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The Aviator's Wife(2)
Melanie Benjamin

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 senior 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 stationery!”

“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 desert 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 glimpse only on holidays like this; my first since Daddy had been appointed.

I picked up my travel case and followed Elisabeth out of our private car and 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 true señorita!”

“Darlings!”

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 clubwoman 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 heels, 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, the Ghost of St. Louis, isn’t it—”

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