Place

At a birthday gathering in my brother- and sister-in-law’s garden, family and friends sit well apart, enjoying a respite from lockdown. Kaiserstuhl’s medieval city walls rise four meters above us. Markus and I know this three-family complex well. Thirty years ago, we moved into its maisonette apartment, our first, and our three children were born in the back bedroom. (Yes, home births. I’d tell people, “I’m not sick or injured—I’m pregnant.” Each went smoothly and quickly—our son’s going so smoothly and quickly that he was in Markus’s arms before the midwife arrived.)

I recall moving out—Markus had accepted a job transfer to the Isle de France. As the moving van’s doors were being clamped shut, it occurred to me that the longest I’d ever lived in one place was here, on the Rheingasse; I was thirty-five years old.

After four years in France, we decided to return to Switzerland. At first, we considered moving to the French-speaking region or closer to the Alps, but I yearned for Kaiserstuhl. A military brat, I wanted my children to have what I never had: roots and a sense of place. I wanted them to grow up among grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

The garden party laughs. My brother-in-law, the birthday boy, begins describing a balancing exercise. At our age (creeping close to retirement) it’s important to practice, he explains. “Try standing on one leg as you brush your teeth.” Noticing me nod, he grins. “Once you get the hang of it, Meredith, try closing your eyes—and good luck!”

My sister-in-law offers me a bowl of fresh, local strawberries, more wine, and another slice of birthday cake. Stories about growing up here in Kaiserstuhl eddy around me, and I’m captivated. I didn’t grow up knowing community like my husband and his family and friends do. I knew only a culture, a military culture—one in flux. Expedient connections lasted briefly. If I wasn’t just arriving or leaving, my new best friend was.

When recalling the past, my family doesn’t ask when something happened. We ask where it happened—where being the anchor to each when. Most of my former neighbors, classmates, and teachers remain in my memory as if suspended in a bell jar.

My past is a shelf of jars.

The sun is setting. Evening shadows chill the air. The garden party ends. Markus and I walk home, the wine a-swirl in our steps. I’m thinking that making a life in one place sure feels like an accomplishment. “Do you realize,” I say to him, “we are now the age your parents were when I first arrived in Kaiserstuhl?”

Transplants

On a panorama hike from Waldegg, Beatenberg to Niederhorn.

Recently, I spent four days grubbing under our cinquefoils. The sun burned my south-facing shoulder, and the dust I raised gave me gunky eyes and a scratchy cough (pandemic lockdown’s not the best time for scratchy coughs). I uncovered a swath of oregano, which I decided to leave. In other areas of the garden, I ignore the wild garlic mustard and encourage the spreading of wild strawberries.

Back in April, after harvesting ramsons that grow in the woods along the Rhine, I promised myself to dig up some bulbs come fall to replant along the north side of our house. First, I’ll have a vigorous go at the ivy, dandelions, and weeds choking the slope, which will take another few days of grubbing—but shaded, at least.

Transplanted ramsons should take to the spot. I’ve been lucky with transplants, so far; agreeable bulbs, ferns, and forget-me-nots. Calendulas and lavender never crop up where I prefer them to spread. Ah, the lavender propagating heartily—they’re my own fault. Ever since I noticed how happily birds feed on their seeds, I don’t cut them back until spring. The birds don’t get everything, of course.

My sister-in-law’s strawberries and periwinkle.

My sister-in-law and her family live next door. Her beds of periwinkle are full of wild strawberries she lets me garner. From the handfuls I freeze daily (until I reach a kilo), I make jam, some pots pure and some mixed fifty-fifty with juicier field berries we buy at a roadside booth. Last year, I collected her plants’ runners, stealing them across our property line. The transplants are loving our east-side bed of rhodies and azaleas. Like me, they favor first light.

Let’s be grateful for satisfied transplants. This June, it’s thirty years since I arrived in Switzerland. I’ve tapped into a very good family and graceful life that’s a privilege. My runners and I thrive.

My sister-in-law’s transplanted runners.

Ash

In late June of 1980, I spent an afternoon at the Oregon State University Library. I’d parked my bike just outside the front doors. St. John’s wort surrounded the bike rack. I loved the vibrant yellow flowers of St. John’s wort, their large silky petals and prominent and plentiful stamens. When I reemerged from the library and took hold of my bike, I felt a fine grit on the handlebars. The dark leather seat, I noticed, was an ashen color. All the bikes were covered in the same fine grit, and the St. John’s wort had gone gray. “What an odd prank,” I thought, imagining someone strewing the bike racks and shrubs with garden lime.

Our St. John’s wort will blossom sometime in June.

That evening, Mom phoned. “Meredith,” she said in a worried voice, “the horses are covered in ash.” We had more horses than box stalls, so the animals spent their lives grazing on pasturage and sheltering in an open-sided barn. I seldom made the two-hour drive home. Only when I stabled two youngsters close to the university did I begin riding regularly again.

Ah, I thought, picturing the ash-covered horses. Now I know who the bike-rack prankster was, Mt. St. Helens. Just the month before, on the 18th of May, the north side of the mountain had blown out, most of the ash heading eastwards. A change in wind patterns sent a small sample of ash down to Oregon from Washington, and many speculated on the effects of breathing it. Projections ranged from worried to apocalyptic. There were those who insisted on wearing masks and those who refused to bother. Sound familiar? Of course, the animals had no choice.

In the meantime, our rhodies remind me of Mays in Oregon.

Rain

Sometimes, all it takes is a small amount of rain.

Laburnum, the golden rain tree

This spring, we went more than six weeks without rain in Switzerland. The vegetation along the sides of the gravel road I walk looked August dusty. Rainfall is usually generous in March and April; this year, I watered those plants coming into blossom, the cherry tree, the rhododendrons—the azaleas and tsutsusi—the lilac and current bushes, and the flowers, the peony, lilies, and roses. The lawn didn’t need mowing.

But rain.

Cool days followed summer-like weeks. To be sure, we enjoyed having meals outside, an occasional grill, and frequent naps in the sun. To be sure, I enjoyed watching the lizards who’ve colonized our deck, and who sun themseves in view of my desk. I even came across two slowworms, rescuing one from a neighbor’s cat.

My husband said, “Is it just me, or is there more birdsong?” (Songbirds have colonized the shrubbery outside our bedroom window—and he likes to sleep in on a weekend morning.)

There is more birdsong. And my watering (most precious resource) saved our struggling plants. But now that the rain has fallen, every living thing has bolted out in relief and joy—and a trust that the world has righted itself again.

You understand the allegory, of course.

Lockdown

I’m not complaining. Working at home is nothing new to me, and I’m enjoying my husband’s company. Listening in on his conference calls, I’m learning new sides to him. In fact, the other day, I said, “You’re less boss and more mentor.” He smiled.

Sure, I miss crossing the bridge to Germany, walking the forested hills and the shore of the Rhine opposite ours; I miss jaunts into Zurich, exploring its narrow, cobbled streets, window shopping, and meeting friends or the kids for coffee, drinks, or dinner; and I miss my writing groups, the causal work-together-weekly group and the monthly critique group—what can replace an absent hug?

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Still, the store shelves are well stocked. We collect fresh milk from a dairy in the neighboring village, and fresh eggs and farm produce are a two-minute walk from our door. Everyone I know is staying employed and healthy (knock on wood). We’re all looking forward to an ease in restrictions and curious to see what hits us once this storm’s eye has passed.

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Inspiration

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A walk along the Rhine, a book, food and drink, a good laugh with family and friends, travel and photographs, memories, and that quiet moment before leaping out of bed in the early, early morning—what doesn’t inspire me would be a text more quickly written.

My daughter Helena helped and inspired me to travel this e-path. I hope it will open new worlds for me. I hope she—and you—will find the occasion to linger for a visit.

Welcome and come again. Meredith