I had 3 mothers. This is how it came about. My mother, Marion, gave birth to me in 1932. She and my father were living in Washington, DC. They were both economists, trained at the London School of Economics. I think he was looking for a job with the government in the depth of the depression.
For a while when I was a baby Marion, a New Zealander, had to stay with some rich relations of my father because he was unemployed and they had no money. When the rich lady of the house handed her a bar of yellow soap saying, “This is to wash the baby’s diapers,” my mother got my father to send a telegram saying “Come home at once”.
My father was a gentle man, but distant and cerebral. My mother needed passion. When I was 3 she went off with a passionate Canadian named Ben.
At the age of 3 I was sent to live with my father’s younger sister, Clare, and her new husband, Bart, in Andover, Massachusetts. I stayed there for a year. Clare and Bart lived in the summer “cottage” that belonged to his parents. Although his family was rich, his own money had been invested unwisely and he lost the lot in the crash. He was the director of an art gallery, a job with a nice title but not much salary. The household was sustained with cash infusions from his parents who had retired to a date farm in Indio, California.
The “cottage” had 3 floors and about 10 bedrooms. There was a grand winding stairway leading upstairs from the spacious entry, and a back stair for servants. There were 3 servant’s bedrooms, but by the 30’s there was only a cook, Mary Stanton.
My uncle’s sister’s money was better invested, and she had built a big new house on adjoining property. We called that “the other house” as in: “Where are you going?” “To the other house.”
Between the 2 houses there was a path, a chicken yard and a big chicken coop. Pigs were raised in the barn, where there was a work horse, and where my uncle kept his car. He always drove a convertible in those days. There was an apple orchard down the hill from the house, and near it an old tennis court all grown up with weeds.
Two gardeners, Mike, a big Irishman and Freddy, a local fellow, took care of the grounds and the vegetable garden. Mike lived in the upper part of the barn and Freddy had a room at the other house. Mary Stanton ruled the spacious kitchen, with its black cast iron 3 oven built in coal stove that also warmed the kitchen and 3 pantries. Every morning in winter Freddy brought a hod full of coal up from the cellar and started the kitchen fire.
I must have missed my mother. She was a loving mother and I believed she had a beautiful face. I think I dreamed of her face. My aunt was gentle and affectionate, and my memories of my first year with her are all happy. Clare was like my father, a little removed, her attention often in some other place. From time to time my elegant grandmother was in residence along with my father’s brother, Dickie, a failed opera singer, and my uncle Bart’s sister, Ruth, a cheerful, hearty spinster who was devoted to my grandmother.
It was an extended family and I was the only child. I listened to the grown-ups talk and was sure that I would never learn to talk like that. I know now that they were discussing things like art, music and politics. It sounded like a wonderful foreign language to me, and sometimes it actually was, since they often spoke in French or Italian.
When I was 4 years old Ben dumped my mother and my father rescued her from Chicago after she made an unconvincing suicide attempt. A few months later I was taken back to Washington to live with them.
My parents stayed together another 4 years. During that time I spent summers with my aunt Clare, mostly in Andover, some of the time in Maine in rented summer places, and one summer, just before the war, in Italy at my Grandmother’s Villa on the Riviera.
I was 6, in 1938, when I spent the summer in Italy. We often went swimming at the beautiful beach. The grown-ups dressed for dinner which was after my bed time. They had cocktails on the veranda, and I watched from the balcony outside by bedroom. The ladies had chiffon dresses that floated in the breeze.
I often listened to them talk about the coming danger of war. Though I didn’t understand, I was afraid when soldiers boarded the train we took across Europe to the ocean liner, the Normandy, which we traveled home on.
I was 8 when my mother came to Andover at the end of the summer to collect me. We went for a walk in sunny fields. She said that she and Daddy had fallen out of love and that she was now married to another man, called Carroll. I cried. Mother told me later that I said, “Only stupid people get divorced.”
Soon after that my father remarried. His new wife’s name was Edythe. Edythe was the daughter of a German immigrant who had a dry goods store in the Bronx. She was a teacher at the National Cathedral School in Washington, DC. She had positive ideas about the correct way to do or think about almost everything. She disapproved of almost everything about me.
After 2 years of shuttling back and forth between mother and step-father and father and step-mother I asked to be allowed to go back to my aunt Clare in Andover for good. I think everyone was relieved to let that happen.
This short account of my first 10 years may sound hard in some ways, in others uniquely privileged. Children are resilient, and I believe my childhood was happy. My mother and my aunt loved me, and although my stepmother did not, my father was my defender, and he taught me a lot about the world and how to enjoy it.