After Richard Nixon departed for the Harvard Club, Julie suggested that Tricia, she, and I repair to her bedroom, where we could chat until dinner was ready. She led the way to a large room containing two twin beds covered with frilly, feminine spreads. I sat on one bed and Julie and Tricia took the other.
Tricia, a giggly blond, seemed less earnest than her younger sister, who wanted to know all about me--whether I had siblings, how I'd gotten interested in Smith, what I planned to study. Julie's rapt attention to my answers made me feel as if I were a fascinating and important person. Although I attempted to make polite inquiries about her, somehow the conversation was all about me. It was my first experience of Julie's remarkable ability to deflect the focus from herself onto the person with whom she was speaking. Perhaps because she'd been raised in the public eye and subject to media scrutiny her entire life, she'd become adept at directing attention outward, away from herself, a protective mechanism that preserved her privacy.
We had only been in the bedroom a short while when, to my surprise, Pat Nixon joined us. She took a seat next to me on the bed and seemed as interested as Julie and Tricia in hearing about my mundane high school life. And she loved my outfit! She especially admired the black Danskin top and wanted to know where I'd purchased it. She suggested to her daughters that they go shopping with her in search of similar tops.
It seemed to me at the time, and still does, that Mrs. Nixon loved being a mother, loved hanging out with her daughters and their friends, and wanted nothing more than a low-profile life as a wife and homemaker. In the kindly light of Julie's bedroom, Mrs. Nixon's face softened and her smile seemed more natural than the pained expression I came to associate with her television appearances. I don't know whether she'd been invited to the Harvard Club shindig along with her husband that evening, but clearly home is where her heart was.
When dinner was ready, we sat down to eat in the formal dining room, complete with silver candelabra in the middle of the table. The meal was served by Fina Sanchez, the Nixon's Cuban cook. Her husband, Manolo, served as driver and all-around valet to the Vice President (more about Manolo in a future installment). Mrs. Nixon was a delightful hostess, engaging me, along with Julie and Tricia, in conversation about what I might expect at Smith College. Our discussion, thankfully, was more about academics and social life than plumbing.
All would have been completely lovely were it not for the fact that the candelabra, with its glowing candles, was directly between Mrs. Nixon and me. Still on my best behavior, I endeavored to look at Mrs. Nixon while talking to her. My eyes became bleary and I craned my neck in an attempt to see over the candles, leaning first to the right, then to the left, all the while endeavoring to sound intelligent. Mrs. Nixon appeared not to notice anything amiss. I felt too unsure of myself to request that the candelabra be moved.
Having gotten a quick glimpse of the Nixons' lives, I was tempted to draw all kinds of broad conclusions. I gave into that temptation, bigtime. In the foyer, earlier, I decided Dick Nixon was a man who focused on the inner workings of things at the expense of the big picture. Later, in Julie's bedroom, I saw Mrs. Nixon as the very paradigm of a devoted wife and mother. Now in the dining room, it occurred to me that Mrs. Nixon and her daughters might be as insecure as I about matters of etiquette. It takes a certain amount of confidence to know when to break the rules and move the candelabra.
Overall, my impression of both Julie and her mother was of two genuinely caring individuals. Regarding Tricia, I couldn't tell what kind of person hid behind the giggles, which may have been her defense against invasions of her privacy. As for Richard Nixon, although I believed I'd learned something about his world view, I still felt clueless about the man's own inner workings.
Next installment: The Squash Connection