The clatter at the mail slot told me the mail carrier had arrived. Sometimes, I felt sorry for her, loaded down with all those glossy advertisements and envelopes full of promises of huge wins from some unknown companies. They usually went right into - what I call - permanent filing. Nevertheless, sometimes it was fun to look through them all. Today, there was one yellow envelope, quite out of the ordinary. When I turned it over, my heart gave an extra beat. She had written back! I had waited for weeks wondering whether she would answer. I sat down at the table and started reading. Yes, she had been surprised to hear from me. No wonder, after 50 years.
Hildegard and I had been best friends in high school. She used to come by train from a nearby village. We would sing together at music lessons, she soprano, and I alto. We also managed to visit each other occasionally during the summer holidays. That is until her mother died. Hildegard was only 14, and I cried with her. Her two sisters and one brother were older and already had their own lives. Our relationship changed; boys were more important to her than to me. I understood later that since she had lost her mother’s love, she had looked for a substitute. After I got a job as an apprentice in a lawyer’s office, Hildegard and I lost touch.
When I immigrated to Canada, married and had a family my thoughts seldom touched on schooldays and former friends. Life was busy, at times hectic. But two years ago, Hildegard appeared more and more in my mind. Was she okay? How had her life been? Did she have the same health problems as her mother, cancer? I needed to find out.
How to find her address? After all, her name certainly had changed if she had married. I wrote to her old village and got the answer that she now lived in my own hometown. That was easy. Then, with hope in my heart, I wrote a letter to her and waited. Was she even interested in connecting again? Did she even remember? Who knows, some people might rather not.
Now, the waiting was over. Thanks to the obliging Internet, I found her phone number. I called. And we talked, for a long time. She even remembered our nicknames! Her life and family had been quite similar to mine. She had two daughters and a grandson. I had two daughters, one son and now three granddaughters. While my husband still enjoyed good health, her husband was sick and she was his caregiver. So much to talk about - school years, teachers, marriage, kids. Finally, we said goodbye, and Hildegard promised to call again.
From then on, either she or I called once a month. Last November, her voice sounded different. Her husband had passed away. I was amazed at how calm she was. “He doesn’t have to suffer anymore,” she said. “Yes, I miss him, but the last 10 years haven’t been easy for either of us.” She told me it was Alzheimer's.
That’s when a thought occurred to me. I hadn’t seen my hometown in years. How about flying over and finally meeting my friend again? Although I had concerns about flying nine hours in a crowded plane, something else pushed me into action. We got an invitation from relatives to celebrate their golden anniversary. Since my husband didn’t feel like going, I decided I would. I could combine the two visits. I got excited. Hildegard was bubbling over with anticipation when I told her about it. That did it.
After a few days getting used to the time change in Germany, my cousin drove me to my hometown and Hildegard’s house. She had waited by the window and opened the door right away. Strange, how even after 50 years, some things in a person’s face and eyes never change.
“I can still see the Hildegard from before in there,” I told her. From hugs and greetings, we went into the kitchen and a bubbling teakettle. A disembodied voice on the telephone was a good beginning, but nothing could beat the person-to-person reconnection.
“I still remember your braids,” Hildegard said and poured the tea. We talked until lunchtime. She finally got up. “Let me show you your room and the rest of the house.” I stayed for three days. I had a good look at my town again, my friend and I went out for a leisurely lunch, talked about everything. I found out a lot about her life after her mother’s death, how she had felt lost and unhappy. I counted my blessings.
I don’t know whether I will see her again. Who knows? Life doesn’t tell you in advance what will happen. But now we both can imagine a face behind the voice on the phone. We also have much more to talk about because we dug deeper into each of our lives again and understand them much better.
MAY 2011 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND