Another Life To Live

“… I have a chance to reinvent myself, because nobody there will know me from the years before.”

Actress Kathleen Turner is, in her words, still a dip kid. In her 2012 interview by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (https://youtu.be/mkb-VV9LwrU) she reminisces about her experiences as the daughter of Foreign Service Officer Richard Turner in Canada, Cuba, Venezuela and England. Like my mother, Kathleen’s mother was drafted into making canapes for the annual Fourth of July ambassadorial party in Caracas. Like me, Kathleen figured out pretty early on that she didn’t have to be pigeon-holed into one identity.

“So whoever I say I am, I am to these people, which I thought was quite handy. I mean not that I was going to lie, but I wasn’t carrying any baggage.”

I grew into having an awareness of myself “in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years,” as Annie Dillard writes in her memoir, An American Childhood. Unlike Ms Dillard, who emerged into the fixed world of PIttsburgh, I had to piece together experiences not just from different ages but from different continents, in different languages, through different school systems. By the age of 10, these were all me: singing Feliz Cumpleaños with our maid Josefina in Caracas; taking graded dictation in Italian, to be corrected in red pen by my stern first grade teacher in Bologna; wandering through the Etruscan ruins on a field trip at the Overseas School of Rome; and learning “how we lost the colonies” at the English School in Bogota and worrying as our written essay exams were sent to be graded in the Mother Country It was a little chaotic, but I was armed.

After my year of immersion in Italian, I figured out how to spell English words in second grade with Italian phonics: it wasn’t “piple” (as I wrote in my home art project, a little scary report of a killer cat), it was“peh-oh-pleh.”

Cat that cild

 

I picked up a handy habit of quickly and quietly saying the rosary after the bedtime prayer Mom taught me: it couldn’t hurt. Italian was also an excellent language for outrage: hit with a surprise water balloon on a family trip to Ecuador, I wheeled and screamed: “Cretino!” Sometimes I chose not to choose: when we landed in Bogota in the middle of fourth grade, I decided to write in a different script each week. Just because.

I had the luxury of time to figure out how to be an American during junior high and most of high school, when Dad was stationed at the State Department in Washington, DC for five years. By my junior year, my daily choice of outfits reflected the identities I’d nailed down: Pom Pom Girl (green and white outfit with go-go boots); bohemian (gaucho pants); Villager (button down fitted dress with the small print); hippie (bellbottoms with braided Colombian belt and an Evzone soldier shirt I’d ordered through the New Yorker). By the time I graduated from high school in Torrejon Airforce Base outside Madrid, dancing apart from every clique at a friendly distance, I was voted the senior class’ Most Individualistic girl.

Pommies

I continued to color outside the lines by attending a Junior Year Abroad at the University of Madrid as a freshman, living at home. I attracted Spanish boyfriends and a Castillian accent “mas papista que el Papa,” more “lithpy” and “R” rolling than most natives.

Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) understand that with each assignment comes “another life to live,” as my dad Robert C. Amerson said to Allen Hansen in speaking about his career in the United States Information Agency http://www.adst.org/OH%20TOCs/Amerson,%20Robert%20C.toc.pdf  Al, himself a USIA alumnus, entitled his book about his Foreign Service years “Nine Lives: A Foreign Service Memoir” http://a.co/dMlzJE0 which I have happily just purchased via Amazon and can’t wait to read).

Allen

Each post is a new city, country, continent, maybe with a new language, for which the FSO may have had a brief immersion training at headquarters in DC. The new assignment also comes with a unique set of cultural, political, and economic parameters, along with programmatic challenges in carrying out the Embassy’s mission. There’s a permanent local staff to get to know, and a new Embassy hierarchy to master and use. It’s a little like the Witness Protection Program with very specific instructions, only you get to tell people back home about it. They just probably won’t find it nearly as fascinating as the FSO does.

Similarly, children in a diplomatic family move into an existing structure: school. When my father headed off to the Embassy each morning, my sister and I were walked to catch the bus. There were challenges, but at least we knew what was expected of us.

The person we all left at home, my mother, was somewhat left to fend for herself to create a smooth-running home. It’s in the guidelines: “The Foreign Service wife is instantly thrown into a strenuous intercultural situation requiring much energy and rapid accomplishmnet in establishing her household and family…”(Guidelines for Representational Responsibilities of Wives in our Posts Abroad, Management Reform Bulletin No. 20, June 3, 1971, US Department of State).

There were the logistics, the invisible infrastructure of normal life: finding and enrolling us in school; managing a house while living with strangers in the kitchen; figuring out grocery shopping. Without these, chaos. But there was a magic to creating home.

In Milan, we lived in a pensione for the month of December, 1959 while my parents hunted for an apartment: it was cold and dark and we were without Fina, the maid who’d raised us for four years in Caracas, yet Mom had to make all this feel like a home for Christmas. She magically produced tacos on Christmas Eve, a nod to the Venezuelan tradition of hallacas, and we carried the new tradition into every post after that. When the four of us celebrated my sister’s New Year’s Eve birthday in Milan with sandwiches by candlelight in the new apartment, Mom made it seem like a grand party. When Dad’s work schedule and their after-hours entertainment responsibilities expanded into evening family time, Mom invented birthday breakfast. Why wait for dinner when candles in muffins and a tin foil birthday crown are a great way to start the day? My daughter has celebrated each of her 25 years this way.

These routines became part of the strategy Mom developed to carry home from post to post. She showed us how to draw our initials in the fresh jar of peanut butter (from the Embassy Commissary), how to turn the apple around its stem while saying the alphabet to discover the initial of a future boyfriend, how to make Christmas cookies. And as much as she kept us connected to American habits, she also engaged us in seeing the place we were living, directing Dad on Sunday drives with the blue guidebook on her lap and reading to us about where we were going.

No, my mother didn’t have different lives to live, or different personas to inhabit. She strategized and planned and tolerated and, yes, fully enjoyed herself, in the task of “establishing her family and household” so that each place we lived was, in fact, home.

That’s quite a legacy.

Celebrating the American Fourth in Caracas

 

CaracasWelcome
The caption in this Venezuelan newspaper photo reads: Mr. Robert Amerson, from Minneapolis Minnesota, arrived with his wife and his daughter Jane to serve in the United States Embassy as Information Officer. To these distinguished travelers we extend our cordial welcome.

At 2AM July 3, 1955, my parents and I, a 8 month-old, arrived at the seaside airport down the mountains from Caracas. It had been a marathon: driving up to NYC from DC, where they’d had two months of orientation training, leaving the car at  loading docks, and taking our 10 pieces of luggage to the Pan Am Strato Cruiser for what turned out to be a 12 hour flight. Despite her exhaustion, Mom sat down to write to her parents, a habit that would continue for Dad’s entire Foreign Service career.

All day today we’ve been just congratulating ourselves on having arrived, after so many weeks of planning and working toward that end. Hotel Potomac, Caracas, July 3, 1955

A day later, on Venezuelan Independence Day, she set down in another letter about how the American Independence Day seemed to be done in Caracas. She was an outsider, sharing her observations with perhaps more enthusiasm than she could yet feel.

Yesterday was the Ambassador’s reception to celebrate the 4th. Bob went and had a good chance to meet many of the local Venezuelan press and radio people. The other Embassy people were very nice, including a young fellow named Al Hanson who is a trainee for this type of work. The big formal dance was last night, but we passed it up; baby sitting problem most of all but we didn’t mind just being alone. From what we hear of the amount of work to be done, it is good that Bob has this period without worries. Mr. Butler has told Bob not to worry about starting the job till we are settled and feel at home. Isn’t that a fine thing to do? We know we’re going to enjoy this stuff very much. Caracas, July 5, 1955  [Note: the “nice young fellow named Al Hanson” would become a life-long friend: Alan Hanson’s 1988 interview with Dad about his career in USIS is a treasure of information and insight (it’s on the website of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training), and Al and I are now in touch through the serendipitous connections of letters to the Palm Beach Post (local USIA retiree Alvin Perlman’s letter about Foreign Service Day led to my letter about being raised in the Foreign Service led to a letter to me from Joan Mainzer who spent many years in Venezuela and who now lives just 20 minutes from me and who knows Al well through the network of former Caraquenos. If I just lost you, here’s the simple path: writing stuff down takes you the most wonderful places past, present and future.)

By the following year, our live-in maid Josefina had become a part of our home, in large part to care for me when Mom had Foreign Service Wife duties during the day and social networking duties in the evening with Dad.  She was in her first trimester of pregnancy with my sister, but the stomach muscles she’d honed while teaching and performing modern dance must have kept her waist small enough to still fit into a maid of honor dress from Minnesota: Did I tell you we are going to the 4th of July dance? Great fancy doings and at last I’m breaking out the raspberry red dress from Mary’s [Caldwell Mudge] wedding.”  Caracas, July 2, 1956

A year later, Mom was no longer the newest arrival among the Foreign Service wives, and her perspective on the events at the Ambassador’s Residence reflected her understanding of the job.  The reception was a big success. Mrs. McIntosh had a huge tent covering the inner garden at the Residence with good protection from both the sun and rain. We went up at 9:00 to get ready with things like arranging the receiving flowers. So many of the government bigwigs send gorgeous flower pieces and it is a job listing them (for thank yous) and then finding the proper place in the house. That in itself is an art, as the most important people must have their flowers displayed in the most important spots …Then there was constant work on sandwiches. We had each made 100 small, closed ones and they had to be arranged on the trays for passing, and later in the day they were cut in half to make enough to go around.Caracas, July 1957

By our last summer in Caracas, the event had mushroomed: “Well, the 4th of July is nearly upon us and that means preparations for the big Embassy reception. This year our part has been to help make 2,200 sandwiches; the new Ambassador’s wife has been considerate of our pocket books and furnished the fixings. This thing is really done on a big scale, you know. There are some 8,000 North Americans though only about 1,500 show up as it is held over the noon hour; hate to think how many would come if it were at night.” Caracas, July 2, 1958

Mom was in the last generation of Foreign Service wives who assumed they’d be unpaid helpmates to their husbands. I think connecting the women to each other in this type of assignment built a community among them. Mom recalled that no one had a telephone so planning and carrying out what was asked of them meant spending time in each other’s homes. By the time we left, both Mom and Dad felt the Embassy group was as close as family.  I think Al still feels that way.

Tomorrow is Venezuelan Independence Day.  The story continues….

Stepping into the Foreign Service

Dad's first diplomatic passport picture
Dad’s first diplomatic passport picture

These are the words of my father, Robert C. Amerson, as captured in his 1988 interview about his career with the United States Information Agency with Allen Hansen, and in Dad’s book, When Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship, American University Press, 1995.

I came out of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1950 with a degree in Spanish and journalism and looked around for a job. The best opportunity was in public relations for General Mills, and making that choice affected my international future in a very considerable way. The manager of the PR department was Abbott Washburn, a young man of international interests who was involved with the Eisenhower campaign. He served on the Crusade for Freedom and the Jackson Committee, which helped create the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1953 to help project America’s image overseas and deal with the public aspects of diplomacy.

Hundreds of us with modest professional experience in the field of communication — men and women who had never considered working as civilians for the government but now had developed deep interests in international relations — found ourselves querying Washington about this new line of “foreign service” work. I’d traveled to Mexico while at Mac and through Europe shortly after graduating, and, as part of my work at General Mills, had become the national chairman for international relations with the US Jaycees. I stopped by Abbott’s office as often as my travels led me through Washington. My eyes were wide open and my mouth salivating.

Not that any of us aspired to instant conversion into polished diplomats. For most of us, the Foreign Service implied an elite corps. All I had ever read suggested that American diplomacy traditionally meant the Eastern Establishment, professional practitioners trained at exclusive prep schools and Ivy League universities, people born to the social graces, accustomed to cocktail parties and big receptions. One simply assumed that those assigned abroad to an American embassy personified years of applied preparation: mature men truly educated in major aspects of our own history and culture; conversant with the most educated thinking of our greatest institutions; skilled in negotiation; and able to articulate all this fluently in the language of the host country.

And here was I, five years of public relations, a BA from Macalester, and roots reaching all the way back to a one-room school house on the prairies of South Dakota. Nevertheless, amazingly, Washington seemed hungry. When Abbott became Deputy Director at USIA, I was invited to apply. My application led to a panel interview, and overseas employment became an imminent reality. My wife was willing to give it a try, as long as we waited until the baby we were expecting was six months old. The assignment: Caracas, Venezuela.

We had some misgivings, moving into the unknown and taking our child away from grandparents, but it would be our personal experiment in international living, a chance to serve the country in a special way. After all, it was only a two-year commitment: if the going got rough, we could quit and go home anytime, paying our own fare. We nosed through Life magazine’s spread on bourgeoning Caracas, considering where we might live. We wondered about how the long Venezuelan tradition of military dictatorship rule might affect our daily lives. Vivid memories returned from my motorbike visit to Spain four years earlier, when surreptitious conversations with a casual Spanish acquaintance had brought home to me the anxiety and danger of dissidence under a dictator. Remembered, too, were college classes on the fundamental human craving for democracy — some of these lectures from a man who had personally escaped from Nazi tyranny. How, I wondered, do American diplomats deal with dictators? We pored over a “Post Report” describing basic data on living conditions for embassy families in Caracas, but still felt under-informed about nuances and history. In May, we headed to Washington for two months of training.

There, a routine encounter with the Agency’s security office left me with other, more disturbing, uncertainties about working for government. Each officer heading overseas, as part of a departure checklist, had to schedule a clearance interview with those watchdogs. Those of us new to the work understandably required fairly detailed orientation: the meanings of various classifications (Official Use Only, Confidential, Secret, Top Secret); the need for caution when dealing with non-Americans; the use of bar-locks on file cabinets; and the like. About twenty minutes into my briefing, I became aware that the husky, quiet-voiced security agent was angling repeated questions concerning possible political influences in my past. Specifically, he wanted to know more about my relationship with the college professor whose name I had listed as a reference on my application form.

Before USIA decided to employ me, manifestly, I like everyone else seeking US government work in foreign affairs had undergone a “full field security check.” Various investigators — FBI, Civil Service, State Department, we were never sure — had poked around Minnesota and South Dakota asking questions, perhaps thus raising a quizzical eyebrow from acquaintances or neighbors here and there but failing to uncover anything that might constitute a “security risk.” Now, in this drab government security enclave, the line of questioning and barely masked intensity of my inquisitor suggested that the professor’s name still represented a suspicion that he had to check out. I felt indignation surge along with the sudden realization that, at this very moment, I was undergoing some kind of examination to test my patriotism, my loyalty. With government employment came vulnerability.

McCarthyism as a distant abstraction had been hateful enough: personal implication now made it difficult for me to keep from venting anger. I tried to remain outwardly calm, recognizing that this man was only doing his paperwork job. It had not been many months earlier that Senator McCarthy’s accusations of “Communist influence” had wreaked havoc at both the State Department and USIA. The Senator’s infamous minions, Cohn and Schine, had left a shameful trail of psychological wreckage around US Information Service (USIS) libraries in Europe during their witch-hunting expedition to ferret out “dangerous” books. I could see that the Agency’s security apparatus, in self-protection, had to determine for sure whether something in my past (or my psyche?) might later, under pressure from McCarthy-like gumshoes, become embarrassing. My perfunctory replies seemed to satisfy my questioner, but as I left his desk the little hairs on the back of my neck tingled. It was crazy. The Cold War, our national fear of Communists, this sickness called McCarthyism, had produced some strange results. I wondered, on the way out, whether I might actually run into Communists of some kind in Venezuela.

My first trip through customs as a diplomat when Nancy, the baby and I landed at Caracas’ coastal airport on July 3 added more questions. Some of the passengers, especially in the line for Venezuelan citizens, seemed to be having prolonged difficulties explaining to the officials scrutinizing passports and thick, official-looking books just why they desired to enter Venezuela. Several uniformed guards in high-peaked caps, cradling carbines, casually strolled about. I became aware that we had entered the turf of a military dictatorship, and dictators had to be careful about possible enemies returning from exile. George Butler, my new boss, Embassy Public Affairs Officer and Director of the US Information Service in Venezuela, ushered us through the line. I Passportproduced our crisp green “official” passports, and he pulled from his shirt pocket a small, folded brown leather card with an escutcheon and “Cuerpo Diplomatico” stamped in gold on its face. George caught the eye of an official investigating the papers of someone else in line. “Embajada Americana” he said, and the official nodded and smiled, gave our documents a cursory glance, and waved us through the gates. The diplomatic carnet was “one of the perks in our line of work,” especially useful at the airport. We moved our bags through customs without anyone so much as taking a look inside.

So we had suddenly become members of the privileged class, a circumstance that produced mixed feelings in this midwesterner who, perhaps ingenuously, had always prized egalitarianism above special favors for the rich or powerful. And I wondered — did accepting favors from representatives of an authoritarian government, like those airport officials, constitute officious collaboration between the dictatorship and our embassy?

I got the chance to observe diplomacy in action the next day. While Nancy stayed at the hotel with the baby, I was initiated into a whole new style of life and work at the American Ambassador’s annual Fourth of July party. I met dozens of experienced American diplomats who would be my superiors or colleagues. The VIP Venezuelans and expatriate Americans and international diplomats gathered at the Ambassador’s Residence represented a world we knew very little about.

It was the first day of our international life.

 

The Professional Diplomat — Raised in the Foreign Service

He is exactly the type of diplomat any American would want representing their interests abroad, and he was sought after within the State Department for increasingly difficult and challenging assignments because he’s strategic, smart, savvy, curious, loyal and non-partisan…” (CNN, June 6, 2017) That description could have applied to my father, Robert C. Amerson, who […]

via The Professional Diplomat — Raised in the Foreign Service

The Professional Diplomat

He is exactly the type of diplomat any American would want representing their interests abroad, and he was sought after within the State Department for increasingly difficult and challenging assignments because he’s strategic, smart, savvy, curious, loyal and non-partisan…” (CNN, June 6, 2017)

That description could have applied to my father, Robert C. Amerson, who said of his 20 years in the Foreign Service within the United States Information Agency: “I can’t imagine a better career for anyone, at least anyone of my own makeup, than a career with USIA in the area of ideas and operations and communications directly with people overseas.” Dad was among the first generation of ordinary Americans whose skills in public relations, languages and journalism were newly valued by the State Department after World War II, to establish America as the leader of the democratic world. By “winning hearts and minds,” the USIA countered the threat of communism during the Cold War. He took pride in putting his personal politics aside and representing his country, under both Republican and Democratic presidents. Following suit, I registered as an Independent when I came of voting age. That’s what one did.

 Today, more than 16,000 Americans – and their families – represent our country in 270 Foreign Service posts throughout the world. They serve in places that are exponentially more dangerous than the United States through pollution, disease, traffic accidents, sanitation, food safety, lack of potable water, street crime, sexual harassment, xenophobia, or terrorism. Foreign Service Officers have voluntarily agreed to miss births, birthdays, weddings, funerals, anniversaries, and reunions. They’ve given up a spouse’s lucrative earning potential or any salaried position at all. They’ve agreed to go where they’re assigned, “at the convenience of the government.” They’ve sworn the same oath as is required of the Vice President:
I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

 

It is not a job entered into lightly: a rigorous set of written and examinations winnow out all but the extraordinary few; and an “up or out” policy keeps the diplomatic corps lean and strong.  It’s not a job easily relinquished.

In quote I began with, “exactly the type of diplomat any American would want” refers David H. Rank, a career Foreign Service Officer of 27 years serving in Beijing as the Embassy’s Charge D’Affaires, the acting Ambassador, pending confirmation and arrival of Trump’s nominee. This is not unusual upon a change in the White House, although typically the prior administration’s ambassador stays on until the new administration’s representative arrives. Trump ordered the mass resignation of all ambassadors January 16, leaving a whole batch of senior career Foreign Service Officers managing our embassies and lesser staff swirling in the dust. It will be a while before all open assignments are filled. Former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad has been confirmed as Ambassador to China, along with a handful of other nominees; but, although Trump has publicly identified the owner of the NY Jets as his pick for Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Woody Johnson’s nomination and that of many others is not yet in front of the Congress.  Until the process is complete, career Foreign Service Officers like Mr. Rank and Charge D’Affaires Lewis Lukens in the UK will be running our embassies. That’s not a bad thing. You may recall that Mr. Lukens is the person with a backbone that apologized to the Muslim mayor of London on Twitter after Trump verbally assaulted the man for not being tough enough on terrorism after the attacks on London Bridge.

Consider what our embassies all around the world have been charged with explaining to the leadership of their host countries: why this nation of immigrants is closing our doors; what role Russia may have had in electing Trump; whether we are changing, or not, our long-standing alliance with Europe; whether we care, or don’t, about human rights; and whether we believe, or don’t, that there is such a thing as global warming and that our collective behavior can alter the destructive path.

On Thursday, June 1, President Trump announced that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, the 2015 landmark international commitment designed to combat global warming.  Mr. Rank had been serving in China in 2015 when China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, and the United States, the second largest carbon emitter, jointly declared their commitment to the Paris agreement. On June 1, Trump broke ranks with China and 194 other nations, joining Nicaragua and Syria: Nicaragua didn’t think the voluntary nature of compliance was enough; and Syria did not participate due to its civil war.  It is an odd trio: Nicaragua, Syria, and the United States of America.

On Monday, June 5, it fell to Charge D’Affaires Rank to convey the president’s decision to the Chinese government.   Instead, Mr. Rank assembled the embassy staff to say that his conscience would not permit him to contribute to the implementation of the decision to withdraw from the climate agreement.When faced with the conflict between his duty and his conscience, Mr. Rank offered to resign his post. His resignation was accepted.

China said it would stick by its commitments to the treaty despite the US decision.

 

And so, just at the time we most need career Foreign Service Officers to carry out our most critical relationships, we have lost a key player. A colleague says: “Given he spent much of his career seeking to strengthen the US-China relationship to benefit all Americans, we need his expertise and skills now more than ever before. It’s heart-wrenching that we’re losing career officers of his talent, as they pride themselves on serving any administration, but some are increasingly grappling with whether they must take principled decisions as they balance their sense of duty with their conscience.” (CNN, June 6)

When duty and conscience collide, it is heart-wrenching.

 

 

 

 

My parents gave me the world

Although some 40 years have passed since I left home, I am still a Foreign Service kid. My father, Robert C. Amerson, served for 20 years with the United States Information Agency (USIA); my mother, Nancy Robb Amerson, was the “unpaid” diplomat, the last of the generation of all-women Foreign Service “spouses.” Home was Caracas, Milan, Bologna, Rome, Bogota, Rockville, Madrid, and Rome again. English was our family language, unless we were visiting the States: then, Spanish and Italian were our insider code.  My nursery school in Venezuela was run by Germans; first grade in Italy required an oral examination; I learned “how we lost the colonies” at the English School in Bogota. Field trips were to the Etruscan ruins and the Salt Mines. For the first 12 years of my life, my sister and I were never out of an adult’s sight. All this was normal.

Mom and Dad were ordinary Americans from a world in which my sister and I were only tourists. He was a South Dakota farm boy and she, the shopkeeper’s daughter from a Minnesota river town. They were part of the generation of Americans from encharged with representing America in the Cold War era. My sister and I are indebted to our parents, ordinary Americans who made the most of an extraordinary opportunity and did so with such grace. And we all owe a debt of gratitude to the thousands of Foreign Service families around the world today who are meeting the world face-to-face, giving humanity to international relations. It makes all the difference. The 16,000 men and women deployed around the world are charged with carrying out the White House’s foreign policy agenda, regardless of politics. Representing America’s democratic principles has never been more challenging, and we owe a debt of gratitude to this cadre of public servants on Foreign Service Day.

My Mother, the Foreign Service Wife

 

[Dear Mom: As Mother’s Day Month 2017 fades away, I want to thank you for all you gave to Susie and me, and to Dad.  Here’s how our family’s overseas story began. I know how you ached to rejoin Dad in your final years, just as I know you are together again, on to the

MomMePass
I was included in Mom’s first diplomatic passport picture

next great adventure. All my love and un abrazo, Jane]

It is well to realize that the ForeignService wife is instantly thrown into a strenuous intercultural situation requiring much energy and rapid accomplishment in establishing her household and family in a new situation… Hardly any wife has chosen this as her own way of life; most have accepted it gracefully as a by-product of their choice of mate.

(Guidelines for Representational Responsibilities of Wives in our Posts Abroad, Management Reform Bulletin No. 20, June 3, 1971, US Department These guidelines were published 15 years into my mother’s 20-year career as a foreign service wife. If she could have read them on that summer evening in 1954 when my dad floated the option of leaving Minnesota to help the US government in Venezuela, she would have had many reservations:

The State Department will consider her a collateral employee…

  1. instantly thrown: …that, like the person at the carnival perched on a shaky seat above a pool of water, will be suddenly dumped when the ball hits the target…
  2. into a strenuous intercultural situation: … and thrash about not in a tub but in high seas, from which she will stumble to shore on an alien land…..
  3. requiring much energy: … and join marathon on shaky legs and unstable ground…
  4. and rapid accomplishment: … while successfully navigating an obstacle course…
  5. in establishing her household and family … and creating a home (with furniture, clothing, books, keepsakes that may or may not arrive) from which her husband and children can depart every day while she figures out where to find food and who the household help are and how to learn the roster of Embassy names.
  6. all accepted gracefully as a by-product of their choice of mate. Although none of this was her idea, she will make it work, and her husband will thrive and her children will think that this is all normal.

Part I

My mother did not expect the life of Foreign Service wife. Nancy Robb had never even planned to leave Winona, Minnesota, the small town on the Mississippi where her father was a shopkeeper, the third generation to run Robb Brothers General Store. Yet, encouraged by her father, she accepted Macalester College’s invitation to St. Paul; then, an offer from the Henry Street Playhouse dance company in New York City; and, finally, a proposal from Bob Amerson, her South Dakota farmer beau from Macalester, which took her back to St. Paul.

The first two years of my parents’ married life, 1952-54, were what Mom expected. Dad worked in PR for General Mills, Mom in personnel at Mac and teaching dance part time. Evenings, they had college friends over to try out hamburger hot-dish recipes. Weekends were in Winona and with Dad’s family on the farm. After a couple of years, they decided the time was right for a child, and I was on the way.

As happy as my mother was nesting in St. Paul, Dad was, in her words, “A creature with an itchy foot and foreign languages on his lips.” He’d seen some of the world during the War, Mexico during his GI Bill sojourn at Mac, and Europe by motorbike. He chafed at the bit to see more and use the languages he had picked up. One August evening in 1954, in what was to be the first of many such scenarios, he set a picnic dinner up on the tar roof of their apartment to gently introduce the idea of going overseas. He’d interviewed with this new government organization, the US Information Agency. They were looking for journalists and public relations experts with strong communications skills to join the Ivy League elite Foreign Service, where USIA would help forge America’s post-War image as “leader of the free world.” To be a part of the Cold War’s deadly game with huge stakes made him tingle with excitement. It didn’t hurt that this kid from the farm would even have a French title, Press Attache.

Mom must have giggled in delight at Dad’s enthusiasm: he always had a way of teasing laughter out of her. And, after all, it was just two years. It might be fun to have such an adventure in their family history. She had discovered that she re-rooted eventually: after a few months, wherever she was felt like home. They thumbed through an atlas to locate Caracas. So, sure, she said, patting her belly: if the government could wait for its Press Attache until the baby was six months old, why not?

And so, in May, 1955, off we went to Washington DC for Dad’s two-month orientation: the fledging trainee, the new mother, and the baby. An adventure awaited.

Part II

Sitting in the Foreign Service Institute “wives” class at Foggy Bottom in late may, my mother had the dawning realization that this was a whole new ball game. General Mills had never asked anything of her, but this new employer sure did. The lectures made it clear that life in the Foreign Service was controlled by many rules of conduct. Some of the rules were just basic good Midwestern manners, but others startled her: “It would be better to wear no jewelry if one has only costume jewelry.” “One must wear elbow length white kid gloves as part of one’s evening wear.” She owned one pearl necklace and winter gloves. A couple of hours in Garfinkles rectified that situation but there seemed to be special expectations for those with diplomatic passports. She quietly panicked.

My father’s capable, unflappable way calmed her nerves: what they were setting out to do was not only possible but also a wonderful opportunity. On the first of July, 1955 with diplomatic passports in hand (I shared my mother’s), the three of us drove from Washington DC to New York City, left the car to be shipped by boat, and boarded a Pan Am Stratocruiser for the nine-hour flight to Caracas. They’d taken out a loan of $400 from the State Department Credit Union, knowing that paperwork from Washington would lag behind the daily costs of living in oil-rich Venezuela.

About an hour out, the pilot announced that the propeller plane had lost an engine and was returning to New York. My father continued reading up on Venezuela. I slept on in the canvas crib that was attached to the wall in front of their first row seats. My mother put on a brave front until we got on back on the ground in La Guardia. Four hours, several cloth diapers, and one dinner later, we were on our way again.

Caracas was Eternal Springtime and Caraqueños warm and encouraging of her beginner Spanish. The Embassy group was young and friendly. My mother quickly made up for her lack of experience with a personal grace that put people at ease. USIA counted on the staff-spouse teams to help “win hearts and minds” not through subterfuge but by being genuine. She was a natural at establishing personal relationships with people who counted, making conversation flow, creating goodwill. My sister was born.Two years became four, and my mother blossomed from junior newbie to senior mentor, from new mother to the “señora de la casa” capably handling two children, a full-time live-in maid, an outside life in Spanish and all the “representational duties” expected of her. When time came to leave Caracas, staying with the Foreign Service felt right. And Italy sounded great.

Part III

The mid-winter move to grey Milan for Dad’s next assignment in the small consular office threw my mother right back to the starting point: learning a new language, finding housing, choosing a maid, setting a routine, establishing me in school. She’d barely regained her equilibrium seven months later when Dad was sent to graduate school in Bologna: while he helped find housing before jumping into his studies, it fell to Mom to figure out domestic help, set up a new routine, establish us in school; and there was no Embassy guidance to help her learn the ropes. Nine months later, it was Rome: her Italian was good, her confidence greater, and the Embassy community robust, but she knew that it would take her six months to get back on her feet. It would happen again in Bogota. And in Maryland. And in Madrid. And in Boston.

But she kept it to herself. “Hardly any wife has chosen this as her own way of life; most have accepted it gracefully as a by-product of their choice of mate.”

She revealed herself only once Dad had retired after 20 years and they were living (permanently!) on Cape Cod, where she grew her own community of friendships through gardening, the Brewster Ladies Library and the Unitarian consignment shop. She slowly shared how lonely and exhausting it was, how she came to know that the cyclical depression would ease after six months, and how she treasured the few real lasting friends she made. And that she loved the Foreign Service life, too, and couldn’t imagine having spent all those years in the American suburbs.

How brave to have held up her end of a bargain not quite of her doing. How smart to have created a mobile home of Americana routine: carving our initials in the fresh jar of peanut butter (from the Embassy PX); counting the twists on the apple core to know what letter our future boyfriend’s name would be; reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Bobsey Twins out loud while my sister and I ate dinner. She created unique family traditions, like making tacos for Christmas Eve no matter where we were living, and cooking the Sunday noontime dinner for a quiet family time on the maids’ day off. She embedded herself in every place we lived, reading from the Fodor’s guidebook open on her lap while Dad drove, my sister and me dozing in the backseat.

[Thank you, querida madre. Un abrazo. Jane]

My parents gave me the world

Although some 40 years have passed since I left home, I am still a Foreign Service kid. My father, Robert C. Amerson, served for 20 years with the United States Information Agency (USIA); my mother, Nancy Robb Amerson, was the “unpaid” diplomat, the last of the generation of all-women Foreign Service “spouses.” Home was Caracas, Milan, Bologna, Rome, Bogota, Rockville, Madrid, and Rome again. English was our family language, unless we were visiting the States: then, Spanish and Italian were our insider code.  My nursery school in Venezuela was run by Germans; first grade in Italy required an oral examination; I learned “how we lost the colonies” at the English School in Bogota. Field trips were to the Etruscan ruins and the Salt Mines. For the first 12 years of my life, we were never out of an adult’s sight. All this was normal.
Mom and Dad were ordinary Americans from a world in which my sister and I were only tourists. He was a South Dakota farm boy and she, the shopkeeper’s daughter from a Minnesota river town. They were pioneers in the U.S government’s post-War initiative to win the hearts and minds of people around the world by simply shining a light on American democracy. Through free public libraries, in countries where only the rich had access to books; cultural events showcasing American writers, artists, musicians and dancers; and candid conversation with leaders across the political spectrum, USIA reflected, as Neal Gabler recently wrote, “our values, our morals, our compassion, our tolerance, and decency, our sense of common purpose, our very identity – all the things that, however tenuously, made a nation out of a country.” (Farewell, America, Moyers & Company).

 

My sister and I are indebted to our parents, ordinary Americans who made the most of an extraordinary opportunity and did so with such grace. And we all owe a debt of gratitude to the thousands of Foreign Service families around the world today who are meeting the world face-to-face, giving humanity to international relations.

It makes all the difference.