Requiem for Pascale

18 07 2011

It was just another cold and rainy Sunday afternoon, one that passes for “summer” here in Zurich. I had gone out for a walk in the mud and some fresh air, and when I returned, the SMS message was waiting for me.

“Please call me,” from probably the last person on earth I expected to hear from on a Sunday. Something was up.

I called.

Gayle answered by saying my name: “Evelynn, Hi.”

“Hi, what’s going on?”

Silence.

“What happened?”

“Evelynn, I have to tell you…. I… something bad… ”

She couldn’t even say the words.

“What happened? Is it about Pascale? Did something happen to Pascale?” I had sent our mutual girlfriend several messages the days before and had received no response. That was not like her and I was starting to wonder.

“How do you know?”

“I DON’T know… Know WHAT? Tell me! What happened?”

“Evelynn… Pascale is… Pascale is dead.”

And then she told me about how she just found out that our friend went hiking alone in the southern Swiss canton of Ticino last Thursday, slipped, and fell off a mountain. How an emergency search & rescue helicopter later found her body among the rocks in a deep ravine.

She was 38 years old.

Full of life, with boundless energy, and ambitious plans. With a smile as wide as Montana.

Pascale was my nordic walking buddy. She lived in the next town over and we would often meet to gossip and stride through the rolling meadows and woods that straddle the two municipalities. In summer we enjoyed brilliant sunshine, in the company of cows, and savored the smell of the flowers and grasses in bloom. In winter we would meet after sunset, the short days making for frigid and sometimes treacherous going on icy paths.

That was our favorite time to walk and talk: in the dark, making tracks after a fresh, quiet snowfall.

Pascale was the co-snow-bunny I featured right here in my blog a few months ago. On skis she was mostly fearless, but she never let me take her flying.

Pascale and Gayle were colleagues at a previous employer, and the three of us remained friends even after she and I quit our jobs there. We all are just a few years apart, similar in physique and character: tall, with long, straight, dark blond hair, athletic, extroverted, loud and very demanding of ourselves and others. We always wanted so much more out of our lives and careers than the men we had to work with were willing to concede.

We got together for regular ladies’ lunches and dinners at swanky restaurants across this outrageously expensive city to have a fantastic meal, philosophize about life and celebrate ourselves.

Our last ladies’ lunch was just two weeks ago, also on a Thursday, at a hip Fusion-style restaurant just around the corner from the workplace where we first met almost exactly five years earlier. For dessert we ordered champagne, toasted each other and the great things that lay in all of our futures. We wondered how much fun it might be to start a business together.

I still see Pascale standing on Zurich’s busy main commercial avenue, Bahnhofstrasse, that afternoon. She was wearing a light blue blouse and slacks, and carried a large white handbag. The pearl bracelet on her wrist jingled as she checked her phone for messages. We said goodbye, kissed each other three times on alternating cheeks.

“Don’t be a stranger,” I said.

“I’ll call you,” she responded.

With a flick of her long blonde mane she turned away and melted into the crowd.

Pascale. March 4, 1973 - July 14, 2011.

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An impulse and the voice of a good man

26 04 2011
Yesterday morning I experienced a sudden flash of urgent activism. I decided I needed to do a Salvation Army run, get rid of stuff that was cluttering my Florida condo.

When my father died in 2007, we gave most of his clothes to charity. Over the next two years, we renovated his condo, replaced 35-year-old kitchen appliances with modern ones, tore out the 70’s charm and freshened up the décor. The place really needed the makeover. He had talked about doing a general overhaul for years, but the logistics of life always got in the way, and he never did get around to it. He would like the new look, I think.

New kitchen!

Some stuff we left where they were – old photos hanging on the walls, personal ornaments on shelves, knickknacks in drawers and closets. These were things I just felt like I had to deal with at a later time.

There are a lot of drawers here that are still waiting to be dealt with.

So that morning, a bag with my own old clothes was filling up fast. And I found other stuff at the back of a walk-in closet that really needed to go – things that served no real useful purpose anymore. Like an old cordless telephone with an integrated answering machine. Since we no longer have a fixed land line here, I put it in the bag, along with a brand new never-used racketball racket and some dvd’s that no one ever watched.

And then it occurred to me. Before I give the answering machine away, I should probably check just in case there are any personal messages on it. So I plugged it in. It beeped and whirred, like old answering machines used to do and a little red light went on. I pressed a button.

And then a male voice drifted out of the speaker:

“You have reached 954-893-9648. We are unable to come to phone at this time. Please leave your detailed message and we will answer as fast as possible. Thank you very much.”

I didn’t recognize it. The voice came across to me as very foreign, with a heavy German accent. I don’t remember it that way. My father spent almost 50 years in the United States… and that was the kind of accent that other European immigrants had, but not my father. Weird.

I blinked and shook my head, and listened to it a second time. And a third. And then a fourth. It had to be him, who else could it be? It’s the first time I heard that voice in more than three and a half years, as if it was speaking to me from the beyond. It is the only recording of his voice that I have. The only real and tangible shred of my father that I have left. And it sounded so… different, so unusual. So not like I remember him.

The answering machine went back on the shelf, to be dealt with at a later time.

A few baseball caps that were looking a little past their prime also wandered into the bag. One had the words “USS Bonhomme Richard” embroidered across it in gold thread – a gift from a fellow journalist who spent some time embedded on the Navy’s amphibious assault ship years ago (…and all he brought me was this lousy ball cap….).

I had my second epiphany of the morning.

Bonhomme Richard.

Good man Richard.

Richard.

My father’s first name.

That’s it. The ball cap stays, too.

Souvenirs from another age.





Two lives, one adventure

25 02 2011

And so a great adventure begins. It’s my last day of work before I head off into a sabbatical, graciously granted by a supportive employer. The next 10 weeks are reserved for research, reflection and writing. The Savvy Aviatrix will return to the left seat, and Skater Girl also plans to make numerous appearances here. Out of sight is not out of mind because blogging can be done from anywhere.

For the next three months, I’ll also be going on a journey back in time, to an chapter of life that’s been swept into the corners of history and all but forgotten except by those whose nerves it directly taxed.

And this is what I hope to achieve.

"The death of innocence" 12-2-88

While searching for her dreams and her place in the world, a young woman faces twin challenges that put calluses on the heart in equal measure. She is forced to fight a (95%-curable) disease that kills her slowly and she spends too much of her too-short life looking for love in all the wrong places. All the while, she desperately tries to protect her little sister from the bad in the world. The older sister learns about wisdom and serenity as her clock ticks down, and the younger sister is too far away to hear.

It is story of a unique relationship between two strong-headed women, at a time when we know more than everyone else, we are smarter than everyone else and we deserve only the best. We are finally mature enough to truly appreciate and respect each other as grown-ups should. We struggle together, but also each in her own isolation. In the end, the decade that separates us in age also ensures that we only have a few short years to truly enjoy each other’s adult company.

My sister – the feminist, the rebel, the poet and the artist – was just 34 years old when she died. Her prose is violent and harsh, dark and damning. She was mad as hell and made sure everyone knew it. Letters, journals and poetry, along with interviews of mentors, friends and companions in art and crime are the cannon upon which the non-fiction narrative is based. Out of them emerges the story of a talented individual with a strong sense of justice who dies far too young, and her little sister, who realizes far too late exactly what that means.





My best friend: My gun

12 01 2011

The tragic weekend shootings in Tucson have given me a good lead-in to today’s blog topic: Guns. There are lots of them, and they are everywhere. Legal and illegal, they rest in the hands of competitive sportsmen and -women, the military, the police and gun freaks of all colors. Gangsters have them in their toolbox, and regular folks have them in their desk drawers. And hell, what’s the harm in shooting off a couple of rounds after a miserable day, right?

Of course in the U.S. we are used to the right-wing wackos from the NRA and the Tea Party claiming their Second Amendment rights as if their lives depended on it. And last weekend we saw what happens when one of those wackos, likely influenced by an Alaskan pitbull in lipstick, short circuits. (And believe it or not, since the shooting, Arizona sales of Glocks have exploded…)

Here in Switzerland, 3,500 miles away and living among peaceful-looking alpine meadows with happy cows, an overly-efficient train network and mostly mild-mannered mountain folk, I only found out quite recently that this country has one of the highest militia gun ownership rates in the world.

The Swiss military’s standard-issue automatic weapons are very present in everyday public life, on public transport and in the public consciousness. In Zurich, men carry around their army rifles like women carry around their Louis Vuitton handbags. Last Sunday’s newspaper even featured photographs of prominent Swiss politicians sitting on their sofas – in stinky socks, no less – and cradling their firearms.

Criticize him for the weapon around his neck or just his God-awful taste in living room furniture?

On February 13th the Swiss voters – who are, as we know, professionals at direct democracy – will decide on an initiative that would ban all military weapons from private homes and require them to be stored in a local armory.

At the moment, more than 420,000 of these automatic weapons (NOT counting firearms that have been privately purchased, you know, for fun) populate closets and attics, sheds and garages across this seemingly gentle, neutral country. Why? Because two generations ago, while Adolf Hitler steamrolled across Europe, the Swiss thought it prudent that its citizen-soldiers keep their guns at home so that in case of an invasion, they could engage in urban warfare and shoot their way to their military unit.

Today, 80 years later, this law is still on the books and the majority of these lethal toys still live in private homes. Behind winter coats, under the bed, in on the ski rack – free for any child to pick up and play with, for any adult to threaten (and kill) his spouse with, for any individual to end their own life with.

What seemed thoroughly logical and sensible in the 1930’s is equally ludicrous and superfluous today. Especially considering Switzerland has Europe’s highest rate of suicides by firearms, and an alarming number of homicides are committed with army weapons, too. On average, they are responsible for one death every single day.

The perfect Swiss family

The public debate ahead of the referendum is emotional as it is gruesome. While the supporters of the ban are appealing to simple common sense, the ultra-right wing Swiss nutcases (though they lack a Second Amendment to ride around on) have proven so far they don’t have any. Their irksome habit of fanning the fires of collective panic, claiming law-abiding citizens will be “castrated of their rights” should the initiative pass is getting really old, but may just prove effective in the end.

And once again, any virtues of direct democracy aside, I come to the conclusion that sometimes governments have a moral obligation to protect citizens from their own stupidity.





Coming Home

15 11 2010

It’s always a bit like coming home. Maybe that is because it IS coming home, as close to it as it gets for me. I have known this condo in South Florida for ten years, though I have no real emotional ties to the geographic region in which it is located.

Nothing in particular binds me to this sprawling, non-descript city with a beach except these four walls and what rests within them. No friends whose birthdays I need to remember, no social activities I need to plan around, no neighbors I could rely on in an emergency.

If I would have had the choice, I would not have put this place in pink plastic flamingo South Florida. But it is here and I have made my peace with that. I’m not too proud to admit Florida might just actually be growing on me. In a way I have come full circle – born just a few miles south of here, fled far and wide, and now as an adult I return again and again.

Florida, flamingos & me.

When my father died in 2007, I was reluctant to clear out his condo and sell it. It seemed too brutal to erase a man’s earthly existence within a week of his passing in order to save a couple of hundred dollars a month in maintenance fees. The wounds were fresh and his spirit still lingered. A year later the real estate market had crashed and selling was out of the question – even if I had been ready to. I’m still not ready.

It used to be a place I visited my father, and now it’s the only place in America I can call home. Faded, yellowing family photographs still hang on the walls – I hardly recognize my smiling, 4-year-old self, complete with long blond pigtails, sitting in a sky-blue photo studio. The oriental carpets I have been walking on since I was 12. The artwork we bought on a family vacation. A reupholstered TV-chair that reclines to almost horizontal. My big sister’s sofa. The black-and-white snapshot of my father as a successful manager, posing with foreign dignitaries in whose faraway country his corporation had just established a subsidiary and created jobs. The only kitchen table we as a family have ever known. And a million other things. Inside each is locked a memory or two.

It doesn’t matter what happens out there, beyond the balcony where my father and I spent hours philosophizing over gin and tonics or red wine, solving the world’s problems, and suppressing our own. These days, R. and I sit on that same balcony, sip the same drinks, plan our present and our future together: Should we go to the beach? What’s for dinner? And what about that work project I have to get done by next Wednesday? What will become of us, after all?

My father’s spirit is still around, I feel him here. Maybe that’s why it is always so wonderfully comfortable to come home and so terribly difficult to leave again. Every time.

Happy hour on Pa's balcony.





Dear P.,

31 10 2010

You left us on Halloween night. It was a Tuesday. And for the past 15 years, Halloween has never been the same.

It was chilly that day, the smell of winter slowly closing in on the eastern seaboard. The typical, infuriating late-afternoon rush hour traffic on I-95 South prevented me from getting to you in time. I came to say hello, or goodbye, but you had already gone.

You turned out to be the glue that held us all together, dearest P., even if the family bonds sometimes seemed rather artificial. After you left us, there was nothing keeping us from falling away from each other, and from each of us falling apart. We mourned separately and went on to live very separate lives.

In time, each of us made our own uneasy truce with death – the one who cheated me out of my only sister.  I’ve healed over the years, but some others did not. The trauma of that night gave way to an endless flood of bitterness, blame, anger and regret. The hostility went on and on and on.

When you left me, I was an adult in years, but perhaps I was still a child in innocence. After the initial numbness bled away, the little sister had to find her way alone.

I try to live a life based on principles I think are right. And the older I get the tougher it is to live in the knowledge that there is so much I neglected to take in years ago. I had so little time and attention for a big sister who loved me and wanted desperately protect me from all the bad in the world. And from my own naïve, youthful stupidity. You wrote me letters: pages and pages of wisdom in 10-point Helvetica type, signing every single one by hand. I read them once and then put them away, too proud to admit that I needed and wanted your guidance.

Your letters to me spent more than a decade preserved in a shoebox, in which they moved to six different dusty attics across Europe. Recently I unpacked the box and exposed the words to sunlight, fresh air and my maturity. They have come alive, those letters, and they glow. With the distance of time, I see a sister I’m not sure I even knew very well. I wish I could have this strong and passionate woman back, here and now, accompanying me through middle age and beyond. And even if this woman from my letters were not my sister, I would admire her nonetheless, and seek out her company.

“I want to ‘make it’ very badly,” you once wrote when you were 22. “I want to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. I think though, one of the main reasons I want to be ‘known’ is to prove all those people throughout my life who have doubted me (who held me back, hurt me and had no confidence in me) wrong. I will make it and when I do I will pound them into the ground.”

The older I get the more I miss you, dear P. And that is why it is time to showcase your legacy – your wisdom, your story, your poetry, your every intense, uncomfortable word. And it will shine. It will be raw and unnerving and dazzling, all at once.

My sister the ghost, on Halloween night. You are not here, oh but you are – in so many ways. Let’s get going. We have a lot of work to do.

Love, Evelynn