Tag Archives: Switzerland

Retrospective 9: 1971 — Rock Climbing

The year nothing happened. Must be, right? I can’t remember much. I was in Switzerland. We went skiing in the Alps in the winter, and swimming in the lake in the summer. We went camping. We visited Mum’s friends. We traveled too. I forgot to mention the traveling. As part of Dad’s job, he was sent off to conferences all over Europe, and once in the Bahamas, so by the time I was eight I had been to many countries in Europe. We often took the van, a green “RV” that technically slept only four: two adults in a cramped bed converted from a table/bench combo, and two tiny kids in an overhead bunk that jutted over the driver’s seat. But Dad added two more “bunks” on either side of the van, one over the table/bed and another over the sink and stove, and Mum made colorful curtains, and we were off.

It was fun. We stopped at beaches and museums. Rachel’s flipflops got stuck to melting tarmacadam in a big square in Italy, and Dad captured it on old film. We had little folding chairs with our names on the back in black permanent marker, and we slid down big haystacks in a farmer’s sunny field till we were breathless and tired, and then sat in our chairs with our feet dangling in the cool water of a little stream. It was all lovely, though there must have been days when we were tired and grumpy and howled in the rain outside while Mum cooked on the miniature stovetop in the van. Still, I remember those days as joyful.

There was also this, a memory that haunts me, that is real or not, I don’t know. Sometimes I dream of her falling through the air, the flash of her red shoes in the gray air. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it happened or not. The truth is, I remember it, and it follows me.

One day, a year or so ago, Dad asked me, “Do you know why I have a picture of a rock in my photo files? Why would I take that picture? I’ve asked everyone and no one knows.” He’d been scanning old pictures into the computer, and he pulled up the picture in question. I recognized it instantly. “That’s the rock outside the canteen at CERN,” I said. “We used to play on it all the time.”

He knew, as soon as I’d mentioned it, what rock it was. “Yes,” he said. “Of course. I’d forgotten all about that rock.”

I can never forget it. It’s attached to my memories of CERN*, of Dad’s office, and the big underground rooms, and the huge computers, and all the mysterious experiments I sensed but didn’t understand. At lunch we would eat in the canteen, and sometimes we’d have sausages, which I hated — the ghastly bits of gristle sticking to the back of my throat, making me gag, and perhaps the catalyst for my eventual vegetarianism — and then we’d go outside and play on the rock. We’d climb to the top, and look out into the sunshine, and feel on top of the world.

Nothing happened that year.

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*There’s a big article in this month’s National Geographic on CERN. My ex-husband dropped it by for me to take to Dad. “It’s probably all changed,” Dad said, a little sadly. “I probably wouldn’t recognize it any more.”

I just hope the rock is still there.

Retrospective 8: 1970 — Confusion

  • We toss little plastic men with plastic parachutes on fine string off our sixth-floor apartment balcony. They spin and turn as they float to the grass below. Then we clatter down the stairs (the elevators were always broken), and pick them up, and we wrap the string and the parachutes around their bodies as we go back up the stairs. And we do it again and again, a complete aerobic workout, in the breezy summer days of those early years in Switzerland.
  • Who is we? My sisters are younger. Ruth May is still an infant. Perhaps the parachute-throwers are me and my best friend, Genie. She speaks English too, and we have our own private language with which we can torment our friends. We tease them in French, then talk together in English, and they implore, implore us to tell them what we say. She has a cardboard Wendy house, and we paint it bright colors in her living room. Then we pop in and out in crazy games of hide-and-seek, while her round-eyed little brother beats on the roof with a paper towel holder.
  • I am five and inclined to be helpful. I decide to take the trash out one night. I tie the top of the bag and haul it down to the basement, where I heave it into the dumpster. By the time I get back upstairs, in the dark, my mother is frantic. She grabs me. “Where were you?” her voice high with panic. But Dad is home, has just walked in the door, and after she is done with me, he give me five francs. This is the beginning of a pattern that haunts me for the rest of my childhood. When Mum is furious with me, he is nice.

Retrospective 7: 1969 — Stubborn memories

My mother drives her flower-painted moped, and we wave her goodbye. She always turns her bright face back towards us, smiling, waving. And then she is gone.

That is not what I remember. I remember driving in the van out to the country, up a winding road to a farmhouse with a view. It must have been in the foothills of the Alps. The landscape was wide and rich with growth, and I turned around and around to pull it all into my heart. I felt like Heidi or one of the children from The Sound of Music.

I wrote about that time, those memories, here. Nothing has changed. The memories remain stubbornly the same. The man who was bearded and booming-voiced, and who pulled francs out from behind our ears.The wine and picnic baskets in the Alps. Swimming in a blue lake.

But something else intervenes. My baby sister is born, Ruth May, late in the year. My mother says Dad took her hand after the birth, and said, “Don’t worry, dear. The next one will be a boy.” My mother’s response: “Doctor. Tie my tubes!”

And that indeed did happen. Four children in five years was enough for her, four girls, each so different, each so lively and also so needy.

There are more snapshots. My aunt came, Dad’s brother’s ex-wife. She was blond and brassy, with a loud voice, and she filled the apartment. No. Wait. I have mixed her up. She came earlier, when Leah was born, so my mother could go alone to Nashville. No. She came before Leah’s birth, and cared for us when my mother went to Nashville for her mother’s funeral. No. My mother went to Nashville for the funeral, and took Rachel and me, and stood in the airport with her belly growing, feeling desperation. That’s when she went to the doctor to ask for an abortion. Aunt M never came.

But I remember her. I remember snapshots. They might have been taken on the same day, or not. They might be years apart. Aunt M with her commanding voice, and my mother at the airport with us in tow, and Ruth May’s blond wispy hair caught in a flare of sunshine as she reaches her plump hand towards me. I remember all of them, but their relationship to one another, their grounding in time and space, is long lost.

When did it start raining?

Retrospective 6: 1968 — Days without Rain

Snapshots of the early days in Switzerland.

  • I was three for most of 1968. Rachel had diarrhea and exczema and I spent an afternoon running from the bathroom to my mother, carrying clean cotton nappies, and then from my mother to the bathroom with the dirty ones. We couldn’t keep her clean. It was a game for me, helping with Rachel’s nappies. Leah was little and compliant that day and didn’t cry much, and the sun made a square on the floor of the living room. I passed through it over and over again, and marveled.
  • I found a stuffed toy fox in the dumpster underneath the apartments. I climbed into the dumpster and pulled the ragged creature out. Where was my mother? Perhaps I was older than three or four. Time was meaningless in those years. I have only snapshot memories of that time anyway, and they are jumbled up. Still, they were happy times. I took the fox home and Mum sewed it up and washed it and it became mine. I still have it, 40 years later, sitting in my room with my other stuffed animal, a bear, this one 60 years old, my mother’s own childhood toy. None of my sisters wanted him. His button eyes were gone, and his nose, and he had brown coffee stains on his worn yellow pelt, and he wasn’t new and shiny. But I love(d) him, and he and the fox share space on my bedside table.
  • I don’t remember rain in those days.

Getting close

“We’re getting quite close these days,” I said, about my father, to a friend. I would never have predicted that possibility, and it’s happening, as these things always do, at the end, when so little time is left. He tells me about growing up in English boarding schools, always surrounded by boys, about going to Dartmouth Naval Academy at the age of 13, about being in the English Navy. “Maybe,” he says, “That’s why I’ve always found women hard to talk to.”

I type his stories up on my computer, making up his biography so that when he’s gone, we won’t have to rely on silence and fuzzy remembrance of hints dropped in other conversations. I brainstorm questions to ask him. “What’s your favorite book?” “What’s your best memory of Mum?” “What was your worst moment?”

It seems imperative that I do so now, not later. His sister has Alzheimer’s. His memory is going. Something slides away into darkness every time he loses a memory. I want to tell his story. I want to say that he worked in CERN in the late 60s and early 70s, exciting times for physics, that he left there with a glory about him because of the research in which he’d been involved. I want to tell my memories of going down into the depths of CERN, where the underground atom splitters are, and have him fill my memories in with descriptions of what exactly did go on there, in that vast purgatory. I remember an underground room filled with a computer the size of a boat; I remember reams of tractor paper spitting out calculations. I remember puddles of harsh light, and shadows. But perhaps it was all just my own projection, the mystery of what was happening encased in my fear of it. Why be afraid? I want to find out.

“Does anyone know what this picture is?” he asked one day a few months ago. “I’ve asked the others and nobody knows.” He had been scanning old pictures into the computer. I knew immediately. “It’s the rock outside the canteen at CERN,” I said. “We used to climb on it after we’d eaten there.” (I remember sometimes we got little sausages there, and I hated the texture, hard little bits of gristle embedded in the meat. CERN was my first impulse towards vegetarianism.)

His face lit up. “Of course,” he said. “That’s right.”

I am top of the rock, looking out at the building that houses the canteen. Has it changed, I wonder? The old blue Volvo 144 is in the parking lot. The sun shines. In the basement, the computer spits ot its calculations. My father’s  memory wavers.

This weekend, I will ask him. It will be my birthday present to myself.