I have asked myself millions of times: “How could she give birth to a child, take on a lover and leave husband and children, even her housekeeper, to go off with another man?”
I asked Renée for a snapshot of her early life in order to get to know her better. Our correspondence has been of deep interest to me and I hope one day she and I have an opportunity to meet. Here is Renée’s response to my inquiry into that earlier time:
Robin and I have never met, and it is no doubt hard to have a connection in the present tense when we have no real knowledge of one another. In addition to not having seen one another except in a photograph, we have never even seen the expressions on our faces as we respond in writing to one another. I am thirty or so years older, foreign born, not even our first languages were the same.
It is not simple to compress 95 years into a coherent portrait in a blog.
I have lived half my life in the U.S. and the other half in Europe. I have two passports. I have no religion, but I have an ethnic tradition of East European Jewry that has given me a moral and intellectual framework for my character.
I have also had two marriages and still have three daughters. My father was no doubt my image of a good man, my mother was the bad mother in my eyes and my brother was my best friend.
My first husband was blond and blue eyed, athletic, well-to-do and above all, the guide to a life of pleasure and joy. I had never known how to play, how to enjoy the moment but he showed me the way.
My second husband had, and still has the most perfect sense of timing for humor and seduced by his wit, his magic way of ‘getting it,’ I fell in love with him. It took no time at all for me to appreciate his truly beautiful mind.
The only real tragedy in my life has been his loss of that beautiful mind.
My inner life has been hard; my parents divorced when I was four. I never ever had a home after that. Emigration from fascism came next, followed by immigration to democracy twice. Loss of my first language, loss of a sense of self; my brother remained my most trusted friend.
Until I married a second time, when Harold became and remains my most intimate and cherished friend and companion for – so far – the next 60 years. This in no way excludes many bitter arguments and disagreements, but never included a difference of the things that mattered deeply.
Harold is a theoretical mathematician and I understand nothing of what is most important to him. He lives in his mind and he knew that there were only a handful of people who understood him. He also told me right from the beginning that mathematics would always come first in his life.
Not an easy thing to accept. Certainly not for me. I was the only person he loved but I did not come first. Abstract concepts came before me.
Understanding why waves break at one specific moment was truly fascinating, and I did not have the tools nor the intellectual strength to pursue an answer. I have stood on sand and watched giant waves crash with fear in my heart of their awe-inspiring power, unable to judge that all important moment, but I learned that understanding the timing was more important than my fear. Understanding that moment was the key to understanding many mysteries of life. This taught me humility and it taught me to love a man for whom those questions were of infinite interest because they gave meaning to life.
But I was not a problem to solve. I was there, with him.
Robin asked me to talk a little more about my earlier life and perhaps make some connections between the woman I have become, the person I am now and see if I can come up with a root cause between the seed and the now slightly wilted plant. It’s a challenge. I find it interesting but not necessarily available to me.
The first thing that comes to my mind is the big event that made me an independent person, tough and resilient, as well as irreverent and compassionate. My mother left my father when my little brother was born and I was three years old. I have asked myself millions of times, how could she give birth to a child, take on a lover and leave husband and children, even her housekeeper, to go off with another man?
Well of course I have no idea except that she preferred another man not only to the one she had, but also to her children. That shaped me.
My father used to say to me when I was less than nine years old: “You are my big daughter and you will help me take care of your little brother.”
It was when I was nine years old that our father and we, without the housekeeper this time, emigrated to go and live in England.
It was 1934. I should have told you earlier in this report, that I was born in Berlin, Hitler was in power and one of his first acts was to kick out all Jews employed by the state. My father was a research neurologist at a state university, he was also a Jew, a secular Jew, and he lost his job on the first of January. He spent a year in England looking for work while we the children waited for him in a boarding school on the North Sea coast in Germany.
(Renée’s memoir One-Way Tickets (featured above) can be purchased here)
He came to fetch us; our mother came also to see us off as we made the crossing to our new country. We sailed from Hamburg to Southampton; in those days that was the end of the New York-Southampton Atlantic crossing. I remember that she cried and that I did not. I was happy to see our father.
I have not finished with the reason for my early anger at her. I carried that with me for many years.
When I also wanted a divorce, I was 34 years old. I beat myself up endlessly before finding the courage to ask my husband to comply with my wish. I had not been unhappy. We had three daughters. I played it over and over again in my head and when I did ask him, his answer, and I can still see and hear it was, “Ok. I’ll keep the children.”
Can you picture the scene? I actually laughed and said, “you can’t be serious. You know about my mother and you think I would leave my children?”
I have kept my word. All the people in my family died more or less early deaths: my mother was 40 when she died of cancer, leaving four small children. My father was 51 and he left a 1-year old boy from a second marriage. I’m still here and my oldest daughter is more than seventy years old.
When I began this story, I had in mind to tell you many things about my past but somehow I have not ever gotten there. I have things to say about not having ever had a conventional home, a place to come to after school for milk and cookies.
I never had a real language that was mine, I spoke English, German and French but none of them were mine. I surely never had a family, mummy, daddy, siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents who came for Thanksgiving. To be really honest, I never had Christmas beyond a Jaffa orange and a little pine tree in a flowerpot while our father read the story of the birth of Jesus from the Bible. But I will save all that for another letter to you.
Thank you for having asked,