private high school. I think she enjoyed the work and many of her coworkers, but she did lament never having gone to college or having pursued her interests in writing.
During WWII she volunteered for the army. She wanted to be a WAC, but the army rejected her because of her flat feet. So, through the Red Cross, Betty became a nurse’s aid during those years. She was one of The Greatest Generation. Those of you who are her contemporaries, I believe you really were The Greatest; you rose, seemingly as one, with an unprecedented spirit to meet the challenge of your time. She defined herself as a patriot, more than once, and she truly was. In recent years, however, like many of us, she had become very disillusioned with this country. She felt as though its meaning and mission were being hijacked, replaced by something increasingly unrecognizable and dangerous.
After the war, she refused a marriage proposal or two from guys returning from the war, and an offer to remain on as a nurse’s aid. In late 1948 she moved to New York City. She had roommates and apartments on the Upper West Side and in Chelsea over the next couple of years before meeting my father, Robert Cottingham, an aspiring young artist and handsome “young Sinatra”-looking guy (an army vet who had served as an anti-aircraft gunner in the South Pacific). He had returned from the war to his home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and graduated with a BFA in Fine Art from Indiana University, before moving to New York.
They met at a bar. He was drunk; she was not impressed. But he persisted, wooed her, and she fell for him. And only him. They had been dating for about 6 months when her lease was expiring, putting her roommate and apartment situation into a flux. So, dad, very practically, suggested they marry so she could move in with him. They were married by a Justice of the Peace in Yonkers in 1951.
Betty and Bob Cottingham had a terrific time together in those years. When I looked through the photo albums over the weekend there was picture after picture of them vacationing in Europe or Bermuda or at costume parties or with family; and what comes through from these photo’s is what cut-ups they both were. Picture after picture of them goofing around or making faces at the camera. My father’s co-worker, a scenic artist named Jack Hughes and his wife, Marlene, are in a great many of those pictures. I grew up calling them Uncle Jack and Aunt Marlene and their children, Kathleen and Kevin, my cousins.
Dad has two sisters: Ruth, his older sister, and Joan, his younger sister. But again, you can drop the whole in-law formality; as sure as Donald and Maynard were Betty’s brothers, Ruth and Joan were her sisters. And their mother, Gladys, well, my mom absolutely adored and adopted her. Her last mom. In one photo album, next to my grandmother’s photo, my mother had written : “Oh, how I loved that woman, that lovely woman”.
My parent’s first apartment together was a one-room flat in Chelsea, with a single window looking out across an alley at a brick wall. Betty asked Bob one day if he wouldn’t mind painting a scene on that brick wall so at least the window would look out on something. And by a scene, she meant a landscape or something that said “outside” to the person looking through the window. So, while she was at work, with masking tape he affixed his paint brushes to the ends of broomsticks and painstakingly did just that, sorta’ — a man hanging on the wall by a nail through the collar of his coat. Not what she had in mind at all, but she never forgot it.
They had tried for many years to have children, but nothing had come of it. Their first child was a dachshund named Schatzie. The dog became paralyzed in her rear legs, but mom soaked her in hot water and rubbed her rear legs for weeks. It worked — and Schatzie recovered, going on to become my nanny a bit later. My mother has always kept a picture of Schatzie in the top drawer of her nightstand. When I came along in 1964 they had largely surrendered on the idea of having children of their own, and mom was already starting menopause. Her doctor prescribed a medication to aid her in these bodily changes, a medication later widely used as a fertility drug. So, in part, I’m the product of a medication’s side effect. The umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck three times, so mom went through an emergency c-section at Lennox Hill Hospital.
We were living in Park West Village, where two of my parents neighbors, Ruby Morton and Betty Garde Lennon, became Aunt Ruby and Aunt Betty to me. They were both born in September and there was a standing bet between them as to whose birthday I would show up on. Aunt Betty won. One morning as a kid I remember waking up confused, and asking my mom how come I had so many aunts and uncles and not quite understanding how we were all related. Aunt Ruby, for example, was a black woman; it had never before occurred to me that she was my only black relative. Aunt Betty didn’t live long enough to see me grow up, but we’d visit Aunt Ruby every September at Park West Village. Ruby and mom would talk on the phone about the Yankees, and occasionally jet off to Atlantic City for day trips in the 80’s.
When Columbus Park Towers opened in 1967 we moved in. It’s not my first memory, but it’s my second. I even found a picture from our terrace at Park West Village with Columbus Park Towers, 3 blocks south, nearing completion in the background. I grew up in this wonderful community. What a great place my parents had found for us. Like its own little diverse village where everyone knew everyone, and you didn’t need to leave the building to find your choice of playground. One fertile trick-or-treat candy haul, lemme tell you. While I spent my share of time at other kids apartments, my parents put up with a great many of them spending a great deal more time banging around in my room. No brother’s or sister’s to disturb us and my mom would give us cookies and soda, or a plate of fresh vegetables; we were styling pretty good. And she lived a wonderful life there throughout the years, making many, many friends over the 39+ years. The proposed buy-out of the building filled her with anxiety and, frankly, depressed her. Watching friends and neighbors of nearly forty years snubbing one another can do that. She has always been a particularly sensitive person, too. It didn’t take much to hurt her feelings — in fact, if you’ve never hurt my mother’s feelings you may never have really engaged her.
My mother, of course, was Jewish. My father, Lutheran. But neither of them was religious in the orthodox sense. I received gifts at both Chanukah and Christmas, which was pretty terrific. Before my father, my mother had never known Christmas. But we had a tree every year with a dad-constructed star of David on the top. Which really says something about their relationship to God and their relationship to one another. There was nothing dogmatic, but they carved out something special and unique. It worked. Christmas was with Aunt Ruth’s family, and Thanksgivings, too. Sometimes they’d come in to NYC, often we’d go out to Port Washington. Aunt Jo was usually there either way. Ruth had married Jack Best, and so my mom had a niece, Heidi, and two nephews, Steven and David. And it’s no surprise, mom and Jack Best hit it off. He was amongst her earliest crossword puzzle pals and one of the people whom she most trusted.
Donald and Maynard also married. Donald had three daughters, Ann, Marla and Marcie. Maynard had a son, John, and two daughters, Michelle and Andrea. Five Comiez nieces to love and one Comiez nephew too. There wasn’t a regular routine, such as Christmas or Thanksgiving, for which we would get together. On the other hand, there always seemed to be a birth, barmitzvah, batmitzvah, marriage, something (usually festive, but not always) which merited an annual pilgrimage upstate (and we did vacation once with Donald’s family at a beach house in Maryland). Mom and my Aunt Shirley, Donald’s wife, spoke regularly. She loved Shirley dearly, and that’s saying something, because my mother had a real soft spot for my Uncle Don.
When I was about seven years old I had a staph infection — we usually went to a beach on weekends in the summer, but no beach for me. Mom suggested a baseball game and checked the paper to see who was in town. It was the Mets and we went out to Shea stadium for my first game. Growing up, Mom had watched the Syracuse Chiefs minor league team play lots of times, and was a Yankees fan when she met my dad. Dad could appreciate a baseball game here and there, but he was no fan. For well over a decade, she hadn’t watched the Yankees but a handful of times. With some small irony, my staph infection gave her back her baseball fever in spades — ah, what a devoted Yankees fan. She loved Roy White when I was a kid, and later Bernie Williams — whom she described as the most elegant man to play the outfield since Joe DiMaggio. She spoke Bernie’s name tenderly, like he was another son. During the blackout in 1977, we were listening to the Yankees game on the radio when the lights went out. Last blackout, I rushed uptown to check on her on my bicycle, I get up those seven flights of stairs to find her comfortably set up in her bedroom with multiple flashlight lighting and a battery operated radio listening to the Yankees game. Heck, she only got cable so she could be sure to watch the Yankees play on TV, every game. We went to lots of games together over the years — even last year we got to a couple - and talked Yankees and baseball as two fans might. Aunt Ruby was a big Yankees fan, too. So was Uncle Donald. She talked Yankees with them, she talked Yankees with the doormen, Irizarry, Earl, Orlando and Jose. Our last conversation, appropriately enough, was late Tuesday night. The Yankees had come back from a nine run deficit, topped off by a dramatic walk-off 9th inning homerun. As soon as the game was over I phoned her. She answered the phone “Stu?” followed by “Wow”.
I went to college in 1982 but I came home to visit every weekend for the first two years, and for the summer every year. Dad died in his chair on the weekend during my first semester. It was a shock. Mom and I were both home at the time, as was a girlfriend of mine. Mom called out to him “Bobby, Bobby”, which in retrospect had struck us both as odd. She called him Bob like everyone else. The girlfriend was hysterical, and my mom actually slapped her one and told her to get it together and help. Which did the trick. She sent her up to get Barbara Barrow, a nurse living upstairs, whose sons I was friends with. I was doing CPR on him, and mom was telling me “Stuee, it’s working”. But it wasn’t, and it didn’t.
The summer following his death mom decided we were going to go to California and Hawaii on vacation. She had always wanted to go, so we did. We stopped in San Francisco on the way, went to four islands, and LA on the way back. It really was the start of a wonderful new dynamic between us. When I was a child we argued a lot. She had a knack for knowing how to push my buttons and I hers. She was a wonderful mom, and she really hadn’t done anything wrong per se, but to me she was the enemy, the enforcer. I was a little spoiled — and, my dad was an alcoholic. I think the burden fell on her more than I could possibly have realized to hold our family together. Anyway, how we related to one another started to change, not that it was ever that dramatically bad, but over the next 24 years it evolved into a very different relationship. I came to realize that she had always been my best friend and greatest ally, and she came to know me as her best friend, too.
In San Francisco, she took a spill crossing the street. She was fine, and for the rest of the trip we’d joke that she had fallen “On the streets of San Francisco”. In Hawaii, I got a tooth abcess and needed a root canal, but of course, she was there for me along with a sandal-wearing dentist in Hilo. In Kawaii she was struck by the magnificence of the balcony view and by all those birds singing in the morning. Trying to capture it, with a snapshot camera she created a panoramic photo made up of five individual shots. We hiked around volcanoes and over dried lava flows. And in LA we got to see my cousin David, Ruth’s younger son. We hadn’t taken a family vacation in a few years at that point, and given the circumstances it was a brave, remarkable and nurturing thing for her to do at the time, for both our sakes.
Mom joined a widow’s/widower’s group shortly after dad died. And she made some great friends there. Her life slowly became her own. Eventually, a few of the lady’s in the group, including mom, decided that they’d gone to enough group meetings, and so they’d meet on their own at the Palace Restaurant once a week on 57th street. This went on for several years, and from this social circle she began going to the theater, and on trips, and become just Betty again. Muriel Richman is one such friend that she’s had ever since. One of her past employers, Lee, also became a close friend. They traveled together on many trips. And her friend Mimi Frankford, another one of those feisty Upper West Side women, also became a big part of mom’s social existence for many, many years now.
Over the years, with her husband gone and her son grown, Betty really blossomed in her new-found independence. And man, oh man, she was independent. She put me up in my old room over the years for short spans here and there. And we got along great. But she really loved living alone. She was very good about taking care of herself. She ate right, walked for miles every day. She had routines and ways of doing things and God help you if you told her to slow down. No matter how her health was, she had things to do and places to see and people to meet. Her calendar was well marked with reminders, and all personal papers and accounts in order.
In her senior years she had esophogitis, an angioplasty, a hip replacement, pluresy, periocarditis, a heart attack and second angioplasty. She wasn’t able to walk those miles anymore after her heart attack, and she’s been in congestive heart failure ever since. So she took the bus instead everywhere she went and kept on doing whatever she had it in her mind to do. Theater, movie, street fair, Fairway, the Farmer’s Market, whatever, slowing down was not a part of her psyche, and not her idea of living. Every Sunday I’d come home and visit — and she’d have a great, healthy dinner prepared for us. This tradition predates even the Friday movie thing. I’ve pretty much always stopped by on Sundays. I introduced her to football on Sundays in 1986, and to my delight, she took to it with almost as much passion as baseball. She became a Jets fan on her own — for this I’m not to blame.
And she was stubborn, to go along with the feistiness. She walked out of Roosevelt Hospital one morning against medical advice because they didn’t have any diagnosis after her she had spent the night, and then they hadn’t brought her any breakfast. She warned the nurse she was ready to leave an hour before she got her clothes on and left. The nurses were calling security as she headed for the elevator bank, but she told them to stuff it.
Anyway, I can hear her saying “enough already” for your sakes, and for mine. So I’d like to conclude this compressed awkward composite of her life from my perspective with just a few significantly more compressed thoughts: Sarah, Laura, Zack, Alan, Peter, Rich, Gregg, Garrett, Gabrielle, David, Melissa, Hannah, David, Alene, Barbara, James, Colby, Karen, Ted, Atlantic City, Bradley Beach, Bluebird, Lake Sebago and Welch, Lake George, RGBH growth hormone, blowing a whistle in that kid’s face, Lilac Trees, Daffodils, crazy 8’s, “Candy”, “Lucy”, cock-eyed cakes, jelly sandwiches, I’ll pretend to do it and see what happens, calling into sports radio shows, thwarting the Lady Bomber bank robber, “when in doubt, throw it out”, Brown’s, Aunt Buddy, Aunt Rose and Uncle Mort, Uncle Len and Aunt Dorothy, Aunt Sarah and Aunt Martha, Aunt Esther, Delight, Grandpa Ray, Aunt Min, “Madison”, “Russ” and “Goodheart” too, I love you mucho mucho.
To be close friends with someone is a very special privilege. I had this privilege for over 30 years. To lose such a friend is a very special loss. We share this loss today, the loss of a husband, a father, a brother, an uncle, a friend. To talk about Bobby, the things that come to mind first are his natural charm, his zest for life, his deep desire to have everybody like him. He was the most completely uninhibited person I ever met. If he felt like dancing in the streets, he danced; if he saw a group of people he wanted to join, he joined them; if he spotted someone he thought he’d enjoy talking to, he went over and talked to them. He loved to talk. He’d talk to everybody, the cab driver, the waitress, the theater usher, the bartender and when they talked to him — he listened. He genuinely wanted to hear what they had to say.
I’ve seen Bobby angry, sometimes at me, but he couldn’t stay angry long — it was a waste of time. Life was meant for living, for enjoying. I mentioned his zest for life. He had an enormous capacity for having fun. When the four of us vacationed together, he set a pace that exhausted everyone but him. He could dance and sing until three in the morning and then be pounding on your door at six asking if you wanted to rent a bike and ride on the boardwalk. The only way we could keep him still was to stretch him out on the beach to soak up the sun he loved so much.
And parties! That was where he really shined. Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Halloween, any excuse would do. He never wanted the party to end.
His zest for life flowed over into his work. A multi-talented man, he was always creating, either a picture, a sculpture or a piece of music. This talent for beauty and creativity he leaves to his son.
Many people feel that Bobby died too young, but I’m not sure. None of us live long enough to do all the things we want to do. Bobby did more of those things than most of us ever accomplish. He did what he wanted to do. He seized each moment and enjoyed it. I don’t think he would have liked old age. Maybe it’s not that Bobby died too young, maybe it’s just that we’re not ready to let him go.
Though I speak in front of you I speak FOR myself. And I say FOR – and TO – myself; do not overly mourn our Robert’s death, for that could contain too much guilt and self-pity – but instead REJOICE in his life. For it is his LIFE among us that we today celebrate. Robert would have it no other way!
It is fortunate that we cannot choose our relatives – we might be too particular and choose none. But by the greatest good fortune Robert chanced to be my brother-in-law and I certainly would have chosen no better. He possessed, among other qualities, three which set him apart from many men and which endeared him to me. He was a LAUGHING MAN; he was a SINGING MAN; and he was a LOVING MAN.
Robert’s laughter will always be with me. The uninhibited guffaw, the quiet chuckle – and the joy and pleasure which these expressed. I felt good with him – I feel good about him! He made me a little bit more – and in better ways – than I am. I loved this laughing man. And I’m sure the Lord loves a laughing man.
The sound of Robert singing is something I can hear – a rough, untrained singer but full of richness, and vitality, and a joy of expression. No holding back for him! Nothing but an open and honest expression of HIMSELF. You could know him by his singing.
And he sang with much more than his mere voice. He sang through his work, his work-a-day work and, perhaps most particularly, his OWN work – sketches, drawings, paintings, sculptures – and he sang through his poems, his many short verses. Hear the joy and fullness of this entry in his scratch book:
Today, our son, Stuart Ira Cottingham, is born.
The day is Saturday, September 19, 1964 – the
time is 4:15 in the afternoon. The end of a
A chronology of the events of that day follows, and then this:
God is with us. Three turns of cord around
his neck and saved from death to live – a
beautiful child is born and is OURS.
The last of winter’s dust falls, white and wet,
The ground alive with growing things cannot be
stopped. The robin calls for the yellow-green
that springtime brings.
And, of course, he sang of things more somber, and many of his verses probe questions of life and death:
and trees lose leaves;
for life is such a breeze.
What is birth – life – death has always been,
and always willed to be.
And the aloneness of all such
shall be close to God.
The world is man
and man is the world.
Earth is man
and man is of earth.
Robert is a singer. And he sang in the many tongues of the singer. And he sang of life, and love, and beginnings, and endings. And surely the Lord loves a singing man.
Robert loved people. And he loved parties because parties meant people! Young people love him for it was apparent that he loved them. Children loved him because he was so funny. As they grew older perhaps he was no longer so funny – now he was simply FUN. I can remember when, with wonder, and – at the time – some little discomfiture he said to me “I love you, Jack”. Now, with the same wonder but no longer uncomfortable, I see a man totally open and totally unabashed about showing his love; a pretty remarkable man.
It is not given to many of us that we be remembered long by the world. It has been given to some men that they be long remembered, and dearly treasured, in those circles where his life touched people – his family, his friends, neighbors, working associates. Robert is one such man who shared himself with us all. I can make no personal claims on him. But I do feel that I can say – as you all can surely say – he is mine, and he is with me. Truly the Lord loves a laughing, singing, loving man. Let us rejoice in Robert.