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The Miracle of Silent Night (#5)

The memorial chapel in Oberndorf

The Mohr memorial chapel in Oberndorf

Gertruida tells them their journey with the history of Silent Night is nearing its end. The work of Gruber and Mohr had been published under Authors Unknown by Anton Friese and although the melody was not the exact original score by Franzl Gruber, at least the words were preserved.

Other publications started featuring Silent Night as well and in 1844 and 1848 it was included in Finck’s and Dr. Gebhardt’s collections of Tyrolean songs.

But, much more important than the printed version was the way the song spread from home to home, from town to city and from country to country. There was an irresistible charm to the simplicity, the harmony and the beauty of the lyrics and its melody. It was a song for commoners and royalty alike; poor people sang it around their meagre collection of hand-made presents; congregations loved its harmony and kings joined in when the smartly dressed choirs sang it at Christmas time.

More and more people started wondering about the origin of Silent Night. Over time it was ascribed to Beethoven, Mozart, Franz Joseph Haydn and his younger brother Michael – but uncertainty remained.

fade03Today the ski-resort of Wagrain in the Arlberg is the vibrant playground of the rich and the fortunate. Way back in  the1800’s it was a poor village with a simple chapel. When Joseph Mohr was appointed as vicar of the parish, it was a lateral promotion into obscurity. For twenty years he laboured as much-loved priest and friend and when the song was finally published in 1848 in Berlin, he had already died a poor and penniless man. It is said that his only pleasure was the rare evenings he spent with the farmers in the local Bierstube, where the songs of Tyrol were given new life by his fine tenor voice. His funeral was as unpresumptuous as his life –with no funds of his own, the community interned his body in a simple grave.

According to a later statement by Gruber, Joseph Mohr wrote many a poem and song in his life – but not one remains for us to celebrate the life of this humble priest. His only work, his only contribution, still alive today, is the lullaby he wrote in his loneliness.

images (3)We have no picture of Mohr – no sketch, no painting, nothing.  He had lived humbly for 55 years, donating most of his small salary to the aged and promoting education amongst the children of his congregation. Having his features immortalised on canvas just didn’t fit in with his character. When at last, in 1912 he was credited for writing the famous song, it was decided to exhume his remains, to examine his skull and pay an artist to reconstruct an image of his appearance. There was a problem, though: in the neglected pauper’s graveyard the gravestones had become eroded, some had fallen over and some graves were unmarked. In the end the oldest people of the parish had to point out where the grave was and work could start on the grizzly task at hand. The memorial plaque he created was destined for the small memorial chapel in honour of Silent Night.

gruberLife was less harsh on Franz Xaver Gruber. When he was appointed as choirmaster and organist in the church in Hallein (a bustling town not far from Salzburg), he could finally immerse himself in music for the rest of his life. When he died at the age of 75, he left behind 90 compositions, mostly of a religious nature. He had sired 12 children and lived a comfortable and happy life. His children inherited some of his musical talent and one may assume that many an evening was filled with music and song in the Gruber home. It is not known whether he ever saw Joseph Mohr again. Because of his stature in society, he had a painting done in his middle age and some photographs of him in his later years were preserved.

Both these men must have known that the song was sung in various places under the tag of Authors Unknown. What Mohr’s reasons were for not claiming authorship, one can only guess. Gruber later stated that the transcript by Anton Friese didn’t contain the exact music he had written. Friese’s version, remember, was jotted down in shorthand and later transcribed, which explains the discrepancy. However, Gruber and Mohr didn’t think about claiming ownership – it just wasn’t important to them. What was important was that people embraced their song. In contrast to the rejection of Father Nostler, it was through the voices of so many simple folk that Gruber and Mohr found their reward.

salzburg___stift_sankt_peter_by_pingallery-d48eqddSo, how do we know that these two gentlemen actually were responsible for Silent Night? There are different versions of this part of the story, but Gertruida tells her audience, she simply loves the legend involving choir director Herr P. Ambrosius Prennsteiner of the Benedictine Monastery of St. Peter in Salzburg. This, she reminds them, represents perhaps the biggest miracle of Silent Night…

In 1854 the Abbot wrote Prennsteiner a letter, conveying the request by the Kapellmeister of he King’s Orchestra in Berlin for a copy of the score for Silent Night, presumably by Michael Haydn. The reason for this approach was that the younger Haydn had been Kapellmeister there for 43 years before his death in 1806; and it was presumed that the score would be in the extensive library amongst the other 350 compositions he had written during his tenure there.

The Kapellmeister knew that such a search would take ages. However, he had several students under his care and by one of those inexplicable twists of fate, he chose young Felix Gruber to assist in the quest. Young Felix, amazingly, just had to be the youngest son of…(wait for it and enjoy the moment)…Franzl Gruber! When told to look for the score of Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!, the young Gruber exclaimed that this song did not originate by Michael Haydn’s hand at all, but was written by his father, Franzl. Although the Kapellmeister must have been sceptical, he did write to Herr Gruber.

Not long afterwards the Director of the King’s Orchestra in Berlin received a letter containing, amongst others, a sheet of music titled Weihnachtslied. The letter contained a short and very modest description of the events leading up to that mass on the evening of the 24th December.

Skip ahead to 1867 when Durlichter published a handbook on Pongau, the area in Austria stretching from St Johann to Wagrain. Of the little village of Wagrain not much could be said, except that it had been the parish of one Joseph Mohr, who, along with Franz Gruber of Hallein, wrote Silent Night. It was the first ‘official’ acknowledgement of their combined efforts in 1818. By this time, however, both of them were dead.

***

With the story told, Gertruida sighs happily. This is the graphic part of the story, where her listeners must close their eyes and take an imaginary trip to a village far, far away.

“Such then, is the story of the most famous of Christmas songs. But come now, on the eve of Christmas, and let us join the people in the village of Oberndorf, where the choir and people with less musical voices will join in the singing of Silent Night. Look for the gathering of crowds on the exact spot where the song was born. Bring along some warm mittens – preferably of the calfskin variety that made the Stassers famous. Watch as Franzl Gruber’s original guitar is carefully unpacked from its case and the guitar player turns the screws on the handle to make sure the notes are exactly right. Maybe, as a sign of blessing, a sprinkling of snow will float down on the crowd – divine applause for  the two men whose friendship and determination sought to undo the damage the mouse had done to an ancient organ in 1818.

“And then, with the plaintive notes of the guitar as guide, soar with the voices of the Rainers, the Stassers, the peasants and kings, to sing the song that causes the lump in your throat. Hear again the loneliness of Mohr and the brilliance of Gruber as tears streak down your cheek to freeze on your collar. And when the last sounds drift away into the mighty peaks of the white Alps, there will be an awed silence, an emotional quiet, when not a single member of the gathering dares to say anything.

“It is in the quiet peace and acceptance of Life following the song that the true power of Silent Night becomes evident. It is a lullaby for us all: there to comfort our worries, to support hope, to spread love and goodwill and to reassure us that Jesus der Retter ist Da… We may, indeed, rest in heavenly peace.

“One last act is necessary before we leave the town of Oberndorf. Join me at the local Bierstube for a glass of glühwein. Let us lift our glasses high and toast the memory of two remarkable men – men who sought not glory or fame, but who were content to leave us the music and words of a humble song. In their small way, they changed the world for the better; may it continue doing so for all generations to come.

“Franzl Gruber and Joseph Mohr: we salute you! Kings and Presidents will come and go. Most of them will be forgotten. But your song, your Silent Night, will be with us forever.”

Gertruida says a good ending can never be rushed, and it is so with this story. She refuses to say ‘The End’ when the story is told. It has no end, she says. We shall sing the song with our loved ones and our children. In years to come, they will do so with theirs. And so the echoes of Silent Night will pass from generation to generation, reminding us that we are never alone. In the silence of the night – any night – Joseph Mohr ‘s words will comfort us in the year ahead. Inevitably, because that’s what Life is like, we’ll face hardships, disappointments and a few goodbyes. We’ll maybe also reach a few goals and have a couple of laughs. There’ll be tears of joy…and sadness. Every single one of us will feel the pain of an abandoned child at times – just like the humble Rev Mohr did. And then, in those quiet moments, Joseph Mohr is there to remind us: der Retter ist da…the Saviour is there, as well…

Gertruida has a bit of advice to every parent telling this story to a sleepy-eyed child on the eve of Christmas. She says the final sentence should be: “It started with a mouse….and it has no end…”

The Miracle of Silent Night (#4)

mauracher-karl_prev

Karl Mauracher

Gertruida now introduces her audience to three other families – all of them crucial in the survival of Silent Night.

First of all, there is the Maurachers. They were the foremost, important organ builders from the town of Fugen in the Zillertal. You need an organ? Call the Maurachers. Your organ is ill? The Maurachers will fix it. During the winter months the Maurachers received many letters about faulty organs – and in springtime the family usually sent off one of the sons to attend to these problems.

In 1819 it was Karl Mauracher’s turn, and he was dispatched to attend to the diseased organs of Tyrol. It was only in May that he finally reached the small village of Oberndorf to see to the mouse-eaten organ of the Church of St Nikola.

Karl was a huge man with a flowing mane, a booming voice and fingers that caressed the notes with surprising gentleness. To be an organ mender, you had to understand the music the instrument made – and Karl was a master of his art.

When he arrived in Oberndorf, Joseph Mohr had already been transferred to another congregation. Father Nostler’s letter to the Bishop must have contributed to the obscurity Mohr was destined for. It is sad to think that men with no vision or imagination can ruin the genius of an individual, but that has often been the sad state of affairs over the aeons of time. However, Franzl Gruber was glad to see the mender and showed him the damage the church mouse did.

In those days people still talked to each other. If you came to fix something, the job would only be done after all the circumstances surrounding the calamity had been discussed – and so Karl Mauracher heard all about the dilemma of the Christmas Eve Mass. Gruber told him about the little choir, the guitar and the song. Mauracher was thrilled to hear such a poignant story and wanted to know more. Gruber dug about, got the original ( and only) score and handed it to the organ expert. After the organ was patched, the huge man sat down in front of the instrument and tested his work by playing Silent Night. He was impressed.

Upon leaving, the page with the music and words went with him. Gruber had no further use for the song that caused Josephh Mohr’s transfer – it had done enough damage and it certainly wouldn’t be sung again in Oberndorf.

History doesn’t record exactly how the song landed up with the second family, the Rainer ensemble. However, in 1822 Kaizer Franz Joseph I of Austria was host to Czar Alexander I of Russia. Count Ludwig von Donhoff (one may assume he was an ambitious nobleman who wanted to score some political points) invited the two heads of state to his castle to enjoy an evening of local entertainment. Amongst the performers was the Family Rainer – the same family that eventually produced the Von Trapp Singers. Remember The Sound of Music? Anyway, the Rainer family sang Silent Night as part of their repertoire, impressing the Czar so much that he invited the singers to visit St. Petersburg. Then the song disappeared again – for a while. The Trapps had to wait another century for World War II; as well as the fame the musical would bring Julie Andrews as the heroine in the movie.

It would be a full decade later before the Stasser family contributed to the survival of Silent Night. The Stassers were entrepreneurs. What do you need in Tyrol on cold winter nights? Gloves, of course! The Stassers were masters at the art of making the best, softest, warmest hand-warmers in Austria. They lived in Laimach, the neighbouring town to Fugan, where the organ-builders lived. What made them extra special? They sang, naturally! The Geschwister Stasser augmented their income by entertaining audiences with their yodelling and their Schuhplatter Tanz – a foot-stomping, rump-slapping dance that made them famous throughout Teutonic Europe.

Every year the Stasser family would travel to the Annual Leipzig Fair, where they’d sell gloves by day and be entertainers at night. Their small audience in 1831 would be remembered only for one single person: Franz Ascher – organist of the Royal Saxon Court Orchestra. He liked the group’s rendition of the song so much, he invited them to sing it again at the Christmas Mass in the Royal Chapel in Pliesenburg. This was an honour indeed. It also presented the entrepreneurial Stassers with an idea: why not arrange a concert or two while they were in Pliesenburg anyway? It was the Christmas season, after all, and extra income was always welcome. The concert was arranged in the ballroom of the Hotel Pologne.

And then, Gertruida tells the listeners, it was time for yet another miracle..

Silent Night still languished along as a Tyrolian song, a lullaby, an indigenous product of apparently unknown origin. Whenever it appeared on a programme, it carried the little epithet of Authors Unknown. On the night of the concert, a man was ambling along in the street, killing time before retiring to bed. He was Anton Friese, a Dresden music publisher, and he whiled away the time before returning home the next day to his family. It was Christmas time, and he was homesick.

On an impulse (he had nothing better to do, remember?) he turned in to the Hotel Pologne, saw that they had a concert going on there, and so he slipped quietly into the audience. Music was his business and he always found solace in it.

When the Stassers sang Silent Night, it touched Anton Friese in a way no song had done before. In the yearning heart of Herr Friese, the words, the melody, the atmosphere of Christmas came together in a gush of emotion. This song, he knew, was worthy of a much larger audience.

Silent Night came to age that evening. The little poem Joseph Mohr had penned in his loneliness, the melody Franzl Gruber plucked on his guitar and Christmas time finally combined to reach the ears of people who really wanted to be reminded that they all needed to be loved, cherished, reassured and coveted. The nostalgia of the lonely priest had found its lingering echo in the hearts of the audience that night.

When the Stassers fell silent after the song, the audience sat spellbound in complete silence. The Geschwister Stasser stood in front of the completely quiet hall: what was wrong with these people? Didn’t they like it? Were their voices false? Did they sing too softly – or too loudly? If you were there, you’d be able to hear the proverbial pin dropping. The quartet glanced at each other, exchanging worried looks.

Then the audience rose – like a sleeping giant caught off-guard – and cheered themselves hoarse. They became one with the nostalgia of poor Joseph Mohr, the courage of Franzl Gruber and the fight against the unfair Nostler. They remembered fathers and mothers putting them to bed, singing softly. They were reminded of the hopes and dreams of their lives and didn’t want the final little chorus to die away. Jesus der Retter ist da…Jesus der Retter ist da... Wave upon wave of emotion washed through their hearts while the applause went on and on.

Encore! They had to do it again – and they did. This time Anton Friese, tears streaking down his cheeks, was ready with his little black book and a pencil. He jotted down the score and the lyrics in a shorthand of his own. Later, alone in his room and with the song still echoing in his mind, he made the transcription that he would publish later – still under Tyrolian Christmas Song, Authors Unknown. And so, in 1840 Silent Night was published in print for the first time. It’s journey from that fateful night in Oberndorf was more than two decades old…

***

Gertruida tells them that their journey with Silent Night is nearing its end – but questions still linger. Why did the published version differ from Gruber’s melody? There was the claim that the melody was penned by Handel or even Beethoven – so how was that misconception cleared? And what happened to Gruber and Mohr?

“While we ponder these questions, there is one fact we may never forget: Silent Night remains an integral part of our Christmases today purely by virtue of a string of coincidences, a line-up on characters so varied and strange and a sequence of events that reads like a fairytale. Yet, when all is said and done, the song did survive. Silent Night had to wait patiently for the right moment, the right audience and the right individuals to carry its message to the world.

“In many ways, we need to hear and understand the song and what it is telling us. Patience, it pleads. Wait, it commands. Don’t hurry, it soothes. When your best-laid plans don’t work out – relax. The time and place may not be quite right. But then start looking for the coincidences: the heavily moustached Karl Mauracher with the gentle fingers; the forebears of the von Trapps; the invitation to the Czar or the Kaizer; the Rainers. the Stassers, and finally the lonely man with the little book and pencil, longing to be home. These fine and fragile threads were all so necessary for us to sing Silent Night today, and they all were such unlikely links – yet they were there and held true when the song needed them to survive. There is great comfort to be gained by remembering this. Nothing can be so destructive as the power of the impatient mind…

“This Christmas, when we hear the now-immortal words of a lonely priest and the haunting melody of his friend, it’s good to remember how nearly the world had to celebrate the birth of Christ without Silent Night. Then again, the very fact that we’re still here and have the privilege to immerse ourselves in the song, should serve as a reminder that we are like the crumpled little piece of paper in Karl Mauracher’s pocket. We – often unknowingly – form part of a holy chain of events that may only come to fruition in the distant future. Maybe life seems dreary, sad, depressed, insignificant; but in the survival of Silent Night we learn one of Life’s biggest secrets: each of us has a role to play in the Message of Christmas – and not only on the 25th of December.”

It took a lonely priest, a broken and sad childhood and a vindictive Nostler to bring us this song. The words and the music were entrusted to ordinary men and women along an extraordinary journey of survival. Not a single one of them could have dreamed what influence their roles would have on millions upon millions of people in 2014. And then, when you listen to Silent Night anew, each of us realise there is a divine plan for everything.

For the lonely patrons in Boggel’s Place, as well…

(To be continued…)

The Miracle of Silent Night (#3)

Oberndorf in the 1800's. Note the church in the background. Credit: carokee.com

Oberndorf in the 1800’s. Note the church in the background. Credit: carokee.com

When Gertruida relates the history of Silent Night, the patrons in Boggel’s Place stop their usual banter. They never interrupt. The story – they all agree – demands respect.

So…when Franzl and Joseph inspected the damaged organ on the day before Christmas in 1818, it became patently clear that the organ would be silent until spring melted the snow to allow the organ mender to get to their village. To have a Christmas Eve Mass without music would be unthinkable; to confront Father Nostler with the news would be suicide. There was no way either of the men was going to face the wrath of the strict old man. No, they had to come up with some other solution…

Maybe, they thought, they could have the choir sing a cappella, hoping that they would manage without instrumental support. But what to sing? What is simple enough, easy enough, to teach the choir in an afternoon’s time? The two men were desperate to find an answer.

This is when Jospeh Mohr rushed home to bring back the page on which he had written a poem recently.

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!

Alles schläft; einsam wacht.

Nur die traute heilige Paar

Holder Knabe im lockigten Haar

Schlafen in himmlischer Ruh…

If, after all these years, we read these lines, we get to understand them a bit better – especially if we remember the life of Joseph Mohr, illegitimate son of a deserter. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think his childhood must have been horrible. Look at the words carefully: it is actually a lullaby; the perfect picture of a baby being rocked to sleep by two adoring parents. Were the words the result of many a forlorn evening during which a lonely, unwanted child wished he had a normal family?

Of course, the English translation focussed much more on Jesus and the Afrikaans translation even brings in Mary and Joseph, the earthly parents of Christ. In the original German – the one Joseph Mohr wrote – the accent is on the infant that may rest, because Jesus der Retter ist da (Jesus the Saviour is there – not born as the words got translated). It would be totally wrong (if typical of human nature) to start a debate here on what exactly Joseph Mohr had in mind when he penned the words. The point Gertruida makes is the obvious one: Joseph Mohr maybe wrote these words for a thousand reasons – but certainly not to be sung at the main Christmas Eve Mass as a carol. Next time you hear the words, it won’t be wrong to think of all the lonely children who wished they had somebody to love them.

But to return to the two men next to the broken organ. Franzl was impressed by the simple words his friend had written. Maybe…just maybe…

Now that they found a ray of hope, all he had to do was to put a melody to the words. As the more musical of the two, he stuffed the bit of paper in a coat pocket and trudged back home through the snow. He promised Joseph he’d give it his best shot. The instrument he chose to use for the melody? The spinet his father bought him, of course! The same one that came as an apology because Papa Gruber initially refused Franzl’s plea for music lessons. Only when he thought he had the music sort-of-sorted out, did he take his guitar from the wall to play and sing the song for the first time.

That afternoon Mohr, Gruber and twelve children gathered in the priest’s small study. Six of the choir’s best boys and six of the girls had been selected to participate in the gamble to ensure music and song accompanied the evening’s sermon by Father Nostler. Twelve children and two men to substitute for the full choir and the solemn organ – in the hope that the congregation would be pleased and that Nostler would be satisfied. Even if the children could memorise the words and remember the melody, there was one more little issue to consider: Gruber would accompany the choir on his guitar! They were on the verge of testing Father Nostler’s short temper to the utmost.

That evening the congregation gathered in the little cathedral. Of course the news of the organ’s problem had spread through the community and it is fair to assume that curiosity contributed to attendance that evening. Nostler knew about the organ, of course, and assumed that the choir would sing an appropriate song – but no choir was gathered on the balcony. We can only guess at his irritation – what was Mohr up to?

Father Nostler gave his usual, solemn Christmas sermon, citing Luke 2:1-14 and reminding the congregation of the miracle in Bethlehem. After he finished he closed the Bible and looked up at the empty seat in front of the organ. Where was the choir?

This was the signal for Mohr, Gruber and the twelve children to march in from the vestry to arrange themselves before the altar. Gruber’s guitar was decorated with red and green streamers, the girls wore them in their hair and the boys had the same streamers folded into rosettes attached to their stockings. The congregation gasped. Father Nostler held up a hand to put a stop to the proceedings. Nobody was going to ridicule the birth of Jesus with fancy streamers and a guitar, for goodness’ sake!

Joseph Mohr ignored the priest’s attempt to stop the little choir from singing and addressed the audience. He told them about the organ and said that he and Gruber had prepared a special song for the occasion. Without further ado (and without a glance to Nostler) Gruber shifted his guitar into position and plucked the first notes.

Mohr with his fine tenor voice and Gruber with his baritone fell in with Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!. The melody and the words blended perfectly. When they came to the end of the first verse, the children started with Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh… The clear young voices held the audience in their spell as they repeated the line as a benediction.

The verses followed each other until the children assured the congregation that Jesus the Saviour was there. Then complete silence descended on the people in the church. The song had a profound effect on the congregation – and on Nostler. He rushed through the communion and immediately retired to his study to write an outraged letter to the Bishop of Salzburg.

Mohr and Gruber stood at the door as the congregation filed out. They wanted to know what the people thought about their song even if they knew that Nostler was hugely upset. The reaction was mixed, to say the least. Some thought the song was acceptable, a few complimented the melody and yet others thought it was a sort-of reasonable substitute for the real Christmas songs they were used to hear.

When the last worshippers disappeared into the crisp night, the two men stood alone for a while. They had similar thoughts: Nostler was going to have their heads for this. Then again, the congregation seemed mildly pleased with their effort – and surely they did the best they could under the circumstances?

Gruber held out his hand to his friend. “Merry Christmas, Joseph.”

As it turned out, Silent Night resurfaced again many years later; but the rendition of the song on Christmas Eve, 1818, may well have been the last.

Let’s leave the later history of Silent Night for the moment and consider the background once more. When faced with seemingly insurmountable problems, we often turn to others to solve them. We stick to convention and work within the rules. What Gruber and Mohr did, was to face the issue and make the most with what they had. Mohr’s harsh childhood may have driven him to a wasted life and he could have blamed his absent father for many things – but he didn’t.

Mohr did what we all do from time to time – he dreamt of love. He wrote a poem about the perfect family. And when the time came, he shared his poem with the world. Although he was destined to be a poor priest all his life, he gave us all one of the most precious gifts – one that is new and fresh every year when we gather to wish each other Merry Christmas.

One more thing: we all have Nostlers in our lives. Whenever we venture into the unknown, Father Nostler is there to remind us that the earth is flat and we’re going to fall off the edge if we test the horison. Look carefully at your colleagues, family and friends – there is at least one Notsler to prevent you from achieving the (seemingly) impossible. And yet, if you have the courage to pursue your dreams, you’ll find that Nostler is wrong: the horison is not the end.

So, how did Silent Night survive? In the rest of the story involves organ fixers, kings and famous composers. Gruber didn’t become famous overnight (not even in his lifetime) and Mohr died penniless – yet it remains the world’s favourite Christmas song. Silent Night isn’t only a song; it has become the symbol of overcoming adversity. It’s there to encourage us when the odds against us are stacked sky-high. It brought hope to soldiers in trenches; it encouraged others over the years in times of hardship. Like in the past, it will be sung with the same nostalgic longing in far-off mission stations, in snow-bound little Alpine villages, in the mud-and-grass huts on Africa’s plains, and in the great cathedrals of many magnificent cities. Jesus, the saviour, is there

Gertruida always savours the moment when she reaches this part of the story. The future of Silent Night hangs by the most friable thread. With Father Nostler set to have his revenge on Joseph Mohr and the single, hastily penned, copy of the music now an object of his wrath, the song might as well have been doomed to be forgotten. But, she knows, the miracle of Silent Night didn’t end that night. It was only the merest hint of the miracles to follow…

(To be continued…)

The Miracle of Silent Night (#2)

The Organ in Oberndorf

The Organ in Oberndorf

Gertruida loves weaving the apparently insignificant bits of the story of the famous song into a rich tapestry of coincidences – or miracles. She says the origin of the song is a testimony to the significance of events we usually discard as unimportant. Smiling at the paradox, she then  elaborates on the life of another rather unlikely person who also didn’t have an easy life.

Franzl Gruber (born 25 November 1787) was more fortunate than poor Joseph Mohr: he at least had a father, even if they were terribly poor. Papa Gruber, however, scoffed at his son’s ambition to be a musician – according to his thinking, there would be no future for the lad other than following the family tradition of weaving.

But, Gertruida says, mothers have a way of cutting through paternal red tape to achieve impossible ends. Men might think they own the steering wheel, but the engine of any household is controlled by a much softer hand. Behind the stern back of Franz senior, Ma Gruber arranged for organ lessons for her son with Andreas Peter Lichner, the choirmaster in the church of Hochburg. The boy’s progress pleased his teacher tremendously and so mother and tutor agreed that it would be a travesty if Franzl ended his days in the weaver’s chair. But what to do and how to get past the head of the house?

Fate intervened. When Franzl was twelve, Peter Lichner fell ill and there was no one to play the organ that Sunday. Not a single soul in Hochburg was able to perform the High Mass…except the boy who received the secret lessons his father didn’t know about. When the service was about to start, young Franzl quietly slipped from his parents’ side, hurried to the console and sat down in front of the organ he loved so much. With feet barely touching the pedals, he played the High Mass to perfection. The townsfolk were astounded, and could hardly wait for the service to end before congratulating Papa Franz on his brilliant son.

Fathers are great at getting out of  such situations. Of course he knew the child had a special gift. In fact, was it not he, the hero, who earned the money to pay for the boy’s tuition? No, they misunderstood him! Franz senior did a smart about turn and now supported Franzl – even to the extent of spending 5 Gulden on an old spinnet for his son to practice on. Later he sent the youth to Berghausen for two years to study under Georg Hartdobler.

Eventually (1816) Franzl secured the position of teacher in the village of Arnsdorf, where he was to stay for 21 years. Here he married the widow of his predecessor, acquiring not only a wife, but several offspring. She unfortunately died and he married a local lass – who died as well. A third wife (presumably of more sturdy stock) followed. With all these mouths to feed (by this time he managed to produce a few children of his own) he was forced to accept the post as organist in the neighbouring town of Oberndorf as well.

And it  was here, in St Nicola’s Church in Oberndorf, that Franzl met up with Joseph Mohr, assistant to the pious and strict Father Nostler.

Priests, like us ordinary folk, tend to display their basic personalities. Some are genuinely kind-hearted souls, bent on serving their communities. Others bear the burden of their holy duties with solemn frowns and many sighs. While Joseph never lost the fun-loving side of his character, mD4AsOUKu-2tIRdR_mjc7nQFather Nostler was a morose and vindictive character. He detested the young priest’s tendency to play lively music on his Zupfgeigen,as guitars were called those days. Literally translated, the word means ‘pluck violin’, for guitars were plucked and not stroked in those days. It is maybe not far-fetched to compare the young Joseph (later accompanied by the more musical Franz) to a more modern-day Elvis – their progressive ability with the guitar led to disapproving frowns from the upper echelons on the theological pyramid. Gertruida is quick to point out that this is where the comparison with the King of Rock and Roll stops – Joseph did certainly not invent the hip movements that became so popular more than a century later.

With the two main characters established in the birthplace of Silent Night, we now turn our attention to the night of 23 December 1818. The third, and maybe the most important, actor in the drama that was to unfold on the day before Christmas, had waited patiently for the doors of the church to be locked. The cold and hungry creature peered from its lair, made sure there was no one around, and scurried on its four tiny feet hither and thither, as mice do when they’re scouting for food.

History does not record the circumstances surrounding the life or death of this nameless mouse, yet it deserves mention every time we hear the stirring melody of Silent Night. Had it not done the unthinkable, we’d have one less song in our Christmas repertoire. .

When it found that Joseph had, indeed, cleaned the church very well in preparation for the evening mass the following night, the mouse cast around for a meal – any meal. With no crumbs on the table, the floor or between the seats, it scampered up the stairs to his last resort – the bellows and the leather pipes that fed air to the flutes of the organ. Here it gnawed away contently, not complaining about the quality of its meal, until it heard the great key turn in the lock. Like clever church mice do, it hurried to its home. That night, after Christmas Mass, it hoped to feast on the crumbs and the little pieces of wafer grumpy old Father Nostler always spilled at the altar.

So there we have it: Joseph Mohr (assistant priest, part-time musician), Franzl Gruber (teacher, organist, feeder of an extended family) and a hungry mouse (professional gnawer of no historical ancestry). The simple recipe for Silent Night.

But how?

When Franzl sat down in front of the organ to practice for that evening’s mass, it was the morning of the 24th December and the service he was preparing for a mere twelve hours away.  So was the first public rendition of Silent Night, although he didn’t know it at the time. One can only imagine his shock and horror when the leaking pipes wheezed and the notes remained silent. There was no possibility of repairing the organ – the organ mender from Zillerthal would only be able to reach the snowed-in village by May. Yet, the assistant priest and the organist had to come up with something; Christmas Mass without music was unthinkable.

Gertruida always pauses at this point to remind her listeners that it is worthwhile to consider the series of apparently insignificant ‘coincidences’ (or miracles) that brought them to this point in the story. Joseph, the illegitimate child with a hangman as sponsor for his baptism. Franzl, whose mother defied his father to allow her child to master the organ; now married for the third time and having to accept another job to support his family. Peter Lichner, whose illness caused Papa Gruber to do a smart about-face. And of course, the mouse: it could have chosen 364 other days to ruin the organ.

Christmas, too, is a coincidental date for many people. Most of us accept that it isn’t really the birthday of Christ. Some will remind you that 25 December is associated with the winter solstice to celebrate the ‘unconquered sun’ as it retreats from its migration to herald the advent of spring. Others maintain it has its origin in Scandinavia with it’s celebration of Yule. We all agree it is a time during which billions are spent on cards and gifts, making it the most expensive feast of all. Somehow, we tend to think about Christmas as a feast of the past (remembering Bethlehem) and not a promise of the future.

The point, Gertruida says, about Gruber, Mohr and the mouse is this: circumstances developed over many years to place them together at exactly the right time, facing an insurmountable problem and leaving them with an impossible task. Life does that to us all from time to time. It is all too easy to simply give up and allow the tides of misfortune to drown the dreams we cherished – but that is the wrong approach. Overcoming the odds is what life is all about. It is also the message of Christmas.

Gertruida tells her audience that they, too, can look back on 2014 to pick out moments of misfortune, tragedy and hardship. In South Africa we have had many of these – ranging from political mayhem to personal loss. But…the message of Silent Night forces us in a different direction. It reminds us that the rungs on the ladder of Life are placed exactly right for each of us to overcome every adversity.

That, she says, is what Christmas is all about.

So – how did Gruber and Mohr achieve greatness? How did they manage to make music that night? And what does this all have to do with Silent Night?

Like all good storytellers, Gertruida never rushes the ending. Stories, like Life, represent a journey of discovery. A good story, she’ll tell you, should be savoured and enjoyed. It is in the intertwining of apparently insignificant events that the magic of a story lives. And here she’ll laugh softly, saying that no significant building can rest of an insignificant foundation. That, she says, makes the word ‘insignificant’ obsolete. And, she adds, what is true for buildings, is also true for Life. Or Christmas, come to think of it.

(To be continued…)

The Miracle of Silent Night

silentnight-german-version-staff-chordsEvery year – when the patrons at the bar get dewy-eyed while the radio oozes out Christmas at Sea, Jingle Bells and The Little Drummer Boy – somebody will ask Gertruida to tell them the story of Silent Night again. Boggel, an orphan who overcame so many obstacles to be successful in his own right, especially loves to hear how a humble priest crafted the song out of desperation. The other Rolbossers identify with different parts of the tale; like Vetfaan, who still marvels at the way the history of the song ties in with the Von Trapp family and The Sound of Music. He always says it’s a miracle – a remark that makes Oudoom smirk. The clergyman has to remind Vetfaan every year that the wonder of Christmas isn’t the song; but that the real miracle happened long before the words were penned down. Almost 2000 years before the song, in fact.

Every year, Gertruida (who knows everything) tells the little audience that they surely know the story by now, but always relents because they then tease her by saying she must have forgotten about Joseph Mohr. This forces the clever woman to sit down, take a deep breath, and prove them wrong.

***

Baby Joseph Mohr had the odds stacked up against him. There was absolutely no earthly reason why one would expect such an infant to change the world…but he did, in his own unique way. However, his mother must have despaired when she realised there would be one more mouth to feed in her little household. And she must have worried about his future.

After all, children born out of wedlock – illegitimate, fatherless – can be expected to get it all wrong; especially when you consider how we view parental influences these days. Walk into any bookshop if you don’t believe me: the shelf with volumes on how-to for fathers is filled with current wisdom. Browsing through this is enough to convince anybody that it is totally impossible for a boychild to achieve anything in life if the father isn’t involved in a big way. The term “dysfunctional family” has become a booming industry over the past few decades.

You see, poor little Joseph Mohr never knew his father. He should have ended up as a criminal or a beggar, not so? At the very least, you’d think, a boy like that should become a seriously disturbed delinquent.

Just shows you how prejudiced we are about stereotypes. And how often we are proven wrong…

Sneak up to your mental almanac and reverse the date to 11 December 1792; and while you’re at it, quickly travel to Salzburg. Here you’ll find the seamstress Anna Shoiberin in labour, giving birth to a little boy. She had been …involved…with a musketeer in a relationship of convenience. A kept woman of apparently few virtues, Anna had to do what she could to keep a roof over her family’s heads. However, as soon as the evidence of her pregnancy became too obvious to ignore, her soldier-lover promptly deserted her – and the army – leaving her pretty much destitute..

Forward a few months. It is time for the baptism – but there is a problem. In accordance with custom, the baby boy would have the right to his father’s name, but a sponsor had to be found to appear in church. The seamstress, it seems, had built up quite a bit of a reputation by that time. With this, her third illegitimate child, no one could be found to be associated with her, the boy or the baptism.

Enter now a nefarious and highly unlikely character, one Franz Joseph Wohlmuth – the town’s hangman. For whatever reason, the kind-hearted executioner took pity on the woman and the infant and consented to fulfil the role of sponsor. But, like so many incidents in Joseph’s life, this one wasn’t without a hitch, either.

You see, hangmen weren’t really seen as pillars of society. After all, they kill people. The church frowned down on such individuals and barred them from attending services. Thus young Joseph Mohr had a sponsor who had to appoint a substitute to attend the baptism on his behalf.

Of course, having a name didn’t solve the problems facing the little boy. He grew up in abject poverty while his mother sewed away quietly to sustain their simple life. Were there other men in her later life? We don’t know and prejudgemental speculation is not what the story is all about. Suffice to accept that Joseph was a poor and deprived little boy.

Back to the bookshop. For every shelf filled with advice for fathers, there are two for mothers. Chances are that Joseph Mohr didn’t attend any special program to help him adjust to his lot. His mother worked all day; he didn’t socialise with the ‘right’ kids; Christmases were bleak affairs; birthday parties were non-existent and education was rudimentary. Toady, social workers and paediatric psychologists would label such a boy as the one most likely to fail miserably in life and suggest an array of measures to correct the situation.

But in those days Joseph and his mother had to fend for themselves, There was no quick-fix or an easy way out of their poverty. The road to ruin must have seemed unavoidable.

Except for one tiny little detail, Joseph might well have ended up on the trapdoor of his baptism sponsor. You see, the only thing Joseph Mohr had going for him, was his sweet voice – he could sing. This brought him to the attention of one Johann Hiernle, the priest in charge of the Cathedral choir.

Oh, the scandal and gossip such an arrangement would have caused today! Here you have a choirmaster-priest taking special interest in an unwanted young boy. And yes, the clergyman took the boy into his house to become a type of foster-father, teaching him music and educating the lad. Back then it must have been seen as a charitable act; but today we’ve become a vindictive and suspicious society. Such kindness would be tagged as inappropriate while we look for less than honourable intentions on Joseph’s benefactor’s part. .

Despite our misgivings, Joseph developed a fine tenor voice and learnt to play the violin and the organ. Then, once again with the help of the kind priest, he was enrolled in the Seminary of Salzburg, where illegitimate youths weren’t allowed. Another miracle? Of course!

Maybe not surprisingly, there were a few odd hiccups. Joseph (remember the lack of fatherly discipline?) often sneaked away from the austere atmosphere of the seminary to visit the local pub. He thought the songs were much livelier and the company more stimulating. Poor Father Hiernle had to come to his rescue every so often.

Despite this, on the 21st of August 1815, he was ordained as priest. He swapped the gay life of a student for the frock and now faced a lifetime of solemnly serving the Church.

There was another problem. Due to a chronic chest problem (asthma?) he didn’t have the stamina to conduct a full service. Joseph Mohr would always be an assistant priest – there was no way he could handle a congregation on his own. Joseph, one may be excused to assume, was destined for obscurity.

Not so, for this was the man who penned the famous words for Silent Night. He created something we all associate with Christmas: in fact, Christmas without Silent Night is just about unthinkable.

The point of the story of Joseph Mohr is a simple one: being a single parent doesn’t necessarily mean your child is doomed to end up a loser. Those books with the well-meant advice may be of help  – and trying to give your child the best balanced childhood isn’t wrong… But…

There isn’t a thing called a “Normal Home”. It doesn’t exist. No matter how perfect a family seems to be: there are skeletons in all our cupboards. Go on: check it out for yourselves. Go and live in the Joneses house for a week.Or the Smith’s.  You’ll find cracks in the thin veneer of perfection. There are no perfect parents, no perfect children and no perfect homes.

The fact that Joseph Mohr was illegitimate, sickly and poor, didn’t prevent him from achieving something special with his life.

Maybe that’s the miracle of Christmas. Maybe this is the time of year when we must throw out the excuses, the guilt and the quest for normality – and celebrate our individually unique imperfections. It is, after all, in overcoming these problems and difficulties that we unite in the dream of a better life.

***

At this point, Gertruida will always pat Boggel on the shoulder while reminding him that all this talking makes her very thirsty indeed. While he opens a beer, she allows her audience to mull over the many questions arising at this point in the story: how did Joseph Mohr get to pen down the words of the famous song?  Who wrote the music? And of course, there are the delicious little inserts of a hungry mouse, a cold winter and a broken organ waiting to be recounted.

With growing impatience, they’ll wait for her to finish her drink before going on.

(To be continued…)

The World’s Biggest Liars

Pinocchio_2006_Album“Oh, we lie all the time!” Gertruida smiles, despite the accusation. Oudoom’s sermon on this Sunday morning had been about honesty and truth, a lecture filled with fire and brimstone, delivered with a trembling voice which lamented the absence of integrity in society. Despite the discomfort it caused in the small congregation, they all agreed that it was, indeed, one of Oudoom’s better efforts.

“No, I don’t.” Servaas bunches his bushy eyebrows together in indignation.

“See? You just did!” Gertruida’s sharp wit makes them all smile. Of course they all lie…a little. Just sometimes and only for a good cause. Or so they try to convince themselves.

Vetfaan remembers the sheep he promised for last year’s church bazaar – the one everybody conveniently forgot about. Yes, he said he would, but that was months before the event and nobody had the guts to remind him. But, to be perfectly honest: he remembered and still feels a bit guilty about it. Now, with Servaas so brilliantly put in his place, he reckons he’s not the only fraud.

“We live in a world of lies, just like Oudoom said. Escom lies about the crisis we face. The prez isn’t entirely open about the expenses involved in building his mansion. That lady running the SABC fibbed about her qualifications, so did that other chap, Mister Motsuaneng. And don’t forget that Dr Palo Jordan apparently wasn’t honest about his PhD, either. Politicians lie all the time – we have to accept that. The tragedy is that the masses of uneducated people believe these lies – and don’t for a moment think that unschooled and uneducated implies the same thing. You can have a university degree – a real one – and still be ignorant about political matters.”

“But that’s the fanatical fringe of politics, Gertruida. No matter what your leader does or says, you blow your vuvuzela and ululate loudly. I don’t think those individuals are ignorant – they know which side their slice of bread is buttered. In fact, they create such a spectacle that they promote the lies other people have to believe. Look at the murders we read about during strikes – those fanatics scare the masses into cooperation. If you risk your life for the truth in this country, you pay the price.”

“You may be right, Vetfaan, but then you have to admit it’s a worldwide phenomenon. The Middle East and Croatia and so many other countries have the same problem. In fact, all wars are based on lies. I mean: when doctrine A disagrees with Doctrine B, it surely implies that one of them must be wrong. Yet, despite that obvious anomaly, people take up arms to convince the other side. Lies, my friends, despicable lies. That’s what makes the world go around.”

“Ja…” Boggel stretches the word into a thoughtful silence, sighs and spreads his arms wide. “Maybe society plants the seeds of untruths early on in each child. Tooth fairies, Easter bunnies, Father Christmas, fairy tales…not one of them is true, yet every generation gets brought up the same way: on lies. We learn to accept these as part of everyday life and even if we acknowledged these stories as having no basis in real life, every parent slips a few coins into the slipper that held the milk tooth. We even encourage kids to look for the chocolate eggs the bunny has hidden in the garden. And what about the stork bringing the baby? “

“Well, that may be true, but there is a difference between a fairy tale and a president saying: ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’. Be that as it may, I think we should enter a few candidates for the World’s Biggest Liar Competition.”

“And who would you nominate to go?” Precilla asks, getting into the swing of things. “I mean, we are certainly spoilt with so many gifted liars in the country, it’d be hard to select even a small team of…say…fifty or so.”

“Indeed. But…that would only serve to encourage the government to appoint a Ministry of Mendacity. Universities will offer postgraduate courses to equip people to be economical with the truth while schools will incorporate Factual Gymnastics in the curriculum. No, the moment our government finds out how powerful educated liars can be, the country will destroy itself even faster than it does now. The only upside to that scenario, will be the huge export market that’ll develop – the rest of the world will be clamouring to get their hands on our liars.

“Our politicians don’t have to go to England to prove we’ve the best liars – we know that already.”

Kleinpiet winks for another beer. “Listen, we live in Rolbos. At least we try to be honest here. Let’s start the World’s Most Honest Person competition. We’ll get speakers who only tell the truth and award prizes. It could be fun.”

Everybody nods in agreement…except Gertruida. “No,” she says, “Our Archbishop is too ill to attend and the Dalai Lama can’t get a visa. That rules out the strongest candidates. Being the hosts of the event, we can’t invite Oudoom. So who…,” she scans the faces at the counter, “do you suggest we should invite?”

After a few minutes of silence, Vetfaan gets up, saying he still owes the church a sheep. “I’ll go and catch it quickly and deliver it to Oudoom.”

When he gets to the door, Kleinpiet calls him back. “We all know about that sheep, Vetfaan. Forget it. Donate it for next year’s bazaar.”

And of course Vetfaan agrees. That bazaar is still months away. Maybe everybody will have forgotten about his sheep again by that time.

***

Gertruida says Abraham Lincoln was right when he stated that no man had a good enough memory to be a successful liar. And when Winston Churchill spoke about the speed of lies (it’s halfway around the world before Truth has its pants on), he hit the nail on the head. No matter how entertaining a lie might be, no matter how carefully constructed and meticulously crafted, eventually the lie loses speed and the slow tortoise of truth overtakes the tiring rabbit of deceit. So, she says, the group in Boggel’s Place is in for a wonderfully amusing 2015 – a year she dubs as The Year of Revelation. She reckons the media will have a field year exposing some of the greatest liars in South African politics – ever.

Those chaps in that bar in Umbria will have to pull up their socks. Or simply just abandon the competition. They are, after all, only mere amateurs…

The Mafia and the new Rolbos International Airport

godfatherSUM_1777724cWhen the long, black limo stops in front of Boggel’s Place, the conversation stops as the patrons all rush to the window. A limo? Here? Gertruida mumbles something about bad news always arriving in grand style, while good news usually sneaks in the back door; but the rest of the customers pay her no mind as they watch the large man being helped out by the chauffeur.

“That’s the….” Oudoom tries to place the familiar face, but the name escapes him.

“It’s the Minister of Public Works. Or Woman’s Affairs.” Servaas finished his beer when he turns back to the counter. Both these ministers have been the subjects of lengthy debates: the one because of the involvement with Nkandla, the other because they all agreed that the president was the best candidate for the portfolio. In the end, they couldn’t decide which had the more difficult job.

“But what’s he doing in Rolbos?” Gertruida doesn’t like surprises. She has to know everything, so it isn’t surprising that she is the one to go outside to welcome the new arrival. They watch as she tries three of the official languages before realising the man only understands English.

map-kgalagadi_park“They’re inspecting the town, guys,” she says when she returns, “apparently we’re short-listed as one of the possible sites for a new airport.” To their astonishment, she goes on to explain that Rolbos, Grootdrink and Upington are situated in favourable places to establish an international airport, being – as they are – in line with the route to and from the north. “They want to push the Northern Cape as a tourist destination, see? The Kgalagadi Transfrontier park isn’t far off, there are lots of wineries and then there is the Augrabies Falls, of course.”

“But that would mean…” Vetfaan doesn’t even want to finish the sentence.

“Exactly, Vetfaan. Houses, hotels, lots of people, parking lots. Rolbos as we know it, will cease to be. We’ll become a ….city.” Gertruida whispers the last word, horrified at the thought.

They watch as the minister struts up and down the short stretch of Voortrekker Weg, apparently visualising the new developments that would have to follow the construction of the aerodrome.

“We have to stop him.” Boggel wipes a bead of sweat from his brow. “But how…?

“Let’s invite him in and talk to him. Maybe we’ll come to some arrangement.” Gertruida gets up again. “If we don’t, you’ll pay for your drinks in Dollars at some Marriott hotel soon.”

“Talking? You want to try talking to a parliamentarian? That’s like trying to sell sand in the Kalahari, man! Well…you go and have your chat. In the meantime, we’ll work out a better plan.” When Vetfaan sees Gertruida hesitate, he shoos her out.

***l

The minister is a perfect example of a South African parliamentarian. His suit is tailored to fit the huge girth, his smile the typical politician’s: lips curled upwards, perfect teeth displayed, while the eyes remain cold and calculating. Yes, he wouldn’t mind something cool, thank you. When they enter Boggel’s Place, Gertruida is mildly surprised to find they are the only customers. So much for Vetfaan’s bravado! Scooting off to leave her to handle the situation alone…

“The government may be spending a lot of money here,” the minister says after the second beer, “it’ll transform your lives. New roads, improved infrastructure, an inflow of tourists and capital. Yes, you people will benefit greatly.”

“But you wouldn’t consider tackling such a huge project without thinking about the benefits…for yourself, I mean. Hopefully there’ll be a little something to sweeten the deal?” Gertruida, being her old cynical and direct old self.

“Oh.” The minister eyes her with new interest. This woman’s insight is amazing! “Yes.” He nurses the new beer Boggel has put in front of him. “It’s actually for Number One. The Prez, you see? He has some….problems…”

Gertruida has that uncanny ability to make people talk to her. She has perfected the harmless look – an older spinster in a nothing-town. No need to worry about security leaks here.

“You see, the prez is facing a difficult time. Everybody is shouting that he must pay back the money he…ah…misappropriated…for Nkandla. Even in the ruling party there are some who think he should go. And then, once he doesn’t have the protection of the loyal cadres, he might have to face the corruption issues surrounding the Arms Deal as well. Add to that a lavish lifestyle, too many wives and two dozen kids, and you realise this man is going to need cash – a lot of it.”

Gertruida nods. “Yes, and I don’t think the ESCOM crisis is helping much.”

The minister puffs up his cheeks and lets the air out, flapping his lips in a horsey sound. “Don’t even talk about that. Once the public realises the complete fiasco – bad planning, no maintenance, the way we export power to neighbouring countries while switching off our own economy – they’ll demand that he steps down.” A wan smile hovers on his lips. “Let’s face it: in any other country heads would have rolled. Here, we can at least rely on the masses. They don’t know the detail, you see… And even if they did, they won’t risk losing their pensions, the social grants and the way we’ve been pampering them with T-shirts and free food at rallies.  But big business? Now there’s a different kettle of fish! The pressure is mounting.”

The door bangs open, making the minister whirl around in shocked surprise. For a moment he thought the sound was a gunshot. (To be fair: conditioned reflexes are hard to modify. The minister stays in Gauteng, after all)

Credit: imgkid.com

Credit: imgkid.com

Gertruida has to fight hard to keep a straight face. Vetfaan, Kleinpiet and Servaas have put on their Sunday suits. Where did they get the sunglasses and hats? Servaas is actually smoking a cigar! The trio ignores Gertruida and forms a semicircle around the minister. Boggel almost feels sorry for the man as he watches his eyes bulge, his lips tremble.

Even stranger than their appearance is the way Servaas changed his voice. Marlon Brando would have been proud.

“I hear you plan to upset our little….enterprise. We take a dim view of that. You should have talked to us first…” Servaas inhales the pungent smoke, coughs wheezily and continues in his raspy tone. “But you are a busy man, I suppose. No time to plan everything properly, eh? So, here’s the deal. We will accept 50% of the kickback as a  sufficient apology.”

The minister  does a goldfish imitation while he tries to recover. Who are these men?

“Oh, sorry.” Gertruida manages to keep her voice level. Being a Godfather fan ever since she saw the movie for the first time in 1972, she immediately grasped what the men were up to. “Minister, this is misters Smith, Wesson and Glock. They…run…things around here.”

“W-what enterprise?”

“A lucrative one. It’s secret. If I told you, Mister Glock would have to kill you. Thats messy. Wesson hates cleaning floors. Better you don’t know.”

The minister swallows hard but manages to compose himself a bit.

“You can’t come in here and threaten me! I-I’m a minister.”

“Just shows you how powerful we are. To us, you are just an irritation.” Servaas shrugs. “We don’t care, you see? Now…I’ve made you an offer you can’t refuse. Either take it, or get out of town.”

***

On quiet days, Vetfaan plays the chauffeur while Kleinpiet takes on the role of the minister. Servaas, of course, has made Don Corleone’s role his own. And then they entertain the little crowd in the bar with a reenactment of the impromptu play: The Minister’s Departure. Vetfaan always makes the old Land Rover’s wheels spin when he races the minister out of town, just like it happened on the day the real minister left Rolbos.

The airport?

Oh, come on! There’s no airport near Rolbos –  but the upgrade of Upington’s facility is progressing nicely, thank you.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Gone, but not Forgotten – The plight of the Rhino

On one of Cape Town’s many spectacular beachfront walkways, you have to align the little bits of memory to remember what a rhino looks like. With more than 1000 of these animals poached in 2014 alone, it is a chilling reminder of how short sighted people can be. All too soon, these animals are soon to be extinct, with only a few stuffed specimens in the halls of museums to remind us of the greed of man…

***

Skip ahead ten years, and listen to the conversation between an old man (who can’t forget) and a very small boy (who’ll never remember)…

“You see, son, those animals were huge. They had funny faces, too – all wrinkled and strange. Small eyes – they couldn’t see very well.”

R1

“And their bodies! Large and cumbersome, they seemed like tanks on the battlefield. Ah, yes, and they were indeed involved in a war. Only, they were outgunned…”

r2_edited-1

“Oh, and I adored their backsides! Somehow the small head and the sturdy bum made this animal look …handsome…if you don’t mind me saying so.”r3

“But, Grandpa, why did the people kill all of these wonderful creatures? Surely they didn’t deserve to be extinct now? After all, you told me they had survived for millions of years  – floods, earthquakes, diseases…everything. And now…now they’re gone?”

“You’re right. They didn’t deserve what happened. But, to answer your questions, people shot these animals for a very small part of their bodies – the horn…”

r4The boy sighs. “I suppose I’ll never know what they really looked like. I do get an idea, though, from the bits you describe..”

“I’m glad. If you put the pieces together, you’ll get a good idea of the real thing.”

r5“No, son. You’ll have to try harder…”

“Okay,” the boy says, closing his eyes.

r6The old man smiles sadly. Yes, that’s about the best the boy can do. He’ll never see the real thing, though..

IMG_2096IMG_3689

Credit:

Artist: Andre Carl

Sculpture: Rhinosaur

View the 3D art on Sea Point Promenade, Cape Town.

To eternity…and back (#9)

Matron, a painting by Edward Irvine Halliday

Matron, a painting by Edward Irvine Halliday

Matron sat down after making sure that nurse Botha had closed the door properly. To say she was uncertain would be an insult to the ruler of her hospital empire, but in reality, her heart was thumping away wildly. How was she to manage this situation? Yes, give her a shocked, comatose patient, and she’d be galvanised into organised activity immediately. Or bring on that difficult breech delivery – she could handle that with professional ease. But this….? What was she supposed to do with a rebellious nurse and a lover that ruined her life? She sighed and stared at her hands…she’d just have to come up with something…

The trio in front of her seemed equally unsettled – except for Vetfaan, who had a sardonic smile, as if he knew something she didn’t.

“Look, this is uncomfortable for all of us. I realise you didn’t expect me here, Jocobus.” Shorty shifted his weight, staring at his feet. “You expected to make amends with Servaas, not me. And I suppose one should commend you for that, despite my absolute misgivings about your past. You have singlehandedly been responsible for my unhappiness for the last four decades. You cannot expect me to simply smile and tell you everything is all right. I can’t because it isn’t. I’ll bear the scars of that time for the rest of my life. If you can’t understand that, you’re a bigger imbecile than even I have given you credit for.” There was no mistaking the suppressed anger in her words. “But…what was done, was done. You moved on, and so did I. I tried…Lord knows how I tried…to forget you and what you’d done. And, despite what I may feel about your rejection, I cannot undo the past.”

Shorty opened his mouth as if he wanted to say something, but she held up a silencing hand.

“Don’t! Don’t say anything, Jacobus de Lange. Let me finish. I hate what you did, even if I forgive you. I…I suppose I’m still mad at you – and probably will be till I lay down my head. That is my problem and I can deal with it…provided I hear from you what I hope you were on the point of saying.”

She looked up expectantly, uncertainty written all over her face.

“Matron….Alice…I don’t even know where to begin. I’ve apologised to Servaas – that was easy. But you? How do I say ‘sorry’ when I’ve been bogged down with more guilt than you can imagine? How can I apologise when I can’t even forgive myself? How do I make amends for something I buggered up so completely such a long time ago?” Shorty wiped away the embarrassing tear coursing down his cheek with an impatient gesture. “So I’ll just say I’m sorry. Really. I’ve ruined your life as much as I’ve done my own. I know what I went through – I can only imagine what the effect on your life had been. And I…I have to live with that. Every day you think about what I did, is another day I look at myself in the mirror…and want to smash the bloody glass! I’m sorry, Alice. I’m so sorry…”

Much to especially nurse Botha’s surprise, the woman she had come to know as an emotionless, automated perfectionist, sat completely quiet during Shorty’s apology. Then her impassive face crumbled, melted, slowly deepening the furrows and lines on her forehead while the skin over her chin crinkled as if it had a life of its own. A sound – soft at first, almost inaudible – picked up volume and became a primitive wail; the oldest expression of grief known to mankind. By the time the tears started, Shorty was at her side, patting her back with no apparent effect.

Nurse Botha stormed out to get more tea. Vetfaan stood rooted to the spot, without the faintest idea how to manage the situation. He’d never had a clue what to do with crying women, anyway…

It took two cups of strong, sweet tea to calm matron Krotz down. Vetfaan, at last galvanised into action, produced a half-jack of peach brandy, which they shared between the four of them. It helped more than the tea did.

“Oh, bugger! It’s such a mess.” Krotz blew her nose with gusto, sniffed even more loudly and managed a wobbly smile. “I’m just glad every day doesn’t start like this.”

It was a lame attempt to lighten the atmosphere, but it worked. Nurse Botha giggled, Shorty shuffled his feet and Vetfaan wished he had brought more peach brandy.

“Matron…” Nurse Botha used the silence to get Krotz’s attention.

“What is it, nurse Botha?”Something in the matron’s demeanour told everybody she was fighting to sound stern, like her old self, but was failing miserably.

“I’m sorry I called you a …a…lady dog, Matron. I didn’t mean it. Really…”

They laughed at that. Long and hard, like people do when they don’t know what words to use to make things better.

***

Servaas had another dream that night – not a lucid one like he had before, but a dream he tried to remember afterwards and couldn’t. When he woke up in his own bed in Rolbos, he did feel much refreshed. He ascribed his euphoria to his home environment, not knowing that the answer lay at a much deeper level.

In the dream he was back on the dune – the exact same one of his previous dream – reaching out to Shorty, who he found easy to recognise this time. He did, indeed, rescue Shorty from the quicksand, but not like he imagined in the original dream. This time he was helped by all his friends from Rolbos, as well as a rather portly but friendly nurse.

***

Shorty never goes to Upington without stopping to have a cup of tea with matron Krotz. They seem to have reached a new understanding, in which they manage to talk about the old days without the anger and guilt that had burdened them so. While they agreed to let bygones be bygones, they are both old and wise enough to know they cannot retrace the steps to a romantic relationship. They do, however, pop in to Boggel’s Place about once a year to join the group at the bar. Just for old time’s sake, nothing more. (For now, at least.)

Servaas has made a full recovery. He firmly believes his illness had a purpose – something they all agree on. Oudoom asked him to speak about his near-death experience during one of the Sunday services, having invited some of the pastors and reverends from Upington. While the Rolbossers hung on to his lips, absorbing every word, the visiting learned clergymen afterwards dismissed his experience as a mere hallucination. Old people, they concurred, tend to romanticise and dramatise everything.

And nurse Botha? Why, you’ll find her in every hospital you ever set your foot (or other bits of your anatomy) in. She’s the one with the soft eyes; the shy, hesitant smile; the young lass sitting next to the critically ill patient, holding a withered hand. She may not be a beauty queen, but you’ll recognise her compassion as much prettier than the girls strutting about on the Miss World stage. If you see her, be kind. Tell her how important she is in a world that recognises power and money as the only currency. And do tell her she’s special. After all, no matron can run a hospital without her. She is, when all is said and done, everything that nursing – and caring and love – is all about.

Lastly: Servaas said something during his recounting of his near death awareness in church that pleased – and upset – Gertruida tremendously. He emphasised that nothing – nothing – is ever a coincidence. Whenever fate forces you onto an unknown path, look for the kindness, the compassion, hidden somewhere even in the most unfortunate circumstances. People don’t see it, he said, because they are too absorbed in their own planning of what they think they want in life. He quoted eloquently from Desiderata, reminding them that the universe will unfold just the way it has to – not according to the rather short-sighted roster each of us draws up for our own lives. And, he emphasised, although we so often doubt the concept, the basis of everything – life, the universe, relationships – is love. Without it, nothing in the past makes sense. Nor, for that matter, does the future.

When he spoke to the congregation, he made them repeat a sentence: There is a purpose to everything under heaven. To his and Gertruida’s dismay, the visitors didn’t join in. But then…when faith is based only on theory, one cannot blame them, can one? Maybe one has to die – or almost die – to realise this basic truth.

Or travel to eternity and back…

THE END

To eternity…and back (#8)

Credit:theguardian.com

Credit: theguardian.com

Perhaps it was the shock. After so many years of guilt (in Shorty’s mind) and anger (Alice Krotz), one might have expected things to go horribly wrong when Vetfaan unknowingly caused the two to meet again. After all, his goal had been to link Shorty up with Servaas again – how was he to know about matron Krotz? And matron, harbouring the deep hatred for the man who so ably ruined her romantic life forever, had ample reason to refuse to forgive the hapless Shorty, despite the best efforts of poor nurse Botha.

So, picture the scene:

The stage: matron’s office and the corridor in front of it.

The actors: Matron Krotz, seething with anger, staring at the closed door from behind her desk

Shorty, resting his head against the wall outside the closed door, emotionally drained,                          about to leave

Nurse Botha, storming out, having slammed the door, beside herself with fury

…and Vetfaan…

Vetfaan had been on his way to thank matron Krotz for taking such good care of Servaas, when his rather large bulk halted nurse Botha’s flight down the corridor.

People often look at Vetfaan, at his bulky frame and good-natured smile, and assume he’s this gentle giant of a man; maybe a little slow but with a good heart. And often, that’s exactly who Vetfaan is: the  last one to laugh at a joke, the first at the counter when drinks are on the house. But when he took in the scene in front of matron’s office, he instinctively connected the dots – correctly. Perhaps it wasn’t so hard, given the attitude and the appearance of the two people he encountered.

Nurse Botha, who had been storming blindly down the corridor a second ago, crashed into Vetfaan with a resounding thump! – and then felt the muscular arms fold gently around her. She resisted, trying to escape, for just a second, before surrendering to a gale of sniffling sobs. Vetfaan seemed to take it all in his stride as he rocked her softly, saying over and over again that everything will be all right.

Shorty, in the meantime, froze where he stood, half-turned to leave, yet sufficiently surprised by Vetfaan’s appearance to remain where he was.

“Difficult morning, eh?” Vetfaan kept his voice level as he addressed nobody in particular. “I just hate it when a day starts like this.”

“You…don’t…understa-a-a-a-nd,” nurse Botha wailed. “Th-h-hat …woman…is the…de-de-devil!” Vetfaan had to listen very carefully to make sense of the words between the sobs.

Shorty closed his eyes. Opened them again. Gulped. Spoke. “No she isn’t.” Something inside him forced him to speak. Over the years he had so often thought about Alice and the way he had treated her, and now the words insisted that he – at last – said them out loud. Even if he said them to strangers, there would be some relief. No more silence. No more denial… “She was – is – the sweetest girl I ever knew. She can be gentle, kind, compassionate, caring. I know that. I experienced that. But what I did, was as inexcusable as it was inevitable, I suppose. I was a wild one back then: always tempting fate to see how far I could go.”

By then, nurse Botha had stopped crying as she listened to Shorty’s confession.

“Alice – matron Krotz – was different. She had a naive innocence about her, and I was on course to destroy that. Fortunately, I never got that far. Before our relationship got to the next level, Fate intervened. Or God, if you like. Or the Natural Order of Things took over. Whatever… But, had we gotten married back then, the outcome would have been even worse than it is now.

“Well, little Jacobus came along, and he taught me so many lessons. He forced me to grow up, you see? Despite his many disabilities, he became my teacher. Life, I learnt, isn’t about the silly moments of laughter – it’s about love. And I loved that boy with all my heart – eventually. Once I had made peace with the fact that I’d made just too many mistakes in my past, little Jacobus became the focus of my future. I was determined to make him as happy as I could. My focus shifted from my own needs to his – a process that happened slowly over the years. And then, just when I finally understood why he had come into my life…he died…”

Shorty smiled wryly, despite the wetness around his eyes. By then, nurse Botha had turned around in Vetfaan’s hug, and the two of them stood listening to him with rapt attention. When Vetfaan made to loosen his arms around the nurse, she shook her head. She felt safe there…

“But Alice? I can understand why she does what she does – even how she does it. That spark of kindness and compassion never died, despite my stupidity. She became a carer for the sick, living and sharing her compassion with those most in need of it. And yes, she may be difficult and obtuse and stubborn…but why?” He paused before answering his own question. “Because her work had become her escape. It had to be perfect – if only to lessen the hurt I had made her suffer.”

Shorty straightened up. Life, he told them, first had to prune away his ego before – slowly, steadily – allowing him to discover the beauty of unconditional love.  “I once thought love was about being happy. How wrong I was! How stupid. Love isn’t a beggar wanting more. Love wants to give and give, even when you have nothing left.”

Vetfaan’s puzzled look didn’t worry him. If the burly farmer didn’t understand, then he will, one day. Anyway, he had said what he actually wanted to tell matron Krotz. The words were out, his burden ever so slightly less overwhelming. It was time to go.

“Thank you, nurse Botha, for trying. And thanks Vetfaan, for giving me the opportunity to talk to Servaas. At least I did that – talked to Servaas, I mean. It would have been nice to talk to Alice, but I don’t think she’d ever be prepared to listen to me, I suppose…”

At that moment the door cracked open and a  flushed Alice Krotz strode into the corridor.

“This is my hospital, and I will not have people discussing their private lives in public. It’s not done, dammit! Is this a confessional?   Do you think this is a psychiatrist’s office? This is…” she glared at them sternly, “…my hospital. My  corridor.” She took a deep breath, forcing herself to sound more reasonable. “Now, all of you get inside my office at once. Shees! What will doctor Welman think if he found us all here? I can just imagine his shock and horror! Go on…inside!” Was there the slightest hint of a smile on her face? “And you, nurse Botha, you go and make that damn tea you’re always going on about. And then you come back here, I have to talk to you about your manners.”

***

Gertruida says that human nature is a fickle thing.  The right word at the right time can change an explosive situation into a healing experience. Or vice versa, if one has to be honest, when the wrong thing is said at the wrong time.

When matron Krotz stared at the slammed door a few minutes before Vetfaan’s arrival, she was so ready to fire nurse Botha – even before she had time to resign. But when she heard Shorty speak to the others in the corridor, the reality of the situation settled in her mind. Shorty, as guilty as he was in wrecking her youth, was sorry! He even admitted his wrongs  – in public!  He had become a different man. And along the way, he had become the man she thought he would be. That meant – she reasoned – that she had been right all along, only at the wrong time. Shorty – like so many men – was a late developer. Male maturity happened to be, after all, such a different and tardy process compared to the female equivalent – which, in matron’s informed opinion, certainly proves the superiority of the latter.

And anyway, she had to admit to herself, she couldn’t run the hospital without the able help of that busybody, nurse Botha.

Matron stared at the three people – Vetfaan, silent and strong; Shorty, with uncertainty written all over his face; and nurse Botha, still visibly upset – over the rim of her steaming cup of tea.

For the first time in many, many years, Matron Alice Krotz had to wipe away a tear. Nothing in her training or experience had prepared her for a moment like this. How –  in heaven’s name –  was she supposed to handle this mess? But, being the woman she was, she set  her jaw firmly, swallowed hard, and prepared her speech in her mind. She’d show them….

(To be continued…)

‘And when they tell you that you’re crazy,
You’ve got to try to settle down,
You got to turn yourself around,
Life is more than just good times, and parties..’

…’