Virginia Wood (Brack) Cordes
July 3, 1917 - December 15, 1998

Obituary

RALEIGH, NC. – Virginia Wood Cordes, 81, died December 15 in Raleigh from complications due to Alzheimer’s disease. A memorial service will be held on December 30th at 1pm in the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House, in Chatham, Massachusetts, followed by burial of remains at sea.

Mrs. Cordes moved to Raleigh from her home of 21 years in Chatham, Massachusetts, in January 1998. She previously lived in Needham, Massachusetts, for many years, where she raised her family. She was preceded in death by her first husband, Frederick W. Brack, in 1971, and her second husband, Warren P. Cordes, in 1998.

She is survived by her two children, Fred Brack, of Raleigh, NC, and Betsy Prehm, of Englewood, CO; two step-children, Conrad Cordes, of Baltimore, MD, and Christina Cordes Thomas, of Austin, TX; four grandchildren and a step-grandchild.

Mrs. Cordes was a member of the staff of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster for five years, serving as its first librarian and manager of the gift and book shop. She was an active member of the Cape Cod Viewfinders Club for many years, specializing in photo essays which she presented to numerous organizations on Cape Cod. She and her late husband also helped found the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Chatham.

Memorial donations may be made to the National Alzheimer's Society, 919 North Michigan Avenue, Suite 1000, Chicago, IL 60611, or her favorite charity, the Nature Conservancy, 1815 North Lynn Street, Arlington, VA 22209.

 

Better times...
at home in Chatham, MA, with the late
Dr Warren P Cordes (1905-1998)

 

Eulogy for Virginia W. Cordes
by her son, Fred Brack
December 30, 1998

 

A story is told about a man on vacation in a foreign country who takes an early morning walk on the beach. In the distance, he sees a man walking, stooping, throwing something into the ocean, and repeating the sequence over and over. Soon he catches up with the man.

"Sir," he asks, "may I ask what you are doing?"

"Surely," the man replies. "During the night, these starfish float in with the tide to feed, and they are stranded here in the morning when the tide recedes. When the sun comes up, it bakes them, and they die. I am returning them to the sea."

The visitor looks amazed. "But there are hundreds, thousands of them. How can you possibly make a difference."

Flinging the starfish in his hand into the ocean, the man replies, "It makes a difference to him…"

There are very few of us in this world who can have the influence that a Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa had to affect millions of people. But hopefully each of us will find ways to make contributions during our lifetime that will "make a difference" to others along our individual paths of life. I would like to talk to you today about some of those differences that my mother, Virginia Cordes, made during her lifetime.

We must rise above the grief of our loss and celebrate a life worth living, reflecting with pride and joy upon the effect that life had upon each of us. In doing so, each of us must also take away that our own lives are worth living, that each of us has contributions yet to make, no matter how small they may seem.

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Virginia Ruth Wood was born on July 3rd, 1917, in Spring Valley, New York, to Everett Norton Wood and Frederica Schill Wood. Everett was a successful builder, and Mom grew up in large and very nice homes, and even had a maid in some of the pre-depression years. She also took great pleasure in traveling to her cousin’s farm, where she owned a horse. As a family, they had wonderful summer vacations in the Rangely Lakes region.

Mom had one brother, John Halsey Wood, who died a few years ago. They were pretty close. As a child, Jack wrote this poem about her, entitled "To My Sister":

I know that I shall never see
A girl as wonderful as thee.
One who loves to cook and bake,
Whose pastry never gives an ache,
Who likes to ride, yet just the same
Can play as well some other game.
Three cheers for her – She’s awfully good.
Who do I mean? Why, Virginia Wood.

During her school years, Mom developed an interest and talent in acting. She had a scrapbook filled with clippings of her roles in various productions around town. At 17, her picture graced the front page of the Englewood, New Jersey, newspaper, with the caption, "Virginia Ruth Wood, young Englewood theatrical star, who will play a leading role in the benefit production to be given by the Kiwanis Club Friday and Saturday."

During this time, she graduated from a New York dramatic school, took speech classes at Columbia University, became a teacher of dramatic art, and starred in many productions. In 1939, a gentleman wrote her:

"Dear Virginia, just let me add a line, if I may, to the many congratulations you are receiving. Throughout the show you enhance the picture immeasurably whenever you appear on the scene, and add to everyone’s pleasure by your splendid performance. My Dad, who has followed our shows for years, said, ‘My heart was taken by the woman doctor – she was a joy to behold!’ It has been a long time since we’ve had anyone quite as graceful in our shows."

The local paper wrote that she had "a meteoric rise to fame as an actress…. Her acting ability has attracted wide attention on the part of theatrical producers and critics." A handwritten note on an envelope stated, "Folks said, ‘You are better than the Broadway stars!’" This talent for acting carried on throughout her life, in various ways, as you shall see.

In early 1940, Mom married my father, Frederick William Brack, of Montclair, New Jersey, and Norwalk, Connecticut. Their age difference never ceased to amaze me; she was 23 and he was 39. Her maid of honor (Elizabeth Clarke Wright) and her two bridesmaids (Betty Howe Glaze and Charlotte Nehez deGraaf) are all living today, and they have kept in touch over the years. This past year, they have kept in touch with me. She must have made a difference in their lives to be remembered so.

In 1943, Mom completed training as a nurses aid and volunteered her services at the end of WWII, where I’m sure she made a difference to many men who returned from the war with injuries. Later, she began a lifelong friendship with Mildred Woodwell, one which extended to our entire family. Mid currently resides in a nursing home in Falmouth.

Both Mom and my father stayed active in local theatre groups. My sister and I can recall attending many productions, which I’m sure brought pleasure to many people.

In the 1960s, Mom began assisting in the Needham Public Library, and she became the director of the summer reading club and one of the favorite library storytellers – another outgrowth of her acting and speaking abilities. Around this time she also began a project recorded in the local paper: reading college textbooks on tape for an MIT student blinded in an accident.

As I look back at my own upbringing during the 1950s and 1960s, I recall a gentle, pleasant, industrious mother. As was common in her generation, she didn’t work, and concentrated instead on raising her family and "running the house." My father was not mechanically inclined, and most of the repairs and projects were headed up by Mom. She worked on plumbing, electrical repairs, and carpentry – she did it all.

In my entire life, I remember only one argument she had with my father. She was a great mother, supporting educational projects like the Science Fairs, giving us the personal attention we needed, and demonstrating how she cared about our development. She believed in making the most of each day; and in her later years, she loved a tee shirt which said "Carpe Diem" (Seize the Day).

In 1971, my father died, and my mother entered the darkest years of her life. She was lonely, and she turned to involvement in the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History to make good use of her time. There she started a gift shop and a library, making very significant contributions during a period of exciting growth for the museum. When, in 1976, she officially "retired" from the museum, the museum newsletter recorded the following:

"One of the strongest resources of the Museum – for staff, members, visitors and the community at large – is its Library. For the past half dozen years, the person in charge of its development has been Virginia Brack. With untiring devotion and professional skill she has directed its growth, overseen the move into its own home in the new addition, and gradually built it into the finest collection of natural history material in the area. At the same time, she has managed and nourished our Gift Shop into an independent and thriving concern. For these and other services, and for her consistently warm and helpful presence, the Museum will always be indebted."

The reason for leaving, however, was a joyous one. Through the museum, she had met Dr. Warren Cordes. They were married that fall, and her life was renewed. She and Warren shared many common interests. They took several wonderful trips to places like the Galapagos Islands in the early years of their marriage, and throughout their marriage, they enjoyed puttering around the coves of Pleasant Bay and associated waterways on their boat, the Cordwood, named for the combination of their last names.

It was during this period that a wonderful thing happened from which so many of us benefited: Mom exploited a lifelong interest in amateur photography into a real talent. She joined the Cape Cod Viewfinders Camera Club, and over time, she produced dozens of photo essays – slide shows with narration – and presented them all over Cape Cod. She documented the constant changes of the Chatham shoreline, the damage and changes from Hurricane Bob, the life of a cranberry bog, the mysteries of items washed up on the shore of the beach, and so much more. From these photo essays, hundreds of people learned facts and interesting tidbits that they had never known before. Mom’s own words in a letter to me demonstrate the positive effect her work had on others.

"[I went] to Osterville where I presented a program to the Cape Cod Horticultural Society. Though the audience was fairly small – around 30 people – I have never had such wonderful response. People just crowded around both Warren (who tended the projector) and me to say how great the program was. One woman said she had been a member for 12 years and this was the finest program she had ever seen there. So it was a rewarding, heart warming evening for me, even though we did have to drive so far."

Another significant contribution that Mom made during her marriage to Warren was their efforts together to found the original fellowship which has grown into the congregation that meets in this church today. The meetings often took place in their living room. Mom’s training in dramatics gave her a special talent for reading. She wrote me:

"3 times I have read the sermons (one’s of Peter Fleck’s) at our Fellowship. Next Sunday I’ll give ‘In Flander’s Fields.’ I was urged to do this and was told I had ‘a special talent for reading aloud and bringing such meaning to written words.’"

In 1986 I wrote a letter to Warren expressing condolences for the loss of his son, Bill. I must have mentioned that I was sure my mother had been a source of strength to him during the difficult time leading up to Bill’s death, for he wrote back:

"Yes, your mother has been and is a source of strength to me. I do not know how I could have survived the past many weeks without her support – nor would I have wished to. Come to think of it, I could (and should) say the same for the past ten years. She is making the latter days of my life worth living. She is the finest person I have ever known."

During these years, my sister, Betsy Prehm, and I both lived many miles away, so we didn’t get to visit more than once or twice a year. We would write and talk by phone, and Mom always wanted to know how her grandchildren – Josh, Christy, Michelle, and Dan – were doing. She and we always regretted not being able to be closer for more visits; however, she clearly had a positive effect on all four children in the limited time available. For example, in elementary school, my daughter, Michelle, wrote this story.

"I’m going to tell you about my Grandma. She likes to collect things from the sea. They are neat to watch. Someday my brother and I will be catching them.

She also has a pool with goldfish in her backyard. It has a waterfall. It is neat.

My Grandma has grayish brown curly hair. She has blue eyes. She also has a nice smile. She says I’m growing big feet like her.

My Grandma has a nice personality. She doesn’t yell at us when we do something wrong. She just fixes it up and says, ‘Let’s hope that never happens again.’ That’s why I like to be with her.

I remember going out in the boat with my Grandma, going over the waves rocking. It was fun. I hope to do that again. I liked sitting in the front with her. I would always be anxious to go out.

Well, that’s my Grandma!"

In late 1996, Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the hideous illness that robs a person of their memories, their dignity, and ultimately the ability to perform even the simplest of tasks. It was a devastating blow to her. As the disease progressed in 1997, late in the year a sudden increase in the severity of the symptoms appeared, altering her personality. In the privacy of their own home and lives, Warren’s life became unbearable as if a demon had taken over my mother. The person we knew had seemingly disappeared. We longed for her return.

In January of this year, Warren Cordes made the biggest yet most important sacrifice of his life: he agreed to move from his beloved home in Chatham to Raleigh, so that ultimately I would be able to oversee Mom’s care. The day came sooner than expected, when Warren died on February 11th. Mom was in the hospital in Raleigh then, as the doctors worked on medication management of her symptoms.

And then a wonderful event occurred. When Mom left the hospital on February 28th, she had passed through the worst phase of her symptoms and returned to her gentle self – a self that no longer knew that she had Alzheimer’s disease, but one that demonstrated manageable symptoms. She left a wheelchair in the hospital and 20 minutes later walked through the door of her new home, Clare Bridge of Cary, an assisted living facility exclusively for persons with memory impairments. She adapted immediately, never again to show the anxiety and fear she had exhibited before she went into the hospital.

She roamed the corridors, rooms, and patios of Clare Bridge all day long, often with a friend, returning to her room solely to sleep at night. She asked for nothing, always seemed happy and content, and was truly loved by the staff. Many times I saw her reach out to touch the arm of a fellow resident, to offer a friendly smile or word of encouragement. Even there, she was making a difference in other people’s lives. All that changed just before Thanksgiving when she fell and broke her hip – an injury that an Alzheimer’s patient cannot understand and deal with properly. Her quality of life fell from totally acceptable, given her situation, to near zero. As I wrote to many of you, either "she" or her body gave up.

My wife, Kathy, has been an important source of strength and assistance for me throughout my mother’s illness. She was instrumental in locating Clare Bridge, when others felt we would have to place her in a nursing home. And she has supported me in my many visits to see and assist my mother throughout the year. And with me, she made the most important adaptation necessary to deal with Mom’s disease: we accepted it.

We accepted my mother for who she was, regardless of the phase and symptoms of the disease. We allowed ourselves to see humor at times, as the professionals advised us to. Mom had lost the ability to do so many tasks of daily living, and we were extremely fortunate to be able to afford professional care for her, and especially fortunate to find Clare Bridge, run by an extremely competent and caring manager. I think we learned to deal well with her situation, accepting her limitations, such as inability to understand most of her speech. We allowed ourselves to be amused when combinations of words produced funny results, or a response was totally inappropriate to the situation. We accepted, we adapted, and we dealt.

I truly looked forward to my visits with Mom, despite her "condition." I am particularly pleased that I got to take her to the North Carolina State University Arboretum this fall, where she enjoyed walking among the flowers, plants, and trees.

I was fortunate that Mom recognized me right up until the end. I shall always remember the look of pleasure when she realized it was me who had arrived upon each visit in the summer and fall. She never asked me to stay longer or return soon, which were signs to me that she was enjoying her life, however limited it may have been by our standards. She had accepted her condition, even though she no longer understood it, and dealt with it with the gentleness and kindness that we had grown to see in her over the years.

So as I look back, I see a woman who became an accomplished actress, pleasing audiences for years; a woman who was a wonderful wife to two great men; a mother who did a fine job raising two children and was inspirational to her grandchildren; a woman who dove into what was originally a volunteer assignment in a museum and made significant contributions to its gift shop and library; a woman who in her 60s and 70s polished her photographic capabilities and pleased and educated so many Cape Codders with her photo essays; a woman who helped found a church. I would say, she made a difference, and that we should put aside our grief and rejoice in having had the pleasure of her company and contributions for as long as we did. Virginia – Mom – you were great, and we all thank you!

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