We moved to Virginia in the middle of first grade just after Kennedy got shot. I didn’t know it then, but we were moving to Virginia because my father had taken a job in the State Department and was all excited to be part of the Kennedy administration, and then a week or two before we depart Kennedy is killed, so the whole move began, I guess, on the wrong foot.
We stayed two years. I was six and seven and eight, and it seemed like a long time to me then. We lived in five different places during those two years. I had my tonsils out, went to two schools and my mother gave birth to my second sister. A disappointment. I’d been hoping for a brother. My grandmother from British Columbia visited for the birth. My grandparents from Hungary came out of Communist Hungary for two visits, or maybe just one. I played at being a cripple – walking awkwardly on sticks the way the blonde girl, Claudia, walked in our second-grade class. I was envious of her crutches. They seemed exotic, interesting.
The last place we lived was a skyscraper and it felt temporary even to me, a little like staying in a hotel. I had never lived in an apartment before. I liked it. I liked the elevator with the buttons you pressed and the pool downstairs I could go to by myself and I liked the way there was a gang of kids and we could roam around the building, doing what we wanted.
We could buy PayDay candy bars in the lobby. We could meet in the basement and look at Playboy magazines.
I started piano lessons that summer with a woman in the building. I had two books – one for playing, one for learning how to read music.
I practiced on a toy electric organ that I’d had since I was three. The teacher was angry when she heard after a few weeks that this was all I’d been practicing on.
When we left the apartment and came back to our old house in New York, my mother got a second-hand piano with a tall straight back and put it in a corner of the living room by where the stairs went up.
I had asked for a long time to take piano lessons, but now I didn’t want to, but I didn’t know how to get out of it. It was third grade and my father had gone to work in England. I didn’t like being with my mother and two sisters much. My mother could get angry very quickly, very harshly. I didn’t like that. And things were not exciting around my mother the way they were around my father. I don’t remember missing my father, but when my mother asked if we should move to England too, I said yes, of course. I thought it was the biggest non-question I’d ever heard. Of course we should go.
We did. I was nine. I’d just had my first holy communion in church. It happened on a Sunday. I wore my blue jumper with the white smocking and a white blouse underneath. And the priest asked me to come up the aisle first before everybody else came for communion because it was my first time. I was shy walking up there by myself, but I was glad to finally be able to take Communion, the most fun part of Mass, the part you had to be old enough for and now I was old enough and could go up with the adults.
But not my mother because she wasn’t a Catholic. She’d almost become one. For awhile in Virginia she’d gone and talked with a priest – she liked him and talked about him at home – Father Parera he was called, but we moved before it all got finished.
On my birthday I bicycled to the church by myself and after Mass my bike was broken, run over by a car and I had to go back in the church after everyone had left. I had to find the priest, had to knock on the door of the room he went into after finishing Mass. It was terrifying to knock and ask him to call my mother. She told me to wait in the store down the street and I waited all morning before she found me. A dog had leapt at me that morning, barking and growling, as I rode the bike on the way to church and years later my mother held up the coat I had worn that day and said, “Look, the lining is all torn. That dog must really have been biting at you,” as if she was believing me for the first time.
We went to England and my father was there and he brought us to a small little house that he had rented for us, except he wasn’t there very much. He had an apartment in London where he stayed during the week so he wouldn’t fight so much with my mother. He came home on weekends, but I saw that all later.
At first, I just went away to a boarding school. I left my mother and my two sisters just like my father left them and I went away by myself to a school, a convent school, twenty-two black-and-white nuns with not a scrap of hair showing, with long flowing black skirts and long black veils down their backs and a little black sort of cape that hung gracefully over their chests.
I liked it there. Again, it was a little like a hotel, and more exciting than home.
I learned about periods in this school. And about sex. Though when I heard about sex I realized that’s what my father had been talking about on one of our weekend walks back in Virginia when I was in first grade. He’d told me that the man’s wiener goes into the woman’ goo-gah when they are sleeping, but it didn’t seem very likely and I had semi-forgotten about it.
I had four main friends in boarding school. We were a gang – the smartest, most interesting girls in the class. It was like that for two and a half years and then something happened almost overnight it felt like – my friends turned cruel and mean, they made me feel that I was not as good as them and I asked my mother if I could switch schools.
I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to go back home and start at the school my little sister went to. I knew it was a more ordinary place. It felt more ordinary. I didn’t want to do these things, but I could not stay at St. Mary’s and face my cruel friends.
So I came back to the circle of my mother, my two little sisters, my father on weekends. It surprised me that I didn’t like it when my father came home on Friday nights. He acted like a guest. I had to treat him like a guest. He wanted attention when he came home, wanted me to stop, interrupt, come talk to him, his stilted conversations – teasing that was not funny, questions. I always felt defensive, an under-the-surface anger that felt wrong, pulling to be allowed to return to my room, my book, my game, my TV show. I didn’t want to pay attention to my father like the way you have to pay attention to company when they come for lunch.
My father liked to go riding on weekends. He was no sportsman. He’d just begun to ride, always had a big horse he could ride like sitting on a couch. When my mother took me to ride it was some scruffy pony in a scruffy field. My father liked the stables in Windsor, he liked Mr. Dent – the cranky World War II veteran who wore tweed and hobbled and yelled at the stablehands. Mr. Dent came out with us. He and my father rode ahead of me, side-by-side, talking, down the Long Walk with Windsor Castle behind us. That was riding for my father – a nice way to be outside, in pleasant surroundings, with symbols of wealth and grandeur on the horizon.