What did it mean that my grandmother, born in 1898, had cached away a wad of fifty dollar bills at the back of her sock drawer, wrapped in a sheet of the nice stationery she always wrote letters on? A note in her neat schoolmarm’s handwriting read only, with mysterious intent, “This money is mine.” The possessive pronoun underlined emphatically enough to make a little tear.
I would have been nineteen when we found it, clearing out her house after she died. It niggled at me for years. Intrigued the budding writer that I was, but unsettled the naive only child, who had been loved and cherished all that while, given orange pekoe tea with honey every time we visited. A strand of cultured pearls. Her middle name. And then this sudden startlement from my gentle granny, with no explanation and no hope of one.
As family secrets go it wasn’t much. But it shook my world more than I admitted. My mother’s jocular speculation—”Do you suppose she was planning on leaving home?”—and my wise aunt’s matter-of-fact response still more, leaving the possibility open.
“Well—yes. Every woman needs to know that she can get away.”
Soon after that, I’ll start writing about clearing the house, about the three of us sitting around my father’s mother’s almost empty kitchen sometime later, after dark, eating crackers with seedy berry jam. I’ll write a story about finding the money. I’ll make up motives, compelling fears and dreams, embodied in the heavy smoke of forest fires and the supple grace of pines, and piece together a plausible Nora Belle from fragments of my own nature, what I observe, borrow or steal. Trying to understand—not ever having known who she was, really, the flesh and blood woman, other than a figure snugly set in the family tableau, a fixed star in my sheltering sky. Trying to see beyond her customary role to someone with unmet desires, unarticulated needs. But still, always, I see, making her mine again, keeping her with me, of me.
Over the years, my grandparents will appear often in my writing, if only through oblique glimpses, tucked carefully away and jealously guarded—their hands, their Southwestern turquoise, the reservations (Zuni, Hopi, Navajo) between us, the lonely whistles of the trains passing through Flagstaff in the night. The Indian dancers who one day (in the September of the Twin Towers, a month of reflection inside the fear and loss) will remind me of family, childhood, as I walk among them on my way to a Hawaiian wedding I have been invited to upcountry on the Big Island. The saddle leather my grandfather hand-tooled, the rugs Granny Belle hooked (two rolled up in our shed, still now, I noticed just this morning). Comforting lamplight, dawn departures. Things I’ll go on needing from them, needing them to be.
In a weekend class at Stanford in a corner of the Quad, I start a story that includes the summer I turned twenty between Ephesus and Corinth, my grandmother’s pearls running off me when the string broke on the ferry between land and land, and later, back in Athens, sat disconsolate in the Temple of Hephaestus, the domain of the crippled god. Always these glimpses tell of growing pains, uneasy loss. At that time of my life, goings away.
They refer back always to the name that joins us, without naming it. The tucked-away middle. The name given my father’s mother, given her daughter, my clear-eyed aunt, given the child I was, cherished and safe in lamplight, in the northern Arizona mountains sacred to the Navajo. In first morning, the lighted darkness of journeys’ beginnings, with the smell of bacon and the docile, dreamy clover honey wrapped around the spoon, lulling my parting blues.
I try to go back, now, again, differently, to fill in the gaps. Nora Belle Saling born in Texas, Albert Nathan Cochrell in Nebraska. How did they meet, I wonder, never having thought to ask? Midway, elsewhere entirely, like my father (from Idaho) and mother (from Wisconsin) who summered in Yellowstone after the war? Living in Flagstaff, Arizona, anyway, when I was growing up in Santa Fe, after their years in Idaho and eastern Washington—the small provincial town my father couldn’t wait to leave for New York City and its theaters and publishers, astonishingly lighted square, opera, ballet.
I was hijacked by college friends shortly after Granny Bell died. (Before or after clearing out her house? There are holes in my narrative, some unavoidable, some not.) A high-spirited group of four or five talked me into going along on a car trip to family in the Sierras, instead of staying in the dorm and grieving as I should have, my own way. I felt completely insubstantial the whole while. Lost in the crowd, undone by sibling histrionics which sucked up the air. I could feel nothing of myself, only the overmastering will of the others. It hadn’t occurred to me that I could have said no, and had the wherewithal to bolt. I’d learn one day, belatedly, how essential it is for me to slip off by myself at times—a good deal of the time, in fact—to protect my identity, my space. What’s mine.
Turning 65 this month, only a week from now, well into grandmother age myself but with no children of my own, I sign the papers that irrevocably spell out my instructions for my pension. I have to choose: monthly disbursements for the rest of my life, or a lump sum—for which my husband, my legal beneficiary, would have to sign his agreement and have it notarized, though this money I earned. I’m a little indignant to learn that.
While certainly not wanting to keep anything from him, whom I enduringly and dearly love, I nonetheless have the mad momentary wish to break out from those given expectations and societal assumptions, doing the “right” thing, and have my money all in hand, if not actually in my sock drawer, and do something mad and adventurous to ward off the advancing end of days, the drawing in of possibilities. Some dramatic gesture, world defying, purely selfish—more than last year’s votive offerings, which included sanctuary for elderly donkeys in Devon, college education for Native Americans, a dozen trees planted in Iceland. Most appealing, I think, would be buying an Italian villa in the countryside, not too far from cafés, Etruscans, museums, composers who give us pleasure. A stone farmhouse with garden and woodland, a house on three floors with terrace and typical Lucchese tiles, a house in a hilltown with chestnut beams and fireplace . . . or even two old barns to knock together into one big whitewashed room, completed by a shady grape arbor and view of distant hills.
I find I’m rather shaken by the need to narrow my choices. I’m feeling growing pains again, and a nebulous sense of loss. All of these things enkindling an urge to get away, indeed never long dormant in my life.
Considering, from my new vantage point, I see that the little paper-wrapped bundle (the lump-sum, in a tidy lump) is just that—possibility—tucked quietly, emphatically away. It’s something in reserve, a glimmer off beyond the ordinary pond of drinking water (the well of holy water in my other grandmother’s small-town Wisconsin yard, the peach daiquiri I offered her in Santa Fe her last summer: mischief at over 80). Not safety net but bungee cord, wings like those Mary Oliver described.
“I want to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.”
And yet, I think I finally understand that possibility is not the possibility of leaving, not exactly or not necessarily, but the possibility of keeping—keeping one’s self intact, unconquered by the musts and shalls and shan’ts, wings uplifted, stunningly agile while as fragile as spun glass.
Today, driving to the postbox downtown to mail my pension form, responsibly filled out, I’m conscious of what’s near at hand. My silver sonnet bracelet, Boccherini’s string quintet, a burgundy geranium in deepest shade, winkled out by a splash of sun. Seabirds on the ocean I’ve come to, a couple of Black Labs being walked at its edge. Nothing improbable. Nothing noble. No seachange into something rich and strange. I’ve ticked the box that gives me a fixed sum each month, a steady drip in perpetuity. But somewhere within all those quiet, ordinary things is the possibility of possibility. The possibility of remaining, the sacred charge of caretaking what’s most precious in me.
In an article I find this morning, I come across “My daughter who at thirteen wanted to be a pirate.” A daughter going off to college, coming of age. Becoming not pirate but student, maybe honors student, many things in her own right, but beyond that forever watermarked by the enduring inner possibility of piracy. What’s hers, that is. There have been days when I’ve sat barefoot too at water’s edge and picnicked with pirates. Pretend, perhaps, on their part too, but keeping in mind that line of Tom Stoppard’s, “Pirates can happen to anyone,” nonetheless swimming among anchored boats with lowered sails, in the cove just below the pines on Angel Island—in the nearby San Francisco Bay but very nearly Greek. With friends, and the children of friends, and the sudden incursion of pirates (frolicsome, afraid of nothing), and the immensity of everything that’s mine.
And finally, as I write about my grandmother again, as I approach her age, or my aunt’s anyway, and if I’m lucky claim some of their hard-won clarity, I see that the important secrets of women, wives, grandmothers, daughters off to school or off to Greece and some uncharted future, wading out, far out, into sorrow and joy, are really about keeping something, guarding the essence. Hers, mine, ours. For me (I am lucky), my writing is the way I spirit things away, a realm of possibility where I can stow them and forever after keep them part of me, keep them defiantly, precariously mine.
Christie Cochrell’s work has been published by The First Line, Lowestoft Chronicle, Catamaran, Amarillo Bay, Cumberland River Review, Tin House, and a variety of others, and has won several awards and been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. Chosen as New Mexico Young Poet of the Year while growing up in Santa Fe, she’s recently published a volume of collected poems, Contagious Magic. She lives by the ocean in Santa Cruz, California—too often lured away from her writing by otters, pelicans, and seaside walks.