I squeezed her hand back. “Don’t worry, Helene. I’m always careful.” When her expression failed to lighten, I teased, “Come on. You girls always accuse me of being too cautious, too private. Of only showing you three my true personality. Do you really think I wouldn’t be careful with Mr. Einstein?”
Helene’s worried look lifted, replaced by a smile.
I constantly astonished myself with these girls. Astonished that I had the words to express my long-buried stories. Astonished that I allowed them to see who I really was. And astonished that I was accepted regardless.
April 22, 1897
I nestled into my library carrel. The airy, wood-paneled library at the Polytechnic was full almost to capacity, but still, the room was hushed. The students were quietly worshipping at the altar of one discipline or another, some studying biology or chemistry, others math, and still others physics like myself. Here, buffeted from the world by the carrel, barricaded in by my books, fortified by my own musings and theories, I could almost pretend that I was like every other student at the Polytechnic library.
Spread before me were my class notes, several required texts, and one article from my own collection. They all clamored for my attention, and as if I were selecting among beloved pets, I found it hard to choose to which I would devote my time. Newton or Descartes? Or perhaps one of the newer theorists? The air at the Polytechnic, indeed throughout Zürich itself, felt charged with talk of the latest developments in physics, and I felt like it was speaking directly to me. The world of physics was where I belonged. Embedded in its secretive rules about the workings of the world—hidden forces and unseen causal relationships so complex that I believed only God could have created them—were answers to the greatest questions about our existence. If only I could uncover them.
Occasionally, if I relaxed into my reading and calculations—instead of studying and working so earnestly—I could see the divine patterns I desperately sought. But only in the periphery of my sight. As soon as I turned my gaze directly upon the patterns, they shimmered away into nothingness. Perhaps I wasn’t yet ready to view God’s masterwork head-on. Perhaps in time, he would allow it.
I credited Papa for bringing me to this scintillating threshold of education and curiosity. My only regret was that he still worried about me here in Zürich, both in terms of my future prospects and the safety of my daily living. While I worked hard in my letters to convince him of the abundance of teaching positions for me when I finished, if research should not be my career, and the inviolability of my structured life at school and the pension, I sensed his anxiety through his endless questioning.
Interesting that Mama seemed more comfortable with my current path. After a lifetime bristling against her disapproval of my unorthodox need for education, once I settled into my life in Zürich, she seemed to surrender to my choice, particularly when I started to fill my letters to her with tales of my outings with Ru?ica, Milana, and Helene. In her responses, I saw that Mama delighted in these new friendships. My first friendships.
Mama’s approval wasn’t always so freely given. Until this recent rapprochement, my relationship with her was darkened by her worries over me, her lame, lonely, and unconventional child. And by the impact my thirst for education had on her own life.
On one brisk September afternoon in my birthplace of remote Titel, nearly seven years ago, she didn’t bother to mask her opposition to my decidedly unfeminine path, even though Papa himself propelled it forward, and she rarely challenged him. We were on our pilgrimage to the cemetery where my older brother and sister were buried, the siblings who had died of infant illnesses years before my birth. The wind was fierce, whipping the kerchief around my head. I grabbed the black fabric and held it down tightly, imagining the cluck of Mama’s disapproval should the kerchief fly off, leaving my head exposed while treading on sacred ground. The folds covered my ears, muffling the low, mournful moans of the wind. I was grateful for the quiet, although I knew the wind’s keening befitted our destination.