Merelbeke Drawings A Small History in Large Print
Merelbeke Drawings A Small History in Large Print
Roma Publications, Amsterdam
Foreword During the excavations for the new accommodations for the nursing home in Merelbeke, construction workers happened upon a narrow shaft with traces of rotted wood. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be the remnants of a hollowed-out oak trunk, a long-forgotten well from the fifth or sixth century. I can see right away that the well is dry, but there are still stories to be drawn from it. In the months leading up to the relocation, I draw in chalk on the walls of the old nursing home. I draw on the façade, in the hallways and in the residents’ rooms and listen to their stories. And for one month, I draw on the walls of the unit for people with dementia and discover how brittle memories can be. Then the pandemic breaks out and the care facility is shut completely off from the outside world. I continue my drawings in the places where the residents’ stories originated: the houses where they used to live and would so love to return to. There, in their old neighbourhoods, I run into family members and neighbours who bring the past
back to life, as if the hands of time had lost their grip. Once the shutdown measures ease up after a few months, I return to the nursing home. The old building has been almost entirely levelled, as if it never existed, and the seniors have taken up residence in a brand-new building. They face all the changes with great courage, which is not an easy task. And they keep up their spirits with books. Every week, volunteers from the library bring over large print books. I promise Maurice, a nice elderly gentleman who likes to read but complains a lot about the small print, that my story will appear in large print. The ancient well, as tall as a man, has been given a prominent spot in the lobby of the new building. It has no bottom. The reservoir of stories is fathomless.
Chapter 1 Only old people speak the truth Over a few months, the residents will be moving into a new building across the street, just metres away. On the concrete façade of the local service centre, a building that serves as a cafeteria, among other things, and is the only part of the new building already in use, I do a chalk drawing that looks like a flag. I’m at it all morning, watching people come and go. Fifty metres farther up, where the cars are parked, is the locked unit for people with dementia. ‘That’s the timeless hell over there,’ says Maurice, a sprightly old man coming to the cafeteria that afternoon. I see him again later in the day. He wants to know what I am doing on the façade of the ‘timeless hell’. ‘I’m delivering chalk drawings,’ I quip, pointing to the word ‘Deliveries’ on the square direction sign. He shakes his head pityingly and shuffles on. It’s just me again, and I continue drawing until an old woman in a white wool sweater winks at me from behind a window in the dementia unit. That’s a sign that it’s
Chalk drawing on the façade of the newly opened cafeteria in the local service centre
time for me go inside. But to open the door to the wing, you need a code, and I don’t have it. So I go through the main entrance to the nursing home and find myself among residents who may require a bit of care but are otherwise pretty much on their toes. ‘You are welcome to draw on the walls,’ says Nurse Susanne encouragingly. She has taken an interest in me from the beginning. A few weeks ago, when I was wandering around exploring the property, she stopped me and asked whether I might not be ‘the artist’. ‘It’s just that if you want to draw in someone’s room, you’ll have to ask the resident in question,’ she adds. I nod in agreement and stray aimlessly through the big building. This place’s time has definitely come, I think to myself. Although it is still kept neat and tidy, it is outdated. In one small, cosy room there’s a table set for six people. I screw up my courage and start brazenly drawing on the wall next to the large television set without further consideration, waiting for what comes next. One by one the residents trickle in, but nobody says anything to me. They eat their soup out of plastic bowls. I listen to the table noises as I draw, the slurping and the hum of voices. I’m guessing they think I’m a handyman, someone you shouldn’t disturb. Convection heat-
Chalk drawing on the wall of the unit for people with dementia, De Zilverberk
ers blow hot air into the room as the television broadcasts news items for the deaf and hard of hearing. The ceiling is draped in streamers from a party that’s passed. The smell of bouillon wafts to my nose; an extra bowl of soup, which Nurse Susanne set down hastily for me when she realized which room I had landed in, sits steaming on the table. Through the window, I can see the shipyard, and some strong guys wearing white helmets are finishing up the pavement below. One of them cleaves a clinker in two with what looks like a guillotine. Suddenly, a loud voice demands my attention: ‘You do know that we will be moving shortly to the new building across the street?’ The words are those of Maurice, who enters the dining room leaning on his walking stick, as elegant and dignified as at our first meeting at the cafeteria. He lifts up his stick jovially. ‘All that effort you’re putting into the chalk lines will be for naught,’ he says, ‘because this building is going to be bulldozed.’ ‘That doesn’t matter. I’m used to it. I’ve relegated myself to the transient nature of things,’ I reply, dusting the chalk off my hands. It seems as if he doesn’t understand me. ‘I saw you looking out the window. In just a month and a half, an entirely new building will be standing there,’ he continues, not unaffected.
He offers his table companions excuses for being so late to lunch. ‘We are dreading the move,’ he says on behalf of them all, as he lays a cotton napkin on his lap. A frown of concern appears on his forehead: ‘They’re going to lock us up in there; you wait and see.’ Nurse Susanna bends consolingly over him and says loud and clear, ‘May I serve the table beer now, sir?’ His frown turns into a smile. Two cranes outside are moving prefabricated concrete slabs around as if they were feathers. From behind me comes the clink of cutlery in the soup bowls. ‘Hurry up. Otherwise, your soup will get cold,’ I hear Maurice say to me. I take a seat at the table. Across from me sits a woman with pinnedup grey curls, bobbing her head. Her mouth is half open. A balding man with a bib around his neck looks searchingly ahead, a puddle of spilled soup on his plate. The two women seated next to him are both peering at me. ‘These ladies are Mia and Olga,’ says Maurice by way of introduction. ‘Mia has a speech impediment and hasn’t been here long. She used to be very musical.’ A smile slides over Mia’s face. She leans forward as if to say something but sinks back into her chair. ‘She shares a room with Olga, the woman in the white wool sweater,’ he continues. It’s
only then that I see that she’s the woman from the dementia wing who winked at me through the window. I apologize for not recognizing her right off. She doesn’t seem bothered; she apparently doesn’t remember who I am either. ‘She’s very forgetful and occasionally takes an outing to the unit for people with dementia,’ Maurice explains. I would like to accompany her on that outing sometime, I think to myself. A small, energetic woman with a highpitched voice introduces herself. ‘I’m Maria. They like to call me Maria Teresa, just for fun, but I’m not here for fun,’ she says. She sizes me up with some reserve. She may be getting on in years, but she looks like the youngest of the group. ‘You have an illustrious nickname,’ I say, speaking freely and wondering what might be wrong with her. She has plenty of spunk from the looks of it. Why is she staying here? Why does Maurice ‘live’ here? And Mia and Olga? They all appear, on the face of it, to still be going strong. Would Maurice include the woman with the pinned-up curls and the balding man with the bib in his round of introductions? No, apparently. I look around the table a bit anxiously. Not everyone makes eye contact, which means it is difficult for me to gauge the situation. It is also
my first day at the nursing home. All eyes are upon me. What is this young man doing in our midst? the residents seem to be wondering. I take a sip of my cold soup. ‘My name is Bart and I am looking for suitable places for chalk drawings,’ I start off. It’s rather abrupt, and what I say might deviate from their reality, but I cannot sum up my reason for being here any more honestly or succinctly than that. ‘Make the most of it,’ Maurice says out of nowhere. I realize that one can say just about anything here and none of it would sound too crazy. ‘Make the most’, what made him think of that? What could I make the most of at this moment? He looks at me with slightly squinting eyes. Only children and old people speak the truth, I think to myself... and drunkards, of course, though he certainly doesn’t fall into that last category, despite the glass of Piedboeuf that has appeared on the table right in front of him. He sips the frothy beer slowly, an expectant look on his face; a white moustache has formed above his mouth. He is old of life and limb but somewhere inside lurks a child. The idea that an elderly rogue with a frothy moustache is seated across from me makes me happy. Is this the right time to ask if I can draw on the wall in his room? Instead, I blurt out, ‘I’ll
make the most of it.’ ‘Life is a sigh,’ he replies promptly and looks at me meaningfully. ‘You have to catch hold of life on the fly.’ It’s like a bunch of old men talking amongst themselves. His words rouse Olga out of her stupor. She turns to me and asks sweetly in a sleepy voice, ‘Who are you exactly, if I may ask?’
Elastic ladies Maurice says I can draw on the wall in his room; he welcomes the company. ‘It’s all going to be bulldozed anyway,’ he grumbles for the umpteenth time. His room is a long, narrow chute measuring three by seven metres. Despite having almost no room to turn around, I start on a wall-sized drawing. I am happy to be working in someone’s living space again, because it’s far and away the most interesting place for someone who wants to draw close to the people. Maurice talks a mile a minute about his wife, Marieleintje, who for the past year has been living in the unit for people with dementia, De Zilverberk – the timeless hell, as he insists on calling it. ‘I mean it as a joke, to lighten the load, a bit of gallows humour,’ he says. ‘They make the best of it there… and that is not easy.’ ‘Sixty-three years ago I kidnapped Marieleintje on the bike,’ he confides in me with a mischievous smile. ‘I was stationed as a radio operator in Munte, a village about four kilometres from here. We were married shortly after that.’ Displayed on the chest of drawers are framed black-and-white photos of the newly married couple. In one of them Marieleintje poses impudently in the arms of her soldier. The couple
face their new life with a laugh on their lips: in the foreground the hastily dropped bicycle from the kidnapping story; in the background a bunker with a craggy concrete exterior. ‘Marieleintje did gymnastics at Olympia her whole life,’ Maurice continues. ‘That used to be the only sport for girls in Merelbeke. She can still easily swing her legs up onto the table. Despite her age, she remains a gymnast. That’s true, by the way, of the entire crew here; they all used to go to Olympia. Every one of them is an elastic lady.’ A proud smile appears on his face. Make the most of it, I want to say, but it makes no sense and I swallow my words. Elastic… I chuckle inside, because I’m completely stiff from all the manoeuvring I have to do to avoid knocking over the photo frames. Maurice pulls out a magnifying glass and starts solving a crossword puzzle. ‘Word games are good for firing up the old grey matter, but the letters get smaller every year,’ he grouses. Two volunteers bring him new books every week too. They come through pushing a metal cart, a sort of mini-library. It contains something for everybody, but the large print books are the most in demand. Maurice never misses a round; he is an avid reader. Maurice leaves his room to take a stroll. He
pauses in the doorway and looks thoughtfully at the chalk lines on the wall. ‘I don’t understand what exactly you are doing, but maybe I shouldn’t try,’ he muses. ‘How did you end up choosing such a profession? I mean, how did you know such a profession existed? Did it run in the family?’ ‘I come from a long line of storytellers,’ I say, ‘but to be able to tell something, you have to listen first. It would be a bit strange if I were to stand here doing nothing, taking in the surroundings with my arms crossed. I like to draw on walls and chalk has something gentle about it. It also has to do with impermanence. I often draw outside, and those drawings disappear after a while. And it evokes memories of childhood. Should we visit your wife together sometime?’ I propose offhand. Maybe I can keep drawing in the unit for people with dementia, I secretly hope.
Chalk drawing in Maurice’s room in the old nursing home
We are all members of the same tribe Mia and Olga share a room diagonally across from Maurice. For the past few days, we have been eating lunch together in the communal room and have become somewhat accustomed to one another. Olga is knitting a scarf and it gives her a start when I open the door. ‘Be careful not to drop a stitch,’ I tease her. Mia is lying down on the bed, and I sit down next to her. ‘I wish I could sing but I just can’t anymore,’ she says softly. She had examined the drawing over at Maurice’s and declared it to be art with a capital A. When her daughter Sabina was visiting the day before, she mentioned that her mother used to go to museums and had even done an art history course. ‘Papa was a stainedglass artist and mama sang a lot. She was the little bird in our house,’ she says. It doesn’t take much convincing to receive Mia’s permission to do a wall drawing in her room. I place my ladder against the wall and draw the first horizontal line about six centimetres beneath the ceiling. The closely stacked lines go from left to right and top to bottom, as if I am writing a story. A chalk plane emerges that covers the length of the wall, just like in Maurice’s room.
Chalk drawing in Mia and Olga’s room in the old nursing home
To prevent the falling chalk dust from getting everywhere, I drape a sheet over Mia’s belongings. Olga does not like all my moving back and forth and repositioning of the ladder. Her knitting rests on her lap, and she looks at me inquiringly. ‘It is so strange that you know my name but I don’t know yours,’ Olga muses aloud. She speaks softly and tentatively. ‘Bart is my name,’ I say, and spell it out to help her a bit, ‘B A R T.’ ‘Might you be family?’ she asks hopefully. I shake my head, sorry to disappoint her. ‘We are very distant family, though,’ I reassure her, ‘all members of the same tribe.’ ‘Olga,’ I ask, ‘would you mind if the drawing from Mia’s half of the room were to carry over onto your half?’ I indicate with my hands which part of the wall I have in mind. ‘Then I would draw from the curtain to the frames.’ ‘But is that a good idea?’ she interrupts me critically. ‘The bottom chalk lines are already too much.’ She points to Mia’s side of the room. ‘Those bottom lines are already too much,’ she repeats, completely on point and a bit bitingly. ‘I would remove them before you go any further.’ The chalk plane on Mia’s side of the room is so large it seems jammed between the wall and the curtain rail that separates the two halves of the room. I continued working on it too long and
didn’t check it often enough; it became too ‘fat’. If I continue drawing on Olga’s part of the wall, the plane will get longer, stretched out, and thus come back into proportion. ‘If he removes lines, it’s a waste of all the work he’s put into it,’ Mia remarks sharply. A weekend passes before I realize I made a mistake. Maybe I was wrong to ignore Olga’s criticism: ‘The bottom chalk lines are already too much.’ I return to the two ladies’ room to make it right. Feeling regretful, I knock on the door. There is no answer and when I enter anyway, I nearly jump out of my skin. Mia is lying stock-still in her bed; I draw a breath of relief when I see the blanket over her chest moving slowly up and down. But Olga is nowhere to be seen and the frames have been removed from the wall. Her bed is made up, with clean, starched sheets at the foot of it. Her unfinished knitting project was left behind, lifeless, on the bedside table. I don’t dare wake Mia up to ask what has happened to Olga, so I hurry off to the front desk. It’s a buzz of activity there, with staff, residents and visitors all happening by. Moving boxes fill the hallway. It’s hard to break through it all to ask where Olga is. Receptionist Jacqueline is being asked too many questions at once. She
does manage to convey, telephone hanging from her ear, that Olga is still alive, thankfully, but her whereabouts are unknown. When she hangs up, she goes on to say that people generally spend one-and-a-half to two years in the nursing home; this is their final stop. I look around, a bit panicky, trying to imagine that everyone I see would be dead within two years. I can’t do it, though; it just doesn’t register. We talk some more about the agitation among the residents because of the pending move. ‘Couples now sharing a room will be given separate rooms in the new building,’ Jacqueline says casually. I run into Maria Teresa in the hallway. She heard that I drew in Maurice’s room and thinks such a modification would work in her room too. The wall there is practically white, so white chalk lines will be barely visible on it, but I start anyway. Then, toward the end of the day, the low-slanting sunlight sweeps across the drawing. ‘Look how the sun brings out the drawing!’ I say, delighted, pointing out the natural phenomenon to Maria Teresa. ‘It’s as if it comes to life in the light.’ She looks at me like I’m off my rocker. To make matters worse, I knock a lamp with a stoneware base off the bedside table. I awkwardly show her the three shards, one of
which is still attached to the power cord. The lamp turns out to be an heirloom, one of the few remaining possessions from the family home. I solemnly promise that I will glue it back together. ‘As far as I’m concerned, once you have repaired the lamp, you can put it in the reminiscence room. That’s where it will end up anyway,’ she says cynically as I’m closing the door behind me. I check in with Jacqueline to find out where the reminiscence room is. It turns out to be in the unit for people with dementia, where I have been so eager to go. ‘When you were drawing here at the front desk before, I was very rushed,’ she says as she sits down. ‘Now I have more time. A reminiscence is a thought about an experience from the past that resembles a current perception. It is a facet of human memory and recollection,’ she explains.
Maria’s room in the old nursing home
Front desk in the old nursing home
Chapter 2 The locked unit A sticker hanging next to the combination lock at the entrance to the locked unit reads ‘9 8 2 0 in reverse’. The 9820 refers to the postal code for Merelbeke. The twist lies in reversing the order of the numbers. Maurice had already divulged how the code could be cracked. I carefully place the stoneware shards on the windowsill to free up my hands: one for typing in the code, the other to open the door. 0 2 8 9. Even for someone who does not have dementia, typing in a series of numbers in reverse takes alertness. Despite having proven which category I belong to by typing in the right combination, I enter the unit with hesitation. If one of the clients here starts acting up, things can get pretty explosive, Maurice had warned. The door has just locked behind me when a wiry old man blocks my passage. His pants are falling down and he has grey hairs sticking straight up around the crown of his head, making him look a bit like the professor in the 1980s
film Back to the Future. He wants to go out but I am in his way. He says pensively, ‘They have stuck me in here.’ ‘Marcelleke, let the gentleman by,’ says a gruff man’s voice behind him. The old man obediently allows me to pass and shambles off, lost in thought. ‘We have to keep an eye on him; he managed to slip out once already… By the way, I’m Donald – not the Donald calling the shots at the White House but Donald of the technical services.’ He shakes my hand forcefully. When I announce to him what I am doing here, he calls me, with exaggerated articulation, ‘M i s t e r A r t i s t’. ‘Did he slip out?’ I repeat Donald’s words. ‘We don’t know how Marcelleke got out… but he walked to his former home in Merelbeke, I mean, shuffled. It took quite a crew to get him out of that house. There was even a dog in the yard,’ Donald replies. He snickers at the thought of the lengths Marcelleke must have gone to in order to get past the dog in one piece. The foyer of the dementia unit has a black granite memorial stone affixed to the wall. And the quote carved into the granite indicates that this is not the most light-hearted of places. It reads:
T H E WA R MT H OF F R I EN DSH I P BR E A K S T H E SIL ENCE OF YOU R L ON EL I N E S S T H E L IGH T OF L OV E DR I V E S OU T TH E DA R K N E S S I N YOU R SPI R IT ‘Everyone has read the quote at some point, but no one knows it by heart,’ says a nurse when she sees me standing in front of the tablet. Her name is Ingrid, and when I ask if I may draw something on the stone, she says, ‘There’s nobody stopping you.’ I stretch vertical chalk lines across the width of the quote. The chalk adheres poorly to the smooth, polished surface, giving the lines a smudged look. After hours of drawing I stand a few metres back to have a look. It feels like I’m wrenching myself from a dark power. A thin, diffuse layer of chalk covers the letters, but the quote is still legible. I’ve decided to leave the right side of the stone, where no letters are carved, free of drawing so as not to deny the ‘darkness’. I stop dead in my tracks. Could that be Olga at the end of the hallway, Mia’s roommate who I thought might have died? I see her from the
back; she’s wearing the same white wool sweater. Unsure whether I should be happy or sad, I call out, ‘OLGA!’ My voice rings through the hall. And, yes, it’s her! She responds to her name and turns around. Impulsively, I start waving. Oh, Olga, I’m so happy to see you, as if you’ve risen from the dead, I want to shout. She shambles my way with an inquisitive look. We are reunited, standing in front of the black stone. ‘Who are you exactly?’ she asks, just as hopefully as a few weeks ago. She looks at the shards in my hand. ‘Might you be family?’ ‘Yes, we are very distant family, members of the same tribe,’ I want to say, but instead I shake my head. Just days ago, in the room with Mia, I was still able to laugh at Olga’s ‘stumbling in the dark’. Now I get a deep sense of the emptiness and the loneliness associated with it. I think about the mistake I made by continuing the drawing onto her part of the room. But she probably doesn’t remember any of it. Olga stands next to me like a fragile little doll, and I’m overwhelmed by a deep, fundamental feeling of compassion. What awaits her in this ‘timeless hell’? If it were at all possible, I would spare her from the irreversible process of loneliness and darkness. The secret code – reversing the order of the Merelbeke postal code
Chalk drawing on the granite tablet in the foyer of the old building for people with dementia
– the joke of the century, as Maurice sometimes called the combination, suddenly seems very dark and sinister to me. I think about the loose ends of Olga’s knitting project that I had found lying on her bedside table a few days ago. The whole nursing home seems littered with fallen stitches, with histories that no longer have a beginning or an end and dissolve into nothingness, yet nevertheless still exist. It is late in the day by the time the drawing is finished. Nurse Ingrid holds Olga’s arm and guides her to her room. ‘You haven’t yet done the black part,’ Olga says, examining the result as she passes by. ‘I don’t want to draw completely over the stone,’ I explain. ‘It’s a curtain that hasn’t quite been drawn shut,’ she says assertively. ‘The chalk doesn’t adhere well to the stone,’ I tell her. ‘The surface is too smooth. If I draw the lines on too heavily, I just end up scraping the chalk off and there’s barely anything to see.’ Ingrid laughs at that and says, ‘The artist has made the stone weightless.’ Olga looks at me full of admiration and then the two continue on their way. The reminiscence room is diagonally across from the tablet. It is a small sitting room furnished with household goods meant to evoke
memories of the past. I press the shards of the lamp back together and, surprisingly, they don’t fall apart; it’s as if the stoneware sticks together on its own. I gingerly place the seemingly whole lamp on a wooden table. Sitting in an armchair in the corner of the room, I look at the still life on the table and am at peace, as if everything has fallen neatly into place. I take a few deep breaths. ‘You’re a good-lookin’ fella.’ A female voice with a strong Merelbeke accent startles me out of my reverie, and I see a small, thickset woman standing in the doorway, wearing jeans and a grey wool sweater. My guess is she’s not yet seventy. ‘Always fine to see a good-lookin’ fella,’ she continues imperturbably, looking at me as if I had descended to earth from the realm of the gods. Her words don’t come across as insincere; they actually sound straight from the heart. She stares at me with a waggish look. I chuckle and am somehow flattered; I like her immediately. As soon as she perceives my laugh, though, a grimace appears on her face. ‘You’re a big calf, you idiot… Know what they should do with you? They should throw you in the slammer!’ she adds viciously. Then she turns around in a huff and trudges off as if she couldn’t care less about my fate. ‘So there you are,’ I proclaim when I run in-
to Maurice in the communal living room of the locked unit. ‘Marieleintje is having a bad day,’ he mutters, drumming his fingers on the table. His wife is sitting next to him, staring out into space like an icy sovereign, like she were no longer part of this world. He holds her hand tenderly and looks at me, visibly ill-at-ease. Lying next to him are a half-finished crossword puzzle and a ballpoint pen. The scribbles in the margins are an indication that he, too, was not in his best form. I sit down next to the couple. On the opposite side of the table, Nurse Ingrid wipes the corners of a man’s mouth; he looks to be in his late fifties and stares stoically ahead. He has closely cropped hair and a wellcared-for, intelligent appearance. You might take him for a visitor if he weren’t strapped into a wheelchair and emitting incoherent sounds. Ingrid is wearing a face mask, the only nurse to do so. ‘I think wearing a mask is going to be required soon,’ she maintains. She has an engaging personality and takes hygiene seriously. ‘He was a professor at a university, handsome man; such a shame, huh,’ she says, throwing the bib into the rubbish bin. Three chairs away, a woman with a doll’s face looks at me bewitchingly. ‘My name is Anna,’ she says in perfect English, her voice a bit
creaky. She’s petting a plush cat. ‘We call her Miss America because she lived in California for a long time,’ Ingrid tells me. ‘She was born in Merelbeke, on Heidestraat, weren’t you, Anna?’ ‘I was a princess,’ Anna says, giggling, switching back to Flemish. ‘She followed her aunt to America as a young woman and hooked herself a husband, didn’t you, Anna?’ Ingrid continues. ‘I had a wonderful life in America,’ the old woman says in assent. ‘She worked at an orphanage, and because she and her husband couldn’t have children, she adopted a girl,’ Ingrid fills in the details. Anna looks full of vitality and attentive. ‘Is it a sweet cat?’ I enquire. ‘I adopted her; she’s a rascal,’ she answers with sparkling eyes, in a mixture of English and Flemish. The man in the wheelchair has been emitting sounds the whole time, a secret code presumably no mortal can decipher. ‘You have to reverse the order of what he says,’ I joke to Maurice, who looks at me in surprise and grabs the crossword puzzle. When I tell them that I apparently belong in the ‘slammer’, Maurice and Ingrid laugh at me. ‘Classic Josefina. She hands out loving caresses as easily as she doles out harsh punishments. She is our thundercloud as well as our guardian angel. Or are you our guardian angel?’ Ingrid asks, turning toward Anna, who is completely
absorbed in caring for her adopted cuddly cat. ‘I was a princess,’ Anna says again. Ingrid gives Anna a pat on the head. ‘We are going to need guardian angels,’ she asserts. As I am drawing, I occasionally glance into the dining room and notice that one of the women routinely walks over to the man in the wheelchair and puts his hand under her sweater, then passionately rubs it back and forth over her breasts. The man just sits there, unfazed, as if it has nothing to do with him. Nobody seems to be bothered much by this behaviour, not even Ingrid, though she’s the only one to take action, leading the woman circumspectly away. This scene plays itself out again and again throughout the day. ‘It is a thorny issue,’ Ingrid confides in me when I ask her about the incident at the end of the day. ‘It probably doesn’t do anything for him, but it is not nice for his wife. There was another couple like that before; the two of them were at it the whole day long. The problem was that each of their families was against the amorous groping. But what were we supposed to do, play police officer all day? So, we called in a psychologist and the family finally accepted it. It’s not like they were being unfaithful… I mean… love can happen at any age, right, and
any time – old age and dementia can’t stand in its way. But I am a proponent of having couples separated at night in the new building. Besides being sweet to one another, they can also be downright ugly; take it from me.’
A box full of sadness and a basket of jokes Josefa, the woman in whom love and fury are entwined, appears back on the scene. I am curious about what she has in store for me this time. With her eyes drawn to malevolent slits, she strolls, apparently nonchalantly, in my direction. I stop drawing and wait. ‘You know what you are?’ she says intimidatingly, right up in my face, same spark in her eyes as during our first encounter in the reminiscence room. I hold my breath… She says, ‘You are the very, very sweetest person in the whole wide world.’ ‘So I don’t have to go to prison anymore?’ I ask, with feigned relief. She wisely leaves the answer unsaid. In high spirits, she doles out friendly winks to Maurice and the other listeners. Maurice gives a thumbs up. Josefa takes a bow, as if at the height of popularity. Maurice bursts out laughing. I even detect a smile on the face of the man in the wheelchair, or am I just imagining it? The way we are all sitting here together does have something comical about it. It makes me happy and sad at the same time. The locked unit is a basket of jokes and a box of sadness.
I don’t know what ineffable urge draws me to the unit for people with dementia. It has to do with a coming to rest, a withdrawal from a world that keeps spinning on. Of course, in this case, COVID is raging through the outside world… At first, the news about an imminent pandemic trickles in as if it will never touch us. So the announcement that the unit is going to be closed off from the outside world hits like a bolt out of the blue. All of the residents are suddenly in mortal danger, and the nursing staff is thrown into confusion. The poor residents don’t understand what is happening: Anna sits frightened in her chair, and Marcelleke paces to and fro, getting in everybody’s way. On television, the newly minted prime minister of Belgium announces a general lockdown starting the next day. On the last day I’m able to draw in the nursing home, I draw like the devil’s on my heels.
The reminiscence room in the dementia unit of the old De Zilverberk nursing home
Chalk drawing in the day room of the dementia unit of the old De Zilverberk nursing home
The day room in the dementia unit of the old nursing home
Chalk drawings on the concrete walls near the delivery entrance
Chapter 3 Places from the past The entire care facility is on lockdown because of the coronavirus; you can only walk around the outside of the building now. I amble the grounds with my heart in my mouth. Occasionally, a resident’s face appears behind a closed window. I come up with the idea of continuing the drawing outside, in a forgotten corner. On one concrete wall I make a drawing that was actually intended for the hallway of the locked unit. The property is deserted. Nobody comes to see what I’m doing; the silence is deafening. The desolation, the transience of the chalk and the uncertainty about how long the lockdown might last all overlap. The thinly chalked plane seems like a diffuse world, in contrast to the prominent presence of the heavily applied plane. I boost my spirits by remembering Josefa’s encouraging words about me being the sweetest person in the world. The residents all have a past anchored in Merelbeke, I muse. I think of Mia, who used to
sing and has now lost her voice. When I was drawing on her wall, her daughter Sabina came to visit. Sabina lives with her family in her parents’ house, on the edges of Merelbeke, not far from the care facility. I think of Maurice, who was a radio operator at the base in Munte, just four kilometres away. I think of Marcelleke, who despite his dementia, was able to break out and unexplainably find his way back to his former residence. ‘Do you know, perhaps, where Marcelleke used to live?’ I ask Donald when he comes to check on how I’m faring in this remote corner of the property. I venture into Merelbeke with chalk and ruler in search of the places the residents would talk about the whole time I was with them, the places they longed to return to. I recognize a few locations instantly from the framed photos hanging in their rooms or standing on their bedside tables. Marcelleke’s former house, which he built himself in the nineties, is in a typical Flemish subdivision – a low-traffic zone measuring a few square kilometres. It’s filled with free-standing houses and their wide drives. Immaculate lawns grace the front gardens and the spacious back gardens are hidden from view by a wall, fence or thick hedge of conifers. The new owner, Kar-
el, is a down-to-earth young chap who’s busy rebuilding the staircase. ‘A “marcelleke” is actually a sleeveless undershirt. You see lots of older men wearing one on summer days without a shirt over it. I never met Marcelleke in person. I’ve only gotten to know him through his house, how he put it all together,’ he explains. Janine, who lives diagonally across from Karel, used to have a clothing boutique at her house. She has nothing but praise for Marcelleke. ‘He always kept an eye on things and was constantly making jokes,’ she recalls. ‘We had an alarm bell under the counter at the store that was connected to his house. I remember once when the alarm went off, he immediately rushed over. A client’s daughter had pushed the button while she was playing; he and I used to laugh a lot about it afterward. He was a true pub man and even became the billiards champion in Merelbeke. And his garden was like stitchwork. He was always there for us, but it seemed as if he felt somehow inferior in the neighbourhood. He was a very welcome guest, but I think he also suffered a lot. One day, he found all the birds in his aviary with their necks wrung.’ Janine well remembers the day that Marcelleke broke out of the nursing home. ‘Suddenly, there he was again, as if time had stood still.
It was painful to watch them drag him off. He resisted mightily. If you ask me, anyway, his dementia diagnosis was too severe. Otherwise, how could he have been able to get to his former house without help?’ she says. I walk to the military base in Munte where Maurice was stationed in the fifties and find seven bunkers still there from the Second World War. On one of the casemates, I do the same drawing I did on the wall of Maurice’s room. The craggy concrete relief resists being drawn on; every centimetre is a battle. A retired farmer on a shiny racing bike shows up out of nowhere. ‘Are you furrowing a field?’ he asks. I learn that the army telegraph service operated here starting in 1957, but the name Maurice doesn’t ring any bells. The bicycle is from his years as a professional cyclist terrorizing the roads. He made it to the top of the field, becoming cyclo-cross national champion in the early sixties. I visit Sabina, who is living in her mother’s bungalow. ‘Mama is very pleased with the drawing you did on her room wall,’ she says. Upon entering, I am immediately struck by the many stained-glass windows in the living room and a nineteenth-century statue standing on a plinth mounted to the front of the black painted chimney. Black bricks are the ideal substrate for
Marcelleke’s former home, a stone’s throw away from the nursing home
Chalk drawing on Marcelleke’s old house
Old bunker on the military base in Munte where Maurice once worked as a radio operator
Chalk drawing on the bunker in Munte
white chalk. I get right to work. I leave open a space in the drawing as a nod to the statue, to the past, to Mia’s voice in the house. Since my nose is practically pressed up to the wall while I am drawing and I cannot easily step back from it, I experience the drawing primarily in detail. Sabina reminisces about the past. ‘My mother was always singing; she just plucked happiness out of thin air. It is most regrettable that we have been unable to visit her because of the coronavirus,’ she says. I draw while she talks. The sun is shining and the birds are chirping. ‘What you do is like moving house in reverse,’ she concludes all of a sudden. ‘Mama will be moving to the new building soon and you are moving a drawing into her past. She wanted to take the statue standing in the garden with her to the nursing home, but that was simply impossible.’ The item in question is a fertility statue standing on a heavy brick socle in the front garden, a fragment of Mia’s past life. ‘As children, we used to sometimes stand behind it and stick our heads out over the top, so that you looked petrified and heavily pregnant,’ Sabina says with a laugh. ‘I would like to draw on the statue,’ I say. ‘It would be nice to surprise Mama with that,’ Sabina replies. I start on the enormous job that afternoon,
draping the statue in a raiment of blue chalk lines. ‘Why blue?’ Sabina asks. I point upwards to the steel-blue heavens Mia plucked her happiness from. ‘It’s going to rain tonight; the drawing will soon wash off the statue,’ she predicts. ‘Unless we wrap the statue,’ I say. ‘Completely protected from the outside world is the only way to survive these corona times, which is exactly what is happening with Mama right now,’ she declares.
Living room of the house Mia formerly lived in, with stained-glass windows made by her husband, a stained-glass artist
The statue in the garden of Mia’s former home
Wrapped statue with chalk drawing in Mia’s garden
Anna’s cat Little is known about the environment Anna grew up in. On Heidestraat, where a castle once stood, there is now a branch of the school of veterinary medicine: a gloomy grey university building wedged between an entrance to the E40 motorway and the canal ring around Merelbeke. The campus is bordered by old broadleaved trees that rustle in the wind. I was told that Anna grew up at 19 Heidestraat, but the castle was at 21. It was unexpectedly demolished in the autumn of 2017. The address of the school is 17 Heidestraat. Anna’s childhood home has been erased. She presumably did not live in the castle but next door, a place now filled with bushes. As the neighbour girl, she would have looked out over the estate and played in the shadow of the castle and the swaying trees. That’s why they call her ‘princess’. Inside the faculty building, behind a glass cabinet door, is a stuffed cat. ‘That is her favourite animal,’ I say to Francis, a young researcher wearing a lab coat. He tells me that the stuffed animal’s natural habitat was the Mongolian Steppes and not Merelbeke. That cat’s just a simple house cat, I think to myself. It crept around the castle on its felt feet… If it wasn’t
this cat, then perhaps it was another one, a forefather or a descendant; we are all members of the same tribe. I try to force a story out of it but fail. Maybe the cat is exactly where it belongs, a silent witness to Anna’s putative noble heritage, I muse as I head homeward.
Chapter 4 The new nursing home When I return to the nursing home after months of being away, the old building is almost entirely gone. It feels peculiar to think about my chalk drawings being among the rubble. The new building can be glimpsed behind piles of twisted steel and broken concrete. The main entrance is now a glass front with a door that opens automatically. The ground is covered in sand, which crunches under my shoes as if I’m walking through a beach café. The nursing staff is unrecognizable behind their face masks, and the large memorial granite stone is nowhere in sight. Has the heavyweight not been included in the move? I wonder. ‘Ingrid?’ I ask hopefully of a nurse walking in front of me. ‘I’m not Ingrid; I’m Jan,’ a deep voice answers. ‘Shouldn’t you be wearing a face mask?’ he then asks. ‘Do you know which room Anna is in?’ I inquire, as I fish a scarf out of my bag and tie it around my mouth. Disguised as a bank robber, I follow him. We take the elevator to the
fourth floor. ‘Did anyone die?’ I ask casually. ‘No deaths; some people got sick. We’re very worried,’ he says. The new elevator door swishes open. Everything is so fast. The first person I recognize is the university professor, strapped to his wheelchair and staring stoically ahead as always. Then I see Olga walking around in confusion, still holding an unfinished knitting project in her hands; she doesn’t seem to notice my presence. Marcelleke is standing in the middle of the common room looking disoriented. As soon as he notices me, he shuffles pensively off. It is as if time has stood still. I see Maurice’s crossword puzzle on the shelf. ‘Word games are good for firing up the old grey matter, but the letters get smaller every year,’ I remember him grumbling. How did the move go for him? There, in a corner of the room, is Anna, staring into the great unknown. She looks more fragile and smaller than before. I walk up to her and say, ‘Hello, little princess.’ She looks at me with watery eyes, eyes without a hint of recollection but plenty of kindness. Instead of telling her that I visited the castle and garden on Heidestraat, I ask, ‘Where is the cat?’ She mumbles something incomprehensible. ‘Wait a minute,’ I say, and I grab one of the plush cats from the
windowsill and lay it on her lap. Her whole being comes to life; she passionately strokes the critter and murmurs pet names to it. ‘Will you take good care of it?’ I ask. She nods vehemently and presses the cat close to her. Suddenly, she looks me straight in the eyes and says in English in a crystal-clear voice, as if teleported to a distant past, to America, where she got married and adopted a girl, ‘I will adopt her.’ A few days later I receive the sad news that she has died. ‘It wasn’t necessarily from the coronavirus,’ says Nurse Ingrid, as if that matters, ‘but it’s still a shock.’ ‘She will be missed,’ I say. ‘She was the apple of our eye, our mascot,’ she says, shedding a tear. That same week, a second lockdown is instituted. Care facilities throughout the country are being hit hard by illness and deaths. Despite the strict rules, I receive permission to draw in the building in the places where the residents are not yet allowed. The lightness with which I embarked on this endeavour months ago has made way for an unreal atmosphere.
Coloured chalk The new building smells of disinfectant. And there’s an ominous silence. The residents have to stay in their rooms and are not allowed visitors under any circumstances. The nursing staff appears to be harried and is less approachable than when the units were still open. Feeling somewhat disconsolate, I start drawing on the walls. I take my inspiration from the drawings I made outside the nursing home during the lockdown. I explain my process to Ingrid, ‘I decided to recreate the drawing I did in Mia’s house on the black painted chimney, but then above your front desk. Details from the drawing I did on Marcelleke’s house will recur in all of the drawings I do in the new care home. The drawings reminisce.’ R e m i n i s c e… I let the meaning of the word soak in: to recollect an experience from the past that resembles a current perception. That is what my drawings do. Because of all the sadness associated with the ongoing pandemic, I decide to use happy colours. The walls are coloured blue, green, yellow, red, purple, orange and brown, though the last colour earns me reprimands from residents and staff alike. The general opinion is
that it is too dark, too dull, too old-fashioned. ‘We are already surrounded by enough sombreness, aging and death,’ Ingrid complains. ‘The residents are old and most of them die here,’ I reply, ‘but you’ll never hear me say they led colourless lives.’ On the contrary, whether their histories are writ large or small, and I think of the ladies of elastic, they all stem from Olympia. Old age is still full of life. But it’s easy for me to talk, I realize, at 48 years old. In the eyes of many of the residents, I’m a baby, despite my grey hair. As the days grow longer, I receive more and more distressing reports. The nurses tell me that Josefa has died of COVID-19. Her death came as a tremendous blow for the staff. If there were anyone who knew how to shake things up it was her. Mia has also passed, though her demise had nothing to do with the pandemic. I offer my condolences to her daughter Sabina and we wipe away a tear. Marieleintje, Maurice’s wife, left this world in peace and tranquillity. He was devastated and became sick shortly afterward. He’s currently in intensive care but is fortunately on the mend, Ingrid tells me. ‘Marcelleke is holding his own; time has no hold on him,’ she adds consolingly. In the evening hours, I conjure up the res-
idents and bring the dead to life. I write about Anna, who cared for her plush cat and daydreamed about California, where she lived for twenty years. I write about Marcelleke, who miraculously managed to find his old house. I give a voice to people I met during my explorations through Merelbeke. I take heart from Josefa’s words of adoration as I was drawing and laugh when I remember the diametrically opposed curses I was subjected to.
Chalk drawings in the foyer of the new local service centre
Chalk drawing in the foyer with a view of the cafeteria in the new local service centre
Chalk drawings in the cafeteria of the new local service centre
Chalk drawing in the stairwell of the new local service centre
Chalk drawing in the entrance to the new day-care centre
Chalk drawings in the cafeteria of the new nursing home
Epilogue Consolation The library in Merelbeke provides the residents with books several times a week during the lockdowns – and in the period afterwards. Detective, adventure, romance and regional novels are rolled into the building on a metal cart by two volunteers. This steady influx of reading material does seem to help Maurice stand up straighter. He is an avid consumer of the large print books; he leaves the books with small print behind on the cart. Maurice is grieving the loss of his wife, but he cheers up when I tell him about drawing on one of the bunkers in Munte, the place where he spent his working life as a radio operator and married Marieleintje. ‘If only you had drawn that at our wedding; you’re 63 years too late,’ he says, with a feeling for understatement. Then he sinks back into his grief. To console him, I say, ‘All the chalk drawings are going to appear in a book. I’ve written a
story to go with them, including about the drawings I made in your old room and at Munte.’ ‘I can barely still read,’ he sighs. ‘I’m going to make a large print book for you,’ I promise, ‘so that you don’t have to be annoyed about the small letters anymore.’ ‘I am really struggling with Marieleintje’s death,’ he says. ‘Toward the end, she no longer knew where she was.’ I think of the large stone tablet left behind in the reception hall of the unit for people with dementia, the unit where Marieleintje spent her final years. ‘Do you remember what Ingrid said when I drew on the stone with chalk?’ I ask, bringing up the past. ‘Yes, I remember; you had made it weightless or some such thing…,’ he replies. Maurice needs a place to commemorate his wife and there is no such place in the new building. The drawings I place on the walls give the new building some colour, but that is not enough. Something else needs to happen. People need their own story, a well-constructed history, invented if need be, to remain ‘whole’ and avoid disintegration – to hold onto what evaporates in real life. I ask Donald, the man from technical services with access to a passkey, whether he’d be willing to go with me to the former unit for
people with dementia, the only part of the old building that hasn’t been demolished yet. We walk through the empty hallways and deserted rooms. ‘People lived, suffered, laughed and died here,’ he says. A chill runs down my back. All of the personal effects have been moved to the building across the way, but it is as if the ghosts of the residents still roam the hallways. Only the leaden granite tablet remains behind, and that is exactly what I am after. Fingerprints and handprints mar the chalk drawing. ‘It’s as if the residents attempted to take the tablet with them,’ I say. ‘I’m guessing that thing weighs a thousand kilos and is chemically anchored to the wall. I’d sooner break my back than try to move that stone,’ he says. Because no one is willing to help me, I move the supposedly unmoveable stone by myself to the central foyer of the new building a few days later. I know how to do it; I’m the one who made it weightless.
The abandoned stone tablet in the former unit for people with dementia in the old nursing home, De Zilverberk
The stone tablet in the foyer of the new nursing home, right after being moved
Colophon Drawings and text: Bart Lodewijks Photos: Bart Lodewijks and Jan Kempenaers Editing: Danielle van Zuilen Dutch copy editing: Lucy Klaassen English translation: Nina Woodson Graphic design: Roger Willems Publisher: Roma Publications, Amsterdam This project was made possible in part by: Lokaal bestuur Merelbeke, Welzijnsvereniging Zorgband Leie & Shelde, De Vlaamse Gemeenschapscommissie, Vlaams Infrastructuurfonds voor Persoonsgebonden Aangelegenheden Thanks to: Veerle De Smaele, Lenie van Heesvelde, Baro Architectuur, Heyse Natuursteen (for moving the stone tablet) Special thanks to: Maurice and Marieleintje, Mia, Olga, Maria, Marcelleke, Josefa, Anna, Ingrid, Donald, Sabina and Benny ISBN 978 94 92811 95 0 (Dutch edition) Roma Publication 404 © Bart Lodewijks & Jan Kempenaers (photos)
People need their own story, a well-constructed history, invented if need be, to remain ‘whole’ and avoid disintegration – to hold onto what evaporates in real life. Visual artist Bart Lodewijks makes chalk drawings in the hallways and rooms of the old nursing home in Merelbeke. In early March 2020 the pandemic hits and the care facility is closed off from the outside world. Lodewijks then continues to draw in the outside world, in the places where the residents of the home used to live and work. The residents move into a brand-new building in the interim. As soon as the new care home is accessible to people from outside, Lodewijks continues his drawings there. He encounters a world in which nothing is the same. The drawings infuse a bit of colour into the new building, but it is not enough, he decides – something more needs to happen…