Tribute to Florence May Cohen: Julie Cohen

Florence was born in Taralga on 5 June 1926 and died in Cairns on 18 September 2013: my birthday. Unusually, her timing was dreadful and my birthday will never be the same again.

Florence was the youngest of nine children. Her father died when she was only four months old. Life was not easy. At seventeen, she was employed at The Public Works Department in Sydney but, as soon as her age allowed, she joined the WRANS. According to Florence, that was the turning point of the Second World War!

Florence was demobbed and in 1948 went to Rabaul on a two-year contract with The New Guinea Company as a stenographer. She stayed in Papua New Guinea for forty three years!

In 1949, Florence, to quote: “Met the opening bat Bill Cohen, fell in love and later married him.”

Bill and Florence had an interesting honeymoon: a labour recruiting trip by boat to Kandrian. Bill was obliged to bunk in with the Brothers and Florence, the Nuns!

They managed Kap Kap Plantation and then Tobera. In 1951, they had Chris (who suddenly passed away in 1993). Shortly after Peter came along in 1952, they moved to Tovakundum on the North Coast Road out of Rabaul. Geoffrey was born in 1961 and their family was complete. Mum home-schooled all three boys and was delighted when they later went to High School in Australia and were on par with the other pupils. I personally call it a minor miracle given that she first had to catch them for lessons most days!

In 1972 Bill died suddenly and Florence was devastated. She later told me that for over two years she would put out two coffee cups each morning. No one ever matched up to Bill. True to form though, she soldiered on, filling her life as best she could. Despite her job with Rabaul Stevedores being very demanding, Florence remained Commissioner of The Girl Guides and became involved in many other community groups. She even forayed into the realms of home brewing, but that soon ended after Peter had to shoot the tops from the beer bottles with a gun before any more exploded and killed someone!

In 1981, Rabaul Stevedores relocated to Lae. Florence and three of her staff set up office there. In Lae, she renewed old friendships, made many new ones and carried on with her community work.

1981 was also the year that the Gods were smiling on me. Florence and Peter bought a block across the road from my riding school at Moggill, and I met my own ‘Opening Bat’ by inviting him to a party.

From the outset of what was to be a thirty-two year friendship, Florence impressed me no end. She would arrive at the farm with armfuls of cut orchids from Papua New Guinea and we would immediately hit the lunch and shopping circuit together. Her generosity knew no bounds. I very soon learnt not to say “that’s nice”, or it would end up in her cargo! We spent many hours riding together: Florence always on board Brownie, her favourite horse. I was in awe of her stamina at such a great age! (Florence was in her fifties at the time: it is amazing how one‘s perception of old age changes with time!)

In 1982, we set out on a road trip from Port Douglas to Brisbane. It took us four days as we kept diverting to catch up with Mum’s friends. Peter, Geoffrey and Matthew, in another vehicle took twenty-two hours.

1987 was another year of note. Mum again relocated, this time to Port Moresby. Peter, Matthew and I went to Rabaul. Our move from Moggill to Rabaul involved four or five cubic metres of cargo, but Mum’s move to Moresby from Lae required two twenty-foot containers. One for her personal effects and the other for her orchids!

Florence loved her time in Port Moresby. She lived alone in a house and we worried constantly about her safety. We worried needlessly, because she had once again established a wonderful circle of friends who looked after her admirably. Her social life was dynamic and she visited us often in Rabaul.

In 1992 Mum decided to retire. She left Papua New Guinea, with not only fond memories, but also a swag of awards, medals and life memberships, so richly deserved.

Florence moved to Sydney to care for her beloved sister Aunt Jean and as usual got into the spirit of things. She joined the Ashfield Bowling Club and the Canterbury RSL. She helped out at the local church and in her ‘spare time,’ looked after Matthew who was then boarding at Joey’s.

Aunt Jean died in 1999 and Mum was alone once again. We tried every trick in the book to persuade her to move to North Queensland to be nearer to us, but she refused to do so until her health began failing badly in March of 2012. Mum left an enormous number of friends in Sydney, along with amazing neighbours who helped her and kept a close eye on her. Her reluctance to leave was understandable.

On Thursday 26 September we farewelled Mum at St Monica’s Cathedral in Cairns, followed by a lively party in The Plantation Dining Room at The Hotel Cairns. Lots of laughter, catching up and of course champagne … Florence would have loved it!

Mum leaves behind Peter, Geoffrey and his partner Bertie, and I. She also leaves six grandchildren and six great grandchildren.

The world is a much poorer place for her passing.

In 1995, using information from her notes, I surprised Mum by producing her memoirs of Papua New Guinea which I wrote in Rabaul. I would be more than happy to send a copy of those to any of her friends who may like one. Email or telephone (07) 4093 7409.

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