Last week, I wrote about how the “sabbatical” my grandparents took in Europe when they were in their 40s boosted my grandma’s self-confidence and impelled her apply to college, where she ended up excelling as a French major.
I didn’t talk about what happened to the kids.
My mom was 15 in the late summer of 1958. She was shocked when her parents told her they were pulling her out of public school in Maryland for the year so the family could venture abroad. Instead of attending tenth grade at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School with her lifelong friends, she’d go to a boarding school in Geneva populated by the children of international diplomats.
But, like my grandma, my mom thrived abroad. The teachers at her school, Ecolint, were excellent, and she made so many good friends that she decided to return for eleventh grade. (For twelfth, she was summoned home.)
Unfortunately, the family adventure played out very differently for my mom’s brother, Peter, who was 11 when they set sail. I suppose he was too young for Ecolint, because my grandparents enrolled him in La Clairière, a small boarding school for little boys in the Swiss ski town Villars-sur-Ollon.
I don’t have too many details about my uncle’s experience at La Clairière; he died in 2001, when he was in his 50s and I was in my 20s, and we never discussed it. But here’s what I know about the school from a memoir by another alum: it was a remote, cold, and gloomy place where boys were routinely abused. The principal and his wife neglected, excoriated, and beat the kids. One of their employees was a child molester.
And I also know this, from my mom: Peter, a gentle boy who would go on to become a high school vice principal, was kicked by one of his teachers. Who knows what else happened to him at La Clairière, but this, at least, he reported to my grandparents, who aborted their travels and rented a chalet nearby so he could complete the year as a day student.
I wish I could say everything worked out fine for Peter in the end. But during his final years on earth, and perhaps for a long time beforehand, he was all but paralyzed by depression. One morning not long after he turned 55, he bought a gun at Wal-Mart, drove deep into Shenandoah National Park, and killed himself.
There must have been many causes of Peter’s suffering. Depression and anxiety run in our family almost as strongly as brown eyes do. And Peter had the misfortune of losing his wife to breast cancer when they were both around 40—a loss from which he never recovered.
But it’s hard not to imagine that the abuse he faced at La Clairière set him up for a lifetime of sadness. And now that I’m a parent, it’s hard for me to fathom how my grandparents could have dumped him there, and made him stay after he raised the alarm.
I say this as someone who practically worshipped my grandparents.
I have always had trouble with nuance. While they were alive, I’m not sure I perceived any flaws in my mom’s parents. When I was in my 20s and they were in their 80s, they were the most important people in my life—my most consistent sources of love and support during a period fraught with tumult and drama.
Now, I must reconcile two truths: In their 80s, they gave me exactly what I needed. In their 40s, they failed to do the same for their son.