My sister’s tears and her plea for our return disturbed me deeply. In our childhood family, my sister (younger than me by three years) had always been labelled “the emotional one,” and I was “the sensible one.” In her letters to me she shared her unhappiness while struggling to find a job and a place to live after her husband’s discharge from the army. In my letters to her I tried to respond to her dilemmas even as I constantly referred to her proposed visit to us scheduled for that summer—suggesting ways to find cheap flights, asking how she would get time off from her new job, and how long she could stay, etc. I tried to help her distress by focusing on the future when we would all reunite. But obviously it was not enough.
True to my “sensible” label, after we put the children to bed that night, I tried to process what she had asked and what our next move should be.
On the one hand, in her letters my sister had also shared plans that she and her husband were considering a move to England to pursue his music career. He felt there were more opportunities there for a band just starting out. If we returned to California for them, and they left for England, we would be pretty upset. But it wouldn’t be fair to ask them to stay in California if we returned, nor would it be fair to either of us to base our family’s future on my sister’s desires.
On the other hand, I knew she was genuinely lonely without us, and I felt some responsibility and guilt for that. After my mother’s death she had come to live with George and me and had been close Paul and James in their early years. She had also stayed with us for a short time between her husband’s postings when Margaret Ann and Matthew were very young. She loved and missed them all. Although she had lived for a year in Germany while her husband served in the army, she had the comfort of knowing it was a temporary posting, whereas our move to Italy was supposed to be permanent. She was not as close to my aunt and cousins as I had been, so after we left she had only her husband to talk to. My letters from Italy reflect my attempts to help her with various problems, but we were too far away to supply the kind of support she really needed.
When we added together my sister’s unhappiness, George’s continued failure to find work, our dwindling funds, my linguistic isolation from the community, and our growing nostalgia for life in California, it is easy to see why the idea of returning was seductive. We would not only put an end to my sister’s loneliness, but we would return to a system that we knew, with social customs we understood, and to a place where I could communicate, not only with my sister and other relatives, but also with the local grocery clerks. When we looked at the United States from a distance of six thousand miles, we saw all the opportunities that were open to us there, opportunities that were denied us in Italy. After the constant struggle to adapt and succeed, a move back to California seemed to offer relief.
But George and I fought that seduction because we were not yet ready to renounce our dream.