I am flying to Napa, California to visit my 85 year old aunt, research a book, explore vineyards (and what the drought is doing to them), drink a lot of wine and, hopefully, cook a few meals.
Aunt Margie is the last of my dad’s seven brothers and sisters. For most of her life she’s been a stranger to us. She and her husband Frank worked in the Foreign Service with posts in many of the 20th century’s politically trouble zones: Germany in the early 1950s; Egypt during the Suez Canal crisis; Cambodia at the start of the revolution; and Indonesia through the Vietnam War. She and Frank never told the family much about their lives or work when they came back to visit every 2 years. After they retired from the Foreign Service, they settled in California to be among friends from the Service. Whenever the family visited them the talk was never much about them except for the trips they had recently taken. It wasn’t that the family wasn’t curious, didn’t openly wonder about their lives away from them in foreign counties. There was certainly a lot of backdoor speculation about the coincidence of coups and revolutions occurring soon after they arrived? However, among the family’s most annoying traits is an abiding resistance to explore matters that may be problematic—better to leave things alone, to repeat “everything is fine” until it is.
Frank died a few years ago and Margie now lives by herself in the kind of retirement community I will never be able to afford. She possesses a lovely, art-filled apartment within a complex where residents gather for a cocktail hour from 4:30 to 5 that is followed by terrific dinners that most everyone brings bottles of wines from the surrounding vineyards.
The research I’ll try to accomplish is for a book about her life. I’ve been interviewing her for the last two years but have gotten no further than a basic skeleton. She has shown me some papers and documents, photographs of her and Frank working in different countries, and the parties and outings they attended or arranged. She was required to leave the Service once she married Frank and then her main occupation involved getting to know local dignitaries, mentoring embassy wives, caring for foreign journalists and bureau chiefs. She accompanied this by entertaining them by creating card parties, luncheons, cocktail parties and dinners. Through the years she developed skills far from the dirt poor manners of her upbringing to a rather more refined scale of fine porcelain and silver. She happens to be sharp-witted and charming, with a natural ability to make people feel they are the only one she is interested in. Plus, she is very funny. For the forty years that Franks worked as a press attaché and cultural developer for the State Department, she supported his efforts by educating herself on every aspect of the countries’ cultures and taking very good care of the people around her.
The problem involved in writing anything about her is hampered by all those years of training to keep many secrets, making it very difficult to reveal what I need to know to effectively tell her story. So far I’ve written two brief sketchy sections that take her from poverty to her acceptance in the Service as a very naïve 21 year old. My agent rightly considered them lacking in enough depth and verve to attract editors. My job for the next five days is to get her to reveal her very personal secrets, follies, and wisdom gained by working in a destroyed, hostile Germany; being evacuated without her husband from Egypt eight months after marrying and suffering a miscarriage; navigating rebels while setting up a home in Cambodia and befriending the King’s court; and learning who among their friends were CIA agents, who were the journalists who couldn’t be trusted, and who among the native population did not have her best interest at heart. To be clear, Margie is very much a partner in this endeavor. But, unfortunately she possesses what I call the Willard’s defining trait to ignore much of life’s difficulties through denial and deflection. Everything is always “fine”; her life “fun”. She even told me she had “a grand time” wandering about Europe as a refugee while Frank was dodging bombs and bullets in Egypt. The little details I do have were collected in unguarded moments, say after the third glass of wine, when she’s told me about breakdowns, an attempt on her life; vast loneliness and boredom; marital discord; and the sorrow and trial of taking care of an increasingly frail husband. Come the next day and without wine, we’re back to everything being fun and grand, with her Cheshire cat smile that could be denying the revelations captured in the previous night’s notes and recording.
Writers attempting to tell any true stories run into this dilemma many times. This is where the rest of the trip’s agenda comes in. We’ll drives into the hills to explore the vineyards. We’ll drink wine. I’ll accompany her to dinner at 5 to sit among her friends. We’ll cook a little in her old copper pans, from recipes in one of her well-stained cookbooks. Whenever I’ve had to get someone to open up to me, this is how I’ve done it—accompany them through their everyday lives which, in itself, reveals so much about their character and past.
We’re over Nevada now according to the little map on the screen. I’ll post this and then add more as the days go by. And I’ll be forcing myself to Twitter about it, too—another dictate from my agent to help me build a community composed of I don’t know who or what. I assure you, though, Aunt Margie is terrific company, even when she’s not strictly telling the truth. If nothing else, I promise to tell you about the vineyards, the wine, dining at 5 (which just may be the biggest challenge of them all!), and cooking great meals. Maybe there’ll be some recipes. Gotta keep the food writer in me going….