November 4, 1971 Jennifer Rose Cooke, a girl from California, just turned 18, goes missing in a frigid forest in West Germany. She has been hitchhiking. First she caught a ride with a trucker, then with a West German soldier. Maybe she was trying to visit a young professor she had met on the boat over from New York. On that trip, he had heard her say she might throw herself overboard.
April 28, 1972 Another girl, just turned three, lives with her parents in a house in Laurel Canyon that lets the California rain in. Her biggest fear is of the brown snails in the garden; she will not cross the brick path if one is there. It is her father's twenty-sixth birthday; on this day his sister Jenny's remains are found. Officially, she died "of exposure," although a murder investigation is begun and the file remains permanently open.
This is the tale of a relationship only half lived. I have no memories of my Aunt Jenny as a living person. For all of my younger years I knew her only as someone who had died, and the only lessons her story held for me were about death and the probability that the worst would happen. Then I began to write about her. This was the next logical step since for me she was pure story already. While I started trying to find the truth of what had happened to her, I began to see that each person in my family had a different version of the story that suited their particular worldview and satisfied their particular needs. I was no different.
In a sense, Jenny's story has become the instrument that I'm singing along to–singing about a childhood in gorgeous 1970s-era L.A., about a friendly divorce; about the changing California landscape, its violent beauty; about traveling with my dad to try to get closer to what happened; and about getting to know something about a living girl who, it turns out, preferred to be called "Rose," not Jenny.
I've left Rose alone for a few years, but now we're traveling together again.
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