Aunt Sofie is not expected to make it through the night.
It’s strange how a few words spoken in just seconds have the ability to linger in your heart. But linger they do. Just as the smoky residue from the burnt bacon I attempted to cook for breakfast that morning continues choking my lungs, I can’t stop this sadness within from suffocating me.
I am sad for my father’s older sister that her time has come to close her eyes to the beauty of the Swiss Alps she had called home for more than eight decades. I am sad to think she will no longer pick cherries from the trees I once helped her pick from when I was child visiting my dad’s family in Switzerland.
Nothing tasted as good as the tartness of her jam spread abundantly on thick, crusty bread served up with a side of hot coco. Even in the summer hot chocolate was the drink served to us kids, and this wasn’t the packets of Swiss Miss I was used to. This hot coco was the real deal, made with milk from the herd of Brown Swiss who munched on grass and wildflowers in the field. As the drink cooled, the milk would curdle on top creating a slippery film of creamy sweetness you could peel off and eat.
If you really wanted to fit into the Swiss side of the family, you would dunk the crusty bread into the chocolate elixir, allowing it to get soaked just enough to make it moist yet not to the point where it would fall into the bottom of your mug. The “who can dunk the bread the longest into the hot coco without having it disintegrate into pieces” became a game for my brother and sister and I that summer.
I pick up the roll on my lunch plate. I dunk it into my tepid coffee. Kerplunk. Game over. I had once again dunked too long. I stare into the mug. I can’t breathe. I am suffocating. Suffocating with sadness over the loss of my Aunt Sofie and what it represents.
Her death is not just the passing of yet another one of my father’s many siblings. Her death widens the ever-growing gap between me and my Swiss heritage and adds to a worry I have held since my teen years—what will happen to my connection to family when my father is gone? I never was good at mastering languages and so my meager attempt at learning the Swiss German dialect spoken by my family failed many years ago. And so I am sad about losing a family that I have never really known except through the all too few visits made and the all too few stories my dad has shared with me.
Whether we like them or not, family is important. Family gives us a sense of belonging and an understanding of who we are. As I get older I have come to respect that truth. I have also come to understand why it is that Vermont is and will forever be home to me. For whenever I see the clouds hanging low over the hills and valleys, whenever I hear the cows moo, whenever I hike high into the Green Mountains, whenever I pick cherries or strawberries, whenever I wake up to the early autumn surprise of seeing snow sprinkled on the top of the mountains like powdered sugar on a donut, I feel a powerful sense of belonging and I feel connected to those whose eyes are the same blue as mine.
We will never truly understand who we are, where home is or what makes our hearts come alive with great joy, until we come to know those we are a part of.
And so as each elderly aunt and uncle closes their eyes to the Alps before them, I feel the urgency all the more to keep my eyes opened, to see the many blessings of family before me and to surround myself with that which says “home.”
I feel the responsibility to preserve legacies—even if the legacy is simply the game of dunking bread slathered with cherry jam into a cup of hot coco. It’s something. It’s a start.