Excerpt of The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin
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Down to earth.
I repeated the phrase to myself, whispering it in wonder. Down to earth. What a plodding expression, really, when you considered itI couldn't help but think of muddy fields and wheel ruts and wormsyet people always meant it as a compliment.
"'Down to earth?' did you hear that, Elisabeth? Can you believe Daddy would say that about an aviator, of all people?"
"I doubt he even realized what he was saying," my sister murmured as she scribbled furiously on her lap desk, despite the rocking motion of the train. "Now, Anne, dear, if you'd just let me finish this letter . . ."
"Of course he didn't," I persisted, refusing to be ignored. This was the third letter she'd written today! "Daddy never does know what he's saying, which is why I love him. But honestly, that's what his letter said'I do hope you can meet Colonel Lindbergh. He's so down to earth!'?"
"Well, Daddy is quite taken with the colonel. . . ."
"Oh, I knowand I didn't mean to criticize him! I was just thinking out loud. I wouldn't say anything like that in person." Suddenly my mood shifted, as it always seemed to do whenever I was with my family. Away from them, I could be confident, almost careless, with my words and ideas. Once, someone even called me vivacious (although to be honest, he was a college freshman intoxicated by bathtub gin and his first whiff of expensive perfume).
Whenever my immediate family gathered, however, it took me a while to relax, to reacquaint myself with the rhythm of speech and good-natured joshing that they seemed to fall into so readily. I imagined that they carried it with them, even when we were all scattered; I fancied each one of them humming the tune of this family symphony in their heads as they went about their busy lives.
Like so many other family traitsthe famous Morrow sense of humor, for instancethe 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 faceyou, 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 let- ter, 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.
Excerpted from The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin. Copyright © 2013 by Melanie Benjamin. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.