I often think I live two lives, one in the foreground and the other in the background, each life taking its turn. I have a real or normal life in the country, where my husband and I live on an old farm at the end of a dirt road. We wear comfortable clothes, write books, raise sheep and chickens, are active in community life, and welcome our children and grandchildren whenever they come to visit.
There is also an entirely different “Lindbergh” life, which requires putting on somewhat less comfortable clothes and traveling to places away from the farm, where I attend meetings and give talks and where there are no chickens except for the kind on the menu followed by words like “cordon bleu” and “a la king” and “Kiev.” In this second life, I stand up in front of groups of people and talk a little about the books I have written for children and adults, and a lot about the lives of my late parents, Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
I have spoken about my parents on college campuses and Air Force bases, in museums and libraries and schools, to children and to adults around the country for many decades. When I have finished with the meetings or the talks, I come home to Vermont, change clothes, and emerge from the limbo of travel and from my Lindbergh life. I settle down with my husband, the dogs, the sheep, and the chickens, immersing myself in farm and community until the next time, when I put on my other wardrobe again and out I go.
Maybe it is a strange way to live, coming and going and switching focus completely between one life and the other, moving from the present to the past—not even my own past, but my parents’—and back again. Still, I’ve done this for so long that it feels like just an- other part of my routine, like going to the farmers market or taking one of the dogs to the vet. One of the chief differences is that in my Lindbergh life there are different questions to answer. Instead of “How long has she been limping?” or “Do you want a bag for these?” it’s “What is your favorite memory of your father?” or “Did your mother teach you to write?” or “What can you tell us about the kidnapping?” or “Did your father really have other families?”
These questions are now so familiar that they don’t trouble me much, though I can remember when some of them did. I first began to live two lives not long after my father’s death in 1974. Before that, my father and my mother spoke for themselves, if they chose to speak at all. Most of their communication with the world was done in writing. Between the two of them, they published more than twenty books about their lives and reflections over the years.
My father rarely spoke in public during my childhood in the late 1940s and the 1950s, though he had done so before I was born. He made speeches on behalf of the future of aviation after his 1927 flight from New York to Paris, when he was in his mid-twenties, and he spoke out against America’s entrance into the Second World War as part of the now controversial Isolationist movement when he was in his late thirties. Toward the end of his life, when he was in his sixties and I in my late teens and twenties, he began to speak out again. This time, he talked about his growing concern for the environment worldwide and his conviction that we must achieve “balance” between the rapid development of technology and the preservation of nature. He spoke in the House chamber in Juneau, Alaska, in support of a bill that State Senator Lowell Thomas Jr. was proposing for the protection of arctic wolves. He spoke to a radio audience in the Philippines on behalf of what was then called the “monkey-eating eagle” but is now known as the Philippine eagle and recently has been proclaimed the national bird of the Philippines.
He gave a speech in 1973 at his boyhood home in Little Falls, Minnesota, in which he reminisced about summers sleeping on the screened porch of that home not far from the banks of the upper Mississippi River. He told the audience how very pleased he was that his boyhood home was now a national park, named in honor of his own father, C. A. Lindbergh. My father had come to believe that the establishment of parks and wilderness areas was a far greater sign of human progress than anything technology had achieved.
I wasn’t present for the speech itself, but have read it in print and have seen and heard him deliver it on film. He died in Maui, Hawaii, in 1974, only a year later. I like to think of my father returning to his childhood home as he neared the end of his life, remembering his Minnesota childhood and telling a local audience what he had come to care about more than anything else in the course of a full and adventurous life.
I knew him best during this time, his “conservation years,” when his focus was absolute, as it had always been absolute, on whatever project or passion engaged him. He talked fervidly about his efforts to save the monkey-eating eagle in the Philippines, the blue whale in Japan, and the wildlife of East Africa. He was so electrically energetic that even when he was away, his influence remained and reverberated throughout the house.
My mother was a different story entirely. During my childhood, our father was present even in his absence: his energy, his rules, his discipline lingering in the house as did the woodsy outdoor scent of his winter jacket in the hall closet. Our mother, however, had the ability to be absent within her presence. She was completely with me, especially when I needed her. She always listened to my stories, always took my physical and emotional complaints seriously, and did not disappear into the world for weeks or months, the way our father did. Still, she could go deeply into herself when I was sitting right there next to her. Her eyes would look off and away through the window over the mudflats and marsh grasses of Long Island Sound, one hand fingering a brooch at her neck. I remember it as a cameo in a silver frame, with a bouquet of flowers against a black background, all fashioned of tiny, colorful, semi-precious stones. I knew that she was still there with me, but that she was also somewhere else.
It was my mother who provided the steady, gentle background of my earliest days, in her knee-length oral-print dresses and her dark, curly hair held up and back at the sides in what I later learned was a common 1940s style, a kind of upward roll on both sides of the face with another roll over the forehead. My mother’s coiffure was looser, curlier, and much less Hollywood-glamorous than Betty Grable’s or Ava Gardner’s, but her hairdresser may have been trying for the same effect.
My mother spoke in public only occasionally, when invited to do so by an organization with which she was associated, or by family members and friends. She liked to read aloud a piece she had carefully written ahead of time for the event, which might be an alumnae program at Smith College, her granddaughter’s graduation at Middlebury, or a talk given to members of the Cosmopolitan Club in New York City.
When my parents spoke in public, there was rarely a question period after the talk. My father disliked being questioned to begin with, and had been uncomfortable with what he called “the press” ever since his flight to Paris in 1927. My mother said that once when they were about to em- bark on one of their early survey flights together, a reporter begged her husband to reveal, at least, which direction they were planning to take on this journey. My father responded solemnly, “Up.”
Over the course of his lifetime, my father became increasingly adept at disappearances. Even in Little Falls in 1973, I cannot believe he would have been available to the crowd the way other speakers are after giving a talk. I imagine him slipping away before anybody in the audience could approach him, safe in the protective custody of the Minnesota Historical Society staff.
My mother, too, always had protectors for her speeches—I was often one of them—in the form of companions who took her away to find a cup of tea or a place to rest following her presentation. It was characteristic of both of my parents to be quite open to the world in their spoken or written words, but much less willing to share themselves in person.
But unlike my parents, I always expect to have questions from the audience after I give a talk. I often enjoy the “questions” part of the program best, in fact, because it feels like a conversation. I am relieved of the burden of doing all the talking, and I don’t have to listen to myself, which can become tedious if you offer more or less the same presentation to different groups, as I do when I talk about my family.
Sometimes a tactful moderator asks whether there are things I’d prefer not to talk about, questions that might be painful or difficult for me to answer. I always say that I will answer any question I’m asked to the best of my ability, though there may be questions to which I don’t know the answer. A wonderful thing that has happened to me after many years of speaking in public is that I have completely lost my fear of answering questions, and have gained the great freedom of simply telling the truth, as far as I know it.
I’m pretty sure that I’m not alone in living two lives. I think most people do this to some degree. When a person gets up in the morning and goes to school or to work, he or she leaves an “at home” self behind. Salespeople have salesmanship selves, office workers have at-the-office selves, any teacher, whether in kindergarten or in college, has developed a teaching self. A teacher needs to be “on” in a certain way, just as an actor is “on” for the theater, film, or television. When the school day is over or the cameras have stopped rolling or the stage lights have dimmed, then you can be “off”—just yourself again.
The difference for me is that I’m never entirely “off.” Even when I think that I am completely free of it, Lindbergh life seeps into my everyday existence at the most unexpected moments. Then I find I have to move from a kind of low-key, daily consciousness concerned with things like laundry, shopping, working in my garden, and asking people to bake pies for the library bake sale to another way of thinking entirely, a state of mind blended from instinct, training, and long experience. This is the way I confront my family’s past.
Hardly a day goes by, and never as much as a week, that I do not receive correspondence related to my father’s aviation career, my parents’ personal lives, my mother’s and father’s historical archives and literary legacies. One day, for instance, I received two requests: one from a group hoping to name their new in-flight magazine Lindbergh, “because we believe that Charles Lindbergh personified the pioneering spirit, intelligence, and elegance the magazine will strive for,” and another for an interview to discuss my father’s 1927 flight to Paris.
I was able to respond to both requests easily. In the first case, the family still follows my parents’ policy not to use their names or likenesses for commercial purposes; in the second, I’d be glad to talk to the historian about my father’s flight to Paris, but since it occurred eighteen years before I was born, everything I know about it came from his books. My father rarely even mentioned that flight to me. If I asked him about it he invariably responded, “Read my book.” Eventually, I did. I read all his books and all my mother’s, and I keep on reading them because I need to.
by Reeve Lindbergh
Published by: Brigantine Media
Publication Date: April 15, 2018