Cleo Fellers Kocol
Now that I’ve joined the most elderly of the elderly, walking is my primary way of keeping in shape. One spring as I approached a grammar school on my morning’s walk, children’s voices drifted from a schoolyard. From across a fence, I observed boys and girls lost in play. And then the bell rang, and although the school I had attended so long ago was far away, the building no longer in existence, I was a child again, standing, not in that schoolyard with those children, but in the one I had known at six. For a moment, I was a child again, feeling the same emotions. Around me I heard the real voices of today lowering; I saw the children hurrying toward the big, double doors, and abruptly, the spell was broken. But for a few seconds, it was so real; I shook my head in amazement. Were the sounds of young voices, the peal of a bell signifying recess was over, stored in my mind? Had my emotions as a child – the reluctance to quit play while knowing I had to – waited for the right signal to emerge again? I don’t know.
I do know that during that long past childhood, spring presaged summer, and it was stunning, going on forever. Now, I know that time is not a string that never runs out. I reach for but never quite grasp the emotions engendered in a child by summers ending in a flurry of activity. Except when I observe my great-granddaughter. Shopping for new clothes for the first day of school, buying notebooks and pencils and boxes of crayons are still an occasion. Suddenly, I recall the magic of nights catching fireflies in a jar, of days tramping through “the woods,” splashing through streams, playing hide and seek instead of texting or phoning friends as girls do today.
One other time I returned to the emotions of the past. My husband and I were traveling through the Midwest and approached a town where a young man whom I had dated during World War II now was middle-aged as we were. When he drove up to the motel where we were staying, I approached the driver side of his car and said his name. He turned, and for a moment, I saw, not a man losing his hair, but the young man I had sent off to war. For that moment I felt again like a girl of seventeen saying goodbye to a young man who would never return. But he had, only by then I was dating others. In the restaurant where the three of us ate, he proved to me, and my adoring husband, that one can never truly go back. But sometimes something can trigger a long-stored memory and give us a glimpse of our past that is priceless.
It came to me again when I read the notice for When Last on the Mountain. Deliberately, I reached back and found that eleven-year-old girl who had eavesdropped on an adult conversation. But now I could put their hints together and imagine what so shocked them about our now long dead cousin twice removed, a woman I never met but who became the focus of my story, “My Cousin Olivia.” From the maturity of a grown woman, and in a completely different social milieu, I could elaborate and flesh out a story that may or may not have a scintilla of truth. It was a revelation, because, for me, the past seldom takes precedence over the present.
Today is filled with historic talks I give several times a year. First comes the research and writing and then making sure I use popular speech when I give the talk later. As all writers who also give talks know, the two arts are related but different. In writing an article, story, or novel, adding phrases and clauses to a sentence can work. But such sentences bog down speeches or talks. Preparing and presenting keeps me in the present. Writing poetry or prose anchors me to the present – not because of their content but because they are being done in the present.
But sometimes when I glance at the photo of my mother and me on my dresser, I deliberately let my mind fly to the past. What was it she said about this or that when she and my father were newly married? What words did she use, what manner of speaking? I imagine her watching with interest when the lamplighter came down the street at twilight, lighting the gas lamps. His appearance presaged my father’s return from work. That, and other such memories provide a gateway into the past. My own imagination spreads out from there and creates a tapestry. Dipping into the past, mining it for that word or phrase or scene that no reference book can ever give you, can bring rewards. And its results are uniquely your own.
Great-grandmother, Cleo Fellers Kocol has been writing for thirty of her eighty-five years. She wrote three one-woman, many-character shows that she performed throughout the United States for five years. The recipient of many writing awards, she has published magazine and newspaper columns, novels, short fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Her work appears in assorted anthologies, including When Last on the Mountain: The View from Writers over 50.