“… 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.”
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.
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).
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.