Thursday, April 23, 2015


Throughout our childhoods, my siblings and I would listen to stories about our family in Switzerland. We'd sit and look at the hundreds of pictures my grandpa would take of every visit. He would take the pictures and Grandma would share them with us, one by one. Each had its own story that needed to be shared. My grandparents would speak about the people and the places so fondly. It made me long to visit, but it also made me feel so connected to them and that place.
As a sophomore in college, I had come to visit one time before. It was so special to come back again, for a second time with my own growing family, my sister, and my cousin. Both times I was struck by how much I felt like we were living in a fairy tale. These places really exist and are even more beautiful in real life. These people are my family, we share common relatives, and they know of me. This may sound really silly, but it's a truly humbling, world-combining experience to be there.

My grandpa came over through Ellis Island with his parents and his brother at the age of 7. His younger sister was born in Pittsburgh and through a series of circumstances (which she shared and I won't share here) decided to move back to Switzerland. She was the only member of the family to move back at that time. Her parents later followed. My grandpa and his brother never moved back. 

Grandpa did, however, make many visits to Switzerland over the latter course of his life. My grandma has written back and forth with Aunt Lizzy every couple of weeks for decades and decades now. I should ask her when they first started. They kept each other up to date on family events, passions, and woes. It's really quite remarkable how tight they kept their bond over the Atlantic.

Both of my grandparents spoke/speak so highly of Aunt Lizzy. She is quite a remarkable human being. She speaks perfect English, even though she moved back more than sixty or seventy years ago. She's a very fine painter. My grandparents have always had many of her paintings on display throughout their home. Every person who came into their home while my grandpa was alive would get the full tour of all of her paintings, as well as my great grandpa's drawings. I think Jim got one almost every time he entered the house during the last few years. He loved hearing about them.

She's had heartache and a tough life, and speaks with you frankly about it. She's one resilient and fascinating woman and I am so grateful to call her kin. Being with her cut straight to my soul.

As soon as we arrived she came out of the door cracking jokes. It reminded me of my grandpa. So many of the things she did reminded me of him. It was amazing to relate with someone so familiar, even though we've only met on two occasions.

Quickly, she started giving us a tour of her home and farm. It's called Breitacker (wide acre). Aunt Lizzy's second husband's family owned this farm. He was the fifth generation to live here. My dad has memories of visiting when it was a pig farm. Currently, the barn holds cows. The barn and the home were built within the same building, which is very common construction in Switzerland. It conserves heat and the close proximity is convenient, as well.
One of my family members will correct my spelling here, but this is called "The Schtoekli." It's the mother in law's cabin. It was built for the older generation to live nearby.
 All of the beautiful wood...
 Pardon the not-great picture, but this is a memory I never want to forget. This upstairs room is where the help would sleep. You can see that the beams are a bit dark and that is because the fireplace smoke would run right up into the rafters, making them black. This is now the room where Aunt Lizzy puts her paintings. The room is just full of her amazing paintings.

We asked her questions about her work process. She said that she often will do them based on a picture, but sometimes she just does them from her head. She's used many different techniques (spatula painting is one of her latest) and taken many classes. She's incredible.

Anyway, I asked her about how she did one of the paints, because it was my favorite. She said she did it from her head and pleaded with me to take it with me if I like it. She's trying to get rid of her paintings!

If we lived nearby, oh how I would love to have taken more. Phoebe and I each chose one. What a wonderful gift. My souvenir from this trip; it makes me tear up just thinking about it.
 Again, pardon the blur. I love my sister's face in this photo. She's glowing and soaking up every word Aunt Lizzy says.
 Once again, the beautiful detail that went into designing this home. I could stay and admire it for weeks.
Here is one painting she did with the spatula technique. I think my favorite paintings she does are of the Alps.

The beautiful Aunt Lizzy. 
Uncle Walter 
I think this was take #7. Jim made a goofy face forEVER.
Having Ian in Aunt Lizzy's home was really, really special.

 Aunt Lizzy and Uncle Walter have sold the farm to a farmer with the agreement that they are allowed to live on it until they pass.

The Back

The Front

In honor of Grandpa, Marianne took this photo of all of us eating.
Grandpa always ensured that a photo was taken before every family meal.
Aunt Lizzy made an incredible soup that none of us could stop raving about. We ate delicious cheeses and bread, drank wine, and her wonderful Rose Hip Tea. There's nothing she can't do.

After dinner Jim, Ian, Christoph, and Annie went outside and Phoebe, James, Marianne and I chatted with Aunt Lizzy. I asked her to tell us stories about Grandpa and she told us some we'd never heard before.

My sister is going to be writing them in more detail, but I will share two briefly right now.

One time, my grandpa decided that he wanted to go to the circus. It had come to town and he really wanted to go. His parents couldn't afford to send him to the circus in the middle of The Depression, so he went on his own, snuck under the circus tent and watched. He buried himself in the sawdust around the elephants, I think she said. Every time he heard someone coming, he'd throw more sawdust overtop of himself. He made it through without getting caught.

Another time he decided to go to a Pirates game, since they lived in Pittsburgh and he liked baseball. Again, his parents couldn't afford to pay for it. This didn't stop our strong-willed patriarch. He grabbed his flute and marched right into the ticket area with the flute case stuck under his arm. He pretended to be one of the musicians in the band, got in, and then enjoyed the baseball game!!

Grandpa served in the Army during World War II. When his ship went down in Guadalcanal, he saved another man, swimming him miles to safety. This was the part of the story we'd already known. Aunt Lizzy said that when he'd come home he was really struggling and his parents were concerned. Aunt Lizzy said that our grandma saved him and was the best thing that ever happened to him. When he met her, there was a shift. He started wanting to live, work, and pursue things again. It was really sweet to hear Aunt Lizzy talk about what a blessing Grandma was for Grandpa.

With this light shed on my grandparents' relationship, it's neat to remember their interactions. Grandpa was devoted to her until the very end and she to him.

As I said, it was truly a soul-warming experience to be in her presence. 
Again, I am so grateful to have shared these people, the place and time with Ian. The pictures will be shown to him for years to come.

We headed back to our rental apartment and enjoyed being together. Marianne and Christoph taught us a German game called Wizard. How surreal it was to be in Switzerland, having a little reunion with close family, while visiting our Swiss family. I wish that time could have moved in slow motion for a few days there.

Christoph, Jim, Phoebe and James talked late into the night about problems in the world, a discussion I would have loved to hear. But the bed was calling and Switzerland was to be explored the next day!!

More to come!

1 comment:

  1. Officially my FAVORITE POST EVER :) Love all the pictures, the wood work makes my heart go pitter patter. Such a gift that you got to hear stories from Aunt Liz and I definitely got teary eyed reading about Grandma and Grandpa! Thanks for sharing :)

    p.s. my sister is GORGEOUS! Love that last pic!