After the war, my father bought three little porcelain figurines in Germany, three tiny ballerinas standing on tip toe with their hands floating in the air above them like white birds. The girls’ faces were striking—their eyes full of feeling and intelligence, their cheeks lightly rouged, their lips sweet, their countenance placid and calm. Their hair black as ink, their skin like cream, their bodies strong and lithe, the ballerinas were the embodiment of elegance. It was easy to imagine the music they heard and the grace of their dance. All through my childhood my mother kept the ballerinas behind glass in the china closet; I don’t remember ever touching them; often I would just stand in the dining room, admiring them through the glass. I loved the painted thin black straps of their leather slippers, their blue bodices, the white dresses of perforated lace with little red and yellow roses appliquéd on the skirts. The figurines are fine Dresden porcelain and I have always wondered at this, knowing the Allies bombed Dresden into oblivion. The ballerinas taught me to believe in beauty over death. I imagine lying in my English crib as a wide-eyed infant, looking up and seeing the three ballerinas dancing in the air above me and hearing my sister’s voice saying, Look. Look.
In London Laura and I made a game of searching alphabetically for Blue Plaques. By St. James Square Laura found the residence of Lady Astor, the first woman to sit in Parliament. I found Elizabeth Barrett’s house on Wimpole Street. Had our children been with us, we might have stayed with the rules and kept playing, but when one sees a blue plaque everywhere one looks, history overwhelms the imagination. Laura said, “Think of it. For hundreds of years under the same London sky people have been busy writing novels or composing symphonies or trying to change the world.” Dickens, Handel, Vladimir Lenin. We bought a guide and turning the pages we knew we’d never have time to find them all—T. S. Eliot, Béla Bartók, Emile Zola. It was almost a relief to take the underground to Eastcote. When we walked Pavilion Way together, there were no blue plaques, no commemorative inscriptions to take us away from the moment, strolling hand in hand, husband and wife. Just quiet, anonymous row houses with white picket fences and front gardens crowded with flowers. We surprised ourselves. Between the two of us, we knew all the names—pansies, nasturtiums, roses, petunias, daisies, snapdragons, black-eyed Susan and sweet William. “Life is so deep and intimate.” Laura said. “No one knows your life the way you do.”