EARLY DAYS IN PRINCETON
Our wedding ceremony had all the joy of a wake, no eats, Father officiating with a funereal expression. Robert and I were married in the little white stucco First Baptist temple in Pôrto Alegre, Brazil, on May 31, 1958 . We had been legally wed a month earlier so I could be issued a passport and visa in my new name. I wore a dark blue suit rather than a dress. The congregation must have gossiped about that for a long time. I explained that we were leaving immediately for the airport and I wouldn't have a chance to change clothing. But, really, I didn't want to bother with a dress and Mother did not want to get involved. My one concession to the bridal look was a small white hat with a demure veil. I have no photos of my big day—the photographer my friend Solange had promised to bring in did not show up. But I just wanted to get away and didn't care for the usual wedding fuss. Mother showed up for the ceremony, but other than that she made no effort to help send me off to the States and my new life. At the time, I thought nothing of it. That was Mother.
After a few days in São Paulo and Lima, Peru, Robert and I flew to Massachusetts, to spend the summer with his parents Laurence and Elizabeth at their beautiful apartment overlooking the Charles River in Cambridge. I was very guarded with my well-to-do in-laws and their poverty habits: they washed and reused aluminum foil, and Laurence held me captive to explain at interminable length how he got twenty shaves out of one razor blade. Robert's suggestion to attend summer school at Harvard, despite his parents' frowning at the extra $90 expense, gave us a break from the excessive coziness. He took a political science course with Zbigniew Brzezinski, eventual advisor to several presidents, and I enrolled in Psychology I taught by a visiting professor from Duke University . That course earned me the only C grade in my college record. I panicked in the multiple-choice final. For one, I didn't know what the hell a “keg of beer” meant.
As summer wore on, I became all too willing to ignore Elizabeth 's kindnesses and to see a persecutor in her. Robert and I formed a camp in opposition to his parents, exchanging gossip about their weird ways. He whispered to me that she kept a diaphragm hidden in a cut-out Bible, surely she was stark raving mad! Only much later I found out that it was prescribed for a prolapsed uterus. She got on my case for breaking one of her assorted unmatched glasses: “it's an antique and cannot be replaced.” I spent many an hour standing on one foot and then the other, learning about the timeless value of a hand-me-down and how it should be kept in the family unto the third and fourth generation (it wasn't). But lest I make Elizabeth into a witch, she did take me shopping for new clothes and prepared meals for us, day in and day out, and I don't remember that we ever said thank you.
Robert assumed they wanted us to stay forever, but even I could sense their relief as we left for Princeton in the early fall, in our $100 1950 Studebaker. I shared the front seat with an antique chair. The white house in the photo is the first property we owned, a tiny 2-bedroom, one-bath house on one acre in Princeton Junction, within walking distance of the railroad station. We bought it after a single fifteen-minute walk-through with a realtor, who'd just listed it that morning, but after weeks in a boarding house we were more than ready to buy. We paid $14,000 and sold it for the same amount two years later. The house had a friendly sun room where Robert did most of his reading. He commuted to Columbia every other week or so to complete his PhD dissertation.
I gradually gave up on reading in those years that reshaped me into a wife and mother. Make sense of it if you can. Back in Brazil, I had devoured books—novels, short stories, Dante, Stendhal and Thomas Mann. In Princeton, I still occasionally checked out library books, the bathtub my favorite place to read. But Robert watched my every move. He deemed fiction a waste of time, especially in the bathtub, or was I the one who judged it so? In any case, other than textbooks for my BA degree in the 1970's, I eventually stopped reading completely. I would not read for pleasure until Robert and I separated in 1978.
We inherited Concord grapevines and a hundred-foot asparagus patch from the Bateses, previous owners of the Bear Brook Road house. They must have loved asparagus. For us, the continuous output from that asparagus row felt like the brooms in Sorcerer's Apprentice, decidedly a mixed blessing. We ate home-canned asparagus until the risk of botulism finally discouraged us. And the grapes . . . long before they ripened, Robert proudly "brought in the harvest," plopping a large metal tub full in the middle of the kitchen floor. The rest was up to me. As the grapes ripened in the New Jersey summer heat, clouds of fruit flies eagerly joined in, and the heavy smell of fermenting grapes saturated the house.
Not long after the move, I woke up one morning to a white world. My first snowfall had snuck in with cat steps during the night. I tried to sit on the snowbank and, much to my surprise, it collapsed to nothing. Next spring we planted 1,000 pine seedlings on our one acre, like two eager Johnny Appleseeds. They grew into a small forest, the neighbors wrote after we left, but an arson fire consumed a good many. The neighborhood arsonist was at work in our time too, and one night sent us on a terrified run from bed to kitchen window. Those were the days of shelter building and nuclear war drills in schools. I woke up around midnight to sirens and a bright red sky. What in hell was that? Too early for dawn— the Russians must have dropped The Bomb on Philadelphia. Our noses squashed against the window, we watched the neighbors' barn go up in spectacular flames that reached high into the night sky.
Bear Brook Road would be home for a brief two years. In one of Robert's recurring war panics, in the April 1961 Bay of Pigs crisis, we packed all our belongings in two days, sold the house, and left for Maine. But first, a section about Laura, our first-born, the recipient of our wild hopes and deep fears.