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.
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.
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.
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.
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.