I was 34 in 1971 and living in Cardiff, Wales when my mother brought her neighbor to meet me. It was a most unlikely meeting. Toni and her husband Ben Volcani were on a nine months sabbatical from the Scripps Institute in California. It was my great good fortune that they rented the house next door to my mother. Toni was then in her late fifties.
When Toni walked into my sitting room I had five little boys under the age of 9 and the twins were still crawling. I had so little time to read or go out or do anything but look after my family, but I could talk to Toni while I did it. Instantly we became friends. She was so interested in all about her. Toni would take a bus up the Valley and sit in a miners’ café to absorb local color. She didn’t like the sanitized life – she was drawn to the Latin countries rather than the clean ones of northern Europe. She was not a woman who shops in Kohls; she would rather rummage in a market.
I saw her often during the coming months – we talked about everything under the sun, and especially people. Toni had worked seven years at the Carl Rogers Institute in San Diego, an early proponent of encounter group work. She introduced me to reading about psychology and all kinds of social studies. She was warm, humorous, compassionate, enquiring, colorful and iconoclastic. She constantly surprised me. At the time we were switching our political allegiance to the Liberal Party. I told her that until then we had always voted Conservative. Her “Oh, really?” converted me in two words for a lifetime. I have never voted Conservative since.
She told me about a scrape her teenage son had got into that had caused them great alarm. “And did you tell him afterwards, don’t do that again?” I asked. “Oh, what would be the point?” she said, “He’d never want to do that again.”
Modesty was her strong suit. I knew that Toni had been a journalist in Israel, a jazz singer in New York, a writer and so on, but I didn’t know much detail. These vignettes had come up in conversation. She came with Ben to dinner before they went back to the States and my husband was talking about a book we had read the year before: “Do you know Steinbeck’s The Sea of Cortez?” he asked. “Oh yes, said Toni, I edited it.” How many people would have neglected to mention during nine months of conversation that they were Steinbeck’s editor for many years?
Toni told me she had met John Steinbeck by chance after she’d walked out on her first husband together with her two year old daughter in a buggy. They were talking by the beach in southern California. He was living and writing there, and had a friend nearby called Ed Ricketts (who features as Doc in Cannery Row). Steinbeck invited Toni and her daughter Kay to shelter that night with him and subsequently to work for him as his assistant and editor, and soon Toni moved to live with Doc. She stayed there until her daughter, who had a brain tumor, died aged twelve. Toni then left and went to live and work in New York.
Toni had met Ben, a marine biologist, when he visited Ed in his laboratory. Ben had come from Israel, where he’d been raised (born in Estonia). The Volcani Institute in Israel was named after Ben‘s father, an agricultural scientist. When Ben came to America he had an introduction from Ben Gurion to meet Einstein, and he told a wonderful story about talking with Einstein in his study, speculating about the number of birds that were in the forest visible from Einstein’s house. He did a quick calculation on a piece of paper and told Ben the result, then tossed it into the waste paper bin. Ben regretted leaving it there. Ben was a natural raconteur and a charismatic character. I loved him too. He would talk to anybody and hear their life story within minutes. Ben was working at the Tenovus Cancer Research Institute in Cardiff during his sabbatical.
I was bereft when they went home to the States. We corresponded throughout the years at intervals. I kept all her letters and she kept mine. We explored so many themes in those pages. While I was limited by my responsibilities and lack of money, Toni could think and travel freely. Her lack of arrogance, her humor, her perception and intuition shone beams of light into my shaded world. Her insight and grasp of political issues illuminated current events. Her dismissal of small minded people was a tonic. Only once did I display a talent Toni lacked. She had a skirt that needed hemming and I tacked it as we chatted. Toni said that since childhood when she was forced to sew until her pricked fingers bled, she had been unable to sew. In every other aspect I learned from Toni.
Every Christmas until they grew up Toni and Ben sent gifts to the children. That was more than their relatives did. Five children are overwhelming to most people, but Toni knew that every individual needs recognition. She knew every child and his personality. She taught me the importance of choosing gifts specifically to reflect the character of the recipient. They made a special connection with John Paul, my second son, who was seven then; today JP is forty five and has a teenage son named Ben.
Every time they came to Europe in the following years, Toni came to see me, even when we lived in west Wales, a five hour journey from London by train. On that visit Ben joined us after a couple of days. He went up to the University of Wales by himself and walked along a corridor in the science department. A lecturer stopped him and asked who he was. “I’m Ben Volcani,” he answered. “The Ben Volcani?” “Yes.” The lecturer called a colleague and they talked happily. I said to Ben, “Telephone them and invite them to dinner.” Ben did so and we sat quietly enjoying their conversation over roast beef at our dining table. Ben was delighted at this connection.
Each meeting was a joy, and the highlight of my year.
Of all the things Toni taught me, the most important was: it’s OK to say “No.”
She also urged me “not to take crap from anyone”. I had married in 1962 and the times had taught me to defer to my husband, to adapt and support and live for others. I had been brought up to be good, accommodating and selfless. I’d been taught nothing about asserting my own interests, or even identifying them. The women’s movement didn’t come to Britain until the early seventies. I joined a class on The Changing Role of Women in 1973, after which my husband used to say, “You were a good wife until you went to that class.” As things got increasingly uncomfortable in our marriage, Toni uniquely urged me to consider what I wanted. It wasn’t easy.
In 1979 my brother, who had visited Toni and Ben during his trips to the States on business, urged me to go and see them for a holiday, as I needed a change of scene. In the two weeks I spent in La Jolla with Toni and Ben, I decided that my life had to change radically because I was heartily sick of it. I saw people happily living and conversing without any of the strains I felt heaped upon my shoulders. Toni counseled me during that holiday. I began to make the changes that would eventually bring freedom. Without Toni I would never have had the courage, or permission, to choose my own life.
Toni died a couple of years ago. I had last seen her when I visited her in La Jolla in 2001 with my second husband, and met her son for the first time. On his wall was a photograph of a woman so beautiful, I asked if she was a film star. He told me “That was Toni when she was young.” He’s a psychiatrist specializing in helping young people, and as charming and attractive as Toni had led me to believe.
At some time after Ben died, Toni moved into her son’s home in the last few years, physically frail, but mentally strong. He emailed me one day to say that Toni was failing, and if I wanted to talk to her I should telephone that day. I did so, but she had just passed away. I told him, “It’s all right. Toni and I had said everything we needed to. She knew how much I loved her.” I weep still, to think how much I miss her. I loved her more than anybody in the world beyond my immediate family.
An extract from Toni’s obituary in the San Diego Union-Tribune described her thus:
“Mrs. Volcani, a professional writer and editor known for her profound appreciation of life, died April 6 at Cloisters of La Jolla. She was 95. As much as anything Mrs. Volcani’s legacy is tied to the men in her life: her father, Theodore Solomons, who helped discover and define the John Muir Trail; her one-time boss, author John Steinbeck; and her second husband, renowned microbiologist Ben Volcani.”
My brother used to say that when Toni and Ben came to see me, it was like flamingos alighting on a duck pond. But Toni made me feel like a flamingo.