MEETING ALTA BOYER
Our visit with a 104-year-old woman
Picture (left to right): Alta Boyer, Tom Struyf, Geert De Vleesschauwer
© Fien Leysen
During our first trip to Willard, several people recommended us we speak with Alta Boyer. An old woman who could tell us so much about the glory days of the psychiatric hospital in Willard. We look her up, two days before her birthday. She will soon turn 104 years old. We bring flowers and try to understand each other. Alta's hearing is declining slowly. A good friend of hers assists, translates our questions to a higher volume. We tell her about the project, in short sentences.
Alta is curious. Wants to know where our fascination for this small town comes from. Where we come from. For a minute, she takes over the interview.
“Oh, you're from Belgium, then you know Ghiel.”
We look at each other. Neither of us knows what she means. We can only hear this strange word with an unfamiliar pronunciation, which we can't rhyme with our Dutch language.
We assume our positions as interviewers again, fire away. We want to know all about the hospital. Alta tells us how she was the librarian for three libraries. One for the nurses, one for the patients, one for the doctors. We hear stories about patients and colleagues, and her husband. We discover how Alta tried to prevent the demolition of Chapin House (the impressive monumental main building). She kept trying to get all the necessary signatures to have the building recognized as a landmark. With the petition in her hands, she ran onto the Willard grounds. Minutes too late. The demolition had started.
The rest of the day, we keep repeating the word "Ghiel" to each other. Try to guess what Alta meant.
Our next meeting with the librarian of the adjacent town, brings clarity. The woman nods while she brings us books about the psychiatric hospital. "Of course," she says. "You're from Belgium, and Willard (the hospital) was inspired by Geel. You have a beautiful tradition of care for mental illness in your country."
We are both floored. 5 943 km from home we discover a link with our own, tiny country.
De second and third meeting
Every trip to Willard, we go back to visit Alta. In the summer, we join her on her front porch. Inside, she plays the piano for us. Her eyesight is declining. She can't read sheet music anymore. The keys sound out of tune, but we recognize the American national anthem. The Star Spangled Banner sounds throughout the living room. A proud woman of 104 plays it blindly. To us, it has rarely sounded more beautiful.