A treasure trove of information! The little book brings back a time in my life and old friends who are all gone, now.
It was a Guestbook for people to sign when they came to the embassy for a party or even just to visit. And along with my mother’s diary for that period and my own, it paints a picture of our lives that first year in Luxembourg.
The book was a pale nut brown leather rectangle wedged between several tattered boxes on a table in the sewing room of my mother’s house in Washington DC. The innocuous color and unimpressive size almost made me ignore it. Something told me to check it out. Surprise! It turned out to be a treasure.
It was a guest book from the last month (December) of 1953 and the first half of the year 1954. My parents moved into the Legation in Luxembourg at the end of November. My father had been appointed Minister Plenipotentiary at the Embassy in The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. The definition of Minister Plenipotentiary is “a diplomatic agent ranking below an ambassador but possessing full power and authority”.
Later my father oversaw the extension of diplomatic importance as the post became an Ambassadorship. The buildings went from Legation to the official American Embassy. This change pleased my father inordinately. And he deserves credit for orchestrating it. Being an Ambassador was extremely important to him. A great example of perseverance was not lost on any of his children. Our father was unstoppable when he was healthy and still vibrant before Alzheimer’s disease took over.
Our parents moved all three of us children and many of our belongings to Luxembourg. We came with our dogs, and our nurse Renie, our clothes, books, toys, and some school work. We had been living in Paris for several weeks, while my parents made preparations for the move. We moved around Thanksgiving and began to prepare for Christmas. We spent a very strange feeling Christmas. Nothing was familiar, the language was not only different it was a combination of the dialect called Luxembourgish (or Lëtzebuergesch) and French or German. Many citizens spoke English which helped. We needed to become used to the way of life at our new residence in a country we knew nothing about. It was an adventure at that point. We were happy enough.
On the very first page of the guest book is a note from the very first guests Mr. and Mrs. Edmond Monell, or Auntie “Feets” and Uncle Bunny as we called them. They were VERY good friends of our parents. In fact, our parents had acted as “cupid” and introduced Feets and Bunny to each other. They fell in love and had their wedding at our house in Washington DC the year before my father was appointed Minister to Luxembourg. They were both very tall, Feets was almost 6 ft and Bunny several inches taller than she was. My parents were fairly short. But, Bunny and Feets called my diminutive parents Mother and Father. It made us laugh to hear it. When I looked at the first page it warmed my heart when I saw their signatures first of all. They commented with thanks to “Mother and Father”. And they said they were proud to be the first guests at the legation and hated to leave.
There is also a signature at the top of that first page, my sister’s name. Miss Diane Dow Buchanan, written in her 9-year-old handwriting. And there was a poorly drawn horse head. Did I do that? It looks like my attempts at drawing horses. The book is fairly simple for an embassy. They later purchased a larger more impressive one. This one has the true essence of our early days there, no pretensions, and most of the guest list, in the beginning, was simply a list of friends. The Last three entries Dan and Helen Gaudin and Margaret Howe were all associated with the Legation. Dan was the counselor and Margaret Howe was an assistant in the Legation. Helen was Dan’s wife. She taught my mother how to paint, during her first year in Luxembourg because Mother badly needed something to occupy her mind. It was a small country and as I remember it there were only 9 Diplomatic missions there. So diplomatic entertaining was not very exciting nor was there much of it.
My mother who was 35 years old, was just learning the ropes in a situation with which she was still unfamiliar. She had a wonderful sense of optimism. Reading her diary for the first of the year 1954, she mentions that it snowed and she played outside with us, her three children. She wrote that she went out and bought sleds for all of us to take advantage of the deep snow near the lovely house where we were living. We were all learning the ropes. The citizens of Luxembourg did things differently. Everything was new to us.
I went riding in the typical riding stable. Along with its outside ring, It had an indoor ring which was really just a large barn that had been cleared of any obstructions. There were no windows and no outside source of light. Overhead electric lights hung high above our heads. The floor was a tanbark surface, making it good for horses. The weather was so iffy in Luxembourg, that most of the time we rode inside. The elegant Prussian riding instructor, Herr Struemer, improved my riding immensely. Dressage and more dressage filled my hours on horseback. It was an outlet for me and gave me something to look forward to each day. I rode nearly every day. Riding my horse and receiving letters from home were ways of keeping me happy in a place I really did not want to be. Plus keeping my diaries and reading everything I could get my hands on was my magic carpet out of there.
The contrast to the way the Europeans lived, their ideas about class, and their lack of desire to grow and change was strange to me. It made me uncomfortable and it made me impatient with them. Remember, this was nearly 70 years ago. Everything has changed since then. Those years after the Second World War were difficult as those countries got back on their feet. Luxembourg and France, Holland and Belgium were all in various stages of rebirth. Germany, especially, was full of angst and clung in many cases to tradition as a touchstone. In my 1954 diary, I wrote, “If nothing else, this trip to Europe has taught me to love the United States of America, and all that it has to offer me.”
Copyright©. 2022 Bonnie B. Matheson