For many people, roommates and romances are the most important relationships of their late teens and early 20s. For me it was Cora Brooks, a poet and activist 51 years my senior. She taught me how to make bread without measuring the flour or water or yeast, to not fear improvising. Through Cora I learned slowness and grace.
Cora taught me that there are worse things than dying — that getting older is a process of losing your children to distance and coping with incontinence and memory loss, yes, but also of becoming more unapologetically yourself. She got angry at the government, at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station, at her body’s failings, at her family. Her secret to recovering from multiple strokes? Turn on the radio and teach herself to dance, step by wobbly step. “The trick is to keep moving,” she told me.
I met Cora through the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America in Cambridge, Mass. The Schlesinger houses over 100,000 volumes of books and periodicals, photos and films, and the collected papers of various prominent American women. Julia Child’s papers are there, alongside Helen Keller’s and June Jordan’s. In 2011, when I was a sophomore in college, I received a research grant to study the work of 13 female poets who had their work archived in the Schlesinger. I started alphabetically: Brooks, Cora. I never made it to the others.
Twice a week I signed in at the front desk, deposited my backpack in a locker (only pencils could be brought upstairs) and entered a quiet and cold reading room. A few minutes later, a librarian would emerge from an elevator pushing a cart of gray boxes with folders inside: the contents of Cora’s life in 43 ordered boxes. I read through diaries and to-do lists and newspaper clippings from the 1960s along with paragraphs about her two children.
I learned that in 1981 Cora staged a protest of the reinstatement of registration for the draft at a post office in Chelsea, Vt. The postmistress called the chief of police, who tried to handcuff her. But she was tiny and slid the handcuffs off her wrists. “These don’t work on me,” she said, handing them back.
In 1982, Cora co-founded Chelsea Help for Battered Women, a hotline and group of safe houses in rural Vermont. While teaching writing workshops, she wrote poems about missing socks, politics, the moon. She published various chapbooks of poetry through Acorn Press in Chelsea, Vt., and a book of writing exercises called “The Sky Blew Blue.” One of her plays, “The Moon Is a Skull of Dust With Dark Wings,” was produced at the John Houseman Theater in New York.
One afternoon as I read through her writing in the Schlesinger, I realized that Cora was still alive. This is rare in an archive. Most people donate their papers after death. I found her address from 2009, scrawled on an envelope, and asked a librarian if I could send her a letter. The librarian shrugged. If the address was there, I could write to her.
I pulled out a pencil and a clean sheet of paper, and right there in the reading room I wrote her a note, an invitation to visit Harvard and lead a poetry workshop. She wrote back three days later, on a hand-painted postcard with flowers on the back: “I’m much too old to come to Harvard,” she wrote, “but why don’t you come to Vermont?”
I ran from my mailbox all the way to my roommate’s bedroom door, where I knocked, breathless. “Cora’s handwriting is exactly like it is in the archives!”
I borrowed my family’s Volvo and drove to Vermont. It was my first trip on the highway alone and it was snowing. When I turned into her driveway, I found a turquoise house with an empty clothesline strung in the backyard. No cell service. A bell tinkled as I pushed through the back door to Cora’s porch, propped open by an old book. A striped cat wound his way around my ankles. Cora enveloped me in a hug.
We spent four days together. We watercolor-painted postcards to send to friends. Her cat had different names: Zebra Tattoo, Charles, Sir Stripey. Cora smoked a cigarette each night after dinner, perched under the whirring fan of her stove. We sat and talked throughout the afternoons, and then took trips together to the Hunger Mountain Co-op, where we found that we both loved candied ginger and vegetable stews. That first trip was followed by several more.
At Harvard, my life was measured in minutes: I hurried from class to rowing practice and back. I was good at being in a rush. Cora taught me to slow down.
We talked about death, often. She said she would welcome hers.
“I’m in the afterlife already,” she told me one day, her hands covered in paint. “Each day is a bonus.”
In the months between our visits I wrote her letters and she cheered me on: in rowing, in coursework, in healing from a torn A.C.L., a broken heart. In having the courage not to have a map of what to do after graduation. She thought that my plan to ride a bicycle around the world was marvelous.
One day in 2015, I called her from a picnic table in Sarina, Australia, where the air smelled like sugar from a nearby mill, to say thank you for teaching me to let go. She thanked me back, saying that my phone calls made her feel, at the end of her life in Vermont, as if she was traveling, too.
Months later, while cycling through New Zealand, I was interviewed by the BBC. Cora heard the broadcast while sitting in her living room that I remembered so well: the thick yellow carpet, old lunar calendars tacked to the walls and watercolor paintbrushes lined up in empty pasta sauce jars on the shelf. A handwritten sign that said “no mouth to mouth, no jump start, no tubes” was taped to the front door, alongside her children’s phone numbers.
Cora wanted to have a choice in exiting the world. Debilitated by successive strokes, and frustrated by her inability to care for herself, she decided in the spring of 2018 to stop eating that fall. Dying turned out to be a slow process, spread out over a month. When I called, she said she was surprised that her body wanted to keep living.
“Cora lived a thoughtful, intentional life, and she died a thoughtful, intentional death,” her obituary read. “In April, she announced to friends and family that she was going to cease eating and drinking on Sept. 24, near the equinox. She held true to her word, eating only one basil leaf, one lemon drop, and one lime Popsicle after her self-appointed date.” When she died, Cora was 77 years old. We had known each other for seven years.
At her wake in October I met her daughter, Oona. I felt like an interloper as I looked at pictures from Cora’s life, my eyes stitching together the eras I had read about in the archives: a younger Cora, sitting on a porch; Cora smiling in a field of wildflowers; Cora reading a book of poems outside; Cora protesting in New York.
Maybe it was easier to be friends with an older person outside of my family because families live with one another’s faults. With Cora, I didn’t have any baggage; we shared no memories. We were free to be friends: to be frank with each other about our hopes and fears and flaws. Though it was cut short by her death, my friendship with Cora ranks among the most important I have ever had. Even now that she has been gone for nearly a year, our conversations still guide me. I would recommend that anyone in need of connection seek friends beyond the generational divide. What you find there might surprise you. We are more similar across generations than we are different: all human, all, to some extent, still figuring out who we are.
The letters that I wrote Cora are now part of her collection in the Schlesinger, stored in the same gray boxes, left for someone in the future to explore.
Opinion | Caroline Catlin
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Devi Lockwood (@devi_lockwood) is a fellow in the Times Opinion section.
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