There's an expression I heard in Newfoundland that accurately describes my 15 months in Washington. "When I rises up, I gets confused." For me, this can happen merely getting out of bed in the morning and not knowing what to do next, or when greeting people in my own house without having a clue who they are.
"And what's your name?" I asked.
"Caspar Weinberger, Mrs. Gotlieb," said our guest of honor.
That happened during my first month here when I didn't know that Congress included the Senate, that Bob Strauss was a Democrat or whether any of the domestic staff lived with us in the residence on weekends. Thinking I was alone in the house, I ran outside one early, cold January morning to retrieve the Sunday papers. The door slammed behind me and locked. I proceeded mindlessly down Massachusetts Avenue in my housecoat and slippers, heading, I hoped, toward our chancery, only a brisk half-hour walk away. The butler, who had been watching my activities from inside, dressed himself and ran after me to save me and my country from shame.
I expected that faces would become more familiar as time went on. But I still gets confused. I remember smartly introducing myself as the wife of the Canadian ambassador and hearing, "Yes, I know. I was sitting on your right in your residence last night."
Happily, in Washington I'm not always the lone offender. Often there is mutual nonrecognition. He ate at my place, I ate at his, and we still don't recognize each other. My husband believes my inability to remember faces comes from lack of peripheral vision. "Your're like a poor cart horse wearing blinkers," he says kindly. I think it comes from meeting 1,000 people in a few months.
I rises up and gets confused in the morning because I don't know my priorties. Shoul I go to my desk and sort out the mysterious invitations we receive? Who are Dr. and Mrs. Carbfut from the Global Institute, and why are they asking us to a ball, gala or dinner at that home away from homes the Washington Hilton? Should I ask my social secretary to make inquiries? Do I still have a social secretary? (I seem to consume them.) She finds out that everybody from the president on down is on the list of patrons, but is not necessarily coming. She can't find out anything about Global Institute, the Carbfuts or who will be sitting at our table. I put a "bring forward" note on the invitation. I didn't know about "bring forwards" until Washington. It means we shall forget about the invitation, all of us, except, of course, the Carbfuts.
There are also piles of letters in the morning, requests for the embassy to give dinners, balls, fashion shows, teas, midnight buffets for known and unknown charities. They usually want their functions to be outdoors, preferably in May or June, for at least 250 people. The phone rings. The chef wants to know if 200 or 300 are coming and whether for cocktails or cocktail buffet. Cocktail buffet means more food. The party is two days away, and 100 people haven't responded.
Then there's a seating plan on my desk for a dinner we are giving tonight. A columnist is coming who wrote some nasty words about another guest. (I manage to glance at a newspaper before I rises and gets confused.) I place the two men far apart, but there is no way of keeping the wives from sitting at the same table. Three senators remain outstanding. I know I shouldn't fret. A Washington cave dweller told me it's an established fact that senators do not accept or refuse invitations until a halfhour before the serving of the soup. This is part of American history.
Our housekeeper tells me we have run out of white wine. She told me last week, but I forgot. She mentions that the tablecloths are shrinking and the flowers, bought yesterday, are drooping. My agent calls from New York and asks for an article I promised her weeks ago.
I walk downstairs and am told that five more people are coming to dinner than expected. We can seat only 32 in the dining room. (It took me six months to figure this out). I toy with the idea of seating the five unexpected guests in the library, but relent and we spread the tables all over the house. I suddenly realise the columnist and the offended statesman are now at the same table.
Then Amelia, the upstairs maid, asks me if I'm really going to give a party with my hair looking like that. I mull over the hair problem and gets confused much the same way I do when Americans ask me about duck shooting in Saskatchewan, salmon fishing in Labrador or about Margaret Trudeau. Not being a sporting type of Canadian, I fudge my hunting and shooting responses and inform them that Margaret is living in Ottawa.
Washingtonians assume that ambassadors and their spouses are busy with something called "the diplomatic circuit" and that I must know every ambassador in Washington. The focus of my husband's interests and, I suppose, mine are "bilateral," not "multilateral," and they say in the language of diplomats. We are interested in the relations between the United States and Canada. Our goal is to cement, encourage or mess up the relationship between our country and the United States. So I rises up and gets confused when I hear the horrified response, "What, you've never been inside the Throbnogian Embassy?" Why on earth would the Throbnogians invite us? They are having their own potato war with the United States. But I am curious to see other embassies because I'm not sure what an embassy should be like. After months of uncertainty, I've now decided that an embassy residence is supposed to have a large clump of dried flowers in the hall, easy-to-reach bathrooms for disoriented guests, fancier curtains than ordinary houses (with loops, swags or overstuffed valences) and an open bar day and night.
My husband is ambassador to the United States -- not only in Washington -- which means he travels to all parts of the country and takes me to places like South Bend and Sacramento. But I rises up and gets confused when I travel. After a rather exhausting 10-day trip last year to many head tables in California, I found myself in an elegant Oriental suite at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco. I thought my husband was meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown in the governor's office somewhere else in San Francisco. ( I never remember to read our programs closely.) I put on my bathrobe and decided to wash all the laundry I had been saving up for San Francisco. Then I padded around in my bare feet, draping stockings and underwear over the handsome Chinese chairs in the sitting room. There was a knock at the door. Two Secret Service men, Gov. Brown and the hotel manager stared at me. One of them said, "we are here to meet with Ambassador Gotlieb. Who are you?" Just then I saw my husband veering around the corner with his people. He looked at me and hissed in my ear. "The meeting is in this room. Get rid of that mess on the chairs and go to the bedroom."
I gracefully swept up the laundry and locked myself in the bedroom. My husband came in and told me to put on a dress and high hells, say hello to the governor and get back in the bedroom. I did as I was told, returned to the bedroom and waited for two hours listening to the men laughing and joking. that's what being an ambasador's wife is like. Oh well, Jerr Brown lost the election.
The most curious thing about being an ambassador's wife is a realization that I should no longer act like a fool, or "be myself" as my family would say. I represent someting other than myself. I'm no longer Sondra Gotlieb, writer, even wife of Allan, but the wife of a country. It's hard being the wife of a country because a country, unlike a husband, is not close enough to give you a kick under the table when you start to say or do something wrong. I'm always afraid that the kick might come afterward, and that it will hurt my husband more than me. If you're the wife of a country, you have to remember that if you do or say something wrong, your country might give you a divorce.