March 31, 1933 - March 23, 2021
My sister and I saw a yellow butterfly shortly after my mom passed and learned out that yellow butterflies symbolize a loved one from the other side communicating that all is well.
There was also a yellow butterfly at the graveside memorial service.
The song, "The Sunny Day" was written by my son Sean when he was 13.
I love you Mom. Always.
Margaret Grace Merrill Cookson was born in Los Angeles, California on March 31, 1933, fortunately not the day after that, which she would point out was April Fools. She was the middle daughter of Willis Henry Merrill and Margaret Louise Inglis. Older sister Ruth was exactly one year and two days her senior. Younger sister Nancy came along five years later.
Known as Margie, and never Marge, which she detested because it sounded like something a disgruntled, complaining person would say… MARGGGGGEE! Margie had a spunky, friendly tone, which suited her perfectly.
She grew up in Long Beach, California. Her father worked as a businessman at the soap factory that her grandfather, Frank Merrill, founded. Frank Merrill was a chemist who was the first to bring granulated soap to the world. The product was called, Merrill’s Rich Suds, which eventually got bought out by the White King Soap Company. So if she ever needed to have her mouth washed out with soap, there was plenty of that around. Quite to the contrary, Margie was full of grace and kindness and a strong moral fiber that brought warmth and sweetness to her character.
Not to say that she wasn’t an adventurous child. She would lead the neighborhood kids in parades and makeshift circuses, and she once jumped off the roof with an umbrella to see if she would float gently to the ground. This of course was not the case and she never tried it again.
Margie attended Poly High School, where she was president of her class. She went on to Pomona College in Claremont, California, which both of her parents had attended. There she met John Cookson who saw her performing a skit to the song, “Take Back Your Mink” at a fraternity party and told his mother that he had met the girl he would marry.
John and Margie were married on June 15, 1954 and held their reception at the Merrill’s beautiful Long Beach backyard. Margie’s mom, who went by the name Peg, was a master gardener, a passion that Margie inherited and would fill her many gardens with lushness and flowers throughout her life.
There was a story Margie liked to tell about going to the market after the wedding and realizing she needed to buy bacon for breakfast. She’d never had to do that before. She was just 21 years old, with a newly minted degree in Child Psychology, and bacon to cook for her husband, just 20 himself.
After a honeymoon at Niagara Falls, the couple settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts where John finished Officer Candidate School for the Navy and Margie worked in the clerical pool at Paine Webber. The young couple had few possessions in their rented apartment, a fact John tried to remedy by dashing out to purchase a living room set when he heard his in-laws were coming from Long Beach to visit them. After all, they would need somewhere to sit. From these threadbare beginnings would eventually come the comfortable life the couple was able to build through grit and determination, always careful to save for the future while providing for their two daughters.
Daughter Sharon Merrill Cookson (Shari) was born October 29, 1958 in Escondido, CA after the couples’ return to the state. Pamela Merrill Cookson (Pam) was born three years later on June 9, 1961 in Pasadena, California. John began a career as a stockbroker and then investment advisor as Margie kept the household humming. She was a meticulously organized housekeeper who had a place for everything. There was a particular kitchen tool, for example, that was a gift from her college roommate now living in France. The item was a French-made paring knife—and though it wasn’t impressive in looks, it was the best knife ever in Margie’s kitchen and she didn’t go to sleep at night before she made certain it had been put away exactly where it belonged. She was an outstanding cook, modifying recipes in her cookbook with notes of how to take the dish to the next level. Her impeccable sense of spicing was on a level all its own. Her famous call to dinner, the very enthusiastic cry, “Yuba!” would infuse the evening with her own special flair. It wasn’t “dinner” … it was YUBA.
Margie was quite simply charming to her core. She was witty, wry and bubbling over with cuteness. She could get to laughing so hard that soon everyone around her would be laughing too. Something would strike her funny bone…like the time the football announcer said the ball was, “caught by Nettles” and she erupted with laughter imagining a football being grabbed from the air by an itchy nettle weed. Oh, but she loved the Chargers, hoping season after dismal season that someday they would come out on top.
Among her favorite hobbies was sewing and she made things not only for herself but also for her daughters, and even for their Barbies. She had a discerning eye and leafing through the pages of her many catalogues (you could say another hobby), she would find the perfect piece of clothing, which more times than not, she would end up sending back because it wasn’t so perfect. If it was just a little off, she might alter it… but, most likely, back it would go. She sent more back than she ever kept. Margie had a sense of what looked good on her and no eye was more critical than hers. Her style was neat and casual, except for a time in the 60s when she went to “loveliness” school to learn how to apply false eyelashes and a fall (a kind of hairpiece). It was the 60s, after all.
Margie was a devoted mother. Her daughters cannot remember a time when she lost her temper or spoke to them crossly or even raised her voice. She parented by her own example of goodness and love.
When Pam was slow to speak because of the development of her tongue muscles, Margie bought a dollhouse and played with her, gently encouraging her to speak the words that named the dolls and their activities.
She was an enthusiastic audience for Shari’s stories and skits and was the Girl Scout leader for Shari’s Troop 489. She came up with a song the girls sang as they marched down Fair Oaks Avenue in South Pasadena for the Earth Day Parade, “We are Troop 489 marching on, left right. We are Troop 489 marching on, left right. We are Troop 489 and we have a real good time. We are Troop 489 marching on, left right.”
Margie loved to make up little songs. She would sing to her beloved German shepherds, Lobo, Shamala and Jonah, who adored her. Daisy the Dachshund was another story. She was a sneaky dog who would fake her nighttime potty times so she could get a treat and then proceed to pee on the family room carpet. Daisy’s antics brought Margie outside with a flashlight each night to be sure she did her business. There were no songs sung for those occasions. She did, however, love to play her guitar on the weekends and sing folksongs like, “Little Houses on the hillside, little houses made of ticky tacky. Little houses on the hillside and they all looked just the same…”
But far from being the same, Margie was finely attuned to the nuances and subtleties of life. She was an avid people-watcher and keenly perceptive. That was doubly evident in her role as a mother. Through her care and interest in her daughters’ lives, she passed her moral code and sensibilities onto them. She was able to be consoling and instructive at the same time without making a show of either intention. She was always there for them--and being there was everything.
“There,” however, had a way of changing for the Cookson family. Approximately every four years they moved to a new home in the Southern California region, to various spots between Los Angeles and San Diego. Sometimes it was John’s job or maybe just his delight in new surroundings that kept them looking for the ideal community. In 1969, the family left South Pasadena for North San Diego County where Willis Merrill had purchased a horse ranch upon retirement. The family spent a year on Wonder Y Ranch in a knotty pine clad home once owned by cowboy actor Big Boy Williams. They’d bought the ranch house several years before and had been coming on weekends and summer vacations. It was an idyllic spot in the small town of Valley Center, with Willis and Peg Merrill living right across the street. Margie was always close to her parents and from a young age reveled in the large family gatherings held by both the Merrills and Inglises at holidays. She loved singing favorite family songs and hearing family stories. Her interest in people and their personal journeys was awakened by the warmth and deeply rooted connection among the members her own family.
Margie knew how to listen, how to emphasize, support and appreciate the situation. She sent the kind of birthday cards her daughters would save because they were brimming with her love and encouragement. She was spiritual but never preachy. Her search for soulful nourishment led her to explore various paths of enlightenment, such as the Course of Miracles, which resonated deeply within her. She believed there was bliss to be discovered in the world and embraced a quest to fully experience the joyfulness of being alive.
She did, of course, face obstacles. Her health posed various issues along the way. She was stoic though, never a complainer. When someone in the family asked how she was feeling on those off days, she would reply, “fine.” Some fines seemed finer than others. “What kind of fine was that?” the family would ask. Margie might not have been her finest at that moment but she always held the belief that tomorrow would be better, that there was an answer out there, a new path to try. She never gave up hope. That was one of her most defining traits.
After the year on the ranch, the family moved to La Jolla where they remained for 6 years (in two houses). Then more moves, back to Valley Center and nearby towns. For a time they were in Steamboat Springs, Colorado where they built two homes. (Actually it’s worth noting that John and Margie built four houses over the years.) Then there was a good stretch of time in Ojai and finally back to another Valley Center home. There were so many houses that the family would joke that it felt like home because of the furnishings, if not the actual structure. In every place she lived, Margie and John made a warm and welcoming environment. Margie put everything in its place, including the essential French paring knife, and made the most of each new property—particularly the gardens, which benefitted from her deep knowledge of plants and flowers, her way of making a sanctuary from even the most rocky, gopher-infested soil. Her gardens were artful and natural with a sweet orchestra of chimes ringing in the breeze.
With her daughters grown, Margie began working with John in the investment company he founded in 1976. Her organizational skills were put to great use in running the day-to-day operations, accounting and helping with portfolio management. Her pleasant manner in interacting with clients was a welcome touch. She loved details and had a tremendous capacity for what others might describe as busywork. For her, there was great satisfaction in keeping things tidy and on track. She and John worked together in the JW Cookson Company for 10 years until the business was sold and they were able to retire at 55.
Margie was ready for new adventures: Rollerblading, biking, skiing and even parasailing, but above all, she wanted to spend time with family. She was there for the birth of her two grandchildren, Sean (1995) and Ella (2001) McMillan (Shari’s children with her husband Charlton McMillan.) The grandkids called her Marmie. She loved Christmas and would show up at the McMillan’s house wearing her reindeer antler hairband and blinking Christmas light necklace with a delicious casserole or a piece of marinating salmon. These were the best of times and she would always press John to stay a little longer when the bewitching hour came and it was time to leave.
Margie and John loved Dixieland Jazz and enthusiastically attended music festivals in that genre. They also liked Big Band music and enjoyed dancing to songs of that era. Margie had been dancing since she was a kid in tap shoes. Even in her 80s, she would show the grandkids the soft shoe shuffle and dance the Charleston and Jitterbug with Papa (John). She had rhythm in her soul--and a propensity for counting things… dance steps or steps of stairs. She was always counting. Her favorite number was 7. Lucky 7.
Margie came from a storied line of ancestors. Nathanial Merrill was one of the earliest pilgrims. His name is on a plaque in Newburyport, MA that commemorates all aboard. Her great uncle, Wilder Penfield, was the first to map the regions of the brain. There was her grandfather’s granulated soap, of course. She was the 8th great granddaughter of Mary Easty, a prominent, landowning and deeply religious mother of 11 who was hung in the Salem witch trails. But what made Margie so unique was her own boundless capacity to hook into the gentle spirit and find purpose and meaning in everyday life. It was an ability that always sustained her, even in the most difficult times.
Margie moved to the Shadowridge area of Vista, California in early 2019, after John’s death in November 2018. The first night in her new home she fell and broke her hip. Over the next two years, she faced a number of health issues, some old and others just developing. She was determined to remain in her home and did so with the help of caregivers and her daughters, particularly Pam who lived nearby and visited nearly everyday. Her devoted dog, Maya, was always at her side. Although challenging, those days between Margie and her daughters brought even greater closeness and more cherished moments. Shortly before she passed away, Shari noticed she seemed to be talking to someone. “I know, I know,” she said. Shari imagined she was talking to John, who was saying from the next realm, “Margie, it’s time to go,” like he often did in this realm. And she was saying, “I know, I know…but just a little while more.”
A few days after her passing, granddaughter Ella lit candles in her room and put on Big Band music. “Look at that candle,” she said. “It’s going crazy!” And sure enough one of the candles was flickering every which way. Only one candle of the many. “It’s Marmie,” Ella said, “She’s dancing.” Sure enough, we all agreed.