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Continued from Learning the Lay of the Land

Yry spent hours on the bench below the fan-shaped window, reading, daydreaming, and writing volumes of poetry. Her neat and well-spaced fountain pen script is entirely unlike the erratic scrawl that I came to know. She experimented with numerous nom de plumes. Throughout her life, she played liberally with these identities, making it a challenge to piece together the threads of her life. A saying she coined at 13, reveals a kernel of her character, along with her verbosity:

We all grow up to be what we make of ourselves when we are young, not what other people may try to make us. That is why we should start to make ourselves early in life.  If we start too late we won’t get finished.

Under one of her favorite pen names, a poem book from 1926 records carefully printed couplets about animals, the holidays, the seasons, and finally, a BOY! Enter Phil Cochrane.

 My Sweetheart, by Ruth Paul, 13 years
Blue his eyes, like summer skies,
Lips like cherries red;
Cheeks of rose, tip-tilted nose,
Pretty dark-blond head.
Do I love this boy, so sweet and fair?
Yes, truly, dearly I declare.
He’s my sweetheart, don’t you see?
What’s his age? Just ten is he.

What a surprise to realize that at this tender age, my mother’s gaze went toward a younger man. Is this what comes of being held back in school? She would reverse that trend later. From this point forward, her poetry is consumed with Phil for several years. She collected photos of Phil as if they were precious marbles. My mother’s passion for Philip was a recurring theme that traced her throughout life. I would find a lock of Philip’s hair stashed in a secret hiding place, I would find allusions to her first love in future writings. These relics followed her for all those years, all those moves, all those miles of her life! She was really caught.

Phillip - 1928

Phillip Chochrane

Her love was not in vain. Tucked into a Nestor Gianaclis cigarette tin, folded and age-browned scraps of paper document a torrid, youthful affair. Heavy pencil scrawl screams worship and a proposal of marriage. Mixed into the beloved scraps of paper are photos of a handsome, dark haired boy in short pants.

My Darling Iramiris,
Have you ever stopped to think how important love is. Iramiris, my Darling, I worship you. I adore you, I love you Iramiris. My Sweetheart, I can’t explain how much I adore you . . . my Dearest, will you marry me Please. I love you.
Your loving Shatz, Phil Cochrane

At first, I assumed that Phil had misspelled my mother’s unusual name. But as I uncovered more and more correspondence, I discovered that “Iramiris” was just another of many different spellings that she either initiated or put up with during her lifetime.

In 1927 she had actually promised, in writing, on a plain, cream colored sheet of paper, to marry Philip in 15 years, to love him and be with him forever, signing it with her pet name, Nawitta. Even as I sat beside her in the hospital 64 years later, Philip crept into her world with a tender smile. Whatever has become of dear Shatzy with his thick dark hair and serious hazel eyes? I didn’t lie to him. I do still love Philip, and he is still with me in my heart.  

And what, I wonder, does it say of me, that as I read these scraps of her life, coveted, hidden away, and carted across the country through multiple moves, that I snicker at the tawdriness of her emotion? Why can’t I take her feelings seriously? Who among us can forget our first love? World-weary adults patronize the perceived innocence and shallowness of young love. Yet each of us carries a sharp memory of that very first love. It is the awakening of our utmost possibilities. In love, we see ourselves from a refreshingly new perspective. We leave behind, at least for a while, parental authority and sibling disapproval. No matter how long or how short the first love is, or how passionately acknowledged or secretly hidden away, we remember it forever like the first taste of an exquisite candy.

I smile when I think of my first love: the dark, cramped hideaway where we both screwed up the nerve to share our first I love yous, the thumping of my heart at that moment, the exhilaration of discovering that some other human being found value in my existence. It was cute, it was fun, we went steady, his chewing gum prize, the key to my fidelity. But even in the 6th grade, a warning bell went off in my head, reminding me that this was only practice. Unlike my mother, I was not one to be hijacked by drama.