I never knew my grandparents very well. By grandparents, I mean my dad’s parents, David and Phyllis Billington, who were always a unit in my mind. I never met my mom’s father, Alfred Kouzel, an animation director who made cartoons for television. Daisy, my mom’s mom, died of Alzheimer’s when I was seven. My little sister was named after her.
My Billington grandparents lived in Princeton for most of my childhood, so I would see them only once or twice a year, during summer or winter vacation. The three-story house a few blocks from Nassau Street, with its tall hedges and wide gravel driveway, would fill with six children and eleven grandchildren who traveled to New Jersey to spend Christmas in the snow. Just after my grandparents moved to California, in 2013, the house was sold and the new owners tore it down. Until last month, I hadn’t gone back to see the new house built in its place.
My grandmother was a fashion model in the 1950s, and my family always reminded me that she was extraordinarily beautiful. She wore silky floral shirts, clip-on earrings, and a thin line of bright red lipstick. Her McCall’s magazine covers hang in our hallway, her face framed by story titles like “Cook away! Grow slim on our new family-style 10-day diet.” My granddad treasured her. At every family gathering and holiday meal, he would hoist himself up to a standing position and deliver a speech about our great family. He would always end up retelling the story of the first time he met Phyllis Bergquist, the most gorgeous and talented woman he had ever known.
It wasn’t until my grandparents and I traded locations—when they moved to Los Angeles, California and I to Princeton, New Jersey—that I became curious about their lives. This was also when Granny began losing her memory. Last spring, she mailed me a ripped-out page of an English course catalogue for Middlebury College. I couldn’t tell if she had forgotten that I go to Princeton. My granddad was forgetting certain details, too. When I was little, he would tell me about the latest book he was writing as we worked on jigsaw puzzles at the breakfast table in their house on Hodge Road. But now he struggles to put dates and times and names together. He asked me a few weeks ago at church if the man reciting a prayer at the pulpit was my son.
“No, Granddad, your son is parking the car, but he’ll be here soon,” I said. I usually try to answer the question that I think he is asking, because I know that the mental bridge between his thoughts and his words often fails. Some of the church ladies turned to look at us. He doesn’t seem to mind this sort of thing—he just laughs when he gets something wrong. Sometimes he’ll even crack a joke, like “I’m just pretending to be old” or “I’m not old, I’m vintage.”
My grandfather was a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton. He created the popular course “Structures in the Urban Environment,” or “Bridges.” His main focus has always been “structural art,” at term he used to describe works of structural engineering that met his “Three Es”: Efficiency, Economy, and Elegance. My grandfather believed that a bridge should be both technically precise and representative of a designer’s artistic taste and goals. He published many books over the course of his career, including one about Swiss engineers Othmar Ammann, Robert Maillart, Pierre Lardy, Heinz Isler, and Christian Menn. Menn is celebrated for designing works of structural art like the Sunniberg Bridge, a 1,726-foot span across the Landquart River, and the Ganter Bridge, the longest-spanning bridge ever built in Switzerland.
My granddad admired Menn’s work and they became friends. He invited Menn to speak at Princeton. Some years later, the university asked professors in the Civil Engineering department to recommend architects who might be interested in designing a new bridge to connect the science labs on either side of Washington Road. The university set up a competition to pick an architect, so my granddad told Menn to enter. Menn won and accepted the job of designing the 350-foot-long bridge. The bridge was to be named after John Harrison Streicker ’64, who funded the project.
Though Christian Menn Partners AG dissolved in December 2016, I was able to find the email address of Martin Deuring, one of Menn’s old partners. He asked that we keep our conversations to email, as his English is not strong. He sent me the preliminary designs for the construction and a short biography of Menn, written in German. I understood neither the biography nor most of the math and diagrams. The footbridge is held up by both Y-shaped and V-shaped columns and was designed in the shape of an X, so pedestrians can walk along four paths that meet in the middle; the four ends lead to Chemistry, Physics, Genomics, and Cognitive Science.
Granddad was pleased with the final product. The bridge was simple and elegant and, above all, efficient. But this contentment ended when another Princeton professor, whom Granddad called his “so-called friend” who “thought he was a great engineer,” decided that he wanted to add an extra piece to the bridge. He tried to fight against the change, but he lost and the new piece was tacked on. Menn didn’t approve of the change, either.
“Did you know this professor?” my mom asks Granddad in a video she sent me of her and my dad asking him about Streicker a few weeks ago over lunch. She and my dad take Granddad to church and then out to lunch every Sunday. He calls my parents at home most Saturday afternoons to make sure they will remember to pick him up the next day. The assisted-living home he lives in used to take him and my grandmother to church. Granny died in September. She had congestive heart failure and stopped breathing one night, surrounded by her husband and children.
During the last week of December, my family met in Princeton to bury my grandmother’s ashes at Trinity Church. After the service, an older woman, a Princeton resident, introduced herself to my parents. She was Taiwanese. Right after my parents were married, they moved to Taiwan for a year while my dad played trumpet in a Dixieland jazz band. The woman at the funeral had met Granny in Princeton while my dad and mom were in Taipei. She had told Granny that she was going to Taipei soon. Granny recalled a phone call that she’d just had with my Dad who said he was having a great time, except he could not find his favorite baking-soda toothpaste anywhere. “Oh, you must visit my son in Taipei and deliver him his toothpaste!” Granny had requested of her new friend. Neither of my parents remember meeting the lady or getting a delivery of Arm & Hammer toothpaste, but at Granny’s funeral, the woman insisted it had happened. She and my grandmother didn’t stay in touch back in Princeton, but she must have read Granny’s obituary in the Princeton Packet and remembered their friendship.
In the video my mother made, my grandfather seemed to be having a hard time remembering the details of Streicker Bridge. The drama surrounding the unwanted addition, though, he remembered.
“Oh yes, I knew that guy very well,” Granddad says, laughing, to my mom.
“And was there friction between you two?”
“Yes. I tried to stop him, but I couldn’t, so the thing got built. It’s only on the side of the bridge. So it’s there. That hunk of stuff.”
I’ve tried hunting for this extraneous “hunk of stuff” on the bridge and in articles online, but I can’t seem to find it. I emailed Martin Deuring with my question and he replied that he doesn’t know the answer but will ask Christian Menn and get back to me soon. I’m not confident that I’ll hear back from him. The hunk could be where I’m not looking or maybe there is more to this story—details layered under old memories I am not able to access.
I finally decided to see the new house built on 45 Hodge Road last month. I walked twenty minutes through heavy snow and did not realize I had arrived at what used to be my grandparents’ house until I saw the wooden numbers, 45, nailed to a tree in the front yard. I looked at what appeared to be a huge concrete box, square and cold. It should have been a dentist’s office or a storage unit. The brown block crushed all the fresh, fluffy snow. I felt my toes going numb and my eyes becoming glossy. On a frozen tree branch sat a red bird.