I was about 10 years old when I first encountered Mrs. Dalem.
A few of us neighborhood kids — my little sister, Benny Weiner (the kid upstairs), and I — trekked through the wooded hillside from the playground behind the Academy School and found ourselves in what seemed like a fairy tale.
We saw behind the manicured lawns a little white stucco building with a water wheel that turned at the edge of a pond. Large, white, elegant, seemingly gentle swans glided across the water of another pond like statues on ice.
Just then, high up on the balcony of the big building with great timbers jutting out, came a voice that sounded like it was from an evil stepmother, wagging a crooked finger and screaming at us, “Get avay from my swans!”
We looked at one another in startled fear but realized that the voice came from afar and that we would be safe at least for a few minutes.
We escaped back down the wooded bank to our side of the world, to the metal jungle gyms and swings that hung from big metal chains, to the brook, and to the wild blackberries.
The storybook land was quickly forgotten.
* * *
It was foliage season, and I was just 15. I had worked for several years mowing lawns and in the special program for poor kids at some nonprofits in the summer. I ventured out and applied for the busboy position at Dalem’s Chalet. I was told that I’d make tips. It was nearby, and I actually liked washing dishes.
I was fascinated by the old German woman who glanced at my application.
“Come in tonight at 4:30, and wear a white shirt and dark pants,” Mrs. Dalem said. I was intrigued and excited and scared because this woman appeared to be about 100 years old.
Her kindness was not easily apparent, but it was very easy to follow her directions, because that’s what she gave me: a lot of directions. There was no “please” or “thank you,” because I was her employee. I was expected to work hard and use my common sense and to “get out of that corner!” by the dishwashers. “You can always do the dishes after dinner. Go out in the dining room and fill water glasses,” she would say regularly.
My white shirt was soon yellowed from the hot steam that would come out of the dishwasher or from scrubbing pots and pans over the huge stainless sinks. It was expected that I not stop moving.
It wasn’t long before a waitress and a chambermaid both called in sick, and I was suddenly waiting tables and bartending and cleaning rooms and scrubbing floors and plunging toilets and changing lightbulbs and cutting brush and carrying suitcases for old ladies.
As I would run from the kitchen to the dining room, I would notice our customers. Many had heavy accents; many had come from the Old World and had numbers inscribed on their wrists.
Along the way, I would catch a glimpse of 81-year-old Eddie, who had jumped ship in New York City with Mr. Dalem some 50 years earlier.
Eddie had taken Mr. Dalem’s position at the stove, preparing fine European fare fit for royalty. Both had been trained chefs working on a luxury liner that took port in New York City, and they got off the boat one night and became asylum seekers, or illegal immigrants.
Eddie’s fingers were twisted and scarred from arthritis and years of burns and cuts, but he would have eight or 10 pans going at once, with geschnetzeltes Kalbfleisch, a hollandaise sauce, or Hungarian goulash. In the oven, he might have rouladen, or sole en papier for one customer, “Old Man Moyse.”
* * *
Occasionally, Mrs. Dalem would come in the kitchen and say, “Do you know who that is?!”
She once told me about a judge who would come with his entourage and who once received a call from President Lyndon Johnson. She took the call in the office because there was only one phone in the building at the time.
Mrs. Dalem loved that her customers included musicians like the Serkins and the Moyses of the Marlboro Music Festival, which brought notable guests from within and around the classical music world. Customers included doctors, politicians, and celebrities. Charles Kurault and his “On the Road” team from CBS News signed the guest book multiple times. Abraham Fortas, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, once took a phone call at Dalem’s Chalet from President Lyndon B. Johnson. All of these customers brought Mrs. Dalem a great sense of achievement.
Of course, over the years, the Estey Organ Company and the School for International Training brought Dalem’s our “regular European” clientele that loved to “get a taste of home” in Brattleboro.
Many of these people had tough years in Germany, Austria, and that part of the world before coming to the United States, seeking a place that looked like home. I believe some were Prussian and Eastern Europeans. One customer, Mr. Wessel, was Dutch, and he made it very clear that he was not German, but he still enjoyed a meal with us from time to time.
I was surprised to find that some of my longtime classmates were actually first-generation U.S. citizens as they rolled their eyes when I’d set the spaetzle on the table or when their parents would speak their native language with others who had made the same journey.
* * *
Mrs. Dalem has been (and still is) a very private person, so it’s only in later years that I discovered that her birth name was Ursula Christina Golda and that “Dalem” was a fabricated name — family name of her husband, Oskar Dalem, was Drzemalla.
“We were refugees of war, and we could be anyone we wanted to be when we arrived,” she said.
Mrs. Dalem never actually knew Mr. Dalem before arriving in New York in 1957.
Mr. Dalem had come to the U.S. in 1933 and had a wife, Gertrude, and a son, Freddy, an accomplished skier who moved to Arizona to start a ski resort but had his life cut short by a drunk driver.
Gertrude Dalem wanted to stay in N.Y.C. and Mr. Dalem was buying a hillside farm in West Brattleboro, where he would live with his elderly parents, Eugen and Luise Drzemalla. Mr. Dalem was granted a divorce in Vermont after three years of separation.
In Germany, Mr. Drzemalla was a family friend of — and had been corresponding with — Ursula Dalem’s mother, Hedwig Golda, who died in the last days of World War II because she could not get insulin. Ursula then took over the correspondence.
Then Mr. Drzemalla died and Oskar Dalem took over writing letters to his father’s friends — including Ursula.
One day, Oskar Dalem asked Ursula Golda, then 30 years old, to come to the U.S. from Germany. On Dec. 30, 1957, she arrived in the port of New York.
She later told me that it was the filthiest place she had ever seen in her life and would have gone right back home if Oskar hadn’t been standing on the dock with a bouquet of flowers.
Oskar was 20 years Ursula’s senior but they were married in 1958 and in 1959 had a son, Oscar.
* * *
Mrs. Dalem grew up in a home where the maids boiled her water, but she worked every day as a bookkeeper and secretary from the time she graduated from high school.
In Brattleboro, where Mr. Dalem raised turkeys, she spent several years delivering fresh poultry to small supermarkets and corner stores on a route that took her as far west as Bennington and as far east as Athol, Mass.
Mrs. Dalem told me about her adventures in a Pontiac, Volkswagen Bus, and many other vehicles — “anything that we could deliver poultry in, my job was to deliver” — until one day, disgusted with barns full of loud, smelly birds and their aftermath in the processing barn, she said, “Let’s build the biggest banquet hall and dining room in Brattleboro.”
The town gave them the permit in 1964 with the condition that they offer rooms to rent. Thus began Dalem’s Chalet.
The new enterprise offered indoor and outdoor pools, a sauna, a steam room and a game room. The Dalems had created extensive paths for strolling and two ponds from spring water flowing from the upper field.
Stone steps above the high pond led to a cluster of stones where a pipe delivered its water, which drained slowly down to the lower pond.
The cluster of stones also marked the burial spot of Mr. Dalem, who died in 1979. He was a chef-entrepreneur as well as a taxidermist and poultry farmer.
The place was built with timbers from the property. He would cut down the trees and build dining room tables, benches, and chairs. Marble was brought from central Vermont to build grand staircases and benches by the ponds.
* * *
So off I went to Castleton State College — close enough to Brattleboro that Mrs. Dalem would call me to work special events and through the busy season on weekends. I was happy to come home and have good steady work.
Then I was off to the University of Vermont and, still, on weekends and holidays, I’d drive home to visit and help at the inn. I moved to N.Y.C. to live for a stint — and, still, weekends and holidays I’d come home to visit and work.
In my multiple careers, I might have missed a year or two, but most years I would come back and at least work a holiday party or a big wedding.
I had children, and all of them came to help on at least one or two occasions over the years. My sisters helped, my mom helped, I recruited co-workers from my other jobs.
Many of those I recruited became lifelong friends of mine and Mrs. Dalem’s.
It’s a small town and, as I get older, I meet more and more people who had part-time jobs at Dalem’s Chalet, either as a way to start their work years or who, like many people living in Vermont, as a secondary job to make enough money to survive. Most say it was tough. Mrs. Dalem believed that everyone needed to work hard, and she let you know if she thought you were slacking.
But I always knew that under that tough façade was a young woman who survived a horrific war, losing her mother, seeing her father go into hiding, and watching her brother drafted by the dreaded SS.
After the war, she spent six months sleeping in bombed-out churches with groups of people in search of their loved ones, looking for her only brother, separated by war. She was privileged, but that privilege did not protect her from the ravages and horrors.
On winter nights when we had no customers, Mrs. Dalem would tell me stories. She told me how they would send her for her mother’s insulin because, as a little girl, she was the least likely to be seen and thus the least likely to be shot.
I forgave her for her cold front, for her yelling out of frustration, for her prejudices and judgments that often reminded me of my grandparents. I understood why she felt the way she did, and I knew no one would ever change her.
After quite some time, Mrs. Dalem seemed to appreciate that I worked hard and was willing to do any chore. We became sort of comrades.
She would let her guard down and say, “Did you know that Rudolf Serkin once asked if I was Jewish?”
She would smile and say, as if no one were listening, “What difference does it matter what anyone is?”
Then she would say, “Let’s make a torte.” We spent many winter nights for years baking, with me as her Guinea pig.
Sometimes, we’d melt the old remnants of candles and make new candles. We threw nothing out. Mrs. Dalem would sit in front of the wood stove when she ran out of firewood and twist newspapers into “logs” and burn them for heat.
“Why not?” she would say. “It’s better than paying for oil!”
* * *
Years went by. The place slowly pared down: first the pool, then the game room.
The rooms became outdated and tired but still very functional and clean. Mrs. Dalem’s eyes were failing.
Oktoberfest gave us new life and hope every year as we’d fill the house. But each year, we’d close the restaurant on another night of the week as people became less inclined to frequent a restaurant with white tablecloths and four-course meals topped with mocha torte or apfelstrudel.
At the end of many of those nights, Mrs. Dalem would despair about how she didn’t make any money, how she didn’t even break even.
“Why do I do this?” she would ask.
I could feel her disappointment and passion for this gem she had cut in the hillside of Vermont.
* * *
More years went by, and Brattleboro was plagued with a drug crisis and housing shortage. Our nightly dinner services became monthly.
Mrs. Dalem was pushing 90. She would say to me that she didn’t feel like getting out of bed, but she said she told herself, “Ursula, you get out of bed and get to work!”
“Here I am,” she’d say with less and less enthusiasm as she was diagnosed with a rare cancer and we started making trips to Dana-Farber twice a year because she agreed to an experimental drug.
The doctors gave her one to five years to live, and in year six, they changed her prognosis to six to 10 years.
I adored this woman for her stamina, her drive, her amazing will to overcome. She broke her leg in a car crash, and I wondered if this would be the end. Once healed, she fell and broke her wrist, and I wondered anew.
Five times, she fell and broke a bone. Five times, I braced myself to mourn, only to have her give me orders and plan the purchase of firewood for the next winter.
On bad days, Mrs. Dalem would say, “I should have died as a baby.” The first time I heard her say it, I was horrified. I thought I had heard everything, but this was new.
She would say it regularly. I would mourn regularly.
She would not sleep well, and I’d show up at noon with a meal and to check to be sure she was getting emails and confirming reservations; the lights would be out, and no one would answer.
I’d climb onto the roof and balcony and bang on her windows, and there would be no answer. I’d mourn right there and imagine finding her, all of 90 pounds, in a heavy wool sweater decorated with edelweiss, or her sweater coat that Mrs. Kirschheimer knitted for her some 30 years ago.
* * *
“Do you remember Mr. and Mrs. Kircheimer?” Mrs. Dalem would ask.
They had come to my third-grade class to teach us about stamp collecting and the importance of learning about foreign lands, and now I served them dinner once a year.
The Kircheimers, like the Steinmeyers and Seitzes and so many other regular customers, were all getting old, and our mailing list was getting shorter and shorter every year. Now, the children and grandchildren who came as small kids were returning to remind Mrs. Dalem of the “old days” when their parents would vacation there in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.
They would leave, and Mrs. Dalem would ask me, “Who were they?”
We’d laugh, and she would remember all of them.
* * *
The Vermont landscape had been speckled with similar chalets and businesses when I was a kid. As I got older, I saw them as iconic and part of the cultural and historical landscape of what has made Vermont what it is.
But the bourgeois class of old Europeans — the demographic who loved these businesses — was slowly dying, and Mrs. Dalem’s European chalet and spa was slowly fading.
In the winter of 1945, Mrs. Dalem and her mother, a graduate of finishing school who played the harpsichord and was proficient in needlepoint, were dropped off by the train in snow-covered West Germany.
Mrs. Dalem said her mother was wearing high heels, and they hitchhiked and rode in wagons full of straw to a friend’s house in Bavaria, where the family once had a vacation home. For nearly a year, they lived in the second story of a cow barn, where her mother died.
Mrs. Dalem, now 93, brought that memory of Bavaria to the U.S. and, with Oskar Dalem, recreated it in West Brattleboro, making what a young German journalist described in 2012 as “more German than anything you’d find in Germany.”
And for 56 years, Dalem’s Chalet never changed, until Sept. 23, when she sold her property to the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust to be renovated into housing units. She has a life tenancy.
She tells me every day that she regrets selling. I remind her that “repurposing” the property will be good for so many people.
But her heart is broken and, as they tear apart her dream, I, of course, mourn again.
* * *
Recently, Mrs. Dalem had a heavy door, unhinged for remodeling, fall on her and knock her down six marble steps, breaking six bones and leaving her with a gash in the back of her head.
She got up, walked to the nearest tenant’s door, and asked for help. Before being taken by the ambulance, she asked faithful tenants to lock up her apartment and turn off the soup.
She is disappointed that she will make six months of lease payments on her new car before she can drive again.
What I’ve learned about mourning is that it is healthy — and also healthy to move on — as we must do for Dalem’s Chalet.
I’m also beginning to think Mrs. Dalem might mourn my passing before I mourn hers, again.