In late 1945, I was one of a group of Scottish children who were sent to Switzerland to recover from the physical effects of World War II. All the children had suffered major losses. We were screened to ensure that our physical health was reasonably intact before being escorted by the British Red Cross to Folkstone. From there, we were ushered onto the ferry and sailed across the English Channel. Upon arrival in Calais, we were claimed and escorted by the Swiss Red Cross. We journeyed overnight by train.
As many children slept, I began to feel pangs of homesickness. The view of France at dawn looked like home the morning after an air raid… only more so. My father had been killed there, so I felt like I was riding through a graveyard, the empty bombed-out gray buildings with black cavernous windows watching, then field after field of snow dustings and the charred bones of burned-down barns like skeletons of huge creatures.
By mid morning that December day, our party arrived in Berne, where Swiss host families claimed us. Five months later, we would meet up again there and return by the same route. Those same fields would be sprouting new grass, and wild flowers would be growing up between the rubble and destruction. We would return to Britain as a group and eventually to our families in Scotland with stories to tell.
I recall Mrs. Greuter’s horrified expression as she first looked at me. I could not bear it, so I looked away, bewildered, homesick, frightened, and pretending not to notice. She was not home when I had arrived earlier that day, and I had gone out sledding with the Greuter children. By the time she met me, I was lying on my belly along with her beloved youngest, son André, on her rich red carpeted floor under the grand piano. We were communicating, without words because we did not speak the same language, chasing and playing with a mechanical mouse. Suzanne, the servant, came to whisper something in her ear. Mrs. Greuter, with her blue-black hair in braids wrapped around her ears like earphones and a navy wool dress buttoned up to the neck, was being told that I had head lice. On the overnight train ride through France, my hair, for the second time in seven years, had got infected.
The family was composed of Doctor Leo Greuter, who had one milky looking eye, dark scowling eyebrows, and a handlebar mustache, and Mrs. (no first name) Greuter. Their first born, Leone, sixteen years old, with the acne face and sad yellow eyes, always kind to me from a distance, was preparing to enter a convent as a novice. Next was Magdalene, age thirteen, with an exotic dark look, who had discovered my head lice. Then Monica, closest to my age of seven and a half. She had a pouty mouth and empty eyes when she looked at me. André was five years old and pure fun to play with, but we were not allowed to play together too often nor for very long, even after the lice were cleared.
Suzanne was given the task of delousing me. My last encounter with this infection led to my head being shaved, and somehow, Suzanne knew she needed to care for me without altering my rich, dark brown, curly hair. To my everlasting gratitude, she did. She would sit me on her lap to fine comb out the nits. I liked her warmth and patience. She smelled of cinnamon and Knights Castile soap.
After these treatments, I was left alone with a lot of books. Only a few were in English, and I practically knew them by heart, I had read them so many times.
I remember giant townhouses lining the narrow street in the town of Kerns. When I felt like I was suffocating, a drive with Dr. Greuter in his black Baby Austin, into the mountainous countryside to visit his stay-at-home patients. The blue, green, and gray houses were so far spread out one was not visible to the other. In the valley, the houses were marked off by picket fences at the front and corral fences going back into vast expanses of snow. Others on the side of the mountain had fancy cut out wooden fences. I don’t remember trees, only miles and miles of crunched snowy winding roads. When we arrived at a patient’s house, sometimes I was invited in and encouraged by Dr. Greuter; I did not know how to refuse. Puffed wheat and yogurt sweetened with honey was often offered on just such occasions. At other stops, I was told, “Stay! Play! I will be not long.” I would become totally engrossed with clothespin dolls. Suzanne had shown me how to draw and cut out colored-paper clothes for the wooden clothespins with faces she had drawn on in India ink. Red lips and blue eyes. All of this complete with play scissors that she packed in a gold, red, and black Cuban cigar box.
Other days, when I was too homesick and couldn’t stop crying, Suzanne, with Mrs. Greuter’s blessing or permission, would take me out for walks down side streets where the buildings were not as close. When I was able to see the sky, without almost having to lie on my back, I could stop sobbing. On the way back, we would stop and visit Fr. Fangher’s two Viennese housekeepers, Emma and Celine. The Rectory always smelled of baking bread or cakes, and they never let us leave without having a taste of confection, as Emma would say in her sparse English vocabulary. When Emma discovered my favorite, almond paste and sugar covered buns, she made sure, whatever else she may have been baking that day, to have some of the buns there.
In the Greuters’ huge townhouse on a busy street in the center of town, Dr. Leo’s surgery and consulting room was in the downstairs front. I found my way there often and loved to climb onto the shelves to open and smell the contents of the huge apothecary jars lining the upper shelves. One jar, in particular, I was drawn to again and again to smell the little black pastilles and sometimes take a lick or two at them before returning them. After all, I was not getting the weekly sweetie ration I had at home that consisted of a two-ounce bag of Dolly Mixtures or two squares of Bourneville Dark chocolate.
Late one afternoon, Dr. and Mrs. Greuter surprised themselves and me, too, when they found me sitting on the highest shelf chewing a mouthful of the licorice pastilles. She wanted me to spit them out right away. He stopped her. He gently picked me up, holding me close to his warm, brown velvet waistcoat. As he carried me up to the supper table, I recall his face looking scary up that close, but the longer I looked, the more I realized his one milky looking eye was really a fake. The other twinkled along with a throaty laugh and a wide smile showing a gold tooth. It felt good to be held by a daddy, even if not mine.
I fell asleep early that night without crying and slept long and deep. The little chewy licorice cough sweeties, given to quiet the persistent cough of some of Dr. Greuter’s patients, had a touch of codeine in them. I was forbidden to go downstairs and play around the apothecary jars again. But I can still remember the intensity of the smell and taste of what I now know to have been anise.
|© 2003 Timshel Literature|