Close your eyes and imagine your dream holiday. Did you imagine the beach? A luxurious spa in a tropical jungle? A weekend in Las Vegas? Mine was The Swiss Alps.
I know it should be something unique and interesting. A hike up Machu -Picchu. Sailing down the French Riviera or antique book hunting in Rome. But I guess I’m not that interesting. For me, it’s the awe-inspiring postcard views of the Swiss Alps. The purity of snow in the day and the warmth of a fire-lit cabin at night. Hot chocolate, from Switzerland… in Switzerland! Gorgeous mountains and a romantic meet with a handsome stranger at a beautiful restaurant. That was my dream. My mom - the best person in the world - knew that. And for my sixteenth birthday, that’s what she got me - us. My dream trip. The two of us would be yodeling like idiots on a snow-capped mountaintop, laughing at each other as we slid down a slope, ignoring the instructors at great personal cost and embarrassment.
Though my birthday was in January, (life is cruel) the skiing trip would be in June. Did I mention we were going to The Swiss Alps! The kind of trip that changes your life. I could not stop smiling for days. I smile whenever I think about it.
I rarely think about it.
Two days later, my life changed in a way I never saw coming. Police lights lit up the kitchen window while I was making popcorn for movie night. Mom had gone to get us marshmallows for microwave smores.
The roads were slippery that night. They say it was instant. They say it to comfort me. And it does.
Three months later I’m in the back of my Uncle Jim’s car, surprised once again at how quickly my life has turned. My uncle’s new wife, Eleanor, sits in front. She's okay.
At twenty-four she is nine years younger than my uncle. He doesn’t look old. But he does look older than her.
They got married in court two days before the accident, on my birthday. They took me in, postponing their honeymoon until my grandmother could set up for a teenager. Eleanor doesn’t want kids, and she didn’t sign up to have a sixteen-year-old two days into her marriage. She’s actually cool and didn’t treat me like a burden. I think the knowledge that I was only temporary helped. They are going on their honeymoon after this. They are going to the Swiss Alps.
Isn’t life funny?
‘We’re almost there,’ Uncle Jim announces as the car climbs up another bend. The road beds so often I’ve barely seen a straight line in the past half hour.
‘It better be as beautiful as you said,’ Eleanor teases.
Five bucks says she doesn’t care.
‘You are going to love it here,’ says Uncle Jim for the thousandth time. I smile for him in the rearview mirror before looking out the window again. A weather-worn sign announces: Shelby Falls; ten miles.
I sigh deeply, wondering if I'm more relieved or anxious when we are plunged into darkness so suddenly that I actually start. We’re in a tunnel.
What kind of sadistic people build a tunnel around a bend? I can only imagine the car crashes this sort of architecture has caused. Wham.
It still hits me unawares every time.
Last month, a car crash was such an abstract idea. A car tumbles in slow motion before coming to a stop. The hero escapes, bloody but alive, determined face and short-term bruises. Now it ends in the shattering of my world.
I try to distract myself. I’m getting better at it. That's what I tell myself anyway.
‘Look down,’ instructs Uncle Jim and I look up, shaking my head to clear it. ‘Look down,’ he says again. I look at my lap. ‘No,’ he chuckles, ‘out the window, directly down.’ Eleanor and I exchange a look. ‘Captain’s orders!’ We shrug and look out the window, seeing only our reflections in the dark window.
‘You think he lost something?’ Eleanor asks.
‘His mind,’ I say and she giggles. I smile at the road, satisfied with my joke, and then the tunnel wall disappears and we fall off the edge of a cliff directly into the sea. Eleanor screams with surprise and I pull back, smiling at my own shock.
‘That’s awesome,’ I say lowering my head again, but the effect is gone.
‘It can never be replicated,’ smiles Uncle Jim. Your mind anticipates it the second time around. That feeling of falling is only achieved the first time.’
‘Feeling of flying,’ I whisper, smiling as the road moves away from the edge of the cliff.
Shelby Falls looks like something out of a small-town catalog, or a fairytale. If you were to buy a town, this would be in your top five. Rich brown buildings and deep green fir trees are placed at perfect angles so that the main road looks framed. A forest lies at the border of the town and seems to stop dead after a mile or two at the foot of a sheer grey mountain, adorned by a waterfall that must be nearly two hundred feet high. I guess the serenading angels are off today.
I’ll have to see someone about that.
The further in we drive, however, the more the modern world seems to invade the idyllic image. Modern houses and all-glass buildings seem to offend the small-town vibe. It is still one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen though.
My grandmother lives in the older part of town and she stands outside a grand old house on a rather unkempt pathway. The garden is overgrown and weeds are visible in the rock pathway. The house itself looks better tended to, but it could use a coat of paint. Knowing her I'm surprised by all this. She is usually neat to the point of fussiness.
My grandmother smiles warmly and opens my door before we come to a full stop.
‘Nadia!’ she exclaims. I return her smile as I step out of the car and give her a hug.
‘Nan,’ I say and I am surprised at the comfort her presence brings. I haven’t seen her in two years, but it feels like yesterday. I enjoy the too-long hug and then turn to the house.
‘Your bedroom is upstairs, first door on your left. But for now, let’s just get your things in the house.' Her smile becomes fixed when she turns to the passenger door. 'You must be Eleanor,’ she says in a would-be-kind tone. They had never met.
‘Hello...’ Eleanor hesitates awkwardly, unsure what to call her new mother-in-law. Nan does not feel the need to set her at ease. I smile at my feet, letting my sandy-brown hair fall forward to cover my expression. Nan smiles politely at Eleanor, silent as a stone. And deadly as a knife.
‘Mom,’ Uncle Jim says, his tone both chastising and amused.
‘Jim,’ she says matching his tone. They hug and I turn to get my luggage out of the trunk. ‘What happened to the place?’ Jim asks standing between his mother and his wife, his arm pointedly around Eleanor’s waist. ‘I heard that you were leasing it.’
‘I was, and it was in the contract that they had to maintain the place during their tenure.’
Nan had leased the place to a group of artists for a few months while she traveled Europe. Her trip was cut short by my mother’s sudden death. The fight to shorten the contract took a while, hence the prolonged stay with my uncle. The breach of their terms made it possible, but that didn’t make it easy.
‘Teenagers,’ she sighs, though the youngest artist was twenty-one. I know that Nan doesn’t mean me, and have learned never to take offense at anything she says. I am pardoned of the sins of my generation by the simple fact that I am her family. Nan has her standards. I retrieve my last bag and close the trunk.
‘Let me help you with that,’ offers Uncle Jim and takes my largest bag. Eleanor looks uncertain, Nan rolls her eyes.
The house is cavernous. It’s a family house built for more occupants than Nan and I, and the empty spaces stand filled with expectations. As if the rooms were expecting me to be more. I purse my lips as if to say: That’s it. Sorry.
‘Can I make you a cup of coffee?’ Nan asks. Eleanor looks for Uncle Jim before saying; ‘Sorry?’ Clearly she wants out as soon as possible.
‘Coffee?’ asks Nan again, her tone indicating what the answer should be.
‘Um…’ Eleanor stalls. I have witnessed Eleanor in full-on bitch mode before, so this timidity is unexpected, to say the least. Nan makes her feel uncomfortable.
Who says Eleanor isn’t smart?
‘Jim,’ she squeaks too enthusiastically when he walks in. ‘Are those all the bags?’ She asks meaningfully turning to him. She is wearing a too-tight pink dress and her platinum blonde hair falls straight down to the small of her back. She doesn’t dress like this all the time, but often enough to understand Nan’s pursed lips.
‘I’ll make some coffee, Nan,’ I say and turn to Uncle Jim. ‘Would you like some?’
‘I’d love a cup…’ he starts but Eleanor must give him a look because he continues; ‘…but we need to get going.’
‘So sorry,’ Eleanor says brightly. ‘We need to catch our flight.’
‘I haven’t seen you in two years,’ objects Nan. Uncle Jim looks pained but sticks to his guns. ‘I’m sorry mom. We’ll come to visit after the honeymoon.’ He sounds sincere. Nan smiles warmly and shrugs.
‘At least invite me to the wedding, next time,’ she says, and her tone could not more clearly say: with the next girl. I cover my mouth with my hand to stop from laughing. Eleanor looks scandalized. Nan smiles benignly. Jim looks like he was expecting it and shakes his head.
‘Love you, mom,’ he says and walks to her to give her a kiss and a hug.
‘Love you my boy,’ Nan greets. ‘Be safe.’
Something about the way she says it makes me believe that she is not talking about traffic. Eleanor looks outraged but unsure of her footing here. Uncle Jim looks resigned and leads her out of the house. She clearly wants to object, but sensing that she is not going to win she resigns herself to stomping to the car and waiting for Uncle Jim to open the door. Nan waves graciously as the car pulls off, blowing a kiss for good measure before closing the door and giving me a mischievous smile.
‘Eleanor is a nice girl,’ I say smiling.
‘Who?’ says Nan and I roll my eyes. She leads the way to the kitchen and puts the kettle on while I take a seat on the opposite side of the unexpectedly modern kitchen island. The entire kitchen has been redone, I see. Monochrome grey with café chairs and dark alabaster countertops. In her orange frock and paisley apron she looks like a farmer on her first trip to the big city.
‘Honestly, she was really nice.’
‘All your uncle’s wives are nice dear.’
‘She’s not a gold digger,’ I say, sounding unsure even to myself.
‘I need to buy more cookies,’ she says liberating a tin from a cupboard and opening it to show the few cookies within. I take one and put it on a plate.
‘Don’t grandmas bake cookies?’ I ask. She gives me a look.
‘And teenagers do chores,’ she says and pointedly looks out at the overgrown garden. We smile at each other and I catch her expression falling for just a second. She turns away to make the coffee, then changes her mind and walks around the kitchen island to come give me a hug. I squeeze her back, tears welling in my eyes. When she pulls away she studies my face. I’ve been told I look just like her. My mom. She hugs me again and we cry for a while. My tears are not silent. After a time, I’m not sure how long, I release the hug and we wipe our eyes. Soft tears still fall as we smile at each other, grateful for the comfort. Nan exhales loudly and then she looks at me.
‘She would have wanted you to mow the lawn,’ she says and we laugh.
I set up in my mother’s old room. It overlooks the backyard and has a small balcony that I love. It’s also pink with rose petal wallpaper. I love that less. But it could be worse. I decide to keep it for sentimental reasons.
I’ll change it later.
Nan and I talk, reminisce and cry while we tend the garden in the backyard. The lawnmower is broken and she is waiting for the neighbor to come and fix it. I cook dinner and we turn in early. I’m tired from traveling all day and Nan only got back yesterday.
Being in my mother’s old room is both comforting and painful. Though my mom talked about how beautiful the town is, and how much she loved growing up here, we never came to visit. Having seen only a few glances, I can appreciate the magic of the place. I am instantly comfortable here, a feeling that is odd in its familiarity. As if I belong here, as if this is where I was headed all along. I expect to struggle to fall asleep, but I am out in a few minutes, and dream of flying off the cliff on the back of a formless shadow.