Legacies of a Housewife and her Scientist Husband, February 1963

February 18, 1963. In less than a month, my family would move from Palo Alto, California to Hanover, New Hampshire where Dad would teach a term at Dartmouth College. Art Lachenbruch was 37, Edie was 35, and Roger, Charlie, and I were 8, 7, and 6 years old. At that moment, Dad was on a business trip to T-3, also called Fletcher’s Ice Island, a slab of ice that was drifting around the Arctic Ocean. He was setting up a small lab where people in his team would collect temperature data from the ocean floor for the next ten years.

Fast-forward to July 2019. Dad, 93, co-authored a new paper from those fifty-year-old ice island data.

Some would say Dad’s new paper is the story–and I would half-agree. There’s much, much to say about that accomplishment. I and other people will do so.

But who will tell Mom’s story, and when? She lived every day as earnestly as Dad did, and she leaves her legacies, too. Through two of her letters from that period, I’ll tell the story. I’ll tell it now.

Monday, February 18, 1963. Mom wrote to Dad that Roger “is being very good and grown up–told me the first day you left, I’m the man of the house now and I tell you who needs spanking when. Wow!” she commented. While Charlie was at a museum after school with a friend and Rog still on a field trip to Chinatown, Dad’s parents stopped by, unannounced, to visit. Mom wrote that they gave me the 13 cents I needed to reach $6.50 so I could buy a watch. Mom then took me to the store, but we learned they were temporarily out of the $6.50 watches. The cheapest ones were $9.95–plus 10% federal and 4% state tax, which Mom had forgotten about. We also learned they’d have the $6.50 ones in soon, but they’d all have Cinderellas on them. “So she was very grown up about it and is still saving money,” Mom wrote.

Mom wrote that she felt a need to start cleaning because we’d be leaving for New Hampshire soon. “Today was a general housecleaning, laundry, ironing day, and also got all the painted woodwork washed,” she told Dad. Then she followed it with, “It’s really too early to be cleaning because 25 days of living will make it dirty.” Mom also had a meeting as a board member of the dance school that Charlie and I went to. From the meeting, she had to write something up and than make ten copies (presumably with carbon paper) for Wednesday. “Goodnight, my love,” she wrote, and presumably hit the sack.

Tuesday, February 19, 1963. Mom added more to the letter. She attended an all-morning meeting for the dance school–but came home with more follow-up work to do. “Took kids to gym school and the family room drapes to the cleaner,” she wrote. “Went to bed at 8:30 as I was feeling miserable. I have been [having symptoms] since Saturday.” She was on medication, and checked in by phone with the doctor. (This situation ended in a hysterectomy a half a year later).

Wednesday, February 20, 1963. “So, Barbara started mumps this morning, or so it seemed vaguely. I had already promised last night to be in the PTA course program this morning, so Marion Bracken sat her and I went. God–wished I’d stayed home. I had to quote the constitution, quote some stuff from the Book of Books and light a candle. Tonight I really do believe Barb has mumps,” she wrote. Then Mom went into telling about the cleaning of the day. She said in spite of being sick, I worked like a beaver all day,” straightening up my desk drawer, then cleaning the game cupboard. The cleaning continued: “We spent about two hours scrubbing the tile in the bathroom this afternoon. It’s lovely to finally do some housecleaning. I mean I like a clean house but why do I always do it for other people, rather than for me who would appreciate it? They’ll never even know.”

Mom visited Dad’s mother. Grandma “wasn’t feeling well and was very mad and worrying … [about] all sorts of dire things.” My grandpa later called, Mom wrote, to say that Grandma had talked to the doctor “and she’s happy now. If he believes that, he’s nuts.

It was a Wednesday and presumably a school day, so all of the following would have take place after school. “Today was a gorgeous, gorgeous spring day–very warm, sunshiny,” Mom wrote. ” Charles said over and over this morning, I’m so happy today. I’m so happy. He counted 16 different things in bloom in our yard.”

Charlie then “had a regular gang here–Mark, Clem, Byron, Timmy” while Rog played with some other kids. After that, Mom said, “the gang broke up soon and Jocelyn, Byron, Rog, and Chas had a good game of ball.” She finished up with, “Do hope you’re having success wherever you are. I’d say things are going well here. It always goes much better when you’re here though–so hurry home, honey.”

Thursday, February 21, 1963. A postscript said “Barb surely does have mumps. It’s a lovely day again. I feel quite ambitious. So must get at it. Love you, my honey.” This time, she folded her letter and two others into the envelope and got it in the mail. My letter told Dad about my finances. Rog got the final word: “Hi ya dad. What’s it like up there? You know what? No matter what you say here it is tarzan the monkey man tore his pants and away he ran. Dad–we are studying weather. I miss you. Good by for now.”

Saturday, February 23, 1963. Mom started a new letter. She wrote that I ended up very sick on Thursday, my second day of mumps. “Very high fever, vomiting, etc. Has been better since then but mornings are rough with crying and pain and she doesn’t like any of the things I try to do to relieve her.” Afternoons were better “but she does get bored.” My first-grade teacher “brought her book and papers home Thursday and stayed a couple hours. Barb finished the book by last night, 189 pages of it.” One of Dad’s colleagues called to say he learned from another of Dad’s colleagues “that you got on the ice Monday so it’s good to know you got there.

Mom returned to domestic news. “Yesterday was a holiday, so many children were here.” One of them spent the night. “Caught about six of them jumping up and down on the Brewer’s car, Pat Turner being the worst offender. I asked him if he’d do that to his father’s car and he said ‘never’ so why do they do such things here? I had to spend half of yesterday looking for my broom which I found in parts and finally got back together but they’d been using the handle as a weapon. I’m a regular bear, irritable as the devil.” She was “still hurting like the devil. It’s most irritating. I saw Dr. Lawry this a.m. and he’d like me to try to put up with it one more week, and if it hasn’t [improved] we’ll drop the medication altogether.” I wonder today how much this male doctor understood that her ob/gyn problem was bothering her.

My grandpa called to say my grandma “is doing much better” and they wanted to take my brothers to lunch on their next visit. Mom had another meeting about the dance group. She couldn’t reach the person who was supposed to take care of her bonsai when we were in New Hampshire, but a neighbor offered to do it. In fact, I remember that all of them died because the neighbor forgot to water them. “Haven’t decided about Grapey [our cat] or the rat or turtle yet.” Roger went ice-skating and loved it. “They invited Charles but he wouldn’t go. He wanted to play here with his friends instead.”

Mom finished the letter with “Do hope you’re having success and staying healthy, too. Love to you, Edie. ” She included a picture I had drawn, and realized she’d better explain it: “Barb’s picture is of you on the ice with a whale squirting water in your face as you put the cable through (in case you couldn’t figure it out). …

Late February, 1963. Dad left the ice island on schedule, and returned to the warmth of our busy home.

These letters show Mom hustling to accommodate the needs of each of us. Dad was gone, I was sick, Rog and Charlie had separate agendas, Dad’s parents were in the picture, she felt a need to ready the house for our move–and she was “hurting like the devil.” We were protected. We were nurtured. She was the silk someone nestled in among the eggs to keep them from breaking. She was the clay someone put on the landscape to nudge the rainwater into flowing the right way. She was the watering can that gave each patch of plants enough water to grow roots for its own water, to grow sturdy enough stems that they could handle the wind.

And we had no idea that other homes had earthquakes and tempests, instead.

1927 – 2016. August 7 is the three-year anniversary of Mom’s death. The six days in these letters, of course, don’t reflect all that Mom–Mary Edith Bennett, then Edith Bennett Lachenbruch–did over the decades. Different years called for different forms of nurturing and for different focuses. Before this period and after she did much more than work herself to the bone to facilitate our lives. She had a rich childhood in West Virginia and a positive adolescence there and in Maryland. She made her way to become a Registered Nurse through a four-year nursing program. She was a nurse in Baltimore and Boston hospitals, in two communities in Alaska, in a day-school for disabled kids, and for many years in the office of a plastic and reconstructive surgeon. She was a decades-long garden volunteer at Filoli (an historic trust property) and at hospice. Our house was a go-to home for many folks who needed a stopping-off point, including relatives and a few strangers–and each of us over the years; and she became a friend to Dad’s colleagues and to our friends. Mom had her own friends, too, from many eras of her life. She loved literature and many of the arts, was a creative gardener and chef, and added flair to what she did. Above all, she listened–really, really listened. And as Dad likes to add about her, she was “no bologna.”

And Legacies all: through personal, domestic, and community acts, Mom loved, supported, and shaped us and where we lived.

As did Dad, but in different ways.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

* Ruppel CD, Lachenbruch AH, Hutchinson DR, Munroe R, & Mosher DC (2019) Heat flow in the western Arctic Ocean (Amerasian Basin). Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, 124.

2 thoughts on “Legacies of a Housewife and her Scientist Husband, February 1963

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  1. Loved this story Barb! The letters your mom wrote are priceless! What a gift to have access to them now and to write such a beautiful tribute to your amazing mama.  Laura Mouw


    1. Thanks so much, Laura. It really is a gift to have those letters. There’s only one photo of Dad that we can find on T-3, and we have those letters at the exact same date. It’s something to think what all the “supporting” people are doing while a few people get well-known. I don’t mean to take anything away from Dad on this. His letters (from different trips in the arctic) show a genuine concern for Mom and us, and a worry, and he says he knows he really needs to be home, too, and thanks her profusely.


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