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?”

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