Snow has been falling for the past several hours, impossible to stick as the rain of previous days prevents a proper freezing point from being established. And yet it comes down, thick at times, these flurries. You can see them illuminated in the street lights of Zurich, this endless descent; cars are beginning to develop a blanket of white, but the ground remains slick – wet wet wet – perhaps the morrow will bring ice.
And, much like this march of maddened moisture, I find my own quest rivals it: I must continue. I must, for I haven’t any other options. Much like the snow, I descend upon the Swiss countryside, travelling from my base in Zurich to all corners where my ancestors once stalked. Here, the Staatarchiv Thurgau. There, the Stadtaarchiv Aarau. Graubunden. Bern. Diessbach. Leimbach. A thousand names foreign and familiar. A constant mix of Staat- and Stadt-, going into these old buildings with the same tired line,
“Es tut mir Leid – meine Deustch ist schlecht.”
Most speak English; though I am grateful for that, I do my best to speak the lingua franca. When in Rome, as the adage goes. But, given the professional and academic nature of the mission, my language skills are wholly lacking in this regard – before long, I must revert to English so that I might be able to make my immediate concerns and questions known.
Bah. Stupid Americans.
All the same, it is an exhilarating quest – especially when information is uncovered, shared, copied. I have documents. I have anecdotes. I have stories and recordings and pictures. From visiting family members – the kind you only hear about from your folks when they mention the Old Country, these obscure types that one finds so difficult to place or to visualize – so much can be learned.
My great-grandfather on my grandmother’s side was a bastard. “A devil,” it was claimed by a man who knew him once. He built a magnificent palace in a humble farming town, not unlike those obnoxious houses, the McMansions, just outside of my small hometown. His wealth was acquired from less than legal means, dubious at best, and that mystery remains to be solved. I have theories: I need evidence. But by all accounts, his wealth didn’t make him any more likeable or relatable. “A devil,” he repeated. “The day he died was a party. One of my happiest memories about the man.”
He had to sell the manor house and farm in his dotage as his ego couldn’t afford the upkeep. He died, broke, broken, and despised; riddled with cancer. All that remains of his folly is a stone stable. That will last, far, far longer than he. A stone stable house? How absurd.
“My brother was a good boy – a scholar, driven,” claimed my great uncle. You can see Grandpa in this man’s visage, old and wrinkled, the very same ears and nose that he once sported (he could wiggle them, you know, and he always amused us as kids by doing so); this living relic of my dead grandfather was like a curious oracle upon a hill, one that you must climb a desolate peak or brave the harshest elements, just to get a glimpse of his wisdom.
I merely took a plane and train.
But, there he is: my grandfather’s brother. Near 100 years old, sharp as a knife, stooped as any old man his age, yet his eyes ablaze with recollection as the memories came pouring forth. Poor thing, for I put him through the ringer with my questions for hours, constantly filming and recording and questioning and verifying this and that. Once he got going with my questions, I could scarcely keep the pen moving for such was his worth. “He was a good boy,” he repeated several times, “and was determined to achieve more than his allotment.”
Of course: he wasn’t the firstborn therefore he had no inheritance or farm to look forward to in the town of his birth. He would have to strike out on his own, to find his own greener pastures, if he was to achieve that.
He did. With the Mennonites in Iowa, the Swiss in Southern California, the deserts of New Mexico. He would have milked a dozen cows by hand had he stayed behind in Switzerland, sharing a parcel of land with his eldest brother, building a cramped farmhouse on the same plot.
He milked thousands at one point, employed dozens, and raised a family that has since spread across the nation. Humble beginnings. My great uncle’s eyes are still aflame, the brightest spark of an old man sharing older tales – those memories that needed to be said – as I try and capture them all. How pleased he is, how pleased he is, to be speaking thusly and about the old times.
“Es tut mir leid – mein Deutsch ist schlecht.”
It doesn’t matter, I suppose, for the information has been shared. Now comes the power of the pen, the single greatest invention of mankind, the very weapon that has damned nations and cost countless lives. The humble pen. With a stroke, fortunes are changed, lives are rewritten. If this seems cliché, for indeed it is, just remember that the latest war began with a pen stroke and not a bullet fired from an indiscriminate barrel. The smoke rises from the paper, the ink more deadly than bombs.
Is that, then, what I am doing? Declaring war? Don’t be absurd. I am merely penning a family history. A Familie Geschichte as it were, tramping about here and there in this familiarly strange country to track down the stories and anecdotes and documents that I should have tracked down a decade ago. Ah, hindsight – what dumb 23-year-old thinks about their elders in such a vein, eh? At that age, my grandparents were still young, still spry: they would live forever.
And, with this pen, I shall make it so.
The quest continues though my time in the Old Country nears an end. The snow is still falling; I expect ice tomorrow. My coat isn’t warm enough and my hiking sandals won’t keep the cold out. They are better for Camino, for Spain, not for this mission. But, alas, it is what I have. I shall make do. Perhaps I make a nice snow angel, have myself a snowball fight, on the morrow.
Perhaps I freeze and complain about my lot, shake my fist to the heavens and cry foul.
It doesn’t matter for the snow will continue to fall. This inevitable march of time, of progress, as it seeks to smother everything in its path, but is resolutely being denied a proper footing.
Much like my quest, the stories are burning, brimming just beneath the surface, waiting for me to find them. Not even the cold snow will smother them whilst I draw breath.
The fire in that old man’s eyes is mine now, and I will burn.