Chapter One: Imagining the Lindberghs
In kindergarten, one of my brothers told a friend on the playground that our father had discovered America. At about the same age, I dreamed that he was God. The relief brought by that revelation shone upon me the next morning like the bright rays of dawn. If our father was God, it explained everything: why we called him "Father," when all of our friends called their fathers "Daddy"; why he had so little contact with the other families around us, and yet so many people spoke about him with a kind of reverence; why we had to eat Pepperidge Farm bread at home rather than Wonder Bread; why the house shook when he was in a bad mood; and why I could find him in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
I am the youngest child and second daughter of Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. My father, Charles Augustus Lindbergh, became internationally famous in May 1927 for making the first nonstop solo flight from New York to Paris, in a single-engine Ryan monoplane called the Spirit of St. Louis. He was twenty-five years old. My mother, Anne Morrow, met him in December of the following year when he made a goodwill trip to Mexico, where her father was serving as the American ambassador. She was twenty-two. They were married in 1929 and lived together for more than forty years until his death in 1974.
As fliers, my mother and father explored the world together, mapping air routes for the aviation industry in its infancy. As writers, they published many accounts of their adventures and their thoughts. His best-known volume was The Spirit of St. Louis, describing the 1927 flight. Hers was Gift from the Sea, a philosophical meditation on women's lives in this century.
When they were young parents, close to the beginning of their marriage, my father and mother suffered the death of their first child, Charles, as the result of a highly publicized kidnapping. My mother was pregnant at the time with her second son, my brother Jon. After Jon was born, my parents retreated from public life in order to raise him, and then the rest of their children, in protective privacy. They moved many times before I was born, seeking quiet and avoiding the press. They lived in England, in France, in Michigan, on Long Island, New York, and finally, just after the Second World War, bought the house in Darien, Connecticut, on the shores of Long Island Sound, where I grew up. Over the years they became so successful at this effort to remove their family from the public eye that many people are unaware that there were more Lindbergh children after that first, lost baby whose story was so well known, and whose brothers and sisters never knew him at all.
In fact, there were five of us: Jon, Land, Anne, Scott, and Reeve, three sons and two daughters. We grew up as the children of celebrities, but because our parents worked so hard to remove themselves from celebrity life, our understanding of what that meant was fluid and imperfect. It remains uncertain and idiosyncratic even today. We Lindberghs still know ourselves best as a tribe: close-knit, self-enclosed, and self-defining, always prepared to be besieged by invisible forces upwelling from the past: the famous flight, the kidnapping, the controversy over our father's isolationist stance just before the Second World War.
Although it is now more than twenty years since he died, we are still directed and dominated by our father's strength of character. Although she is more than ninety years old, often confused in her mind, and in fragile health at this writing, we are still redeemed, gentled, and sustained by our mother.
"Was I married?" she will ask me, her eyes wide with astonishment at the thought. Or, "Are you my sister?" But when my own sister, her other daughter, Anne, was dying, and I could do nothing to help Anne, could not stop the process, I put my arms around our mother and cried because I thought my heart was breaking, and also because I thought that she, my greatest comfort all my life, was now too disoriented even to understand what was going on. But my mother embraced me in return, and she wept, too, in her flannel nightgown with the pink rosebuds on it, and she patted my head and then said exactly the right thing.
"You never did anything wrong, Reeve. You never did anything wrong."
In our family it has always been hard to know what is right and what is wrong, in terms of what we can do for one another. It has been hard for us, too, to separate individual identity from family identity. As the youngest, I imagined growing up by virtue of a succession of transformations, becoming first one member of my family and then another until I had been handed benevolently all the way up the line into adulthood. By the time I was twelve I would have my brother Scott's forgetfulness, his bashful grace, and his ability to befriend snakes and turtles. At fifteen I would be Anne, with straight blond hair and a blue-and-white-checked bikini, small-featured and arrestingly lovely to look at, playing her flute with fingertips faintly scented by the oranges that came to us in crates from Florida once a month, which Anne peeled and ate, one after another, all day long. Later on I would be Land, a cowboy and a cattleman, and then Jon, with mask and tanks and flippers, exploring the sea.
Beyond Jon there were only my parents. In trying to imagine who they were, entertaining the possibilities of who I could become through them, my images of entitled reincarnation blurred and became much vaguer, more diffuse, and thoroughly improbable. My sources for these imaginings ranged from the tabloids to my favorite fairy tales, and with their help I could blend my parents' legendary inaccessible accomplishments with my own fantasies: rescuing people from burning buildings, being President, being Peter Pan, flying without wings.
We were not a typical 1950s suburban family. We never owned a television set during my father's lifetime, we did not attend church or belong to any community organizations, we were not allowed to eat candy or read comic books in the house, and when a biographer asked me recently whether my father knew who Elvis Presley was, I could not tell him, not for sure.
I would quite often find pictures of my father in books and magazines when I was growing up, and I would recognize him at once, even though the photographs invariably showed him as a young man in a flying helmet, and had been taken almost twenty years before I was born. All the same, the boy flier belonged to our family, I knew that. His eyes and nose, cheek and chin, his life and his story were unmistakably ours. If he was not exactly the father I knew, then he was like another older brother, living forever in the same image, in a life that did not touch but still ran parallel to my own. When I look at these photographs today, I react in the same way. This face is familiar, and familial. It is part of me and what is mine, but it is also distant and inert. It will not move or speak. This face will remain stuck in its historical context like a fly in amber, where it belongs.
Once in a while, though, I come across a photograph of my father from my own childhood era, not the slim young man in the flying suit but someone older, grayer, and heavier, with thinning hair. He is standing with a group of airline officials, perhaps, or among scientists at Bethesda Naval Hospital. He is wearing his navy blue pinstripe suit, and is in his conversational stance. His head is slightly tilted for listening, partly because he is deaf in one ear from the engines of early airplanes, although he won't admit it, and partly because at six foot two inches he is accustomed to talking with people who are not as tall as he is. His weight is off one foot, so he can rock back infinitesimally on the other. He is a shy, courteous man who will not inflict nervous agitation on himself or other people, but he is generally more comfortable in some degree of motion. His right arm is crooked at the elbow and his right hand forms a loose fist, thumb pointed up.
I am sure he is about to say something to his colleagues, and that he will begin with some cautious phrase like, "I think we have to remember..." He will then punctuate his statement with a quick emphatic jerk of that thumb, as some might point a forefinger, to make his point. I am not at all sure, though, that he is going to stay on the page, the way the boy aviator does. This man really is my father, after all, and he might walk right out of history and into his family life again, as he has done so many times before. He might walk across the gravel driveway, down the stone path, and through the arched front doorway of the old house in Connecticut where the rest of us are waiting, and then he will close the door behind him.
Copyright © 1998 by Reeve Lindbergh