The Dream Mother

updated 10/03/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/03/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE DREAMS HAD BEEN COMING TO Jenny Cockell for as long as she could remember. She saw herself in another time and place, as a young mother baking bread in a tiny cottage in Ireland, walking to church on a cobbled street, waiting for a boat on a small wooden jetty. But one dream haunted her the most. In it, Cockell saw herself on her deathbed, racked with fever and terrified of what would happen to her children. Each time the dream came, Cockell would wake up sobbing—because even as a child, she believed it was more than youthful imagining. "I'd always known it was a past life," says Cockell, now 41 and a podiatrist in Northamptonshire, England. "My dreams were more like memories. Exactly the way you might remember your childhood."

In fact, what Cockell believes she remembers is a past life as Mary Sutton, a mother of eight who died of complications from childbirth in Ireland 21 years before Cockell was born. And when she tracked down Mary's five surviving children—now in their 60s and 70s—they came to believe she may be right. "There's something somewhere," says Sonny Sutton, Mary's eldest son, now 75 and a retired truck driver living outside London. "I'm not sure it's reincarnation, but there are things that Jenny knows that only I or my mother would know."

Even Cockell, who chronicles her story in her new book, Across Time and Death: A Mother's Search for Her Past Life Children, admits it is hard to explain. "I just want people to make up their own minds based on the evidence," she says. "I'm not asking anybody to take it on faith."

Skeptics have suggested that perhaps Cockell's dreams were based on something she had read or that the Sutton children may have overlooked discrepancies in their excitement. But psychiatrist Brian Weiss, author of Many Lives, Many Masters, believes Cockell. "I've met two of the children," says Weiss. "They remember very specific details. Just because it helps them feel better about their mother doesn't mean it's fantasy."

But Cockell's apparent connection to Mary is striking. After the birth of her own children, Leigh, 15, and Heather, 11, Cockell decided to find the offspring Mary had left behind. "I needed to know they were all right," she says. "I couldn't be a whole person until it was resolved." Looking at a map of Ireland, she sensed intuitively that Mary had lived in the tiny town of Malahide, just north of Dublin, and when she compared the town's layout with many of the maps she had drawn from her childhood dreams, she found they were quite similar. A check of local church records for a mother of eight named Mary—the only name Cockell could remember from her dreams—revealed a Mary Sutton who had lived and died in Malahide and whose children had been scattered among family members and orphanages after her death. Then with the help of ads in Irish newspapers and letters to churches, foster homes and historical societies, she located the surviving children. "She told me things about our family, my mother, my sisters, the life we led," recalled Sonny, who first spoke to Jenny in 1990. "When I put the phone down, my wife said, 'You look like you've seen a ghost.' I said, 'I've been talking to me mother.' "

Before they met, however, Jenny and Sonny agreed to allow a BBC researcher to test Cockell's memories by having her answer—separately—a list of questions about Mary's life. Cockell knew details of the Sutton home, the kind of sewing thread Mary had used, even that the children had once caught a live hare in a trap. The results showed a 98 percent correlation and further strengthened Sonny's belief. "There was a 21-year lapse between when my mother died and when Jenny was born," he says. "How could she tell me so much about our family and our home? It shocked me for quite a while." The rest of Mary's family—Christy, 72, Frank, 70, Phyllis Clinton, 71, Betty Keogh, 62, and Jeffrey James (who died in 1992 at age 66)—were harder to convince. "It was very unsettling in the beginning," says Clinton. "She knew the pictures on the wall, what was in the house, how it was built." A Catholic who is well aware of the Church's disavowal of reincarnation, Clinton consulted her parish priest, who suggested that perhaps her mother's spirit was speaking through Jenny as a way to get the family back together. "I still find it hard to believe, even though I know she's telling the truth," she says. "The only thing I can think is that Mammy passed her soul onto this unborn person." Jenny understands their confusion. "I can't expect the family to look on me as their mother and never expected them to treat me like I was," she says, noting she doesn't spend Christmas with Mary's children because it would be "slightly wrong."

The child of an electronics designer and a teacher in the middle-class town of St. Albans, north of London, Cockell learned early on that reincarnation is not something most people take seriously. She remembers her mother's surprised reaction when Jenny, at age 3, first mentioned her dreams. "It was a shock for me," says Cockell. "I thought people knew they had past lives."

Cockell, a Mensa member, is described by friends as being very down to earth and having a quiet sense of humor. And although she consulted a hypnotist to help her remember details of Mary's life, she is skeptical of those details she didn't remember on her own. "You've got to have that element of caution if you're going to be objective," she says.

While her husband, Steve, 40, a garden designer, and their children supported her efforts to find the Sutton family, she admits to some worry about the effect the situation is having on her children. "I talked to them about it all the way through," she says. "My mother always insisted people have their own opinions, and I feel very strongly about that."

But whether or not Jenny is in fact a reincarnation of Mary is not what's most important to the Sutton siblings. After the family was separated following Mary's death, most of them had lost contact with their brothers and sisters for almost 60 years. Jenny's search brought them back together. And at a reunion of Jenny and the surviving Sutton children at Betty's house in Dublin in 1993, they had six decades' worth of tears and hugs to share. "It was very moving," says Phyllis. "What a pity it didn't happen earlier."

CYNTHIA SANZ
ELLIN STEIN in London

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