On Lumbago

Both of my Swiss grandmothers loved to garden—vegetables more than flowers. They came of age in the 1930s, when thrift, frugality, parsimoniousness, always characteristic Swiss traditions, were especially valuable. Decades later, as a child, I would spend the summer in Switzerland every four years or so. These trips were the most indelible experiences of my life.

After especially busy sessions in the garden, my paternal grandmother (we called her Grossmami) would be almost laid-up with back pain. Nothing could actually incapacitate her: she was always in motion, a doer more than a thinker. She allowed herself the occasional nap, but that was it. Idleness was not for her.

I was never as close to Grossmami as to my maternal grandmother, my Grossmueti, but I loved her: she was sweet and witty and sassy and had gorgeous, opulent hair she was vain about. I inherited the hair and the vanity.

In the summer of 1986, when I was 14, my sister and I spent a month in Switzerland on our own before our parents joined us. We ate a lot of vegetables from the garden: lettuce, tomatoes, rutabagas (gross) and green beans, so many green beans. (In retrospect, I wonder how much radiation we consumed with them—the Chernobyl disaster had happened only a few months earlier.)

Once, when Grossmami came in from the garden, hands on her back, bent forward, I asked how she had hurt herself. She spoke no English, really; my Swiss German was good but hardly perfect. She told me she had a Hexenschuss. I did not know this word, it seemed strange and ominous. Something about a witch?

I mean, I was not totally crazy. Eine Hexe is a witch. Ein Schuss is a shot. A shot from a witch? A witchy shot? Surely not. She tried to explain: it came from bending over in the garden too long, it happened when you got older, it hurt, it went away in a day or two. It was no fun but it was no big deal.

The next time I was at my maternal grandmother’s (the grandmothers lived about 20 minutes apart) I looked in a German-English dictionary. Grossmueti spoke only a little more English than Grossmami, but hers was a house of books.

The few books owned by my paternal grandparents were clearly for show, unwanted sediment from some long-forgotten Book of the Month Club-type membership. I still remember a gilt-backed Crime and Punishment, a book I’m sure they never read but that I knew I would. (Even then I was good at using the thought of reading something—as opposed to actually reading it—to mark the person I wanted to be.) My maternal grandmother, by contrast, had lots of books. They were mostly my grandfather’s, a Marxist machinist who loved Charlie Chaplin but who never seemed funny to me, on the contrary, he was stern and unsmiling and had always scared me (he died of a heart infection when I was ten). Some of the books were her own, mostly about women in religion; in her quiet way she was a feminist, it seemed to me to fit with her quiet dignity (she was very tall, especially for a woman of that time, that might have contributed to my sense—when I think of her I see her on her bicycle, she took it everywhere and never learned to drive). Even as kid it was clear how different Grossmueti’s house was from Grossmami’s. Grossmueti lived in a town, Grossmami in the country. Grossmueti’s kitchen had no need of flypaper. Her living room had no television. Television was a big deal at Grossmami’s, although this was back when there were no programs during the day. All of these things made their houses seem totally different to me. What I might say now is that although my father’s parents were richer, my mother’s parents had more cultural capital.

Which takes me back to the dictionary. Ein Hexenschuss, I read, was “lumbago.” (The dictionary was clearly British.) That didn’t help. I knew the word from Agatha Christie mysteries, where people, mostly curates, sometimes suffered from it, but I didn’t know what it meant. It always sounded vaguely like a dance, though I knew that couldn’t be right. Hexenschuss, the word as inscrutable as my grandmother’s pain, remained one of those cross-cultural mysteries, those gaps in communication that made me feel more helpless and childish than I was, and that always left a gap between me and my relatives. It was frustrating to be a bookish child, in love with language, yet unable to communicate to family with ease and nuance.

Flash forward thirty-five years and now I know that the pinching feeling I get when I vacuum is lumbago. Every week, as I push the bloody thing around in a losing battle against the dog hair that coats the house, the word runs through my head (Hexenschuss, Hexenschuss, Hexenschuss) and I think of my grandmother Madeleine Stuber, née Muriset, who was from a town known in German as Biel and French as Bienne (like the writer Robert Walser whom I almost wrote my dissertation on) and whose first language was French and who was as elegant as people in that part of rural Switzerland got, and who would have surely been happier with another husband but who, I think, had a good life, certainly a long one, and might in fact even still be alive had she not elected in 2015 to take up her right, under Swiss law, to end her life.

She was in her mid 90s then, depressed and ground down by age but still mentally and mostly physically together. She shuffled a bit, worried about falling. She was probably developing Parkinson’s. Her decision to kill herself through physician-assisted suicide did not go over well with her children, my father and my aunts. (No one ever knew what my uncle was thinking.)

I’m reminded now that hexen means to do witchcraft, to perform black magic, to do ill—this is where the English word “hex” comes from. Our word “hag” has the same origins; eine Hexe is also a pejorative for a woman, a minx, a hussy, at least it used to be, the term might be old-fashioned and definitely should be retired. Madeleine was not a minx, though it’s the kind of thing people in my father’s family might say: the Stubers were into snappy retorts and teasing, all very funny, but with an undercurrent of meanness, as teasing always carries. So Hexe is also a curse, which is probably the primary referent in Hexenschuss—that pain makes you feel cursed all right. I feel sad about the end of my grandmother’s life, but not angry. I don’t think her life was curses, or her suicide a curse on her descendants. No crime, no punishment.


My grandmother Madeleine with my grandfather Paul

Instead I think that at least I spend an hour or so thinking about her each week. As I busy myself with the vacuum, taking grim satisfaction in making order from mess—I’m a little grossed out by dirt, gardening has never been my thing, the vacuum is my rake, my hoe, the rug and the floorboards my garden—I feel the pinch in my lower back and think about Madeleine, who knew I was different from her and everyone else on that side of the family, but didn’t mind, wasn’t made insecure by that difference, never forced her gangly, awkward grandson into the garden, left him to his books. Takes my mind off the pain of the lumbago.


22 thoughts on “On Lumbago

  1. OMGosh, Chernobyl. I was in Greece that summer and my watch stopped at the Athens airport and never worked again. My mother’s best friend, my Tante Fanny (who gave me my love of books and films and the resolution to never marry; she had five lovers, a rake she met at her best friend’s fiancé’s funeral; a Greek Army general, a war hero; a shipping tycoon; the ship’s captain she abandoned the tycoon for; and a cook) was in her late 70s when we arrived that summer of ’86. She told us when Chernobyl happened in April, strawberries were cheaper than they’d ever been and she ate cases of them, figuring the radiation would get her in ten years. What the heck, she said she might already be dead by then.

    This is a great story, reminds me of Roald Dahl’s memoir, Boy. Have you read it? I taught it to grade 7 boys and they loved it.

    • Kay, this comment is a little essay in itself!

      Did you not write about Chernobyl recently: I remember the watch anecdote. In fact, I wonder if I had that in the back of my head when I wrote this.
      I want an essay about Tante Fanny–what an incredible description.
      I don’t know Boy. Will investigate.

      • Yes, I did when I wrote about Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl.

        My Tante Fanny was an incredible character. This is a mere snippet of the stories I grew up with. She had a very sad end and it’s hard to write about her. But it’s always in the back of my mind.

        Boy is quite the account. I don’t know if your daughter would like it. But your lovely essay reminded me of Dahl’s visits to his Norwegian? grandparents. Like all of Dahl’s work, Boy is darkly humourous, frighteningly forthright, and grotesque.

      • I suspect my daughter would not like Boy. But *I’m* intrigued and will seek it out.
        Sorry about Tante Fanny’s unhappy end. Sounds like a fascinating person, though.
        Right: the Higginbotham piece! I remember now. There are a few Chernobyl books out now; I’d like to read at least one of them.

      • There’s the Higginbotham, heavy on the science, and Serghi Plokhy’s Chernobyl: the History of a Nuclear Disaster. Plokhy’s a Chernobyl survivor: I’d like to read his too, to compare.

  2. What a lovely post, Dorian. Sometimes we inherit things from our family we really don’t need… but that explains the lumbago query! I can understand the decision to end your life at a point you feel is right and where you don’t want to deteriorate any more. I have seen my mother-in-law live longer than her body could cope with, and my father survive after strokes to become a shadow of himself. There’s a lot to be said for making that decision when you are reading to take your leave.

    • Yes, I suspect that assisted suicide will become more accepted in the coming years. It was still a bit of a shock, and one can always say, “Well, what if she’d had antidepressants or a therapist, etc” but I think she was determined to go out on her terms.

  3. Thanks for this lovely, if mildly painful, reminiscence. I read it while trying to shake off my own lumbago this morning. It reminded me of Jansson’s Summer Book, which I’ve been rereading in order to make a virtual visit to Finland to escape the Arkansas heat (and other things). Your grandparents are fortunate to have you so beautifully capture the memory of them.

    • To remind someone of Jansson–the best compliment I could ever get. Thanks, Jay.
      Sometime I’d love to pick your brain about whether I could ever pitch/submit something like this for publication. Who, how, etc.
      Anyway, I hope you and yours are doing ok.

  4. I love this, Dorian—the canny details that become more and more luminous as the essay goes on (the way they do sometimes in memory as time goes on), the way these fragments of recollection drift, seemingly random, and link up unexpectedly with things in your present life… Somehow this reminds me of Dybek’s “Pet Milk.” Really lovely.

    • Hope, coming from you especially this means a lot to me! Thank you so much for your kind words. And you know how much I love “Pet Milk”–which I discovered through you–so again, super psyched to hear you say that.

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