My mother told me the code for the entrance gate. I reached out my car window and punched it in, but it didn’t work. Luckily, just at that moment a car exited the gated community. I put my foot on the gas and scooted in before the barrier bar closed.
My mother and I were in Sherman, CT where my grandparents once owned a house on Candlewood Lake. My grandfather had carefully chosen this place in case there was another war and New York became unsafe. Since WWII he always worried about and planned for the worst. This house was “in the middle of nowhere” yet only a few days walk from the city in case the family needed to escape.
Mom and I were graciously received by the current owners and they showed us around. The purpose for our visit, however, was less about Memory Lane and more about our wanting to retrieve something. We walked down the long hill to the lake and my mother picked up four small stones from the base of the tree where my grandfather used to sit for hours making business calls. He had actually installed a phone on that tree just for that purpose. I can still hear him shouting “hallo” to make his voice heard through the phone lines to Europe. Mom safely tucked away the stones in a ziplock bag which she passed to me.
Three weeks later I landed in Switzerland. After finding our hotel and dropping off our luggage Dave and I walked to the outskirts of Zurich. The walk felt good after the cramped, overnight flight. Our destination was the Friedhof Am Schutzenrain – the small Jewish cemetery where my grandparents, Heinz and Margret Lichtenstern, are buried.
We found the place easily. It’s at the top of a short steep road across from small garden plots where city dwellers can grow vegetables. Beyond the cemetery there are open fields and walking trails.
Unfortunately, the cemetery gate was locked. I knew this would be a possibility. My mother had told me that the last time she was there, 25 years ago, the key had been kept in a mailbox of a nearby farmhouse. There were no nearby farmhouses. I tried calling the Liberale Judische Gemeinde (liberal Jewish community) but there was no answer. Their recorded message said to call another number but that one wouldn’t ring. Did I need to use a country code to dial a Swiss number from my U.S. phone while in Switzerland? A nice woman waking three dogs told us that if we went around the block (which meant going down the hill we had just ascended-across the hill-and up another steep hill) we could get in. Down, across, and up we went and, as she promised, the gate was unlocked. However this was the Orthodox cemetery and it was separated from the Reform section by a fence. I considered climbing over, but didn’t dare. Dave considered untwisting a portion of the fence wires – a bad idea.
As we searched for another way in, my husband suddenly heard a car door close and he carefully ran between the rows of graves to the edge of the fence where he could see two people talking by a parked car. “Hello!” he shouted. The man standing by the car didn’t speak English. Dave doesn’t speak German. The woman in the car got out to translate. Then the man ducked behind a garden shed and pulled the key out of a hidden mailbox. He waited for us while Dave sprinted, and I walked, down the steep hill- across – and up the other side. Finally we were in.
We sat on a bench overlooking the peaceful cemetery while we caught our breath. I delivered the four small stones to my grandparents’ headstone, leaving a little piece of their safe, summer hideaway with them here on the Swiss hillside.
It is customary in the Jewish faith to leave a small stone on the headstone of a loved one.
I shed some unexpected tears remembering days at the lake with my Omi and Opi – walking down the big hill, swimming in the lake, huffing back up the hill at the end of the day, and the tearful parking lot good-byes at the end of the summer.
We had come full circle: hills, phones, tears, stones.