A few words about the piece below. I wrote the first draft of it in 1989, a year after the events it describes. I have made a few changes to the original text since then, but have largely left it intact. This is the first time I have published it. With thanks to Jenn Van den Berg for her help with typing from my original manuscript.
AW, May, 2019.
We all knew one thing by being there.
When my grandmother died my parents were away and my siblings and I had to grow up. She was Swiss, my mother’s mother, and never learned to speak English. When she died she was bent and crooked and had lived the last year of her life in pain. Her legs had been amputated, due to a clot which wouldn’t heal.
People, our friends and family, spoke of ‘relief’ and it being ‘for the best.’ All I could think of was the way she limped when she walked, and that she had to sit on straight hard chairs. She never complained, though she had a right to, if anyone does.
There are photographs in my parents’ house where she stands tall and upright, nearly the same height as her husband. They remind me, these pictures, of how she must have looked when I was a child. I cannot remember the time she changed from the woman in the photograph to the woman I knew, but it happened. My mother told me once it was a hip operation that did it, and when it went wrong it meant her bones would never be the same.
I had the feeling this was around the time her husband had died, my grandfather. He never learned to speak English either, except the word goodbye. She outlived him by ten or eleven years. These are the years of her life I know best, and though she never said, I realise they were her saddest.
When Grandmaman died my parents were on the holiday of a lifetime, in Africa. It became clear very quickly that they wouldn’t be able to go to her funeral. I thought of the time when my English grandfather had died. My parents were away then as well, in Switzerland, for Grandmaman’s eightieth birthday. They were able to catch a plane to London as soon as they heard the news. I can remember someone saying how all of my grandfather’s children were out of the country when it happened, except for one. It was the first time, they said, that it had happened. What were the chances of that happening, a man dying with three of his four adult children being away on holiday?
For my mother it was different. She was the only one of her family to move away from Switzerland, so there was always a chance that she wouldn’t be there for her parents’ deaths. But living away, in London, is not the same as being away in Africa when it comes to your mother dying. You can catch a plane from London to Switzerland at any time, but from Africa you cannot. My mother was not Abroad where she lived, where her home was, she was abroad, sightseeing, in a desert.
I spoke to her from my uncle’s flat in Switzerland, on the phone. Her voice shook and had a mad nagging tone I’d never heard before. We were talking about how we were, how we felt.
‘Yes, we’re all right,’ I said.
‘But how are you, how are you?’
‘Fine. We’re all fine.’
‘Anthony, tell me the truth. Are you all right?’
‘Anthony, I want to know!’
I handed the phone to my brother and went into another room. Between each phrase there had been a pause of two seconds. At least three times we interrupted each other, one of us repeating the question we’d just asked, the other just starting to answer. It was useless. I could hear my brother talking, through the open door, and like me he was frustrated by the time delay. I heard him say softly ‘Fine’ and ‘All right’, trying to make my mother feel better.
What happened that night in Switzerland is in some ways the same story of our two families, of feeling things but not being able to say them. The story that I want to tell, and which needs to be told, does not contain much conversation, but does carry many feelings.
There are many scenes in my memory of people discussing things loudly at meal times, but equally strong to me was the knowledge that I was shut out from these discussions, not just because I was a child, which was normal, but because I did not speak the right language. I could say the words oui and non, merci and au revoir, and I made sure I repeated them whenever I could. Beyond that, my brothers and I lived out our visits in a silent world, or, when we spoke English, one to which only my parents could gain access.
I remember once my brother said to me at a meal: ‘Pass the toothpaste,’ by which he meant a tube of meat paste, with red and white lettering. My mother overheard him and burst out laughing and was made to translate to satisfy everyone else’s curiosity. When she had finished I remember everyone laughing very loudly and very long, as though a joke had been made in their own language. They weren’t doing it to please us, they honestly found it funny. Particularly I remember my grandparents’ laughter, longer than anyone else’s. From then on we all said ‘Pass the toothpaste’ whenever we wanted the meat spread, and we all chuckled in recognition.
As we grew older we became self-conscious of speaking this different language, and more ashamed for not sharing what our grandparents spoke. We all did French at school, but it was never the same. People talked of visits to stay with them for the summer so we could learn and become fluent. All it would take was a few weeks and could be arranged as soon as possible. What could be holding us back?
What we all knew, but never said, was that my father’s family was what was holding us back. There is a story about my mother, still not fluent in English, spending the evening with my father’s family. They had just bought their first tape recorder, a huge machine with giant spools, and they all took turns to have their voices reproduced, reading from books or magazines. My mother was given a book to read, some A.A. Milne, which she had never seen before. The machine played her voice back perfectly, as it paused, wincing, before saying the word ‘POO!’, much to the merriment of her new family. It also preserved their laughter, which drowned her own voice out. That night I think she made a decision, that at the cost of speaking French to her children, she would become perfect at English herself. She would not be laughed at again. From then on each time we went to Switzerland the same thing would happen: we would wheeze that stiff, embarrassed laughter of inadequacy, hoping it would get us through, knowing it never deserved to.
My grandfather was a watchmaker, and had been all his working life. He wore braces and glasses and had round ruddy cheeks. Grandmaman was a brilliant cook, and she kept the family home spotless. It smelled of mothballs upstairs, food downstairs, and in the basement, with its black marble floor, of washing. She started to be ill when my mother was sixteen. Maybe her hip had already begun to give her pain. She stayed in hospital for many months and my mother was forced to leave school early and take over the running of the house. She was the eldest daughter and had the same birthday as her mother.
When my father asked my grandfather for her hand in marriage, he wrote him a letter which my mother translated. My grandfather cried when he read it, but he wrote back saying it was a wonderful thing for her to be loved by such a good man. Then he quoted from the Gospels the story of Christ in Gethsemane, and the prayer he prays there: ‘Let this cup of suffering be taken from me, yet not my will, but yours.’ ‘We shall always be sad that Lise has gone from us to live in another country,’ he wrote, ‘but always glad that she is happy and loved.’
When she married he made her a watch, with a gold chain to round her neck. It was unique. He never made another. He did it to say thank-you for giving up everything to become the mother of his family, at the age of sixteen.
I saw the flat where Grandmaman moved into after her husband’s death only once. We’d been on holiday in Switzerland for the summer, staying with my aunt in Lausanne. Except for my mother, none of us had been to her home town for eight or nine years, perhaps longer. All the memories we had of it were from childhood, painless and sunlit. The day we returned was the first day of autumn, leaves fell and it seemed cold. She lived on her own up four flights of stairs. Immediately on entering I smelled mothballs, the air from the old house unchanged. Everywhere you looked there were photographs, of my grandfather, of their children, of my mother’s wedding, of us. She hadn’t got rid of anything and the clocks ticked the same steady pace as when my grandfather had been alive.
And yet we all felt sad to be there, to see this life once strong shrunk to a space where no-one came to visit, where the crockery hung in silence week after week. She cried that day, in the arms of my mother, who cried as well. My father tried to comfort them but there seemed nothing he could say or do. There was something between them in their silence that even he was not qualified to penetrate, an understanding about grief and about families which went beyond words. I heard him saying to no-one ‘It’s like a museum here.’
Much later my mother told us when we asked her why they were crying, that she was said we couldn’t be in the old house, with Grandpapa.
We are in the kitchen and it is very warm. My mother has her back to me and is at the stove, cooking. Grandmaman is on an old upright chair and is knitting in black wool a jersey for me. I sit at the table and watch them both. No-one speaks. Her back is curved forward and her eyes stare into the wool without moving or blinking. One of her legs is tucked to the side of the chair with her toe, which the whole foot rests on, as far back as the rear chair leg itself. When she gets up she will limp, one leg dragging behind the other.
Since then I have gone over and over this scene in my mind, remembering each detail as it was, the smell of the macaroni, the click of the needles, the heat of that kitchen. In those minutes I think I saw Grandmaman more clearly than I ever did before or after. My mother had given her the knitting to do because she hated to sit still. All her life she’d been busy, doing things with her hands, making and mending, and the truth was she couldn’t and didn’t know how to stop. She’d given up cooking a long time ago, and ate nothing except bread and cheese and a little jam. So she sat in her daughter’s kitchen, knitting for a favour a jersey her daughter had promised her son but had forgotten. The click of needles and the smell of food. She had taught my mother to cook, probably to knit as well, the secrets and tips passed down without words, but in glances and smiles, the speed of fingers over a sauce with a spoon.
I sat and watched them in silence, amazed at their closeness, their likenesses. The same way their eyes didn’t flinch from where their hands were, the fix of their concentration. I sat there for I don’t know how many minutes and not a word was spoken. Mother, daughter, grandson, three generations of silence, of things being handed down in silence, even silence itself.
I came close to her that day because I didn’t have to do or say anything, be someone I wasn’t, say something which was only a translation of a distant, hesitant feeling. I have often wondered about the phrase ‘making conversation’ and how it seems to imply creating something out of nothing: to do with having to talk, having to fill a silence which divides you already. That time we were ourselves, something we were never allowed to be, or let ourselves be, with the rest of our family. It was more than feeling close, we both knew, spun out invisibly like a fine web, inching two nations together.
The day of her funeral was crisp and golden, early November, not a hint of wind. The air was dry, the sky a pale, china blue. A perfect, a beautiful day.
We drove ourselves from our uncle’s flat to the small chapel on the outskirts of the town. None of us spoke. We wore suits. We felt clumsy and tired.
People cried when they saw us, our relatives and their families. The English grandchildren had come, they were so grateful, we didn’t know what it meant to them. They thanked us as they kissed us hello through their tears.
My uncle said to me ‘You are not obliged but perhaps you want to see her for the last time … her body.’
We went in to where she lay, surrounded with flowers, separated from us by a pane of glass in the wall. We stared at her in silence, thinking about why we couldn’t cry, about what it would take to make that happen. Her hair was whiter than I’d seen it before and her eyes seemed pressed back into her head. Her mouth was half open, the way it is when you sleep.
I thought about her legs, about dying with parts of your body missing. Maybe it was ‘best’, as our family in England had said, a ‘relief’, the only one left to her. They show you to help you grieve, so you don’t hold it in to hurt you, and though you know all the reasons for why that is right, you still stand there thinking ‘What does this look like?’
I think we all knew inside that making this journey, getting the tickets, hiring the car, telephoning our employers, our schools, was all about these moments, about reaching the source of our grief. It was then we knew that what was happening was not just about tears and feeling confused. More than a way of saying goodbye, it was a way of saying that it was important to us that she had died, not just as grandchildren, but as English grandchildren.
I hear the words Anglais on people’s lips many times that day, but it didn’t sting like it had in my childhood. It meant ‘Thank-you, we’re grateful, we won’t forget this.’ And then I recalled in French you don’t say goodbye, you say au revoir. We hadn’t been saying goodbye at all, we’d been saying sorry, sorry for not being Swiss. That day, for the first time, as people said the word Anglais, I understood that it didn’t matter, that it had never mattered, we didn’t need to be Swiss, we needed just to be there. Being us, being there, was enough. We didn’t need to feel guilty any more.
There are many things I don’t remember from that day, but I do remember that the priest who took the service talked about Grandmaman’s courage, and how she showed it right up until she died. I remember what we ate at the meal afterwards, mashed potatoes with meat and vegetables, and that the potatoes tasted exactly as she used to make them, very creamy with a hint of nutmeg. At the end of the service we turned round and saw for the first time how full the church had been, just like my mother told us it had been for my grandfather, with people from all over the town. They filed past us in a line afterwards, every one of them looking each of us in the eye. Then they left us, then we left to have our meal with our family. Then we drove off, leaving them waving and smiling on the corner in the sun.
There is a road leading out of my mother’s home town which has a stopping place at one of the best views there is of the mountains, the Vue des Alpes. As we drove away, one of us said, ‘Can we stop on the hill? It’s a beautiful day.’
We stepped out of the road in the sun, our ties and top buttons undone, like office workers let out early. We stood in a line, dumb with amazement, gazing at the mountains in the distance, washed with light. Below us a layer of cloud in the valley, flat and even as a lake. None of us said anything. People paced around with their children, chatting and pointing at the view with their cameras. We stood still, looking and looking into the brilliant light, from one country into another. We stood there for a long time, shading our eyes from the light, peering into the distance. Then one of us said, bringing us back to ourselves: ‘Let’s go now, it’s getting late. Let’s go home.’