Swiss hippie days

She sits astride her little moped, white when she bought it, now painted in intricate flower designs. She wears long skirts and flowered tops, and her hair falls straight down to her mid-back, the color of honey.

We arrive in our old green van at someone’s house, out in the country. Rolling hills, wildflowers, a spill of sunshine. A bearded man pulls francs out from behind our ears. We picnic on a white cloth, wicker basket and wine, the taste of strawberries on my tongue. There’s a lake. We swim. My mother is lean and tanned. She smokes with her head back, watching the sky.

We sleep at our friends’ house, in a dim smoky room lit by candles. Someone plays the guitar. His name is Henrich. Ulla, his wife, leans over my father. She has children too. The house is full of people, of tangy smoke, of music.

I don’t understand any of the conversations. I just remember the guitar, the smoke-dimmed candle-light, the people who come and go. Sometimes my dad takes us home. (Is this what I remember, or what is imprinted on my brain from what he told me later?) Sometimes we sleep on the floor, and Dad isn’t there. The music fills the house, singing, laughing, my mother in the centre.

Years later, after she died, my father says, “I couldn’t stand that charade about the medicinal p*t. That’s why I always left the room.” I had always thought he disapproved of her smoking p*t for the chemo nausea. (Prescribed, with a doctor’s note, but illegally gotten because it wasn’t legal to grow it. The doctor sighed, handing it over. “I don’t know where you’ll get it. But it’s legal for you to possess it.” My sister said, “Don’t worry. You live on the beach, after all.”) After he told me that he didn’t disapprove of p*t, though he wasn’t interested in any kind of drugs himself, I realized that his anger was at Mum’s “I’m a junkie now” act. She was no stranger to mood-altering substances. And when I remember back to that time when I was a child, I see her as a hippie, long hair down her back, flowered moped, living half her time in a commune in Switzerland. And everything falls into place.

Her mother had just died — of breast cancer. She went nuts. My father said he spent a lot of time baby-sitting the three (and later four) kids, the two she’d had by another man, and his infant child. My mother got pregnant again, had another child (four in five years). She went to parties at the commune, sometimes stayed there overnight. Sometimes she took us, forming my memories of those smoky rooms. Most of the time she didn’t. Maybe that’s when Dad’s resentment of me began, the child he had met on my mother’s hip as an infant, just before she knew was pregnant with Rachel, when she had just given up trying to work it out with my biological father who, after all, loved ac*d and was freaky crazy.

My father, the steady man, loved her from the instant she showed up at his office door at Vanderbilt, light spilling down over her honey colored hair, me on her hip, asking for a job in his physics lab. She was his lab assistant, and after a while her second daughter was born — my sister Rachel who didn’t meet her father (our father) till she was 17 (Actually it’s more complicated than that, but it’ll have to do).

My mother began seeing my dad, and got pregnant again. Her mother’s cancer got worse. When my father was offered his job in Switzerland, she fled with him to a new country where she didn’t speak the language. She learned French, gave birth to Leah, went home for her mother’s funeral, got pregnant with Ruth May. And in the midst of all of that, she spent half her life with her hippie friends at a place I think of as the commune, while my father babysat us. I see her on her moped, smiling back at us, then sputtering away to the life we didn’t know she had till months after she died.

To be continued…

One response to “Swiss hippie days

  1. Pingback: Retrospective 7: 1969 « Tarakuanyin

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