Tag Archives: grandparents

Goodbye America, Hello Spain

Crazy Family (Familia Loco)

Crazy Family (Familia Loco)

Our bags are packed, backpacks stuffed with our most precious—and most useful—things.  It is sink or swim time in Spain… I think we’ll swim.  Do you? Continue reading

Digging Around In Grandmother’s Grave

Gabriele Lusser Rico, Germany, World War II

The lone air raid siren had long since stopped its childish wailing.  Standing near the road, a hundred feet from the crumpled farmhouse that used to be home, a little girl stood watching the horse drawn carriage that served as an ambulance, the dirt on her tear streaked face only partially hiding the look of shock and curiosity.  Her normally tidy blond braids were coming loose, but that couldn’t be helped since the emergency sparking all around her commanded every adult’s attention.  She shifted her weight rhythmically from side to side, glancing often at a pair of woolen long underwear crumpled on the ground, a crimson stain slowly leaching into the thin layer of snow.  When the ambulance finally pulled away from the bombing site, no urgency in the crunch of its wheels on icy gravel, the girl felt someone take her hand.

“Where are they taking Mama?” she asked Anna, a farmer’s daughter and the only nanny she had ever known.  The heat from the fire still smoldering in the ruined house behind them soothed the hunger and worry that nipped at her stomach like a stray dog.

“They’re taking her to the hospital, liebchen,” Anna murmured, the benevolent lie forming on her tongue to keep pain at bay–at least for a little while.  “Her leg was broken when the wall collapsed.”  The child’s body relaxed, relief beating back the chaos that accompanies a bomb that directly hits it target–in this case, a lone farmhouse snuggled in the woods near a pristine country lake.

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Hildegard Lusser, My Grandmother

This is my mother’s story.  I have stolen it, weaving together facts gathered over a lifetime with figments of my imagination to create a dark and frightening fairy tale.  Only this story has no happy ending.  My mother was only seven years old when a single Allied plane dropped its bombs on the Bavarian farm where she lived at the end of World War II.  The mission was to kill her rocket scientist father, but he was working in Berlin, and the stone walls fell on her mother instead.  As a result of that planned, precise hit five children were left motherless, starving and shell shocked by the devastating cost of war.

18th Century Sailing Ship, 21st Century Sailor

Our trip to Germany was not meant to be a fact-finding mission.  Or a visit with the long dead.  But the past has a funny way of reaching out to grab the present and yank it back.  On our first day in Germany, a cold summer rain requiring an indoor excursion, we visited the Deutsches Museum in Munich—the German equivalent of Chicago’s Museum of Science And Industry.  18thcentury sailing ships and World War I submarines were bisected to show the coffin like bunks where the sailors slept, and a simulated lightning strike mimicked the thunder rumbling outside.  Then Ethan spotted something much more remarkable in the

The V-1 Buzz Bomb

aeronautics hall–a silver, winged missile with a blue bottom that mimicked the sky.  The rocket was a V-1, nicknamed the Buzz Bomb during World War II because of the unique sound it made when hurtling toward its target.  The Germans fired thousands of these early cruise missiles at England, and thousand of people died, mostly civilians, because flying bombs in those days were not very accurate.  The designer of this brilliant, deadly machine was the German rocket scientist Robert Lusser–my grandfather.

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Robert Lusser, My Grandfather

When I was growing up in California, a photo of my grandfather was pinned to the wall of our house.  In it, he stands at a blackboard, his mouth almost smiling, with some complicated mathematical equation written in neat chalk numbers behind him.  Balding and sharp-eyed behind stylish 1950’s glasses, I remember thinking he looked scholarly and proud.  My mother was never able to muster much warmth when she spoke about him, saying only that he was a true genius and a distant father.

On a warm summer evening, we sat with Uncle Volker and my cousin Theresa on the patio of her old farmhouse in the Bavarian countryside, eating homegrown potatoes and grilled whole fish from the nearby Starnberg Lake.  Volker knew my grandfather well during the war—his brother married my mother’s sister, forever interlocking our families.  Yes, Volker confirmed, Robert Lusser was a genius.  And yes, he could be an arrogant asshole.

Beautiful Cousin Theresa

“One night at dinner there was only one sausage,” Volker remembered, taking us back to wartime Germany, near the end, when food was desperately scarce.  His voice was scornful and I put my fork down.  “And there were all these hungry children around the table.”  Appetite fled in anticipation of the outrage to come.  “But Robert said ‘I need this sausage for my brain!  Because my brain is important and it needs to work well.’”  I flashed back to my mom’s stories of eating barley soup with bugs in it—if she picked them out, she was made to eat them one by one.  “And then,” Volker continued, smiling and sarcastic, “he ate the sausage.”

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Front Gate At Dachau

Concentration Camp Dachau sits outside the eponymous town near Munich, with its neat, sloping streets and suburban feel.  I didn’t want to visit, but to be so close and not take the time to see one of the most enduring symbols of Nazi Germany felt like a cop out.

The entrance to the prison where over thirty thousand people died takes you through a gate of wrought iron, inset with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free) in stern, straight block letters.  I walked through the small opening thinking of a news story from 2009, when a similar sign was stolen from Auschwitz in Poland.  Who would do such a thing? I wondered, and then laughed.  Hahahaha.  To ask that question in a place that witnessed so much horror was a twisted joke.

Prison Cell

But that day at Dachau, the ghosts were quiet, or at least they didn’t speak to me.  Maybe it had been too long, or maybe they didn’t know me well enough.  Walking across a yard speckled with tourists, I felt as lonely as if I were on the moon—the landscape of Dachau almost as desolate.  The infamous shower rooms–never used at this camp as death traps–were empty, the light barging in through the small, heavily barred windows as inappropriate as a shout would have been in the shuffling silence.  The ovens in the crematorium, squat and industrial, were nausea producing reminders of the mass failure of human kind—of the monsters that live in some men.

Concentration Camp Victims

The English version movie shown in Dachau’s theatre is comprised of old photographs and film shot in the days after liberation.  For twenty-two minutes, nobody whispered or shifted in their seats, the narrator’s flat voice stopping for long moments while the film silently rolled, showing faces devoid of hope and bodies devoid of life.  There were the damning stars sewn onto ragged clothes, and ribs bones arched like evil smiles over white, distended bellies.  Anyone who has ever joked about Jews, or Poles, or Gypsys—or any group victimized by the Nazis–should see this film and perhaps they would not do it again.  My own Jewish husband and my two half Jewish kids were visiting the nearby Flight Museum and when I walked out into the beautiful, bright day—I longed to hold them close.

Dachau Prison Yard

My own German roots connect to Dachau—or at least brush up against it—due to my grandfather’s work.  Camp prisoners were used to assemble bombs, aircraft, and the innovative flying missile—the V-1.  Robert Lusser was not a politically active Nazi but he surely knew of the deplorable conditions in the factories, and the horrific mistreatment of workers.  But he, like many German scientists, scholars, artists and merchants, turned his cheek to the inhumanity of Hitler’s Third Reich in order to continue to work.  What  else could he have done, being the sole support of a wife and five children?  What would I have done?  This question is impossible to answer from the safe seat in front of my computer and I will not second guess him.  I know only that my genius grandfather was on the wrong side of history.

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My Mom, Circa 1945

Three months had passed since the olive green ambulance drove away from the little girl’s bombed out farmhouse carrying the crushed body of her mother.  Every day for three months, she had asked when her mother was coming back, even though her budding intuition whispered the truth.  Then one day, her voice perhaps a bit more plaintive than normal, Anna put on her coat, though the late spring day was warm, and took the little girl by the hand.  Together, they walked three kilometers to the yellow church in town, its spire poking a hole in a patch of blue sky.  Anna opened the wrought iron gate of church cemetery and led the girl to a thick, heavy stone cross.

Visiting Grandmother’s Grave

“Gück mal,” she said, simply.  Look here.  The lie had gone on long enough, and she did not have the words to fix it.

The girl said nothing.  The name carved cleanly into the cross, Hildegard Lusser, had no connection to the soft-voiced woman who could dive so cleanly into a mountain lake that she left only a small, shimmering ring and who braided her daughters’ hair with firm, soft hands.  But she was now certain that her mother was never coming back.  Rhythmically she began to rock from one foot to the other, her small hand clinging to Anna’s large one as if, untethered, she might float away like a balloon.

The farmer’s daughter and the child of a rocket scientist stood like that in the graveyard for a long time, until the church bells began their loud, sonorous clanging.  That sound, lovely and familiar, seemed to jar something loose inside the girl and with a great, choking sob, she turned away, as if she did not want her mother to see her cry.

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The Stoetternhof Farmhouse, July 2011

We arrived unannounced at the farmhouse where my grandmother died.  A German shorthaired pointer, two cats and three miniature horses were the only ones on hand to greet us.  Rebuilt long ago, bright pink and red geraniums hung from every balcony and the front door had been left wide open.  The grave tender at the cemetery where my grandmother was buried had given us directions to the Stoetternhof, as it’s called,but I was not certain this was the right place.

Here Little Piggy!

Hallo!”  I called through the door.  When I got no answer, I walked around to the barn, where a dozen milk cows and a funny looking pig stared at me with bored indifference.  And then I heard the sound of a tractor rumbling up the lane and ran out to greet it.  The driver was wearing a Bavarian hat with several tattered feathers stuck in the brim and his big belly was the central feature around which a strong, workingman’s body revolved.  As I approached, he produced a tin of snuff from his jacket pocket and snorted a large pinch.

My Friend Louis

Guten Tag,” I said, extending my hand.  I felt nervous and tongue-tied, afraid my German would desert me, afraid he would think I was weird.  “My name is Suzanne, and my grandmother…”  I choked on the word and stopped.  “My grandmother was…”  Come on!  You didn’t even know her!  Don’t start bawling now!  But tears do not always obey commands and my mouth twisted shut.  The German farmer looked at me, then took his handkerchief out and wiped the snuff from his upper lip, patient and perhaps a little curious about the skinny American woman blubbering in his yard.

Ja?” he asked, “Deine grossmutter?”  I took a breath and wiped my eyes.

“My grandmother… was… killed here.”  There.  It was out.  And it sounded anticlimactic even to me.  But the big man broke into a huge grin, his red cheeks flushing a lovely red as if I were a long lost friend.

Mini German Apple Farmer (Needs Bigger Net)

“Lusser!”  he exclaimed.  “Hildegard Lusser!”  Next came a torrent of Bavarian accented German I did not fully understand while he pumped my hand up and down, smiling, always smiling, while I tried to stop the tears.  “Come!” Louis finally said, motioning toward the house.  “We will talk.”

Griffin With Stoetternhof Cat

Louis was born in the Stoetternhof more than two decades after the war ended.  He showed me the forest where, as a child, he found a partially buried, unexploded bomb.   More recently, said Louis, when digging the foundation for a new guesthouse, he had unearthed bomb fragments with his tractor.  But time had erased any trace of my grandmother and the violent way she died from the Stoetternhof.  Under the care of jolly, ebullient Louis, his kind, dark haired wife, and their three energetic boys, the farm was again a place of life.

My Mom, Circa 2011

When the sun began heading toward the purple tops of the Bavarian Alps, we waved goodbye and bumped down the gravel road, turning east toward Austria.  I felt giddy with relief.  I had retraced the steps of my mother’s greatest sadness—and yet I was not sad.  Perhaps this is because I finally understood that my grandmother’s death had led to the gift of my own life—and my sisters, cousins, nieces, and the lives of my own sweet, beloved boys. Because, in the end, this is not only my mother’s story, but mine too.  Three years after that little girl stood before a newly dug grave, she boarded a ocean liner headed for America with her rocket scientist father, new step-mother, and four siblings.  They settled in California.  And that’s how I, Suzanne Teresa Rico, came to be.

In Memory Of Hildegard Lusser

Time Warp At Iguazu Falls

 

The Incredible Iguazu

Crashing Grandma and Grandpa’s fancy hotel suite smack in the middle of an Argentine jungle seemed like a good indication of how much life has changed in the last nine months. It wasn’t like there wasn’t enough room—Ethan and I slept comfortably on the pull out couch and the kids in a nest of blankets and pillows on the floor—but back when my CBS paycheck was auto-deposited into my account each Friday, free-loading probably wouldn’t have been an option.

The Battlestar Bridge

The Sheraton Iguazu Resort and Spa is the only hotel inside the 165,000-acre Iguazu National Park in the northeastern tip of Argentina, home of the second largest waterfall system in the world. From afar, the Sheraton looks like the Battlestar Galactica crash landed in the jungle—a large grey monolith cocooned in a blanket of impenetrable green. A cockroach the size of a mouse greeted us in the hotel foyer and the clash between the air conditioning inside and humidity outside frosted the windows so thoroughly, The Galactica seemed swaddled in an enormous ball of cotton.

Somehow, these idiosyncracies were not negative. The battleship’s faded concrete façade, its weary elegance, and aura of pride made us somehow feel like we were visiting a great aunt who knew she was special no matter how many wrinkles and age spots she had.   This old hotel was definitely King Of The Jungle and when we opened the door to Suite A, (shushing the kids to avoid getting busted), we gasped.   Laid out in front of us, in the Technicolor splendor usually seen only in movies, was one of the timeless wonders of the world.

I don’t mean to be unpatriotic, but Iguazu Falls makes Niagara seem like its wimpy kid brother. Perhaps this is because Iguaza is comprised of 270 individual waterfalls that, at their peak, pump 420,000 cubic feet of water per second over two miles of sheer cliffs that slice an unspoiled stretch of jungle in half.  Argentina owns one side, Brazil the other.   Poor Paraguay, just a few miles down river, missed out on the gold mine the falls have become since they opened as a tourist attraction in 1934.

On The Catwalk

Throughout Iguazu, a network of metal catwalks allows access to the most awe-inspiring viewpoints. As we followed one to the top of the biggest waterfall, “La Garganta Del Diablo” (The Devil’s Throat), we noticed a yellow sign with a picture of a cartoon snake next to the figure of a man missing his head. We laughed, but then kept a wary eye on the vines that dripped and arced in every direction to see if they moved.  Another sign said “Do Not Bluth”.   So we did not bluth, not one of us, the entire time.

At the catwalk’s end, huge plumes of spray shot into the air, sending rainbows arcing in every direction and drenching visitors.   Three middle-aged nuns dressed in full grey habits peeked over the edge of the void, getting soaked and looking rapturous to be in a place that must have felt to them like God’s Country.   Next to these sturdy-shoe-wearing sisters, a young Brazilian woman stood holding a sleeping baby.   The child was naked except for a soggy diaper, and its wet, brown skin glistened like burnished copper in the bright sunshine. This was truly a show no one wanted to miss.

Iguazu, Baby!

Like Niagara, Iguazu has had its share of spectacular accidents.   In the early years, long before the catwalks, tourists could go by rowboat to the top of the falls–a captain rowing furiously against the current the only thing keeping the boat from going over.   This E-ticket ride came to its inevitable deadly end when one captain couldn’t row quite fast enough and launched, along with seven German tourists, into oblivion, hurtling three hundred feet into the frothing brown water below.   It must have been one hell of a free fall.

Modern day tourists can board large Zodiacs with big motors for one hell of a ride to the bottom of the falls.   Having been warned that we would get wet, I wore only a bathing suit and a life vest, putting my clothes into a dry bag.   At some point during the initial ride up the wide, muddy Rio Iguazu, I noticed two tanned teenage girls also wearing bikinis and had the horrible realization that the time was swiftly coming when I would finally have to invest in a one-piece… or keep the t-shirt on.

All the ridiculous age-angst fled when our captain wrapped himself in a hurricane poncho, gunned the motors and charged The Devil’s Throat like it was Custer’s last stand. He wasn’t checking out anyone’s bikini, but focusing on a wall of water that seemed as thick as it was high.  Within seconds we were engulfed in a storm, laughing and screaming while trying to shield our eyes from the stinging spray and breathe without gulping mouthfuls of water.  A roaring sound beat at our ears and the world turned greyish white—and then we pulled back to the sunlit safety of the blue, cloud-dotted sky.  I glanced at Griff and Ado’s faces, sure they would be crying, but my intrepid little adventurers just yelled “Again!” in tandem.

Hola!

It turns out that Iguazu has not only great physical power, but spiritual power as well.   Perhaps this is why Ethan, who is about as spiritual as a snail, was hit with a deep revelation at Iguazu that proved another vivid example of how the simple passage of time can change you.

“Last night I dreamed I got a job,” he said  as we watched a band of snout nosed, raccoon-like mammals called coatimundi beg for food in front of the Sheraton.

“A real job,” he continued. “And I liked it.”   I would have been less shocked if one of the hungry coatis had waved and hollered “hola!”  Ethan has never been a nine-to-fiver.  Or even a noon-to-fiver.   My husband is enormously smart, talented, and the antithesis of lazy, but putting his skills to work as a stockbroker, lawyer, or pizza delivery man for that matter, where he would have scheduled hours and report to a… gasp… boss, has never been his thing.   He has always worked for himself, with

Anybody Hiring??

little structure and lots of creative freedom, so the sudden longing for the daily grind was strange. Perhaps the freedom of the road is getting to him. Perhaps the longing for our comfortable old life in Toluca Lake is getting to him. Or perhaps he just felt a little freaked out about crashing his in-law’s hotel room.

Poor Nana and Grandpa Rich did not have an easy time in Iguazu despite their comfy digs.   My mother, who is seventy-three but likes to act thirty seven, was knocked flat by the Argentine equivalent of Mexico’s Montezuma’s Revenge.   Still, my stubborn, optimistic mom insisted on trekking three kilometers to the lower falls in heat and humidity that would have dropped a horse.   Halfway back, the double whammy of heatstroke and dehydration knocked her nearly unconscious and Rich, a retired surgeon, went to call for a wheelchair.

Thanks For The Crash Pad Grandpa!

“Bullshit!” said the lovely Nana when she heard she was to be carted up the cliff like an old lady.  She took a moment to scold Grandpa Rich for buying her two bottles of water at tourist prices from a vendor, then gulped them down and struggled back to the Sheraton, where she collapsed in the cool sheets and slept for the rest of the evening.  When I peeked in on her, she looked tiny and vulnerable, as translucent and fragile as a porcelain doll.  Tears came to my eyes as I realized that the years had taken their toll on what used to be her immeasurable strength.   How do I stop time, I wondered as I caught a clear glimpse of the future, so that I would never lose her?

That night, Ethan, Griffin, Ado and I drove into Iguazu National Park alone.   In the dark, we stopped our beat up rental car by the side of the road, turned off the lights, and listened to the sound of the jungle.  It buzzed and hummed and squeaked in the hot, heavy air, but thankfully, it did not roar.  A lightning storm fought the darkness on the distant horizon.

“Daddy,” said Ado, my youngest child, my baby, who somehow had just turned three years old. “I love you more than all those stars.” As he said it, fireflies began to spark all around us, performing aerobatic loop-de-loops and zig-zags across our small stretch of road before slowly winking out of sight.

Magic Hour At Ephesus

A large banner outside the Southern Gate of Ephesus, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, advertised “Genuine Fake Watches.” In front of the busy little bazaar across from the hallowed entrance, dark eyed Turks also hawked cashmere pashminas, backgammon sets and fresh cherry icees to the ubiquitous tourists who can make this ruined city feel like one big, ancient Disneyland on a summer day. I was thankful we were there in late September.

We had come to Turkey from Xios via an old, steel car ferry that rolled and bucked its way across the choppy Aegean, barely missing a huge oil tanker as it crossed our bow at ramming speed. The guardrail on the top deck was a safety hazard, it’s lower rung hitting Ado and Griff right at the knees, so as to launch them cleanly into the sea if they leaned too far forward. We held onto them fiercely as the sea wind whipped their hair into spikes.

My mom and step dad Rich were with us on this voyage. Rich is a retired orthopedic surgeon turned professional photographer who is willing to schlep virtually anywhere in the world, sacrificing sleep, comfort and even his wife’s good graces to get a great landscape shot. My mom, an author, follows along with her positive, can-do attitude, using Rich’s cast off Nikon to snap the candid shots he eschews.

We arrived at Ephesus just before sunset – a time dubbed “magic hour” by Hollywood movie directors – when the light tints everything a burnished gold and rolls back the years on aging stars. The advantage of coming so late (other than that I look thirty instead of forty five in the pictures) was that most of the crowds had climbed back aboard their double-decker white tour buses and we had the 2,500 year old columns, carvings and crumbling buildings mostly to ourselves.

Ephesus means “bee” in Turkish. The city was originally the home of the cult of Cybele, a fertility goddess the Ionians renamed Artemis and the Romans renamed Diana. Griffin, now being an experienced, international traveler, had many questions as we toured one of the best preserved ancient cities in the world.

First, he asked me to teach him to snap, saying he wanted to substitute snapping for sucking his thumb. He’s been very concerned about his thumb addiction ever since several Greeks teased him about his habit. Griff also asked if we could buy some Turkish hot sauce to put on his thumb in case the snapping didn’t work.

“Look at that guy!” I said as we stood under a pomegranate tree watching the fading light effuse a headless statue of some long dead Roman gladiator. But Griff just yawned and asked “Is gravity invisible?” I guess you can’t expect a five year old to appreciate an adult Disneyland that is mostly off limits.

Ado the Tornado did his best to ruin the ruins. He threw rocks at the Gate of Hercules, scrambled up steep staircases to nowhere with sheer sideways drops and finally climbed on top of a small sarcophagus with a foot wide gap in the middle into which he toppled head first. His time-out was swift and severe because A.) I did not like to see my child in any kind of coffin, even a previously used relic, B.) Guards with machine guns patrol Ephesus and I was fairly sure that grave hopping was a firing offense, and C.) As soon as my mom arrived, Ado went from obeying me sporadically to stopping all together.

Nana The Great

In fact, Ado had immediately replaced the word Mama with Nana. “Nana hold my hand, Nana pet me, Nana brush my teeth,” he commanded, screaming in anger if I got near him. Finally, when I wouldn’t let him pee on an Ephesian tree, he lobbed the ultimate insult.

 

“I love Nana more than you,” he said, crossing his arms and glaring. My mom just smiled and shrugged her shoulders like she can’t help it that he loves her so much. And while it may be a grandparent’s prerogative to give an endless stream of candy and presents and allow the desecration of ancient burial sites, a mother has to draw the line.

Ephesus’ Library of Celsus, named after Roman Governor Celsus Polemaeanus, was perhaps the most impressive site, its towering façade holding statues representing the Virtues – Goodness, Thought, Knowledge and Wisdom – all of which I could use more of. The Roman communal men’s toilets made us laugh as did a pile of rocks that a guide told us used to be the town brothel. Ephesian prostitutes were apparently well respected and well-paid – even more than ancient teachers – so at least that much has remained constant over the years. We marveled at the architecture of the horseshoe shaped Great Theatre, with 25,000 seats, each rock placed without the help of bulldozer, crane or excavator.

“Dad, did they feed children to the lions there?” Finally, Griff asked a question about Ephesus!

“Only the ones that hit their brothers,” Ethan answered. My stricter-than-me husband had been having heart palpitations that had nothing to do with his high cholesterol ever since the kids pushed and shoved each other through Ephesus’s modern day turnstiles.

As we walked through the Gate of Hercules back toward the Southern exit, an exhausted little Ado whined to be carried. Ethan swung him up onto his shoulders in one smooth, practiced motion. Ado kicked him in the ribs with his dangling feet, and yelled, “Go, Camel, Go!” We were indeed a world away from home.