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Kindness of strangers, tech magic bring sisters together

Marianne Hamilton of Albuquerque lowers her mask to give her sister, Truusje De Fouw, a smile. Hamilton was supposed to visit her sister in the Netherlands in April, but the COVID-19 pandemic dashed those plans. They learned how to Skype with each other Thursday after not seeing each other for more than a year. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — She was ready for us, red gloves, white mask, gates and doors open so we wouldn’t have to touch them.

Social distancing was still the order of the day at the home of Marianne Hamilton, but it was social distancing of more than 5,130 miles that had brought us together.

That’s how far it is from Hamilton’s Albuquerque home to her sister’s home in Vinkeveen, a small village south of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

Hamilton, 82 and a native of the Netherlands, was supposed to be there. She would have been partway through a six-week visit. But COVID-19 dashed those travel plans.

That was a bitter disappointment.

Simone Borgstede, left, and Truusje De Fouw chat on Skype from De Fouw’s home in the Netherlands to De Fouw’s sister, Marianne Hamilton in Albuquerque. Borgstede helped arrange the conversation.

“I worry for my sister,” Hamilton said. “She’s had many medical issues.”

Truusje De Fouw, 80, has overcome three bouts of cancer. She struggles with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Three times a week, she undergoes dialysis because of a congenital kidney disease that has been less merciful to her than to her older sister.

“She has been in and out of hospital this year and misses her sister a lot,” Dutch acquaintance Simone Borgstede wrote in an email.

Borgstede works as a planner of outings for seniors in the Netherlands. She met both sisters a couple of years ago after Hamilton contacted her to arrange social activities for De Fouw that didn’t overtax her health.

Now under Dutch COVID-19 restrictions, those activities are on hold.

But after Borgstede heard that the sisters’ visit was called off, she came up with a special activity for De Fouw:

“I would like to enable a connection via Skype to her sister in Albuquerque,” she wrote. “They haven’t seen each other for more than a year.”

Technology and communication programs like Skype, however, were foreign to both sisters – Hamilton, for example, still has an AOL email.

Borgstede was willing to download the Skype app on De Fouw’s computer, show her how to work the program, set her up with a new email address and set up WiFi at her home.

But helping Hamilton do the same was another matter.

So Borgstede sent an email to the Albuquerque Journal.

And that’s how we ended up in the home of a gracious woman with red gloves and a white mask.

On Thursday morning – Thursday evening in the Netherlands – two sisters who had not seen each other in more than a year, whose plans to visit were thwarted by a virus that knows no international boundaries, saw each other through the magic of technology and the mercy of a kind woman who reached out to a newspaper thousands of miles away.

And oh, how those sisters laughed. Deep, hearty guffaws punctuating the clickety-clack chatter of their Dutch language. You didn’t have to understand what they were saying to know it was a great conversation.

While we in Albuquerque sat across the room from each other in our masks and our hand sanitizers, De Fouw and Borgstede sat close and without masks. The Netherlands is on the downward side of the pandemic since peaking around mid-April, their country of just over 17 million tallying 5,288 deaths and 41,774 cases earlier this week.

They are in what their prime minister calls “intelligent lockdown,” with most businesses still closed but with leaving homes to enjoy the outdoors allowed as long as social distancing measures are followed.

Hair salons are expected to open next week, Borgstede said. It is better there now, they said.

Depending on the wiles of COVID-19, Hamilton said she is hopeful she can travel to see her sister in person in August. Like everything these days, nothing is certain.

But now they can see each other across the miles.

Hamilton sent us off with homemade Dutch coconut cookies and her thanks for helping her make that connection with her sister.

“I still can’t believe that people are so kind to help complete strangers,” she said.

But in this new now of our COVID-19 world, kindness works both ways. Helping each other through these strange times makes us feel more human, more together, no matter how far away we are, when it is so easy to feel so alone. Do that, and we’re not strangers anymore.


UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, jkrueger@abqjournal.com, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.


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