I've long ago given up wondering what triggers my thoughts and memories, but for some reason I found myself thinking of my friend Ursula. I'd never in my life met anyone like her before, nor have I since. And doubt I ever shall again.
I met Ursula while I was living in Northern Wisconsin. She was well-known in the area as being an eccentric rock of a woman who, in her 70s when I met her, lived alone on a 20-acre farm on which she raised sheep. She also sheared them and spun their wool into yarn, from which she made mittens, scarves, and various other items. She had electricity but no running water and no toilet.
I knew Ursula was Jewish before I met her…there were very few Jews in the area, most of the residents being either Finnish (to work the forests) or Italian (to work the mines).
I worked part time at a supermarket, which is where I first met her. Knowing she was Jewish, I wished her a happy Rosh Hashanah during the holiday, and she took a liking to me, and gradually I learned her story.
She did not willingly talk of her past, and it was only in small bits and pieces, over time, that I learned some of her story. She was born in Germany of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, and she had one older brother whom she adored. When the Nazis came to power, she and her family were shipped off to a concentration camp for "half-breeds." Though spared the gas chamber, their life in the camps was incomprehensible to those not experiencing it.
At some point during or immediately after the war, her beloved brother was beaten to death by a group of Nazi thugs.
On February 13, 1945, she was on a prison train which was stopped at the outskirts of Dresden as the infamous firebombing of the city began. Over 100,000 people died in the firestorms. Ursula and others on the train were forced to go through the destroyed city retrieving bodies.
When her camp was liberated at the end of the war, her mother and father went out for a walk, leaving the confines of the camp for the first time. Her father was shot and killed while on that walk…I was never sure how, why, or by whom, but it didn’t matter. Murder is murder.
Somehow finding her way to the U.S.--again, I have no details--Ursula married a Serb emigre and had two daughters. The marriage was a disaster, and they were divorced after Ursula moved to Chicago. She managed to buy a small house and raise her daughters. During the riots of the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago, Ursula was convinced that what had happened in Germany in the 1930s was happening in America. She sold her house and moved to Northern Wisconsin, where she bought her farm. She became estranged from her daughters, who moved away as soon as they could.
I would visit her frequently, and she would call me to ask to pick up a few things from the store for her. She had a large garden, and always kept me supplied with vegetables in season. She mowed her own lawn, using a scythe and a push lawnmower.
She, I, and a gay mutual friend (one of only about 10 gays in a 100 mile radius) built a 30 x 60 foot barn for her sheep, largely out of materials salvaged from the various collapsed buildings around her property. She was fiercely, fiercely independent and resourceful.
She was also literally paranoid in her fear of any form of authority figure. When the government had installed an "ELF" defense tracking system throughout northern Wisconsin, every low-flying plane or passing helicopter became an omen of danger.
We talked every day on the phone, and she would always say "We have to watch out for one another: you never know what might happen."
And then one day I tried to call her. That there was no answer wasn’t surprising: she was always out of the house tending to chores. But when after five or six calls with no response, I began to get concerned. She usually told me when she was planning to go somewhere, and she’d mentioned nothing. Finally, after about the eighth call, I was truly concerned. For some reason, I was unable to drive over (it was about a 20 minute drive) to check on her, and so I called the Sheriff’s office and asked that if they had a car in the area, they might stop and check to be sure she was okay.
I heard nothing further, and later that evening, I called again. Ursula answered the phone. I asked what had happened, and she said she had just been outside working. She then said: "You had no right to call the police. I do not want to talk to you anymore." And she hung up, and that, despite my efforts to explain that I only called the police because I was concerned for her, was, except for a few cursory accidental meetings at the store during which she was painfully uncomfortable, the end of our friendship.
I was truly sorry to lose her as a friend, but I realize that in her eyes, I had done the unforgivable: I had called her to the attention of the authorities.
I heard Ursula died last year. Though I was no longer her friend, she was still mine. I miss her.
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