For days, a homeless woman has been sitting outside on her doorstep, in Brussels. My aunt asks her if she’d like to go to a shelter. But she wasn’t welcome there. My aunt crosses the street, walks into the Royal Flemish Theatre (KVS), wants to speak to who is in charge. Immediately. Michael De Cock comes downstairs - they know each other - and she asks him to help the homeless woman. No, she doesn’t ask, she demands it. There must be a room or a bed here somewhere? Together they walk to the other side of the street, to where the woman is sitting.
It’s the first story I think of when I think of my aunt. Not her many accomplishments, not her fearless fighting for the arts. But her incomprehension of inequality and injustice that could be prevented or remedied. Her decisiveness to undertake action, and the expectation that others do the same.
My father was the first who passed, out of nine brothers and sisters. The first to go from what he often called “the Leysen-nest”. I made a theater piece about the loss and missing that followed. When I started performing it in several places, she came to see it. My aunt Frie. Afterwards, she struggled to find the words, sent me an email the next day. “You made something strong and sensitive,” she said, “without pathos or cheap sentiment.” She had found comfort in it.
Earlier this year, Luc, the eldest brother of my father, passed away. And this week, on Tuesday 22 September, his sister Frie died also. Each of them had had a wonderful life, full of impressive stories and memories that sounded better, bolder, braver every year. Not because they changed - the memories - but because I got older and finally listened. Finally valued the stories and the people telling them.
Because what a wonderful nest they were. And still are.
My aunt Frie swam against the current her entire life, always did what she felt like doing.
Honest, practical, and without much ado.
We didn’t see each other often, only spoke a few times a year about life, love, and art. I can still see us sitting at her table in her apartment in Brussels. I drank a coke and she smoked a cigarette. She gave me some good advice. Me, barely graduated theatermaker. She, baroness, boss of art house De Singel, driving force behind the Kunstenfestivaldesarts, festival maker of Theater der Welt, artistic director of the Berliner Festspiele and - not unimportant - aunt.
I watched her all this time with great admiration, as soon as I realized what she did. In 2014, I watched from the fourth row as she received the Erasmus Prize from the Dutch king Willem-Alexander. In her speech she brutally added: “Majesty, your country has become a place where the arts can barely breathe.”
I held my breath then as I do today. Because it’s true for our country also. The arts are gasping for air and finding none. Without Frie on the barricades, it will only become more difficult.
Genuine gratefulness and uncensured honesty are not mutually exclusive.
I want to honor her here, struggle to find the words. With gratitude and honesty. Without pathos or cheap sentiment. A word of comfort for her brothers and sisters, who took such beautiful care of her, were with her every day, and who now have to come home to a slightly emptier Leysen-nest.
She was an icon, a force to be reckoned with, a power, a difficult person, a strong woman, a wise friend, a fantastic sister, a wonderful aunt.
Not only the arts, but also the world is worse off without you. That much is certain.
With love for who you were and all that you did.
Your endlessly proud niece,
#3 Column 'De Mening' - De Standaard Avond (21/09/2020 until 25/09/2020)
Originally written in Dutch by Fien Leysen, translated by the author.