Sigrid Selbach died recently, a beautiful woman who lived a beautiful life.
Sigrid was one of those very rare people who assumed a powerful significance in the lives of most who knew her. She was a woman of great consequence, not so much “larger than life” as somehow more alive than the rest of us. You would watch her and think, So this is how a person can be.
I met her first in the mid-eighties, as I was starting out. She made an impression, to say the very least. She was a strikingly beautiful and regal woman in resplendent middle age, and I was far from the only man who formed a kind of dazed crush on her. Sigrid was far too perceptive not to have known the impression she made, but she wasn’t at all coquettish. (Maybe a little, at that…) She was classically and vividly “charming” without recourse to winning ways or glibness of wit. Sigrid taught me everything I came to understand about charm, true charm, and sometimes I’d consider its ingredients, and how well she deployed them.
But now I wonder, did she “deploy” them, or was she simply and deeply curious about people? She would affix you with a genial beam of attention as if to say; no one could possibly be as interesting as you are right now. I’d feel a little shy, as though I needed to guard the secret that I wasn’t actually so very interesting. She on the other hand unfolded gradually and easily to reveal the many depths of her nature If she rationed her expressiveness, it didn’t show.
I’m sure she must have been a bright child. She was born In the little Mosel village of Dhron, in a handsome stone house she’d point out to me every time we drove past it. The Mosel valley in those days was a self-contained place which only a few people left behind in search of adventures in the larger world. Sigrid spent her senior year of high-school abroad, in Geneva, Ohio, and she graduated with the class of 1953. She was hungry for bigger horizons, and for the cosmopolitanism that comes with immersions in other cultures. She told me this many times, rather proudly – she was after all a mere girl and thus unusually intrepid. She would escape the confines of the narrow valley, and yet, to her great surprise, she settled back in the Mosel valley after all.
There was, naturally, a man involved, and this man would be her great love and husband - Hans. And it was a great love, the kind that other people envy, the kind it is easy to idealize. (I’m sure they bickered as couples do, but I spent a lot of time with the two of them and I never saw it.) They had four children, all boys, and I often wondered what it must have been like to be the lone female in a household with five males. Considering how the four gentlemen turned out, she seems to have finessed it, but I wince to consider the years when all four boys were teenagers.
I ‘ve said she was “regal”, and many others have used images of royalty to describe her. Yet to call her “queenly” suggests a haughtiness I never saw her display. She was too curious about people and too willing to breech the social surface to get to places of substance. And she was a worldly lady; you could talk about books, theater, travel, peoples’ quirks and angles; in fact you never ran out of things to talk about with Sigrid. Yet it was fluid and easy; you never felt you were Engaged In Weighty Conversation. It came naturally for her, and so it came naturally for you.
She was also a sort of shaman for the Mosel region, which is a place of definite yet intangible cultural assumptions which Sigrid was able to make explicit. It’s a rare thing, to be native to a place yet also to see it with an anthropologist’s remove.. Hans Selbach simply embodied and enacted those elements, and one only had to observe him and then infer appreciatively. Sigrid was the narrator. Most of what I ever learned about that culture I learned by watching and listening to those two.
She had a keen sense of how people should behave. Her powers of observation were sharp enough to throw you back on your heels. I know people who felt auditioned by her and who wondered whether they’d passed. Once I watched as a colleague of mine jumped up to help clear the table following a meal at the house, and I saw Sigrid dart a look to her daughter in law as if to say points for him. She could really take someone’s measure, this lady.
I almost never saw her weary, but one day as we were visiting growers together, poor Sigrid had been heroically maintaining conversations with some very reticent conversationalists – this was a gift of hers – and by the end of the day I could tell the effort had depleted her. My poor friend suffered for her art that day.
Sigrid was also a highly competent wine person. When we visited growers together she tasted along with us, and our impressions were almost always aligned. I like the picture of the three of them (Hans, Sigrid, and Johannes) in the old tasting room. I like all the pictures of Hans and Sigrid together, though they make me sad today. She survived her husband for 18 years. The loss left a chasm, it felt immovable. She did all the “right” things, kept busy, traveled, filled her days, everything they say one should do. But they were each other’s ground-wire, Hans and Sigrid, and that loss was a rending one.
They could party, and were no strangers to uproar. But when they were at work they were serious. The picture of Hans tasting in some grower’s cellar, balancing his little notebook atop a Fuder in order to write his notes, is quite poignant. It was an obligation of honor and respect to attend to a wine grower’s work. It is hard to say these things without lapsing into platitude, but I think each of them trusted the other to know how someone ought to be. I know, because she told me, that she couldn’t believe her luck, to find such a man.
The world is askew with her absence. It is hard to fathom, and it doesn’t seem right. I am missing her innate graciousness, and her lovely buttery voice, and her huge, wise heart. I have always shrunk from the word “wisdom” yet Sigrid was wise if anyone was. Finally what moves me most about her was her abiding gratefulness. She took nothing for granted, and nothing escaped her strict and tender attentions. Everyone who knew her more than superficially was deepened by the knowing.
I am already missing Sigrid, who was my friend, my honest and loving and clear-eyed friend, and who will always be one of the best people whom I have ever known.