The centre boulevard in the relatively small but world-renowned Bavarian Spa city of Bad Woerishofen was filled with people slowly walking to and fro. Everybody had time, nobody was hurrying. Occasionally a biker would wind his way through the throng, attracting annoyed looks because this was a walking street. Most bikers wore either lederhosen or a typical Bavarian dirndl dress, an indication they lived and worked here in one of the elegant houses or hotels. Little ice cream parlours, small cafés with lots of outdoor seating had clusters of people milling around waiting for a table. I loved sitting there, watching people. Everybody was dressed up like in the good old times. Jeans? Hardly. Elegant elderly couples were holding hands or had their arms around each other, smiling and talking, looking happy and relaxed. They had met here during their “Kur” and enjoyed a ‘fling’. They were each other’s “Kurschatten”, the ‘shadow’ who stayed with them as long as they were here. Married people just didn’t act like that…
Flowerbeds with seasonal plants were alongside a small but very fast flowing stream coming from the Alps on one side of the boulevard. Little bridges crossed for access to shopping at the elegant boutiques, offering the best of everything money can buy. Their sales people were chic and sophisticated, so much so that one didn’t even dare to enter. How do they get you to enter? There was always a sales rack next to the entrance. If you stopped to see if there was something affordable they were right there and lured you in…
Would you believe that this elegant boulevard with those enticing shopping venues used to be a mud path for the cows to come home to their barns on the left and the right? The first time I was here was in 1958 and I saw it with my own eyes. Some farmers didn’t sell out and still lived in their old, but now groomed, houses but the barns were turned into condos and townhouses or shops.
Today I was checking the sales rack of a men’s shop. I loved buying something for my grown son or the significant other in my life – if there was one at the time. For myself – I didn’t really need anything. It was more of I wanted something – if I couldn’t resist. Before I knew it I was inside this super elegant gentlemen’s shop, looking around, wanting to compare prices, but there weren’t any. If you had to ask – you can’t afford it anyway. A well dressed, above middle-age, lady stood at one of the glass counters and apparently had a hard time to choose from several beautiful ties. She held one after the other against a pale cream coloured shirt. Fascinated I stopped and watched her. She must have felt my admiring looks at her incredible jewellery, complementing her elegant finely knitted dress. She glanced at me, gave me this tiny little smile and asked me,
“ Which of these ties would you buy?” I had already made up my mind, so I pointed to a buttercup yellow one with tiny specs of light gray in it. It looked great next to that shirt. The set would not look good on my young son, it was way too elegant. But for the husband of this lady? Or her ‘Kurshadow’? Perfect.
When I heard the price I almost choked on my own saliva but I behaved and slowly moved away. I didn’t even want to know the price of the shirt. I probably could have bought two or three suits for my son in a ‘normal’ shop. I left and was looking at a jewellery display window next door when I saw the reflection of the lady in the window. Now it was my turn to glance at her. Would I mind joining her for an ice cream? She was alone here and would enjoy my company. We spent at least two hours chatting and getting to know each other.
We parted at dinner time but made a date for the daily evening concert. Since I was in charge of my time as well we spent most of the next three days of her visit going on walks, sitting in one of the many cafés and I heard many of her life stories. Some were very shocking. I had never known anyone who had been sexually abused as a child by her father. Her mother had accused her of lying and was very cross with her, she never believed her. The abuse started when she was ten and went on until she finished grade school, ran away and then lived with her grandmother. The father had also abused her younger sister who was only eight.Their mother never believed either girl and made their life hell. “Helga” – my new friend – got married to a very nice man, they had a daughter but her husband died after twelve years. She worked as a waitress, she became an office girl, and she worked her way up and a few years ago became the secretary and then the mistress of a wealthy gemologist. His wife was begging her to keep the romance going since she does not want sex with her husband anymore. He never left his family and she was agreeable to the setup. She asked me to visit her in her hometown as soon as I had a chance.
When we first met I was in Bavaria with a group of Canadians to enjoy the health spa. Helga was intrigued and readily agreed to come to my hotel, share our dinner and meet them. I vividly remember her entrance to our cozy dining room. She stood in the door, looked over the different tables to our large one with this incredible one-thousand watt smile. All conversation stopped and everybody looked at her. She really was a sight to behold. She had this special radiance about her as if she was lit up from within. Three of my single Canadian men told me later,
“What a woman! My God, that lady can really light up a room.”
I can only think of one other who can do that: Julia Roberts. We exchanged telephone numbers but never had any correspondence. It was the late eighties. A year later I visited her after my annual group had left. By that time her lover had died of a heart attack and she was left in charge of his business with a generous salary. He had also appointed her to be the executor for his family. There were three grown children over twenty. She had tried to refuse but the wife begged her to accept since otherwise her children would pressure her for money-money-money and squander everything. The son was into betting on horse racing. One girl was into partying and drinking and the other child was still under age. The two women became quite close.
By this time, Helga’s own mother was now also in need of help and asked her estranged daughters for assistance. Her sister absolutely refused to even see her mother. Helga felt obligated to take on the deed. Her father had passed away a few years earlier. I heard more horror stories and the worst was that the mother still did not believe that her husband had abused his own daughters. Helga was totally stressed out because her mother failed to control her anger against her girls every time Helga was there. She refused to go into a care home. My common sense advice was of no use. Helga felt she needed to be there for her mom despite everything. The government could even order her to pay for the mother’s upkeep. She chose to do it out of her own free will and her sister never helped her. I invited her to visit me in Canada and we made plans. She had a cousin in New York and got excited about the prospect to visit her as well on the same trip.
It was the beginning of June the next year. I was already back in Canada from my annual trip to Bavaria and had an early appointment. I was on the way out of my door when my phone rang. I grabbed it on the run thinking it might be my secretary but it was Helga. She wanted to talk to me but I told her I had a meeting, was working all day and would get back to her the next morning because of the nine-hour time difference. She made small talk, seemed to want to hold on but I was already late. Somehow I felt guilty but really, I had no choice but to hang up. I couldn’t get her out of my mind all day. I stayed up late and phoned her at midnight, about nine in the morning her time. There was no answer. I tried several times during the day to no avail. I decided to write her a long letter. I never heard from her, no letter, no call. I tried every few weeks. Then, in September, I received my own letter to her back with a note next to her address: “Adressat verstorben” – meaning this person has died. I had to sit down. I never knew anyone who was so full of spirit and life, who was so sparkling and had lately tried to find another partner through an ad, went to dancing classes, exercise classes, had many lady friends; how could she be dead? Impossible! I had no way to get any other information since she had never given me the address of her daughter who lived with her boyfriend in another city.
Another year came around and I took my new Canadian group to the lovely spa city in Bavaria. By pure chance, I met a younger lady who came from the same city where Helga had lived and, to top it off, her mother was in the same exercise class. What I heard next shocked me and now, about thirty years later, I am still not at peace with it. Apparently, Helga had planned to renovate her condo and had made an appointment for a representative from a construction company to come at 4.00 PM and give her an estimate on the day she had phoned me. To his surprise the door was open, he called out and then went in looking for her. Beautiful flowers were on the table, Beethoven music was filling the room, lots of candles were lit, there was a festive mood, a wine bottle, and a half full glass was on a side table by the couch where she was resting. He couldn’t raise her and, shocked, he spotted an empty pill bottle next to the wine glass. He realized what must have happened, knocked on the neighbour’s door, an ambulance and the police came. Too late. She was gone. Had she made the appointment with this man to make sure she was found? Alive – or dead?
Why did she do it? What had happened? Did her mother drive her to it, did the early childhood years catch up because of the constant fighting? Why did she phone me? What was it she needed to tell me? Why didn’t she scream it out to me that morning… Why? Nobody will ever know. She did not leave a note. She had not talked to any of her lady friends or her daughter. None of them knew her secret. Did she tell me because I was a stranger? I feel guilty to this very day because I had no time to listen. Listen to a friend in need, a friend desperate for my ear. Or did she just want to say goodbye, had planned her exit from this world and I couldn’t have done anything anyway?
God, I wish I knew.