First Impressions

Two small albums of black-and-white photographs and a thin handful of old letters written by my parents are my only clues to their first years together. We children knew the story of how they met; when I was younger, I thought it terribly romantic. In 1934, Starr—who was to become my mother—was traveling to Munich, Germany, to begin a postgraduate year of Germanic language studies. When her ship docked in Hamburg, Werner, my father-to-be, came to meet his uncle, one of Starr’s shipboard acquaintances. Her knowledge of German was immediately put to the test, because the three of them had coffee at the Alster Pavilion together. Over the next several days, Starr and Werner spent time alone with each other. He was visiting his family but would soon return to Central America, where he made his home.

In the brief few days of their first meeting, the handsome, rangy young German and his account of life in Costa Rica enchanted Starr. She had never even heard of Costa Rica before. How they talked! As they walked along the Alster, he told her stories of jungles full of orchids and colorful birds; of the smell of coffee flowers in the rain; of smoking volcanoes; and of wild, untamed rivers. He described the capital city of San José, where he had his business; spoke about his friends; and told her about his brother, who lived many miles away on a cattle ranch.

They laughed at the coincidence of living in San José—she in California, he in Costa Rica. He listened intently as she told him that after graduating from San Jose State, she cared for her mother, who was suffering a series of strokes. When her mother died in 1933, Starr returned to school, received a master’s degree from Stanford University just that past July, and then caught the boat for Germany.

While Starr went on to school, he returned to Costa Rica. They must have written to each other, but she saved only one rather formally written postcard from him.

Then Starr became ill with glandular tuberculosis and was forced to drop out of school, while hospitalized in a sanatorium. Recovered after several months of treatment, she returned home in the summer of 1935, driving across the country from New York with a fellow American student from Munich. The pair visited his family at their farm in the Midwest and then continued to California. It was great fun roaring along the road, convertible top down. But when he became serious, asking her to marry him, she refused; instead she returned to live quietly alone in the Santa Cruz beach house that she and her brother, Charles, inherited after their mother’s death.

That Christmas, Werner came to visit. He was charming, gentle, and earnest. His stories of life in Central America seemed so fascinating and thrilling that when he proposed on Christmas Eve, she said yes immediately. They married as soon as they were able—in mid-January—and then he left. While he’d had high hopes that they would marry, his optimism hadn’t extended to the purchase of two boat passages for the return trip. She was to follow as soon as she could.

In March 1936, Starr boarded a freighter bound for Costa Rica with her newly acquired cocker spaniel puppy, Sudi, and a trunk full of possessions. She must have been both excited and nervous about meeting the man she had married after such a brief courtship. Werner greeted her when the ship docked in Puntarenas, the Pacific coast port. Then they traveled by train to San José, the capital of Costa Rica, where Werner had his business—and where he’d rented a home for the two of them.

Three months after her arrival, Starr sat down to write a letter to Liz, a friend from California whom she’d known since her first day of high school. Starr had been only ten. Liz, though older, befriended her immediately, and they were inseparable through much of the next four years. (It was fashionable in those days to encourage bright students to skip grades. My mother’s family allowed her to skip at least two. She told me she had been a very young ten-year-old, and so unhappy at first she brought her favorite doll to classes. I suspect that Liz may have been one of the few students who was kind and didn’t tease her.) While Starr wrote to numerous friends, only Liz saved the letters and eventually returned them.

“… Werner gets off to the office about 8:00, walks to town (about 15 minutes) and leaves me at the mercy of the Spanish jabbering girl. I was terrified at first and ran around all day looking up words in the dictionary of things to eat and work to do, but now we get along beautifully; she understands my few words and gestures and speaks very slowly for me.

My mornings are usually spent doing the shopping for the day (gardeners come by the door all morning with fruits and vegetables and such like), planning the meals, seeing that the house is clean, watering my plants (I’m making a collection of queer tropical plants), working in the garden, studying Spanish, etc. … Afternoons I take a Spanish lesson … go to a movie, go visiting, then at 5 go to meet Werner at the office to walk home … Evenings we usually simply sit and listen to the radio, which we got 2 days ago. … It’s a grand one, we can get practically all the world. … How’s that for a lazy life?

My husband is a terrificly energetic person, I’m discovering. He works hard all week long, then Sundays always takes me touring the country on a picnic over the awfullest roads and thru rivers and up mountains, til I ache all over from being bumped around. Then we get out and hike til my legs won’t work any more, thru pouring rain or in the hottest heat, but it’s lots of fun. And just about every Sunday we gather new, strange-looking plants and flowers and ferns to bring home and establish here. It’s an old Spanish custom to have plants all over your house, … and I’m trying to look Spanish.”

Driving was circumscribed even in good weather, with only about one hundred kilometers (around sixty-two miles) of paved and semipaved road to the east and west of San José. There was a train to Limón on the Atlantic coast and Puntarenas on the Pacific, but those journeys were long, slow, hot, and dirty. Extensive trips elsewhere, like to Guatemala or Panama, could only be made by boat, which was very expensive and took time to arrange. Horseback, river-launch, small airplane, or on foot were the only ways to get around much of the country. Because Werner had decided they would spend Christmas at his brother’s ranch, which could only be reached on horseback, he was giving Starr riding lessons.

“Twice we’ve been horseback riding, the first time, my first experience on a horse, only a short way while I yelled and screamed to Werner to go slow who didn’t pay the slightest attention to me. I galloped off at a great speed and scared myself to death. The second time we went dove hunting. Werner got me up at 5 o’clock in the morning and [we] rode … up a high mountain thru dripping coffee and banana trees and a fog so thick you couldn’t see where your horse was going. We went with another young couple and the other wife and I were left to sit, shivering in the fog and rain for hours until the men got back—without a single dove!”

How she must have hated that day. There wasn’t a trace of a smile as she posed for a picture, sitting on the soaked grass with a shotgun across her knees. …