Our little family in Cambridge, Mass, before the departure for England
The address was 63 St. Bernard's Road, Oxford. The place, a three-story row house, last on the row. Two blocks away one found the butcher, the fishmonger, and the grocer. A short walk away the street crossed over the railroad tracks, where ancient steam engines belched clouds of smoke and ash, the girls' favorite spectacle. A few blocks in the other direction was St. Antony's College, where Robert was accepted as unstipended visiting scholar. One convoluted reason for going to England was for Robert to visit the USSR, his being a Sovietologist and England being closer to Russia than the US. A reason we preferred not to mention was that the one-year appointment at Bates College had passed without the prospect of another job.
We boarded the Europe-bound red-eye BOAC out of Boston, with Laura, age 2½, Carol the baby, and a couple of bags heavy with formula, baby food, cloth diapers (no disposables then), and my treasure, a 1-pound tub of zinc oxide ointment for diaper rash. Carol howled for a solid hour after takeoff. Fellow passengers leaned over our seats with advice: She must be hungry! No, she's cold, poor child! You should change her diaper! She needs to be rocked to sleep! The slap Robert gave Carol on the behind was really intended for the good souls offering advice, but after that she slept the rest of the night.
We landed, bedraggled and bleary-eyed, at London's Heathrow in the pale English dawn. A half-hour taxi ride took us into Oxford, with no idea where to stay. We counted on the taxi driver to find us lodging, and ended up in a furnished room and bath in an ancient dwelling. The only outside light came through a narrow window looking out on a brick alleyway. The bathroom was equipped with an ancient European squat-down toilet. Flushing, a whole-house event, came from a tank high above our heads.
Afternoon at the duck pond
We settled down with a sigh of relief, “settling down” being only a relative term. Fortunately we could not read the future--that it would take us two months before we could move into a residence; that we would first rent a couple of unfurnished rooms with no cooking facilities in an old Victorian house, where we would sleep on a mattress on the floor; that my violent allergy to British pollens would only subside with the arrival of winter. We were better off not knowing that the winter of 1962-63 would be the coldest on record in 221 years.
Backyard, 63 St. Bernard's Road
After a month of futile househunting, just when the situation looked totally hopeless, Robert marched into our Spartan dwelling waving a piece of paper with an address: 63 St. Bernard's Road, a college-owned furnished house, four bedrooms on three floors, our home for the rest of the year. It was casually mentioned by one of the deans. We could not believe our luck. It was spacious, well furnished, close to the college, affordable! We now had a destination and an end to camping out. Minor glitch: it would not be vacant for another month.
Time passed, we moved in, and I was seven months pregnant with Richard when the Russia trip came up. How I wanted to go to Russia! The meaning of the trip vastly outranked simple tourism. It meant romance, the glamorous life I had envisioned when I said “I do.” Robert didn't understand it, just as he hadn't understood why I wanted to hang out in cafés during our engagement, back in Brazil. The obstetrician advised against travel, but pronounced me OK physically if I really wanted to go. Robert voted against it, his argument being that Russians considered inappropriate for a pregnant woman to travel. His parents, too, did their best to discourage me.
So, if I really wanted to go to Russia, nobody would stop me, but neither was anyone about to help out. There was no way we could take the girls, and books said never to leave children under six, even overnight, not to mention three weeks, because at that age an absent parent is like a dead parent. Talk about guilt! It was up to me to make arrangements for their care in England. I clenched my teeth—this was hard to do—did a phone search and located a child care center on the way to London. We didn't own a car, so Laura and I took the train to visit the place. The matron in charge gave me her opinion too: Carol was way too young to be left, and by the way, so was Laura. Still, I reserved a place for the girls.
However, time was getting short. Robert had his traveling papers, but a few days before we were due to leave, Intourist hadn't issued me a visa. My situation was different than his, because I traveled on a Brazilian passport. But I suspect the real reason was that he did not push the case with the embassy. So, abruptly, with some relief, I canceled travel plans. To sweeten the pill of being left behind, his parents sent me a check to take the girls to the English seashore. The gray coast of England in October? Please.
On the eve of Robert's departure, he sat across the table from me and rattled off his travel plans. His itinerary included a trip to Yalta on the southern tip of Crimea, where the Soviet elite summered in their dachas. The thought of spending time on the beach made my heart ache with longing for the luscious Brazilian seashore, and now not only was he visiting Russia, he would be spending time on a resort! I choked back tears throughout the meal. Robert chided me for my lack of interest. “What kind of a wife are you! I'm amazed at your indifference. Don't you care about me and what I'm trying to do?” I was good. I didn't hurl food in his face. I may even have faked a smile to make him happy.
The three weeks of his absence were a black time. I made plans for my exit: after putting the girls to bed, I would write a note telling the milkman to notify authorities, so my daughters wouldn't starve to death in the upstairs bedroom. I would unlock the front door so the police could come in, shut the kitchen door, open the gas vents, and say goodbye to my miserable existence. I liked the plan. What saved me was my habitual failure to take action. At times, procrastination is a friend.
With no Robert to serve as ballast, distraction and company, I had little love to spare. In preparation for my absence, I had put together little gifts for the girls to open every day that I was away, and now they got to open their presents with me after breakfast. It was obviously the high point of their day. They so wanted them! They cried, begged, threw fits. On several occasions the gift-opening ritual turned into an angry slapfest. Least they could do, I muttered, was to eat breakfast and then open their packages in a civilized manner.
Laura and I engaged in another contest of wills at that point. She wanted to be carried downstairs from the bedroom, just like Carzie, as she called her sister. I humored her once or twice. Now she howled for my arms, sitting at the top of the stairs, every single day. Never mind breakfast, waiting in the kitchen! She wanted to be carried down, it was written all over her tear-streaked face and runny nose. But I felt so put upon. She runs circles around me, why should I, eight months pregnant, carry her? Laura cried at the top of the steps for fifteen minutes, day in and day out.
Carol, winter '62
Having contemplated dying, I regarded the Cuban missile crisis, October 22, with benign indifference. Robert, however, was deep in Communist paradise for another week after the embargo. With propaganda rags Pravda and Izvestia his only source of information, he later told me, all he could gather was that the dogs of war would soon be unleashed, no details given. I am sure he must have gone through hell, but I can't say I felt much sympathy. There was a trace of gratitude, even. Had he stayed with us, he would surely have packed us all up and left for Brazil on two days' notice. Alone with the girls, I stashed blankets, newspapers, and drinking water in the basement, calling myself lucky that Robert wasn't there to draw from his bottomless well of panic. I watched the BBC and got fat on delicious Egyptian dates, and waited to hear sirens herald the end of civilization.
The Cuban missile crisis ended when the USSR backed down, the world took a deep breath, Robert returned shaken but whole at the end of October, and Richard was born half past midnight, December 8, 1962. A midwife attended the birth, and a doctor showed up afterwards with stethoscope and stitches. The delivery didn't cost us a penny, courtesy of the British Health Service. The food, however, showcased the infamous British cuisine. For dinner they wheeled in a 2,000-calorie outrage of mashed potatoes smothered in gravy, pasta, buttered bread, scones, pudding, a homeopathic dose of meat and a tablespoon of overcooked peas. I left the hospital in my maternity clothes.
Richard, age 3 months
As I mentioned, the winter of '62-'63 would be the coldest on record in 221 years. Well-heeled friends from the college did without running water for a month, as pipes froze—but, true to British stiff upper lip, they hauled in drinking water and took baths at friends' houses. Our water flowed, but heat barely did. Our main source of warmth was small radiant heaters built into the walls. They burned holes in your pants if you got near enough to benefit from their pathetic output. We closed off the top floor of our row house, hung blankets across the top of the stairs, and fired up the oven for heat. When we ventured up there in the spring, the walls were covered with mildew.
In a journal I kept for a few months, I call myself a “book widow.” Robert's trip to Russia had shoved me rudely into place. But the writing, I see now, was rapidly breaking through denial. For example, I wrote, “Wish I were more patient with the children. Right now they got their hands muddy and sandy and I feel like spanking them. Carol fell off a chair and wanted to be picked up, but realized I wouldn't do it and asked Laura to. The latter refused. Laura is a serpent. Maybe I am one too!” The journal entries lasted only a few months, to my later regret. They came to an abrupt end when Robert complained that I didn't let him read my journal.
Those were the days when we feared Laura was autistic. She spent literally hours fingering a ring of keys. She meticulously whited her little blackboard with chalk just to erase it and start all over again. She stopped talking to Robert and the babysitter, not to mention the occasional visitor. Robert devised his own treatment—fortunately not corporal punishment this time. He offered his lap while reading at the desk, for however long she wanted it, usually half an hour at a time. It worked. Within a month of soaking up his physical contact, she began to speak again.
Timed photo op in the backyard, St. Bernard's Road
The year in England brought on Robert's first episode of impotence, an intermittent problem that would plague our relationship ever after. I parroted the many, many good excuses he offered in a paragraph in my journal: “Piel [then-publisher of Scientific American] does not answer, the seminar report is coming up in less than two weeks, we have to cross the ocean with these three kids, the prospect of a summer in Cambridge with his parents is disquieting, the American Problem [his second book] isn't doing too well, Barty King [another publisher] seems to be something of a conceited nonentity, and Fluegge [a publishing house] turned down the philosophy book.” Listing the excuses that came out of his mouth made me nauseous, given that I didn't even use my own words, but I didn't realize why. I didn't see how I was being dumped on.
Robert was a man with overriding issues of control, and I'm not surprised that he would eventually “lose it,” would make it into a problem, and would compound the problem by trying more control. I suppose his maleness was crushed, while I was both disappointed and satisfied in a petty sort of way—here was, finally, an obvious flaw in the “perfect” man, something his purportedly superior intelligence could not solve, and for which he refused to seek help which went to prove how stupid he really was.
Unpaid or not, we were officially part of the college community, and on one occasion we treated ourselves to a formal dinner at St. Antony's. That evening lives on as the time I disgraced Robert with a major faux pas. The care and feeding of Oxford dons entailed much ceremony—first a slow drink in the lounge, then a procession to the candlelit dining room where uniformed waiters dished out the several courses. One of the college officials took us aside for a mini-lecture on protocol. When dinner was called, we must follow rank order as we exited the anteroom double file, ladies holding on to the arm of their escort. The high officials were to go first, then the professors, then the visiting scholars. I think that's what he said. I counted on Robert to hear the instructions for both of us.
Raised in strict Baptist ways, I was a novice with alcohol. The glass of sherry they poured made my head swim pleasant and carefree, a relief after a long day with the kids. When the dinner bell rang, I vaguely remembered that I had held up a dinner line two weeks before, at a colleague's house. Determined not to be a slouch again, I marched to the door. Over and above the dignified hubbub came a shout, a decibel or two shy of a fire alarm: The Provost first! The Provost first! I had broken rank and rushed to the door ahead of the assembled dons. Robert grabbed my arm and pulled me back to the end of the line. The dinner lasted an eternity. I wanted to crawl under the table to die.
In the spring, Bates College in Maine contacted Robert—would he like another one-year assignment? The same political science professor he had replaced would be out on leave again. So it was back to Lewiston in the fall. We stayed in England for a calendar year, July 1 to June 30, which came within a day of my running afoul of the INS. Robert had always argued against my becoming a US citizen, reasoning that we could escape to Brazil in case World War III broke out—I would only apply for citizenship in 1978, twenty years after first entering the US. As a US resident alien, a stay abroad longer than one year meant losing my green card and reapplying as a new immigrant. Robert was pretty casual about it, perhaps because he'd worked for the Foreign Service, but for me the loss of immigrant privileges would have meant a nightmare of epic proportions. But we lucked out. Our flight arrived in Boston on schedule, just under the deadline.We summered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, like a migratory flock stopping to rest and feed before heading north to Maine once more.