I had never thought our last name strange until a few elementary school classmates came to my birthday party and chased me from the yew hedge to the back-door steps shouting “limburger cheese, limburger cheese.” That’s what I was named after, they claimed, a really smelly cheese.
“Am not,” I retorted, before seeking protection inside the house. In truth, I didn’t know where our name came from. Other than Mommy and Daddy, I had never met another Lindberg.
I stood inside the door leading from the garage to the kitchen, listening for the sound of Daddy’s car pulling in from the train station. I often did that as a girl, waiting for the life Daddy brought into our quiet house—at 6’3” a lot of life. He set his briefcase down and hugged me, and I told him what the mean girls had said. After dinner, in the safety of our wood-paneled den, he assured me that we weren’t named after an odiferous dairy product. Quite to the contrary, the name “Lindberg” came directly from a hero.
I listened rapt in my PJs that first evening Daddy deemed me old enough to hear about Walter Lindberg’s tragic death. Daddy took his usual position in the big chair next to the bar. I sat across from him on the maroon sofa. Mommy had her own chair, an upholstered rocker where she read at least two newspapers every evening, but her chair was empty the first time Daddy told me about Walter Lindberg. In classic early 1960s middle-class fashion, Mommy remained in the kitchen washing the dishes, a long process for her on account of the high standards of cleanliness set by the servants in the homes of her pre-marriage years.
I knew virtually nothing about Mommy’s wealthy background as I sat in the den with Daddy. I knew only that it was more fun to be with him than helping Mommy clean up.
Daddy explained in his clear voice, commanding enough to run meetings at the Manhattan bank where he worked, though softened in my presence, that Walter grew up in Denmark and then went to Brazil to help build a railroad. That could have put Walter in any number of places where workers sweated and died from fever, infection, and other causes in the early 1900s as they laid tracks used by the rubber industry to transport latex out of the jungle.
Daddy said that Walter moved from Brazil to New York City, where he married Grandma and moved in with her and Daddy. After a while, however, Walter longed to get back to Brazil to explore little known parts of the Amazon. Daddy told me about the Amazon and I understood it to be a special place, big enough, lush enough and dangerous enough to hold infinite secrets, a mosaic of rivers and jungle spanning nine countries and billions of acres in which animals, plants and insects abounded, native tribes sharpened spears, and natural riches awaited the brave.
Daddy left no doubt that Walter, a skilled engineer and map-maker, was among the brave.
After planning the expedition and borrowing money to buy the necessary equipment, Walter did not leave New York with his partners. He planned to meet up with the ship that was carrying his partners and gear later in its voyage—in Virginia—after spending a few last days with Daddy and Grandma in New York.
Daddy said Walter and his partners intended to follow a map in their possession showing the location of gold and diamonds deep in the Amazon, and this was the best part of the story as far as I was concerned, a real treasure map in our very own family.
The expedition did not happen as planned on account of the Vestris sinking, and Walter stayed on living with Daddy and Grandma. I imagined Grandma, Walter and Daddy having a fine time in New York while the ship’s passengers were flailing about in the ocean, Walter so relieved that his affection for his family had spared him the ordeal of a sinking ship. I knew nothing then of the pain of a lost dream.
“What about the other men, Daddy?” I asked.
At least some of the partners survived, he said, and they went back to Brazil with Walter after he’d saved up enough money to try again. Walter was determined to get to the Amazon and use the treasure map, and sometime after the Vestris sank, he did go.
This time, Daddy said, Walter made it into the jungle, but he died there. The explanation given by the men in Walter’s party was that Walter had been killed by cannibals, but Daddy said he believed the men traveling with Walter had murdered him to get the treasure map. They were bad men, Daddy said, and greedy.
Even though Daddy said the cannibal account was probably a cover-up, I believed it for the simple reason that if Walter’s body was never found, which it wasn’t, his being eaten would account for that. Of course, that meant it wasn’t really so spectacular to my child’s mind that Walter had avoided getting eaten by sharks only to be eaten by humans.
Whatever or whoever killed Walter, the consequence for Grandma was the same: there was something called the “Dead Man’s Law,” Daddy said, which, in the absence of a dead body, required her to wait seven years before marrying again.
Grandma’s next husband was a man free of wanderlust, an affable barber firmly rooted in northern New Jersey, Joseph Hess, whom I grew up calling Grandpa. I knew nothing at first to contradict that he was my actual grandfather. He acted like a Grandpa, kneeling to hug me, making me laugh, and bringing me toys on the special occasions when he visited.
I don’t remember my parents reading to me, though I am sure that they did. What I remember is Daddy telling me the story of Walter Lindberg’s disappearance. I would wait for him to get home, make his martini, eat dinner with Mommy and me, and then we would sit in the den and I would ask him to tell me the story again. As I got older, closer to the drinking age, Daddy would add the detail that the ship’s captain had been drunk.
After the first telling, the Walter Lindberg story was often on my mind. My bathroom was down the hall from my bedroom and sometimes, while sitting in a tub full of warm water, I would close my eyes and imagine the water heating up. I figured that cannibals put their prey in boiling water, and I was wondering what it would feel like to boil to death—or would it be better to die by freezing? (As much as I loved summertime heat, I always came out on the side of freezing. I knew how snow felt on the skin, so I figured with freezing you would get numb before the real pain came.)
Daddy shared the story of Walter Lindberg with me alone. He had chosen a time when Mommy was busy to tell it to me the first time, and if I happened to ask him to repeat the story while all three of us were seated in the den, Mommy would stand up from her rocking chair and leave the room. There was always a pot boiling or another chore that needed doing and she had to go. I noticed this, and found it curious. I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t stick around for what seemed like the most exciting thing about our family.
Aside from the Walter story, neither of my parents volunteered much information about the past. Most of the time, it seemed that they had taken an extra vow at the altar, to conceal their histories if they ever had a child. I wasn’t born until eleven years after their marriage, and they were characteristically mum about why they waited so long.
I had to figure that out myself, the same way I learned most of what I knew or thought I knew about our family: through stealth, research, and careful observation.
There was an oddly shaped room over the garage that my parents did not use, and the room became my retreat as I entered adolescence, my place for listening to music, sewing clothes, and entertaining friends. By that point, I was calling my parents Mother and Dad. No one at the private school they’d sent me to starting in sixth grade called their parents Mommy and Daddy, so I had asked if we could make an adjustment. Daddy had no problem shifting to Dad, but my mother forbade Mom. My options were Mother or Mama. I chose the former.
There was a door off my new retreat that opened into a long storage area lined with boxes on both sides of a central aisle. The roof was low and pitched, so that one had to stoop or move on hands and knees. I knew that some of the boxes contained Christmas decorations, old Halloween costumes, and my childhood school papers. In eighth grade, I started to look through the other boxes. In particular, I was searching for Dad’s Army uniform. Military-inspired clothes were becoming popular and when I asked Dad if he had any items from World War II, he told me that whatever had been saved was in the storage area.
I found Dad’s Army memorabilia and in the same box were Mother’s private school yearbooks. I hauled the box out of the closet and sat on the floor reviewing its contents. The yearbook from her senior year at Spence School revealed that Mother used to enjoy walking around the Central Park Reservoir and once dreamed of becoming a foreign correspondent, two facts that I might otherwise never have known.
There was also a newspaper clipping in the box, a column by Damon Runyon about Mother’s father, John William Ryan, a successful men’s clothier with several stores in New York City. The headline called my grandfather a “pioneer” for having bought a house in Miami Beach in the early 1920s, and he looked big and imposing and extremely well dressed in the accompanying photo.
I was excited because I, too, aspired to be a journalist. I was already writing for the school newspaper, and I knew that Damon Runyon was a famous reporter. I couldn’t believe he had written a column about my very own grandfather. I ran down to the kitchen, clipping in hand, prepared to grill Mother.
Yes, her family spent many winters in Miami Beach, Mother confirmed, removing her rubber dish-washing gloves to take the clipping from me, glance at it, and hand
I never saw the column again.
Years later, Mother swore she had put it in the back of a picture frame for safe-keeping, an odd choice, but one that might have withstood the test of time if she could remember which picture. She was quite sure, or so she claimed, that it had been my baby picture, the embarrassing one before my hair grew in, but when we looked the column wasn’t there.
Over time, I opened every frame in Mother’s possession and spent countless hours in libraries from New York to Miami searching through old newspapers. I wrote letters to several of Damon Runyon’s copyright owners, scanned collections of his writing, and spoke to various Miami historians. I never found the column.
My experience with the Damon Runyon column was quite typical: me having an interest in some aspect of family history and trying to satisfy it through the acquisition of facts on my own, seeking a substitute for the adult conversations that never seemed to take place about where we’d come from and who we were.
When it came to family narratives, the only one that had actually been communicated to me was the story of Walter Lindberg.
A lawyer and photographer as well as a writer, MARIAN E. LINDBERG works in New York as a senior staff writer for The Nature Conservancy, an international environmental organization with programs throughout the United States and in more than 30 countries, including Brazil, where much of The End of the Rainy Season takes place. Her life has been spent mainly in cities—New York, Washington, DC, and Buffalo—though she currently lives not far from the Atlantic Ocean on Long Island. This is her first book.