When I was a very little girl, six years old, extremely shy and an ardent thumbsucker, I found myself in a dark, dismal, and, for me, utterly terrifying situation. My parents made frequent trips to Europe and Israel, where they had business; it was hard for me to get used to them being away, but that was part of my young life. In this case, without prior explanation, I was brought with them and plonked down in a kinderheim (children’s home) in Celerina, Switzerland. My sister was with me, but that was no solace since she was older and could handle herself plus she didn’t want anything to do with me anyway. So I was virtually on my own. This place was very institutional. We slept in dorms with rows of beds. The staff was not nurturing or friendly. English was not spoken – only German. I must’ve been the youngest kid there, and continually poked fun at for being a baby. It was awful and I’m convinced I had PTSD from it for years afterwards until finally, in my 50s, I saw a therapist who helped me.
The reason we were there was that Vivi got polio the summer she was eleven. I remember back then everyone was scared of swimming pools, which was one of the places the disease spread. We swam in a country club pool that I guess was considered safe, but one day as Vivi was climbing out of the pool, she complained that her back ached and she wasn’t feeling well. Our lives went from light to dark.
We’d already experienced polio up close and personal because of Joanna Chorosh, across the street (though by then we’d moved to our new house in Sands Point). A team of doctors arrived and Vivi was isolated for months in her room. I was not allowed near her. And Celia, a regular at our house, was not allowed to visit, a big woe to me and everyone else in the family. I remember those long drawn out days when it seemed everyone walked around with bated breath and the fear was such a constant, you could taste it. Vivi wasn’t well. Her legs and back ached. It was several endless months before we knew she’d been lucky and would walk again.
And so were sent to Switzerland to convalesce. As I said, this was without explanation. I have no memory of arriving at the kinderheim. Only of waiting for my mother, constantly waiting for my mother. And the snow, which in my case was up to the tops of my thighs. The coldness, bordering on cruelty, of the staff. The lack of a single soul I could connect with. I have no idea how long we stayed there. Probably six weeks, though to me it was more like six months. My mother visited a few times. I would be told the morning of the day of her visit that I could expect her in the afternoon. One time she was supposed to visit and never showed up (she must’ve notified the kinderheim, but they neglected to tell me). As I waited, I grew more and more anxious, and started howling. The staff chided me and finally sent me to bed without dinner for being difficult. I guess I was not a child who was good at the stiff upper lip thing.
What a relief it was, then, that the whole kinderheim was shut down because of an outbreak of German measles. We went to stay with my parents in a hotel in Zurich. It didn’t occur to me at the time to question their judgment in sending me to such a shitty place to begin with. I was just happy to be reunited with them. And unaware that for the rest of my life I would have a morbid fear of abandonment.
**An episode from this memoir is published every Thursday for those following!
You must read Michael Ondaatje’s novel Warlight. It’s an elegy on abandonment.
My experience in Celerina was somewhat different. I was eight and skied for the first time. I loved going down a little hill so much that I was oblivious to the near-blizzard conditions that developed one evening. My parents had to send a rescue party.
I remember the terror of polio—no water fountains or pools.