Sixty years ago when I was a tiny boy in Vienna my parents had a nanny named Elsie with a young daughter, Sylvie. We were playmates as Elsie was close to my mom, and recently I remembered how much it hurt to leave them behind when we began the long journey to the U.S.
Many years later when my parents retired Elsie and her husband came down from Canada and visited; I can barely remember the occasion but I do recall how much my mom savored the reconnection.
Then, a couple of weeks ago on Facebook I received a message asking, “Are you the Tom Bunzel who was born in Vienna?”
The profile showed the portrait of a horse, and I knew immediately who this was. Elsie had mentioned how her daughter her taken to horses when they moved to Canada. An hour or so later I was chatting with Sylvia, whom I had known as a young boy as Sylvie.
It was remarkable how our humor and attitudes ran parallel, although our lives c
ould not have been different. Sylvia runs a bookstore and manages a farm with 20 cats and livestock. She’s been married for 40 years and has three children; I never married.
My ego got stroked by how she found me; apparently she had seen one of my technology books in a Canadian bookstore.
Both of our memories of Vienna are dim but we both stirred some recollections out of the cobwebs.
For me the main memory is of a bombed out divided city where my Czech parents were afraid of being caught or dragged outside the American sector.
Sylvie later told me a funny story about getting punished for letting a bunch of caged rabbits loose in the countryside—she was an animal lover early. She mentioned getting spanked and I know that my bottom also got it on a few occasions.
Then we arranged a video call on Skype. I was both excited and apprehensive and it was a bit odd for two older people who hadn’t seen one another for decades to suddenly be face to face.
Sylvia had two cats crawling over her and with my recent adoption of a cat we had lots to talk about on that score.
As we described our respective pasts, I was struck about how similarly difficult her acclimation to her new country was from my own.
I described how my first day in kindergarten the well meaning students had been prompted by the teacher to “help me learn English”, and they held up objects yelling, “pencil,” “pen,” “eraser,” “chalk” and so on until I cried and was overwhelmed. It wasn’t until another teacher took an interest in me helped me learn how to read that I settled down and could go to school without crying.
Sylvie had had a similar experience – she had not been allowed to begin school for a year because she still spoke only German, which put her a year behind.
I was struck by how much this person who was a relative stranger on the one hand shared with me in terms of a common life experience during our formative years—experiences and feelings which wouldn’t have been similarly understood by many of my closest friends.
I tried to evoke memories of my parents and a connection to my distant past and felt bad that I couldn’t come up with memories that might help her. At times I felt a bit awkward and distant, and yet at others the reminder of a legacy that goes without attention for days or weeks at a time reminded me of who I am and where I came from.
Many of my more recent memories of my parents are from their time in retirement in California, and sometimes I can go back to my boyhood in New York.
But here was a link to a childhood that I know still affects me, and yet which I largely know mainly from my parents’ description.
But the kind and funny woman who I saw in the webcam made that personal history real in a way that no photograph or dim memory could. As we shared more of our parents’ early difficulties and our own experiences growing up, it was as though a new pathway reopened to my earliest years.
A day later the impact of this sudden opening is still with me. I can only wonder how the man I am today was formed by experiences that occurred when Sylvie and I were playmates, and which we can barely even recall together today.
For me, it’s interesting to consider how just a few years ago I might have resisted even opening this small door to my distant past, preferring to leave the comfort of my present circumstances undisturbed.
But now I saw the synchronicity as amazing and exciting, as I reflect more deeply on just exactly who I really am, where I came from and why I showed up here in the first place.