He is flying.
Is this how I will remember him? As I watch him lying vanquished, defeated by the one thing even he could not outmaneuver, I understand that I will have to choose my memories carefully now. They are simply too many. Faded newspaper articles, more medals and trophies than I know what to do with; personal letters from presidents, kings, dictators. Books, movies, plays about him and his accomplishments; schools and institutions proudly bearing his name.
Tear-stained photographs of a child with blond curls, blue eyes and deep cleft in his chin. Smudged copies of letters to other women, tucked away in my purse.
I stir in my seat, trying not to disturb him; Ineed him to sleep, to restore, because of all the things I have to say to him later, and we’re running out of time. I feel it in my very bones, this ebbing of our tide, and there’s nothing I can do about it and I’m no longer content simply to watch it, watch him rush away from me, leaving me alone, not knowing, never knowing. My hands clenched, my jaw so rigid it aches, I lean forward as if I could will the plane to fly faster.
A stewardess peeks over the curtain separating us from the rest of the passengers.
“Is there anything I can do?”
I shake my head, and she retreats after one worried, worshipful look at the emaciated figure breathing raspily, eyelids flickering as if he’s still searching, still vigilant, even in his drugged sleep. And knowing him, he probably is.
Still the unanswered questions, so many I can’t gather them to me in any order, in any list, oh, his damned, disciplined lists! Now, finally, I have need for one and I can’t even pick which question with which to start. So many demand answers. Why them? Why all of them? Did he love them? Has he ever loved me?
Have I always loved him? I left him once, long ago. So long ago but I can still remember the weight of the suitcase I was carrying, the shoes I was wearing when I walked out the door. The same pair of shoes I was wearing when I came back. Has he ever suspected that he almost lost me, then? Is that why he has betrayed us all?
I yearn to shake him awake, make him tell me but I can’t, not yet. So I force myself to focus on the one question only I will be able to answer. I will leave the rest for later. After we land; after our children have said all they need to.
After only I am left.
I yearn to shake him awake, make him tell me but I can’t, not yet. So I force myself to focus on the one question only I will be able to answer. I will leave the rest for later. After we land; after the children have said all they need to.
After only I am left.
Sipping some tepid water, I look out the window and ponder, once more, how to remember this man who was never merely a man, least of all to me. We are above the clouds now, winging our way west across the continent.
He is forever captured in photographs and newsreels waving jauntily from the cockpit, lean and bronze in his oversized flying suit, his sandy hair cut so short, boyish Buster Brown bangs in front, his neck shaved in back. Or he is leaning casually against his plane—the plane, the one of which he always spoke so reverently that I knew it was a part of him in a way, it turned out, I could never be. That single engine monoplane, theSpirit of St. Louis.
Even now, I think of flying as a refuge; gliding with the birds on the currents, the sky a great, silent cathedral surrounding you. And although I know differently—my ears sometimes ring with the memory of the roaring of those early engines—I imagine him crossing that ocean in silence, a young man, his hand on the control stick and his foot on the rudder, alone with just his thoughts; for the first and only time in his life free from expectation. Free from the burden of living up to the legend that awaits him a mere twenty or so hours away, in a primitive airfield just outside of Paris.
And if I finally choose to remember him like this, will I see his face? Or will I be seated behind him, as I was so many times, so that I can only see the fine, reddish blond hairs that the razor didn’t quite reach, his neck straining forward in a taut column of concentration? Will I recognize his shoulders, broad and tense beneath that bulky flight suit?
It will not be him flying, then; it will be us. Somehow, I will be in the tiny cockpit of theSpirit of St. Louis with him, a fly on history’s shoulder.
No. Abruptly, I tug down the blind so that I can no longer look down upon the clouds. No. He should soar alone across the ocean that first time, just like in the history books, and he should be young and he should be boyish and his entire future, unimaginable, unsullied, should be his only passenger.
Despite all the pain, the bitterness, the betrayal—his and mine, both—I pray to the God of my childhood that this is how, finally, I will remember him. An intense yet hopeful figure so finely chiseled he is almost part of the machinery of the plane itself, willing it across the ocean with a couple of sandwiches, a thermos of coffee and unwarranted arrogance. His blue eyes will glint like the sun on the ocean that is so close outside the cockpit window he can almost touch it. Everything will be ahead of him, including—especially—me.
Only he won’t know it yet. And so he’ll soar toward us all, so innocent he is still capable of capturing, and breaking, my heart.
Down to earth.
I repeated the phrase to myself, whispering it in wonder. Down to earth. What a plodding expression, really, when you considered it—I couldn’t help but think of muddy fields and wheel ruts and worms—yet people always meant it as a compliment.
“‘Down to earth’—did you hear that, Elisabeth? Can you believe Daddy would say that about an aviator, of all people?”
“I doubt he even realized what he was saying,” my sister murmured as she scribbled furiously on her lap desk, despite the rocking motion of the train. “Now Anne, dear, if you’d just let me finish this letter...”
“Of course he didn’t,” I persisted, refusing to be ignored. This was the third letter she’d written today! “Daddy never does know what he’s saying, which is why I love him. But honestly, that’s what his letter said—‘I do hope you can meet Colonel Lindbergh. He’s so down to earth!’’’
“Well, Daddy is quite taken with the colonel….”
“Oh, I know—and I didn’t mean to criticize him! I was just thinking out loud. I wouldn’t say anything like that in person.” Suddenly my mood shifted, as it always seemed to do whenever I was with my family. Away from them, I could be confident, almost careless, with my words and ideas. Once, someone even called me vivacious (although to be honest, he was a college freshman intoxicated by bathtub gin and his first whiff of expensive perfume).
Whenever my immediate family gathered, however, it took me awhile to relax, to reacquaint myself with the rhythms of speech and good-natured joshing that they seemed to fall into so readily. I imagined that they carried it with them, even when we were all scattered; I fancied each one of them humming the tune of this family symphony in their heads as they went about their busy lives.
Like so many other family traits—the famous Morrow sense of humor, for instance—the musical gene appeared to have skipped me. So it always took me longer to remember my part in this domestic song and dance. I’d been traveling with my sister and brother on this Mexican-bound train for a week, and still I felt tongue-tied and shy. Particularly around Dwight, now a freshman at Groton; my brother had grown paler, prone to strange laughing fits, almost reverting to childhood at times even as physically, he was fast maturing into a carbon copy of our father.
Elisabeth was the same as ever, and I was the same as ever around her; no longer a confident college senior, I was diminished in her golden presence. In the stale air of the train car, I felt as limp and wrinkled as the sad linen dress I was wearing. While she looked as pressed and poised as a mannequin, not a wrinkle or smudge on her smart silk suit, despite the red dust blowing in through the inadequate windows.
“Now don’t go brooding already, Anne, for heaven’s sake! Of course you wouldn’t criticize Daddy to his face—you, of all people! There!” Elisabeth signed her letter with a flourish, folded it carefully and tucked it in her pocket. “I’ll wait until later before I address it. Just think how grand it will look on the embassy stationary!”
“Who are you writing this time? Connie?”
Elisabeth nodded brusquely; she wrote to Connie Chilton, her former roommate from Smith, so frequently the question hardly seemed worth acknowledging. Then I almost asked if she needed a stamp, before I remembered. We were dignitaries now. Daddy was Ambassador to Mexico. We Morrows had no need for such common objects as stamps. All our letters would go in the special government mail pouch, along with Daddy’s memos and reports.
It was rumored that Colonel Lindbergh himself would be taking a mail pouch back to Washington with him, when he flew away. At least, that’s what Daddy had insinuated in his last letter, the one I had received just before boarding the train in New York with Elisabeth and Dwight. We were in Mexico now; we’d crossed the border during the night. I couldn’t stop marveling at the strange landscape as we’d chugged our way south; the flat, strangely light-filled plains of the Midwest; the dreary dessert in Texas, the lonely adobe houses or the occasional tin-roofed shack underneath a bleached out, endless sky. Mexico, by contrast, was greener than I had imagined, especially as we climbed toward Mexico City.
“Did you tell Connie that we saw Gloria Swanson with Mr. Kennedy?” We’d caught a glimpse of the two, the movie star and the banker (whom we knew socially), when they boarded the train in Texas. Both of them had their heads down and coat collars turned up. Joseph Kennedy was married, with a brood of Catholic children and a lovely wife named Rose. Miss Swanson was married to a French marquis, according to the Photoplay I sometimes borrowed from my roommate.
“I didn’t. Daddy wouldn’t approve. We do have to be more careful now that he’s Ambassador.”
“That’s true. But didn’t she look so tiny in person! Much smaller than in the movies. Hardly taller than me!”
“I’ve heard that about movie stars.” Elisabeth nodded thoughtfully. “They say Douglas Fairbanks isn’t much taller than Mary Pickford.”
A colored porter knocked on the door to our compartment; he stuck his head inside. “We’ll be at the station momentarily, Miss,” he said to Elisabeth, who smiled graciously and nodded, her blond curls tickling her forehead. Then he retreated.
“I can’t wait to see Con,” I said, my stomach dancing in anticipation. “And Mother, of course. But mainly Con!” I missed my little sister; missed and envied her, both. At fourteen, she was able to make the move to Mexico City with our parents and live the gay, diplomatic life that I could only glimpse on holidays like this; my first since Daddy had been appointed.
I picked up my travel case and followed Elisabeth out our private car into the aisle, where we were joined by Dwight, who was tugging at his tie.
“Is this tied right, Anne?” He frowned, looking so like Daddy that I almost laughed; Daddy never could master the art of tying a necktie, either. Daddy couldn’t master the art of wearing clothes, period. His pants were always too long and wrinkled, like elephants’ knees.
“Yes, of course.” But I gave it a good tug, anyway.
Then suddenly the train had stopped; we were on a platform swirling with excited passengers greeting their loved ones, in a soft, blanketing warmth that gently thawed my bones, still chilled from the Northampton winter I carried with me, literally, on my arm. I’d forgotten to pack my winter coat in my trunk.
“Anne! Elisabeth! Dwight!” A chirping, a laugh, and then Con was there, her round little face brown from sun, her dark hair pulled back from her face with a gay red ribbon. She was wearing a Mexican dress, all bright embroidery and full skirt; she even had huaraches on her tiny feet.
“Oh, look at you!” I hugged her, laughing. “What a picture! A trueseñorita!”
Turning blindly, I found myself in my mother’s embrace, and then too quickly released as she moved on to Elisabeth. Mother looked as ever, a sensible New England club woman plunked down in the middle of the tropics. Daddy, his pants swimming as usual, his tie askew, was shaking Dwight’s hand and kissing Elisabeth on the cheek at the same time.
Finally he turned to me; rocking back on his heel, he looked me up and down and then nodded solemnly, although his eyes twinkled. “And there’s Anne. Reliable Anne. You never change, my daughter.”
I blushed, not sure if this was a compliment, choosing to think it might be. Then I ran to his open arms, and kissed his stubbly cheek.
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Ambassador!”
“Yes, yes—a merry Christmas it will be! Now hurry up, hurry up, and you may be able to catch Colonel Lindbergh before he goes out.”
“He’s still here?” I asked as Mother marshaled us expertly into two waiting cars, both black and gleaming, ostentatiously so. I was acutely aware of our luggage piling up on the platform, matching and initialed and gleaming with comfortable wealth. I couldn’t help but notice how many people were lugging straw cases as they piled into donkey carts.
“Yes, Colonel Lindbergh is still here, oh, my dear, you should have seen the crowds at the airfield when he arrived! Two hours late, but nobody minded a bit. That plane, what’s it called, theGhost of St. Louis, isn’t it—”
Con began to giggle helplessly, and I suppressed a smile.
“It’s theSpirit of St. Louis,” I corrected her, and my mother met my gaze with a bemused expression in her downward-slanted eyes. I felt myself blush, knowing what she was thinking. Anne? Swooning for the dashing young hero, just like all the other girls? Who could have imagined?
“Yes, of course, theSpirit of St. Louis. And the colonel has agreed to spend the holidays with us in the embassy. Your father is beside himself. Mr. Henry Ford has even sent a plane to fetch the colonel’s mother, and she’ll be here, as well. At dinner, Elisabeth will take special care of him—oh, and you too, dear, you must help. To tell the truth, I find the colonel to be rather shy.”
“He’sridiculously shy,” Con agreed with another giggle. “I don’t think he’s ever really talked to girls before!”
“Con, now, please. The colonel’s our guest. We must make him feel at home,” Mother admonished.
I listened in dismay as I followed her into the second car; Daddy, Dwight and Elisabeth roared off in the first. The colonel—a totalstranger—would be part of our family Christmas? I certainly hadn’t bargained on that, and couldn’t help but feel that it was rude of a stranger to insinuate himself in this way. Yet at the mere mention of his name my heart began to beat faster, my mind began to race with the implications of this unexpected stroke of what the rest of the world would call enormous good luck. Oh, how the girls back at Smith would scream, once they found out! How envious they all would be!
Before I could sort out my tangled thoughts, we were being whisked away to the embassy at such a clip I didn’t have time to take in the strange, exotic landscape of Mexico City. My only impression was a blur of multi-colored lights in the gathering shadows of late afternoon, and bleached out buildings punctuated by violent shocks of color. So delightful to think that there were wildflowers blooming in December!
“Is the colonel as really as shy as all that?” It seemed impossible, that this extraordinary young man would suffer from such an ordinary affliction, just like me.
“Oh, yes. Talk to him about aviation—that’s really the only way you can get him to say more than ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ and ‘pass the salt,’” Mother said. Then she patted me on my knee. “Now, how was your last term? Aren’t you glad you listened to reason after all, when you thought you wanted to go to Vassar? Now you’re almost through, almost a Smith graduate, just like Elisabeth and me!”
I smiled, looked at my shoes—caked in the dust of travel—and nodded, although my mouth set in a particular prickly way, my only outward sign of rebellion. After almost four years, I still wished I’d been allowed to go to Vassar, as I’d so desperately wanted.
But I swallowed my annoyance and dutifully recited grades and small academic triumphs, even as my mind raced ahead of the two sleek embassy cars. Colonel Lindbergh. I hadn’t counted on meeting him so soon—or at all, really. I’d thought his visit was merely an official stop on some grand tour of Latin America and that he’d be gone long before my vacation started. My palms grew clammy, and I wished I’d changed into a nicer frock on the train. I’d never met a hero before. I worried that one of us would be disappointed.
“I can’t wait for the colonel to meet Elisabeth,” Mother said as if she could read my thoughts. “Oh, and you, too, dear.”
I nodded. But I knew what she meant. My older sister was a beauty—the beauty, in the parlance of the Morrow family, as if there could be room for only one. She had a porcelain complexion, blond curls, round blue eyes with thick black eyelashes, and a darling of a nose, the master brushstroke that finished off her portrait of a face. Whereas I was all nose, with slanty eyes like Mother’s, dark hair, and while I was shorter than Elisabeth, my figure was rounder. Too round, too busty and curvy, for the streamlined Flapper fashions that were still all the rage this December of 1927.
“I’m sure I won’t be able to think of a thing to say to him. I’m sure I won’t be able to think of a thing to say to anyone. Oh, what a lot of bother this all is!” Gesturing at the plush red upholstery, the liveried driver, the twin flags, one of the United States, the other of Mexico, planted on the hood of the car, I allowed myself a rare outburst, meeting Mother’s disapproving frown without blinking. Christmas was special. The rest of the year we might all be flung about, like a game of Puss-in-the-Corner. But Christmas was home, was safe, was the idea of family that I carried around with me the rest of the year, even as I recognized it didn’t quite match up with reality. Already, I missed my cozy room back home in Englewood, with my writing desk, my snug twin bed covered by the white chenille bedspread my grandmother had made as a bride, bookshelves full of childhood favorites—Anne of Green Gables, the Just-So stories, Kim. Stubbornly, I told myself that I would never get used to Daddy’s new life as a diplomat, his ability to attract dashing young aviators notwithstanding. I much preferred him as a staid banker.
“Anne, please. Don’t let your father hear you say this. He’s very fond of the young man, and wants to help him with all his new responsibilities. I gather Colonel Lindbergh doesn’t have much of a family, only his mother. It’s our duty to welcome him into our little family circle.”
I nodded, instantly vanquished; unable to explain to her how I felt. I never was able to explain—anything—to my mother. Elisabeth, she understood; Dwight, she entrusted to my father. Con was young and bubbly and simply a delight. I was—Anne. The shy one, the strange one. Only in letters did my mother and I have anything close to true communion. In person, we didn’t know what to do with one another.
And duty, I understood all too well. If a history of our family was to be written, it could be summed up with that one word. Duty. Duty to others less fortunate, less happy, less educated; less. Although most of the time I thought there really couldn’t be anyone in this world less than me.
“Now, don’t worry yourself so, Anne,” Mother continued, almost sympathetically; at least she patted my arm. “The colonel is a mere mortal, despite what your father and all the newspapers say.”
“A handsome mere mortal,” Con said with a dreamy sigh, and I couldn’t help but laugh. When had my little sister started thinking of men as handsome?
But at her age, I had started to dream of heroes, I recalled. Sometimes, I still did.
The cars slowed and turned into a gated drive; we stopped in front of an enormous, showy palace—the embassy. Our embassy, I realized, and had to stifle an urge to giggle. I followed Mother and Con out of the car and hung back as Daddy marched up a grand stone staircase, covered in a red carpet. A line of uniformed officers stood on both sides of the staircase, heralding our arrival.
“Can you believe it?” I whispered to Elisabeth, clinging to her hand for comfort. She shook her head, her eyes snapping with amusement even as her face paled. The flight of steps seemed endless, and Elisabeth was not strong, physically. But she took a deep breath and began to climb them, so I had no choice but to follow.
I couldn’t look at the uniformed men; I couldn’t look at the landing, where he was waiting. So I looked at the carpet instead, and hoped that I would never run out of it. Of course, I did; we were done climbing, finding ourselves on a shaded landing, and Mother was pushing Elisabeth forward, exclaiming, “Colonel Lindbergh, I’m so glad for you to meet my eldest daughter, Elisabeth!”
Elisabeth smiled and held out her hand, so naturally. As if she was meeting just another college boy, and not the hero of our time.
“I’m happy to meet you, Colonel,” she said coolly. Then she glided past, following Daddy into the embassy.
“Oh, and of course, this is Anne,” Mother said after a moment, pushing me forward as well.
I looked up—and up. And up. Into a face instantly familiar, and yet so unexpected I almost gasped; piercing eyes, high forehead, cleft chin, just like in the newsreels; a face made for statues and history books, I couldn’t help but think. And here he was suddenly right in front of me, amidst my family in this unexpected, almost cartoonish, opulence. My head swam, and I wished I had never left my dormitory room.
He shook my hand without a smile, for a smile would be too ordinary for him. Then he dropped it quickly, as if it stung. He took a step back, and bumped into a stone pillar. His expression never changed, although I thought I detected a faint blush. Then he turned to follow Elisabeth and Daddy into the embassy. Mother bustled after them.
I stood where I was for a long moment, wondering why my hand still tingled where he had held it.
* * * * * * *
Colonel Charles Lindbergh. Lucky Lindy. The Lone Eagle. Had there ever been a hero like him, in all of history?
Breathless, reeling from the blinding, golden brilliance of his presence, I could not imagine there had. Not even Christopher Columbus or Marco Polo in their time—a time when the world was different, larger; people, countries, entire continents hidden from one another. But suddenly the world was another planet entirely; much more compact, everyone now within reach. And it was all because of one young man from Minnesota, only four years older than me.
I had been in the library at Smith last May, writing a paper about Erasmus, when a total stranger grabbed me by my arm, laughing and crying both. “A man named Lindbergh flew across the ocean!” she shouted, and that was the first time I heard his name. She pulled me from my desk and we ran out into the quad where the entire student body and faculty had gathered to link arms, whoop, and yell as we celebrated this person unknown to most of us until just half an hour before. It seemed incredible, like something from mythology, or from H. G. Wells; this boy flying across the Atlantic Ocean like a bird, like an eagle—and doing it alone. At the age of twenty-five, he had conquered not only the entire planet but all the sky above it.
I lived in a world of remarkable thinkers and dreamers; people whose greatest achievements usually involved the writing of books, the handshake of diplomacy, the paper chase of academia. Heroes were figures from history or from literature; knights errant, brave explorers crossing oceans fully aware that there might be dragons at the end of the rainbow. There were no heroes in these modern times, I had sincerely believed—until I found myself bumping elbows while doing the Charleston in a sea of collegiate humanity, shouting “Lucky—Lucky—Lin—DY!” at the top of my lungs.
And now, because I was the ambassador’s daughter—miraculously! Astoundingly!—I was going to spend my Christmas holiday with him, this doer of all doers, this hero of all heroes, amen.
That first evening, he and Daddy left immediately for an official reception, while the rest of us unpacked on the second floor of the embassy; the “family quarters,” Mother explained,sotto voce, as she showed us all to our respective rooms.
“We have fourteen servants,” Con enthused as she followed me into my grand suite, complete with a private bathroom. “Fourteen! Mother doesn’t know what to do!”
“I’m sure she’ll find something to occupy her time,” I said wryly. Our mother was as tightly wound as a bedside clock; gongs going off every hour as she filled her days with meetings and charitable dinners and fundraisers and writing letters upon letters. I envied her energy, even as I resented it from taking her away from us. But it seemed to me that the hot, pulsating force of it affected me negatively when we were together, as if the two of us were a science experiment. It pushed me away so that I was always looking for dark corners and silences, space to think and feel and worry but never, ever, to do, despite—or perhaps, in spite of—my mother’s shining, bustling example. Contemplation, rather than action; that seemed to be my lot in life, and I was ashamed of it even as I craved it.
“Oh, she does! There’s a party tomorrow, you know.”
“On Christmas Eve?”
“Yes, she says it’s intimate, just for the staff and all of us, but that probably means fifty, at least!”
“Oh, bother!” I sat down in a heap, putting the finishing, disastrous touches to my crumpled traveling dress. A party. With Elisabeth. Old worries and doubts and paralyzing fears stole over me; no one would pay any attention to me, the colonel would dance with her, she’d look exquisite, I’d be a brown lump next to her, I wouldn’t be able to think of anything to say, maybe the colonel would dance with me but it would only be out of pity….
But it wasn’t Elisabeth’s fault, I scolded myself. My sister was simply one of the golden people, like Colonel Lindbergh; effortless, graceful creatures, like unicorns. The rest of us could only look at them in awe, through no fault of their own.
“What are you going to wear?” I asked Con wearily. She wrinkled her snub little nose.
“Something glamorous,” she said with such assurance I laughed, even as I envied her as well. Why couldn’t confidence be bottled, like perfume? I’d sneak into my sisters’ rooms at night and steal a few spritzes, just as I sometimes stole their clothes.
“Well, you’d better help me find something,” I told Con, moving toward my trunk.
“Something to catch an aviator’s eye?” she retorted wickedly.
I shrugged. But I didn’t contradict her.
* * *
The next evening, I hesitated outside the entrance to the formal reception room, calming my breath. For the first time since arriving, I noticed that the embassy wasn’t really as glamorous as it initially seemed. It was like a grand dame’s moth-eaten dress desperately covered in jewelry and gay scarves; the shining chandeliers and elaborate velvet portieres did not quite disguise the worn upholstery, the faint, spidery cracks in the ceiling. It was clean—I was sure Mother had something to do with that!—but shabby. I wondered how Mother liked her new home, or evenif she did. She’d been planning a grand new house in Englewood when Daddy got his appointment; they were still going ahead with the building of it, but it would be years, now, before they could live in her dream home. Typically, she never allowed herself to voice a moment’s remorse about it.
As I held my breath, I could hear her fluty laugh, Daddy’s excited voice, Dwight’s hoarse chuckle, Elisabeth’s throaty murmur and Con’s bubbly giggles. Also, a strange new instrument; a high-pitched yet masculine voice, offering only monosyllabic answers. Colonel Lindbergh. I felt my face flush, the bodice of my evening frock strain tightly against my breasts, flattened down as much as possible by a very hot, very uncomfortable rubber brassiere that Elisabeth Bacon, my roommate at Smith, had convinced me to buy.
“Wherever can Anne be?” Mother asked, and I imagined her looking at her watch, her mouth a thin line of impatience. So I took a deep breath—but not too deep in that cursed brassiere—and cleared my throat before entering the room.
“Here I am, Mother. I’m sorry—I’m afraid I got lost.”
The room was brilliant—so many chandeliers and candles—that at first I had to blink, adjusting my vision. Then I saw the forms of my family huddled around an enormous grand piano, at the far end of the room. I had to cross that room somehow, and I blushed to think that they would all be staring at me. Oh, why hadn’t I gotten here earlier? I could have slipped in unnoticed, not causing such a fuss—I felt the heat of their collective gaze upon my cheeks as I hurried toward them, my eyes staring only at my brocade evening shoes, the heels sinking into the plush carpeting. At last I reached them—I felt my father grasp my hand—but when I looked up, I saw that no one was watching me. And then I almost giggled at the absurdity of my vanity. I had made no grand entrance, after all. How could I, when he was in the room?
For every member of my family was turned toward Charles Lindbergh, and so I could easily slip behind my father, taking my usual place at the edge of the crowd. As I did so, Mother murmured, “Then leave a little earlier next time, dear.”
“Yes, sorry, Mother.” I peeked over Daddy’s shoulder; Colonel Lindbergh was standing on the other side of the piano, next to Elisabeth. While Daddy was all pink and round in his evening clothes, and my brother Dwight a solid brick, the colonel was tall and slim as a knife. He looked uncomfortable in black tails with white waistcoat; he stood stiffly, his elbows askew, his shoulders pinched. In almost all the newsreels and photographs I’d seen, he’d been in his flying clothes. An entire nation had memorized his worn jacket, jodhpurs, helmet with the goggles tucked under his arm, the scarf around his throat. It was jarring to see him out of this costume, away from his airplane.
But the face was the same—the heroic brow, stern chin, high cheekbones. His eyes were so blue as to be startling; I decided I’d never seen blue eyes before, until that moment. They were the color of morning, the color of the ocean; the color of the sky.
He caught me looking at him, then he looked away, and began to tap his fingers nervously on top of the piano, as if playing a tune only he could hear. That was when I noticed his hands, his fingers long and tapered. I imagined them gripping the control stick of his plane, steering it across that endless ocean; I thought them more than capable of the task.
“Aren’t you, Anne?”
Someone had asked me a question and I had no idea what it was, or who had asked it. So I nodded like an idiot and said, “Yes,” and was amazed at the sound of my own voice. It sounded normal, while inside, my heart was still beating so wildly I felt my entire body throb with each pulse.
“That’s nice,” the colonel said after a very small, very brisk nod, affirming the answer to the unheard question. Again, he could barely meet my gaze. His fingers began to tap even faster.
At that, my heart began to slow down. Was it true? Was the heroic Colonel Lindbergh as nervous around women as Mother and Con said?
Apparently, he was. For as we milled about, sipping lemonade and nibbling at sandwiches brought in by an army of butlers, conversation progressed in a series of starts and stops; hesitation followed by sudden, unexpected bursts of chatter that were over before they’d had a chance fully to take off. Only once—when Daddy asked the colonel about the difference between a monoplane and a biplane—did our guest relax. With grace and confidence, he explained the differences in a long monologue that left no room for interruption; his somewhat reedy voice smoothed into a rhythm not unlike, I imagined, the purr of an airplane engine. He leaned forward, his blue eyes glistening, his fingers finally at rest, as he expounded upon the differences and advantages of one set of wings—the monoplane—versus two (the biplane).
As none of us, naturally, could contribute anything to this subject, small talk resumed—tossed out easily by Elisabeth and my mother while Daddy beamed and Dwight devoured enormous quantities of sandwiches. Con even dared to tease the colonel now and then, and he didn’t seem to mind. Meanwhile, I studied my surroundings, achingly homesick for Englewood. Nothing in this cavernous hall was familiar to me save for the tattered American flag draped over the gilt fireplace mantle; the flag my grandfather had carried, as a drummer boy, in the Civil War. There weren’t even any framed family photographs, like there were on every surface back home. Yet I was curious about the embassy, in the way that one is curious about a museum; I promised myself I’d go exploring later, after everyone else was in bed.
“I understand you’re at Smith?” someone asked, and after a moment it dawned on me that the questioner was Colonel Lindbergh.
Surprised—I had found a corner, a good one, out of the range of any light and had fancied myself hidden from view—I nodded. Then I realized he probably couldn’t see me, cloaked as I was in shadows. “Yes. I am.”
“Elisabeth graduated from Smith two years ago,” Mother said brightly.
“Yes, you see, Colonel, it is decreed by proclamation. All the Morrow girls go to Smith, and all the Morrow boys go to Amherst,” Elisabeth explained, and I couldn’t help but admire the dry, almost bored tone of her voice, the exact same tone she used with lesser specimens of the male species. “Where did you go to school?”
The colonel stiffened, and thrust his chin out. “The University of Wisconsin. Although I did not graduate.”
“Really?” Dwight’s voice cracked with incredulity. “You didn’t graduate? How extraordinary—what did your parents say to that? I can’t imagine what Pa here would say if I don’t graduate!”
I watched the colonel’s face as my brother nattered on. It was as if his features had settled into a mask; I had never seen a man so immobile—yet so proud. And, I suspected, so humiliated.
“Oh, Dwight! Hush!” I blurted out, surprising myself and my brother, who gave me a gravely wounded look. “How could the colonel have graduated and still learned to fly and accomplish what he’s done?”
“Yes, yes, Anne is correct. Young man, if you accomplish a tenth of what the colonel here has, I’ll be satisfied. Surprised, but satisfied,” Daddy said as he patted the colonel heartily on the back—and gave my brother a familiar, disapproving look. And I sucked in my breath and felt a pang of guilt. Poor Dwight! There would be yet another “talking to” behind the closed door of Daddy’s study, followed by the return, in full force, of my brother’s stutter.
Colonel Lindbergh didn’t reply. Instead, he looked at me in a curious, almost clinical way—until our gazes met for a confusing second that pushed me back in my corner and him back to studying the top of the piano.
Suddenly, thankfully, there were musicians setting up at the other end of the room, even more candles were lit, a fire started in the fireplace, and Mother, Father, the colonel and Elisabeth were standing in an informal receiving line. Soon enough the room was full of people; women in fashionably short, long-waisted gowns, jeweled bands about their bobbed or Marcelled hair, elbow-length white gloves; men in black tie and tails, some with brilliant sashes gleaming with diplomatic medals across their chests. This grand affair had no relation to the intimate Christmas Eves of my childhood, when we would go to church, then come home and sit in Mother and Daddy’s bedroom, listening as she read from the gospel of Luke, before praying silently while the snow fell, like a benediction, outside.
Now, musicians were playing snippets of Bach and, in honor of the season, Handel. I floated along the edges of the crowd, content to watch; no one really knew me, so as long as I stayed away from the receiving line, I was spared having to be introduced to all these strangers.
But none of them had eyes for anyone in the room except for our guest of honor; Colonel Lindbergh was the star on top of the Christmas tree. No, he was the Christmas tree. There was an actual fir tree stuck in a corner, lit up brilliantly, decorated all in gold—but no one paid any attention to it.
“The poor man,” Elisabeth whispered in my ear. I spun around, surprised that she had found me, half-hidden as I was by a heavy gold velvet portiere. I had expected her to remain in the receiving line. “I’m sure he’s miserable.”
“He doesn’t look it,” I replied, watching the colonel. He smiled pleasantly as he grasped each hand thrust eagerly his way.
“But look. His face—it doesn’t change.”
“No, I guess it doesn’t. It’s like a mask.” It was true; his smile never varied, never deepened or diminished, and his brow remained smooth. But it was impossible not to be awed by his poise, the unflinching way he looked at the long line of people in front of him. Had it been me whom people were staring at in that way—that rather frightening, mindlessly adoring way—I would not have been so calm!
“You know,” Elisabeth continued, amused, “all the men want to be him. All those lawyers and diplomats, look at them just hanging on his every word! They all wish, secretly, that they had the same courage he does, but they all know, just as secretly, that they don’t. It’s sad, when you think of it.”
“And the women?” I asked impulsively.
“Oh, for the older women, he’s the son they never had. For the younger women, he’s the husband of their dreams!”
“It must be hard to live up to that. Why did he come here, then—surely he’s tired of all this?” I turned to Elisabeth; as she watched the colonel, a small smile played about her Kewpie doll lips. She was, I realized with a sinking sensation in my breast, interested in him, as Mother had most likely hoped—and as some of the gossip articles had hinted, when news of the colonel’s impending Mexico visit had first appeared.
I shook my head, trying to rid myself of any feelings of jealousy; of course, the colonel barely knew I existed. How could he notice me, next to my sister? Me, a dull, brown pinecone amidst all this tinsel and polish and gilt?
“Oh, some of Daddy’s colleagues formed a commission to promote aviation as diplomacy, and the colonel is the finest ambassador they could get. And of course, you know Daddy met him at the White House when he first returned from Paris.”
I nodded; Calvin Coolidge was an old school chum of my father’s, and the reason why we were here in Mexico.
“Daddy offered to advise the colonel about all the money being thrown at him, and when the colonel asked what he could do by way of thanks, Daddy said, ‘Fly down to Mexico!’”
I laughed. “That’s just like Daddy!”
“And it was brilliant, because he couldn’t have asked for a better public relations coup. The president of Mexico is over the moon, you know. And really, central casting couldn’t have found a better man for the job. Just look at him. The colonel is quite handsome.”
“You really think so?”
“Well, of course! Don’t you?”
“I suppose, in a way,” I replied carefully. But I felt my sister’s bright, hard gaze turn on me anyway. Oh, she was so like Mother at times!
“Anne, there’s something I want you to understand,” she began, in a strangely ominous tone. But before she could continue, Mother swooped down upon us.
“Why, girls, there you are! Hiding over here! I told you I want your help with Colonel Lindbergh. He’s being mobbed by people—oh, those women! You’d think he was the second coming of Valentino!—and the dancing is about to start. He insists that he won’t dance, and so I thought that you could sit with him, Elisabeth, and keep some of those horrid women away—did you see the countess? She’s twice his age, at the very least. And of course, Anne, you can help, dear. No one expects you to dance. Now I must go talk to the president. Señor Calles, it’s such an honor!” And just as quickly, Mother glided over to greet the president of Mexico (whom I recognized from a newspaper photo).
“What if I wanted to dance?” Elisabeth said, in as close to a grumble as I’d ever heard from her. I followed reluctantly as she weaved her way towards Colonel Lindbergh. He was still standing next to my father, that grimly gracious smile upon his face.
My sister stopped, spun around and looked at me. “No!” We both laughed, united, once more, in exasperation of our mother. “But she might have asked me first!”
Still laughing, she tugged on Colonel Lindbergh’s sleeve and tilted her face up to his; she was so pretty, her face flushed, her fair curls bouncing, that I knew the colonel would be helpless. I’d never met a man who first hadn’t fallen for my sister, before being rebuffed and finally noticing me.
But Elisabeth wouldn’t rebuff Colonel Lindbergh; she was famously particular, defiantly unmarried despite my parents’ best efforts, but even she couldn’t find fault with the most famous man on earth.
And realizing this set me free. Why should I be concerned about any impression I might make upon the colonel, when I knew I would make none? Soon I was seated on a sofa in front of the fireplace next to Elisabeth, Colonel Lindbergh on her other side; I knew I was invisible in this situation, and so I behaved as such. I let Elisabeth take up the ball of conversation, while I indulged my favorite pastime—people watching.
Daddy was in the center of a group of men his age, some of whom I recognized from the board of directors at J. P. Morgan, where he had previously been a partner. They were all talking animatedly—but Daddy was the most animated of all. The smallest one by at least a head—he was only five feet three inches tall—he more than made up in energy what he lacked in height and background. He was the only one of his crowd who came from poverty, a fact he never bothered to hide; he was fiercely proud of his humble background, and never let any of us children forget it. Education, education, education; those were his watchwords; so much so that once, a family friend asked me, puzzled, “What is it with you Morrows and education?”
But education had served my father well as he graduated with honors from Amherst, then Columbia Law School, where he met many of the sons of the bankers who would summon him to J. P Morgan. And now, he was a diplomat; at the beginning of what many felt was a promising political career. Some even predicted he could reach the White House!
Mother was swimming about, soothing and greeting and smoothing over any turbulence caused by Daddy’s occasional outbursts. It was her usual role. She was as silky as he was rumpled; even tonight, his tuxedo looked two sizes too big. Daddy always claimed that he had married up, and nights like this gave merit to that claim. I was proud of my mother, despite our misunderstandings; she looked every inch the diplomat’s wife in her tasteful green gown, long gloves, and ability to be everywhere at once without seeming to break her slow, regal glide. She always appeared taller than Daddy, even though she was an inch shorter. Both of them were graying now; Daddy’s hair was thinning, while Mother’s wiry curls were captured in an old-fashioned, Edwardian sweep. She claimed she had no time for the weekly visit to the hairdresser that the newer styles required.
Assured of my invisibility, I didn’t even mind the stares, not entirely furtive, that continued to be directed towards Colonel Lindbergh. He really was a magnet; a raw, yet strangely charismatic figure, direct and true. No polish, no practiced weariness; watching him you couldn’t help but sense the impossibility of what he had accomplished—and yet, also the inevitability of it. He exuded such a quiet self-confidence; every movement he made was so graceful, so deliberate. Even if his speech occasionally faltered while conversing with my sister, his eyes never did. They seemed fixed, always, on something important, something serious, just beyond the horizon.
“Would you like to, Miss Morrow?” Suddenly the colonel was leaning forward, addressing me; surprised, I instinctively moved away from him. I couldn’t help but notice that he colored a little when I did.
“Would I—would I like to what?”
“Go up in an airplane. Your sister has requested that I take her up and naturally, I would like to extend that courtesy to you. If you’d like to.”
“Flying? Me?” I couldn’t help it; my mouth flopped open like a fish. But I had never even imagined such a thing!
“Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe,” the colonel said with a smile—the first genuine one I had seen from him. Suddenly he looked quite boyish; he ducked his head, and his hair fell out of its careful part so that it brushed his forehead. “Flying is perfectly safe. Up there on the currents, like the birds—it’s a holy thing. Nothing has ever made me feel so—so in control of my own destiny. So above all the petty strife and cares of the world. It’s down here where the danger is, you know—not up there.”
I had thought the colonel capable of many things, but not of poetry. And listening to him, I realized, with a thrill, that I did want to fly; to experience this holy thing, to soar above the earth as he had done. To be above all; to be above worry and fear and yes, petty strife, but mainly, simply to be above myself—this awkward body, this mind full of doubt and heart full of longing.
“Oh, I would—” I began, but then realized a mob of people was standing in front of us, listening to our conversation as if we were actors in a play. Suddenly my tongue felt thick and clumsy in my mouth, and I simply shook my head, knowing that I was disappointing him, but unable to respond as I wished with so many people watching.
But this time, he didn’t color or withdraw; his blue eyes looked at me with a curious expression. Literally, curious—as if I was a new species he had just discovered. Blushing, I turned away, and was grateful to see Mother hurrying up to us, a tight smile on her face—imperceptible worry in her eyes.
“What do I hear? Are you going to take my daughters up in your plane, Colonel?”
“If they would like to go. Naturally, I extend the invitation to you, Mrs. Morrow.”
“What an honor! Elisabeth, are you quite sure? Anne?”
“Of course!” Elisabeth laughed and tossed back her head. “I can’t imagine anyone I’d rather have take me up for my first flight!”
“I’m not—I’ll think about it,” I mumbled, wishing that all eyes weren’t still on me; knowing that were I to go up in his plane, even more eyes would be watching; newspaper men, photographers, newsreel cameras.
To my relief, the music started up again—songs from Show Boat, the most popular show of the year—and instantly the entire attitude of the room relaxed. Waiters were busy running to and fro with trays of cocktails—there was no Prohibition in Mexico!—and people were beginning to pair up and dance. Dwight pulled me off the sofa, squeaking, “Come, Anne—let’s do a Virginia Reel! I’ll get them to play one, just like we used to.” And I, too, was out on the dance floor, linking arms with my brother and cousins as we flew about to a Mexican trumpet attempting to warble its way through “Arkansas Traveler.”
I loved dancing! I loved the freedom, the silliness of the Shimmy, the absolute joy of the Charleston; for some reason I could lose myself to the music and the rhythm in a way I couldn’t lose myself otherwise. The more crowded the dance floor, the more fun I had, and soon Dwight and I were bumping into bodies, tripping over feet, but we didn’t care. We used to perform this silly little dance at birthday parties when we were young; Elisabeth would pound the piano, playing some Stephen Foster song, and Mother and Daddy, seated side-by-side on the sofa with Con on Mother’s lap, would laugh and applaud as if they’d never seen us before.
But it had been ages since the last time we’d danced like this; ages in which we had both grown up, gone to school, attempted to leave behind our childish ways. I flashed a grateful smile at my brother for giving me this gift of a self I had just recently begun to mourn. And for helping me imagine, if only for an instant, that we were all back home in New Jersey.
Only for an instant. I was in the middle of a turn, one arm linked in my brother’s, the other arm holding up my skirt, when I caught Colonel Lindbergh watching me. He wasn’t smiling; he was studying me, a faint frown creasing his forehead. Even from all that way across the room, I felt the weight of his obvious disapproval. Of course, I was being ridiculous! A girl my age, dancing a child’s dance, when he, not so much older, had crossed an entire ocean!
Suddenly, my face was so hot I felt as if an aura, like the sun, was encircling my head; dropping my brother’s arm, I whispered, “Oh, Dwight, how silly we are! We’re not so little anymore; we’re not children.”
“So what, Anne? We’re just having fun!”
Just then my cousin Dickie threw a black lace doily on my head, like a mantilla, and stuck a rose in my hair; pulling me by the arm, he dragged me in front of Colonel Lindbergh.
“Doesn’t Anne look like a señorita, Colonel?” He laughed. For a moment, I felt like a señorita in my red dress, flushed skin; I had a fragmentary glimpse of my hair in a mirror, dark and shining with that red rose against it, and I tilted my chin to meet my gay reflection, smiling.
But in that mirror I saw the Colonel sitting there, watching me. He looked uncomfortable, as if his shirt collar was too tight; when our gaze met, he turned away, frowning.
“Oh, Dickie!” I pulled the flower out and threw it to the floor. “How silly!” And then I stumbled off, leaving them all to laugh at me. It was absurd, carrying on like that—what was I thinking? Embarrassed tears filled my eyes, and I pushed through the crowd, ignoring a matron who peered, fish-eyed, at me through a crystal wine glass and intoned, “Goodness, I’ve never seen a face so scarlet!”
Was it? I pressed my hand to my cheek as I fled; it was like touching an oven door. Finally finding myself in an empty hall, I ran as far away from the reception room as I could until I discovered a back staircase. Stumbling up the stairs to the second floor, I wildly bounced from hall to hall, room to room, like a billiard ball. I was so lost as to be truly frightened. All the doors looked exactly the same. How on earth would I find mine? Oh, I wished I were back home! And that I had never met Colonel Lindbergh, so smug, so arrogant, yes, that was it! His arrogance as he stared at me, as if he were God or Calvin Coolidge himself, sitting so stiffly on that sofa—“I don’t dance,” he’d told Mother, and immediately made everyone else in the room feel silly for wanting to. How dare he?
My heart was a furnace, fueled by my anger. Stopping to fan myself with the doily, which somehow had clung to my head through my mad dash, I found myself in front of a mirror with a cracked silver frame. The same mirror that I had consulted to make sure my nose wasn’t shiny when I left my room, earlier this evening. With a hysterical little hiccup, I pushed open a door that revealed my familiar red wool slippers laid out next to a four-poster bed, the flowered kimono I used as a dressing gown spread out on the coverlet.
Once inside, I flung myself down on the bed, dry-eyed. But now my anger was gone, leaving room for the familiar, heavy weight of uncertainty and guilt. Had I hurt Dwight, by leaving him in the middle of the dance floor? Had I made a spectacle of myself, running from the room? But as time went by and no one knocked on my door, and still I heard the gay sounds of the party below—the music, the tinkling of glass, the sudden bursts of laughter—I realized that I hadn’t. No one was going to come looking for me, after all—and I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about that.
I was sitting on the edge of my bed, calm now, my cheeks no longer burning, my skin no longer plastered to that awful rubber brassiere, when I heard footsteps pause outside my door. An envelope was thrust beneath it, and then the footsteps went, rather hurriedly, away.
Thinking it was a message from Dwight or Con, I ran to pick it up. It wasn’t from either; I could tell that from the lack of inkblots and thumbprints on the envelope. My name was written very neatly in a foreign hand; the precise, measured handwriting one would expect from a military man.
Or an aviator.
I felt a rush of excitement pummel me, punching my heart into high gear, buckling my knees. But I wouldn’t allow myself to open it.
When I was a little girl, I had pleased my father most by being the one child who could make a lollipop last the longest, who never asked for an advance on her allowance. “Anne’s the disciplined one,” he always bragged to his friends. It was the only characteristic I had of note. And like any person with only one talent, I cherished and guarded it. I no longer knew what it was to sneak a cookie before dinner, or buy a new frock just because.
I placed the envelope on the bed, then began my nightly ritual of slipping out of my dress, my step-ins, unsnapping my garters, rolling my stockings down, unbinding my chest, folding my lingerie and placing it all in a little silk bag hanging from the doorknob. I chose, after a long moment of grave contemplation, a long-sleeved, pink lisle nightgown from a cupboard, where all my clothes, miraculously brushed and pressed by one of those fourteen servants, were now hanging. Sitting down at my dressing table, I unpinned my long brown hair and brushed it one hundred times, the brush occasionally getting caught in my wiry tangles, tugging my scalp until my eyes watered. And even though, all this time, I could see the white envelope waiting on the bright red coverlet of my bed, like an unopened Christmas present, I still took the time to smooth some Ponds Night Cream carefully on my forehead and cheeks, with a few extra pats for my throat.
Only then did I go to bed; pulling the coverlet up over my knees, I finally reached for the envelope. My hands were shaking, but in a delicious way; for once in my life, I wasn’t afraid of what I might find waiting for me. Never before had I opened an envelope without being sure it contained some dire piece of news.
I looked for you, but was told you had left the reception early. I cannot say that I blame you. I don’t enjoy such gatherings myself although, naturally, I much appreciate your father’s hospitality on my behalf.
After our brief conversation on the sofa, I could not help but think that despite your silence concerning the matter, you did want to be taken up in my airplane, after all. I believe I understand your hesitation. I would not have liked to have taken my first airplane ride surrounded by newspaper reporters and photographers, either. Hence my proposal.
If you would like to fly with me, meet me in the kitchen at 4:15 AM. We can go up and be back here before breakfast is served, and no one will ever be the wiser.
I do, however, acknowledge the possibility that I have misinterpreted your intentions. I will not be offended if you do not choose to meet me.
Charles Augustus Lindbergh
By the time I finished reading, my hands were no longer shaking, although my rib cage was—for I was laughing. Silently, prayerfully—but I was laughing, nonetheless. If you would like to fly with me…oh, miraculous words! Intended for me and me alone!
Colonel Lindbergh had looked for me—and, finding me, had understood me. He had known everything that I was thinking, but could not express with all those people listening—that even as I longed to experience flying as he had described it, just beneath my longing was the fear that somehow, I would fail this test, this test of gravity and expectations. And if I did fail—if I embarrassed myself by crying or being sick or chickening out at the last moment—I did not want it reported on the front pages of every newspaper in the land!
Elisabeth was cut out for that kind of publicity. She would not fail, for she had never failed anything in her life. Yet I suspected that my desire to fly was more sincere than hers. Despite her obvious interest in Colonel Lindbergh, I was certain she had asked to be taken up primarily because it was expected of her.
There was a certain safety in being the plain one, I realized, not for the first time. Dwight was the heir apparent, expected to graduate Amherst magna cum laude simply because Daddy had done so on scholarship. Elisabeth was expected to be dazzling and beautiful and marry brilliantly. Con was too young yet, and too spoiled, anyway; she was the pet of the family, loved and unquestioned.
I was expected to be—what? No one had ever articulated it to me; I only knew I wasn’t to disappoint or disgrace my family, but beyond that, no one seemed to care.
Or—did someone care?
No, of course not; with a stern little shake of my head, I reminded myself that in real life, heroes were not interested in girls like me. It was simple politeness that compelled the colonel to ask; after all, I was the daughter of his host.
Still, hehad asked, and that was enough to make me grin stupidly at my own reflection in the mirror opposite the bed for a long moment, before suddenly becoming aware of the lateness of the hour. Slipping the note—his note— inside my pillow case, I wound my alarm clock tightly, setting it for four AM. My stomach was so full of butterflies and other insects with busy, brushing wings—entirely appropriate under the circumstances, I couldn’t help but think!—that I could hardly fall asleep. And when at last I did, I know I slept lightly.
As if I remembered, even in my slumber, that I had a dream beneath my pillow that I did not wish to crush.