All of my life half of our very small family was thousands of miles away in Vienna. They sent me beautiful post cards of Alpine scenery and imposing buildings that looked nothing like any buildings that were around me. My mother told me wonderful stories about how warm, generous and loving these people were. I wanted so much to meet them. And when we finally came to Vienna my family was as warm, generous and loving as I had heard. They had the traits I loved in my mother, but did not have the baggage accrued when teenaged daughters assert their independence from possessive mothers. I have always regretted that I arrived in Vienna too late to meet my grandparents, but subsequent visits tightened the bonds I felt with my far away family. They took us on tours around Austria, hiking in the mountains and teaching us the history of this once powerful nation in museums. We sipped coffee topped with whipped cream on the shores of beautiful lakes and went behind the scenes in some of the restored government buildings thanks to my uncle's connections.
Now only one aunt and one cousin are still here and I have many unanswered questions about my family - why did my mother forsake these wonderful people to marry a man across the ocean that she had never met? How did the people she left behind feel about this decision? What did my mother's childhood home look like? None of us are getting any younger...
I wanted to see where my grandparents were buried. On a suitably drab and rainy day we visited the main cemetery in Vienna. It was a huge and impressive place filled with family graves in the Austrian way marked by large headstones commemorating numerous births and deaths. After a few generations the grave is full so the oldest member is removed to make space. Inscriptions honoring people that no one alive remembers are covered over with the epitaphs of the more recently deceased. This might seem a bit odd to Americans who need a place of their own in death as in life, but things are crowded here. There is something quite charming about spending eternity with your family. Perhaps this approach could force spouses to chose their in-laws rather than their parents, but it all seems to work out. My aunt brought candles which we lit in the cold wind and places in special containers in the headstone. She clearly has spent a great deal of time and effort on maintaining the vegetation that she has planted here and was especially proud of some red flowers that continue to blossom even in the snow.
Then we drove to the apartment building where mom and her sisters grew up. Many of those childhood postcards I received were mailed from here. The wrought iron gate and decorated facade looked nothing like my childhood home. My aunt had vivid memories of how the building and surrounds were gutted by the Russians during the occupation after Austria was on the losing side in WWII. My cousin pointed out that every third building was bombed into rubble and you can see the subtle differences between the rebuilt and the original buildings. The Occupation ended in 1955 and the future seemed helpless and hopeless to the Viennese. While I imagined my mother pining away in the US missing her family and all that was familiar, they were here envying her and her bright future in the New World. But today Austria is prosperous and an attractive mixture of the old and new.
It was an illuminating and emotional day for me – and a dull one for poor Ken since much of the conversation took place in German. But having lost his mother recently, he is more aware than ever that you must ask your questions while there is still someone there who can answer them.