Monday, April 7, 2008

Pearls and Roses -- Chapter 1

On the day before New Year’s Eve – a Saturday, an odd, empty day, very cold, a working day, yet schoolchildren home, the glittering spicy opulence of Thanksgiving and Christmas over, sleek black and silver midnight New Year’s Eve parties still to come – while the ghastly letter had been doing its work among the studio employees, Trish called Alice at home at nine o’clock in the morning to ask if she could come over and show her something.

Alice thought this sounded suspicious, but not terribly threatening. Hunter lay still asleep in his bedroom, and her two little nieces, Jill and Polly, had been dropped off at eight-thirty to spend the morning while Pam worked a short shift at the hospital. If flute-voiced Trish wanted to come over right now and talk business, Alice could hardly vouch for any undistracted quality of reception. Still, if she had something to say, maybe it would be best to get it over with.

"After I got your letter," Trish said on the phone, "I stayed up all night last night writing a pamphlet, really just for my own sake, my own good feelings, and I was just wondering, if you’re not busy, if I could come over and show it to you."
"Oh. Well, yes, I suppose so."
"Really? You’re not busy?"
"No, nothing is happening here. You can come over. Don’t mind my house."
"Oh, I don’t care about that. Okay, great! Great. I have some things to do in your neighborhood anyway so I’ll be over in a little bit."

Alice hung up the phone feeling apprehensive but not panic-stricken. Trish did not sound as sulfurous as Pat had on the phone last night ("I am quite upset"). Perhaps this indicated that, even if they had compared notes by now, which surely they had, Trish at least planned to behave more softly, even felt more softly, than her stentorian friend did.

Ah, the letter, the ghastly letter. Alice had written a letter, only two typed pages, explaining all that had happened during the company’s field trip to splendid medieval France earlier in the month, only two weeks ago, in fact. Hard to believe that only two weeks ago this very morning, she had been sitting with Liz in a hushed closed French cafe, all polished wood and gleaming glassware, facing a man and grimly, professionally agreeing that "this must never happen again in Chinon." Chinon, home of many French kings.

There had been trouble. There was a party at the cafe, which had gotten out of hand. The police were nearly – nearly – called. There had been confusion. Some of the company’s employees had already flown home early, so very high-placed staff had not been present to take responsibility for the mess. Nobody better than Alice had been there to take responsibility. She had gone, with Liz, and apologized to the man in the cafe, and following that she had written an open letter, addressed to the whole company, all about the mess. In it she explained, really with great love, that all their current difficulties had a few deep roots which she knew they could prune when they got home. It was, she explained lovingly, all their own fault. Everything lay in their neglect of the bylaws, and everything could be rectified by returning to the bylaws.

How Alice loved that word. She had been the type who tries to form a secret club in the fourth grade, giving every Mary and Sally code names, casebooks, and passwords. Or perhaps most fourth graders are like that and Alice had simply never grown up. Anyway the marvelous word bylaws, encountered in adulthood, now sounded so right, so professional, cool and knowing. To think that there was a way, simply by writing down laws, to ensure that everything would run fairly and smoothly for everyone indefinitely, even after the author of the laws died ... it was like a miracle of human nature. One of the few, possibly excepting art, and they had seen that in France, too. In transports, she had signed off the letter "thanking everyone in advance for their cooperation," and had sent it out. That was just after they had returned, about ten days ago now.
Who knows? Perhaps there was something in the ground of medieval France as well, which percolated up through her shoes as she stood there, reviving her, reviving the clubby fourth-grader, or poisoning the adult, making of her a plant transplanted to freakishly rich soil. They had been filming restoration work at Fontevrault, the great abbey where once Eleanor of Aquitaine had sheltered, and where she lies buried; they had stayed in the town of Chinon, where exists still the well at which Joan of Arc mounted her horse. People have lived and died here, Alice did not so much think as feel, feel through her eyes and through the cool breath of French air against her skin. People have believed grand things here, obeyed grand ideas. See how small we are, in comparison? Oh, not worse people, she didn’t mean that, she only meant – see? We are part of a grand story, not of our own making. We did not write the first chapter – the bylaws, you might put it – and so we have a duty not to write the last, just as we have a duty not to change the master’s theme. Do you see? We are a splendid part of the whole, but not the whole. Could anyone understand?

It, the letter, her ideas, her excitement, clubbiness, did not go over well. That is, it apparently was not going over well, if Alice’s two first reckonings were any indication. Pat had telephoned the night before last ("I am quite upset"), and now here came Trish. The women had seen only criticism, and had gone mad. But perhaps not. She must not underestimate people. Be fair. Perhaps everything would be all right.

As she fussed about her apartment brushing her hair and arranging pillows, Alice wondered what the "pamphlet" Trish had made was all about. "For my own good feelings," she had said. Perhaps it would be all right. Perhaps Trish agreed with her. She was no fool. Perhaps her pamphlet would say yes, we have operated rather peculiarly for years, and yes we really ought to include all our staff in the decisions we make, and yes it’s true there is a waterfront restoration project in St. Louis that might be very interesting, as much or moreso than the beautiful feminine abbey at Fontevrault, and far more in keeping with our mandate. As for the party in the cafe in Chinon, well, we should recall that Europe is different. Nor would we likely have gotten by with that kind of behavior even here. Perhaps we should plan more carefully, more professionally, the ways we represent the studio and the foundation abroad. Perhaps we should not go abroad. Maybe, Alice’s fancy flew, she had an ally in her campaign to shape the foundation back into the mold in which Mr. and Mrs. Boyd had cast it years ago. She knew Trish had always made a great deal of loving and knowing Monique Boyd. And this had not been her first trip to France, certainly. Perhaps something grand and medieval had percolated up through her shoes, too. In fact she had bought shoes there. Why wouldn’t an intelligent woman want to do what the Boyds had long ago said their foundation should do? Perhaps she had only forgotten for a moment, and would be glad to remember. Respect was a part of adulthood.

Alice, wandering excitedly thus, put the few breakfast dishes in the sink and then made her bed. She did not intend to clean house thoroughly for a friend on such short notice. "Don’t mind my house" was the code for that. Didn’t they all guffaw at Pie Night about the humiliating state of domestic deshabille in which unexpected company invariably found them? She was sure Trish would understand. After all, this was a Saturday and the day before New Year’s Eve. Her son was sleeping in and she was babysitting toddlers. They had known each other for years. It wouldn’t matter.

Hunter had in fact just roused himself and stumbled to the kitchen table with a bowl of dry cereal and a spoon when the doorbell rang. Jilly and Polly bolted upright from the living room floor where they were sitting coloring and cried in unison, "Who is it! Who is it! Mom-ee!"

"No, it’s not Mommy," Alice smiled as she opened the kitchen door to the tiny sunroom entrance. Trish had already let herself in and stood there off-balance, scuffing off her boots. She looked up and saw the anxious little girls crowding around Alice’s legs and understood the situation instantly.

"Oh! No, I’m not Mommy," she said, her lovely laugh striking, in that bell-like way it had, against her fine square teeth. Alice led her into the kitchen where she took off her winter things and piled them on a chair. Already Alice felt something forbidding. Trish, a mother of little girls herself, did not ask who the little girls were, and therefore Alice did not explain. She said only, "I don’t know if you know my son, Hunter. He’s, uh, on vacation," but beyond saying "Hi" with a strange pursed smile, Trish did not acknowledge him either, or the motherly humor by which Alice thus tried to excuse his pajamas and his hair. Most likely Miranda and Rory were already up and dressed and at piano lessons by now.

"Well," Trish began, finishing arranging her clothes. She did not sit down. "I think we all agree you made a mistake. And I’m sure by now you agree too." She reached out, a little hunched, and touched Alice’s arm, smiling pursely again.
All Alice’s fancies of camaraderie evaporated. So it was going to be a fight, and in her own home, too. "No, I don’t," she said.

Trish was shocked. In the pause, she fought for self-control.
"Okay. Then I think you owe us all an apology, especially those of us on the Board."
Trish looked down and grimaced as if with regret that Alice was not the lady, not even the woman, she had believed her. Hunter stared at them both with his mouth open. The little girls stood rooted to the floor.

"Well. Here’s what I have to show you." Trish soldiered on as well as she could. She rummaged in a leather satchel and took out a sheet of nice thick paper, folded in thirds, stamped in bright colors. It was covered on all sides with close black printing and bore the Boyd Foundation logo on its folded front. Her shoulders remained hunched, as if she were going to bend over a school-child’s desk. Her look was brittle, adult. She took a breath, and her voice declamatory.

"In my experience dealing with people in all sorts of situations, you know, work, teaching, with the Mayor’s office, Girl Scouts, whatever," she said – and Alice bitterly, and somewhat unfairly, mentally translated this. ‘I am a sophisticated woman, I have a degree in art, my husband is a wealthy business owner and a village trustee. We have a big house. I didn’t have children until I was thirty, and their names are Miranda and Rory. They are perfect. I didn’t get pregnant in high school and then get married and divorced and have their grandparents raise them. And then enter the studio’s employ through data processing. My life has been orderly and beautiful. I have a voice like a flute, and many friends ....’

"I always try to approach people in a positive way," Trish was saying. Alice was now in the depths of a fencing match, prepared to commit nothing of herself while non-committally assenting to Trish’s autobiographical remarks one phrase at a time. This was her guest, incredible as it seemed. I try to deal with people in a positive way. Very well, point noted.
"Of course," she answered.
The little girls began to stir. Jill wandered around the corner towards the stove, Polly ventured into Alice’s bedroom. A light sprang up in the bedroom closet, the same closet where, for lack of space, Alice hung her good winter coat on a pole above the cat’s litter pan. Which needed scooping, Alice remembered. While Trish talked they moved out into the living room. Alice did not dream of offering her tea or coffee. They were already that far along.

"So here is what I did last night. I did this just for myself, because I needed to remember that we are good people, and we do good work. Dan said to me, ‘Why don’t you go to bed?’ and I said, ‘No, I want to finish this.’ I put together this pamphlet, which I want to copy and distribute at the studio Tuesday morning. And I’ll leave this copy with you."
Hunter had gotten up from the table and carried his bowl to the kitchen sink. As he walked he glanced hard at Trish. Then Alice heard a thunk from the closet and said, "Hang on, I’m babysitting a little girl who likes cats but I’m not sure she realizes they’re real and they’ll bite back if they’re annoyed. Let me just see what she’s doing."
"Oh, okay." Trish’s dogs, Samoyeds, never bit.
Alice went into her room and found that everything was all right. Polly was already lying on the bed on her stomach, looking at a book. She left her alone and returned to the living room.

"And I made a list of the things we have done. As a foundation, with Monique Boyd’s money. The good things. We have kept within our bylaws, we have filmed in America, we conduct open business meetings, we have received plaques and thank-yous from all kinds of preservation societies, government offices, we’ve had letters from the Peabody people ...."

Alice cocked her head and made a show of looking at the pamphlet. Now where was Jill? Near the stove? Could she reach the burners? The list of ‘good things’ was impressive indeed, especially broken down, as Trish had done it, into the smallest possible components. Their constant parties and Pie Nights stood proudly under "Intra-office Social and Support Functions," modestly leaving room for plain, bold "Business Meetings" to have pride of place on the pamphlet’s important inside left flap. In the middle spread stood a long list of all the wonderful restoration projects the studio had filmed in America early on, when Frank Boyd was still well in charge of things. Before he got sick, and the women took over, and Europe, Canada, Mexico beckoned. But who knew that? There really was very little for Alice to say in rebuttal to a woman who had compiled a sketch of the foundation’s almost twenty-year history and so did indeed have printed proof, right now, of all the good things it had done, while habits of obedience to petty rules had unraveled, to no one’s recorded detriment. If the point of the compilation was to make Alice look foolish in front of people who did not share her love of ordered clubbiness, or did not care to detect the upshot of certain changes, then the point was well taken. Her views on the dangerous slovenliness of their procedures at the moment, however admirably backed once by Mrs. Boyd and by those cool professional bylaws, seemed as chaff in the wind – an American wind – compared to proof that they worked hard and had a great deal to be proud of. Hunter in the kitchen was extremely quiet. Or had he left? Could she hear the stove, if need be? Where was Jill?

"Of course a lot of these things are from years ago," Alice said, squinting, trying to salvage some semblance of partnership and mature agreement with this woman. "Two of these, that hotel on the South Side and the Wright house, they were done in the same year, weren’t they? I think we’ve pretty much been in Europe since then."
Trish was only just gathering steam. "No, we have not been in Europe since then. And projects having been done in past years doesn’t mean they cannot be done again, or that they weren’t a part of who we are. And they were not long ago. We are good people, we do good things. We don’t need to change. If you want to approach people in a positive way, you cannot tell them they have to change."

Sweat gathered in Alice’s armpits. Never in ten thousand years would she ever dream of speaking to another human being in a way that was not cordial. Never would she presume to criticize another person to her face. It was not that she was so terribly good and loved humanity. In fact she had few friends. (Perhaps that was why she loved the idea of clubbiness and rules. It provided manufactured friendship, without the bother of knowing people.) But she knew, well, my God, everybody surely knew. You don’t do this. Was Polly still reading? Where was Jill? Did Hunter see her go back near the stove, and would he stop her burning herself to death while she listened to Trish’s lecture? Where was everybody?

"Look, Trish," Alice spoke more bluntly than she ever had before – while wondering how it happened now that she sat low on a couch but Trish towered above her, perched on the couch’s arm – "suppose it’s not me who wants us to change? I’m not asking for your firstborn’s head on a platter. Suppose it was Mrs. Boyd, and it is the IRS, that wants us to change?"
"Monique would have had nothing to do with this. I knew her and she vetted everything." Trish almost waved her hand. "Anyway what do you mean by change? This is what’s bothering everybody. People don’t like change. Change is scary," and she let her bell-like laugh ring out anew. "Do you mean we can’t have Pie Night anymore?"
"Of course not. I don’t have that kind of power. And I agree we have done good things."
"Okay, well, good. We think so too. So you’re saying you don’t want change."
"No, not at all. I think some things have to. Better we make a few alterations than that the IRS does it for us."
"I think that’s highly unlikely." Alice began to speak but Trish went on, "And anyway now I’m scared again. What change do you want?"

How could Alice possibly make Robert’s Rules of Order look attractive compared to Pie Night? They worked for a wonderful company whose employees had so streamlined its operations that it was an absolute pleasure to go to work every Monday morning, that was all. It was a pleasure to do anything there. Now Alice threatened to ruin that end by her absurd new fixation on means which meant nothing to anybody. With her pretty pamphlet and her soft, quizzical look – "What change do you want?" – Trish had swiftly succeeded in making the issue seem to be Alice’s ignorant freakishness and indecision as to what method she preferred to use to destroy them all. She knew this was not "the IRS talking." The IRS had never written her any letters.
Meanwhile, after his long silence Hunter, still in the kitchen, had become very agitated. He paced about creating enough noise for a quiverful of eighteen-year-old boys. Normally he would have been in the shower by now. Instead he had elected – so Alice inferred from the sound of running water and crashing pots and glasses – to wash the dishes. And perhaps he had saved Jill from burning herself to death at the stove, for she now came wandering out into the living room. She sucked one finger and picked her way over the detritus of toys and clothes to the tangle of wires at the back of the television set.

Polly emerged from the bedroom. Alice held out her hand to the child, playing the calm doyenne before this mother of safe-at-home, piano-banging Miranda and Rory, hoping Polly would come to her and not join her sister behind the television. But she did not. She looked at Alice’s outstretched hand. Trish kept talking. Then Polly walked over to Jill and crouched, fascinated, in the wires beside her.

"This is why it’s always so important to be positive, and deal with people in a positive way," Trish was saying. "When you go the other route, when you’re negative, you’re angry, you’re pompous, you don’t consult people, you make decisions on your own, then you just open up a whole can of worms that is just totally unnecessary."
For a while now, Alice had begun to wonder whether it was time to order this woman from her home. She decided not to. The ignorant never know, she recalled a proverb or some Bible quote, how the strong arm of the righteous protects them. Besides, she had to consider her son and even her nieces, and the impression all this would make on them. They were only at the beginning of their lives. (The crashes from the kitchen continued.) Would they, would he, remember that his mother had been afraid to face criticism, and had expelled an unwelcome guest from her home to avoid it? Or would he see that this was all in a day’s work, that you swallow an insufferable woman’s rebuke and move on with a shrug – a Gallic shrug – and a rolled eye? She wanted Hunter to see that this episode was ultimately forgettable, that poor Trish was forgettable, and to be unafraid in his own future.

So she overlooked the string of insults Trish had just fed her, and switched tack. "Ah, dammit," Hunter said from the sink. Had he broken something?
"You know," Alice said, "I have been writing the company newsletter every month for who knows how long. Which I shouldn’t have been, I’ll admit. I don’t intend to anymore. That’s not the Treasurer’s job. But my newsletters have always tended to be chatty. It’s not like people have never seen me put pen to paper before."
"This was beyond chatty. And even your newsletters have gotten a little ...well, that’s another issue. This was unprecedented. When you’re totally negative, when you descend on people with stuff that no one has any reason to know – "
"Like what stuff?"
"Like the party in the cafe in France. There was no reason the whole staff had to know about that. That’s just a complete can of worms. We’re not going to go slinking off with our tail between our legs because of one thing. Pat says she heard they were incredibly rude to us. And then to talk about change on top of that. I think you definitely should have consulted the rest of the Board before you wrote anything.
"Consulted you, and been shut up? I felt it was an emergency."
"Nothing’s that much of an emergency. And no, not shut up. I don’t use negative terms like that." Trish grimaced down again, as if she more and more regretted even knowing this absurd bear of a woman. As if knowing her, following her into her lair in the woods, had made her dirty, had put burrs in her coat and given her bear-breath. "But we could have helped you draft a more positive, productive report. That’s what we’re here for. We’re here to help you, to help each other. We’re good people."

The day I need your help you can go fuck a tree, Alice wanted to say, but she was so increasingly stunned that the words, and even their anger and humiliation, did not really form in her mind until hours later. "I don’t doubt we’re good," she said wearily now. Non-committal. The little girls sat behind the television, staring at Trish from the tangle of wires. Hunter stood in the middle of the kitchen, dripping suds from his hands. "Mom," he said. The open pamphlet was still in Trish’s hand.

Their conversation would and must dwindle down like this. No very clear winner, not even to Trish’s mind. She had obtruded into Alice’s home and sat on the arm of the couch, berating her in the name of collective self-esteem but Alice had not expressed even a slight doubt about her action, much less apologized. Draw.

Trish switched on her good cheer, her outdoor face, before leaving. She told Hunter how nice it was to meet him, and wished them all a Happy New Year as she slipped on her boots and sailed out into the cold, not even pausing inside the little sunroom to put on her coat and mittens. She struggled into them, hot, outside her car.

It had all taken a full hour. Alice turned away from the door, rolled her eyes at the young people, and burst out laughing. Somehow the pamphlet was in her hand, and much as she wanted to, she was afraid to throw it in the garbage. What if they found out? She thrust it in the back of the mail caddy on her desk, behind everything else. And she would never forgive this, no matter what any religion said.

Pearls and Roses -- Chapter 2

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Meet Me at The Fair

From any perspective, a child’s or an adult’s, at home or abroad, 1933 was an interesting year. Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January. The suspicious fire in the Reichstag broke out in February, the same month that President-elect Roosevelt, not even inaugurated yet, was almost assassinated in Miami (the bullet killed the mayor of Chicago instead). The President gave his first "fireside chat" radio address in March. Congress launched the National Recovery Administration in June. Babe Ruth hit the first home run of the first All Star game at Comiskey Park in Chicago in July. In November the United States recognized the USSR, and in December Prohibition ended completely. Some people read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Everybody went to see Little Women and King Kong.

And in 1933 my parents’ generation, now called the greatest, went to the World’s Fair. It opened on May 27 in Chicago, where my parents were both growing up a few miles from each other, and so was easy enough for them and their families to get to by a seven cent streetcar ride (one way). Light from the star Arcturus was used, somehow, to spark the lights at the Fair’s opening. It was a celebration of the "Century of Progress" from Chicago’s founding in 1833.

Perhaps, of that generation, not only my parents buy my father-in-law, also a Chicagoan, might have crossed paths there. A ride on the new DeSoto Airflow at the General Motors exhibit would have been a big attraction for the grade school boys, as was free lunch at the food demonstration booths, especially for children who had to reserve fourteen cents of their permitted quarter for transportation. My mother, at four, rode the Skyride across the lagoon with her nine-year-old sister, much to their mother’s distress.

My mother-in-law, an eleven-year-old future war bride in England, could not have seen the fair, but her fictional compatriot, the Provincial Lady, did. She was novelist E. M. Delafield’s wry, shy Englishwoman whose five Diaries – including The Provincial Lady in America – delighted so then with their gentle agonies over bounced cheques and the health of one’s indoor bulbs. She, typical adult, liked the Jade Chinese Temple and the Belgian Village, and was pulled in a rickshaw by a College student ("to whom everyone says it’s Interesting to Talk"). Chinese things were much to the fore, apparently. There was even a Jehol Temple with a gold-leaf exterior, Jehol being a province of that Manchuria so interestingly occupied by the Japanese at the time. Who decided it should be a part of the fair? Was it a topical reference or did it just sound exotic? The Provincial Lady didn’t notice it.

It was an Interesting year at home, too, not forgetting that interesting times are a proverbial Chinese curse. When my father and his thirteen-year-old brother returned from the fair on any bright day that summer, having ridden the streetcar there and back all on their own, they might have come home to any number of things that modern children do not know. Chickens in the backyard, winevats in the basement, paying boarders in the upstairs bedrooms, a younger sister sick – dangerously so, for antibiotics were three years away – in her bed. The thirteen-year-old, being then almost in high school, could have perfectly happily thrown himself on the sofa and lit up a relaxing cigarette in front of everybody the moment he got home. Everybody smoked, and everybody began at about his age.

There was more. It was the Depression, of course, and that year my father’s parents were strapped enough to take in boarders for the money. Several adequate previous sources of income – a photography studio, a home-construction venture, and work as a landlord (sometimes paid in groceries) and in a (until Roosevelt, Republican) sheriff’s office – had dried up. Out of work with a family of six to support, my grandfather had turned, as if by some ancient, convulsive human instinct, to farming to help. He kept between thirty and sixty chickens in his backyard, sold the eggs to neighbors who were patient enough to put up with the noise and smells and the dawn crowing of the rooster, "the Kaiser," and sold the birds themselves to the Kickapoo Restaurant. The Kickapoo would not accept them alive and kicking, so my grandfather had to go get help from a butcher friend who taught him how to kill and pluck poultry in his own basement.

But amateur farming in the midst of a busy city neighborhood was not enough. The ex-photographer taught himself innkeeping, too. My grandparents registered their house as a "Tourist Home" for vacationers – vacationing despite the Depression – to stay in, and pay for, while visiting the World’s Fair. Every few weeks a new family would arrive, having signed up at the visitors’ center and been shown a list of available tourist homes. No regulations, no inspections, and apparently no warnings or qualms about the chicken-slaughtering going on in the basement. So it would have been normal for my father and uncle on any bright summer day to go home to total strangers abruptly placed in the two upstairs bedrooms, as well as at the breakfast table. The boys were sent to sleep in a quickly constructed basement bedroom (again, the basement), while my grandparents moved to the back porch. The family’s two daughters, aged six and fourteen, were lucky enough to keep the last real bedroom on the upper floor, beside the boarders. The income from "roomers" proved so helpful that the home stayed open to them for as long as my grandmother, even past widowhood and past Depression, owned the house. My newlywed parents shared that same house with her, and with a roomer, even fifteen years later.

More. Prohibition was still on, barely, but by March, when President Roosevelt signed a bill making the manufacture of wine and beer legal, my grandfather would at least have the law entirely on his side again for his long-standing basement liquor production. He bought hampers full of grocery store grapes, especially in the fall, had the children help pluck the grapes off the vines, and then put them through all the elaborate machinery of home wine-making, crushers, spinners, vats, and barrels topped with corks and tubing and jars of water to drain off the gas bubbles. There were two or three barrels of wine at the ready for decanting in those days, for personal consumption and for friends. If any very zealous Prohibition officers had wanted to enforce the Willis-Campbell Act (signed by President Harding in 1921) anytime in the previous twelve years – the Act which stated that Prohibition officers could not search private dwellings for alcohol without a warrant – they would probably have been more aghast at the nearby meat-processing plant in this home’s basement than anything else.

And there was more, the worst of all. In the middle of that busy summer of 1933, amid the smoking and the roomers, ominous news from Manchuria and Berlin, the Fair, money problems, clandestine hootch, the six-year-old sister died of bacterial meningitis, a disease, unlike so many other childhood afflictions now eradicated by vaccines, that is still with us, and still able to kill with numbing speed. Death came incongruously, came even amid the adventure and humor and interests of this summer, as it can at any time. As could pneumonia. My father-in-law’s own father died of that, also in 1933, after catching it in a hospital following a minor medical procedure. In either case, very quickly, there was nothing you could do. And following death in 1933 there was the home wake. Three days of the body laid out in the home, and then everybody returning to live and cook and read the paper in the home like always. With strangers upstairs on their vacation.

What is striking about this one year is not merely its "interest," for my grandparents, surely, would have preferred it dull. What is striking is the lack of emotional protection for children, by our standards. (Of course, that generation, if they could come forward in time, would probably look at our divorce rates and our blood-soaked movies and video games, and scoff at "emotional protection".) Nevertheless my father and father-in-law were variously exposed in this summer to things now unimaginable, and were exposed in an era when life was, we fancy, more innocent all around. Solitary gadding about in a big city, tobacco, strangers, personal sacrifice, money problems, livestock right there – and a concomitant awareness of where food comes from. Maybe an awareness of national problems. Illness, death. My father-in-law remembered sitting in the next hospital room watching his father, then in his early forties, snapping at the air for his last breaths. About the only thing kids seem not to have been exposed to routinely was, oddly enough for us, sex. Perhaps this starvation accounts for the wild popularity of Sally Rand, the nude fan dancer at the Fair’s "Streets of Paris" exhibition. She was hauled into court but released uncharged, the judge averring that "the boobs" who came to see her had a right to have their tastes catered to. (The Provincial Lady does not mention any of this.) And the Fair closed in November, and reopened the following spring.

The kids went on to their adventures and interests, went on to being what we call the greatest generation. My mother took ballet lessons and saw dance’s prima stars perform in Chicago, Anton Dolin, Alicia Markova, Maria Tallchief. And saw Harpo Marx chasing ladies in the audience during the course of bond rallies like Hellzapoppin’, and later saw Frank Sinatra, in whose honor she cut school. When ominous world news finally turned to World War, my father enlisted, taking ship for that topical China by way of Australia, India, and a flight over the Himalayas to Kunming, not too far north of Vietnam. My uncle, the thirteen-year-old, served as an Air Force bombardier. My father-in-law enlisted and was shipped to England, where he met my mother-in-law. They would eventually marry a month and a half before my own parents did. The two couples had twenty children between them.

The strange puzzle of how to "protect" children aside, some things from those days have remained the same, which ought to cheer us up when we marvel at the innocence of past interests, and mourn passing greatness. We, too, go to the movies. We are scared of child abduction stories (the Lindbergh baby), we adore figure skating and the British royal family (Sonja Henie; the abdication of Edward VIII), we smack our lips over multiple births (the Dionne quintuplets). We try to follow ominous news. As for World’s Fairs, we go whenever we can afford it, for Disney World on permanent display – minus free food samples – has replaced them. That must be why the official ones are hard to remember now. The most recent in America opened in New Orleans in May of 1984, the same month, if it seems hard to place, that President Reagan was operated on for a polyp. Ominous news in that year came from Beirut, India, and Poland.

Is there some recipe for greatness to be saved across a half-familiar, seventy-year cultural gap? The Provincial Lady, who wept at Little Women, and watched the "extremely nude" dancers awestruck at Harlem’s Cotton Club, who then returned thankfully Home soon to set off for Russia, would probably say ... "Can only leave reply to Posterity."

The End


At a hundred dollars a day, which is what Robin’s parents advised one should budget while vacationing, a ten-day trip to Europe should cost about a thousand dollars. And that was precisely what Ecotours charged. It included airfare as well. Robin was forty before she suspected that her high school, St. Scholastica’s, might have contributed a little to the pleasure of the eight girls – out of a graduating class of five hundred and twelve – who wanted to see Europe for their spring trip. Only the school’s generosity, surely, explained the cost of it jibing so neatly with Robin’s family’s rather modest expectations. The other choices Scholastica’s offered through other tour companies were cheaper and more popular. Many girls went on the Caribbean cruise, as did most of the teachers who were willing to be chaperones. Some went to Hawaii. A fourth choice, a week in Spain plus one day in Morocco, earned no enthusiasm at all, and was dropped from the list.

A thousand dollars, naturally, did not buy a Grand Tour such as a well-to-do young person of the century before would have enjoyed. Nor did it buy privacy for the eight representatives of St. Scholastica’s, plus their chaperone, Ms. Vollmer. Robin, her best friend Billie, and six acquaintances all had to join Ecotour’s previously arranged tour group of sixty-three girls from a dozen other suburban high schools. When they arrived in Europe they would board a huge coach and those seventy-one thousand living, laughing dollars would see, quickly, what so little money could buy. It bought a great deal of provincial West Germany, a little Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Austria and Switzerland, and a day in France.

From the very beginning, from the first parents-and-daughters meetings at school in the winter, Robin should have heeded the misgivings rising in her breast. It was not so much that she wanted to go. Billie wanted to go. Robin wanted the reputation for having gone, and did not want Billie to come home and explain Europe to her. Then the other girls’ mothers asked dotty questions – so it seemed to Robin, who had all youth’s harshness and little of its, little of Billie’s, foamy innocence – about whether there was hayfever in Europe (not in the Alps in April, as it turned out), or whether their daughters would be permitted to take their medications there. Then Miss VanDerAa, last year’s chaperone, warned everyone that the tour company’s European courier, Dr. Siegfried Jaschke, was an attractive man but a bit unenlightened about women. And, if the girls wanted to see Dachau, they would have to put themselves forward and ask for it. It was near Munich, but not on the itinerary. In those days World War II was only forty years in the past. The girls all knew what Dachau was.

But with this news about putting themselves forward, and about ten days with an unenlightened continental man, things seemed to be getting grisly and complicated. A whiff of adult choice, adult consequences, was in the air. Then the expense seemed to Robin to grow more catastrophic the more she thought about it. She marveled that her parents were willing to even think about bearing it. Truthfully, the option of Spain, cheaper, hot, rocky, and Catholic as it was, had really excited her. Was she sure the cloudy north appealed? All through their friendship it had become quite a stunt for she and Billie to play the sophisticates, liking opera and snails, and Billie, who loved to sing, was mad to see the places in Austria where The Sound of Music had been filmed. So, Robin supposed, the cloudy north would have to do. The two encouraged each other about what a glorious trip it would be, a thing easy to do in January. By mid-March, when premature homesickness was setting in, it was not so easy. They passed over a slight emotional hump arising when exuberant Billie announced one day in English class that she probably would not be able to go after all. Her parents could not afford it. This was after Robin’s father had already taken her to the bank to get a cashier’s check for one thousand dollars, payable to Ecotours. Robin acted shocked at the disappointment. In fact she felt partly relief, and partly a thin spear of ecstasy, at the idea that she might not have to go then, either.

But everything worked out. Billie’s parents found the money. The itineraries arrived: ten days in April chock full of activity. Luxembourg, Trier, Koblenz, Wurzburg, Rothenburg, Schliersee, Munich, Oberammergau, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Vaduz, Lucerne, Strasbourg, Metz, and back to Luxembourg. Return to Chicago, April 10. Robin had to go. The last, worst omen of all was that her period postponed itself for ten whole days, to flow the very morning of departure. She hurriedly re-packed her carry-on bag. Who knew what European women did at these times? Who could fancy wandering through European drugstores trying to puzzle out the German for "feminine protection"?

As the Icelandair jet peeled down the runway in the evening rain, she would have sold herself to be sitting safely home again, with her family and her gray cat.

The Icelandair flight gave them their first taste of Europe. They were served white chocolates filled with Cointreau, which Billie knew how to consume (she bit off the top and drank the liqueur, then ate the chocolate) but Robin spilled on herself. After-dinner cognac was freely available – for seventeen-year-old American girls. Billie had some. The blond stewardesses spoke Icelandic, did not smile, obviously not caring, not paid to care, how anyone felt. They never cleared away the dinner trays. Billie finally carried hers and Robin’s to the galley herself. For comfort, Robin took out one of the books she had brought to read on the flight, but it turned out to be an unfortunate choice. It was an anthology of short stories based on old episodes of Star Trek. It fell between the seats, and an unknown girl in the row behind picked it up and gave it to Billie, who passed it to Robin. There were giggles. Robin looked at the book for the first time with fresh eyes. Morose painted portraits of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy adorned the cover. What was Billie reading? She glanced over. Maya Angelou. Perhaps that is what gave a person the courage to take her own tray to the galley of a plane and face the European women smoking there. She had a lot to learn.

They refueled at Reykjavik, and shopped in the airport. The stop would only be forty-five minutes long. Left to her own devices, Robin would never have debarked the plane. Forty-five minutes was too terrifyingly small a window to risk jumping out of, so to speak. To even attempt shopping, eating, and using a bathroom in that time, which all the girls did, seemed to her the height of folly. Suppose the plane took off while they waited in line for something and they, any of them, were stranded in Iceland? In Iceland? But no. Everyone exited the plane. She had to also, or else look a ninny. At any rate she took the precaution of sticking to Billie’s side in the airport shops like a cockle-burr, while Billie bought lovely Icelandic wool sweaters duty-free.

Interminable hours later – it was still the same night of the day they had left home, only now it was about eleven o’clock the next morning, German time – the seventy-one girls rode slack-jawed on their coach through Trier. The courier, attractive Siegfried, spoke deeply, beautifully, over the microphone about Trier’s Porta Nigri, a Roman gate. Whenever he stopped speaking, Robin fell asleep. He tried to scold them into wakefulness by pointing out that it was Good Friday and the sun was shining and so be happy – a European would, evidently – but he had a hard time of it. It was on that first day also that he warned everyone about bidets. He recollected that young American ladies on previous tours of his had used them as toilets, much to the outrage of hoteliers who blamed him.

Three more things happened that first day. The girls were let out of the bus to change their own money at whatever currency exchanges they could find. At least ten of the seventy-one invaded one place exactly at noon. Robin knew that Europeans take long lunches and that they were all just about to ruin this man’s for the day. She turned to Billie.

"Look, it’s the first day," she whispered. "We all don’t need hundreds of dollars right now. Why don’t we each exchange ten, so we can get out of here?"
"No," Billie answered. "I want to get it all over with now. As long as I’m here, why not?"
Robin gave up. The shop’s owner waited on all of them, lips pursed, not looking at anyone. Robin longed to say, I’m sorry, but did not know how, and would not have wanted to look insufferable in Billie’s eyes by apologizing, either.

Then that evening the coach deposited them at their first hotel. (The management had very hospitably hung out an American flag on the balcony as a welcome. Two middle-aged women whose elevator opened on the lobby full of seventy-one American girls uttered some stunned imprecation at the sight and then pushed their way through the sea, saying "Schnell, schnell.") Billie had luckily been assigned to a room with friends, as she had requested. Robin, who had filled out the same forms asking to room with the same group, found herself bunking instead with the unknown Meg and Diane, who were friends, and with Maria, whom Meg and Diane did not like. Exhausted and miserable, Robin entered the room, smiled, and said, "Well. I guess we’re sort of stuck with each other for the next ten days." She did not mean to be coarse. She meant, generously, that she was sorry they were stuck with her, for she knew this arrangement was not their choice either. But Meg and Diane, also exhausted and miserable, were offended forever.

And finally that night they had their first dinner in Europe. The famous wiener schnitzel, breaded veal pieces, huge. Remembering Ms. VanderAa’s advice, Robin asked for "kalt milk" and got hot milk. Ever afterward, she hated breaded meat but liked hot milk.

Next day the whirlwind of the tour began in earnest. They barged on the Rhine, Robin wasting her one roll of film taking far too many photographs of small hilltop castles older than America itself. Siegfried pointed out the Lorelei. Billie and the others saw it, but Robin did not understand which rock, exactly, he meant, so she missed it. They saw the bishop’s Residenz at Wurzburg, with its ceiling frescoes by Tiepolo. Robin guessed that an Italian name this far north must mean something, so she committed to memory, not the name, but the look of the horses’ creamy breasts and underbellies as they flew in the blue sky. In after years she would recognize them in art books. There was a beautiful blue and silver room here, too, with many mirrors. Here, also, Robin and Billie accidentally got caught up in a German-speaking tour group – the white-haired man closed the door to the chamber behind them – and listened politely as he lectured to his compatriots. A couple of other girls from the bus had also been caught, but they solved their problem by loudly mimicking his rather pronounced vocal tic every time he paused for breath. Both Robin and Billie wondered how the lecture was going to end without one of the Americans present being killed.

Somehow they were able to rejoin the bus. They proceeded early in the tour to Innsbruck, where they saw beautiful white buildings trimmed in curlicues of orange and pink. Their bus passed a political demonstration in the street, which the temporary lady- courier speaking on Siegfried’s microphone nervously explained as a "peaceful demonstration ... for peace ...." When she took questions later from the girls, one asked her if there were any slums here. The two friends rolled their eyes and wanted to die from embarrassment and told each other so. They passed a synagogue.

As early as this, St. Scholastica’s alumnae had cohered to become the most forward of all the small groups on the bus. They sat up front, and looked around cheerfully. They, especially Billie and her new and growing friend Meg, had begun to pay a great deal of attention to Siegfried and also to Harry, the driver. Ms. Vollmer’s husband was a native German; perhaps they felt that gave them an acceptable adult connection to these men. Perhaps they were mature enough to cope with the foreign adult male, or perhaps they only thought they were. Billie’s superb figure and bright smile often got her mistaken for a thirty-year-old at home, and Meg was much the same, only tougher in face and manner. Siegfried’s tanned cheeks and rippling gray hair smote them. His being a man of nearly fifty, and knowing nine languages – not that anyone was likely to quiz him in Polish – smote them all. It was not long before Billie was sewing buttons on his trenchcoat, and Meg using her German phrase book to compose notes saying "Let’s get to bed," and stuffing them in the coat pocket.

And because of this and as early as this, Robin and Billie’s friendship suffered. Meg had come on the scene, and in her Billie had found the friend of her heart. They were wonderfully alike, happy, robust girls, loving nothing more than to laugh. By comparison Robin was a bit of a schoolmarm, and a jealous one at that. She and Billie had only met because their last names began with the same letter and so they had ended up in line together to take the freshman entrance exam years before. Robin now could not abide her friend’s camaraderie with this silly, late-come virago. Meg for her part thought Robin a mirthless stick. Robin drifted away a little, and joined other friends, helping to make up a new trio of skinny, athletic misfits. Compelled into friendship for survival’s sake, they were no match for the remaining five buxom private-school roses, all perfectly willing to shop and sing and flirt and drink, in English, in Germany for as long as the tour lasted.

In Munich they pulled into – and then out of – the mammoth colonnaded plaza where Hitler held some of his first big rallies. Robin tried to listen to Siegfried say which of the rows of columns were Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, but she could not hear over the talking inside the bus. They passed the ten-year-old Olympic Village, built on rubble from the war. A new guest tour guide graciously mentioned Mark Spitz. Being in Munich meant it was time to ask Siegfried to take the group to Dachau. Meg did it, suppliant but proud. Off they rode through high sun-streaked woods to a place that, fifty years earlier, people would have prayed in terror to avoid.
The bus entered a large gravel court and stopped, and the eight Scholastica girls and Ms. Vollmer got down. Siegfried had told them they could spend forty-five minutes here.

After passing a tree-shrouded gate area they walked across another big graveled courtyard, where, the brochure informed them, thirty thousand prisoners could be assembled for roll call at once. Foundations of the old barracks were marked by narrow concrete piers laid out on the sunny stones. A small concrete room, with a drain in the floor and a ceiling appearing about to bow in, was the gas chamber, never used, so it was claimed. A stone on a quiet path bore the chiseled word "Krematorium." Some of the girls claimed they could smell something. Private homes were clearly in sight about a half mile away. Were they new or old?

They saw the museum with its one striped uniform hanging under glass. There were two or three large photographs, time-lapse, of the surprised-looking face of a Jewish man under medical torture. In the second picture he closed his eyes. They saw also the ugly metal sculpture of corpses, and the ugly brick chapel meant to look like a chimney

Crunching to the bus across the prisoners’ courtyard, Robin wanted to bend down and take some white stones as souvenirs, but feared it would not be allowed and was unseemly. What would she say if her family questioned her about the rocks on her bookshelf? Oh yes, they’re from Dachau. "God," Wendy said, "can you believe it? Hitler might have walked here." Robin gave her a glance of great contempt. Meg was very quiet.

They boarded and drove back to Munich for lunch at a beer hall. It was Easter Sunday. Robin had the best sauerkraut she had ever tasted, and Meg and Billie sampled huge snifters of dark beer until the embattled waitresses cut them off. This meal was a rare pleasure, because eating and drinking in Europe had proved, for Robin at least, quite a trial. Ecotours’ package included a ready dinner every night, plus this one lunch, but it had not occurred to Robin that this meant every other meal was her own responsibility. She was mortified to order food in English from these people in their own countries. Compounding her trouble was the fact that she was
always a very slow eater, not unlike Europeans, really. She knew she could never finish the meals her friends could in the time they could. Hating to waste her money and then raise eyebrows at the end of a half-hour lunch by wasting food, hating as well to be archly accused of dieting, she fell into the habit of ordering quick sweets while everyone else, even tense Lisa and silent Ann, ate properly. Billie, the soul of kindness, sensed her friend’s predicament, and brought her up a croissant with a packet of currant jelly almost every morning.

Billie generously brought them, because as the trip wore on Robin fell in the habit also of seeking out privacy whenever she could, no matter if it meant going hungry. Billie felt sorry for her. Robin rarely breakfasted with the other girls and never went out in the evening with them. Part of her search for solitude was simply in her nature, and part came from habits formed living in a big family, where company was a given and isolation a treat. And part was the wretchedness of her situation. She gadded about with these girls, dined with them, slept with them, or tried to sleep. That was enough. She still roomed with Meg and the offended others, and Meg had a habit of staying up late smoking and singing, loudly.

All around the cathedral, the saints and apostles
Look down as she sells her wares.
Although you can’t see it, you know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares.
Though her words are simple and few
Listen, listen, she’s calling to you –
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag
...Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.

She sang, quaveringly. All this company made Robin’s solitary early evenings the solace of every day. Thank God, they all went out every night. She sat alone then, and wrote up her travel diary in peace.
She had to fight for every evening, however, for the girls did not like her sitting alone in the hotel room after dinner while they went out to drink or, once, to swim. How could anyone not want to swim in the hotel pool? But it was just things like this that were so complicated. No one understood. Robin was not cosmetically prepared to swim at a moment’s notice. Evidently they were. And her contact lenses were so uncomfortable that she took them out every evening, early. Of course she could swim with glasses or without them, but neither was a pleasure, and what if she lost them while they all played some stupid game? No, she did not want to swim, or drink, or go out with them, anywhere, ever. They took the keys with them and locked her in with her blessing. What if she wanted to go out? they asked. What if there was a fire? She was taken aback by that, but reflected years later that there had been no danger. She could always get out, she simply could not lock up again behind her. And she could not understand the first question at all. What kind of eighteen-year-old girl would have the slightest desire to go out alone in a foreign city at night? Where would you "go"?

Finally bowing before her determined, strained cheerfulness, they let her alone to write her diary at night. She had already happened to tell them she had made it a rule not to burden it with personal comments.

They came to Schliersee. It was a pretty town beside a lake ("see"). One afternoon the eight Scholastica girls walked out at leisure there. Robin wanted to see the lake. She could glimpse it, trembling in faint sun, through the trees and houses. If this had been a vacation with her parents, they would have gone to see the lake. The girls, however, were looking for a bar, in town, to go drinking. They drank every night, but today was the first day they had been free to go out purposely to hunt for the evening’s bar in the afternoon, in daylight. To do it right. Robin, savoring in anticipation her night in, accompanied them for form’s sake.

They walked along through the quiet gray streets still spotted with old snow. One orange car, with skis strapped to its roof, drove past.
Robin walked a little ahead of the group, who ambled along very slowly. In a few minutes the silence caught her attention. She looked about. She was alone.

She turned around and saw them. All seven had stopped about twenty yards back, at the driveway of the house where the orange car had parked. Two men had gotten out of the car, two private citizens, returning home from skiing, and had been accosted by the seven. They encircled them so closely that Robin could not see the men in the crowd. If the sexes in this encounter had been reversed, two women would have screamed for help. They clustered around the men for about five minutes.

Robin was dumbfounded. So they were hunting for a saloon, but they could stop for a few minutes to hunt down men. Was this what she was missing when she avoided their evening adventures? And they thought she was odd? The display brought, for the first time, a not very nice word about them into her head. She stood there alone and made a universal gesture of public bewilderment at the sky, hoping that some native peering out his parlor window would see it, and know she was different. Of course she was. She kept her distance from the group until the girls let the men go and swaggered up to her in a body like sailor queens having just received tribute from a conquered port.

They resumed the hunt. Robin walked with them, speechless. Of course they must go on, to find a place to drink. If Europe for her would be encapsulated in this awful memory, it appeared to be encapsulated, for them, in this: you could drink. You could drink. Dear God, you could drink. Robin wrote it all bitterly in her nocturnal travel diary, beside the tender descriptions of tanned and graying Siegfried. She wasn’t very fair-minded. Dear holy God and holy saints and Mary in heaven, you could drink. You could drink. In Europe, you see, you must see, you could drink. There was no drinking age. You could drink. You could have wine with lunch and beer with dinner. Or vice versa. You could walk into a bar and drink in the afternoon. You could drink before dinner, you could drink after dinner. You were seventeen and you could legally have a drink.

She wasn’t fair. Possibly they sipped – not drank – because they were sophisticated enough to want to fit in, unlike herself, who was childish and didn’t care. Ms. Vollmer, who accompanied the group everywhere but could do little else, lacked the heart also to tell them that she suspected, after one taste of "weisswine," they were being served vinegar because they were American. What they loved was not so much drink but the freedom – the intoxication – of hunting for it and indulging in it publicly. It was like a fairy tale, a dream from which you never woke up and in which you were never carded.

The girls on the Caribbean cruise at that moment could drink, too, probably, being in international waters and all, but it was not the same for them. They were mostly confined to a ship with a lot more teachers as chaperones. The girls in Hawaii could not drink at all. This, Europe, drink, men, it was unprecedented. Girls whose homes had not exactly been awash in the study of Old World provincial capitals (what on earth was a bishop’s Residenz?), but who had been reared to view alcohol as a forbidden Dionysiac glory, were sent to Europe and faced with a choice, symbolically speaking, between provincial Old World culture and alcohol. A few
nodded briefly at culture, but most instinctively drank with rapture, or at least stuck (like cockleburrs) to those who drank with rapture. They did not get drunk – "I don’t like this, it’s not horrible but it feels weird," Wendy said on her one tipsy night – but they searched for drink. Searching for, loving, thinking about drink crowned each day’s happiness, as much as solitude crowned Robin’s.

Robin called them a bad name in her head, but they were not, really. They were young. Not necessarily by European standards. Not like the German children who take their exams, for better or for worse, at fifteen, and have it decided then whether they may go to university or not. Nor like French girls who are taken to the gynecologist for their first birth control pills at about the same age, few questions asked. Life has begun. "When you are eighteen, you are an adult in Europe," Siegfried said. No, not like that, but they were young. They had grown up with milk and water, that was all. We only know what we know. They had also grown up surrounded by trees and houses, not by castles and statues left over from a time when people – children – had to fit in to a larger scheme, or maybe die. Siegfried scolded them twice over the coach microphone, not for drinking but for returning to the hotels laughing, rambunctious at night, disturbing people’s sleep. "Europeans have a right of silence after ten o’clock," he said, almost whining. No one heeded him. You don’t tell people what to do.

Robin, too, had a drinking problem, but her problem was what to drink. European restaurants do not serve water. Siegfried said it symbolized poverty. They absolutely did not drink milk. It was for babies. Tea and coffee were almost never seen. She hated the taste of wine and beer. She also hated Coke, but drank it by the quart, warm, because there wasn’t anything else. Coke with that delicious sauerkraut and dumplings. What an idiot she must look. Especially when the embattled waitresses forgot to bring it and Billie, everlastingly decent, went into the kitchens and fetched it for her. How glad, how very glad she would be – maybe how very glad they all would be, for when was the last time they had, any of them, asked each other how things were? – to go home.

It would have been pleasant all along to interrupt this recitative with an aria, for Billie and Robin’s opera-loving sakes, with action. It would be pleasant to say, that one of the girls met the love of her life on this trip, a German boy, and stayed behind to marry him and live forever in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, population 4000. It would be pleasant to report that Ms. Vollmer ran off with Harry, or that something alarming happened – at a peaceful demonstration for peace, perhaps – and the girls had reason to use Siegfried’s casual instructions as to how to recognize a policeman. But life, particularly for the young, can sometimes be just a matter of long befuddled gawping. It can be endurance, far more than adventure. The recitative went on, outside their control, in chants and halts, rather Wagnerian – rather German.

They all convinced themselves they were having a wonderful time. There was, psychologically, nothing else to do: either wrest an emotional triumph out of nerves, or else cry to be taken home. They did see many interesting things. They rode a cable car up the slopes of Mt. Titlis, its snowy peak lumped high above fog. They walked the cobblestone streets of medieval Rothenburg as churchbells chimed. They visited cathedrals, and bought warm pretzels and ate them in the square. In Lucerne there was a six-hundred-year-old covered wooden bridge to walk across. They talked about how many peasants, or princesses in pretty gowns, had done that, and and Meg and Diane and Lisa – for sometimes the misfit trio and the buxom quintet mixed – had a fine lunch in Lucerne, the wine poured in green knob-stemmed glasses. (And more Coke.) Robin ordered "ravioli al burro" from the menu without fussing, hoping it meant ravioli with butter. Hoping, as well, to make up for Diane’s rudeness. A kind young waiter had noticed her struggling with the language, and had said, "I want to help you." Diane turned on him a face literally, shockingly like Botticelli’s Venus and cooed, "I don’t want your help." What she ended up eating, Robin did not notice. Evidently it was not poisoned. Her own ravioli came with butter and she devoured it. They saw more castles and more churches, and ate Black Forest cake in the Black Forest.

Somewhere in the blur before their last day Robin photographed Patton’s grave. She found herself awestruck at the vividly painted cars and buildings, and at the wayside shrines and crucifixes along mountain roads. Woodcarvers’ shops in Oberammergau, where the Passion Play is performed, were decorated with bright murals of St. Luke. She was awestruck, too, by Austrian and Swiss merchants who did not give perfectly correct change for every purchase if they were not able to. Siegfried said this was normal. Robin thought it magnificent. Her older sisters’ horror stories of having to stay late at work to "balance your drawer" made her wish they could see what real freedom was. A few pennies don’t matter, she said exultantly. What do they matter when you are a human being and you want your lunch? Hard-headed Billie, on the other hand, thought the habit, and Siegfried’s smooth excuse of it, very suspicious.

Robin bought a little Austrian crystal pendant at a town beside a rushing ice-green river. It was her only purchase if the ten days, apart from a few postcards and chocolates. Everyone else stood in line every day to buy jackets, binoculars, boots, and glassware. "I thought you wanted to see Europe, not buy Europe," Siegfried marveled over the bus microphone. "Still, it’s good for our economy." Wendy’s new leather coat went missing from a hotel room early in the trip. She called the hotel from their next several cities to ask about it, which Robin thought nervy, but the coat was never found. Robin had to murmur sympathy, but privately felt satisfied that Europe, like a wronged woman, had been avenged.

For herself, she might never have thought of buying he pendant, but the trip was drawing to a close and frankly she panicked. If her friends were all shopping and happy, what a pity it would look if she were to go home empty-handed. Everyone would ask why. She had to muscle her way into a line of girls in the shop to get at the jewelry rack, explaining that she wasn’t cutting in, she only wanted this. Then she went around and stood in line, too. The ice-green river rushed outside in the distant sunlight. The pendant, etched with edelweiss, was pretty, but she didn’t want it, and all her life scarcely ever wore it. She wanted to fit in. And despite this it was so important also that Siegfried and everyone understand she was different, she was genteel. She pronounced this word on the bus during, at long last, an argument one day and Billie snapped at her for it. They apologized to each other a few minutes later, but they both knew Billie did not have arguments like this with Meg. Happy, singing, tender Meg. They sang together sometimes.

In Switzerland everyone went to a big crowded restaurant to eat fondue and hear some professional performers yodel and play ancient Swiss instruments. One woman swirled a coin in a metal bowl until it rang like cowbells. Before they arrived, Siegfried told them that traditionally, a woman guest who loses her bread cube in the fondue pot must get up and kiss every man in the room Poor stupid Robin took this terribly seriously, envisioning herself losing her bread, being seen, and then being pawed randomly. At the party, Meg and Billie and Wendy laughed and squirmed, trying to knock each other’s bread off their forks into the pot. Billie turned to attempt the same trick on Robin’s fork and Robin wanted to scream at her.

Then a curious thing happened. A man approached her from behind, placed a coin on the tablecloth beside her plate, said something in German, and vanished. What in the world? Robin’s hair that night was an even greater mess of long tow kinks than usual; perhaps he wanted to tell her she looked like a Rhinemaiden. Perhaps not. Perhaps he wanted to use for her the same mean word she used in her head for her friends, sometimes. Ms. Vollmer appeared instantly beside her. "Don’t worry," she smiled. "If he tries anything – I take karate – I’ll beat him up." Billie had a similar experience later. An elderly man came up to her in a busy city street and spoke vociferously, gesticulating, in German. No one ever knew why.

Salzburg was best of all. They rode a wooden slide down into the salt mines. They toured Mozart’s house, and while they wandered the rooms a lady sat down and began playing his music on his piano. Siegfried hurriedly summoned the Scholastica girls into the room– they were the only ones who cared – and paused only to stare expressively at another pair from his anonymous busload of seventy-one, slumped on a bench, refusing to budge for the honor cascading out upon them.

That night Maria, most misfit of all, stayed in to keep Robin company. This prevented her from writing her travel diary, as she did not like to scribble in a corner, ignoring the girl. Maria was not liked. She was an athlete, a bumptious man-child, worse than Robin in comparison with the buxom roses. But the two of them had a pleasant chat sitting out on the balcony in the dark above Salzburg’s biggest street, watching the twinkling lights of cars and shops, watching all the people who did not know they were up there in the coolness. Robin liked Salzburg. "It reminds me of my room at home," she said.

And so, at length, they went home. They rode one more stretch of the autobahn, listening to old American pop tunes from the ‘70s ("Goodbye, Michelle, it’s hard to die") on the bus’s German radio because they had complained, all except the Scholastica girls, about the classical music Siegfried forced on them. They sped through eastern France, stopping only for lunch. The wait staff began clearing away plates the instant the last one had been laid down. Robin thought they had been told to do this because Americans eat fast, but it did not make this meal any more pleasant than the others had been.

At the airport everyone shook Siegfried’s cologned hand, and called out "Liederhosen, Harry!" to the driver, as they had done every time they saw him for the last ten days. It was meant to be hysterically funny. Harry always smiled. The Scholastica girls gave each man a coffee mug as a parting gift, each with his name on it, each filled with candy. Robin was the one who spotted the mugs in a store, though none of the others would later acknowledge that Siegfried’s gift was her doing. Ms. Vollmer bought a card to go with, and the girls all signed it in their own fashion. Robin and Lisa and Maria and Ann simply dashed off "thank you." The others wrote long excited messages. Ms. Vollmer wrote "We are a fun-loving group!" which Robin hoped was meant to be an apology.

Icelandair took them to Reykjavik and then to Chicago. The strange hush on the plane, just before landing, burst into cheers and applause when the wheels touched down. The Americans were thrilled to be home. Robin was thrilled to be able to stride past all the foreigners waiting to go through an arduous customs check, while she, a citizen, need only say to her fellow countrymen at the gate that she had nothing to declare. (Whatever that meant.) When her parents met her, they remarked how gaunt she looked. She raved about wonderful Europe, and especially about the food. She and Billie and Billie’s parents waved goodbye, and the girls said they would see each other at school tomorrow, Monday. Was it really tomorrow? Blessed thought.

The eight girls gathered together twice more. After graduation Meg and Billie and, of all people, tense little Lisa (who put on full makeup before going to bed – dear God, how did she enjoy her trip?) organized a summer picnic in a suburban woods. It was a deathly hot American day. There were no castles and no mist, only trees and the cicadas up in their heights, buzzing below the sun. The slimy flowing creek seemed not much smaller than the Rhine. Meg did a kindness to Robin in pulling a mosquito out of her eye without dislodging her contacts.

The following December Ms. Vollmer invited them all to her and her husband’s apartment the night before New Year’s Eve. By now the girls had all been four months at college – except Robin, who had stayed home, doing watercolors and submitting sketches to children’s magazines by way of a career – and were full of news of their professors and their studies. "He says I’m a free spirit," Meg smiled at them. Meg and Billie were greater friends than ever, and called each other "woman." Ms. Vollmer served wine and fondue again. Everyone stayed until three in the morning.

When they finally filed out into the dreadful cold, Diane, who had chauffeured them all, looked ahead into the darkness and started to cry. Her hand shook against her mouth. "Oh my God. Oh my God," she said, running. A carload of young Mexican men had smashed into her parked car. Ms. Vollmer lived at the gentrified core of a bad ghetto, so this was a sickening dilemma. God knew who these men were or what they carried. Ms. Vollmer went back upstairs and called the police. Diane tried to get the men to exchange insurance information with her, but they seemed uncommunicative. They were ridiculously underdressed for the winter night. One of them kept repeating, "Shit, it’s cold. We go now, okay? We go now. Shit."

Robin and the other girls returned to the apartment while Diane and Ms. Vollmer, back from her phone call, dealt with the Mexicans and the police. They all called their parents, and Diane’s, to explain matters. Eight sets of middle-aged suburban mothers and dads got a heart-stopping phone call at three-thirty in the morning before learning that everything, so far, was still all right.

Robin was boiling with anger and fear. Meg suggested that they all go back downstairs and stand by Diane in her trouble, or maybe take taxis home and spare her the effort of chauffeuring them all again. From this Robin quickly spun visions of her one certain ride home, Diane, evaporating into the city night, and of the seven of them negotiating with seven taxi drivers from Christ knew where. Probably hers would be the paroled felon. "There’s no need for that," she spoke hard and low. "If the police are there, this will be over soon. They know what they’re doing. And
her car didn’t look that damaged to me. I’m sure it’s driveable." She sounded nasty, even to herself, but the words were out and she couldn’t take them back. She lapsed into silence, like an old injured dog.

They waited. Meg looked at her and said, in what Robin supposed was her best soulful and mentoring manner, "What are you thinking about?"
Robin grinned crookedly. "Nothing," she replied. It was the wrong answer. Earlier in the evening Meg had remarked how she didn’t like it when people, her dorm-mate for example, said Nothing to a question about their thoughts. You have to be thinking something, Meg said.

Eventually it was over and Diane drove them all home – her car was all right – passing through the projects again, Cabrini-Green, as she had on the way up to the party nine hours before, because her mother had forbidden her to use the dangerous expressway. The eight girls never saw each other all together again.

Robin and Billie remained friends, as did, separately, Billie and Meg. Robin never saw Meg again, either. She was kept abreast of her doings through Billie. Robin got wise and went to college, too, long after the others had finished. Billie graduated from Dartmouth heavily in debt, but visited Europe with her aunt and mother the summer following. This time they did the grand tour, London, Paris, Venice. They loved it.

Robin went on, as the others did, to work, to love, to marriage, to children and running a home. Once in a while somebody mentioned a place she had been. A history professor said the memorial at Dachau was antiseptic. She thought – yes, it is. Another professor said, avoid Rothenburg, it is the worst, most kitschy "best-preserved-medieval town-in-Europe." She thought – no, I liked Rothenburg. I bought two postcards there. In their mid-twenties, she and Billie got together to watch The Sound of Music at Billie’s apartment. The movie was nearly over and the popcorn gone before kindly Billie understood that Robin had never even seen it until now; for her part it was only now that Robin understood what it must have meant to Billie to tour the Mirabell Palace, and walk in the gazebo, at seventeen, where Liesl sings "I am sixteen going on seventeen."

Much later an uncle of Robin’s by marriage, an Englishman in fact, said to her while she and her husband ate lunch with him in Chicago, "You were too young for Europe, weren’t you." She looked at him in amazement. "Yes," she said slowly. "Too young. Too young, too homesick."

She read Daisy Miller, about a young American girl loose in Italy for not much reason. And who makes completely innocent, tasteless comments about men. Henry James punishes her – or perhaps allows her to be martyred – with death by fever after she roams the Colosseum with a man at night. Robin thought, well, that’s close, but we did not die.

Oddly enough, an appreciation for Europe rose in her in the years long after her return. It was as if she grew to miss, or to hunt out relics from, a place she had never been. She began to read its history – dear, oh dear – drink its wine, cook its meals. She ordered French soaps specially from a catalogue store in Maryland. And she never failed to marvel, with some jealousy to be sure, but not only that, at new friends who went there, enjoyed themselves, and didn’t even think twice about it. As if it were their right. You don’t know, she thought. You don’t know where you’ve been.

What had happened, really? It seemed to her that the decision to go to Europe for a thousand dollars at eighteen was the one thing in her life she regretted. And it could not be rectified. She regretted postponing college, too, but she had been able to rectify that. Europe had been her one mistake. But why? It was mysterious, most strange. Merely for a start, if she had not gone, she never would have learned she should not have gone. But the real strangeness was that everything else she had done or had, that everybody has, birth, faith, work, crises and happinesses both major and trivial, had taught her something, if she looked deeply enough. Europe was different. It stood like a rock in the sea of her memory, unmoved, unmoving. She had no desire to go back to it, certainly not without a command of some other language than her own, and yet she felt that if she did go back, this time she would be superb. Really. She had invested too much of her youthful self into that trip to be able to look back and say, well, too bad about what might have been pleasure, spoiled – I’ll go again, and have a better time. That wasn’t the point. She wanted it to have been all right then, and it wasn’t. What did the others think? Odd how they had never spoken about it much. Once, only once, Billie in her thirties made a tiny noise about "not believing what we did then." Robin made a tiny corrective noise about its being them, not her, who had done it. And still they remained friends. Billie did not live in the conditional tense. She already was superb.

Robin thought for years. Finally she had to put Europe aside. It was the very ground on which Mozart and Tiepolo – and Hitler – had trod, yes, the subcontinent on which her ancestors had swarmed for ten thousand years until eight of them made their separate decisions to leave hardly a century earlier. A century earlier she might have spoken any one of half a dozen languages, including German. Yes. But she had to put it aside, finally, in puzzlement as totally unique, unreachable. It was the one experience of her life from which she had learned nothing.

The End

It's the Romantic in Me

I’ve been reading a Nancy Mitford novel in which an older woman character assures a young woman that young people always imagine their lives’ youthful pattern will never alter. Little do you guess, the elder lady intones, what twists your personal plot will take. Maybe so, but Nancy was the daughter of an earl and wrote novels and rode horses. We are very ordinary people, not the children of earls but private citizens who work very hard and are very nice but to whom, thank God, nothing happens much. It would be as if Nancy wrote novels, not about the de Valhuberts, but about Andre the chef. It would be as if all those light humorists "mildly infected by genius" wrote about the parlormaids instead of their eccentric and interesting ma’ams. I myself, for example, have not even been to so humble and universal an occasion as a wedding in nine years. Things just don’t seem to happen.

Yesterday I helped chaperone a school end-of-the-year picnic at a local park. The day was a breathtaking early summer day, sky so blue as to seem almost black, strong but not oppressive summer winds, vivid green trees, burning healthy sun. When kids and teachers alike were exhausted with play and thirst, we formed lines and headed north back to the school. From a short distance the principal of the school suddenly came striding slowly up the park toward us, his white shirt-sleeves flapping, his tie whipping attractively behind him in the wind. I wonder what his life’s pattern is like.

That’s all. He is a tall, tanned, thin-faced, nice-looking man of fifty, of whom I know nothing. Yet look how decent he is. He certainly was not required to step out of his cool office on this ninety-two-degree day and show himself in his tie and creased trousers at a picnic for his school’s first-graders and their broiling, endlessly patient (like God) women teachers. Yet there he was, unheralded, and he walked, too, trudged behind us the five blocks back to school. What principals do, I am not sure. His job seems to be to serve as the only grown man amid tribal hordes of women and children on the school premises from August through June, and he does it in a state of unobtrusive calm. When he turned fifty in May, every class made him a birthday card. (Do you suppose the school secretary is in love with him, and this was her idea?) Once when half the school’s bathrooms weren’t working, he announced over the PA system that "circumstances would necessitate" everyone using the fourth-grade bathrooms. One of the veteran kindergarten teachers stood transfixed and then when he finished, turned pop-eyed to her class and exclaimed, "Golly! Mr. Robbins talked to us like we were in college, didn’t he boys and girls?" He signs every report card himself. There must be at least five hundred every June.

Of his life’s pattern, and whether it has enjoyed any Mitfordian changes, I know nothing. When he walked through the park he bent his head against the wind in such a way that caused me to wonder how happy he is as the principal of an elementary school. Perhaps with his education and his vocabulary, he would have preferred to be a history professor at a fine university. Perhaps he thought he would at least be superintendent at county level, somewhere, by this time. He showed up at the park, in the heat, out of nowhere yesterday, just like a lion suddenly protecting the pride. Perhaps he might have a secret gentleman’s crush on one of the mother-chaperones working the picnic, and checked the telephone list of "helper moms" in his cool office and then walked to that park on the chance of seeing her.

We are rather in the position of Claude Rains’ Louis in Casablanca, when he muses on Humphrey Bogart’s Rick’s past. Did you abscond with the church funds, he inquires, or run off with a Senator’s wife? I like to think that you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me. Of course, Mr. Robbins isn’t a self-exile in a gin joint in some wartime colonial desert port, so the work of spinning stories is that much more difficult. I like to think that he is like me, musing perhaps only on how the swift eruption of summer can seem, in adulthood, surprisingly melancholy. The day of the picnic marked twenty-four years to the day that I graduated grammar school myself. If the principal is not unhappy or nursing a frustrated love affair, then we will have to pretend something else, something that is believable in the context of nice people’s lives in a nice place where, thank God, noting much happens. I read newspapers and books so I know there are exceptions to this rule. The papers are full of suffering and the discount book catalogues are full of authors writing about what it’s like to read Proust. Novels are full of people having beautiful intercalated conversations. (Not like Louis and Rick. They talk past each other, too.)

A plausible tack might be that one of Mr. Robbins’ parents has recently died, old and full of years. That might account for his slow deliberate walk, and the way he bent his head against the whipping summer wind. Perhaps he was thinking how odd it feels to help his father sell the old house. Perhaps he marvels at the emotional power of his parents’ things. Dad can’t possibly find room in his new apartment for all the family glassware, the china and silver, not to mention the knickknacks, the little jugs and afghan racks that older women especially collect (after a life of Mitfordian variety, or did the presents themselves constitute variety?) in a steady stream from their new daughters-in-law.

Let us presume it was an unusually melancholy week for him. His own two children flew along unthinkingly into their summer vacation, scarcely guessing how precious the memory of a bit of wallpaper or a bowl, or the exact trees in a local park, would be in thirty years. He looked at all these laughing children, for whom the terrors and victories of first grade would never come again. He had the ridiculous desire, not to be a child again himself, but to give his father back his youth and at the same time to impress upon his own children, and these, an appreciation of what had once been his father’s vigor. And maybe their own. All mixed up with a ridiculous desire to reassure his parents that he, and everything, would be all right.

Mr. Robbins was not normally a morbid man. His reflections today might, truth to tell, only result from annoyance that his older sister had already taken – absconded with – several of his parents’ things that his father swore he had no use for and that he himself had most wanted. The antique typewriter, the family Bible.

He raised his head against the whipping summer wind and looked about him at the students lining up in the sun. These are all mine, he thought, as if he were a lion observing the pride. This is what I do. I got myself educated, I worked hard, I taught every subject, every grade, I earned promotion to this level. In twelve weeks I’ll be back yelling at frightened boys in the office again. (It was true. I’ve heard him laying into miscreants with real old-fashioned force. "Do you mean to tell me you didn’t realize that was wrong?" I have heard him say.)

So he is doing all right. He is just what Rick would have been, if he had stayed home in New Jersey, taught school, and never met Ilsa, but also never shot anyone and been far better looking. We walked back to school. While I was there I ran into a friend who told me that Mr. Robbins had just bought a house on her street. So you see, he fascinates everybody. That’s something.

The End

The robins have returned

My favorite ordinary bird; my favorite out-of-the-ordinary bird is the peacock. The winter has been long, snowy, and cold, and even now the robins seem a bit timid in their singing, morning and evening. There is a startling moment every spring, when the robins begin to sing in the dark before dawn, and continue to give a last few skirls on the pipes so to speak, in the dark long after sunset. They lack their usual enthusiasm so far. Perhaps they are waiting for genuine warm weather. However, they are here in abundance this year. Hopping about on lawns and patrolling the roadside clearings in the nearby woods, they seem to have arrived by many more score than usual. Once they recover their nerve, they will sing enthusiastically until about mid-June or so. Then they quiet down, the breeding season finished. Once in a while, one unlucky specimen is actually swept across the north Atlantic to land bewildered in Britain, where its orange breast and cheery caroling causes great excitement among birders there. I do wish the scientific name was not Turdus migratorius.