RECORDING THE WORLD AS I SAW IT
I first began recording the world around me when I was ten. What I began observing was how my garden grew. We had just moved into a brick colonial in Penn’s Grove, NJ. That’s the swamps of South Jersey: a plaque on the fire station showed the area was three feet below sea level. The Delaware River was kept out by a sea wall. The site was chosen by the DuPont Company during World War I when the military asked them to manufacture explosives in large quantities. If the plant blew, only fish and birds would suffer. To house employees safely, DuPont built a company town three miles inland: tar paper bungalows for hourly and two-story clapboard houses for salaried workers. An instant class system I did not appreciate, or record, for many years.
We moved to Penn’s Grove from South Milwaukee, WI, after DuPont bought the small chemical plant where my father worked. After two years in a two-story house, we moved into this brick colonial, signaling that our family was among the elite in this closed universe. I begged for a flower bed of my own, and was granted the back point of our corner lot. My putative Uncle Bill gave a hefty Garden Encyclopedia as well as the diary; I perused Burpee’s catalog, and planted annuals, perennials, and a few bushes. The contractor landscaping around the house was indulgent: he grafted seven different apple varieties on my apple tree!
Soon my garden diary expanded as I poured into it my grief at the death in childbirth of my mother, at 41. Two other mothers of girls in my class were also pregnant with menopause babies and only one survived. Strange to think that today 41 is often the age of choice of many professional women. My mother died five days after Pearl Harbor. For a year I managed the house as my father tried to plan for his new son. We interviewed nannies in Philadelphia, but none wished to work in the swamps. Eventually, he decided to marry and moved us across the river to Wilmington.
I no longer had a flower bed to observe, but the habit of recording what I saw has continued throughout my life. My diaries turned inward, exploring the phenomena of growing up. Writing for school and college papers honed my skills. But as I explored the world, I was soon composing descriptive letters about my travels became my way of staying in touch with friends around the world. I have grouped these letters chronologically. On other occasions I wrote down thoughts that I never published, and are included as well. As introduction to each section, I have provided a context to place these observations in my life.
The collection begins with two articles I wrote for the British Ford magazine in return for two complete tune-ups and parts for my Ford Anglia that I drove from London to New Delhi in 1951. Their editors were not interested in the politics or culture of the countries through which we drove, only the road conditions and how the car performed. I have added some notes about the trip to provide more color and interest.
After completing my dissertation research on independent Indian’s first elections and parliament, my husband Mil – acquired in New Delhi – and I drove from Mombasa, Kenya, to London: a much harder journey. My book on the trip, Crossing Centuries: A Road Trip through Colonial Africa delves into history and tribal relations, interviews civil servants and politicians about plans to become independent; Mil kept the car running while I interviewed everyone I could. After my NYC agent turned it down in favor of a breathless account of a young woman’s fling with the Prince of Morocco, I finally published the same manuscript in 2010.