Between Blog and Eulogy -- On the Loss of a Friend

Can a blog, meant to be public, lean toward a more personal eulogy? Since we are all grappling with mortality, transience and the distraction of screens in some respect, I will take the risk.

I met Jonieke in 1989, back at a time before blogs and email and cell phones. We were interns at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, Italy. Jonieke and I belonged to a group of 20-somethings who assembled on that magical group of islands to work at a museum that had been the home and private collection of an eccentric heiress. Peggy Guggenheim supported some of the greatest twentieth century artists. Marcel Duchamp had been Peggy's lover, she married Max Ernst and she financed Jackson Pollock's career. The works of these men and many other great twentieth century masters adorned the walls of Peggy's palazzo on the Canale Grande and are now on display to the public.

Jonieke came from the Netherlands and I came from Boston. We had both recently graduated from college, studied art history and wound up living on the top floor of an ancient casa owned by one of those Italian widows who seem to posses endless supplies of real estate. Jonieke shared a bedroom with her best friend from college, Manon. I shared the other bedroom with a flamboyant intern from the Canary Islands named Angeles who taught us to dance the flamingo by mimicking the motion of eating an apple.

"You take the apple from the tree," Angeles would motion, reaching her arm in the air and flicking her wrist as if plucking it from a branch. "You eat the apple," she'd explain as she quickly twisted her arm towards her mouth. "You get rid of the apple," she'd conclude, by extending her arm down behind her as if to drop the apple to the floor.

Jonieke, Manon, and I were more reserved than our Spanish friend and loved her dramatic flair. We had a small kitchen and a balcony where we could dry our laundry on cords that stretched across its length. We ate our dinners on the balcony. When it rained, Angeles hung up umbrellas on the laundry lines so we could continue to dine al fresco.

Jonieke appreciated these little aesthetic details that comprised our time together. We interns gathered from New York and Paris, Tenerife, Zagreb and Groningen. By day, we sold museum tickets, worked the gift shop offering postcards and silk scarves, picked up cigarette butts dropped on the courtyard, asked people not to lean on the Giacometti and, occasionally, utilized our backgrounds in art history to talk to a visitor about an aspect of a painting. Despite the rather mundane level of work, as we ensured that visitors didn't touch the paintings, we were able to look out enormous glass windows to the Canale Grande and spend hours contemplating the differences in Cubist paintings by Braque and Picasso that hung next to each other in Peggy's dining room. Jonieke always had a thoughtful observation. She really looked at the art.

After the museum closed we would gather for a glass of prosecco -- the Venetian alternative to champagne -- and discuss what we would do for dinner. Most of the interns cooked together and spoke in accented English at an energetic pace. We often talked about Peggy (many of us were reading her autobiography) or gossiped about the museum's British director who gave grand parties to donors on the museum roof -- parties to which we were most definitely not invited. We related tales of being pursued by Venetian men, discussed the news of the riots in Tiananmen Square and spent hours talking about art. Jonieke had delicate observations and although she said them quietly, they reverberated.

I know I sound old and nostalgic, but it was a time that might not be possible any more. To make plans, we met at the corner bar; there were no text messages. We didn't scramble off from a meal to check email; we stayed at the table, eating, drinking, talking and laughing. After a few months together, we felt like family.

On our days off from work, Jonieke, Manon, Angeles and I traveled together. We visited the island of Capri and rented some family's attic. We visited the palazzos of Vicenza. We promised to attend each other's weddings some day.

I went on to graduate school. Jonieke and Manon went to work in museums in the Netherlands and Angeles returned to the Canary Islands. For many years Jonieke, Manon and I wrote one another long letters -- yes, on paper that we stamped and placed in a mailbox. I read the letters from my Dutch friends with delight. They brought me back to a cherished period of my life and they assured me of our international bond. When Manon announced her wedding, my husband and I flew to Amsterdam. Jonieke picked us up at the airport to drive us to Friesland for the ceremony. On our drive north, Jonieke confessed to me "I have a little secret." "So do I," I responded. We were both several weeks pregnant. It seemed that our lives, despite distance, would follow parallel tracks and our friendship would flourish for a lifetime.

Sadly, the handwritten letters eventually stopped. Perhaps it was just that we were busy with careers and children. Or we all stopped writing letters when we started depending on screens. Manon and I continue to send Christmas cards but in the past few years I hadn't heard from Jonieke. Nevertheless, I still cherished my Dutch friends and showed my children their photos in my wedding album with pride.

Yesterday, Manon emailed me to say that Jonieke died. Her heart gave out. I read the email on my iPhone as I boarded the subway on my way to work. It was hard to make sense of the news. There, on the subway, utterly disconnected from my Dutch friend, I felt so far away. The screen bearing the heartbreaking news only seemed to betray our bond. Where were our days of prosecco and promises and observations about the details of a painting?

Despite the alienation that I felt reading the news on a screen, in an attempt to reach towards Jonieke, I "Googled" her name. Within moments I found her. Jonieke appears in YouTube videos talking about paintings -- about Edvard Munch and about temporarily storing another museum's collection. She looks as lovely as ever -- thoughtful, observant and compassionate. In the videos, Jonieke seems every bit alive and present. She explains how she enjoys the project of storing thousands of works of art while ensuring that "each object is awarded the attention it deserves." As a curator, she is as careful protecting a work of art as she was in cherishing the details of life. The videos belie the shocking and tragic news of her death, except perhaps when she tries to imagine the lives of the two girls painted in Munch's painting "Girls near an apple tree." Jonieke considers what it might have been like for the girls to live with "grumpy" Munch. She reflects: "I get the feeling that the girls once looked like that but now they're gone. That they're on the painting confronts us with the transience of life."

Jonieke could see that transience in a painting. How did we stop taking time to write letters and connect off screen? I vow to write handwritten letters to her children, her young daughters who have just lost their beloved mother and to tell them details I remember about my friend.