[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
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…
- 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…
- 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…..
- requiring much energy: … and join marathon on shaky legs and unstable ground…
- and rapid accomplishment: … while successfully navigating an obstacle course…
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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]