Establishing new traditions

When something happens for the third time, does that make it a tradition?

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I don’t even know now how it happened, but when Peter died two years ago, the house immediately started filling up with people – so many dear and kind friends, so many young people who had spent time as children or teenagers here, Peter’s friends, my friends, the boys’ friends, our friends. They took care of cooking, cleaning, washing, shopping, organizing; they took care of us. By the end of that November, of course, everyone had to return to their own lives, and I started learning to live quietly by myself with (at first) one cat.
When Christmas came only a few weeks later, it seemed, after Paddy brought the second cat, Hester, as a Christmas present for me and Ginevra, the house started filling up with people again. After our traditional Austrian Christmas with Peter’s family on the 24th, starting since then with a visit to the cemetery together, what used to be our somewhat chaotic English-speaking Christmas on the 25th became a gathering of friends – and it felt so good. That first Christmas without Peter turned out to be so enjoyable that everyone came back again last year, and that was so enjoyable too that we did it again this year. Being able to open up my house and turn over my kitchen to any friends who feel like cooking and gathering here feels like such a privilege, an amazing gift for which I am deeply grateful.

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Just sitting there on Christmas day, surrounded by lovely people having all kinds of conversations, I thought again about how incredibly fortunate I am, especially to have so many wonderful young women in my life. As I have often said, as an old feminist I initially felt a bit disappointed to find myself the mother of two sons, but I learned fairly quickly that it is actually much better to have sons who get along well with girls. As my sons started bringing girls into my life, I was able to enjoy their company, appreciate their views, delight in all their accomplishments – yet without any of the tensions, conflicts and mutual disappointments that mothers and daughters so often have to deal with. And this happy advantage still continues. Some time ago, one of Christopher’s friends gave me one of the best compliments I have ever received, when she announced that one day she would have to marry Christopher so that she could have me as her mother-in-law. I promised her that she didn’t have to marry him, I would be pleased to be able to keep in her my life in any case. Since then I have been growing a circle of “quasi daughters-in-law” with or without a relationship to one of my sons. All these intelligent, interesting, thinking, creative young women, who have come into my life, inspire and encourage me and give me hope. Of course, not all of the young people I have come to depend on are women: my life also includes thoughtful, caring, generous young men – including my sons.
After Peter died, I would not have imagined that I would end up enjoying Christmas this much. It still amazes me, but it is a new tradition I would like to continue now. I’m not quite sure how it might work next year, since Christopher, Paddy, Agnes and I plan to be in Albuquerque then, but since I will need someone to look after my cats, I’m thinking I’ll probably just leave my key here and let what ever happens happen. Somehow there is something very appealing about the thought of all these lovely people gathering at my house even if I’m not there. It is reassuring to imagine that my house is simply a good place to be.

A house full of people

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November

Someday, in some distant future, I like to think that a time may come, when November won’t hurt. It seems hard to imagine that now, but it’s what I like to tell myself.

Returning to Linz the day before the second anniversary of Peter’s death seemed like a good idea when I booked my flight months ago, but I’m afraid I didn’t quite think that plan all the way through. Two years ago I was wholly and completely incapable of remembering any dates or times, so I was grateful for the notes posted for me in the hallway, telling me where I needed to go and when, notes I could simply read out whenever anyone called to ask about the memorial. Two years ago I could not remember that the memorial for Peter would be held on 22 November, that on 28 November we would take the urn with his ashes to the niche I had picked out for both of us. Now it feels as though I will never, ever be able to forget those dates again.

I had made plans for 13 November ahead of time, the same comforting, reassuring plan as last year: going to the cemetery together in the afternoon, a nice dinner with family and friends at Gelbes Krokodil, eventually ending up in Solaris, of course, with Paddy, Agnes, Christopher and more friends. That worked. What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was how hard it would hit me in the days after that, the whole flood of memories of exactly what I was doing at this time two years ago. For the past two weeks I’ve had the feeling there is gray film constantly running in my head, replaying memories on top of or behind everything else I’m doing or thinking in the present.

Actually, though, it might even be considered encouraging that I was so unprepared for that unexpected flood of memories. It means they don’t otherwise dominate my life. It means there is space now, two years later, in my life, in my mind, in my heart to reflect on and remember what happened, what was, what is no more. It means I can stop to feel sad now, because I’m not constantly struggling to just somehow keep going.

On 14 November, the day after the second anniversary of Peter’s death, I finally transferred the last installment to pay his income taxes, for which I am deeply grateful to Peter’s parents, because I could not have done it without their generous help. The only thing left now is the last instrument Peter started and Claudia Unterkogler finished, which is only waiting for a case to be made for it so it can be delivered. Then I am finished. I have completed all my “widow’s tasks”.

My “widow’s tasks”, dealing with “death & taxes & telephone companies”, all the many, many “first times” – sometimes the first year felt like the longest year of my life. It seemed interminable, insurmountable. As the first year spilled over into the second year, as my “widow’s tasks” finally became fewer, less urgent, less daunting, it was time to take up the next challenge of “rearranging my life” without Peter. It was also time to stop needing so much help and support and start taking care of other people again. It was time to get back to work and to earning my living again. New projects, new people, new interests also new low points, new disappointments, new loneliness.

So many years ago, I found the symbolism of the threefold goddess fascinating and encouraging. The three figures of the goddess with their respective colors – white for the Maid, red for the Mother, black for the Crone – stand for different phases of life, but not in a linear progression: like the changing seasons, there are different times in life, where the focus shifts, responsibilities and efforts change, the light is different. White is for those periods in life, when a freedom from ties and responsibilities is needed to reach a goal, to grow and change, a time of light and clarity, not uncaring, but unfettered. Red is for periods of caring, loving, nourishing, protecting, gathering in, a time of strong energy and strong bonds, like a flame with all its capacities for warming and for destroying as well. Black is the time of winter, like the black branches of trees that had to let their leaves fall, in order to survive the cold and the snow. Letting go, taking down, taking leave, retreating, death. And there can be no life without death, in all its many forms and manifestations, physical, emotional, global, personal.

Looking back, I would say that the first year of my life without Peter was red, the second was black.

Now my color is white.

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September

Five years.

Five years ago at the end of August, Peter and I were packing for a weekend at a spa out in the country. We had been there before, and we expected to spend a relaxing few days just lying naked on the comfortable lounges in the quiet sauna garden reading novels, so we packed more books than clothes. On our way to the spa, we stopped for coffee with dear friends and met a brand new person for the first time. That newborn person, who was to become Peter’s youngest godchild, is meanwhile about to start his last year at kindergarten as one of the important big kids ready to start school next year. He is an expert on tractors and screwdrivers, and he is learning to tie his own shoes.

While Peter and I were looking forward to just getting away for a few days in Austria, Amy was making similar plans in Michigan, and we had been exchanging messages about how much we were looking forward to it. She said she just needed a break too, she really needed a break. The short break that Peter and I took was good, enjoyable, restful. Whatever happened that weekend, though, that was not the case for Amy.

Two days after our return, I went to a meeting to discuss a paper I had been working on with a small group. I felt we were making good progress and I was happy and excited to discuss it. But then, in the middle of the discussion, my phone rang and I saw that it was Peter calling me. Normally I would never answer my phone in the middle of a meeting, but Peter would normally never call me in the middle of a meeting either. As soon as I heard his voice, it sent a chill down my spine. Peter just said, “You need to come home. Now. Your brother called. Something happened. It’s not your mother.” In the middle of the discussion, I quickly packed up my bag, murmured something about having to go, and started running.

The meeting that night was held in a pleasant little courtyard attached to an art space. I’ve tried to return several times since then, but it still feels oppressive and uncomfortable. No matter what else is happening there, I just feel the large tree, looming like a malignant presence, and no matter what anyone else is saying, all I hear is Peter’s voice in my head: “You need to come home …”. When I leave, I still feel an overwhelming urge to start running, as I did that night five years ago – running, sobbing, calling Amy’s name out loud like a mad woman…

Five years ago, when Amy made the determined decision to end her life, she radically changed mine too. I am not the same person I was before she walked into her garage and turned on the motor of her car. None of us are.

One learns to live with a traumatic and painful change, as one learns to live with a deep scar, an artificial hip or a prosthetic limb. What always surprises me, though, is that there are so many of us. Whenever I talk about Amy with other people, they often tell me their stories too. I would never have imagined that there are so many, many people living with the self-chosen death of someone close to them. Sometimes when I see groups of people standing around or just walking down the street, I find myself picturing the invisible scars, artificial hips or prosthetic limbs they have learned to live with, and I am reminded of one of my favorite posts on Twitter:

“Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

 

A beautiful place to spend eternity

A beautiful place to spend eternity:
Remembering Amy Derieg Boehms
3 November 1966 – 2 September 2008

 

 

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Sisters

Sisters by the DanubeThere is a word for it. There is actually a “technical” term that I have come across on the various websites about grief and mourning and bereavement that I read. It is a recognized psychological phenomenon, this unexpected and sudden feeling of disorientation, when something triggers a feeling of grief completely out of the blue, often long after you think you have learned to come to terms with loss. I can’t think of the word right now, though, because that is what I experienced this morning.

Even though I really ought to be at the alternative 1st May demo today, at some point I decided I just need a day off, and a public holiday in the middle of the week seemed like a good excuse. Feeling unusually unpressured when I got up, while I was making coffee I started absent-mindedly scrolling through Twitter, and a link that someone had posted caught my attention. It was a link to a beautiful series of photos of four sisters, taken every year from 1975 to 2010. Actually, I love to see sisters together, whether in pictures or in person. That always has a kind of bitter-sweet feeling to it, because it makes me miss my sister, but at the same time there is something tremendously comforting about seeing that other sisters can still be together. I love to see my mother-in-law with her sister: it invariably brings tears to my eyes as it reminds me that my sister and I will never be old women together, but at the same time it gives me great pleasure to watch the two of them turning into young girls again together, as they quickly fall into patterns of behavior from the course of their whole lifetime.

Perhaps it was the time frame of this photo series, perhaps it’s just this time of year or the fact that I have been thinking so much of Amy lately, but this morning it suddenly hit me, an inconsolable sense of loss and grief. Instead of doing any of the other things I had planned to do today at home, I found myself pouring over old pictures of Amy and me together. Sisters.

As it is the first day of May, I am reminded of that May four years ago, six months after Amy’s death, when it first really started sinking in that she really was dead, and I would never see her or hear from her or hug her again – a feeling I found most aptly expressed on yet another website:

DISTRESSED HAIKU
by Donald Hall
Somewhere in California

You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.

Then they stay dead.

I have also been thinking so much of her since I heard the good news that my godson and goddaughter-in-law are expecting a baby in early November, which means that around her 47th birthday this year, my sister would have become a grandmother. Since Amy is no longer here to welcome this first grandchild, I fully intend to do my best to stand in for her, which means I have a lot of work to do in order to be able to afford to go to Michigan by late October. I was with her when her son was born, and when Christopher was born she came to Austria, a determined young single mother on her own with a very small child and a very large suitcase. Then the two of us set out together with a two-year-old and a newborn to have fun doing tourist things, joining forces to pretend to ignore the appalled looks and disapproving comments from older women along the way. So no matter what it takes, I have to go to Michigan.

Big sister, little sisterSisters. Amy was my little sister. I loved her from the day she was born to the day she died, and I love her still in my heart. As ever, mourning for Amy allows the ghost of regret to escape that has haunted me since she died: I should have gone to stay with her when I realized what a hard time she was going through. Perhaps one of the hardest things about grieving is learning to accept that we cannot change the past, and it has taken me tremendous effort to learn to keep that particular ghost at bay. Of course it returned this morning, but it feels encouraging that this ghost no longer has the power to hurt me as it once did. I didn’t go to Michigan then – for so many different reasons – but blaming myself for not being able to help her would be disrespectful to Amy. That’s not what I promised her when I stood there stroking the arm of her lifeless body in the funeral home.

We cannot change the past, but neither can it be taken from us. I had a sister, and that was good. There will never be another picture taken of the two of us together, but I can still enjoy looking at pictures of other sisters together and being reminded of my sister and our past together.Amy and me

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What is hard about being a widow now

As my sons have heard (probably far too many times by now), among all the many websites I have found that deal with bereavement and grief, one day I found one with a kind of list of many different types of bereavement and associated grief, with beautiful, sensitive descriptions of the different kinds of experiences. Reading through these descriptions, I started mentally checking off all the experiences I have already gone through, even including miscarriage and my own near-death experience with the ruptured tubal pregnancy, and by the time I got to the end, I realized that I had checked off every single description – with one exception: I have not had to cope with the death of one of the children I have given birth to. With that realization, I suddenly froze with terror, starting to wonder whether that is something I still have to face, as though I cannot be “finished” until I have covered the entire list. That is not a fear I can live with, not a possibility I can even begin to imagine facing: that would break me now. This sudden terror was immediately followed that the realization that this is exactly what Peter’s parents are going through. They have lost their child. My parents-in-law are coping with this terrible loss with such inspiring grace and dignity, yet sometimes I feel it will break my heart just having to watch them. But we have cried together, again and again, held on tight to one another, and promised one another, we can only do this together. Most recently, my beloved mother-in-law, holding on tight to my hands, tears streaming down her face, told me, “We are family, we just have to stick together.” All the past conflicts, arguments, differences of opinion and world view no longer matter, not at all. We have to do this together, because it is the only way we can do it.

I have to admit, however, that after one year and three months, I am really, really tired of being a widow. And it is not getting easier.

Sometimes I take a detour on my way to work in the morning. Instead of walking across the bridge, I get on the bus that leaves from below my balcony. All the way across Urfahr, this bus picks up older, old, and elderly women, and then we all get off together at the stop across from the cemetery. On weekday mornings, the No. 33 bus turns into a “widow’s bus”. I don’t know why the other widows take this bus, but when I go to the cemetery, apart from lighting candles, removing old leaves, and generally tidying Peter’s niche, I usually just go there to complain. I look at the plain marble plaque with his name, his date of birth, and the date of his death, and I just feel incensed and reproachfully demand, “How could you just fall off a mountain and leave me to deal with this mess alone?” Then a little more tidying, checking for signs that the neighbor’s widow has been there recently, and it’s ok. I can get back on the bus that takes me to the tram that takes me to my office, and I can just get on with it.

Sometimes I try to frame what’s hard now about being a widow in a broader context. Everyone I know is constantly under pressure: too many people living under precarious conditions, struggling to keep up with all the major and minor responsibilities, from childcare to deadlines to health problems to taxes to project proposals for funding to economic justice and political activism. Even as I type, I know that an amazing group of people is shivering from the cold in a church in Vienna, where they have been on hunger strike to demand basic human rights – human rights that are denied to them, simply because they are refugees, and Austrian politics can’t deal with anything but unquestioning gratitude from anyone not born here. And I feel stupid and useless, because I feel too tired, too lonely, too overwhelmed to find any energy to even write letters of support or go to solidarity demos.

What happens when everyone feels that way? What is left, if no one has enough energy left, after just getting by from one day to the next, to reach out to other people? What if the only people who can cope with everyday life are the ones who choose to only look out for themselves, all the purportedly “self-made”, “self-reliant” men and women, who look down on anyone who has not done well for themselves?

Peter and I were a good team, I think. We were by no means an ideally romantic couple who fell in love and found our soul-mates. He often complained that I was so unromantic, just as I often teased him about being a hopelessly cliched romantic; he rolled his eyes at my repeated assertion that “romantic love” is just a capitalist fairy-tale that keeps people unhappy so that they are better consumers, and in response I just stroked his beard and kissed him. He frequently brought me roses, just because he thought I needed them, and I smoothed the back of his hair when he looked silly, held him when he felt upset, insecure or – for him – dangerously vulnerable. It wasn’t that kind of “romantic love” that kept us together, but rather our shared convictions about the kind of world we wanted to live in and the work entailed in making that kind of world.

The hard part about being a widow now is that I have not lost those convictions, I have lost the partner who shared them – who also shared all the minor and major responsibilities of everyday life to create enough free space to be able to work on making the kind of world we wanted to live in together. Now I not only have to figure it out by myself, I have no one to talk it through with. And no one is here to do the laundry or wash the dishes while I write or gather information or go to the meetings I would attend, if only I were not so exhausted.

Eventually I will figure it out, I’m certain that I will. But right now, the process of trying to figure it all out just feels like hard, hard work.

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Rearranging my life

Getting through the first year without Peter felt like a goal, something worth working to achieve. By the end of November, though, having reached the end of the first year without Peter, somehow I felt almost cheated that there was no reward, no feeling of achievement, nothing. I had somehow expected life to feel easier after the first year, but it didn’t. On the contrary, December felt like a long, uphill battle for no discernible reason.

Setting up and opening the “new” workshop, the Werkstatt am Hauptplatz, was an important goal, and it was absolutely worth the effort, but it did indeed require a tremendous effort. When November was followed by December, and I realized it was time to think about Christmas, it felt like more than I could possibly cope with. When the notice came from the tax office with the schedule of payments to cover Peter’s income tax from 2011 by the end of the next year, it nearly defeated me. Then finally I realized my mistake: somehow I had unconsciously assumed that now everything could return to “normal”, and that I could prepare for Christmas as I had always done in the past, but that is, in fact, no longer possible. As much as Peter always complained about the disruptiveness of Christmas, we still shared responsibility for preparations. We shared ideas about presents and divided up both errands and costs, but that only works with two people. It came as a shock to realize that I can no longer afford to do Christmas the same way that Peter and I did it together in the past, but by then it was too late. I had already spent too much money even before I received the notice from the tax office, and it was too late to come up with an alternative plan.

As I felt disappointed, apprehensive, under pressure to keep up with work, even more so because of the urgency of needing the money, the stress started to manifest itself physically. At some point I realized that if Peter were here, he would have noticed that I was becoming increasingly irritable and unreasonably grumpy, but he would also have noticed that I was limping and made a connection. Admittedly, it invariably irritated Peter that he always had to tell me when I was in pain and start nagging me to do something about it, but at least I could always rely on him to do so. Theoretically, I know that taking the attitude toward physical pain that if it’s not fatal, I can live with it, is neither healthy nor sensible. Putting that theoretical knowledge into practice, however, is definitely not one of my strong points. But without Peter now, even that is solely and entirely up to me. I have to rearrange my life, my whole life, in all the minor and major points. I have to readjust my thinking, my expectations, my daily routines and all my coping mechanisms. How did I miss that part, while I was just concentrating on getting through the first year?

On the Saturday before Christmas I lost the plot. When Seth came in and found me in tears, he went straight into action, throwing Christopher out of bed and getting Paddy on the phone at the same time. While pain had kept me awake all night, I had convinced myself that all my efforts were a waste of time and energy, nobody was interested in Christmas, they were just going along with it to humor me, so Seth’s efforts to motivate Christopher and Paddy to get involved only seemed to confirm those misgivings. In the end I fled to the workshop to set everything up for “#twichteln”, the Christmas party of the Linz Twitter community. That was probably the right course of action, since the party turned out so well, which helped me to feel considerably less incompetent. While I was in the workshop, Seth and Christopher went out to buy a tree, set it up in the living room and brought up all the boxes from the cellar. Then on Sunday Azra came, and she and Christopher and I decorated the tree, hung up the stockings (including the two new ones I had made for Azra and Agnes), and set out other Christmas decorations. Azra was so sweet about listening to all my stories about each of the ornaments and where all the decorations had come from, that I started to feel much better. I was touched to hear Christopher telling Azra about Bean, my grandmother, as though he had actually known her, although telling Azra about Amy made me feel a bit sad, because I am increasingly realizing how much they would have had to say to one another. Because I am not Amy and because of the ways we were very different, now I can only tell Azra what she is missing. And consequent to Seth’s efforts, I learned that, far from having lost interest because he wanted to do his own Christmas celebration, Paddy had been working very hard to surprise me, which was why I hadn’t heard from him. I felt like a complete fool then, thoroughly ashamed of myself for making such a fuss.

Once the tree was decorated and presents started being placed under it, Hester seemed to revert to her early kitten-hood and insisted on hiding under the tree behind the other presents, just as she had done a year ago, when Paddy first brought her to me.

Then after all of my misgivings and worries and unhappiness, because I felt that what I had to offer was too meager and stretched, and no one wanted it anyway, it all turned out well after all. Christmas Eve with Peter’s family felt gentle, warm, enjoyable, and I felt contentedly certain that my attempts to express affection and care for his family would have made Peter happy. Then watching everyone open gifts from one another on Christmas day at my house, I felt deeply touched by the thoughtfulness so abundantly evident in both giving and receiving. Among all the other presents, I saw there was an envelope under the tree with my name on it. An invitation to a nice personally cooked dinner in Vienna? A concert or a play? Announcement of a CD not yet released or some other kind of promise? When I opened the envelope, I found this sheet of paper inside:

While I was still blinking, Paddy ran into the other room and came back with a guitar – a new guitar for me.

I have never had another guitar, other than the one given to me for my twelfth birthday. It gave me great pleasure then, opened up other possibilities for me when I learned to play with the folk mass group at church as a teenager. It has accompanied me everywhere since then, proved to be quite useful when I was a religion teacher in Innsbruck, and got me some of the best rides during my hitch-hiking days. Although I think a few old photos do exist of Peter and me playing the guitar together, for the most part I just left it up to him, because he played much better than I did, and later Paddy learned to play much better than Peter ever did. At least, however, I can claim credit for having taught the boys the first few chords on the guitar, but I don’t think they found “The Crawdad Song” amusing after the age of about four. Recently, I started trying to play again, because with no more musicians living here, now I have to make my own music again. After the first attempts were a bit frustrating, I asked Paddy to tune it for me, which helped a little, but my poor old guitar is so battered and worn now that not even Paddy can make it really sound good.

With the new guitar, along with Paddy’s suggestions about where to find chords for more interesting songs than the ones I used to play for my pupils in Innsbruck, I have the feeling that some of my confidence is returning. My fingers have grown soft, of course, my fingernails too long, but I can change that. At least my fingers remember now where they belong on the strings. The cats are clearly not impressed with my attempts to sing again, but they are happy to sit in the lovely new soft case while I work on it. With neither Peter nor Amy here to roll their eyes, it is tempting to indulge in a more extensive metaphorical interpretation of the new guitar: I have to rearrange my life now, not just for a year, but indefinitely. Maintaining the workshop and paying Peter’s income tax at the same time is a huge challenge, but I lived alone on very, very little money for a long time before I met Peter. I can do it again, but that doesn’t mean that I can just pick up where I left off more than twenty years ago. I need to relearn old skills, but acquire new skills and also new resources at the same time. I need to abandon certain habits and work on things that I could afford to not be good at for so many years. I need to learn to seek advice from people with different skills and other experience, and follow it. There is no specific goal, no finish-line, no set time frame, and there will be no prize or reward for achievement. This is simply my life now without Peter.

But when I think of all the people there are in my life who matter, I know I have a good life, and it is worth the effort.

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Remembering Peter

As arbitrary and artificial as conventional measures of time are, we have passed through a full cycle now, all four seasons, all the recurrent annual events and anniversaries, all the things that can happen within the space that we count as one year: tomorrow it will be exactly one year since Peter died.

One year without Peter.

In the course of this year, there are important things that Peter has missed. He missed meeting George, who was born in January, and he missed being here to have important conversations with George’s father, because having important conversations about how to be a father was always Peter’s job. He missed meeting Agnes again as the wonderful grown-up woman she has become from the bright-eyed child we met so many years ago. He missed meeting Azra, and he missed being here to be a good role model for Seth and give him advice when he needs it (whether he knows he needs it or not). Peter missed the release of Jub Jub, he missed The Beauty Queen of Leenane, he never got to hear Paradicso, and he missed the first ever performance of The Patrick Derieg Orchestra. He missed Joseph and Emma’s wedding, and he missed Hari and Simone’s wedding. He missed countless opportunities to throw a raging fit over Christopher’s rather chaotic travels through the US. He missed innumerable chances to give Paddy instructions about the proper way to make useful contacts. He missed Oscar turning four and Moritz becoming an excellent climber. He missed perfect Autumn days in the mountains and bright summer days for swimming in the Danube. He missed all of that and more – and he has been missed. His absence has been a constant presence.

It is not only the specific date – 13th November – that is noted on his death certificate and his marble plaque in the cemetery, it’s this time of year that evokes memories. When Christopher posted in October that it had been a year since the release of Lilacs Out of the Dead Ground, I remembered going to the release party with Peter, how happy he was, bursting with pleasure that his son had realized a dream he understood, because the album was released on the Tonträger label. And then I remembered that the next time Christopher played in Linz, I went to the concert with a friend and her sister, because Peter was already up in the mountains at Prielschutzhaus – and it hit me hard that Peter and Christopher had only missed each other by a few hours, because it was perfectly normal for Peter to be eager to set off and for Christopher to be late getting to Linz. Twenty-four hours later, it felt as though nothing could ever be “normal” again. When Christopher came to Linz to play a small concert on 1st November this year, we both had a kind of deja-vu feeling. I tried hard not to stand in the first row, but there wasn’t really much room to move, so I tried to at least hide a little behind Leo’s shoulder. I was rather proud of myself that I managed to listen to “Whatever We Had” without tears, but I noticed that Christopher was avoiding looking in my direction. I was grateful that he was able to stay a few days in Linz then, that he didn’t have to go back to Vienna immediately and leave me alone with my memories and my worries. We spent what would have been Amy’s 46th birthday together, mostly struggling to get the new web site for the workshop online. After four years, it seems I am able to stop having to take a day off on Amy’s birthday, even though I was still acutely conscious of the date.

Over the past few weeks, it seems that many people are having similar experiences. Everywhere I go, people come up to me and gently ask, “It’s about a year now, isn’t it?” And they tell me their stories of how they heard the terrible news of Peter’s death, what they were doing, how they felt, what they thought With every story I hear, I feel deeply touched again by the wealth of human kindness. This time last year

On the weekend, I absolutely did not want to be at home alone, so the timing was perfect for Paradicso to play a concert in Vienna and invite “The Patrick Derieg Orchestra” (i.e. Paddy and Agnes) to perform too. It was a good time to go to Vienna and I was grateful for the opportunity. All evening, of course, I kept imagining how Peter would have hated the crowded, smokey venue, but how he would have been about to explode with nervousness for Paddy, yet still bursting with pride at how well Paddy plays the guitar, but also, of course, with a long list of instructions about how to behave on stage. But now, after that weekend exactly a year ago, all of Peter’s loveable idiosyncrasies remain only a memory, his reactions to be imagined, but no longer experienced – unchanging now, immutable.

Tomorrow evening, after we go to the cemetery together with Peter’s parents and his sister, a table is reserved for us at Gelbes Krokodil. That feels right. That is where we have always gone for special occasions, starting from the party for Christopher’s baptism twenty-two years ago, when Krokodil hadn’t even officially opened yet, through all the birthdays and anniversaries, celebrating graduation, publications, new orders, and sometimes just because it seemed like a good idea. So the 13th of November now becomes historicized, a special occasion, a time for gathering and sharing good food and good company.

Then we will go upstairs to Solaris, which seems equally appropriate. That’s where Peter and I always met after working late, went for a drink after the cinema, found one another after long, busy days with other people. It’s where I’ve always gone in the past four years when I need to not be alone, and it feels safe, comfortable, familiar.

Elsewhere in the world, people with instruments that Peter made will be meeting to play music together. People that this date is meaningful for will tell one another their stories again, and the stories become a part of memories, told again and passed on.

Peter Hütmannsberger, 28 March 1962 - 13 November 2011

And Peter will be remembered.

 

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The Workshop

Photo: Reinhard Winkler

Peter’s workshop was a familiar, almost magical place, surprisingly cozy in all its chaos. The smell of wood and dust, mountains of wood shavings curling into beautiful, delicate strips, the tiny planes and other mysterious instruments that are the typical tools of a violin-maker, old violins hanging on strings, the soft light through the windows of the old building: this was the setting for long conversations with friends about life and love and lyrics for potential pop songs, the place of origin of 113 musical instruments now being played all over the world, in concert halls and living rooms, heard on countless recordings.

What happens to a workshop, when the instrument-maker is gone? At some point our tax consultant explained to the tax office that the actual value of the workshop consisted in Peter’s special knowledge and skills, and without Peter there was no material – and more pertinently no taxable – value left. It seems a reasonable explanation, but when I had to take pictures of what was left in the workshop and write on the back of each picture what there was to be seen and why it had no more value without Peter, it was one of the hardest things I had to do. I had to be careful not to smudge the writing with my tears.

Perhaps, if the workshop had not been such an essential part of my life too, if it were not attached to my office, where I work, where I feel safe and content, perhaps then I could have let it go. Perhaps. As it is, though, the thought of giving up those two rooms to some random person, who might come in and occupy that space, take it over, that thought was unbearable. Instead, I decided to take over the whole of the rent contract myself and try to turn the space into a different kind of workshop. The front room, which had been Peter’s “office” (although it looked more like a jumbled attic room), which had been my home before that, before I met Peter, where he moved in with me after we met and decided to get married, has now been turned into a comfortable room with couches and chairs that can serve as beds, with a small tea kitchen with a cupboard from 1960, which belonged to Peter’s parents when they were married, and a desk for Seth, who is now officially employed as my assistant since August. The large room, the workshop itself, is now empty, completely empty. The walls have been newly painted, the windows cleaned, and friends are building a system of tables for me, which can be flexibly arranged and easily stowed away when not needed.

The plan is to offer this space to artists, especially young artists from the independent art scene in Linz, who just need a large empty room to realize their ideas. I have received tremendous encouragement for this plan from so many people, and there seems to be much interest in using the workshop. Financially, it is something of a stretch at this point, but I am convinced it is worth the effort.

The “new” workshop, which we have decided to simply call “Werkstatt am Hauptplatz/Workshop in the Main Square”, will formally open on 22 November, the first anniversary of the memorial service for Peter, with a small photo exhibition to mark the transition. Two photographers, Reinhard Winkler and Gerald Ehmann, took pictures in the workshop at different times and from their respectively different perspectives. Both of them have generously offered to make all of their photos available, a group of young artists from the art university will select and hang about thirty of them in the workshop, where they will stay until 1 December, and then the photos will be left for people to take, to keep as a reminder of Peter and what the workshop was.

The process of transformation required to make this plan feasible has been long and painful. It would not have been possible at all without the incredibly generous effort of so many people, starting with the violin-makers from Linz, Alexander Schütz, Franz Übelhör, and Ingrid Wilske, the harpsichord-maker Martin Pühringer, and Momo Pesendorfer, whose familiarity with Peter’s office was invaluable. That Paddy met Agnes and thus brought into our lives the delightful daughter of another violin-maker, Gabor Kilyenfalvi, almost the first violin-maker that Peter made contact with, when he returned to Austria after training in Scotland, was a most surprising coincidence, but so fortuitous that it seemed almost like a good omen. I was just happy to hear Gabor’s voice again, and coming around in a full circle to Gabor seemed somehow very comforting.

Bit by bit, tools, shelves, wood, random objects, mountains of paper and all the rubbish left over began vanishing from the workshop. In March the door between my office and Peter’s workshop, which I had used for years simply as a closet, was opened again for the first time in about twenty-six years. I got stuck for a bit then, but in June the amazing “chaos-tamers” came, and the space began to take on its new form – not by itself, but due especially to Seth’s hard work and Azra, the wonderful young woman that he has brought into my life now, with all her energy and determination and a sense of detail. Instead of old objects being carried out, new objects were carried in, and Peter’s old office became a comfortable, welcoming place.

Being able to look forward to the new life and creativity that will hopefully fill this space is one of the things that keeps me going. Taking something apart in order to make room for something new is more motivating and encouraging than solely taking something apart that was so familiar, so important, so beloved. What this means, however, was quite drastically brought home to me a few days ago.

Since the climbers were all too wet and cold to stay and share a glass of whiskey in memory of Peter two weeks ago, when the memorial plaque was placed in the mountains for him, the group met again last Thursday in the Alte Welt, and I invited them all upstairs to share the whiskey afterward. Perhaps it was stupid or just short-sighted of me, but having lived for nearly a year now with the process of transforming the workshop, I was not prepared for the effect that the empty room would have on so many people, who all had such fond memories of spending time there with Peter in his workshop. Seeing everyone in tears, I felt distressed, almost guilty about what I had done. Where do you draw the line between closing a life that has ended and erasing the traces of someone who has gone? What does each person need to hold onto, in order to be able to cope with loss? How much change is necessary to be able to gone on living, how much is too much and makes the loss even more painful? Finding the right balance for myself is often so hard, but I feel I also have a responsibility to others, especially Peter’s parents and sister, our sons, close friends – I am responsible for closing Peter’s life, but I am certainly not the only person who has lost him.

The first anniversary of Peter’s death is approaching now on 13 November. I know we all need to do something to mark that date, but at this point I have no idea what. I am, however, deeply grateful to have the photo exhibition to look forward to on 22 November, a chance to look back at what was – and to go on from there.

Photo: Reinhard Winkler

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Uphill

Peter has such good friends. Several months ago, a group of his friends met and decided to organize placing a memorial plaque in the mountains for him. I felt deeply touched when they told me about it, grateful that such a beautiful gesture could happen – and that without any effort on my part.

Memorial plaque for Peter

Memorial plaque for Peter

The beautiful plaque was mounted this past weekend. A number of people went up to Prielschutzhaus on Saturday, others set off at dawn on Sunday morning. Since there was no more room for us at Prielschutzhaus, Paddy and I, along with Agnes and Leo, decided to spend the night in Hinterstoder and set off from there in the morning. The climb up to Prielschutzhaus is steep and rocky, though, and after much consideration, I decided not to attempt the almost three-hour climb, but to wait below at the starting point. I took a bottle of whiskey along to drink a toast to Peter’s memory with all the climbers on their way down. Waiting, as I always waited for Peter, felt right, and I needed to have a serious talk with the mountain by myself, without feeling at a disadvantage.

Returning to Hinterstoder feels hard, but necessary, too. It feels necessary to make present again what happened last November, stand in each place, remember, attempt to grasp that it was real, that it really happened.

Over the past year I have made several attempts to return to this place. In March, when I went to Ljubljana, I was grateful to have a quiet seat by myself on the train. I curled up in a corner there to just look out the window as the train passed through the Alps. Along the way, there were so many signs for place names that I recognized from Peter’s photo albums of ski tours and mountain tours. Recognizing that he had passed through this place and this place and this place, knowing how happy he had been, I was glad to be left in peace to just let the tears run down my face.

A few months ago, I went on a small bus with a group from the art university to visit the art festival Regionale in northern Styria. Sitting on the bus with talkative friends all around me, passing through the Alps felt a bit easier, but still very, very close. On the way back, though, because some people in the group had to reach trains in Linz, the bus took a quicker route back, which meant going through one tunnel after another. After Amy died, riding in the car through tunnels became a problem for me. The smell of gasoline in a dark, enclosed space induced a feeling of rising hysteria, panic. Whenever I was in the car with him, Peter always drove the long way around then, avoiding tunnels wherever possible, quietly reassuring me, when it was not. He never made an issue of it, he never questioned me about it. He simply understood and acted accordingly.

When I realized that the bus was taking the route through the tunnels, I also realized that I had two choices: I would either have to make a request to the whole group, which would mean justifying taking the extra time to avoid tunnels by explaining my problem with tunnels, making a fuss, calling attention to myself – or else I would simply have to cope. I decided to cope. Sitting by myself on the bus, I concentrated on a knob at the bottom of the window, reminded myself to keep breathing, recalled all the breathing exercises I had learned with meditation exercises over the years, and I just kept telling myself, “I can do this. I am calm. I can do this…” And I did.

When the bus pulled into a rest stop for a short break, I was feeling pleased with myself, almost smug even, because I had made it through tunnels without panicking – and then I realized where we were…

The bus stopped at the rest stop St. Pankratz, the same rest stop where Jörg, Cornelia, Paddy and I stopped to wait for the phone call to tell us whether to go first to the police in Hinterstoder to collect Peter’s belongings and the accident report, or to go first to the morgue in Windischgarsten, where he broken body was. While we waited there last November, Cornelia kindly kept bringing us hot tea, I attempted to buy handkerchiefs, because Peter had forgotten to buy handkerchiefs the last time he went shopping, and Paddy and I continued making phone calls to people we had not been able to reach the evening before.

As I stepped out of the bus, I found myself standing in exactly the same spot where I was standing when I was finally able to reach Will, who was just running through an airport in London. There was a sense of a sudden shift, a streaking of time and space, as Gerald Raunig writes. In the midst of the majestic beauty of the Alps, all that I was aware of was the booming echo in my head of the memory of poor Will’s voice, wanting to have misunderstood: He’s dead, he’s dead. Peter is dead. Peter can’t be dead. Peter is dead.

I hope that the people on the bus who wanted to catch trains in Linz got to the train station on time. I was just immensely grateful to my friend Susanne for delaying our departure to go back in to get a bottle of mineral water for me, when she realized there was something wrong. After we somehow returned to Linz, Susanne went with me to Solaris for a drink, and I slowly began to thaw again.

The third time I returned to the area was the end of September, when Susanne and another friend and I drove to Slovenia, on the “sunny side of the Alps,” as a friend from Ljubljana said. This time, I knew where I was going, and I was mentally prepared. The beautiful Alpine landscape felt oppressive as we drove south, but I resisted by writing poetry in my head. I imagined writing poems about mountains and death and then reading them at a poetry slam, where people would agree and applaud: Take that, you mountains! A fantasy, of course, but a helpful and encouraging fantasy.

Returning from our three-cities-in-three-days weekend, Susanne, Robert and I stopped again at St. Pankratz. Having succeeded in re-learning to be able to travel through tunnels, this time I was able to prepare my defenses against the echo. It wasn’t easy, but it worked, and I felt my confidence returning.

As the plans progressed for mounting the memorial plaque for Peter in the mountains, I found myself dreading the weekend. First I thought I would just wait at home for everyone to return, then I thought I would wait somewhere nearby. At some point I convinced myself I could do it, I would go up the mountain with the whole group. As more and more people expressed serious doubts about my physical condition in relation to the steep and strenuous path, however, I was worried. Had there been room for us at Prielschutzhaus, I would have attempted the climb on Saturday, but setting out on a three-hour climb at dawn on Sunday to continue on for yet another hour and still come down again on the same day, was ultimately more than I could face. Once I had decided to stay at the way station at the start of the path, I felt relieved, able to focus again on the reason for this journey.

Some time after the others had set off on their way up the mountain, I took a little walk from the way station to where the path starts to get steep. Rather to my surprise, I found it deeply comforting to walk along the beautiful path that was the last path that Peter took. As I imagined him walking there that day in November last year, I could so clearly imagine him enjoying the day, taking in the beauty of the scenery, the pleasure of the company, the restfulness of the quiet. Then I imagined that some small detail – a leaf, a stone, a branch – briefly caught his attention and reminded him of me, reminded him that he loved me too. Then it was as though I could sense his spirit walking there with me.

When I reached the point where the path started becoming steep, narrowing, turning into steps, I stopped and briefly considered going on – just a few more steps, just a little farther. Then I turned around and returned down the same path. I returned alone, though. Peter never came back down that path.

Much later in the afternoon, after it had been pouring down rain for hours, the climbers started to return. They were all drenched and cold, but most of all they were so many! Seeing all those familiar faces, I felt overwhelmed by the effort that so many, many people had made for Peter’s sake. Since everyone was eager to get home to dry off and get warm again, unfortunately I wasn’t able to share the bottle of whiskey with them, but I hope to do so in the near future under more comfortable circumstances. Despite the cold and the rain and the crowded space in the way station, though, the sense of contentment and happiness among this little crowd was amazing. I didn’t care how wet they all were, I just wanted to hug all of them.

In the days and weeks and months and years to come now, whenever people take this path on past Prielschutzhaus, they will find a beautiful metal plaque in the shape of the back of a gamba, carefully placed in a sheltered spot among the rocks, where there is rooms for candles too. Inscribed on this plaque:

Peter Hütmannsberger
1962 – 2011
Brotfall – SO Grat

Peter lebte seine Liebe zu den Bergen mit allergrößte Freude und Begeisterung. Seine wunderbare Lebendigkeit behalten wir immer in Erinnerung.
Peter lived his passion for the mountains with tremendous joy. His love of life will always remain in our memory.

The plaque will tell them that a man once passed this way, a man who was happy and full of life and much beloved, but he did not return.

Peter stayed in the mountains.

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Moving to a new server

Nothing is entirely simple or straightforward as some past marital conflicts are revealed to be inscribed in the configuration.

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