Nobody holds hands like my little girls.
My little girls still include my daughter Michel, now a generation away from being little. She still is not tall but it was ages since we held hands, ages from that awkward vague random age when it wasn’t cool to be seen at school or the mall holding hands with your dad, somewhere between nine and thirteen. I get it. Yet I do recall the feel of her palm and tight little fingers. I am reminded by the palms and fingers of her daughters, my grandchildren, my little girls Clara and Tess.
They are 12 and 9 now. Old enough to cross the street untethered to a grown up — most streets — or hand in hand with one another. Still, on a walk around Lake Harriet with ice cream cones or strolling down the main mall at the U going to the Weisman, they will glide their palms into my fingers as we stroll and talk. There is no time to feel self-conscious but only to savor the sublime grasp of their small lifelines and fingers in mine and the transference of enduring grace and the soft energy of simple love.
The moment Clara was born I was there behind a curtain where I could hear her first inhalations. She didn’t cry, just sort of chuckled. After a few awesome breath catching moments bonding with mom and dad, the nurse drew the curtain aside and brought her out to weigh her and clean her up.
“Hold her while I set up the scale,” said the nurse and placed Clara in my arms.
In that moment I experienced the most profound life altering flash. I looked into that baby’s blue eyes looking up into mine, eye contact, and put my finger into her tiny grasp and said, “Hello Clara, my sweet sweet baby.” This was the highest high, cosmic intensity, the most beautiful awareness of the soul of the universe. At that moment I knew in my heart and soul my life meant something good, and this goodness was not fleeting but sustaining everlasting joy. This exalted fulfillment — my first grandchild.
Thus Clara opened the way for Tess. Someday I hope I can appropriately express to Clara how grateful I am for that moment and its effect on my life ever since.
Tess is another story. I used to wonder if I compensated with Tess, making up for the two years and eight months she wasn’t around, when Clara was an only child.
Tess was born almost an hour before I held her. Around dinnertime, waiting for Michel to go into deep labor, Granma Roxanne and I took Clara out to Burger King. The Burger King featured a playland for kids made of colorful conduit tubes to climb around in like hamsters. We let Clara climb inside. When Michel’s husband Sid called Roxanne’s cell phone to say Tess was on the way, we called up into the tubes to tell Clara it was time to go. She by then had climbed to the top of the tube maze and cried out she was lost and didn’t know which way to come down. We tried to talk her through the route but she wouldn’t budge. Too narrow for an adult to to climb in to get her, a boy about seven offered to go up and escort her out.
By the time we arrived back at the hospital Tess was weighed, bathed and swaddled. Sid’s parents were already there and holding the new baby. Michel relaxed in the rocking chair. My first face to face with Tess she looked crabby. Unlike Clara, who was born bald, Tess had a full head of dark hair. She wore a wizened face. She seemed to demand an apology for being late. I held her. She squirmed.
The first impressions of my grand daughters no way eclipsed the megaton experiences of the births of my daughter and son. Fatherhood bestowed its own blessings, not least from my son Vincent whose masculine handshakes, fist bumps and abrazos inspire me to this day. Vincent has his own story. This is about my girls.
Clara and Tess were both named after me. Their middle names are each Michel, their mother’s name. My middle name is Michael. Sid’s middle name is Michael. When it comes up at school or an airport customs station they say it’s their family name. When I asked Roxanne if she resented not being a member of the Michel Club, she said no thanks, it’s enough to bear just being a Kelly.
Michel’s middle name by the way is Angela. That’s why her family, school and social (but not professional) nickname is Angel, or The Angel. Never Angie. And never never never Mike, Mikey or Mickey.
Clara is named Clara after Sid’s maternal grandma, Clara Stix, who is 99 years old.
To me the word Clara conveys a consistent expression of clear understanding, as in the Spanish expression clara. Clear.
I recall a precious quote attributed to someone named Billy, age 4:
“When somebody loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know your name is safe in their mouth.”
From the first eye contact between us the day she was born, Clara and I have clear communication. I take credit, in part, for her vocabulary and syntax and know her today as an articulate young lady not shy to look you in the eye. We all like to think our offspring precocious. Early on Clara organized objects and directed play. I let her — encouraged her — to boss me around as I played the role of the customer/bus driver/pupil in her scenarios. I gave her crayons, paper and markers. I played music on the stereo.
When she was a baby I waltzed her in my arms to Madonna’s “Baby’s got a secret.”
“Mmmm mmmm, something’s coming over, something’s coming over me…”
You may observe in me the signs of a devious, insidious and sinister Master Plan. Based in proud success parenting Michel and Vincent into adulthood, here with Clara — wow — what an opportunity to really grandfather this bright kid, really show her the world.
The first time I brought her to the Minneapolis Institute of Art we happened into the gallery of medieval european paintings which features detailed depictions of the Crucifixion. Barely three years old, Clara began to cry and wanted to know why those people — how could those people — be so mean to that man? Why? What did he do? She cried and sobbed pointing to the man with nails in his hand, bleeding from his head and side, unable to look away. I carried her to distraction at the next gallery, consoling her tears but virtually speechless — there was no way I could say like oh don’t worry, that didn’t really happen, nobody was ever really made to suffer and die in such humiliation in this old world.
A lesson in granprogramming. First do no harm. Be careful what you wish for, especially wishing on behalf of somebody else’s child. She was Michel and Sid’s kid and I had no right to risk her ruin. I promised to mentor Clara as much as she mentored me. Roxanne and I set up a college fund so maybe she could someday study a semester at the Sorbonne.
Clara nicknamed herself Sparkles.
She identifies her looks with her father Sid, less with her mother. What Clara doesn’t realize is how much she resembles me. Not now, and not that she was very white and bald the first year of her life, or that we both have blue eyes. I was fair and blond as a child and there is a resemblance between us in old pictures of me in black and white. I understand why a pretty girl would feel less pretty compared to resemble a bald and wrinkling man of the third age and favor being likened to a handsome guy like her dad, who also has blue eyes.
Tess is Tess. Not Teresa, or Tessa, Contessa, and only to her mama is she Tessy. I call her Kitty. I asked her permission, and she asked why, and I said because you remind me of my mom. Tess resembles her mom, who both resembles Roxanne and my mom, who went by the name of Kitty and was once a fashion model. She passed away just before Tess was born, so she never knew her. Do you miss her, Tess asks. Every day, I reply.
Tess saved Clara from the awful fate of being an only child. Clara was pushing a precocious three years old when Tess showed up to challenge Clara’s sovereignty. From Tess’s inception Clara was schooled to the expectations of being a big sister. Michel told how she had a talk with Clara the night before Tess started infant day care at Clara’s pre-school, and Michel asked Clara to look after Tess because Tess was new there and had no friends yet. Clara said back to her mom, “She also has no teeth.”
Tess and I didn’t bond like Clara and me. She was Granma Roxy’s girl from the outset. I had to earn Tess’s affection. She didn’t snuggle up to me.
As we were saying our good byes at their house after a family dinner I moved towards toddler Tess to hug farewell, she stiffened, stepped back and shouted, “Get out of my house!”
Another time soon afterwards she was left alone in my care. We were on my front porch, she had some toys, and abruptly she gestured she wanted to go indoors. I didn’t want to go inside, content to sit and read on my porch swing and so encouraged her to keep playing with her toys out on the porch. Too small and uncoordinated yet to operate the screen door, she began to scream.
A penetrating high-pitched scream like a diva on metabolics. A full lung’s worth. Aside from awe for the child’s vocal power my first thought was one of the neighbors was calling the cops. Soon as she exhausted her lungs she inhaled deep and let rip again, a higher note yet, Tess’s fierce face like an enraged christmas caroler. “My goodness,” all I could say, “you can really hit those notes. Keep going. I think you can be a singer.”
Granpa Buffalo Kelly calmly rocked in his porch swing waiting for the child protection cops while the baby diva belted high E. Showdown. Opportunity to establish what kind of grandparent I wanted to be, tested here at my house, one on one, by some kind of beast of the east, a bullying tantrum to get her whimsical way, not even asking much less saying please.
Eventually she began to cry. Big tears. Sobbing she asked if we could go indoors. She let me console her, and we picked up the toys. No incident like that ever occurred again. We moved on. We made lunch.
Though she remained Granma’s Girl for several years, Tess and I bonded faithfully on her terms. Like with Clara we played whatever Tess wanted, only Clara sought consensus or contentedly played alone whereas Tess implied compulsion and resisted solo activity. My devotion to Tess for her own right made me conscious she wasn’t Clara and it seemed sometimes I owed Tess the two plus years Clara had as a head start.
Their sibling rivalry manifests along personality lines. Clara is contemplative and deliberate. She is given towards an artistic eccentric temperament. Tess is overt and plain spoken when grumpy.
It took years for Clara to accept Tess as a bona fide character beyond her big sister shadow, just as it’s taken Tess years to catch up where Clara leaves off.
Once I overheard them playing in the bathtub. Tess seemed to have a dialogue going with her toys. Clara was singing to herself something bluesy.
“I woke up in the sky. You woke up in a dead fishy’s mouth.”
If this was directed at Tess, Tess made no reply, apparently kept playing toys.
They both love to sing. Both have lovely voices and can carry a melody. Kiz Bop. Bedtime with the Beatles. 101 Best Kid Songs Ever. Annie. John McCutcheon. CDs and FM radio in the car. Their parents have eclectic and modern pop tastes. Sid has been a deep fan of My Morning Jacket. Michel first introduced me to Counting Crows. At barely three Clara got a listen to Andrea Bocelli singing “Con Te Partiro” and made it her song a while after the cute phase, but it showed taste and what she could do vocally even if she didn’t know the words, sort of made them up phonetically. I plied her with Shakira songs in Spanish.
John McCutcheon said he told his grand daughter not to take up the banjo, that girls who play banjo don’t get dates. After Taylor Swift no grand daughter will ever believe him.
Tess has a throatier voice and actually does a decent Shakira impression. Just as I used to rock baby Clara to sleep in my arms to Madonna’s “Secret” I used to rock Tess to sleep with Shakira’s “Something”, a song about looking into someone’s eyes and finding the existence of God.
“You accept me like nobody, and I will always love you baby…”
It was about the time Tess was born Clara took up gymnastics. All cartwheels and a balance beam a foot above the mat. For a few seasons she ran track and field. Swimming. Pre-school led to kindergarden and grade school. She sang at school choir. Granma Roxy and I attended meets and concerts. Grandparents Day was a sweet deal. Sid and The Angel’s family the Kysylyczyns lived in a suburb east of St Paul on the way to Wisconsin, not exactly close neighbors or even nearby neighborhoods but at least a straight shot via freeway away. We were cosmopolitan metropolitan grandparents, lucky to have them this close. (And Sid and Michel probably considered us far enough away — an independence consideration.) Near enough to babysit. Gladly. Sleepovers. Most Fridays in the summer Roxanne took off work and went to their house for the day or took the kids to the beach. I looked forward to retirement as a future hanging out with the kids any day I wanted, attending their events and plays, volunteer reader at their school, helping with homework and projects, going to shows and museums and amusement parks and Wisconsin Dells. Baseball games. Fishing with Uncle Vincent. Pizza nights. Apple picking. Fourth of July. Christmas. All those amazing things you can do with grandchildren between birthdays.
Future so bright, as the song says, I had to wear shades. This grandfather gig was a sweet deal. The modified and improvised Master Plan was going like a proverbial Swiss watch and I could never have asked for a more ideal family relationship. I was learning about childhood all over again through the eyes of my own experts. I was there for them to find answers to fresh questions, give support to their discoveries and provide love and support to their day to day.
Clara was six and Tess not even four when I had retirement in my sights and visions of Camp Granpa Kelly — my future contribution to their summer day care. I was living the dream in grandpa paradise when Sid and Michel introduced the idea that in six months they would all be relocating to Switzerland.
For at least three — maybe five — years.
It wasn’t for sure yet. They hadn’t officially said yes and there were details to work out. Sid works for an international information corporation headquartered in the Twin Cities and they wanted him to go manage some assets at their Swiss office in a town called Zug. Nobody could conclude this was anything but a stunningly fantastic opportunity for all of them.
So much for my vague imperial master plan. Just when I had everything to give — future Wicked tickets, a city of lakes and parks, library cards, Minnesota historical sites, Nickelodeon Universe at Mall of America — life turned on me in the weirdest way. Here I dedicated my life to Clara and Tess, and what do I get? They go away and run off to Europe.
Deep in my heart I knew this was by far the better deal. Chance of a lifetime. Deep heart BS, it was no brain obvious. It would be insane to pout over such good fortune for my girls and their mom and dad.
Call it a Sting lesson — if you love somebody set them free.
Six months was hardly enough time to get used to the idea. Sid and Michel were offered a “look see” and flew to Zurich for a week finding their way with the corporate guide. Sid’s company treated him and their family with utmost fair compensation for upending their regular lives so Sid could take this assignment. They found a three bedroom apartment in a town next to Zug at the foot of a mountain along a lake in a valley about 20 miles south of Zurich and about 15 miles north of Luzern in the foothills of the high Alps. On a map. The kids would attend an English international school. Michel would not be able to get a work visa right away so she was not expected to work outside the home. They leased a Skoda sedan.
They put most of their belongings in storage, shipped a freight crate of things, leased out their suburban house, packed every suitcase they could cadge from kinfolk, and after the longest long goodbye in family history we ended up at MSP airport hugging and weeping at the TSA entrance. Sid told me, “Stay healthy.”
I gave Clara and Tess each a Sacajawea US dollar coin to save until they came back home, to remind them of home, the USA.
Too soon it was time to part, for them to pass through security and board the 7:40 red eye all nighter to Amsterdam and off to a new life far away without me.
“Free free, set them free…”
This was summertime five years ago. I grieved, milked sympathy. I put up more pictures in my office. The Swiss Family Kysylyczyns would get one specifically paid-for home visit per year and they elected to always make it four weeks around Christmas. As for the rest of Sid’s allotted personal time off, it wasn’t long before Michel broke the truth not to expect them back in Minnesota other than Christmas. Three years in the heart of Europe suddenly seemed to Sid and Michel a very finite time to explore the surrounding continent — no offense, Minnesota.
We Skyped most Sundays, noon our time, seven p.m. theirs. Even when they looked onscreen like Georges Braque cubist portraits it was better than no contact at all — what Roxanne’s dad might have said was better than a poke in they eye with a sharp stick — especially when the audio was any good. For all its glitches, interruptions and bad video and audio connections, Skype saved my heart.
Roxanne had Facebook. I wrote e-mails. I wrote stamped letters. Michel called on the phone and chatted with her mom like mothers and daughters do. It was important not to be forgotten, and important not to forget.
Roxanne and I turned the situation around to our best advantage. This was our chance to explore Europe. We could visit the kids and use their place to base tours. We could be Bumpkins Abroad. We schemed from the very day Michel said it was six months away to budget and plan to go to Europe as much as we could. As much as Michel and Sid would welcome us.
Here we got off lucky. Michel and Sid never seemed to tire of our visits. Since Clara and Tess shared a bedroom — Ikea bunk beds — the third bedroom was kept as a playroom library with an Ikea daybed, where Granma and I slept and kept our stuff when we visited. On one wall hung a giant poster of Paris in monochrome except the Eiffel Tower in a golden hue, an Ikea print that symbolized our mission.
We made six trips to Europe in four years, including the last one after Sid, Michel and the girls suddenly repatriated to Minnesota, so they weren’t even there to visit any more. Before they moved to Switzerland, Roxanne and I had been to Europe exactly twice, and we were already in our 50s — once to France on an extended trip surrounding an international scientific convention Roxanne attended in Dijon, and once on a Kelly family pilgrimage to Ireland. In our forty-some years together she and I have been all over America and especially our region, the obscure middle of this continent. We have gone to Canada, Mexico and a tiny bit of the Caribbean outside the US borders. We have not been to Asia, Africa, Oceania (except the northern tier, Hawaii,) the Middle East, South America, Australia or Antarctica, ever, although we have met or met up with people from most of those places (who might hail from Antarctica?) while wandering Europe. Only the past dozen years or so of our lives did we set foot in Europe.
We are not sophisticated people in the realm of world travelers. We are Americans. There’s no Grand Tour of classical romantic education on my curriculum vitae from my younger days, no memoirs of a post adolescence vagabond adventure en europa. Roxanne did not backpack from Iberia to Istanbul the year between high school and university and she did not study at Toulouse. We are American bumpkins.
Our grandchildren by contrast have already lived much of their lives embedded and unconsciously enthralled in the cultures and lands we could only imagine when we were their ages, and until recently could only imagine most of our adult lives. Clara and Tess have been to at least a dozen countries in Europe and North Africa. They have held hands to cross streets and canals in some of the most monumental cities of western history. They speak and read high German and sometimes spell words like color colour. They have skiied the Alps. They can read basic Greek street signs. They know kids from Sweden, Ireland, Spain, France, South Africa, Turkey, Scotland and Massachusetts. They are used to hearing people speak in tongues. They know how to ride trains.
I do not expect them to vividly remember Vienna but there was something gained from strolling the boulevards of Mozart once upon a time. The deep effects of exposure to so much culture may never be measurable. We can say it gave them untold insight to serve them all their lives. Already at their new schools in Minneapolis they are finding other kids who lived in foreign lands once upon a time. The value of this insight beyond what may have been gained by ordinary bumpkin childhoods presumes outcomes we cannot foresee based on Granpa values. I will say this, I am very jealous and wish I’d had a childhood like theirs in Europe. Of course they don’t realize how special their experience was because they are children and don’t know any different. They take their lead from their parents, who realize how exceptional their situation was but neither let it go to their heads nor let it get them down.
I forget that Michel and Sid felt separation too. Sometimes it seemed for them it was one glorious adventure but day to day realities and routine practices require support from our closest people sometimes, and it is good to share good things. That’s where Skype helped. We smuggled care packages of taco and enchilada spices, Skippy peanut butter, Twizzlers and books. Sid and Michel took turns reading to the kids at bedtime. They took a shine to a series we sent them about Betsy and Tacy set in Mankato, Minnesota about a hundred years ago during the childhood times of their living great grandma. The girls wanted to visit where Betsy and Tacy grew up. Living in the land of Heidi, Clara and Tess wanted to visit a town not a hundred miles from where they were born.
When Granma Roxanne and I came to visit it was magical. The first thing we learned (besides how to catch the train from Zurich airport to Zug) was how to say “Gruetzi” — hola, aloha, hello, the Swiss German way to greet people on the street.
Sid and Michel always planned excursions. The first trip they rented a Volkswagen Touareg so all six of us could drive to Munich, stopping to gaze at the castle at Neuschwanstein. At Munich we saw the rooftop glockenspiel at Marienplatz and Clara lost her first tooth at the Rathaus beer hall. (The tooth fairy at our hotel paid up in Swiss francs.) Too late for Octoberfest (which is in September) we strolled through the English Garden park on a beautiful autumn day and stopped for bratwurst and kraut at an outdoor beer hall serving Hofbrau beer adjacent to a Chinese tower. On the drive back to Zug we bought a chocolate birthday cake at an Agip gas station — the station with the logo of a six legged doggie facing backwards over his shoulder and breathing flame at its tail — and back at the apartment we cut the cake and celebrated Tess’s fifth birthday.
Subsequent family excursions took us to Paris, Paris Disney, Normandy, Montreaux, Lake Como and Venice, either in the same rented Touareg or by train. We went to Rheinfall, Europe’s Niagara near the German Swiss border. We walked the beaches of Normandy in the solemn footprints of the brave. Near Brittany, in France where you can hardly swing an incense burner by the chain without hitting a shrine to Archangel Michael, we walked the pilgrimage on the dry causeway to the Gothic monument on the sea at Mt St Michel dedicated to our family namesake.
Clara, Tess, Granma and I found the Statue of Liberty in the Luxembourg Garden in Paris and Clara skinned her knee trying a cartwheel on a gravel path. Together we all gazed at the Mona Lisa. At the Zurich Kunsthaus we canvasses of Monet’s water lilies as big as a kitchen. Clara and I rode and re-rode the pharaoh’s roller coaster at the French theme park Asterix. We’ve hung out high up on the Eiffel Tower. We’ve hiked Zugerberg and ferried Zugersee. Heard vespers sung in Latin in the reverb of the Paris Cathedral of Notre Dame. At Luzern we saw one of the saddest things Mark Twain and I have ever seen, the grotto sculpture of the Dying Lion. We have seen fireworks at Menaggio over Lake Como, Italy. In Montreaux we walked among eternal music along Lake Geneva’s Christmas market and the next day rode the funicular up the mountainside to visit Pere Noel at the snow capped top. Together with the kids, the little girls. All these things and every savory moment of indulgence in the very trivia of their lives kept me from losing out on who they were and who they were growing into being, just because they lived a quarter of the world away.
Four years away is a long time. We did not allow the the time and space to estrange us. We attended choir concerts at their school, met their teachers and friends. Tess took up soccer. Clara kept up competitive gymnastics. Granma and I couldn’t help but miss all the other concerts, plays, meets, matches and other events, but we showed up enough to get how much these things meant to them and to feel their joy and sense of accomplishment. In second grade at their school they were assigned to paint a self portrait in acrylic on a fairly large canvas. Clara is a serious and bemused, wry pose of fauve color expressionism. Tess — painted just before coming home, barely enough time to cure before shipping — is insurmountable overflowing impressionistic joy. They are both adorable people.
It’s natural for a grandfather to be proud of his grandchildren, and I allow for my kinship bias as they are my two favorite people on the planet in my life. I see in them the best of what I see in myself and what kind of person I can be. They are intelligent and kind. They are confident and unafraid of the world, given certain boundaries. They give other people a chance. They respect people’s privacies. They know how to be true friends. How to ask and answer questions.
Sid quotes a favorite professor who said, the more you see the more you know the more you see. His daughters have seen a lot in their four years in Europe. They are growing into fine young women. One does not need Title IX to expect they are capable of whatever they undertake and will not be held back by any force, least because they are girls.
At the Tate Britain Clara asked me , “Granpa, why are there so many paintings of women — naked women — and so few paintings by women artists?”
Think I had an easy answer? I try. Let me begin and end with a painting that translates as Luncheon On the Grass. At the Tate I counted exactly zero women artists but zero female nudes. Since then I have composed a list in progress of female artists starting with Frida Kahlo, Kathe Kollwitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Cassatt, Marie Vigee Lebrun and Marianne Werefkin, for the day she asks me to name some names.
At Zurich they have an extensive collecton of medieval triptyches of the Crucifixion. It was awkward to come upon them with Clara, for me, but Clara regarded them with a childlike squinting objectivity as she lingered a little, took her time through the gallery, and I escorted her at her side at her pace, explaining nothing.
She said, “Remember at the MIA I cried when I saw paintings like those? I was afraid somebody could do that to me.”
About a month or so ago I was driving her to gymnastics practice after school and she said out of the blue from the back seat, “Granpa, I don’t think anybody knows who God really is.”
Clara is a writer. She keeps notebooks and journals. She makes lists of character names. She writes stories of girls in peril. She has a natural narrative voice and a way with written language. She rarely finishes her stories, abandons them without endings and moves on — I don’t know what that is a sign of but I somehow trust Clara to know in her own way what stories are worth ending and what are practice exercises in musing. She is proud that I published a novel, though it was 25 years ago, way before she was born and she’s never read it — probably shouldn’t read it either so long as To Kill A Mockingbird and Bean Trees are in print, disgruntled horror story that it was. She makes iPad videos with herself and sometimes Tess lip synching music like the reggae “Here Comes Trouble” by Chronixx. On her Christmas visit before last she proclaimed herself to be my publicist for a day and produced a video of an array of stuffed animals (and a Tess cameo) all posed reading copies of my novel, sitting around the furniture of my home like this cuddly fluffy book club engrossed in copies of my novel set to the song “Disappearing” by the War on Drugs. The books she found were unsold copies stored in my loft closet. She’s after me to write a new book.
I am humbled that she is proud of me for what I reflect back as a dubious achievement. One positive thing, I actually finished something. The downbeat is that maybe it should have gone unfinished. I cannot belittle the book in her eyes because I don’t want her to think I’m ashamed, but I all but hide it away around here.
Another different ride to gymnastics practice and from the back seat Clara asked me about doubt. Was it okay to have doubt?
“Yes, it’s okay to have doubt,” I answered not offering myself as the family expert, though I am. “Doubt is a reasonable check and balance. It keeps us honest about what we want and what we think. It’s not healthy to be absolutely certain without looking at the other side. Doubt gives us a chance to evaluate what is right. Doubt can help us be more sure what’s true.”
A week or two later she told me nobody really knows God.
It was hard for Clara to leave Switzerland, her school and her friends in the middle of fifth grade. She achieved success at gymnastics and academics. She belonged to the school’s prestigious choir, so short she stood in the front row and looked so into it, every song. Her final semester at the international school she won the part of Auntie Em in the school production of the Wizard of Oz. Because of her voice in the auditions they created a solo reprise rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow from Auntie Em’s point of view. They say she played Auntie Em with compassion. A long way from the new kid in second grade from the States, and practically overnight Switzerland was gone and she’s back in the States starting over, not even finished fifth grade. It was sad but it was built into the bargain, after three or so years they would eventually have to go home to America.
Tess came into the age of reason, turned seven in Switzerland. She too lost a baby tooth at a German beer hall — I wasn’t there but I saw a picture. She lost a lot of baby teeth in Europe. A bright polite conversationalist, she will begin by asking politely, “May I tell you something? May I ask you something?”
Being American expats pressed Michel to be most mindful of good behavior. Ambassadors of their country and family. I overheard her remind Tess in a grumpy mood over a schoolyard tiff, “Your job is to be the nicest one.”
Tess learned to read and write in Switzerland. Cursive. Not just the grade minimum, Tess tries to read at a higher grade level or two, chasing Clara. Tess learned cartwheels and backflips. She sang herself into the choir’s junior varsity, the Young Voices, who were chosen to sing in Zurich’s old town giant scaffold Christmas tree — another event I did not attend but saw pictures.
She says she loves math. She wants to be a veterinarian — has a lab coat, a clinic and toy animal patients. She loves horses. She’s got all the time in the world to catch Clara.
The most meaningful outcome of their years in Switzerland was the ultimate bond between the two sisters. They shared a bedroom — and lived! They watched out for each other. They fought over each others privacy. They shared books and songs, apps and devices and sometimes clothes, and a mom and dad. They were paired forever by fate, destined to join forces forever. Sometimes they fought more like brothers. Sometimes it’s like they read each others minds. Their love is obvious.
These are my observations, actually witnessing their — as Tess puts it — real life. Not the imaginary product of some ideal wish list ginned up by a granpa left behind who sees a Facebook photo once in a blue moon and a badly staged Skype — no, this was real life. And life was lovely. The kids were truly all right (without Granma and me hovering around six months at a time) and actually prospering. Not feeling left out, we felt privy to their confidence. By our fourth visit there was no anxiety about estrangement or being out of sync.
As early as July before their third Christmas visit Michel expressed a wish to spend at least one extra week surrounding Christmas instead of just four. This meant She and the girls would have to travel one way unaccompanied by Sid, who for compliance with the terms of his Swiss work permit could not be outside Switzerland for more than 30 consecutive days. The issue was with Michel who is terrified of flying. She somehow gets through it every time. Short hops aren’t too bad, but the 12 hour transatlantic can be murder for her, especially when turbulent and nothing to see out the window. She keeps somehow from freaking out and remains a calmly intense and reasonable good sport role model for the girls, and credits Sid her husband beside her. She wasn’t sure she could endure the transatlantic alone with the girls. She needed another adult at least. She asked around among other American expatriates going home the first week of December, willing to tough out a final leg alone if somebody could at least let her fly with them across the sea to Atlanta, Boston, JFK, Montreal or Detroit, but there was nobody. Michel truly sincerely wanted to come home five weeks for Christmas.
What we won’t do for our children. I offered to fly there and escort her home for Christmas. I would arrive a week ahead — enough time to adjust from jet lag and take in some Christmas markets, meet Sami Clas. So I wouldn’t feel lonely and she wouldn’t be sad, I booked a ticket for Roxanne. Around the first of December we flew to Zurich to rescue Michel.
Sami Clas is a character based on the bishop St Nicholas. In Zug he arrives by boat on the lake in a ceremony to commence the Christmas season. Sid and Michel arranged a home visit to Clara and Tess from Sami Clas while Roxanne and I were there. He arrived at the door in his red robe wearing his miter and carrying his crook, his long staff and symbol of his bishop’s authority. He was flanked by two Schmutzli, silent shadowy figures in austere brown hooded robes who symbolize the dark elements of winter. Legends say the Schmutzli carry bad kids off into the mountains never to be seen again. They stood with their heads bowed, faces obscured, either side of Sami Clas who took a seat in the good chair in the living room and read from a leather book a list of positive accomplishments Clara and Tess achieved over the past year, things only a Sami Clas would know outside the family.
This same visit we rented the Touareg and drove to Montreaux, hung out at the Christmas market along Lake Geneva, ate raclette, rode the ferris wheel and found a shrine to Freddie Mercury at the beach. Next day we ascended above the clouds to the blue sky at the top of Rochers de Naye to visit Pere Noel, as they call him in the French region — no schmutzli here, just nice alpine helpers. Out the windows the mountaintops rose up from a sea of fluffy swirls like islands in whipped cream. We got off the tram halfway down the mountain into the prevailing overcast to have lunch at a dining hospitality academy and hiked a trail where interactive musical art installations busied the kids making melodies from the sounds of the contraptions.
Another excellent adventure with our Swiss Family Kysylyczyn. It never really was a rescue mission.
The last time I’ve held Michel’s hand was takeoff from Shiphol Amsterdam airport that Christmas trip. I was Dad. For her it was an immensely drawn half minute of panicky uncertainty while the aircraft picks up speed and lifts off the runway. Michel was born five weeks premature and spent the first few days of her life in an incubator where Roxanne and I could only touch her and hold her tiny hand through portholes most of the time. The first times I held her hand, just the tip of my index finger in her tiny grasp. Now convincingly in the air and entering the clouds above Amsterdam and nothing bad happened, she gave my palm a firm squeeze of thanks and let me go, the worst was over. It reminded me of the last time before that when she held my hand and let go, her wedding day, two times that day, when she gave me an assurant squeeze before she took my arm to walk her down the aisle, and again at the reception when we completed the father and daughter dance, “My Girl” by the Temptations.
During the Swiss expatriation Roxanne’s dad passed away. In a way it was sudden but mostly his demise came as a systematic cascading decline of the body and mind to where the inevitable meets the eventual. In the hospital he said to me, “There… there oughta… there oughtabe a law!” What he meant clearly was a law against getting old and dying, which is the natural law whether we like it or not. When he entered hospice care we notified Michel. She, Sid and the girls exercised Sid’s bereavement benefit to fly home. It’s a wonder we didn’t name her Eddie. Michel was born on his birthday.
At hospice he hung in almost a week. One morning while the rest of the family who were at the hospice met briefly with the nursing staff in the kitchen to talk about expectations for the day, Michel lingered alone with her Grandpa Ed dozing peacefully. At his bedside she held his hand and said nice things, and that’s when Grandpa Ed exhaled his last. I cannot imagine a gentler way to pass away. I should be so lucky.
Roxanne’s mom said later, “No wonder they named her Angel.”
The trip to Europe the following spring we planned a family vacation in Venice. This vacation would include Vincent and his wife Amelie. This would be the third spring and possibly the last opportunity to visit the Kysylyczyn family in Europe, before we learned they would be extended a fourth year and made plans to come back a sixth time. Roxanne and Michel by this time were experts at finding and booking excellent, affordable accommodations anywhere we went. They reserved an apartment that slept eight near Piazza San Marco.
We would only need to sleep seven. Our rendezvous in Venice coincided with a performance of Clara’s school choir scheduled to sing at St Mark’s Basilica. Clara would be traveling with the team. The venue changed from singing at St Mark’s to singing at a little town Catholic school nearby on the mainland, but the rest of the choir’s field trip itinerary stayed intact. From the morning Clara boarded the tour bus at Zug at the school car park she traveled with the choir.
In Venice we caught glimpses of her on canal bridges, on the Piazza between tours of St Mark’s and the Doge Palace dressed in their uniforms like the school girls in the Madeleine stories. I got to hug her twice, saying hi at the restaurant where the kids ate supper, and ciao after the concert at the little Catholic school. Otherwise she was busy. This was my first encounter with Clara committed to an activity transcending family. The independence becomes her. You see it now in her game face with her gymnastics team. Back then it was the light in her eyes when she sang with the choir. Never looking lost in a crowd. At ease with her peers. This visit to Venice essentially being about Clara without Clara was a sign to me Clara was letting go of my hand, setting me free.
If fell to Tess to be the grandchild, the niece. The child leader. She took my hand as we walked upstairs and down and crossed the bridges of the myriad canals of Venice, she the tour guide companion who had been there before with her other grandparents and assured me we would not lose our way.
When we settled into the apartment, accessed from the alley through a medieval door with a modern electronic lock, Tess sang for Granma and me the Skye Boat Song, the classic Scottish hymn about the Bonnie Prince sailing to his homeland. Never faltered one note or one lyric. Later when Vincent and Amelie joined us from Amsterdam she sang it again for them, never faltered.
At dinner at restaurants she was polite and ate all her food. Her conversation was engaging. She never got grumpy or complained on long walks exploring the tangled old city. She bought a feathered opera mask. We found a park, a green space beyond the Lido where she could do cartwheels and run around, and she was happy. She was the nicest one.
“May I tell you something Granpa?”
Anything you want.
Free free, set them free…
That Christmas we went to Montreaux and we escorted Michel home a week ahead of Sid, they stayed at my and Roxanne’s house that first week, this old house where Michel and Vincent grew up. The kids use Michel’s old bedroom (Vincent’s is now the TV lounge) — actually the kids have the run of the entire house. It’s a safe and tidy place with nothing to hide that’s not well hidden, so to speak: I wouldn’t expect to find Clara and Tess poring over our tax returns anytime soon, but it could happen — Clara unearthed a case of my novel hidden in plain sight. While she made iPod videos, wrote, drew pictures, made lists, played pop radio and watched American TV (oh Disney) all downstairs, Tess staked out the upstairs loft. She built a city up there of all the dolls and houses and animal figurines and Legos and little people like Polly Pockets collected over thirty something years of childhoods, sprawled like an urban sprawl along a highway across the loft carpet alongside the bookshelves and the desk, carefully arrayed not to block normal grownup passage and thus to allow her keeping it set up the better part of the week. She temporarily loaned Clara the stuffed animals for her video.
On white typing paper Tess drew a picture of a town colored in red and green and made it into a sign with an arrow, which she taped to the wall along the stairway so the arrow pointed upstairs.
Magic Words Sola Mola Toy
Tess made a Christmas card for her mother that year. When Michel opened it Christmas day she read it out loud. You could see from the artwork and the text graphics that Tess had worked on this card carefully, not casually. Michel read the sentiments of how Tess loved her mama, and it ended with this statement:
Our family is permanent.
Thank you Tess and Clara — Kitty and Sparkles — and Michel and Sid who made you and gave you to me, my dear grandchildren. Through your eyes and ears and voices I am privy to discovery and rediscovery of the essence of being human. I love you.
Thank you for going away and enabling me and Granma Roxy to follow after you and to explore places and see things we may never had a chance to know if not for you living in Europe.
Six times we flew over there and back. From our first visit we made time to go off on our own and book passage to a series of places. Switzerland by itself is a marvel of sights. In the Alps we’ve felt like we’ve stood at the top of the world. One road trip with Michel and her Skoda brought us by GPS to a tiny Czech town where Roxanne’s grandmother was born. We have walked battlefields near Colmar. We have walked the city streets of great capitals. We’ve browsed the countrysides, crossing borders on trains and buses. We’ve wandered the excavated city of Pompeii and drank lemonade from lemons grown below Vesuvius. We hiked the trail Mark Twain hiked at Rigi. We rode taxis, city buses, boats, cable cars, subways and tubes and followed endless maps to navigate ourselves in and out of lost, finding where we were and where next.
My grandchildren enabled me to tour several of the world’s finest art museums. Thanks to Clara and Tess I have seen with my own eyes an incredible abundance of the most exquisite and sublime original works on the planet, images and buildings I only knew and thought I would ever know from lectures, slides and books.
I cannot express how grateful I am.
Every spring for four years Roxanne and I would be gone a month or so. We would see the kids a week or ten days, not always in succession, at their place, take an excursion together, then she and I would go off on our own chasing castles, cathedrals, platzs and piazzas, cafes, monuments, dwelling on the fly among people talking in tongues. We met a lot of nice people. We learned to eat left handed — knife right hand, fork in the left. No trip ever went badly, and that says a lot considering the intense events that occurred in Europe those years.
Our biggest gripe is of ourselves and our persistent inability to learn to pack lightly. Roxanne refers to those times as being our Senior Backpacking Tours, but the joke there isn’t that we didn’t stay in hostels but that our luggage were no backpacks. The bane of the adventure was our travel day, lugging our heavy suitcases aboard trains and up strange streets looking for the hotel. London and Paris underground stations are mainly accessible by stairs — not conducive to big suitcases. Like the themes of those Alice and Jerry books back in gradeschool, If I Were Going and If I Were Going Again, we tell ourselves we need to learn to pack lighter and smarter. That and stay longer at one place, near a laundromat with an outdoor pub nearby like in Barcelona and Chamonix.
For Clara’s tenth birthday, the year of the choir trip to Venice, Granma and I took her to London to see Wicked. We flew EZ Jet in and out of Gatwick. The terminal to me for some reason suggested a WWII airfield where we stood in queue at the customs booths with passports in hand and it seemed half of us at least should be in some form of service uniform besides the customs agents themselves behind glass, all of us ready to hand up our papers and our orders.
Rox and I handed up our passports, then Clara hers with the required to-whom-it-may-concern letter signed by her parents consenting us grandparents permission to transport this minor child across an international border. The customs lady asked, “Where’s mum?”
Instinctively Granma began to speak but was stopped by a flick of the agent’s eyes.
“Back in Switzerland,” Clara answered. “These are my grandparents.”
“Why are you entering the UK?”
“We’re going to see Wicked. It’s a play.”
Another sign the kid is growing up, answering for herself. That’s the idea from day one, holding her and looking into her newborn eyes, getting her ready to answer for herself.
I tease Tess telling her she has lovely blue eyes, which is only true under certain light. She says her eyes are green, like her mom’s. Under certain light Michel’s eyes used to look blue too when she was a little girl, and I tried to catch it with a camera, but they were green. Clara’s are blue, though. Definitely blue.
The day they flew back to Switzerland from the Montreaux five-week Christmas we rode to the airport in three cars. Clara and Tess rode with me, singing school and Christmas songs from their car seats in the back seat without the radio on. We were on highway 5. Out of the blue they began a duet from the top, a complete rendition of “Illegal” by Shakira.
“You don’t know the meaning of the words I’m sorry / You said you would love me till you die / Far as I know you’re still alive / Baby, you don’t know the meaning of the words I’m sorry / I’m starting to believe / It should be illegal to deceive a woman’s heart / Open heart, open heart / It should be illegal to deceive a woman’s heart”
There could be no greater proof — if I ever felt insecure and needed proof — that Clara and Tess love me. They must have learned the song on their own to sing to me. Of all the singers they could have covered they chose my favorite singer. All I could do was drive and listen. They sang it flawlessly, verbatim, note for note. Yes, those kids love me.
Much as my future relies on these two little girls, my strategy has grown simple: be nice to them now and someday twenty years from now maybe they’ll take me out clubbing once in a while to see live music.
Now they live in west Minneapolis, a few neighborhoods away. We haven’t Skyped in more than a year. Sid and Michel sold their place in suburban St Paul to a young family who fell in love with it as a place to raise kids. The Kysylyczyns moved into the city, close but not too close. It’s like they never left, only better, there are all kinds of reminders and mementos all over their house of the life they lived as expatriates four years abroad.
They had the family Christmas at their house this year. Real life. Mimosas. Unwrapping gifts from beneath the tree. No Schmutzli. The kids gave me a priceless CD they burned entitled Kitty and Sparkles of songs they recorded to karaoke, mostly Christmas songs but also priceless renditions of tunes from their latest pop discovery, the Disney movie Moana. (No Shakira.) We talked about some Christmas we should spend a vacation in Hawaii. Vincent came up with the idea we all rent a cabin somewhere down near Zion national park in late June next summer and explore the desert Southwest, see Grand Canyon, all by way of Las Vegas. We’ve done similar arrangements to the Boundary Waters with him and Amelie in the past summers while the Kysylyczyns were off avoiding us in favor of touring Europe — laughter, cue sibling rivalry jokes — leaving the brother to look after us poor lonely old folks all by himself.
I unwrapped a present from the Kysylyczyn family. It was kind of heavy. Sid said Clara picked it out. It was a paperweight. Bronze in appearance and texture, it was a casting of a narrow pile of half a dozen ballpoint pens. I unwrapped it and read aloud the inscription on the base:
Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing – Benjamin Franklin
As they say in Spanish, “Clara, mis carinas.”