The Summer That Wasn’t

And, just like that, the summer vacation is over. The kids are getting back to school, each on their own schedule. Except … this time these first back-to-school days are no different than any other day. We’re all still at home, all day every day, changing from night pajamas to day pajamas and vice versa.

Six months into the Covid 19 pandemic and counting.

Did the summer ever start? It doesn’t feel like it has. If it did, I can’t say where the time went. I certainly don’t have much to show for it…

We had so many plans for spring and summer 2020, so many things to look forward to.

The pandemic cancelled everything, of course.

For the first couple of months of lockdown, while the kids were busy with Zoom school, I managed to find solace in my fabrics and art. I composed textile poems, had fun with textile insects, and finally found the time to play with Ann Wood’s bird and owl patterns to create textile sculptures. I even made three pieces of tapestry with the Jewish Blessing of the Child, one for each of my children, just in case…

But when the school year ended, I put art aside. Together with my family I embarked on house and garden projects. We started with The Big Cleanup, a family tradition that got a bit neglected in the last few years. We did the usual deep cleaning, but also something new. Realizing that school will be remote in the coming school year, we also re-organized big parts of our house to accommodate everyone’s new needs. It was a lot of work.

By the piles of stuff my neighbors left on the curb, I could tell that many of them were doing the exact same. Later, newspaper articles confirmed that organizing/decluttering was, indeed, a pandemic side-effect

Like the house, our garden suffered from some neglect in the last few years. Perhaps because I put more time into art than into gardening. Not this summer! Once we  finished organizing the house, I put my kids to work in the garden. Together we weeded, pruned, pulled, planted and painted. We even started a Victory Garden. 

Then, a surprising thing happened. Once I started gardening, I didn’t really feel like doing anything else. Not even art.

It was an emotionally difficult summer, to say the least. The news went from bad to worse. Sickness, rising numbers, fear, despair, death. Political turmoil, civil unrest, racial tensions. Economic upheaval, unemployment, homelessness. Heat wave after heat wave, record-breaking heat. My mood went up and down. Then a little deeper down. Some days were good. Some OK. And then there were days in which I couldn’t do much at all.

The garden took me away from my phone, the news, social media. The flowers made me smile. The lush green allowed me to BREATH. Surrounding myself with plants felt healing. So in the garden I stayed.

There was always more to do out in the yard. For the first time ever, I saw the full cycled of spring and summer. Flowers bloomed and faded, others took their place. There were daily little changes. I became more aware of the wildlife my garden supports: the many kinds of pollinators, the birds, the visiting mammals. My garden hummed with LIFE.

I was confined, but an entire little world awaited right outside my door…

Yes, it turned out gardening was another side effect of the pandemic.

Like half of humanity, I was also busy with pandemic domesticity. Although our vegetable garden ended up being a complete failure, refusing to produce a single vegetable, our fruit trees were quite prolific. 

We gave some fruit away, but I also made a year’s-worth of jam.

And baked numerous apple pies. And cakes. And muffins. And more pies. They didn’t last very long.

In mid August, we experienced another heat wave, one that raised the temperature in Death Valley, CA, to 130 degrees, “setting a world record for the highest temperature ever observed during the month of August.” This led to a freak thunderstorm, which ignited over 600 fires all around California. The wildfires literally smoked me out of the garden and back into my sewing room. It’s been over two weeks now, and the air quality is still poor, keeping me inside.

I miss my garden, but it did feel good to reunite with my fabrics. So far I finished my pandemic quilt (more on that next time) and composed a wildfire-inspired Textile Poem:

I also made a larger art quilt influenced by the wildfires. I call it Ashes.

The weather forecast for this coming weekend predicts yet another record-breaking heat wave. I guess I’ll just have to stay in and keep creating…

Farewell to My Dad, The Ultimate Upcycler

My father passed away in mid March, ripping a huge tear in the fabric of my life.

My dad was a true Renaissance man, a walking encyclopedia, utterly brilliant. He was also humble and modest to a fault, the most honest person I’ve ever met.

Most people knew him for his brain: his academic achievements and intellectual pursuits. His articles, publications, students and volunteer work could attest to that. We, who knew him up-close, were also awed by his hands. My father was extremely dexterous: he fixed, built, hammered, screwed, kneaded, cooked, sewed, planted, pruned, hugged. His capable hands could create wonders and fix anything, including broken hearts. 

My dad was an upcycler before upcycling was fashionable. He noticed the potential in everything around him, from a newborn baby to a tiny screw lying on the pavement. My father always picked up things that other people discarded, building himself a workshop stacked floor to ceiling with various kinds of treasures: nails, screws, cords, bulbs and what not. He had vast collections of scrap wood and other materials. When asked what for, he always said he might use them some day, and he often did. Whenever one of us needed anything, we would go to him first. He often had what we were looking for.

A master of improvisation, my dad thought outside the box and gave old objects a new life. On a desert trip when I was little, he dug into clay soil to create a makeshift oven in which we baked Chalas for Shabbat. Another year we were travelling during Hannukah and didn’t have a Menora. He built one out of snail shells. When the elastic on a fitted sheet tore, he used a hair pin to replace it. He cut tattered pants to give worn books new covers:

When my kids were little, they collected their broken toys in a special box. Whenever grandpa came to visit, he would fix them all. Better yet, he built them beautiful wooden toys from the wood he rescued:

In Hebrew, when a person is talented with their hands, we say he has “golden hands.” My dad had golden hands with a green thumb. He had a magic touch when it came to plants as well. He coerced them to grow from seed, could grow an entire tree from a tiny piece of plant cutting, and could graft. I learned to love nature and all of my gardening skills from him.

My dad is no longer here to fix the huge hole created by his passing, but in the few weeks since his death I became acutely aware of the permanent imprint he left. My father is gone, but his spirit lives on, in me, in my siblings, in our children. His guiding principles, taught by example, will keep showing us the way as we walk the path of life.

 

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PeruRail Titicaca-Cusco: A Magical, Surreal Ride on the Andean Explorer

Last time I wrote about our trip to Peru, I stopped in Lake Titicaca. But there is more! When we went to the lake, we took a day-long bus ride from Cusco. The tourist bus stopped several times along the way, offering mini-excursions. It was interesting, for a bus ride, but unremarkable. After our visit to the Floating Islands and our home stay on Amantani Island, we decided to take the train back instead. We didn’t expect much from the trip on the PeruRail Titicaca-Cusco, also known as The Andean Explorer.

Twenty-something years ago, I’ve ridden several “luxury” trains in China. I expected the train in Peru to be something similar: vinyl benches, crowded cars, a chicken or two roaming about, and a cart with unappetizing food passing along every couple of hours.

From the outside, the train was undistinguished, except that the crowds I was expecting didn’t materialize:

But when I got on, instead of a Chinese sleeper train, I found myself on the Orient Express!

Imagine my surprise and shock when we were lead into a beautiful, bright car, and seated in wide, comfortable armchairs set around white-tablecloth-covered tables! My kids got their own table, while my husband and I had our own. An unexpected mini-date that included a vase with fresh flowers on the table between us! My mood, which was pretty sour following an early wake-up call, improved drastically and instantaneously!

Let me give you a tour of the Orient Express of the Andeas:

The train had three passenger cars: A Dining Car, A Bar Car, and an Observation Car.

The dining car, in the above picture, was where we were originally seated. There were less than thirty five of us (the allowed maximum): tourists from all over the world. Throughout the ride it felt like staff members outnumbered us.

The Bar Car had more armchairs, arranged two by two around little round tables.

In the corner it had a fully-equipped bar:

The Observation Car had long benches in the middle. It was only half covered, with big windows all around allowing a panoramic view. Since it was Christmas, it also featured a tree in one corner.

I don’t usually show you pictures of bathrooms, but even the toilet on this train felt luxurious:

The looks and ambiance of the train greatly lifted my spirits, but it turned out to be only the beginning. Without knowing it, we were about to embark on the train-ride of a lifetime!

On-Board Experiences:

Shortly after the train started moving, the stuff distributed snacks and drinks. Alcohol in the morning does wonders to your mood! Needless to say, the ice between us passengers was broken fairly quickly. Tourists intermingled, chatted and became friends.

A couple of hours into the ride, a live band began playing Peruvian music in the Bar Car. Soon, we got to see some Peruvian dances as well:

This was followed by a fashion show, with a male and a female models showing us some high-end Peruvian alpaca fashion:

In the meantime, while we were greatly enjoying ourselves on the most luxurious train I’ve ever been on, the real Peru passed by outside our windows: arid grasslands sparkled with mud huts:

Small mud-built villages:

Little towns:

And the most remarkable of all: a bustling urban market set along the train tracks! Since there are only two trains a day, with predictable schedules, people had booths and merchandise set on the tracks. They removed everything when the train approached, then put it back up the second it passed:

The three-course lunch felt like a visit to a five-star restaurant:

In the afternoon, the guys at the bar demonstrated how to mix pisco sour, the Peruvian national coctail. All the adults got to taste it, as well as other alcoholic beverages. The band played again. By then everyone was happy enough to rattle along, clap, sing, and even dance!

The band, in fact, was quite amazing! At first they played hours of Peruvian/Latin music. Later, per the audience’s request, they moved on to Beatles, Frank Sinatra, and even Pink Floyd!

It was a truly surreal experience: riding a luxury train, complete with white table cloths, drinks, live music and fun entertainment, while dressed in unwashed hiking clothes and hiking boots. It felt rather odd to pass through a poor countryside full of friendly people, many of whom, both old and young, waved at us, while listening to “The Wall:”

Yes, there was even an afternoon tea service!

I truly hoped the ride would never end! I was actually sad when we arrived at our destination…

Only many weeks later, after I was already home, did I learn that The Society of International Railway voted this train as one of the 25 most luxurious in the world! Ready to go?

Visiting Cusco, Peru? What to Pack and Things to Notice

My family and I just returned from an amazing vacation to Cusco, Peru, the capital of the Inca empire. Cusco is a great place to visit, and is also a comfortable base for traveling to other, nearby attractions.

A rather large city, Cusco has many shops with pretty much anything you could need. But there are some things you might like to bring from home, just in case.

What to Pack

Medicines

Cusco’s elevation is 3,400 meters above sea level (11,200 ft). Anyone coming from lower altitudes will feel the effects of this high elevation. Every hotel in the Cusco region offers free coca-leaf tea for guests. Peruvians believe that coca leaves reduce elevation sickness. Many chew on the leaves directly.

Numerous stores offer an array of other coca products as well, to the same end:

However, you might find that drinking coca tea or sucking on coca candy isn’t enough to make you feel better. Before coming, therefore, you might want to consult with your doctor and consider bringing pills to relieve altitude-sickness symptoms (we brought and took Acetazolamide).

Note: if you are vegan or vegetarian, these pills might not be enough. As I learned the hard way, your diet might not have enough iron to allow your body to create the additional red blood cells that high elevation requires. Bring iron and vitamin B12 pills, and take one of each every morning. This will speed up your acclimatization.

Your body is probably not used to the germs in Peru. It is possible, therefore, that you will suffer from an upset stomach even if you take all the necessary precautions (such as frequent hand-washing and avoiding uncooked foods). Make sure to bring some medications for upset stomach, or even some antibiotics.

There are pharmacies all over the city, but it’s always safer to bring whatever medicines you take regularly, or those you think you might need. If you are taking dietary supplements, bring those as well. We traveled with a portable pharmacy of our own, and ended up using much of it…

Clothes

December is summer in Peru, but because of the high elevation weather in Cusco can be very unpredictable. Locals joke that one can experience four season in one day in this city, and they do not exaggerate! Prepare for layering, with clothes for all possible weather conditions! Rain gear is a must, although you can buy rain ponchos everywhere, for as low as 5 soles a pop (around $1.5).

If you plan to visit Cusco in winter, realize that temperatures will be frigid . Some (but not all) hotels have heaters, but no central heating. Hotels provide warm blankets, but the rooms can still be cold. Long underwear and warm pajamas will keep you happy.

Streets in the old city of Cusco are cobbled, and sidewalks can be very narrow. Nearby sites have a rugged terrain. Good shoes, preferably hiking boots, will serve you well.

If you are planning to do some hiking (even if only to the nearby fortress of Saksaywaman), walking sticks will make your life easier.

Other Items

You need to keep hydrated at high elevation, and therefore need to drink a lot. Unless you want to keep buying bottled water (thus contributing to world pollution), bring your own refillable water bottle. We filled ours every morning with water we boiled at least three times (tap water is undrinkable). We still ended up buying bottled water, but a lot less than we would have had we didn’t have our own.

Remember: Use boiled (or bottled) water for teeth brushing as well!

Due to the altitude, you might get sun burnt even on overcast days. Bring sunscreen and put it on daily before you leave your hotel. If you peel layers after applying sunscreen, make sure to cover the newly-exposed areas as well. We’ve seen plenty of very pink tourists (and got a bit toasted ourselves as well…).

Not all public bathrooms have paper. Always carry your own toilet paper just in case. And remember not to flush any paper down the drain. The sewage system cannot handle it, and you don’t want to be responsible for a flood (or worse: get caught it it’s path!).

Advice on Luggage

Everyone has their own travel style, and every trip requires its own kind of luggage. While we usually carry suitcases, we chose to bring backpacks to Cusco. For one, as I mentioned earlier, the streets of old Cusco are cobbled and narrow, and not so suitable for dragging wheeled suitcases. Also, you will most likely need to carry your luggage up and down stairs. In addition, many people use Cusco as a base to explore other parts of Peru. You might find yourself changing hotels frequently, and lugging your stuff into trains, buses or boats. Light, small and carry-able luggage will therefore work best.

The last time I backpacked, some quarter of a century ago, I carried a regular backpack. I still remember how hard it was to find things or reach the very bottom. This time, at the advice of our frequent-travelling friend (thanks, Arturo!), we took eBags and loved them. The fact that we could expand the bags turned out to be a great plus, as we didn’t quite expect the amount of loot we ended up purchasing…

Finally, Some Interesting Things I Noticed

Last year, when we first arrived in Quito, Ecuador, I was struck by the abundance of graffiti. The thing that stood out to me in Cusco was the cleanliness of the streets. We hardly saw any graffiti, and hardly any littler.

The second thing that stood out was the abundance of dogs. Canines were everywhere, in front of every door and every house. Big dogs, small dogs, shaggy dogs and short-haired dogs. Dogs of every shape and color.

At first I mistook them to be feral dogs and found them intimidating. Soon, though, I realized they were all pets. Almost every household in Cusco and beyond owns one or more pets. People keep cats indoors, but let the dogs roam outside. The dogs in Cusco were the most mellow, well-behaved creatures I have ever encountered. They all minded their own business, and hardly ever glanced at passersby.

If you lift your eyes up to the rooftops, you will see that almost every house in Cusco has a pair of bulls on the roof. Sometimes there are just bulls. Sometimes there is a cross between the bulls, or some other decoration:

These are guardian bulls. They are protecting the house and the family within it, and also symbolize fertility. One of our tour guides told us that in pre-Spanish times, houses had lamas on the roofs. After the Spanish brought bulls to South America, their image pushed lamas aside. For a while I wondered why two (obviously male) bulls would symbolize fertility. I later realized that the fertility people were hoping for was the fertility of the fields, which bulls help plow.

Finally, when in Cusco you will notice the rainbow flag flying from poles and balconies.

You might think you know what it means, but you will most likely be wrong. “We are not gays,” all of our tour guides insisted. They explained that the gay-pride flag has six colors, whereas the Cusco flag has seven. Also, the colors on both flags are in the opposite order. Locals believe that the Cusco rainbow flag was the old flag of the Inca Empire, symbolizing its seven parts. Whether true or not, people take great pride in it.

My Father’s Sukkah: On Textiles, Reusing and the Creation of Traditions

Wednesday night marked the beginning of the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of the Ingathering). The holiday celebrates the end of the agricultural year, and also commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. My father’s sukkah celebrates all of that and then a little more.

When the Temple still existed, Sukkot was one of three pilgrimage holidays. At that time, people from all over the Holy Land used to make their way to Jerusalem during Sukkot, bringing with them harvest to the Temple.

After the destruction of the temple, Jews started celebrating the holiday by building sukkot (plural for sukkah), or temporary huts. We eat, pray, and sometimes sleep in them for the duration of the week. These huts–built to remember both the temporary structures our ancestors slept in during their forty years of wandering through the desert, and the huts farmers built in the fields during the harvest–usually have wooden frames covered with sheets of cloth. Their roof is covered with plant material, usually palm leaves, and is called a schach.

Nowadays, many people buy a sukkah kit online. It arrives ready to assemble, and is usually made of synthetic materials. Once the holiday is over, it easily comes apart, folded and stored for next year. But that’s not the way sukkot were built when I was a kid. Then, everyone had to build their own sukkah from scratch, every year anew.

Of course, some parts of the sukkah could have still been saved from one year to the following. The wood planks, for example, or the cloth coverings. In the case of my father’s sukkah, some of the materials were passed down in the family for much longer than that.

This is my father’s sukkah:

The outside materials are relatively new, but not so the cloth inside. These inside textiles were already hanging in my father’s grandfather’s sukkah in the 1930’s and before.

Originally, my great grandfather, Haim, and his wife, Gele, had other uses for these fabrics. My great grandparents used these as curtains and table cloths in their home in Jerusalem, in one of the first Jewish neighborhoods built outside the walls of the Old City. After many years of use, when these textiles lost their original luster and became faded or stained, my great grandparents turned them into sukkah walls.

While many of these fabrics are still beautiful and lively, one stands out as being really special. Someone, you see, meticulously hand-embroidered the fabric strips serving as the sukkah “door.”

My father thinks, but is not sure, that the delicate embroidery was the handiwork of his aunt Hannah, Haim and Gele’s daughter, who was a talented embroiderer. I can only imagine how many weeks (or months!) it took her to embroider this piece!

For us, children of a mass-manufacturing, cheap-goods materialistic culture, up-cycling, recycling and reusing are fashionable buzzwords. But not that long ago reusing was a way of life. Less than a hundred years ago, materials and objects were expensive. Things were well-made and pricey. People valued items, used them with care, and re-purposed them whenever possible. They also passed things down from one generation to the other.

Thus, Haim and Gele re-used old curtains and table cloths, turning them into sukkah walls. When, in the early 1930’s, they moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to live near two of their grown sons and their families, they brought their sukkah materials with them.

Between holidays, my great grandfather Haim saved his sukkah materials in his attic (“boidem”). He stored the wood, and also the textile wall coverings. Every year, once Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) was over, he, his sons and his grandchildren would start building their sukkah.

They treated the old cloth with care. They nailed these inside textiles to the wooden frame with upholstery nails. Before nailing, the grandchildren prepared squares of cardboard, usually from empty cigarette boxes, to put on each nail. They did so to make it easier to pull the fabrics out at the end of the holiday without tearing them.

On the eve of the holiday, Haim would come home from the synagogue with a poster of the ushpizin: images of the patriarchs: Moses, King David, and the like, and pinned it in the center of the wall opposite to the “door”. As far as my father remembers, this was the only decoration in his sukkah.

My father continues to use his grandfather’s textiles in the sukkot he builds himself, year after year, with his own children and grandchildren. Unlike his grandfather, my dad decorates his sukkah with artwork of his offsprings. I myself made the lampshade in the above picture when I was eleven. My nephews made the paper chains. My father carefully preserves not only his grandfather’s textiles, but also his children’s and grandchildren’s art. His sukkah, therefore, has more decorations as the years go by.

The sukkah textiles are now almost one hundred years old, yet still serve their purpose. They witnessed at least five generations of our family, and hopefully will see more to come. The fabrics enclosed ancestors I never knew in person, distant relatives who died before I was born. They created a holiday-sacred space for tens of relatives and guests, for eating, praying, talking, laughing, arguing and sleeping.

Somehow, I feel, they preserve some of the spirit of these long-gone people who lived, for one week each year, in-between them. The people who made them, the great-aunt who embroidered them, the great-grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins who hung them, handled them, folded them, then stored them with care year after year. By serving as sukkah walls, these textiles, of course, help pass down the traditions of the holiday. But, by passing down from one generation to the next, they also tell the story of our family. In a way, they help create the story of our family. They are both a part of a tradition and the makers of new traditions.

That, I think, is something that synthetic, disposable sukkah kits could never do.

A Shining Light Amidst a Total Eclipse: Lessons from Madras, Oregon

The anticipation has been building for months, years even. A gradually-increasing excitement spread across the nation, as the population of half a continent geared up for a once-in-a-lifetime event. A natural phenomenon was about to occur, one that was last seen across the Untied States in 1918. A total solar eclipse.

Meanwhile, as millions of people were getting ready to see the moon obscure the sun, casting darkness in the middle of the day, another kind of darkness has been building up. That darkness, too, thickened across the nation for months. As it turned out, that other, man-made darkness erupted several days before the natural one. A human ugliness of the kind that has not been seen here in decades flared up. A repulsiveness which we all hoped would never be seen anywhere ever again.

On Monday, August 21, I joined the millions who traveled to see the eclipse from the path of totality. I went to Madras, a small town in the high desert of central Oregon. The predictable weather and open landscape there ensured clear visibility. Even NASA chose the place to put up some of its experiments.

A town of less than 7,000 people, Madras was expecting eclipse-viewers in the hundreds of thousands. The town has been preparing for months, and when the crowds arrived it was ready. Townspeople organized several activities, including a Solarfest with food stalls, arts and crafts and a NASA booth, where NASA volunteers provided information and activities. They set up at least four large campgrounds on open fields, including at the local airport. They marked camping spots in advance, closed roads, put up signs, brought in porta potties, and established several shuttle lines.

I stayed in a campground called Solar Town, that by Monday grew into a small town.

Our temporary town functioned flawlessly. Despite hosting thousands of people, it remained orderly, clean and quiet. People camped within their allocated slots. They deposited all the trash in trash bins. Despite the long lines to everything–lines for the bathrooms, lines for the shuttles, lines to see the NASA booth and lines to buy food–people remained calm, patient and friendly. The nights were mostly still and silent.

The people who congregated in Madras came from all over, as seen from this map, posted at the entrance to Solarfest:

There were people of all colors, people of all religions, people of all languages, cultures and countries, people with all body shapes and all sexual orientations. There were locals, visitors, tourists and, yes, IMMIGRANTS! And they all got along. Spectacularly.

“It’s amazing,” said the man who stood in front of me in line for the bathrooms the morning of the eclipse. “A camp full of nice people.” And a camp full of nice people it was. Tens of thousands of them.

This jumble of people sat together to listen to NASA scientists talk about the upcoming eclipse:

Together they ate foods originating from different ethnicities, like this Native American fried bread:

And they all danced together when Native Americans from the local Warm Springs Indian Reservation shared some of their culture:

On Monday morning, everybody watched together when the moon began obstructing the sun:

And everyone held their breath together when, for 2.2 minutes, the moon completely covered the sun. In fact, television crews broadcasted the scenes from Madras , in real time, across the world:

Amazingly, even my parents were able to watch the eclipse with us, directly from Madras, all the way on the other side of the earth.

Millions of people were awed because, in comparison to the sun, the moon and the cosmos, we are completely insignificant, all of us. Our differences and squabbles, our joys and sadness, our small pettiness are all inconsequential.

In times past people considered solar eclipses to be bad omens. They were seen as punishments for sins, warnings from the Gods, the withdrawal of the Mandate of Heaven. We know better now, but perhaps we should still see this as an opportunity for self reflection. Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is just around the corner, after all. A total eclipse following the eruption of human ugliness should make us think. Hard. And it should make us act.

There is hope, however. In Madras I found not only a wonderful place to view the sun, but also bright rays of promise for this nation, and for humanity in general. The two minutes of the eclipse passed in a blink, but the light that shone on the high Oregon dessert will last much longer, in many people’s hearts. It showed the good that we are capable of: inclusiveness, consideration, kindness, respect, patience, mutual-help, dignity, appreciation, human decency. These and some others are the qualities that define, or should define, humanity. These are the qualities that make our species stand out from the rest.

Hopefully, camps-full of nice people, like the one I stayed at in Madras, will vanquish the man-made darkness that threatens our civilization. Just the way that the brightness of the sun overpowered the twilight of the eclipse, making the world normal again.

When You Die, Everything You Own Turns Into Garbage: The Sad Truth About Tearing Down a Loved One’s Household

I used to think that thoroughly tiding up my house once a year was a pain. Well, I recently discovered that there is one clean-up task that is significantly less palatable. I am talking about the tearing down of an established household following a loved one’s death. That physical systematic deconstruction of a life that happens once a person is no longer there.

Several days after my mother-in-law passed away this summer, my husband and his sister had to embark upon this unpleasant undertaking. As they began demolishing the household in which they grew up, our kids and I came to their aid.

My in-laws’ house has three floors and a basement. They lived there for almost fifty years, during which they accumulated a respectable amount of stuff. They stocked it with everything they needed to make their family’s life pleasant and comfortable, and then a little more. My in-laws filled it with a mixture of heirloom items, passed on from past generations, and things they acquired during their own lifetime. It was a beautiful, well maintained, and well functioning household.

Unlike occasionally tidying up my own house, which is annoying while it happens yet feels good afterwards, annihilating my in-law’s household was not only painful. It was thoroughly heartbreaking on many levels:

There was no hope in it, only despair.

This wasn’t a cleanup that would make someone’s life less cluttered, more focused, brighter. This was a cleanup that marked the end.

It brought up memories and added to the pain.

Every single item reminded us of my parents-in-law, their lives, and our shared experiences. The orphaned objects stressed my in-laws’ absence, and enhanced the still-fresh pain of loosing them.

It felt like an invasion of privacy.

Drawing the curtain over a life requires going over someone’s possessions one room at a time. It means getting into every shelf, closet and drawer. It required opening every box and looking through every letter.There is something very intimate about it. Going over someone’s stuff without their permission, even if they are no longer there to give it, felt intrusive.

It broke the unseen barrier that lies between guest and host. 

This wasn’t my house. I visited it many times, but always as a guest. Even my husband, who grew up there, always returned as a guest after he left. There are certain unwritten rules dictating the behavior of a guest in someone’s house. Going into every nook and cranny felt like a gross violation of that unseen contract. It felt wrong.

It put an end to the childhoods of my husband and his sister.

As long as you have a living parent, and it doesn’t really matter how old you are, you are still a child. Your parents’ house is your safe haven. It is the one constant thing throughout the great upheaval that is growing up. You always have a permanent address, even after you moved away, migrated overseas, or even had children of your own. There is someone to keep your childhood memories safe. There is a secure place to store your childhood treasures, the ones you didn’t want to take with you when you left, yet couldn’t quite bare to do away with: the artwork you made in preschool; your first-grade notebooks; the shells you collected on a family trip; your train set; your books. Once your last parent is gone, that safe haven shatters and your childhood scatters with it.

It was excruciatingly sad to empty out spaces.

We live in a consuming culture. We like buying, stocking, filling. Emptying closets, cabinets and bookcases went against our habits, against our instincts. Their emptiness screamed despair.

It brought up the dilemma of what to do with old pictures.

Old pictures are objects, like any other object in a house, yet they are not. They entrap past generations, past lives, past experiences. Pictures capture the images of loved ones, of your own past self, of people you don’t even know. They immortalize happy moments as well as sad ones. We know that pictures don’t hold people’s spirits, of course, and yet… So what do you do when you find old pictures in every room, in envelopes and drawers and boxes and albums? More pictures than you could ever transfer, or ship, or store, or even scan?

The worst part: It became clear that, once you die, everything you own turns into garbage.

The worst part of tearing down a loved one’s household, by far, was the sinking realization that no one really wanted any of it. Despite my in-law’s house being a beautiful, magical space filled with heirlooms, antiques and exquisite objects, no one had any interest in taking its content. Not even us.

Both my sister-in-law and us already have full houses. More than full, even, as you might have realized if you read my posts about our Big Cleanup or my struggles to keep my sewing room tidy. Furthermore, we bought houses built in a different style, and furnished them differently. We like lighter, more modern things, and prefer to have less of them. Heavy pieces of old Swiss furniture just don’t fit in either of our houses. Nor do big clocks, or someone’s paintings, or an entire collection of copper pots. We can’t even read the old French books, passed over from a distant relative. We don’t have the time it takes to polish sets of silver cutlery, nor do we like their taste. And we already equipped our kitchens with all the gadgets we need.

In our case, we live an ocean away, and shipping things costs more than they are worth. But even my sister-in-law, who lives in Switzerland, couldn’t fit any of this into her house, even if she wanted to.

Furthermore, nobody else wanted much of it, either. Friends and neighbors have full houses, too. One person took the copper-pot collection, but the painter friend didn’t want his paintings back. We couldn’t find a taker even for the houseplants.

eBay and similar online sale sites are already flooded with old sofas and cabinets. The items currently featured there have been listed for months and do not seem to sell. Auction-house representatives walked through the house quickly. Nothing popped out at them. They said they had all the clocks they needed, and that even the ones they already have aren’t selling.

Heirloom pieces that cost my father-in-law thousands of francs to restore are basically worth nothing. It is really mind boggling, but it’s just the way it is. In the end, my husband and his sister will probably have to pay someone to come and haul it all away.

We desperately wanted to take something, anything, just to remember my in-laws by. It wasn’t easy to find such things. We ended up taking a rug or two, even though they were very worn and we don’t have a place to put them. The kids wound up with little mementos: engraved Swiss Army knives and old watches. As for me, I came home with a suitcase-full of rags:

These are some of the fabrics I found in my mother-in-law’s house. I would not have picked them out had they been offered anywhere else, but with things being what they were I felt like I just had to rescue them. For now, I’m thinking of them as my Memory Project. I don’t know how I will use them yet, but I will try to do them justice, out of respect to bygone generations and people gone.

 

 

On Objects, Spaces and Memories: A Still-life Portrait of My Late Mother in Law

My father in law had always been proud of his house, a three-floors-plus-basement townhouse just outside the old city of Bern, Switzerland. He liked to tell people that the house was over a hundred and thirty years old, and that he and his family had lived in it for over a third of its history. My husband and his sister grew up in that house, which still has most of its original architectural details. Our children and I, too, stayed there many times over the past two decades, for weeks at a time.

When my father in law passed away several years ago, the house felt emptier, but remained pretty much unchanged. My mother in law laboriously decluttered many of her husband’s possessions (he was an avid collector). Still, except for minor changes and renovations, she left things pretty much as they had always been. We saw the house as a given. It was a constant, predictable presence in our world, something we took for granted.

A few weeks ago, while on an exciting summer trip, we received the call that every child dreads. My sister in law informed us that my mother in law, who had already been in the hospital for a couple of weeks, had taken a turn for the worse and that time was running out. We immediately abandoned our adventure and headed to Switzerland on the first available flight.

When we arrived at the house that we had known for so long, I was struck by how different it felt. My mother in law left it for a medical emergency, expecting to return within hours and leaving everything in place. It felt like Pompeii, displaying a life interrupted mid-way. We kept expecting her to come out of the kitchen, go down the stairs, or come in from the garden. The quiet house screamed of emptiness and longed for its owner.

A week and a half later she did come back, and everything felt right again. Except it wasn’t really, and a few days afterwards she left it, and us, for good.

After my mother in law passed away, I wandered throughout the empty rooms. Slowly, the unthinkable truth daunted on me. I realized that with her passing a chapter had ended. A chapter in our family’s story, as well as a chapter in the house’s history. I suddenly understood that this was the last time I will stay in that grand old house, and that within weeks it will change beyond recognition. The house we had taken for granted, with its old furniture and heirloom artifacts, will soon cease to exist the way we knew it.

As I looked around, I slowly comprehended that for me, my mother in law was inherently inseparable from the house. The furniture she used, the pictures she hung, the objects she possessed were all a part of how I saw her, of who she was in my eyes. I started thinking of how we all shape our spaces to fit our tastes, and how these spaces shape us in return. The objects we surround ourselves with express our personalities, yet, as we use them, also take a deeper meaning as they become a part of who we are, a part of us.

I looked at the empty house and saw my mother in law in every corner. I then took pictures of the parts of it that were most significant to me, before they disappeared for good. These pictures are in essence a still-life portrait of my late mother in law.

A still-life portrait of my late mother in law:

This is the coffee corner in the kitchen. It’s where her days, and ours, when we were visiting, started. It used to house an older, much bigger coffee machine, on which our eldest daughter, as a toddler, used to make coffee for her grandfather. But several years ago, when that machine broke, my mother in law replaced it with a smaller, more convenient piece:

And this is the opposite wall in the kitchen, with my mother in law’s prized collection of copper cookware, which she kept polishing; the corn-kernels-filled clock she got from friends in the US; the flowers she always kept on her breakfast table; and the ever-present daily newspaper:

My mother in law used these dishes every day, for every meal, for who-knows-how-many decades. I will always think of her when I see a blue plate:

This is the fridge, with the grand kids’ pictures and the many magnets my kids spent hours playing with:

In the nearby living room the beautiful old stove, covered with tiles:

The corner by the big window, the brightest spot in the house, where I loved reading books, when I could:

And the opposite wall, with it’s books and nick knacks, baptism bottles, and the painting a friend gave them:

Also, ever present, a sunflower, her favorite flower. This last one, although cut and in water, actually outlived her:

The adjacent dining room featured the other side of the stove, with different tiles:

As well as these three paintings, painted by another friend, and a fake-flower arrangement that has been there since my very first visit. This was the setting for many of our dinners, and hers:

Throughout the house there was a collection of clocks, my father in law’s legacy. Some were old Swiss clocks with sentimental value. These included my parent-in-law’s wedding gift, a clock or two passed down from past generations, and a replica of a Swiss railway station’s clock. There were also new, modern clocks, to just tell the time. Clocks hung in every room, on every floor. When my father in law was alive he used to wind them every Sunday, and they all synchronized on the second. Once, we visited, and I noticed the clocks were off. That was when I knew his days were numbered. When he died, my mother in law continued with the Sunday-winding tradition. Until she didn’t:

Upstairs, on the third floor, is the wall in the room we always stayed in, the room that used to be my sister in law’s when she was little. Here you see the fake bonsai, portraits of my mother in law and her sister when they were young. A work of art my husband made as a child, and a painting of the clock factory that a distant relative operated in China, long, long ago:

Finally, the cigarette advertisement, still surprisingly hanging on the door, larger than life. The model was my mother in law, when she was young and as beautiful as a movie star. The cigarettes were what killed her. Uncomprehendingly, she left the poster hanging even after she received the diagnosis of lung cancer. It catches her exactly as she was: strong, defiant, life-loving and doing things her way.