From the book
It was probably because I was so often taken away from Cambridge when I was young that I loved it as much as I did. I fell in love with the city, the way you fall in love with a person, and suffered during the many separations I endured.In the summer before our October departure for England, the screen door to the backyard broke and had to be replaced. The new door had a hydraulic canister that hissed when it opened or closed instead of smacking, thump, thump, the way the old door had. I didn't like this. Neither did my cat, Pinch. Cats and children are conservative. Pinch would use the new door to go out of the house, but she refused to come in through it, and she'd sit by the front door waiting for someone to notice that she'd decided it was time to come home. After three weeks in England, I felt the same way: Okay, let's go home now. It's time to go home. But my parents, looking out their new, hydraulic door to England, didn't notice me, and like Pinch I had to sit there hoping and hoping.
For my father it was a kind of homecoming. He'd spent the war in London analyzing aerial reconnaissance photographs of German cities to pick targets for the Air Force. Midnights, he and his comrades stood on the roof of the townhouse where they were billeted and watched the bombs fall, heedless, twenty-two and abroad for the first time. The damask and mahogany hotels, the parks and the Embankment, the Rosetta Stone back from where it had been hiding from the Luftwaffe--now he could show all this, his former kingdom, to my mother.
My mother was preoccupied with the oven. She'd been forewarned that there wasn't any heat; nobody had mentioned the oven. The burners worked, but the oven was in a coma. She enshrouded a whole chicken in aluminum foil (aluminium in England) and roasted it over the coals in the living room fireplace in an attempt to make a nice dinner--a nice dinner being something other than a greasy chop or noodles (this was the era before noodles became pasta). It was a failure. It was a poached chicken, pallid, wet, raw in places. The oven, the oven. When was my father going to get somebody to explain or fix the oven?
My father had gone to France for the day to get us a car. It was a tiny English car named a Hillman. How or why it had emigrated to France was unknown. He went with a friend who was a French count, who had found us the car. Why my parents had a friend who was a French count and how they had finagled him into finding them an English car in France were not questions I asked at the age of seven. The car, my father, and the count all appeared at our London doorstep just as my mother was unveiling the disastrous chicken she'd made as a thank-you dinner for the count.
But they were young and full of life and they went out for dinner instead, leaving me with the somber Swedish nanny who made noodles on the stovetop.
Nanny is a misnomer. Frederika was my mother's aide-de-camp. She came from an aristocratic Swedish family. Her father had dropped the von in solidarity with Socialist ideals. She had little experience of stovetop noodles, either eating or cooking them. It turned out when she came to live with us in Cambridge that she was a marvelous cook, but she needed six fresh herring or a whole side of salmon or a handful of cardamom and a long twisty ginger root to do her Swedish magic. Barely ten years after the war, England didn't supply this sort of thing. Noodles and candy, with the occasional tough hunk of mutton, was what was on offer.
She was only eighteen. I thought of her as a grownup, but she was a kid away from home for the first time, just like me. Our family must have been a puzzle to her....