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Mary Ellen and Herb (back row, fourth and fifth from left) and their tour group in front of the Taj Mahal

Chapter 25: All the World’s a Stage

All her life, Mary Ellen had “the travel bug.” It was a form of self-directed learning with none of the drawbacks of a formal education—like being tested and judged by teachers who thought they were smarter than she was.

Before she and Herb were married, she made him promise to take her places. They went to Europe in 1929, but their next trip was delayed by the Depression, then by the War, and then by Herb’s career. It wasn’t until he retired that he could make good on his promise. But once they started traveling, they went on a cruise or tour almost every year.

The first time they came to see us in Panama, where I was working for the Panama Canal Company, I arranged for them to stay at the Tivoli Hotel, a five-story wooden building on a hill overlooking the city and the sea. The company built it for President Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to the Canal in 1906. The rooms had 15-foot ceilings, wooden shutters, and French doors that opened onto a wide veranda. Except for the varnished floors, the whole building was painted white inside and out. All the furniture was white wicker. Actually a stage set.

Mary Ellen loved it. She wrote in her travel journal:

The Tivoli Hotel was a game as well as a pleasant place to stay. Everyone had to have a permit to stay there. Senators, governors, committee chairmen OR maintenance men awaiting housing stay there—so there is always a chance you MIGHT be somebody, so everyone is very cordial. While H.H. was off on his jaunts, I did needlepoint on the porch and just smiled sweetly while a little nosy old-timer tried for two days to find out who we were. More fun!

For her, traveling was an opportunity for playacting. She felt like Cinderella at the ball. Her background disappeared. The past didn’t matter. She was all foreground.

When Theodore Roosevelt left on his postpresidential expedition to the Amazon in 1913, he told journalists that it was his “last chance to be a boy.” Herb must have known about that expedition. He had become a newspaper reader while living with his grandparents, and the newspapers carried many stories about Teddy’s adventures.

In any case, when he and Mary Ellen were on their cruises, he often behaved as if he were enjoying a chance to be the boy he would have been if his boyhood had not been blighted by his stepfather and cut short by his decision to run away from home. In Brazil, he swam too far out to sea and almost drowned. The lifeguards had to rescue him. In Panama, he strolled off alone to explore the city in spite of being told that the political situation made this unwise. In India, he got lost. Everywhere he went he behaved like a high-spirited, curious, mildly rebellious teenager.

He and Mary Ellen wrote up their travels in a loose-leaf notebook. First one of them would write in it, then the other. I found this notebook after they died, and as I read it, I couldn’t figure out who it was written for—who they were writing to? Not to me. They write about me, but as if they were writing to a friend: “Not only did Herb [me, not my father] spend every minute showing us the sights, but he enlisted a friend in the Public Relations. Then we swished around in a government car for which the other cars backed up.”

Finally I realized they were writing to themselves—to a reflection of themselves—a doppelganger—who planned to take the same trips they had taken. They were giving this imaginary reflection of themselves advice on what to do and what to expect: “If you should be interested, here are a few dos and don’ts, as we saw it. . . . Here’s how we did it.”

They advised “him” about tipping and which travel agents to choose. They told “him” what to expect at different hotels. They made lists of the sights “he” could skip and the ones “he” shouldn’t miss. They told “him” what they ate, where “he” could get bargains, whether “he” should travel from the airport by car or bus, and which countries were hot and which were cold. They passed judgment on tour guides and nationalities. Singapore was their favorite place: “Very clean.” Aruba was their least favorite: “Very dirty.” Asians were nice; Iranians, snooty.

Knowing how they kept strangers at a distance at home, I was surprised at the range of their encounters abroad. In Benares, Mary Ellen met an American nun who’d been there for 18 years. They had enough in common to spend the afternoon together. In Katmandu, Herb found a man who would talk to him about the local crops. In Japan he met a Japanese Mason, a brother. They had “a jolly visit.”

This confounded me. But then I realized that as long as they were with people they never expected to see again, they could be open and friendly. With people whose lives might become entangled with theirs, they had to be wary. They took obligations too seriously to allow them to develop inadvertently.

I mentioned this to Mary, and she pointed out that I was the same way. My standoffishness and inability to make small talk disappear in situations destined to be brief. I sort of knew this, but I had never realized that it was another way I reflected my parents.

As water flows down hill
children who reject their parents will
discover they reflect them still.

Certainly my interest in their histories is an obverse reflection of their unwillingness “to rake up all that stuff.” Like many people, they were too modest to think their personal lives counted as “history.” What counted was “the future.” Having been shown some ruins by a tour guide, they wrote in their journal that they had “seen history,” and it was “interesting up to a point.” But not nearly as interesting as a tour of a farm or factory.

Somewhere in India, they were caught in a traffic jam. Radiators overheated. Their driver stood before the raised hood of their car gazing at the engine. Dusty, blank-eyed pedestrians shuffled by, balancing on one shoulder a pole with packages at either end. Other people passed with pots or bags on their heads. People wearing nightshirts peered into the windows of the stopped car. The tourists inside the cars stared back. Of this adventure, Herb wrote:

Much later we got back to our hotel. Mary Ellen telling the story said, ‘Gee, I was sure glad Oliver (that was our tour director) was there.’ Well I may be her protector the next time.

He seems to be thinking out loud and to be addressing himself—but he knew she would read his words. So they were really addressed to her. He wanted her to know he’d been hurt when she told those people that she was relying on their tour director instead of on him. This wasn’t the kind of thing he could say to her directly. There was a lot they couldn’t say directly, not to each other, and not to their children. So they found indirect ways to say things without always knowing exactly what they meant to say or what they expected by way of reply. This created a dense, often tense atmosphere in our family that, though fraught with meaning, was often incomprehensible.