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  • I was in my mid-twenties, heading for a degree in art history. My professor had arranged an appointment for me with the widow of a rather famous artist, as I intended to write an article about the latter. However, she turned out to be an interesting person in her own right, and I left her house wishing I could write about her instead.

    She passed away within a year of our meeting, but sorting out my cabinets the other day I came across the recordings of our conversation. Playing part of the first tape and hearing her voice made me think about the day and night I spent at her house, and the promise I made myself when I strolled through the city around four in the morning; to live life to the fullest, every single day.

    It’s funny how quickly you forget.

    The anxious tingle in my stomach as I approach the town house, I take a deep breath before ringing the bell. Her name in neat handwriting on the doorplate plus the fact that I know she’s in her late eighties makes me expect an old woman’s voice on the speaker. Instead I hear a sonorous, smoky voice, a jazz-singer’s voice. “Yes,” she says, “who is it?” I hesitate. Who is it, I don’t know, who am I, who am I to think myself important enough to come here, hoping to dissect a legendary man’s life?

    The hollow sound of my footsteps as I slowly climb the stairs in the overwhelming marble hallway, the sound of each step rushes toward the cold stonewalls and collapses, and my heartbeats seem to echo in my head. Why am I so nervous? First floor, second, third, and there she is; a tiny, but upright figure in the tall doorway, dressed in dark pants and a translucent, bright red blouse. She looks like she’s in her sixties; her hatchet face and keen eyes immediately reveal a vivid and youthful personality. We shake hands. “You have a firm grip,” she says, “that’s promising.”

    Inside her enormous apartment, the walls are covered with her late husband’s paintings. “Mostly reproductions,” she says, “I smoke like a chimney sweep.” We sit down in comfortable leather chairs, she lights a cigarette. “What do you want to know?” she asks.

    We talk for a while about the painter, his art, the alcohol abuse, and the mistresses. She refers to it all without sarcasm. When she starts to tell me about her own affairs I feel a bit uneasy, and she laughs, slyly. “My God, are you blushing?” she exclaims. “You’re a timid sort of girl, then, or are you simply embarrassed to learn than even an old hag like me has an appetite?” Then she asks me whether I have ever had a lover, and I must be blushing, because she laughs again, not waiting for an answer. “Oh, you probably think you have oceans of time ahead of you,” she says, “young people of today live so slowly, as if you have an abundance of tomorrows, studying nonsense at universities, repeating established assertions year after year and forgetting to live, my God! You must live each day as if there is no tomorrow, and for Pete’s sake; make love as often as you bloody well can!”

    Later, in her kitchen, we had talked for hours and she had asked if I was hungry. “Let’s see what we can dish up,” she said, opening her fridge. “I always make sure to have enough food in the house; you never know what you might fancy,” she said, “and right now I’m dying for a good bouillabaisse!”

    The scent of fennel, garlic and oranges accompanied the smooth taste of cool Chardonnay as we sat down by the kitchen table, waiting for the soup. She said the best things in life are those you have to wait for; it’s important to learn to appreciate anticipation.

    We talked about love; she said their married life had been turbulent. “It’s not so much a matter of love, as of compassion,” she said. “Compassion or pity?” I asked, bearing in mind his alcohol abuse. “Is there a difference?” she replied. I told her I couldn’t imagine staying married to a man out of pity, and she smiled. “The truth is, I was pissed off with him most of the time,” she said.

    I never wrote that article. Somehow, the legendary painter faded next to the lively impression of the widow. To be so old, to inhabit all ages and have a full overview of life, to be able to tell such stories as those she generously shared with me (and that I unfortunately can't pass on here); I told her I envied her. She raised her eyebrows. I said I wanted to fast-forward to all the answers, I felt so young and inexperienced, so full of questions; it was unsatisfactory not to know. She shook her head, laughing heartily. “Oh, the folly of youth,” she said, “the folly of youth.”
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