Ada Radunz, the artist who didn’t make it

Sometimes the urge to make things doesn’t suffice. Life defeats us anyway.

I’ve been thinking about my friend Ada Radunz lately, even though she’s been gone for more than thirty years. Ada had a passion for the English language and a powerful desire to write. She also had a horror of growing old.

I first met her when I was not quite 20 and she was 54. Ada was one of the good Germans who fled before the war. She was squarely built and brunette, not lean and blond. She wasn’t a member of the Communist party then, but close enough to it so that she got out just in time after winning a writing contest that awarded her barely enough money to leave. They came for her the next day.

Hitler on holiday. Photo by destinyuk. Under license a Creative Commons license.

That’s the first chapter in my story of her life. The second takes place on the Spanish island of Ibiza, where she lived poor surrounded by the homes of the wealthy. She had friends-another woman, a young man, I don’t remember – but they climbed a mountain one day and came to a palatial house high above the sea. Behind French doors sat a Victrola. They all stared at it, dreaming, about its possibilities, until my wonderful friend broke the window and they wound it up and danced to music on the patio of the high house. I imagine palms clattering in the ocean breeze, sea birds screaming, fruit trees of every variety gleaming, Ada’s little gang laughing until they fell down in a heap of happiness when the music ended. Only to do it again and again.

The chapters after that in the book she wrote and never published were about Spain and its Civil War, Beethoven’s funeral march on a radio in a cafe where they all waited to run from Franco and his Fascist armies, hers and Fabio’s escape to England (I never knew quite how she met him), and their uncomfortable refuge in Venezuela where there were many Germans, most of them Nazi sympathizers, and where she lived with her husband and finally their three children in the orchard of one of the enemy. That was the only time in her life things broke for Ada. She started making jam and selling a few jars here, there, until Ada’s Homemade Jam took off and she and Fabio became storybook-rich. Many years after, I ran across a photograph of an old industrial neighborhood near Caracas and a billboard that advertised it: Ada’s Homemade Jam had nearly faded away and some of the sign hung in strips; the business had died long before, but there it was.

By the time Ada became wealthy, the war was over and she took the children to Europe. She wanted them to be educated, cultured human beings, rich in all of life’s possibilities. But men being men, Fabio had an affair with the children’s nanny while she was gone, and let the business go under. I’m sure there’s another side to that story, but I’d as soon believe hers. There was nothing left. Just a stateless middle-aged woman, her estranged husband, and three bewildered children. I don’t know how exactly, but all of them ended up in Vancouver, B.C., a province with a socialist government and hence, some financial support, because Ada was looking, as always, for economic security and a chance to write and read.

When I met her, she was trying to earn a degree at the University of British Columbia so she could earn her living teaching, but she was an impossible student and there was never much hope that she’d succeed.

hwy 16_07f_dome05 Dome Creek, BC 2007. Photo by Canada Good. Under a Creative Commons license.

In the summer of 1960, I visited her in a Mennonite settlement where she and the two youngest children were picking berries for a living. I remember we went to a set a swings above the berries and talked, and she told me that she was in love with an Indian boy, a fellow worker, a young bronze god of a boy of about 20. That’s when I found out how she felt about age.

Cobblestone street, Ajijic, Mexico. Photo by Glenn E. Wilson. Under a Creative Commons license.

The next summer she and her youngest son and a ragtag bunch of young people traveled to Ajijic, Mexico. At the border the others boarded buses, but 55-year-old Ada chose to save money and hitch hiked the more than one thousand miles south where she rented a small house and waited for everyone to join her. That’s when I first saw her book, a good book by and large, but full of Germanisms she couldn’t quite recognize but didn’t want my help with, not there or in her poetry. She was waiting for a man to edit her, preferably a young literary one with panache. And again, she fell in love, this time with a hunky twenty-something guy named Hugh. She declared her love; everyone but Ada was dismayed.

As you can imagine, Ada couldn’t afford many Mexican sojourns, and even though she hated Vancouver, which seemed to her unbearably bourgeoisie, she ended up living out her days there, cursing them with growing bitterness as she aged. Her letters to me were more and more dispirited until I didn’t  know how to answer them. Once, she sent me the book, a ravaged yellowing copy by then, but I never did anything about it and hated myself forever after for it. The book disappeared somewhere in Canada; Ada struggled to survive. Her oldest son became a middle class businessman who played golf; her daughter ran away a number of times until one day she didn’t come back; her youngest son suffered from bouts of depression and was hospitalized.

Pansies. Photo by Daryl Mitchell. Under a Creative Commons license.

I last saw her in a nursing home in Vancouver – a clean place with smiling attendants in starched white, and boxes of pansies and petunias everywhere, her own special hell. She was German after all, the place was German, and they played polkas and music that might as well have been from sunrise to sundown. She was caged in by the music and her blindness. She was no longer even able to read. Except when her depressed son visited, she almost never heard the English language she loved.

She had it, the urge to create, but it died long before she was truly old; it drowned in her bitterness.

I don’t think there’s any lesson to be learned here, just that for some people the urge to make things doesn’t suffice. Life defeats them anyway, and to try to change the ending to this story would be to sentimentalize Ada’s life. She wouldn’t have stood for it.

Author: latefruit

I am forever writing the great American novel, practicing the piano (in hopes of joining an amateur string quartet someday), gardening, and now, since I've gotten old when I wasn't looking, trying to figure out what that means.

14 thoughts on “Ada Radunz, the artist who didn’t make it”

  1. My grandmother too. Mom says she and I (at under 3 yrs old) were in Ajijic with Ada. Indeed the manuscript is in the family, Iv read it. Its with Maya currently.

    1. Hi Julia –

      I remember Ada did go to Mexico again the summer after I was there with her. I think I have at least one letter from that time.

      I’m very glad the book still exists. Hang on to it. I remember I loved it and always felt a little guilty that I couldn’t fix it up for her and get it published.

      Please apologize to Maya for the remark about her father playing golf. Ii don’t think I ever met him. I just wanted to say that Ada didn’t approve of his lifestyle. But I’m sure everyone knew that. She wasn’t reticent about speaking up.

      I think I probably met your mother once or twice but I have no clear recollection.

      I hope it’s clear to all of you that I loved your mother very much and thought she was a marvelous, if unhappy, person.

      Just one question from here. Is Leo still alive? Is he well? The last time I saw him he was very depressed. Sort of like his mother that way.

      Elaine Magalis

      1. Hi Elaine,
        I sent you a friend request on Facebook. Perhaps there we can continue this conversation.

      2. Hi Elaine,
        Did you get my friend request on facebook? I think its funny that she didnt approve about Marco since he was the first to be successful. Perhaps it was that 1960s style of disdain for conservative values. My mom has become a successful artist and in a lasting marriage of 30 years already.
        Unfortunately as far as I know Leo is stuck in a housing with on site staff who administer drugs, and he is dominated by the corrupt industry of the pharmaceutical companies through psychiatrists and doctors. Few doctors and psychiatrists are independently minded and brave enough to oppose the drug companies. A great example of this heroism is Dr. Peter Breggin, who is unafraid to say that prescription mental health drugs do more harm than good. The drugs actually increase suicidal tendencies and violence, as documented in the majority of cases, and as warned on the label of the drugs. Stopping the drugs includes withdrawal symptoms and therefore must be done gradually and with support. In Leos case it would be difficult for him to stop since he lacks that support and is surrounded by the legal drug pushers. It is harder for him to make that decision for himself when he is in a drugged state already. If he did try to stop and had withdrawal symptoms, they would blame him and say it shows he should take the drugs. Although I never knew him well, I have the compassion that I don’t want him to be condemned to drug induced illness and at risk of suicide. I don’t have communication with him and I am a little afraid to try. My mom used to have a written correspondence with him but in recent years it is not maintained as she said he was too angry or negative in his response for her to continue. Your compassion or helpful perspective is appreciated.

      3. Hi Elaine,
        Are you still interested in publishing the manuscript? I would like to be involved but the thing is to get some analysis from people in the industry of publishing about whether it would be a worth while project and what type of publishing since there are so many different forms now in the media and online as well as the old fashioned but still irreplaceable book form. Its obvious that my grandmother was not famous, as would be the case in most popular biographies.

  2. I have been looking for my best school friend on Google for a long time. Today is the first time I googled on Ada’s name. I think, Julia, that your mother is my old but never forgotten friend. Would you be willing to tell her that Helena would like to contact her? I have a Facebook page too but maybe email contact would be more appropriate?

    1. Hi Helena ,
      I got a forwarded message from you thanks to Julia. Really nice to hear from you after all this time . I’m not registered with facebook and am actually almost computer phobic . nevermind. Would love to know what has become of you…

      1. Hi Helena ,
        I got a forwarded message from you thanks to Julia. Really nice to hear from you after all this time . I’m not registered with facebook and am actually almost computer phobic . nevermind. Would love to know what has become of you…

      2. Yes, I would like to know what has become of you too … I am so glad to have contact with you! I hope your computer-aversion doesn’t also include email. I sent my email address to Julia via a Facebook message – at least I hope I sent the message to the right Julia (I didn’t want to put my email address on this blog for all the world to see!). Can we email each other to catch up on the last 30 years? Maybe Julia can act as a go-between to help sort out how we can communicate. I don’t even know what continent you are living on (I have been living in Amsterdam for the last ten years) but I fantasize you as living in the American southwest (New Mexico?) or maybe in Spain, somewhere brightly coloured and hot anyway. I hope we can sort out an email connection… Helena

  3. I spent about half my time at the Radunz house on Spruce Street in my teenage years. We lived just up the block on 15th. Ada made bathrobes for us, sewing in the front room to the right of the front door in that big old rooming house. Leo, me, my brother and dougie and wizzy held seances in the basement. At parties, the police would come and make sure we weren’t visibly drinking, being young teenagers and the parties being joyous jammed and noisy. Leo always beat me at chess. He had a remarkable mind, but the pressures of UBC got to him and he dropped out. He slipped through the cracks and there didn’t seem to be any way to stop it; I watched with youthful lack of comprehension. Laureen’s art transformed in the 60s with the curls & swirls of the optical, and her journey to island life was a truth in it own right. Marco was the steady eddy, the good-guy older brother, and that’s fine. Ada? She loved us all, treated us like her own children, was forgiving and patient. I still think of her, the extraordinary journey that entire family made, and I remember the good times.

    Nothing else matters.

  4. Hi Julia, I sent a Facebook friend request just now (my FB nae “Helena Turner Keizer) on January 25, 2020. if you are the Julia Gardner living in New Westminster. I went to Kits Secondary with your mum. I still would really like to be able to communicate with her even if not via email, maybe via normal postal delivery if I had an address for her. This winter while scanning my old film negatives from the time I was a lodger in Ada’s household, I found several images of Laureen and Leo, also of Laureen posing with some of her paintings that she was working on at the time. It certainly revived my memories of a very special, and very happy time for me as part of Ada’s household. Maybe you could let your mother know I have found these old photos and if she would like prints of them? — Helena Keizer, Amsterdam

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