30 November 2011

A tribute to Helmer

Last month I received some terrible news: My dear stylist, Helmer, had passed away suddenly. Helmer + Friends is one of my favorite places to visit in Amsterdam. Finding Helmer in 2004 was like winning the hair stylist lottery. He was a benevolent expert, and every time I left, I was thrilled with my hair. Anyone who’s ever had a haircut knows the rarity of that feeling. Soon after I blogged about his styling skills:

After only one experience with Helmer, I let him do the unthinkable: I told him to just “do whatever he wanted,” given that he didn't chop it off. The experience was terrifying and exhilarating. He cut with a dizzying precision, stopping once in a while to step back and admire his work; perhaps brushing a small strand of hair from my eye before he continued. He did the back and then paused, spinning to the right and then to the left in a whimsical dance. And at the end of the performance, when my hair was dry and perfectly styled, with its new, exciting, look, I was more than happy to pay what was owed and then some.

Besides being incredibly good at his job, Helmer was also very kind. As an expat living far from home, I was always completely comfortable at Helmer + Friends. I can remember many afternoons sitting in my chair, waiting for the highlights to set. I was surrounded by a peaceful, gezellig vibe and a hip space. The music always provided a wonderful ambiance, not to mention the view: I could glance out of the window onto the glorious corner where the Prinsengracht and the Reguliersgracht meet. Behold, Amsterdam in all its glory, and the promise of great hair!

When I first started visiting Helmer, I was 26 years old. Like many 20-somethings I was full of ruminations about how life might turn out. Helmer provided great inspiration. He had spent years running his business together with his wife, Joke. They were happy and content in their interaction. It seemed they had found the secret to happiness. I would often sit in my swivel chair and imagine a similar scenario for myself. What could possibly be better than a life with a devoted companion and a rewarding job? As time went on, we celebrated special moments. His son’s graduation. A refurbished salon. Relaxing holidays. Haircuts often signify special occasions in life. For me? A fresh start after a breakup. My graduation. My wedding. I see pictures from these occasions and have him to thank for the perfect shade of blonde that accompanies my smile.

Though in retrospect it seems incredibly foolish, a few years went by where I didn’t go. I had moved to Leiden and it seemed such a long way to travel, just for hair. Of course I never found anyone that came close to matching Helmer’s skill. Defeated, I finally went back in September of this year. He greeted me like an old friend, three Dutch kisses and all. We did the usual: some talk about life, followed by periods of comfortable silence as he worked his magic. I swore to him I was back for good, and said I hoped he wouldn’t retire for many years. That made him smile.

I had no idea it was the last time I would see him.

One thing I’ll take away from that final visit: I asked him if he ever cut children’s hair, now that I have a son of my own. He said yes, but then pleaded with me, “Oh, but don’t cut his hair, not for a long time. Babies have the softest hair, and wonderful brand-new curls. You should enjoy it as long as you can.” Now, when I look at my son’s sweet hair, I always think of Helmer. His perspective is now intertwined with those curls. The curls stay.

Helmer, you will be greatly missed. But your passion for your life and your work will continue to inspire me, and anyone else who had the privilege to encounter you.


  1. steve waddington12:29

    Lovely sentiments, Janelle :-)

  2. Julie Ward13:23

    It makes me want to cry. What a beautiful tribute to him. I hope his wife will see this.