Go to the center of Switzerland, to a small city encapsulated within the mountains. Hike up a steep hill on which are homes, tiny meadows, small fields filled with goats, and streets that are barely wide enough for one car.
And there, facing the mountains, staring at small heart-shaped rock wall over which avalanches will frequently cascade, is a bench. Just big enough for four adults. Just big enough for a thousand promises and a thousand memories.
Just big enough for my family.
When I was a girl, my father’s military position took us to Germany, to Munich. When we first moved there, we mourned our American life, the fact that we had an entire house to ourselves as opposed to a tiny apartment in the middle of an Army base. We missed our privacy, our own lawn that was more of a mud hole because of the shade of our trees. We missed being able to understand the language and the four channels our black-and-white television could barely receive but only through the precarious angles of the antennae.
We missed our North American lives until my mother forced us to come out of our apartment and start wandering the German countryside.
We found out that through pretty grunts and a little practice we could actually speak the language. We learned that the German public transportation system was easy and liberating and wonderful. We could actually get on a bus which would take us to the subway which would take us to trolleys/streetcars which would take us to…
The world suddenly exploded at our feet and the barriers and boundaries that had originally kept us on base disappeared and we set off.
We hiked mountains in the summer and skied the same mountains in the winter. Borders were permeable so long as we had our passports and we were soon hopping from country to country. Munich was about two hours from Austria, maybe four from Italy. Switzerland was pretty much around the corner from us. Drive north and we were in Holland. Go west and we were in France and eventually to England.
For almost four years, Germany was my home, was my world in which I was free to range so long as I could hear the bell Mom installed on the balcony. When we were in the mountains, as long as I could hear my mom call “Cuckoo” and answer back immediately, I was fine.
I don’t remember Mom’s fears that much in Germany, except in relationship to the road. She hated the German’s aggressive driving technique, and I think that Dad adapted to a similar driving style which she really hated. But I don’t remember her overall terror that something terrible was going to happen all the time to us. I know that she didn’t trust me and my klutziness when we were hiking through the klamms (gorging waterfalls carved into ravines in the sides of mountains). And that was okay because they scared me with their loud noises and the water-soaked stone pathways cut into the sides of the mountains. I was convinced that I was going to fall and be swept away.
And then, my father’s German-tour-of-duty ended and we were swept back to America. This was right around the time when Adam Walsh was kidnapped and brutally murdered. We returned to the DC area just as violent crime was starting to escalate and I woke up several times to find my mother asleep on my floor, her body curled around a baseball bat. She had been awakened several hours before to helicopters shining their spotlights on the paths behind our house as the police tracked down criminals.
We were not living in a dangerous part of the area. We lived at the border of a lake that bordered several other neighborhoods and thieves would go subdivision hoping.
Every year, though, we would fly back to Germany and Switzerland and go for a three-week hiking adventure. We would spend a week in Ramsau, a week in Grainau, and a week in Grindelwald. Every year, by the time we were in Switzerland, I missed my room, missed the privacy of my door. Because, by that point, my brother and I had been cooped up in a room together, forced to share a bed (which was really awkward), and all I wanted was the comfort of my own room and the ability to have a few minutes of peace and quiet.
And then, I would go for a year mourning for Germany and the fact that I didn’t fit in with the American teens surrounding me. I had tasted the world and wanted to go back.
Every year, on the last day of vacation in Switzerland, we would walk to this special bench. We stayed in a Ferienwohnung, a vacation-apartment, that was at the top of the steep hill. The house in which the apartment was located was the highest abode on the mountain (other than the farmer’s and hiking huts) and was located right next to a chairlift that had four stations and would go to the top of the mountain.
And, just down the road, to the right, and along the sidewalk which went parallel to the “street” (more like lane) was the bench.
Mom called it “Commitment Bench,” because on that bench, while watching her favorite avalanche area, each family member would talk about a special moment from the vacation and then make a commitment about something for the next year.
It wasn’t like a New Year’s resolution, a false promise that would sound nice but was never kept.
It was supposed to be something that would unite each member to the family and, in doing so, would unite the family together. We were all each other had for so long. Even my brother and I in our most conflicting times would tolerate and care for one while on the bench. We might hate each other for the rest of the year. But on that bench, hatred fell to the side and we allowed ourselves to feel compassion.
Commitment Bench was where we held on to the memories for the next eleven months until we could return to Europe once more and go through the process of filling ourselves with the culture and the memories that would reinvigorate and rejuvenate ourselves for the next year. Commitment Bench was where differences and angers and animosities fell from our lives and were swept away by the constant mountain breezes.
Commitment Bench was where we pretty much renewed our familial vows and promised to one another to love one another no matter how much we annoyed one another.
I don’t remember any of the commitments that we said. I don’t remember those sacred words. I remember the sacredness of the spot, of a simple bench painted green (maybe it was plastic?) that faced the mountain range and held together my parents, my brother, and myself.
Commitment Bench was the last moment of our vacation before the following morning when we would pile back into the car and drive either to Heidelberg for the return flight to America. Commitment Bench was the final point in which we were more European before we put back on our Americanness and came back to a world with turning, circular doorknobs as opposed to handles.
I haven’t been to Commitment Bench for nearly twenty-six years. I graduated from high school in 1990 and returned to America for college. I don’t know that I have been to Grindelwald since then. I haven’t hiked those Swiss mountains in years, and I know two messages are waiting for me there. Somewhere, tucked under a rock or beneath a cairn of stones are two notes, wrapped in clear packing tape, waiting for me.
I hope they are still there.
I don’t know that I will find them, but I like to think that they are undisturbed and waiting for me.
This year, for Christmas, I gave my parents an iPod. They kind of freaked out about the money, about the new technology, about the fact that I was trying to get them to replace their old iPod which still sort of worked. And I tried so hard to force them to keep it but they put up a good fight so I relented and returned it.
I was rather bitter. But, in the end, I am rather glad that I did it.
I also gave them a small candle holder. A metal bench with two places for tea-candles. And when they opened up the cardboard box and gently pulled out the bench, they both looked at me when I said, “It’s Commitment Bench.”
I didn’t need to tell them. They already knew. They could see that twenty-six years of time and absence on my part had not diminished the meaning still within those memories and words that I can’t always remember but know that I have spoken.
It’s been two weeks since I left my parents’ home, and I still miss them. Moreso, I realize that I miss Commitment Bench. I haven’t been there in such a long time, and I realize that I might not ever sit there again with my parents unless I do something.
I’m good at making plans but suck at executing them. I think that maybe I should call my brother tomorrow and see what he’s doing summer of 2017. This time, though, we aren’t going to share a room.