ST. PETE BEACH — By the calendar, Ingrid Mayer might not qualify as a local resident. A seasonal visitor, she always returned to her native Germany.
But while she stayed here, she considered St. Pete Beach her home.
She walked Pass-a-Grille Beach every morning, keeping an eye out for seashells. She socialized with a revolving group of German tourists on the beach, then left them for a swim in the Gulf of Mexico.
She bought clothes for her granddaughter in Germany, ate at the Wine Cellar or cooked spaetzle dishes in motel kitchens.
On Nov. 4, two days after arriving for a long-deferred vacation, she died here.
Mrs. Mayer drowned during an afternoon swim despite prompt efforts by other swimmers and emergency personnel to save her. She was 74.
Mrs. Mayer and her husband, Edmund, began their pilgrimages to St. Pete Beach about 15 years ago, not long after she retired as a banker. They happened to spread out a beach blanket near Dieter and Ingrid Grzella, who are also from Germany and overheard the Mayers speaking German.
"I said, 'Why don't you come closer and join us?' " said Dieter Grzella, 76.
The couples quickly bonded, and the Grzellas introduced them to other Germans who meet at the end of 22nd Avenue on the beach. The Meyers began returning every year.
She learned to speak enough English to get around — though was sometimes tongue-tied over a frequent mistake: Americans often confused Mrs. Mayer, who was tall, wore glasses and had short, graying hair, with former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.
Edmund, a burly man, had a habit of walking behind her, which made him look like her bodyguard, the Grzellas said.
"They would say, 'Good morning, Mrs. Reno, I hope everything is fine!' " said Ingrid Grzella, 72. Mrs. Mayer discovered it was easier to just acknowledge the strangers with a brief wave than try to explain. Her friends, who thought the whole thing was hilarious, whispered that Mrs. Reno was trying to keep a low profile, Ingrid Grzella said.
"It happened all the time."
The real Mrs. Mayer was born Ingrid Schmidt in Dortmund, Germany, in 1938. She graduated from college and married Edmund Mayer. They settled in Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart. A women of delicate sensibilities, she enjoyed ballet, the opera and musicals. She made a killer cucumber soup. Especially, she looked forward to St. Pete Beach every November.
She was part of a community here, one people like the Grzellas have ways of keeping alive.
It's easy enough to find other Germans, Dieter Grzella said. They are the ones who bring backpacks and satchels and look a little lost. "We like to say they bring their whole households with them," Grzella said. "They walk the beach loaded."
Sometimes he reaches out to them with a "Moin, moin?" colloquial German for hello.
In recent years the core group has aged, said the Grzellas, who divide their time between Canada and St. Pete Beach. One couple moved to France. A few other people died.
Mrs. Mayer had been away due to her husband's illness. She took long walks with her dachshund, Max. For five years she looked after Edmund. A glass bowl by the window, full of shells, reminded her of Pass-a-Grille, reminded her of the other place she considered home.
Edmund Mayer died in May. His wife decided she could finally take another vacation in St. Pete Beach. She would stay with the Grzellas for a week, then check into a motel through mid-December.
When she arrived Nov. 2, "She said, 'I'm home again,'" Ingrid Grzella said.
The usual group gathered mid to late morning Nov. 4 at the end of 22nd Avenue. At some point, Mrs. Mayer went for a swim. She was a powerful swimmer, the Grzellas said, fluid and smooth in every stroke.
But something went wrong that day. Ingrid Grzella noticed a commotion. A man was bounding toward Mrs. Mayer in the water.
He returned to the shore with her in his arms. St. Pete Beach Fire Rescue arrived within minutes.
"It was super quick," Dieter Grzella said. "They tried everything that was possible."
Mrs. Mayer was pronounced dead at Bayfront Medical Center. The county medical examiner has ruled her death a drowning complicated by heart disease.
It was left to Dieter Grzella to call Mrs. Mayer's only son in Germany.
This week Jurgen Mayer, 47, sat in the Grzellas' kitchen and tried to describe his reaction to the news. "I can't explain it at this moment," he said.
On the kitchen table lay a small white box containing Mrs. Mayer's cremated remains. He will take the box back to Germany and place them in an urn.
He will inter the ashes in a Ludwigsburg cemetery, along with flowers and her seashells.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.