A few weeks ago I received a gift in the mail.
A tissue-thin handkerchief, printed with an elaborate, accurate map of downtown Vienna. Included in the envelope was a note from my Grandmother, with her hopes that the handkerchief would be a useful guide to the city I could keep in my purse.
I was so touched by the beauty and unique thoughtfulness of the gift. How in the world, I thought to myself, do you find something like this? She must have ordered it off the internet. I called my Grandmother to thank her and found that there was much more to this handkerchief than I could have possibly suspected.
My Grandmother, Doris, was first given this handkerchief when she moved to Vienna with her husband in 1966. My Grandfather, Rollie, was a Foreign Service Officer in the State Department, and they had just been assigned to the American Embassy in Vienna.
My grandparents and their extraordinary lives have long been an inspiration to me. I have spent years cataloging and recording their stories, and find that I am continuously learning from their example. Having grown up imagining their stories and looking through their old pictures, it is always a thrill to find a piece of their story that is more than just a memory of a captured moment in time. Two years ago in Vienna, I knew that I couldn't leave until we found the old houses that my grandparents lived in, houses that I would recognize as soon as I saw them. Finding those houses felt like an opportunity to physically interact with the stories that had shaped my life for so long. I am always looking for pieces of their story that live beyond the old photographs and memories they have passed down.
Jacob and I marked out our route to find my father's childhood home. It was clear across the city from where we were staying, and Jacob and I were out of cash. It was a Sunday, the banks were closed, ATMs nowhere to be seen - we were walking. It was ten miles to the house, and ten miles back. By the time I took off my shoes that night, my toes were bleeding. Jacob had pulled a ligament in his knee. We were really, really ridiculously dedicated.
We don't regret it for a moment. We passed the American Embassy where my Grandfather worked, we found the park where my father played as a child, and finally, arrived in front of the house that looked just as it had in the photograph from over 40 years before.
And now this handkerchief. The handkerchief was given to Doris by a lady who would become a dear friend in Vienna, Baroness Cissy von Riedel. Doris carried the handkerchief in her purse throughout her years in Vienna, and as she remembers, it was always a help whenever she was lost in the city.
Years later, Jacob and I are coming full circle, moving back to the city that Doris and Rollie loved so much. The handkerchief was such a beautiful gift to receive even without the history - now, however, it feels like carrying on a legacy.