My great grandmother, Elizabeth, lived above Lengacher’s Cheese House in Kinzers when I was a kid. It’s a vet’s office now, but the steep gable front roof is still a tell as to its origins.
She had no washer and dryer, and the hot water service in the two bedroom apartment was blazing hot owing to the cheese making going on below. My mom and I would travel there weekly to pick up her laundry and chat.
Everything smelled like swiss.
She grew up in Singen, in Southern Germany near the border with Switzerland and France. Her father owned an inn. Her mother died when she was a child, and an uneasy relationship with his wife number two led her to France and eventually to Chicago with her sister, Julie.
Several of her siblings would emigrate in all.
In Chicago, she met my great grandfather Paul “Pup Pup”. He was an engineer and frugal woodworker. They moved with his job and eventually settled in Gap.
Pup Pup died when I was two, so I don’t remember him. My parents lived in Gap when I was first born, and my mom said he would wash the diapers and then deliver them. I guess laundry service was something we shared.
He always wanted to see me, and I was always sleeping.
I still love to sleep.
When my mom was growing up, Pup Pup would talk her into going to a scrap yard near Trojan Boat, where he’d dump salvaged pieces of wood in the back of her MG. He didn’t want to pay for lumber. He made grandfather clocks and roll top desks, all of which are still in my family.
My grandfather always called his mom, Lizzie, and she had a lovely laid back demeanor. Nothing ruffled her feathers. She was even and calm, smart, and funny. She’d burn cookies and still offer them to you without thinking there was anything wrong with them.
Growing up, her middle son complained that the parents of a friend bought him a car. “What did you give me?,” he wanted to know. She replied, “I gave you a big mouth. Now go out and use it.”
Like all her sons, he became a successful business owner and sales person.
Lizzie outlived her husband by another 16 years. She lived alone for that entire time but always attended our gatherings, made trips to Idaho to see her three sons, and entertained German-speaking friends – the conversation altering between English and the language of her Heimat.
She had a stroke in late October 1992. When my mom took her to the hospital, she talked about all the people she would see in heaven – Paul, Julias, and Billy, the son she lost as a toddler. We’d find a locket of his hair when we cleaned out her house.
She lived for about two weeks and died on election day. I only saw her alive once in that time. She wiped tears off my cheek with her good arm as I looked at her limp wrist with the hospital band and the last two digits of her birthdate, ‘99, 1899.
She was the one person I lost outside my dogs that really left a hole. Cleaning out her belongings was the hardest thing I’ve had to do in life to date, but I suspect more hard times ahead. You have to decide what to do with every piece of furniture, every trinket, and you riffle through drawers of scarves and underclothes. Everything you touch feels like a loss.
It took days, and I only kept a few things – a rosary, a red area rug, an ashtray and a calendar from her hometown, and a scarf dotted with coffee stains. The latter probably still smells like swiss.