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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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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Finishing my widow’s tasks

Scattered all over the Internet there are so many sites about bereavement, about dealing with death in all its many different forms, recommendations for helpful things to say to someone recently bereaved and even lists of things not to say. From my experience in the course of this year, I would suggest that the latter list should include unhelpful encouragement to appreciate bureaucracy as a way to “take your mind off it”. Yes, my “widow’s tasks” have kept me busy, required tremendous energy, attention and determination. No, being kept involuntarily busy has not been helpful.

Having to repress thinking about the reality of Peter’s death in order to deal with phone calls and emails, having to repeat to complete strangers over and over again that my husband is dead, has made it that much harder to rid myself of the irrational hope that once I have finally finished all my tasks, he will come home again. Then each step along the way only confirms the finality of his death, and I have to stop and take a deep breath, find my balance again.

With tremendous support and encouragement, I have made great progress in finishing my widow’s tasks and closing Peter’s life. All the deposits have been returned, all his bank accounts closed and customer cards canceled, outstanding bills paid. Even our old car now has Viennese number plates. The only major task I haven’t been able to finish yet is shutting down our server, but even that is very close to completion now. I haven’t been updating this blog, because I am working on a new website for myself to move my domains to a different server, and trying to migrate this WordPress blog to Drupal didn’t work as smoothly as I expected it to, so I’ll have to start again (and maybe this time RTFM). A few days ago, however, I was assured that I don’t have to be finished with the new site before I can move my domains, so I have a bit more breathing space and can post blog entries again, rather than just writing them in my head.

After struggling with “multitasking” for months, however, trying to keep up with my work, move forward with new plans for the workshop, and close Peter’s affairs all at the same time, now I have the feeling I really need a break – but now it’s too late to take one. After ten months of living alone with two cats, it seems I ought to have become accustomed to it by now, and I have, in fact, developed new routines and daily rituals of my own in the meantime. But getting by from one day to the next is still different from gradually realizing that I am likely to go on living alone for at least as many years as Peter and I lived together. That is a long time, a long space of emptiness that I see stretching out before me. Of course, my life is filled with wonderful people of all ages, and I don’t feel essentially lonely. That’s different, though, from being able to share mundane experiences and trivial thoughts at the end of the day, different from feeling understood without having to explain.

Now I’m annoyed with myself for starting to write blog posts again by beginning with a long moan, but maybe this way I can stop moaning internally, so that I can concentrate on finishing my work in time to be able to cope with November. And then there will be space for something else again.

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Bank managers and chaos-tamers

If you had to carry out a series of complex financial transactions, who would you rather work with, a sympathetic, helpful young woman with no inhibitions about making phone calls in the middle of a meeting to gather information about anything she is unsure of, or a busy, important-looking man in a suit, with the attitude that anything he doesn’t already know is not his concern?

The document I had been waiting for for months finally arrived the day before I left for Michigan and Joseph and Emma’s wedding. Since I had been advised that it was coming, I had already made appointments at the bank where Peter had a private account, where I now have one too, and at the bank where we both have business accounts, and I had my list of amounts and bank details for all the people waiting to have their deposits returned ready to go.

Much to my frustration, however, the insurance money I needed to cover the deposits is by no means automatically or simply transferred to Peter’s account, even though it is listed as belonging to his assets. Therefore, there was not enough money in his account to cover the deposits, so I was stymied yet again. By the time I had run around all afternoon collecting information about where and how I had to apply to actually get the insurance money, I had already decided which bank to have it transferred to. By then, though, the banks and all the other offices were closed, so there was nothing more I could do before getting on the plane in the morning.

My plan in May of being able to finish clearing out the workshop before the wedding, so that I could return to make a relatively fresh start and devote attention to my translation work, that plan didn’t work out very well either. Nor did I take into account the effects of jetlag, when I promised people I would be ready to work again in mid-June. I returned on Wednesday, 13 June, and basically slept through until Friday, missing several important dates along the way. And a workweek consisting of only one day is not at all sufficient for meeting deadlines, especially when most of it is spent at the bank trying to sort out international money transfers.

Far from making a “fresh start”, I’m now behind with everything and struggle every day to catch up. When people kindly ask me how I’m doing, if things are calming down, if I’m able to catch my breath and focus on getting on with my own life, I have no idea what to say. The obvious answer is simply: no.

Looking with dismay at the chaos still reigning in Peter’s workshop and office, just before I left for Michigan I realized it was time to admit defeat. I forced myself to sit down and write a call for help, collected email addresses from so many wonderful people who all offered any help they could give, when they sent condolences, added a few from my private email correspondence, and sent out an appeal for “chaos-tamers”. And people responded – generously, creatively, even happily!

Some people with dust allergies or a general lack of enthusiasm for chaos responded that they couldn’t help me in the workshop, but would be happy to go for a drink with me – a much appreciated and often needed offer that I will be happy to accept over the weeks and months to come. Others, who would have liked to help, were busy helping or being helped with similar tasks elsewhere, which I found very reassuring, as it helped me to believe I wasn’t imposing too much on anyone. And on various different days over the past weeks, some twenty people have come to the workshop, bringing all their talents and interests and imagination and different views. They have sorted, discarded, organized, cleaned, washed, shifted, measured things, so that a usable space is actually emerging. Again and again, I had the feeling, this is what an ideal society could look like; this is how it could be in a world that I would be happy to live in – so different from banks and insurance companies and telephone companies and bureaucracy.

What surprised me most was when I realized that what had been Peter’s office is beginning to revert more and more to the appearance it had when I lived in that room, the space I made for myself to live in so many years ago before I met Peter, where he later moved in with me. That reminder that I lived for years by myself before I met Peter was encouraging, motivating, strengthening. Some of the differences are important too, though: in the same place where I had a large old dark brown cupboard that I bought at a flea market, now there is a delightfully authentic retro kitchen cupboard from 1960. It belonged to Peter’s parents when they were first married, and they have contributed it now to furnishing this space and what is to happen here. Especially when I remember how Peter’s parents were not exactly happy about it when he moved in with me and then even announced his intention to marry me, the support and encouragement that I continue to receive from his parents, his sister and her family and all his relatives means so much to me. Over the years, my in-laws have become so very dear to me, and their support and approval is so vitally important. Now every time I look at this kitchen cupboard, it starts to bring tears to my eyes.

Now that I actually have the legal document I needed, I can continue juggling all the bureaucratic tasks that could not be completed before. Now that I finally have access to Peter’s bank account, I can sort out all the bills that still need to be paid, all the business that could not be finished before. Now there is hope that someday I may actually be able to close his account. The chaos in my own office has been tamed now, but not yet domesticated, so I can devote some attention to my own work, but not yet my full attention, even though my own bank account is reminding me that that would be a good thing to do at this point.

Recently a friend asked me what I want, what I need for myself, and without even thinking about it I answered that I just want to sleep and then spend the next day in bed reading. That’s not quite true, though. All I really want is for Peter to come home and finally take over his share of all these annoying tasks that still need to be done. And it’s his turn to clean the kitchen, too. There are days when that almost seems more realistic than being able to sleep and spend the next day in bed reading, but I know I only wish that were true.

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Fall in love, celebrate marriages

What Peter really wanted to see was the world arranged in happy couples. In remembrance of him, please fall in love, celebrate marriages, birthdays and all possible parties and events, bring little people into the world, laugh with them, play with them and ensure that they always feel loved and protected – as Peter always did; and so he will carry on living in our hearts.”

Someone remarked recently that it seems quite a few people took seriously what I said in my little speech for Peter’s memorial. Of course, the two weddings I attended in the past two weeks were both planned long before Peter’s death, and he had been looking forward to attending both of them. To me it felt wholly inconceivable that he was not present – at least not physically, charismatically, charmingly present as he should have been.

First there was Joseph and Emma’s wedding in Michigan – Joseph, my sister Amy’s son, our first godchild, after Peter and I had just lost the second baby before Christopher was born, and Peter took his responsibilities as a godfather very seriously. Peter never got a chance to meet Emma in person, but I’m sure he would have loved her too. I kept imagining him having a serious talk with his godson about bringing Emma flowers and making sure she always feels appreciated, because Peter was convinced that Amy didn’t have enough flowers in her life and never received anything like the appreciation she deserved from the men in her life. I could imagine Peter keeping watch that Emma didn’t get lost or feel overwhelmed in my large, chaotic family, just as he always watched out for Sara too. I kept waiting for Peter to finally appear somewhere on the edge of the crowd.

Because both Amy and Peter were so conspicuously missing from this wedding, along with beloved grandparents on both sides, Emma and Joseph hung pictures of departed loved ones from the trees in the apple orchard where the ceremony took place. As I had the great honor of leading the ceremony, from where I was standing I could see Peter’s folder fluttering from one of the apple trees, so I was able to feel more peaceful, knowing where he was. And the pain of loss mingles inextricably with the joy of life: it was such a delight to see the cousins together, now all young adults. As Christopher and Jack stood up to be counted among Joseph’s friends, not only his family, each of them smiling his own beautiful, special smile, a fleeting image passed through my mind of a picture of Jack, Joseph and Christopher taken twenty-two years ago in Kemble. They were all dressed in denim overalls, sitting together on the couch at Jim and Sara’s house. Of course, Christopher couldn’t actually sit yet at the age of only seven weeks, but he always looked so happy when Jim propped him up so that he could pretend to be sitting by himself with his big cousins, who were already three and two years old. Now they are young men, each of them finding his own unique path in life, and I feel my heart overflowing with love just thinking of them.

Although it was all too easy to also imagine how irritated Peter would have been with the kind of cock-ups that inevitably happen when one is twenty-something, each one of his nephews, nieces and godchildren always had a very special place in his heart, and I think I enjoyed their company all the more, imagining how much he would have enjoyed them too.

Yesterday, exactly a week and a day after Emma and Joseph’s wedding, Paddy, Seth and I went to another wedding in the countryside outside Linz. About half-way between the joyful party, where they announced their decision to get married, and the actual wedding yesterday, Hari and Simone helped me to cope with Peter’s death and to hold the memorial service for him, and I could never have done it without them. Peter loved these two so much, he was so delighted when they became a couple, his absence yesterday was acutely painful.

Such a beautiful summer day, a meadow filled with happy people and countless children of all ages – a perfect day with very dear friends. I was glad that Paddy and Seth and I were able to go to the wedding together and look after one another. There were so many people from the theater scene there, some that Paddy has made websites for, others that Seth knows from his own involvement in theater productions in Wilhering, and all of them people that I first met through Peter and his love of theater. Over the years, though, they have also become my friends, and I am grateful to Peter for leaving me friends and this special connection to theater that has so enriched our lives.

At dinner I felt quite honored that Oscar insisted on taking Paddy’s seat next to me, leaving Paddy and Seth to play musical chairs for most of the meal. As ever, Oscar is delightful company, especially when he recounted to me with his lovely wicked grin how he subversively elected to eat desert first, before the main meal, thoroughly enjoying the wordplay of “Nachspeise” and “Vorspeise” with all the pleasure that an almost-four-year-old can experience in experimenting with language. And tractors are still of the utmost importance. So Oscar continues to keep the promise he made to me in November to always tell me what is really important.

As enjoyable as it was to see everyone and be able to share in Simone and Hari’s happiness, some time after dinner, Paddy and Seth and I admitted to one another that we were all having a hard time keeping the tears at bay and feeling a bit out of sync with the rest of the wedding guests, so we quietly left early. I was happy to be able to go to the wedding, but also happy to be able to just sit quietly talking with my sons later. I think pain is easier to bear when it is shared, but perhaps it doesn’t need to be shared always and everywhere with everyone.

Next month Paddy and Seth and I plan to go to the opening of this year’s summer theater production in Wilhering, where Peter will no longer be responsible for the lights and locking up and making sure that everyone gets home safely. Nevertheless, he did have those responsibilities for so long that now we are still able to go to Wilhering to appreciate all the talented people we are fortunate enough to know and to spend another enjoyable evening with friends. So Peter’s gift for bringing people together continues to help bear the pain of his absence.

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Six months and fourteen years

Six months. Tomorrow, Sunday, 13 May, it will be exactly six months since that Sunday in November, when a policeman arrived in the evening to tell me that Peter died when a mountain let him fall that day. Six months since the life I had shared with Peter for twenty-five years came to a sudden, dizzying halt.

There are days when I wish I could go back to those first days and weeks, regain the feeling of urgency and determination that kept me going through the initial shock: I will cope; I will not be defeated by the loss of my love; I will not let the life we shared fall apart; I will hold everything together. And there are days when I wish I could go back to before that day, change the past, make it unhappen.

Some days I vent my anger and frustration on hapless random people on the other end of a phone line, some days I’m angry with Peter and yell at his picture or the marble plaque in the cemetery, some days I just miss Peter, some days I just curl up in a corner and cry, some days I clean the house with tremendous vigor and determination, some days I just cope. Some days I just get on with my life.

In the past few months I have been working more, my own work, my job, the professional work I do to earn my own living. At some point, I realized that I was starting to use my work as a kind of escape from my actual current reality. So many times I found myself concentrating on the words in front of me, immersing myself in the texts and ideas, just as I have done for so many years. Then somewhere in the back of my mind there was a sense that – when I finish this text, I can go out to meet Peter for a drink late in the evening, if I finish this chapter tonight, he’ll come home tomorrow, if I work long hours this week, next Tuesday I can go to the airport with Jörg to pick him up. But no matter how many words I translate, they won’t bring Peter back. He’s not coming home. Ever.

Empty corner in the workshop

Escaping into work, which is not entirely an escape, because I do, in fact, need to earn my own living, I have become less diligent about keeping up with my “widow’s tasks”. Thanks to the generous help from so many people, the workshop is nearly empty now, many domains have been transferred to other servers, and most of the paperwork that I could do so far has been taken care of. Next Tuesday the boys and I are meeting again with the court-appointed official, so that we can hopefully close the estate at last. Then I will take my list of downpayment amounts and bank details straight to our bank to arrange the money transfers to the people who have been waiting so long. After that I can start working my way through the stack of papers requiring the official authorization that I will hopefully receive on Tuesday. At the moment, I have the feeling there are still many, many things I need to do myself, before I can ask anyone else for more help, but for that reason, I have essentially stopped taking on any more translations this month, because I aim to close my widow’s tasks as far as possible by the end of this month. Then after Joseph and Emma’s wedding in June, I hope to be able to make a fresh start – at least to some extent – when I return.

Six months feels like an eternity, but also like only a brief, fleeting moment at the same time. A long time and a very short time all at once. While tomorrow marks the first half-year since Peter’s death, yesterday was the fourteenth anniversary of my father’s death. Fourteen years is a much longer period of time, yet every portion of my experience of my father’s death seems indelibly etched in my mind with such vivid clarity, as though it were only just a moment ago.

Thinking about my father this morning, I was moved to retrieve the folder from the top shelf with the stack of photocopied handwritten pages of the memories he started writing down for us. After his death, I had brought those pages home with me with the intention of transcribing them and making a kind of book for everyone, especially for all of my father’s grandchildren. Over and over, however, I found myself stymied by my father’s idiosyncratic orthography and his peculiar, uniquely personal grammatical constructions: my professional self was unable to literally transcribe his writing, while my grieving-daughter-self was overwhelmed by the vividness of the memories evoked by his very characteristic and achingly familiar writing. Even now, I can still hear his voice when I try to read those pages, but this morning I purposely paged through the different sections to re-read what my father had written about his memories of the death of his brother Burke.

John Derieg, 7 January 1930 - 11 May 1998. This picture is presumably from the mid-1950s.

John Derieg, 7 January 1930 - 11 May 1998. This picture is presumably from the mid-1950s.

My father was 22, hardly older than Christopher is now, when he received word that his elder brother Burke was in a hospital in San Diego. My father was a sergeant in the Marine Corps at that time, stationed at Camp Pendleton in California, so he used up all his leave visiting Burke, sitting with him in the hospital, playing chess and talking. Although Burke was only two years older than my father and my father’s twin brother, four years older than their youngest brother Pat, he had been the “man of the house” since their father’s departure when he was nine, essentially the only father-figure the brothers really had. Burke had been born with a congenital heart defect, and although surgery was being developed at that time to correct the defect, when Burke underwent surgery at a medical center in San Francisco, it was only the third or fourth time the procedure had been performed there, and it was not successful. He was taken back to his mother’s home in Texas to die. At Easter in 1953, my father was able to take leave again to go and spend time with Burke in San Antonio, and they resumed their chess and checker games. “On Monday, April 6th, the day after Easter, he died. He was laying there in a semi prone position and we were talking for awhile. He said he was a little tired, closed his eyes and quietly died.”

Michael Burke Derieg, 1928 - 1953. By the time he was about 16, Burke had already been the "man of the house" for seven years.

My father never stopped missing Burke. The experience of accompanying his dying brother, however, became a part of the man my father was, a part of his character in the way he could be patient, gentle, accepting, caring. There are indications that Burke and my father probably spoke at great length of all the trouble Burke had managed to get himself into in his short life, his need to guard his younger brothers from a life of sin and vice and make his peace with God as a good Catholic that he had been raised to be. Perhaps that has something to do with how tolerant and non-judgmental my father could be, his understanding that human beings make mistakes in life and need a chance to put things right. If that is so, then one of the things I valued most about my father, what I miss most even now, fourteen years after his death, stems from his loss of his beloved brother.

And so we go on living with death from one generation to the next. There is no comfort in that, and time does not heal the pain. The pain simply becomes part of who we are as we learn to live with it, shaping our character and coloring the way we view the world and live with other people. Fourteen years ago I lost my father, and I am still learning to live with that loss. Six months ago my sons lost their father, but we are all only just barely beginning to learn to live with that loss.

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Crossing Europe without Peter

Another first time: the Crossing Europe Film Festival ended yesterday, the first Crossing Europe ever without Peter.

Although the involvement of our entire household last year became a bit intense in the end, Peter and I had worked for Crossing Europe in the background from the very beginning of the festival, and it was something we did together, something that felt important, something that always worked best together. This year both of our names are still in the catalogue, but working on my part alone, I felt incomplete. Catalogue Crossing Europe 2012And during the festival, somehow in the back of my mind I always seemed to be waiting for Peter to show up in the midst of the crowd, always watching for him out of the corner of my eye. Having succumbed to a bad cold the weekend before the festival, which I hadn’t quite recovered from by the opening, didn’t make it any easier to cope, but I still felt strongly motivated to want to continue what Peter and I had started together and to continue it well.

While Peter’s contribution to the festival was network administration in the background, I think it wasn’t just his skill and experience as a network administrator that mattered. What made Peter such a good network administrator was he didn’t look at it primarily as a technical issue: one of the things I always loved best about Peter was the way he cared about people, and he built and managed networks for people he cared about, people he respected, people who need those networks in order to do their own work well. With all his skill and passion and attention to detail, Peter built musical instruments for musicians to play the music he loved; with different skills, but the same passion and attention to detail, he built and maintained network infrastructures for people to use for creating something else. For him, the work he did for Crossing Europe also meant dropping by the office, paying attention to the atmosphere, noticing what might be irritating or distracting for the different members of the team, when they needed to focus on preparing and running the festival. Alongside his incorrigible penchant for trying to keep an eye on everyone’s love-life, Peter was very perceptive of moods, tensions, excitement, and more concerned about the whole team being able to enjoy their work for the festival than about the actual films and subject matter of the festival. He didn’t really care much about the guests either, no matter how important they might be, unless he suspected them of giving any of the staff a hard time.

Together at Crossing Europe 2006

Working alone at the computer translating the festival catalogue, then the press releases and daily newsletters, I often felt cut off from everyone else, in a way, because I was missing Peter coming in and telling me about what was going on in the office, the general mood and what any individuals might be needing at any given moment. Although Peter and I often disagreed about many things, we were perfectly united in our admiration for the festival director Christine Dollhofer, so the first rule was always: whatever Christine needs, Christine gets. In order to be able to run such a wonderful festival at all, the first thing that Christine needs is an excellent team, where everyone can take care of their specific responsibilities to the best of their abilities. Somewhere behind that team, Peter and I were there to make sure that they had the infrastructure and resources needed to do their jobs with all the support we were able to offer together. What I can offer by myself – without Peter’s generous personality and warm-hearted presence – feels very little now.

The whole Crossing Europe team has been so generous and thoughtful since Peter’s death, inviting me for drinks, taking time to talk, encouraging me, so I wanted to return something of that too. Knowing how hard everyone works in all the service areas, the people who look after the festival guests, I thought I would like to invite a few of those hard-working people for a nice breakfast on my balcony at the start of the festival, but getting sick just before the festival put an end even to that small gesture. I think I’ll have to keep looking for other contributions I might be able to make by myself.

Although I ended up generally feeling very low and slow all week, it was a great delight to have both Christopher and Patrick here for the festival. It was most uplifting to be able to share serious and silly conversations with them, including random outbursts of song when they launched into their ridiculous rendition of “Rainbows and Lollipops” in the middle the restaurant garden, feeling less lonely in their company. Since they have grown up with the festival, they have also grown up with our household rule about Christine, and I am happy to see they take that seriously. Since Paddy didn’t have a film in the program this year, Christine had suggested he could apply for accreditation as a film student, because he really is, even though he is officially enrolled as a student of computer science. I was pleased to hear that Paddy had reservations about that, because he wouldn’t want to take unfair advantage of his parents’ connections, but I was also pleased that he had a festival pass in the end and made good use of it. At the Awards Ceremony Christopher and Leo performed two numbers from their new project together, Broken Sequence, which worked out quite well, and it was reassuring to see Christopher taking over different responsibilities. In the future, Crossing Europe will continue without Peter, but our sons will still be here to take over whatever they might be needed for, and that, at least, is a hopeful thought.

Foto: a_kep /

Veröffentlicht unter Aileen, Christopher, Paddy, Peter, work | 1 Kommentar

Birthday Season

Three birthdays within six weeks has always been something of a challenge in my household, but an enjoyable challenge. This year, of course, it’s different. I think the conventional notion of one year of mourning still makes sense, the idea that one has to go through a whole cycle of seasons experiencing every recurrent event for the first time without a loved one – holidays, anniversaries, the first ice cream in summer, the first snow in winter, birthdays I also think the number three is significant: after the first three months, the initial shock begins to subside, allowing pain to be felt that would have been unbearable before, but now starts to gradually emerge as the numbness recedes. This year’s birthday season, the first time without Peter, started three months after his death.

Our double-decade son

When Paddy turned ten, he said he was happy to finally be a two-digit person too, a statement that especially delighted Amy, who was happy to point out repeatedly what this indicated about the interesting way her darling nephew’s mind works. As Paddy entered the second decade of his life in February, I found myself remembering when he became a two-digit person and became determined to make the kind of birthday cake for him again that he liked half his lifetime ago. It was probably not a very sensible plan, but I was feeling unhappy about his mother’s failure to provide the one birthday present he actually asked for, the finished jacket that we started sewing together in September, and about his father’s failure to be alive and present to celebrate with a last-minute surprise, as Peter always did best.

The first hurdle to providing an American-style decorated cake with fluffy sweet icing was that the plain cake recipe we had always used was in an American cookbook that has now gone to live in Vienna. I found a recipe for “Amerikanische Biskuitkuchen” in an Austrian cookbook from the 1920s, which seemed promising, even though it calls for more eggs than flour, and proceeded to make an elaborate mess in the kitchen for an entire day. In my mind, I could hear Amy laughing at me (remembering the first time I had to make a birthday cake for Paddy without consulting Amy), pointing out that there is a reason why Americans use packaged mixes for cakes. At the back of my neck, I could feel Peter rolling his eyes, shaking his head and refusing to take any responsibility for cleaning up the mess I was making. I suspect this recipe is also based on the experience of baking cakes in a wood-burning stove, which doesn’t translate well to a modern electrical oven, so it took several hours longer to bake it, but eventually it was finished. Transporting this cake to Vienna without squashing it, especially along with the bulky birthday present of sheets and a blanket I got for Paddy’s beautiful, newly self-built bed, would not have been possible without Seth, but the cake actually arrived in Vienna the next day with minimal damage. Celebrating Paddy’s birthday in Vienna with his wonderful friends felt good, felt right. The cake was probably mostly a sentimental effort on my part, something I needed to do, but Paddy graciously refrained from pointing that out, and I was happy to see him happy.

Birthday Roses

After my week in Ljubljana, where it felt so good to just be myself for a week, taking a holiday from being Peter’s widow, I returned to Linz with more energy and confidence. Unfortunately, however, I could already see my own birthday looming then. I tried hard to resist the temptation to slide into gloomy self-pity, knowing that for the first time there would be no roses and fresh rolls for me in the morning, but since I had a class at nine that morning, I wouldn’t have had time to enjoy them anyway. Peter’s family was incredibly sweet and generous about making a nice birthday for me the Sunday before my birthday, Paddy and Christopher and our new friend Agnes came from Vienna, Seth came on the tram, and we all went out for lunch together and came home for coffee and Oma’s famous celebratory nut-cake. After my class the next morning, Sophie and George took me out for another nice lunch and then accompanied me to the cemetery. Since Peter didn’t bring me roses this year, I took one to him. While Sophie kindly went to get a candle, because I had stupidly forgotten to bring one again, I enjoyed telling George about Peter, while George made contented little burbling noises in his buggy. As soon as Sophie returned, however, of course George realized that he was absolutely famished and urgently needed to be fed. Immediately! Since it was a bit too chilly to sit outside on a bench in the cemetery, Sophie and I made our way back to the main building as quickly as possible, while George protested the delay with all the vociferous insistence that a person just seven weeks old is capable of. The same cheerful man who had accompanied us, when we took the urn to place it in the niche in November, then cheerfully led the three of us into the same room, where we had met with the officials from the cemetery to discuss Peter’s funeral. It is a comfortable, peaceful room, and sitting in that same room again, this time with Sophie and George, felt good, it felt right.

Since I am fortunate enough to share the same birthday with two friends, the three of us met in the evening at Solaris to celebrate together and spent a comfortable, enjoyable evening with friends who came to join us. There was no need for self-pity at all, because there was no need to feel lonely the whole day, so the next time will be easier. And I didn’t even miss the roses, because I enjoyed bringing them myself for the other two.

Other Plans

Two birthdays successfully passed, one to go: March 28th would have been Peter’s fiftieth birthday. He had been looking forward to it, and after I assured him that I had no intentions whatsoever of organizing another surprise party, as I did for his fortieth birthday, he was enjoying thinking about how he would like to celebrate, all the people he would like to celebrate with, thinking more and more about spreading celebrations across the whole week to fit everyone in. Whenever he started thinking out loud about ending up with a party in a little cabin high in the mountains, I asked him whether he was sure he really wanted to celebrate his fiftieth birthday without me. He always just laughed then and promised that he would organize a helicopter especially to get me up to the mountain cabin.


It was a helicopter that brought my love’s broken body down from the mountains, but his life was left behind. No helicopters for this birthday then. Instead, the boys and I agreed to hold a kind of open house on Peter’s birthday, so that people who are thinking about Peter, missing him, remembering him, can come by any time starting in the afternoon until open end, to share stories, memories, music, tears, laughter and all our different experiences of how life goes on.

Waking up this morning with the thought of seeing lovely friends later today already felt much better than starting the day with a feeling of emptiness. So far, it feels good, feels right, and that is very reassuring.

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Death & Taxes & Telephone Companies

Every company that sends out bills and is serious about collecting payments due, ought to have at least one staff member who knows what to do in case of the death of a regularly paying customer and can clearly and courteously explain the procedures on the phone. And every other staff member should know who that person is and have their extension readily available. Sadly, frustratingly, in my experience over the past three months, this is almost never the case. Especially with phone companies.

Apparently, the proper procedure with phone companies is supposed to be that one presents a copy of the death certificate to cancel all existing contracts and make a new contract, if the services are still needed by someone else (e.g. our sons). Obtaining this information has involved endless Kafkaesque encounters with an endless number of phone company employees both on the phone and in their gaudy shops in town – because phone companies obviously don’t provide services, they sell products. One company still continued to send stern reprimands to Peter threatening to cut off his phone connection, if he did not immediately pay the last bill along with all the mounting and exorbitant late fees, even after Seth brought them a copy of Peter’s death certificate and wisely insisted on being given confirmation that it had been faxed to the appropriate office. When yet another angry reminder arrived, this time addressed to “Hütmannsberger family”, threatening to turn the matter over to a collection agency, I snapped. When the woman who answered the service desk number told me that I needed to send them a copy of Peter’s death certificate, I started yelling at her, venting all my anger and frustration and threatening on my part to turn the matter over to my lawyer, if this company didn’t stop sending collection letters to the “Hütmannsberger family”, which does not even exist at this address. Seth took the death certificate in again and insisted again on receiving confirmation of receipt. Finally, a letter arrived from this company a few days ago, which started: “Dear Mr. Hütmannsberger, we received your message and offer our sincere condolences for your loss” Of course, the letter went on from there to list various possibilities for Mr. Hütmannsberger to still use the company’s services (and hence pay them yet more money), even though the contract was canceled due to his death. Despite his lifelong love of telephones, I seriously doubt that Mr. Hütmannsberger will be taking advantage of any of these offers. And I seriously hope that someone somewhere is feeling extremely foolish now, realizing that in all these exchanges, no one ever even bothered to ask my name. I tend to doubt that, however.

Then there was the credit card company that sent a bill for the yearly card fee, even though I had been convinced that they had received notice of Peter’s death from the bank. Apparently not. And although I am aware of the cliche of irate wives accidentally discovering dodgy charges on their husbands’ credit card bills, I don’t think credit card company employees should immediately presume that to be the case. When the first person I got on the phone coldly and brusquely asked, “And who are you?”, I responded with what I hoped was the same callousness, “I’m his widow”. There was a brief moment of silence, then he decided to put me through to someone else. Who listened to the reason for my inquiry and decided to put me through to someone else. Who listened to the reason for my inquiry and decided to put me through to someone else. Who listened to the reason for my inquiry and decided to put me through to someone else Does anyone actually believe it is easy to have to explain over and over and over: “I’m calling about the bill you sent to my husband. The reason he hasn’t paid it is that he is dead ”?

Sometimes the people I get on the phone (once I get past the machine-voice instructions and push the right combination of buttons to get through to an actual human being) are courteous, and a few are even capable of speaking in coherent, grammatically correct full sentences. The outcome of all these phone calls is almost invariably the same, however: “Send us an email with the information x, y, z and the documents a, b, c.” Sometimes I can do that, but very often I can’t. Sometimes the reason I can’t is that the requisite information at home when I’m in the office or vice versa. Sometimes it’s because I now have a frustratingly limited, temporary Internet connection in my office, which only works on my laptop, because another telephone company erroneously assured me that I had an Internet connection with my telephone, before I had Peter’s office phone turned off – and my Internet connection with it.

Sometimes the problem is simply that I still haven’t got one of the most frequently requested documents: official legal confirmation that I am authorized to take care of Peter’s business and access his assets as his widow. The reason for this is that now, over three months later, negotiations are still continuing about how much money is owed to the tax office for Peter’s income last year. Are living, thinking, actual human beings to be found in the tax office? In light of the frequent news items about the former Austrian Minister of Finance who “forgot” to pay taxes on part of his income, I’m sure it must be very confusing to work in a tax office, but how hard can it really be? Peter ceased to generate any income at all on 13 November last year, and his “assets” include down-payments for instruments that Peter will no longer be making, which now have to be returned to the people who paid a down-payment for instruments they will not be getting. Having to ask all these lovely people again to be patient sometimes feels harder than having to argue with all the ludicrous phone companies, and it seems so terribly unfair.

As these negotiations drag on and on, too many loose ends are left over, too many things left open. For one thing, we need to re-register the car in Paddy’s name, so that the city administration of Vienna stops sending parking tickets to Peter. For some reason, one was sent last week as a registered letter, which the woman at the post office told me had to be signed for in person. When I explained that that would not be possible, she said she would have to send it back with a note to that effect. Unless there is a Tom Waits fan hiding in the traffic violations department of the city of Vienna, I’m concerned that someone there may take the advice to “never drive a car when you’re dead” more seriously, so I asked Paddy to find the number and call them to see what the problem is. He will probably have to go there to show them the legal document stating that he and Christopher are allowed to drive the car, but at least he has that document.

Next week, however, I’m going to take a break from explaining to strangers on the phone and random office workers that Peter is dead. I’ve been invited to go to the Eclectic Tech Carnival being held in conjunction with the Red Dawns Festival, so I’m going to take a short holiday from being Peter’s widow and go to Ljubljana to just be me for a week. Maybe the tax office and the phone companies and all the other offices will be able to sort themselves out in the meantime. That would be helpful, because I need to be able to stop repeating over and over that my husband is dead, so that I have a chance to come to terms with what that actually means.

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