Tra la, it’s here, the lusty month of May! That lovely month—when I never go astray. Annually, I post a song from the musical Camelot on social media, switching between the Julie Andrews and Vanessa Redgrave versions. I remember playing the album of the 1960 musical, seeing the 1967 movie, and being besotted by all the major stars and their voices.
We lived in North Carolina when the movie came out. My parents took us to see it as well as a traveling stage production performed on base. I fell in love with the stage Lancelot. Dear Lancelot. The purity of his heart deceived him when couldn’t stop himself from loving King Arthur’s queen in a manner inappropriate for a vassal.
As we exited the dark theater into daylight, I sighed and expressed my love for Lance. “Wasn’t he handsome?” I said.
“But he was bald,” my mom said.
But what did that matter? He was Lancelot! And, like my dad, a military man.
In North Carolina, we lived in a neighborhood close to Andrews AFB where Dad was stationed. Fort Bragg, the largest Army base in the country overshadowed it. One of our neighborhood streets dead-ended where the army training fields began, and we loved watching the soldiers, tanks, and heavy guns traveling between training fields and base, churning up clouds of the pink dust from the red Carolina soil.
Both bases swarmed with young men in uniform. We, as military brats, lived in a world disproportionately populated with men. Uniforms, youth, and vitality surrounded us. Meanwhile, news of Vietnam battlefields and war protests from around the country raged on TV and in the papers. And my best friend’s father came home from the war in a coffin. The last year we lived in North Carolina, we lived without my dad, who was serving a year tour of duty in Vietnam.
For most, Camelot will forever be associated with the Kennedy presidency. But for me, it will always be tied to red clay dust and the Vietnam War, when I learned to gaze at the human race aghast.
Several months after I finished graduate school, I cleared out my apartment, giving treasures away, boxing up what I wanted to keep, and selling the rest at a yard sale. Not that I’d owned much, but possessing less felt refreshing, and I recalled a former roommate who owned only what he could pack into his green 1969 Rambler. I also recalled his favorite possession, something I’d found for him at a yard sale, a coffee machine with a clock. He could set it to brew minutes before his alarm went off. He’d step out of his room, hot coffee waiting. Another roommate in that same house had worked as a seamstress for the San Francisco Opera Company. She’d bring home sacks of clothing she’d harvested from the overstuffed racks at Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul’s. Elbow deep in castoffs, she’d rip apart seams and reshape the old, removing bulky shoulder pads, shortening hems, or adding borders reminiscent of Seminole patchwork patterns. Sometimes, she’d tie-dye her cotton finds—or reverse-dye them.
Much of what I sold at my yard sale had been bought at yard sales. I prized a 1920’s floor lamp which a pleated silk shade. The owners had been given it as a wedding present, and they sold it to me with tears in their eyes. They were being moved into a retirement facility, downsizing. I’d transformed other pieces—a table, coffee table, and sideboard—with licks of paint and stencil work. We didn’t use the term “upcycling” then, but that was what I was doing. When I cleared out my apartment, I gave away my stenciled furniture to a friend who’d admired my work.
Sadly, the Swiss don’t hold yard sales. And they don’t really do bargains. Certainly not like North Americans do. The rare “flea markets” come closest to our yard sales, but the best places to find secondhand treasures in the German-speaking parts of Switzerland are the Brokis. The prices in these thrift shops would shock any bargain-hunting North American, but I’ve made peace with them. Had to.
When furnishing our first apartment, my husband and I trawled the Brokis. We found a pair of handmade beds made of Arve, Swiss pine. Most likely, they’d originated in the Alps. My father-in-law, an amateur furniture maker, claimed the set to be the handiwork of someone skilled but not professional. When we moved to France, we adopted most of the furniture that’d belonged to my husband’s grandmother. The family had planned to haul it all to their local Brocki until we stepped in. The grandmother’s father had been a furniture maker, and the household of furniture had been his wedding gift. Giggling like pirates, Markus and I made off with a booty: the dining and main bedroom sets. Solid oak.
Other treasures we’ve gleaned from Brokis include four paintings. Two were painted by artists renowned for their work as graphic designers, W. F. Burger, of a view to the Italian border on Lago di Lugano and a 1945 pastoral scene by Arthur Emil Bofinger. One is by K. Jordi, a skilled watercolorist I find no online information about, and another is a naïve work of a WWI German war scene. The naïve piece could hang in the Museum of Bad Art; nevertheless, I love it.
I’m certain former owners would be surprised to find their old treasures in my possession. Who knows where each will find themselves next? And our daughter in Los Angeles? She can’t wait to trawl LA’s secondhand shops with us.
If only you could focus. If you’d only concentrate.
A child sits shackled to a classroom desk. A heating pipe pings and plonks, becoming either water torture or a lure. The child examines the pipe. Discovering it’s a tunnel, she crawls inside. It takes her down, below the floor, through dark corridors, and under ground. She emerges in a leafy woods, where, through the trees, she sees a procession of people dressed in black, the men in sleek-black top hats and the women in long skirts, their heads adorned in feathers. They follow a black carriage, windowed and lit and encasing a coffin. Black horses with trembling plumes on their heads pull the carriage. The driver gentles their reins. The animals see the child. One calls her name. Panicked by being spotted, she runs back to the tunnel, slipping under ground and up dark corridors. Her name’s called again. She’s gasping for breath, and before she reaches her seat, there’s laughter. The teacher’s hand presses itself white-knuckled on the child’s desk. Her name is called again—as sharply as the whack of a ruler.
If only you could focus. If you’d only concentrate.
A window beckons. Outside, the wind is up. A hedge of bushes and trees, bright green with spring growth, sways. The new leaves twinkle as if they’re daytime stars, and the branches beckon. A corner of the window peels back to reveal a carpet, which she settles upon. Closing her eyes, she leans back. The air is fresh, uplifting. She smiles. Below, far, far below, there’s laughter. The carpet hovers. She hears a name, her name, a whack—
If only you could focus. If you’d only concentrate.
Beneath her desk, a crack in the floor catches the sole of her shoe. She presses against the crack, and it slides open, a draft of salty air enveloping her. Seagulls scream, and waves slap against a breakwater. A galleon’s docked. Against the wishes of her teacher, who insists she to pay closer attention in class, she climbs aboard. She may sail to parts unknown, and be wrecked upon an island like Robinson Crusoe. Unlike him, won’t seek company or a return to society. She’ll make a life for herself on the island. The only Friday she needs falls at the end of the week. Today might be Friday.
If only you could focus. If you’d only concentrate.
If only you could focus. If you’d only concentrate.
Friday. The child is given assignments for the weekend. Some are okay, maybe, but the math assignments clink like chains. Never mind. Chains remind her of bikes, which takes her out the family compound, up a narrow alley stinking of open benjos, past farmyards with crowing roosters, murmuring ducks, and bellowing water buffalo. She pedals past a wooden hay cart pulled by a Brahman cow and slips between glinting rice paddies. A solitary Buddhist temple, its roof of tiles glazed in a rainbow of colors and adorned with wings of dragons glimmers. And through a copse of pines, she pushes her bike along a boardwalk. The beach. The South China Sea. Waves sweep ashore. Kids swimming in the surf call her into the water where she just may swim around the world.
Who says this girl cannot focus, cannot concentrate? Look at how far she travels. Look at how far she’s come.
Why not feed curiosity?Free the wandering mind?Followthe urge to explore?
Our three kids were born in Switzerland. When they were little, we’d remind them they were US citizens. Over the years, we took them on trips to the States, visits to family in Oregon and Texas, my old school friends in Colorado and Minnesota, and my niece in San Francisco. New York City. We often flew into one part of the country and out another, making our trips between arrival and departure points long, scenic, and filled with as many national parks as possible. We saw places I’d never seen growing up, like the Grand Canyon. I’d never visited it, although I’d lived in Arizona as a child. We even showed the kids Las Vegas. As we drove through desert landscapes, I’d insist on turning off the air conditioning. Down came the car windows. “This is how I experienced these desert drives as a child,” I told them. “With tangled hair. Dry heat is not so miserable if the air’s flowing.” Up to a point.
Our point being 111° Fahrenheit, 43° Celsius.
The kids experienced storms in the deserts and saw fresh evidence of flash flooding—how destructive it can be. On one trip, we went from the savage heat of Death Valley to a surprisingly chilly coast shrouded in fog, the two zones separated by the golden rolling hills of California.
As the kids finished their studies, I suggested they experience the States for themselves. “Try working there.” Temporarily, I meant. “You each have a US passport. Take advantage of it. Any Swiss employer will jump at the chance to send a Swiss-trained employee to work in the US free from bureaucratic aggravation.” Spare a company the hassle and expense of sponsorship, the visa lottery, or a green card? What a dream!
Unless they lived in the States for a minimum of five years, they couldn’t pass their US citizenship to their children. Not that their kids needed to be US citizens. Or the obligation to file US tax returns even if they aren’t living in the US, never have, and maybe never will.
Our eldest said, “To me, the States is just vacationland.” She talked to her US cousins and discovered that US working conditions compared unfavorably to European conditions. Issues with vacation, health care, and maternal leave abound. General conditions don’t compare well, either. And what about quality of life, purchasing power, and education? Plus, explosive issues like climate and violence and divisions—political, racial, religious, social, gender, and justice—complicate any draw to living in the States.
Too, let’s be aware: We should all be traveling less, making as few flights as possible, long- or short-haul.
As I’ve aged, I’ve realized that I don’t want the kids to live in the US—for personal reasons. I don’t want to be obliged to return there. And the time when my husband and I cannot make the trip is approaching sooner than we’d like to think. Should our kids start families, we want to be easily accessible. Helpful.
But now it’s happened. Our eldest grabbed an unexpected opportunity to make a career move within her company and relocate to Los Angeles. The City of Angels called to her readiness for adventure.
When I told a friend, another US citizen living in Europe, of my daughter’s decision to relocate, she said, “Why? Moving to the States now is like running into a burning house.” Ah, yes, but my husband and I saw perfection in this chance and the location. Los Angeles will suit our eldest—maybe a bit too well, but that’s another issue.
As she prepared to move, limiting herself to taking what she could pack into two suitcases and two carry-ons, I found myself nearly as excited as she was. When family and friends expressed concern for me—“How are you doing/taking/seeing this?”—I’d smile, shake my head, and wave away the question. This wasn’t about me. It’s about her. Contract signed; flight, rental car, and accommodations booked; possessions given away, sold, or stored with us; final meetings and outings with work colleagues, friends, and family; time for inner balance, dance courses, runs along the Rhine, and yoga: I watched her wrap up her affairs with pride. No tears. Never a tear. No reason to cry. This is what parenting is about, giving a child the confidence to be a Self. Her move has the stamp of success all over it. Right?
The morning of her departure. I’d shed no tears. But, in all honestly, wasn’t shedding a tear or two the right way to react? Worry set in. Of course, I’d moved so often growing up that I felt cured in departures. Dried out before I’d reached my eldest daughter’s age—when I’d moved from the States to Europe. Did all this make me immune to my own daughter’s departure?
We drove her to the airport and stayed with her to baggage drop-off—a thankfully long, long line—her enthusiasm keeping us laughing. Her sister showed up, and together we walked to the area restricted to passengers with boarding passes. She grabbed me in a joyful, enthusiastic hug. Let the adventures begin, I thought.
A few weeks back, I spent a Sunday morning among a group of writers, most of them familiar to me, most of them members of the Writers and Illustrators of Zurich group. At one point, a woman joining us for the first time made a statement about how we all needed to learn how to say no more often. I sat up.
The argument for setting personal boundaries is not new to me, but it is an idea that passes me by. The woman spoke in general terms, of course, and I suppose most of us listening to her would have felt the urge to agree. In fact, several did, nodding their agreement. When someone makes a general statement that doesn’t relate to me or concern me, I usually say nothing. This time, however, I spoke up. I said, “Actually, I’m someone who struggles to say yes.”
Like getting out of the house that very morning to join the group for coffee and a chat—up until I purchased my ticket on the train app, I’d argued with myself about going or staying home.
The woman’s statement came across as something of a place setter—not quite phatic speech, but working in that direction, meant to be heard and agreed upon but not necessary chewed upon. I immediately felt awkward for having voiced disagreement. So, I did my usual thing, making light of my injection. I recounted the story of my daughter once saying to me, “Yes is also a word!” (I’ve never restricted a liberal application of no to myself.)
Several in the group kindly laughed.
The conversation moved on.
But I stayed in thought.
How often do we view the world and assume that those around us share our vision? How often do we ask ourselves what others might see from a vantage point we share? How often do we ask what others see? And why does it take guts to do so?
Ah, there I go: It takes guts for me to ask what others might see from the same vantage points. Perhaps the person next to me finds such a task easy. Or even pleasant.
A few years ago, when the kids were still little—well, more than a few years ago—I worked Mondays at a friend’s daycare center, which she ran out of her home, just down the street from where we lived. Even though I enjoyed working there, I struggled every Monday to get out the door and down the street. After all, getting out the door is always a form of saying yes.
One morning, an icy rain fell. Looking at the weather, I dreaded going outside. Going to work. No matter the weather, we took our toddlers and babies for long walks at least once a day, sometimes, if they were particularly rambunctious, twice a day. There was no way to keep the children or us dry and warm in such weather, but we never skipped our walks. On that rainy morning, I scurried to the daycare center, got out of my layers of clothes, and made my way into the living room. My friend’s daughter stood by a sliding glass door, her hips swinging. She heard me, turn, and grinned. She danced a little and said, “It’s raining! It’s raining! Don’t you just love the rain?
At that moment, warmed by the radiance of a happy child, I felt the love for rain. I saw it from her eyes, and after that day, I never struggled to get to the daycare again.
This morning, a young woman asked writers on Twitter how they coped in winter. Her “writer’s brain” needed daylight, she said. I wrote a message back to her saying that I cope very well in winter. I get up early and love working before the sun rises. The comfort I find in darkness helps me focus.
Perhaps it’s safe to assume that most people prefer long days to short ones. Find setting boundaries more challenging than expanding them. And don’t dance for joy at the sight of a cold, rainy day. But perhaps it’s not safe to assume any of these things.
All through my childhood, fall meant the end of summer. The end of T-shirts and shorts, bare feet and flip-flops. The end of running through sprinklers and swimming in ponds or pools. The end of long days, short nights.
Fall meant the beginning of school, which put me among too many noisy people. Ask me to concentrate in the classroom battlefield environment? Forget it. Ask me to do schoolwork at home in my free time? Torture. Who didn’t prefer being outside with friends or inside, reading books, playing with Matchbook cars, or watching TV? I attended three different elementary schools, one in North Carolina, Ohio, and Taiwan. They were all the same. Well, Taiwan differed in one way: the absence of fall. I didn’t miss it.
In Denver, I attended one of the most experimental junior high schools in the country. Students were treated as agents in their studies. In most of the classes, the learning material came in plastic tubs. Laminated sheets filled each tub. Each sheet; a lesson in history, English, or algebra. Finish a lesson, and move on to the next. Complete as many as you could in fifty minutes. If you had questions, ran into trouble, or fell behind, the teacher or an assistant would help you. No teacher stood at the front of the room, barking at us. Students worked quietly. And in this peaceful environment, I could immerse myself in my lessons. Self-management came easier to me than taking orders. And if a heating pipe pinged or a fluorescent light crackled, I didn’t notice.
In other classes, we sat in circles, the teacher joining us like King Arthur at the Round Table. Discussions replaced listen-and-repeat teaching methods. Our thoughts, experiences, and curiosity about subjects were welcome. We felt invested in subject matters—we felt as if we mattered.
I thrived in the Denver school. Unfortunately, we moved at the end of one year. Oregon returned me to that familiar and untenable structure of hierarchy and bullying. My grades fell back to their pre-Denver, you’re-not-touching-me levels. My sister begged to be allowed to attend community college and sit the GED exams. A great idea—I wanted to be included. Dad shook his head. “And miss the best fun of your lives?” he said.
The best fun of my life followed high school graduation. My entry into college felt like a return to the Denver school where I could manage myself. At first, I failed. I’d forgotten how. But I figured it out.
It’s taken me decades to recover from the sinking, end-of-summer feeling that fall always gave me. First, I learned to smile at the joy it brought so many people. Then I allowed myself to appreciate some of its charms: the morning sun shining through golden tree crowns, the wind blowing a murmuration of leaves across a trail, and the glitter of an early frost at sunrise.
Small changes to my life have finally endeared fall to me. The installation of a tiled stove, a Kachelofen, in our main living space is one. When temperatures drop below 13°, I build morning fires. The heat is absorbed by the stove’s tiles, which in turn radiate it. Touch the Kachelofen hours after the coals have burned to ash, and it’s as warm as a cat. For the love of flickering flames and radiant heat, I now look forward to the colder seasons.
Another change came with the pandemic forcing Markus and me to work from home. We began taking 15–minute walks. Being outside so often, we experienced the sun’s movements—not just the length of day changing through the seasons, but the tracking of the sunrises and sunsets along the horizon and back again. We experienced temperature fluctuations and weather changes: daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonally. As we made our walks, trees leafed out, flowers blossomed, fruits and crops ripened. Seed-carrying fluff drifted on breezes. On the neighboring farm, cows calved, and ducklings hatched. Swifts returned, paired, and raised their young. Now, starlings chatter in the treetops, preparing to migrate.
October has slipped into November. The forested hills around us broke out in reds, yellows, and browns. Deciduous trees shed their nuts and leaves. At the local farm store, pumpkins and bottles of apple cider appeared on the shelves. In all of this, I’m learning to appreciate that fall has its place. It makes sense.
This morning, I lit a fire to warm the Kachelofen. The flames flickered. I worked at my desk, and the day broke. Outside my window, yellow and brown hazelnut leaves carpet the lawn. A very fat mouse slips in and out of its burrow beneath the tree’s ivy-covered bole—which looks more like a cluster of saplings rising from an ivy plinth. The mouse skips over rocks and leaf litter. It returns with its foraging finds. Frosts are on their way. Soon, while I work, cozied by my winter fire, the fat mouse will be hibernating. I’ll keep watch on the world, working at my desk and padding barefoot around our warm house until Markus and I lace up for our walk, off to see the world safely through to winter and then spring.
When my parents married in the mid-fifties, Mom took Dad’s family name, Wadley. Each of us three kids carried Wadley into adulthood. My brother’s wife took our name when she married into the family, but my sister and I each shed it.
I had considered keeping mine. I’d known enough women who’d held on to their family names to feel eyes upon me, and I even preferred my family name to my husband’s. Hyphenating the two hadn’t appealed: they didn’t pair up well. My husband’s name didn’t pair well with my first name, either. Still, I reckoned, no one had asked me what name I’d wanted, and at a pivotal moment, I had a choice. Okay, so I got to choose one man’s name over another’s—but still. I took the new name.
The two of us paired as comfortably as our names, it turned out. Following our divorce, I returned to Wadley, entered graduate school, and began publishing short stories under my father’s name. One of my stories won a big contest judged by Ursula Le Guin.
I finished school and planned an extended backpacking trip throughout SE Asia. As a child, I’d loved living in Asia and longed to experience it as an adult, thinking I might just stay and work there a few years. Maybe work my way around the globe, ending up in Europe. I liked Europe. Felt it would be a safe place to grow old. Just before packing up, I met this Swiss guy traveling around the States with a friend. He had loose plans to travel in SE Asia, too, and we agreed to meet in Bangkok. That meet-up resulted in lifelong love, marriage, and three great kids—and a shortcut to a life lived in Europe.
On our travels, we decided to marry and settle in Kaiserstuhl, Switzerland, where he’d grown up and where most of his family lived. Again, I took my husband’s name. We were an expecting couple, and I figured our child’s life would be easier if I carried a Swiss name—a common Swiss name, no less. We visited the town’s registrar to put our marriage in our Familiebüchlein, our “family book”—my name being officially recorded as Suter geb. Wadley, Suter née Wadley. In the phone book, my maiden name went into parentheses, but it was there. The link remained.
A few years ago, I set out to renew my Swiss passport. The use of hyphenated names had fallen out of use and despite all my protests, I lost Suter-Wadley. Why did a functioning wheel get fixed, I wondered. In my American documents, I kept my hyphenated name, but Americans don’t read it as a German-speaker would. To them, the hyphen signifies that I was born a Suter and married a Wadley. Tja. For years on social media, I flipped the hyphenated surnames to accommodate an American sensibility, but I simply confused people and stopped.
When I began writing short stories after a long hiatus, it seemed natural to return to the name I’d earlier published under, Meredith Wadley.
So that’s me. I can be Meredith Wadley, Meredith Suter-Wadley, Meredith Suter, and the odd Meredith Wadley-Suter.
II. The Forename
My first name can be pronounced in two or three syllables. Growing up, whenever I heard my name in three beats, I knew to disappear. The assurances that I’d earlier made about not having any homework had been exposed as a lie; the plate I’d broken and shoved into a drawer had been discovered; or the mussed coif of my sister’s doll—which was off-limits—had tattled on me. Or maybe there was some chore I’d skipped doing?
To this day, Mere-dith sounds happy-go-lucky, and Mer-ah-dith sound damning.
My family sometimes used the single-beat Mere—pronounced “mare.” Some friends picked that up, too. I didn’t mind. At school, teachers would ask on Day One what I “preferred” to be called. I never asked them to use Mere, and they immediately fell into the two-beat/three-beat, friendly/scolding usage pattern. Inserting that third syllable heightens any dramatic slowing down of pronunciation.
Many people struggle to spell my first name. I’ll see Maridith, Merideth, Meridith, or Merrydith. Some ignore the “dith” and go straight to Mary. My name does not fall easily on German-Swiss ears. If I try saying it the way I pronounce it, confusion registers on Swiss faces. I quickly learned to resort to their way of pronouncing my name, either Mare-eh-deet (hard “t”) or the attempt at a softer pronunciation, Mare-eh-dees. When the Swiss think they’re correctly pronouncing the “th” sound, I hear an “s.”
Sometimes, I have to break down my name, explaining, Mein Vorname ist wie «Edith» [pronounced eh-deet] mit «Meer» als Vorsilbe. Meer-Edith. “It’s like Edith,” I’ll say, using the German pronunciation, “with Meer as a prefix.” The breakdown usually draws a smile. It’s a tweak of fate that the German noun dasMeer means “the sea” in English, and Meredith is anglicized Celtic for Sea Lord.
When expecting my first child, I briefly considered putting Philomena on my list of girl names. I imagined calling a daughter Philly to my Mere. But—if I were to have a son, would I name him Colt? And what would be my options for names should a third or fourth child came along? Ryder? Buck?
Years later, as I was teaching Helena and Calvin and Celeste to be riders, I sure felt relieved that I hadn’t saddled my firstborn with a name like Philly—leaving any consideration of Colt, Ryder, and Buck in the dust.
Recently, I read a letter my dad had written to me in 1968, during his Vietnam tour. In it, he mentioned how happy he was to be coming home soon, and he asked if I was excited about our upcoming move to Cincinnati. At the time, we were living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a mile from Fort Bragg and Pope Field (where my dad had been stationed), and moving was part of our lives.
The military culture I grew up in was about disruption—not roots. My friends were all military like me, coming and going, and we adapted, realizing friendships fast. The year Dad served in Vietnam, I had five different first-grade teachers. The first four were military wives, three moving away before the end of the school year, and one losing her husband in Vietnam just before the summer break. The last was pulled from retirement to teach us, and she was a firm believer in corporeal punishment. To this day, I can feel the sting of a wooden ruler being smacked across my open palm.
I have no single memory of being sad to leave friends behind. My parents practiced the art of keeping us looking forward. They’d hype up a destination. Dad usually enthused about the new house and school while Mom dove into the new destination’s history, filling us in on just what kind of place we’d be settling into.
I live in Switzerland, now. I’ve settled in my husband’s hometown, a medieval micro city with a bridge linking it to Germany, a watchtower, and stone townhouses; population 400 strong. Located close to a commercial airport, the town gets overflights. At one point, a local group campaigned to cut back the flight load. They claimed, among other things, that the air traffic was harmful to kids. A television news crew rolled into town. They saw a bunch of children playing—my three among them—and asked about the planes. “What planes?” the children cried, their eyes traveling skywards. I laughed when my kids told me about the news crew: for a great chunk of my childhood, I lived within spitting distance of runways, and I have a single memory of plane noise. We were in Fayetteville, playing outside, when a pilot broke the sound barrier. We cheered. The memory of that window-rattling kerpow! still fills me with joy.
This August, my husband and I flew to Central Texas, to the town where my grandparents settled after retiring, and where my mom moved, several years after my dad’s death, in 1990, to look after them. She’d left Oregon—a place she loved—fully intent on returning, but by the time my grandmother passed, at age 102, Mom had settled in Texas. Another move did not interest her. My brother, who’d relocated himself Eastern Oregon after retirement, coaxed Mom into a return to Oregon.
The bulk of the moving operation involved preparation. My brother, his wife and kids, and my sister and her daughter did all that. Markus and I arrived in Central Texas to oversee the packing of Mom’s household goods, tick off a short list of final errands, and drive Mom’s car—packed with orchids, which themselves had gone through many moves—up to the small university town of La Grande.
For nearly a week, Markus and I had the Texas house to ourselves.
It felt surreal being on our own in that town. And the closer we got to the end of that leg of our journey, the more sentimental I began to feel about how much of my life had been tied to the place. It’d been a part in my life for circa sixty years.
When Mom had first settled back in Texas, she bought a house a ten-minute walk from my grandparents’ house, a place they’d built post-retirement. We all loved to hate that little town, and my husband and our kids never made sense of it. Its layout cannot be beat for strangeness—and I’ve been to and lived in a lot of towns. On one family trip to Texas, Helena’s boyfriend refused to use turn lanes, crazed by how they ran down the middle of road, serving both directions of traffic. I insisted he use them. When in Texas, drive like a local, or you may end up festooned upon a V8 pickup’s grille guard.
On this last trip to Texas, I wrestled with my sentiments for the town I hated. Should I stop by my grandparent’s old house one more time before leaving? Drive by the church they attended and I detested (and still feel all that emotion in my marrow)? Markus pestered me about stopping into the cowboy supply store we’d always visited with the kids, the manager shouting, “Well, hello, Switzerland!” as soon as we walked through the door. No. What was Boot City to just the two of us? We packed Mom’s car and left town our final time, heading west before turning north. I watched the familiar scenery rolling by and wondered if I’d ever see it again in my life.
I may go back about five generations in Texas territory, but I’m no part of it. No insider. No Texan. I can remember family gatherings at my grandparents and feeling like a stranger among cousins. I used to tell myself that I’d never have kids unless I could raise them among family. Give them roots. I’ve done just that. Outside of living five years in France—which thankfully gave everyone a feel for what I’d experienced growing up and being an immigrant—we’ve lived in my husband’s hometown. His sister is our neighbor, and a brother lives a three-minute walk away.
Growing up, I was always an outsider to everything I am. As an immigrant adult, I still am. I don’t know any other way to live. Without family with roots in Switzerland, I would be awfully tempted to return to Oregon, myself.
As day breaks this morning, I’m tempted to build a fire. Overall, it’s been a cool, wet summer. I’ve been into the Rhine only once for a swim, and if the weather improves this month, I won’t benefit; I’ll be away.
The last cold, wet summer we experienced was in 2000, the year we were returning to Switzerland from living in France. The kids were little. We planned on seeing some sights on our drive back, camping along the way. We delayed our departure repeatedly, hoping for a break in the weather. The break never came, so we made the 6.5–hour shot straight, from Limay to Kaiserstuhl. Markus would return solo to oversee the packing up of our goods.
We were to move into an old, rambling farmhouse up the street from my in-laws. It was supposed to be a temporary base—until we found a place of our own to buy. We stayed for eight years. The plastic veneer on the kitchen cabinets was brittle and breaking off. The oven didn’t work. The basement flooded regularly; we insisted on the installation of a pump. And the walls and ceilings were nicotine-stained; I suspected the paint to be lead-based. At least my brother-in-law (mayor at the time) had insisted on the installation of a new bathroom suite before our arrival. The house had been left recently to the City of Kaiserstuhl, and we were their first tenants. The city’s forestry crew occupied the attached barns and old milk parlor. They were good but sometimes noisy neighbors.
I insisted on a working oven. When the city director, who’d occupied the house before us, approved my request, I baked him a cake, using my mother-in-law’s oven and enjoying a morning visit with her. I presented the cake to the director, and he said, “Oh, so the old oven does work!” He’s a bit of a twitch, that man.
When I insisted the stained walls be painted, the councilwoman in charge of the property told me I should give them a proper scrub.
On a pre-move visit to Kaiserstuhl from France, I engaged my father-in-law to help me establish a kitchen garden. He tilled the soil, and we planted Swiss chard, potatoes, snow peas, runner beans, carrots, zucchini, sweet corn, pattypan, acorn squash, pumpkins, and crookneck squash. He tended everything until the day we moved in. In the cool, wet weather, and under his mastery, a vigorous garden awaited our arrival.
When I first moved to Switzerland, I adored how the grocery stores stocked little more than local and seasonal fruits and vegetables. Many vegetables were unfamiliar to me, and I couldn’t find one of my favorites, astonishingly: Swiss chard! There wasn’t any kale around, either, which I did not miss—having already OD’d on kale (I’ve never recovered). I discovered fennel, which I adore roasted.
Many vegetables familiar to me weren’t available: sweet corn and my favorite summer and winter squashes. My mom sent me packets of seeds. One day, my grocery store had pattypan and acorn squash for sale as “decorative gourds.” I bought and ate them all. Nowadays, sweet corn, pumpkins, and Swiss chard are readily available. Kale, too. Helena and Celeste love it! And nowadays, as in the States, many fruits and vegetables are available year-round. They’re flown in from ports all over the globe. I’m not suggesting this is a good thing.
In the first five years of marriage and living in Kaiserstuhl—before our five-year stint in France—Markus and I rented a garden plot from a retired carpenter, Herr Winzenger. Two fingers on his right hand were missing two digits; as a young man, he’d sawed them off. “Threw them to the dogs,” he said, “who snapped them from the air.” He got himself down to the doctor, a five-minute walk into town. “Doc asked for my fingers, to sew ’em back on. ‘Too late,’ I told ’im, ‘the dogs got ’em.’” Herr Winzenger would watch us tending our patch of vegetables and chuckle. “You never stop learning,” he’d say, shaking his head. I adored the man.
Recently, we attended the funeral of a longtime Kaiserstuhl resident and the mother of my brother-in-law’s wife. She’d also been our first landlady. A kind and generous woman, she’d helped me feel welcome—less of an outsider. In contrast, our neighbors across the street would greet me only when Markus was present. When he wasn’t around, they ghosted me. Toddler Helena would stand on our balcony, wave at them, and call, “Hoi, Zämme! Hoi, Zämme! Hoi, Zämme!” The pair always ignored her spry greeting. They never waved back.
At our former landlady’s funeral, Markus pointed out a white-haired and stooped man. “That’s Herr Winzenger’s son.”
I was astonished. Having moved around so much as a child, I’m still easily flabbergasted by the evidence of time’s passage. Before arriving in Switzerland, I’d never witness neighborhood children growing up or adults aging (to me, only siblings and cousins grew up; only grandparents and aunts and uncles aged). The only funerals I’d been vaguely aware of had been for men who’d returned from Vietnam in body bags or who’d gone down in planes—and one neighborhood drunk who’d accidentally smashed through his sliding-glass door, fallen into his backyard pool, and bled to death. At the age of fourteen, I attended my first funeral, my nana’s.
To sit here this morning, watching a summer unfold as wet and cold as one twenty years prior—in the same setting—is a privilege and a gift. For this gracious and kind family I’ve married into and this life I’ve lucked into, I am daily thankful. They give me the strength I need to get through serious trials. My life is not absent pain.
On the day of my former landlady’s interment in Kaiserstuhl, the sun shined, and the cemetery grounds were carpeted in purple herbal flowers. Her party of mourners crossed the soft, giving carpet to where the priest awaited, the air abundantly perfumed by thyme.
When I was fourteen, my dad retired from a career in the military, and my parents bought a house on five acres west of Portland, Oregon. We added animals to our cats and dogs. My sister and I got our first horses, and soon, we were waking to the soft neighs of hungry horses, to roosters crowing, and to geese and ducks murmuring themselves awake. Mom got the Earth Mama bug. She sewed herself and us girls Afghani-style dresses; she took up macramé, spinning wool, and knitting cable sweaters; and she enrolled in a community college course in subsistence farming. Dad tilled and deer-proof fenced a plot of ground for a substantial kitchen garden. He next planted an orchard of fruit trees and set up a colony of bees in our front pasture. Sadly, the bees failed to thrive, but under Mom’s care, her garden, orchard, and our animals prospered.
Her summers were soon occupied by freezing, drying, and canning. Dad built her a dryer. Lightbulbs supplied heat, a fan circulated the air, and screen trays supported the produce and meat slices Mom wished to dry. I still salivate at the memory of her fruit leather. She entered her garden products and her quilts in the county fair; she won ribbons and prizes.
Dad got a little plump.
Here in Switzerland and decades later, we’re having a cool, wet summer. I’m reminded of times Mom disparaged what she’d call a “Green Tomato Summer.” Her tomatoes rotted on their vines before ripening, her chilies lacked kick, and her tasteless melons went to the horses. Until moving to Oregon, I equated summers with blistering sidewalks and cooling swimming pools, tasty ripe tomatoes and thumping sweet melons. It took me years to appreciate Oregon’s cool wetness, to accept and appreciate the Willamette Valley’s greenness and abundance as a gift. To accept and appreciate Oregon as Home. Of course, there were summers of heat, Augusts when our well went dry. Mom used our gray water to keep her garden plants alive. Over time, I’ve found myself increasingly distressed by heat. The perfect summertime temperature for me has gone from 95° to 75° (35° to 23°).
Today, by sunrise, I’m sitting at my desk facing the garden. Under monochrome gray skies, the abundance and vigor of the foliage illume the outside like a neon light. I think of the golden hour and the blue hour; this is a rare green hour, and it takes me home. Ironically, as I’m reminded of Oregon’s Green Tomato Summers, the actual temperatures in the Far Northwest are breaking records. It’s a terrible time. While we’re being lashed by occasional fierce winds and thunderstorms, Oregon is buckling from the heat.
In the early 90s, widowed Mom left Oregon for her native Texas to look after her aging parents. Now, thanks to my brother and sister-in-law’s epic efforts, Mom’s returning to Oregon in the coming weeks. What timing: Oregon is suffering temperatures exceeding those in Texas. Next month, Markus and I will be doing our micro-bit to help with Mom’s move. We’ll be driving a carload of her orchids and odd valuables out of Texas and up to Oregon. Whoo, boy! I sure hope the mercury drops before we land in Dallas! We might just be making the scenic drive in the relative coolness of night. Still, I’m looking forward to returning home.