STORY AND PHOTOS BY BOB BAIRD
Ask Florence Cohen about living for a century and her answer is more about others than it is about herself.
“I’ve been blessed with a good husband and good children,” she says without hesitation, “and I guess God’s on my side.”
The praise for a family that spans five generations doesn’t stop at calling her daughter Judy “a gift from heaven.”
Smiling broadly, she adds, “and I have four delicious grandchildren,” who visit her often. And by the way, she has 10 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren, too.
“They are all jewels,” she beams proudly as she recounts the story of a long life to a visitor to her apartment at The Esplanade in Palisades just days before her 100th birthday celebration on Aug. 13.
That life began on Essex Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “Now it’s the ‘in’ place for young people,” she announces, but when she was a young girl it was home to families of immigrants like her parents, who came from Poland.
The streets were filled with pushcarts and with children who had been taught a valuable lesson. “We were all poor, but happy. Children were taught not to be envious.” The parents would tell them all, “Be happy you’re in a free country. Be grateful for what you have.”
Her father, Florence Cohen says, began work at the Waldorf as a stockboy and worked his way up to busboy and waiter before opening a furniture store with a relative. Her mother came to the U.S. at 18 and lived with a succession of families, working as a house maid. One of the sons wanted to marry her, but she eventually would meet Florence’s father through another of the families.
Florence was one of four children. Her brother Morris died at only 18 in 1935, but her sisters Elsie and Lena lived to 83 and 92.
“We were considered beauties,” she says of the trio of sisters. When people marveled at her father’s good fortune seeing his daughters marry in rapid succession, his reply was that of the businessman he had become.
“You got good merchandise,” she remembers her father explaining, “it sells.”
Florence attended Seward Park High School, across from dad’s furniture store and would earn a degree in education attending City College at night.
Her father’s success prompted a move from the Lower East Side to join relatives living in a three-family house in the Bronx. “We had a telephone in the hallway for the three families to share,” she recalls.
She modeled hats at a millinery house, where she also answered phones and did bookkeeping. Once a buyer invited her to dinner at his hotel, she says, and the episode prompted her father to find her another job.
Finding a husband was more innocent than that.
She had borrowed earrings from a friend and when she went to return them, the friend introduced Florence to her cousin, David Cohen.
“We met in 1933 and married in 1934,” she says. She then quit work, continued school and started a family.
“I was married to a special man,” Florence Cohen beams. “Good, devoted. He had all these good qualities. That’s why I had a happy life.”
Marriage brought a move to Brooklyn where David taught physics and chemistry at Fort Hamilton High School while they raised their two children – Judy, who lives in New York City, and Marty, who lives in Tappan.
Judy says one key to her mother’s good health, vitality and longevity is that she has always projected a very optimistic outlook on life.
“She believes every person is worthy and that every person has good qualities,” she says of her mother. “She guided my brother and I through life with the message that you have to be good to people.”
Florence Cohen’s devotion to her family was all the more evident when Judy was blessed with her daughter Joanne. Judy was attending Brooklyn College at night, so two nights each week Joanne stayed with her grandparents.
When their children were a bit older and Judy and her husband Isaac wanted to go on vacation, her parents would spend two weeks at their daughter’s home, caring for their grandchildren.
During one of those vacations, Judy’s new kitchen was ready for installation ahead of schedule. Her parents cleaned and packed the contents of the old kitchen, oversaw the work and replaced everything in time for Judy and Isaac to return to find their new kitchen completed.
When Judy and Isaac renovated their basement, Judy says, “My parents gave us a year of Sundays,” visiting every week so David could supervise the work.
Florence taught Hebrew school at Beth Shalom in Bensonhurst and for 33 years she and David worked at Camp Cejwin in Port Jervis, a summer camp for Jewish children. David was head counselor for seven divisions of the camp before creating a coed electronics program there. Florence was a camp mother, worked in the infirmary and the office. It often fell to her to ease the emotions of children away at camp for the first time and feeling homesick.
In 1981, she and David moved to West Palm Beach, Florida, where they lived for 28 years. When David was forced to give up driving at 97, not because of age, but because their car wouldn’t pass inspection, they couldn’t manage in Florida without a car.
The solution was moving to the Esplanade, chosen because of the facility’s quality and proximity to son Marty in Tappan.
David and Florence enjoyed the last of their 76 years of marriage together at the Esplanade before he became ill and passed away in December 2010 at 102.
Judy spends a day with her mother each week, going to lunch and doing food shopping for the week. Her mother makes her own breakfast daily and enjoys other meals with residents. A good diet with lots of variety has always been part of her routine, Florence says, adding that along with good genes, that probably explains her health and longevity.
Florence has had a lifelong interest in floral arranging and has started a mahjong group that keeps her engaged. She’s also the queen of the Jumble, the mixed-up word puzzles that she does daily.
On Aug. 13, at a party in her honor, Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart presented her with a proclamation marking Florence Cohen Day in the town. While reading the proclamation, Stewart noted that Florence asserts that she and David “never had an argument,” joking that “the winners get to write history.”
There were video tributes from the Esplanade officials who could not attend the party, including owner Susan Diamond. Staff members adorned Florence with a tiara and sash noting her 100th birthday and another resident, Jack Berke presented her with a portrait in pastels. Working from a photo, Berke created the portrait along with Esplanade art instructor Sung Ho Choi.
After Florence had her own words of praise for her family and for Esplanade staff, she shifted course.
“Back to me,” she says with a chuckle. “We don’t say anymore ‘May you live to be 100.’ Now we say, ‘May you live to be 120.’”