Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Rolbos Guide to 2015

d6Sweat the small stuff. Pay attention to detail, and the Big Stuff never becomes a problem. And never lose the wonder of even the smallest creatures around you.

d2Mother Nature has been around far longer than you have. Respect her, and by doing so, respect the world your children will live in. Never take anything for granted – even rocks decay with time.

d4There is beauty in everything – even in the harshest environment. Seek beauty, and Life will reward you in kind.

IMG_3851Take time off. Rest. Think. Reflect. And make sure you get enough me-time. Crowds and lots of friends may well have a place in your life; but that alone is insufficient to become who you should be. Nurture your uniqueness and avoid wishing you were somebody (or somewhere) else. And yes…you are good enough.

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Make sure you have at least one soft toy, and that it has a name. They are more loyal –  and give more solace and joy – than most people you know.

188_8855Be kind to older people. Visit them. Talk to them. Loneliness is the worst affliction of old age and more debilitating than any disease. Surprisingly, you’ll find that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

IMG_2629Study other cultures and history. You are a mere link in the very long chain of humanity. Losing sight of this simple fact. inflates the ego and kills humility.

IMG_2765Travel. See places you’ve never been to. There is no more sad a person than one who thinks the world ends at the city limits.

IMG_2801Birds fill your life with song. Learn the names of at least ten this year. And then study how they live. There are great lessons in this.

IMG_2876Learn to do things yourself. Depending on others inevitably leads to disappointment at some or other stage. It is the strong and independent mind  that survives the hardships we have to face every day.

IMG_3254Never cease to be amazed by the magic of  fire. Nor by the way light gets rid of darkness.

IMG_3349Never lose the ability to play. It’s the best way to stop taking yourself so seriously. Be loyal to those you love and they’ll join your fun.

IMG_3408If your mother is alive – then show her your love. If she has already passed on, never forget her legacy.

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Love your family – even the ones with bad manners. They are part of who you are. Rejecting them is to reject your own identity.

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Enjoy wine in moderation. It’s the best social lubricant ever invented.

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Lastly – you will face giants in the next year. That is inevitable, for Life has a way of challenging the best out of you. Sit back, smile humbly, be patient and at peace. No situation is permanent – and often the threat to your existence is as uncertain as you are. Wait…it’ll pass. Every day is a gift – be grateful.x51

Aboard a falling plane.

Credit: flightsim.com

Credit: flightsim.com

“This, my friends, has been a year of crashes.” Servaas folds the paper as he sits back to slip the reading glasses back into his pocket. “Those poor Malaysians! One country, three planes! It’s terrible.”

Gertruida nods. It is strange, she thinks, that both Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia are based in Malaysia. And now, after MH 370 had simply disappeared and MH 17 had been shot down, QZ 8501 was reported missing as well.

“Remember Blits Visagie? He was struck three times by lightning. He still goes fishing, though. Only insists on tackle with no metal in it.” Kleinpiet smiles at the memory of the withered, balding man he once met. “Well, he maintained that bad luck comes in threes. Now he’s afraid of the next sequence of strikes. Cats have three times as much luck as humans, he says, so he’s used up all his chances.”

“This is no joking matter, Kleinpiet. To lose an aircraft with its passengers must rate as one of the most harrowing experiences a country could live through. The families, the friends… My heart goes out to them.” Precilla, who scores a perfect 10 on the Empathy Scale, dabs a tear. “Imagine the terror of those passengers? Think about the loved ones…and them not knowing what had happened?”

“Ja, those incidents certainly makes one think about travelling. It’s better to stay here in the Kalahari. If we fall, we only go as far as the floor.”

“No, Vetfaan, you’re wrong. We may stumble about after a night of peach brandy, but that’s not the problem.” Servaas knits his brows together in a dejected scowl. “Those airline disasters made me think of our own country. We’re passengers on a political plane, completely at the mercy of the pilot, and the conditions we can do nothing about. And you know what? Our aircraft is twenty years old. It hasn’t been serviced. Our pilot has a Standard 3 certificate, and even he’s not at the helm these days. His copilot is doing most of the flying, but he’s lost the compass a while ago. The crew – mainly COSATU members – loves striking. They, too, have had so many infights lately that cabin service has ceased.

“We are, my friends, on a scheduled flight…but have strayed off the planned route so far that we may very well run out of fuel.”

“…And that’s why we have a power blackouts?”

Servaas ignores Kleinpiet’s attempt at humour. He’s in no mood for laughter. “You are right to remember Blits Visagie, Kleinpiet. Him, and his theory of threes. We’ve had Mandela, Mbeki, and now Zuma. What started out as a well-meant flight to freedom, has turned into a fiasco. We’ve lost thrust. We’ve lost a pilot. The landing gear has been stolen and there’s nobody listening for a Mayday. In short – we’re still alive, but the crash is inevitable. That’s what awaits us in 2015”

***

Despite the patrons in Boggel’s Place trying their best to cheer old Servaas up at the end of 2014, the atmosphere in the bar remains subdued, to say the least. They feel for the family and friends of the passengers and crew on board QZ 8501 and observe a moment of silence – a rare occurrence – in Boggel’s little establishment.

But…Servaas’s analogy has put a severe damper on their planned party on the 31st. Like Gertruida said: it’d be difficult to dance and sing while Rome is burning around them. Kleinpiet remarked that Rome is too far away to worry them, but that drew a disapproving look from the woman who knows everything.

“Humour may very well be the reason why we survived the last twenty years, Kleinpiet. Now, however, is not the time for snide remarks and glib statements. Our thoughts go out to those people in Indonesia. And – my word! – we should  no longer joke about our president. We should pray for him – he needs it.”

When Kleinpiet (on his fourth peach brandy) starts reciting Humpty Dumpty, Gertruida storms out, with Servaas right on her heels. Sometimes, she thinks, people’s insensitivity surpasses even their lack of understanding.

“Our country is sick,” she tells Vrede, who has followed her home. “Our aeroplane has lost power. Let’s hope there’ll be enough survivors to start over.”

And Vrede, much like so many of his human counterparts, sighs contently as he flops down for a well-deserved mid afternoon nap. The world out there is so far away…

Searching trough Yesterday

Meandering tracts through Baviaanskloof. Like Life, best viewed from a distance...

Meandering tracts through Baviaanskloof. Like Life, best viewed from a distance…

“Life,” Getruida says to nobody in particular, “is the eternal search through the past. It’s the only way to find your destiny.”

When she says something like this – and she’s quite famous for such thoughts – the patrons at the bar will fall silent or start talking about the drought. Trying to follow the creative meanderings of Gertruida’s formidable mind is like swimming in molasses – the more you try, the less you progress. Better then, to avoid the subject and remain on solid ground.

Gertruida’s statement follows one of her sleepless nights, in which she was forced to look back at her life in a strange and peculiar way…

***

Diana_(song)The knock at her door came after midnight, long after the fire in her hearth had burnt itself to ashes. The single candle on the coffee table still supported a spluttering little flame, the short wick drifting about in the last bit of molten wax. She’d been listening to one of her favourite artists of all time – Paul Anka – whose velvety voice and sad songs always carried her back to her youth. He wrote so many hits, including Frank Sinatra’s My way, Tom Jones’s  She’s a Lady and the theme from  The Longest Day, that it was difficult to silence the old record player. She simply relaxed and allowed the music to soothe her troubled mind.

And indeed, troubled she was. It had been a difficult year. A harsh year. A year filled with challenges and more disappointments than successes. Maybe it’s true to say this is typical of all years for all people; but like it happens with all people, Gertruida needed to revisit these events and situations from time to time. She believed – and still does – that such memories should not be buried amongst the chaos of everyday life, but that one should evaluate them carefully, be brutally honest and critically analytical before filing them away under the heading of ‘History’.

***

Nobody knocks on doors after midnight in Rolbos.

0494Gertruida got up carefully and moved the chintz curtain aside to peek at her porch. An older woman stood there, wearing a long, black dress and an old-fashioned kappie. It had been years and years since last Gertruida had seen such a bonnet and she stood riveted to the spot for a long minute. Who…? Why…? The questions flooded her mind.

“Are you going to stand there, gaping at me, all night? Open the door, woman!” The gravelly voice was feminine, indeed, but sounded ancient.

Gertruida turned the key to open the door.Even the dim light from the candle couldn’t hide the wrinkles and lines on her visitor’s face.

“Oh, step aside and stop gawking!!” An impatient and withered had pushed Gertruida aside and the old woman swept past her to sit down next to the candle. “And not a word from your clever tongue, young lady. I’ll do the talking tonight.” Seeing the blank expression on Gertruida’s face, the woman softened a little bit. “Oh, and sit down, will you?”

“Who…who are you…?”

The old woman sighed. “I told you to be quiet!” She wagged a stern finger at Gertruida. “But I suppose an introduction is in order.” She sat up a bit straighter. “I am Destiny. You know me well, Gertruida. Oh, we’re not blood-family or anything like that – we are much more closely involved with each other than with mere family ties.”

Gertruida’s hand flew to her mouth. “D-Destiny?”

“Yes, that’s me. And I don’t have time to waste.Places to go, people to see. Understand?” Despite not doing so, Gertruida managed to nod. “I’m here to steer your past. It’s important.”

The old woman – Destiny – relaxed a bit and leant back with a contented sigh.

“You tend to dwell on the impossible, Gertruida. That’s wrong. I have plans for you, but they won’t happen if you keep on drudging up the past. Sure, you had heartaches and failures and disappointments. There was this guy – Ferdinand – a love that ended so suddenly, so tragically, that you still can’t quite get over it. And you long back to your days in the city, where you were an important person and everybody sought your advice. And then, worst of all, you have evenings like these  where you sit and ponder the unanswerable questions, all of them starting with  ‘What if…?’.

This time, Gertruida’s nod was more convincing.

“Well, to get to the point: those thoughts are as important as they are useless. Yes, be honest in your thinking. Your history is, after all, the sum total of everything that happened to you. But so is your present. Every single thing that occurred in your life, had been extremely important. Not a second was wasted in your journey to the present.”

Destiny furrowed the already-wrinkled brow even more. “But I can’t understand this tendency of people to camp down when they go through a bad patch. Why on earth keep on returning to the broken souvenirs of your past? That, my dear, is such a waste of time.” She made to get up, but Gertruida held up a restraining hand.

“Madam…Destiny…is the past then so negligibly unimportant, even forgettable? Of no significance ?”

Another sigh, longer this time. Impatient. “Oh, you of feeble minds! Didn’t you listen? Your past – so beautifully intricate – had to have multiple elements to form your current state of life. Some of them – admittedly –  might have been painful, but that is what pruning is all about, isn’t it? You leave that tree to grow just the way it wants, and your harvest will shrink every year. But cut away the unnecessary bits, and the tree thanks you by bearing more in the following season. You should be doing the same…”

Gertruida  shook her head. “It’s not easy…”

“Look,” the old woman said as she got up, “nobody said it would be. Let me put it to you simply: there are two main types of setbacks in your life: some are of your own doing, some not.

“For the first type, you insist on becoming something you weren’t designed to be. You become a hybrid of your own making. That’s when pruning is most important – those situations are life lessons. To guide you to unbecome what you’re not and develop into who you were supposed to be.

“And the second type you have no control over. People die. People walk away. Sometimes they are making their own mistakes but often they’re not. You see, there is an inevitability to Life you have no control over. These events are the fertilizer Life adds to make you grow. To strengthen you. To increase your harvest. You have to work through such times and come out the better for it.”

Gertruida brightened a bit, finally grasping the essence of the visit.

“And…that is….destiny?”

The old woman laughed for the first time. “Yes, my dear. I told you: that’s me.”

***

“One should welcome a visit by Destiny,” Gertruida remarks as Boggel slides over a new beer. “It helps us to understand Life.”

Vetfaan eyes her critically before staring out of the window. “It’s going to be another harsh year,” he says as he watches a dust devil march down Voortrekker Weg. “Dry and challenging.”

“Ferilizer, Vetfaan, fertilizer.”

***

It’s true to say that we don’t always hear what others are telling us. Oh, we hear the words, all right, but the message is lost because we don’t understand the context. That’s why Vetfaan turns to Servaas, circling a calloused finger next to his head. Servaas shares a conspirational smile with his friend. Fertilizer? In the Kalahari?

Oh, come on!

For Gertruida, however, a new realisation dawned that night. She woke up refreshed and would have discarded  the night’s occurrences as a dream – except for one thing: the kappie Destiny had left on the chair. Like so many things in Life, that was no accident. Destiny has a way of convincing each of us of her presence during our lifetimes. It just takes longer for some…

Vetfaan’s Disaster

wrapping-paper-envelopes-tags-discarded-in-pile-after-Christmas-2-DHD“Christmas,” Vetfaan tells the group at the bar, “is such a waste!” He waits for a reaction, gets none, and is forced into a submissive smile. The townsfolk know him so well! His inability to endure silence in Boggel’s Place often makes him say controversial things to get the conversation flowing again. Today, being Saturday and after the festive days of Christmas, the patrons at the counter seem content to share a reflective quiet, which doesn’t suit Vetfaan at all.

“I mean, all that paper!” He glances around hopefully, but still nobody responds.

“Okay. Here’s the thing. How about we discuss something and I buy a round for everybody?” This, of course, results in everybody’s complete and undivided attention. Naturally, they wait for Boggel to serve the promised round before Servaas lets out a protracted ‘Ye-e-e-s?”

“Look, every Christmas we exchange gifts. Right? And so do the people in Grootdrink and Upington?” All eyes now on him, he proceeds to expand on his plan. “And that’s nice. But…what about the wrapping? Tons and tons of paper, ripped and torn and useless?” He pauses.

“Is that a rhetorical question, Vetfaan? Nice one.” (Gertruida, of course.)

“No! Think of all the trees! And don’t forget that paper gets made in huge factories that aren’t always environmentally friendly. Paper, my friends, shouldn’t be thrown away after a single use. We’re killing the planet…”

“That’s true. The carbon footprint of paper is more than that of plastic. There’s this professor…mmm… I think it’s David Tyler, who worked it all out. He’s not all that keen on paper at all.” Now it’s Gertruida’s turn to smile. “He’s made a few strange statements, though. He says the environmental impact of owning a dog, is worse than driving a 4X4!.”

Vrede, dozing quietly on on Boggel’s cushion below the counter, looks up proudly, wags his tail…and slips into his doggy-dreamworld again.

“The point I want to make is this: we owe it to the planet to do something with the paper.” Vetfaan refuses to be sidetracked. “I suggest we collect as much paper as we can, and then build a statue or something. You know, with that porridge you make with paper…?”

“Paper mache.” (Getruida, again.)

“Whatever. But something useful, understand? So we can help the planet.”

It is quite evident that Vetfaan must have spent a great deal of thought on the subject, and Kleinpiet is suitably impressed. Even Servaas seems mildly enthusiastic.

o“But it has to be something useful, Vetfaan. It won’t do to make a sculpture of a cow, like they did in America. In Redwood Falls, if I remember correctly – The Calf Fiend Cafe. Those Americans are great at coming up with useless ideas. Look at what it cost to put a man on the moon? I mean…why?” Gertruida allows a moment for them to come up with a reason why it was important to take a small step for man, a huge leap for mankind. “No…whatever we do, it must serve a proper purpose.”

“We’ll build a house! Wow!” Obviously impressed with the idea, Precilla jumps up with a commanding finger in the air. “Think about it! If we can perfect the building of a Christmas-paper home, we can patent the design. We’ll make millions! With the entire South Africa’s Christmas wrappings, the government won’t have homeless people to worry about anymore! The next Nkandla will cost next to nothing!”

They all agree that Precilla has just come up with the best idea to come out of Boggel’s Place for 2014 – an honour that deserves to be rewarded by a round of peach brandy.

“A house? Well…that could be tricky.” Gertruida – always the practical thinker – tells them that they’ll have to experiment a bit. “While paper mache should dry extremely well in our weather, we have to make sure it’s strong enough to hold a roof. I don’t know…”

“We’ll build a model.” Determined enthusiasm in his voice, Vetfaan takes command of the conversation again. “Something small. Like architects do. And if it works, we go big. Really BIG!”

***

One of the strange things about small, rural towns, is the phenomenon Gertruida calls the ‘collective communal mind’. She says it’s a universal thing. If, for instance, somebody did something wrong, the community unites in it’s disapproval. Or if somebody comes up with a brilliant idea, everybody believes he or her initiated the project. In cities the community is too large to accommodate collective thinking, which (according to Gertruida) is why you have drugs and parliaments in such places.

Be that as it may, Boggel’s veranda soon resembles a scene from one of those American movies, where they depict the aftermath of a tornado or one of those asteroids that they are so keen on these days. Oudoom is greatly saddened by this tendency. He laments the fact that the end of the world draws more people into movie theatres than the church does.

Paper of all colours and sizes flutter about on the veranda: shredded paper, old newspapers, cardboard boxes from the shed behind Sammie’s Shop, beer cartons, milk cartons, boxes of many sizes and shapes. Paper piled up to the window sill, forming a mountain of waste.

Gertruida (who else?) supplies the recipe for paper mache, using flour and water…and shredded paper products. The townsfolk’s enthusiasm is directly proportionate to the amount of peach brandy Boggel supplies, resulting in an almost-Shakespearian scene where the witches dance around the boiling cauldron.

When at last they’ve boiled down the waste, they stand around the huge pot, looking down at the meagre result.

“All that paper…and we’ve only got this much mache?” Vetfaan’s disappointment is obvious.

“We’re only building a model, Vetfaan. It doesn’t have to be much for that. Have another.” Kleinpiet pats his friend’s back while offering a tot from the next bottle.

“It’ll have to be a hut.” With a shake of his head, Vetfaan tells them a Nkandla would take about as much wasted paper as one would find in the Union Buildings.

***

zuluhutsThe traditional Zulu hut is a masterpiece. Carefully formed over a mould of chicken wire, it draws an appreciative applause when Gertruida smooths own the dome. The model gets parked in the middle of Voortrekker Weg to dry while the hard-working townsfolk retire to the bar for some well-deserved refreshments.

They have, they tell each other, just solved the housing crisis in the country. However, Vetfaan’s remark that even the president would want to live in one of these huts, just doesn’t ring true. Like Gertruida has to remind him: these huts are only supposed to accommodate normal families.

When they return to Boggel’s Place the next day, the fatal flaw in their thinking is obvious.

***

“It’ll only work if there are no dogs around.” Vetfaan scowls at Vrede, who yawns his embarrassment.

“Ag, come on, Vetfaan! It was a great idea. Dogs will be dogs, you know? And how could we know that Vrede had this affinity…this taste…for paper mache?”

“That, and the other problem, of course.”

The stand around the dried model with the somber looks one reserves for a wake. Vrede did an excellent job at shredding the model, that’s quite obvious. The more subtle damage is, however, the most upsetting.

“Imagine a simple act like that causing so much destruction?”  Pointing at the fresh hole in the structure, Vetfaan shakes his head. Rimmed by a yellow stain, there is no doubt as to what (or who) caused the new opening.

“Maybe….” Servaas smiles impishly, “maybe we can market it as doggy toilets? You know, for beaches and parks and things like that.”

***

Boggel’s Place is known for it’s comfortable, friendly atmosphere. Usually. Unless you ask Vetfaan about paper mache houses. For some reason, it causes a twin growl – one from below the counter and one from above…

The Day After

Credit: jennykellet.com

Credit: jennykellet.com

And then, suddenly, unexpectedly – but still the way it happens every year – Christmas was over. The tinsel and the figurines, even the Star of Bethlehem, looked out of place. Tired, even. The mistletoe above the door of Boggel’s Place, once greeted with so many lewd but understanding smiles, no longer attracted a second (hopeful) glance. There was, once again, place in Life’s proverbial inn for everyday matters.

Sadly so.

Vetfaan had been thinking about this when he walked into Boggel’s Place..

“What did you get for Christmas?” He asked during a lull in the conversation.

He got a mixed-up chorus of answers, ranging from peach brandy to a new beer glass.

“No, that’s not what I asked. I asked: What did you GET for Christmas? You know? Up here?” He tapped his head. “And here?” His calloused hand rubbed his chest.

Silence.

“A hangover? And…heartburn?” Kleinpiet had no idea what Vetfaan was going on about.

“No, I get it!” Servaas brightened. “You mean on a…spiritual…level?”

“Too commercialised,” Gertruida quickly said. “Too many Jingle Bells and Drummer Boys. The spirit of Christmas is alive and well in the shops, but that’s all. I heard there was a queue in Pick ‘n Pay in Upington. Can you believe that? Unheard of! But Oudoom says Pastor Holiface delivered his Christmas sermon to three people: his wife, the janitor and a somewhat weird homeless person.”

“That’s the new reverend in that church where they threw out the organ and replaced it with  band? Shew! I thought they attracted so many people?”

“Just goes to show, Servaas. To change people, you need more than a guitar – unless your name is Elvis, then you change the world.”

They all laughed at that, of course, but not because they thought Gertruida had been so funny. No…because they realised how true her words were. Shock, rather than mirth.

“Sooo…why was he weird?” Boggel arched a curious eyebrow, steering the talk in a more relaxed direction.

“Oudoom says that man was already in the building when Holiface opened the doors yesterday morning. But it was Christmas, so he decided not to make a scene. If the man sought shelter there overnight, then it would have been wrong to throw him out. Anyway, the man had such a sad face that he decided to talk to him after the service. However, when he said Amen, the man just got up quietly and left. Holiface actually looked for him afterwards, but couldn’t find him.”

Anybody who knows rural life, knows how seemingly small, insignificant events tend to be subjects of lengthy discussions. It’s no different in the Kalahari. People get tired of talking about the drought and the president’s wives, so it’s not strange that the Weird Man became the subject of speculation. Who was he? Where did he come from? Where is he now? Is he really…homeless?

The ever-romantic Precilla said something about Jesus often being in our midst without us recognising Him. Oudoom scowled at that, turning the concept over in his mind, and decided not to say anything. Yes, The Saviour might be present in an invisible form, but to think of Him as more than a spiritual presence would be absurd. Still, getting into an argument about that – on the day after Christmas – would be unchristianlike, right?

Precilla’s remark did spark a discussion, though. What if (Servaas asked) Jesus returned to the earth? “To check up on things a bit, understand? Sort of like a pre-Rapture inventory before the real Apocalypse. I bet He wouldn’t be impressed…”

He wanted to go on, but this time Oudoom did break his silence to admonish his head elder. He was saying something about blasphemy when Sersant Dreyer walked in with the troubled look he got when there was work to do.

“There’s been an accident near Grootdrink. An unidentified male was killed while he was hiking. A lorry ran over him. I just had a call from Upington – said it appeared to be a homeless person. Still, they wanted to know if anybody from Rolbos was missing.”

One can assume that the shocked silence following his remark might have puzzled Dreyer.

“Dead? He’s dead?”

“That’s what they said, Precilla.”

They all thought it but didn’t dare say it.

“Well, that settles it. Couldn’t have been Him.” Servaas sounded much more confident than he was.

Dreyer frowned. “Who…?”

“Ag, you won’t understand.”

***

Although Vetfaan then said something about the drought  – a subject everybody suddenly seemed very keen about – the atmosphere in Boggel’s Place remained subdued. It was as if an inexplicable sadness settled amongst them – a melancholic post-Christmas feeling for a homeless man they didn’t even know.

Should one have asked Gertruida, she would have explained that it was the way of the world: we celebrate things we don’t understand simply to have a good time. The mad shopping, the wild parties and the too-often repeated (and therefore almost meaningless) wishes – according to her – aren’t really what Christmas is all about. Christmas, she would have reminded them, should be the culmination of a year-long quest for kindness and humility – and not just a single day dedicated to  frivolous partying. And, she could add, while Christmas represents  the end of another year’s struggle to achieve these goals, it also signifies the beginning of the next period of  effort to do the same.

And…she could have told the group at the counter that Jesus – during His time on earth – also didn’t have a fixed address.

But we all know Gertruida: she often retreats behind the walls of her immense intelligence, which is why she doesn’t always say everything that crops up there.

She sat there in her corner, listening to the rest talking about their hopes for a better season in 2015, and thought about how effectively the commercial world hijacked Christmas. It’s as if we took Christ out of Christmas and then drove over His legacy with our eighteen-wheel desire for a few superficial laughs.

The homeless man? Could have been anybody, really.

Or not.

He is, however, no longer with us.

Just like Christmas…

Flowers of the Holy Night

Euphorbia-pulcherrima-GIM002923_0It’s become a tradition in Boggel’s Place to challenge Gertruida – who knows everything – to tell the patrons at the bar a new Christmas story on the night of the 24th every year. Not any old story, though. The theme has to be Christmas, of course…and it has to be (more or less) true. Over the years she has told them the story of Bethlehem; the wonderful tale of Pete, Santa’s helper; and how – on Christmas day – wars were stopped to allow soldiers to join in singing ‘Silent Night’. This year is no exception – she’ll have to come up with something fresh.

“Come on, Gertruida, it’s time for your story.”

Gertruida smiles happily. “Mmmm…okay. Pick a theme, and I’ll see what I can do.”

Servaas stares at the dry desert outside; this summer has been particularly dry and hot. The stunted shrubs of the Kalahari are struggling to survive, with only a few dust-covered leaves as evidence of life.

“Flowers,” he says with a mischievous grin, “tell us a Christmas story about flowers.”

Gertruida doesn’t bat an eye. “Okay…”

****

It’s been a harsh year for the small family. They usually managed to make enough money by selling eggs and chickens; but that year some disease had struck, killing off most of their stock. Supplementing their income by knitting and cutting wood didn’t help as much as they’d have liked, either. Pepita’s father had to leave to work in the city while her ailing mother became more and more bedridden.

But…it was the night before Christmas. Even if her mother was too ill to leave the home, Pepita was determined to attend mass in the local church. Maybe, she thought, her mother would be blessed with improving health if she attended the service.

Oh, she knew about the tradition in town. Like in the rest of Mexico, the townsfolk would bring gifts to place before the altar in church – usually beautifully crafted gifts, even money or a variety of foodstuffs. And…she had nothing to give. No gifts for the Son of Bethlehem. This caused her to walk slowly, wondering if she shouldn’t turn around and head back home. With tears streaming down her cheeks, she set her jaw: she’d go anyway! She had to pray for her mom…

The cheery greeting from behind startled her. It was Pedro, her rich nephew. He was dressed in the finest clothes and carried a large, wrapped box. Despite the fact that Pedro lived in the better part of town, the two of them often played together and got along quite well.

“Oh Pedro…” She sniffed loudly and wiped away the tears. “I’m so ashamed. Look at me! Look at my clothes. And…I have no gift to offer…”

Pedro felt sorry for her, but what could he do? Even if he had money to buy a gift for her, the village shop was closed on this holy evening.

“Uh…I dunno. You have nothing? Nada? Really? Maybe it’d be better not to go?”

She only managed a nod.

Pedro saw how distraught she was and suggested that they sat down to think. There, at the edge of the dusty track, the two of them decided to pray for an answer. Should she go? Face the ridicule of the town with her threadbare dress and grubby feet…and no gift?

Anything, Pepita. You can bring anything…as long as you do it with a pure heart. 

Pepita looked up in surprise. She had heard those words quite clearly, as if they were spoken right next to her. But … it certainly wasn’t Pedro who spoke. The voice was far too beautiful – it sounded like a woman…didn’t it? And look, Pedro is over there, and the voice came from…here...?

Anything…pure heart.

Pepita looked around. The only thing next to the road, was a wilted weed. Could she? Should she…? The voice said anything…didn’t it?

***

“And so the little girl walked into that church with a meagre bouquet of…weeds! Oh, the villagers pointed fingers and whispered furiously, but Pepita proceeded down the aisle to lay her weeds at the feet of the statue of Mary and Jesus.  Please, she whispered, this is all I can bring. But…I bring it with love. With a pure heart.”

Gertruida tells the story so well – you can hear a pin drop in Boggel’s Place.

“Well, that little girl scampered from the church and went home. Her mother was still as ill as before. The pantry was still empty. Nothing had changed.”

That night, Pepita cried herself to sleep…again.

It was just after dawn that the excited voices outside made her sit up.

“Pepita! Pepita! Your weeds! Come, have a look!”

She peeked through the torn curtain to see a mass of people outside. Pedro stood right in front, beckoning urgently. After a hasty goodbye to her mother, Pepita stepped outside. What was this all about?

“Come! Come quickly. You have to see this!”

The crowd swept her along, but when they got to the church, they stepped aside – forming a guard of honour as they urged her inside. And when she did, she fell to her knees.

There, in front of the altar, her weeds had changed during the night. The altar was now festooned with the greenest leaves, the reddest flowers Pepita had ever seen.

***

the-aztec-empire“Those red flowers are now part and parcel of the Mexican Christmas tradition. It’s a beautiful flower, which is why the Aztecs also dedicated the red blooms to their deities. It was so pretty, that the American ambassador to Mexico brought it to America in 1828.

“Now, when you look at these flowers, you’ll recognise the shape of the Star of Bethlehem. The red represents the blood of Christ, of course – or love, if you prefer to think about it that way. imagesAnd the specks of white? That’s the sign of purity. All in all, these flowers –  called ‘Flores de Noche Buena’ (‘Flowers of the Holy Night’)  in Mexico – contain many symbols we’d associate with Christmas, but it is the message of humility and honesty that truly speaks to us.

“Christmas is not a time for extravagance. Forget the dazzling diamonds, the glittering gold and the glamorous gifts. Do what Pepita did: whatever you give – if anything – give it with a pure heart. Give it with love. It is, after all, not the price of the present that counts – it’s the cost.”

“Huh?” Vetfaan sits up straight suddenly. Gertruida can be sooo…oblique!

“In this world, Vetfaan, we look at the tag in the shop. We calculate the effect on the budget and the impression we want to make on the receiver. The more opulent the present, the greater goodwill, see? It is as if we manipulated the whole idea of Christmas into a system of trying to impress others.

“But it shouldn’t be like that. Love and purity aren’t self-sustaining characteristics. They represent hard work, compassion, kindness and conviction. That’s the cost, my friend, and it’s sadly lacking in so many presents that’ll be exchanged on Christmas day. Love and purity remain the most precious gifts anybody can give on Christmas day. Or on any other day, for that matter. It’s priceless

“The flower, Gertruida? What’s it called?”

“It was called after the American ambassador, Servaas. Dr Joel Roberts Poinsett. The Aztecs called ‘Cuetlaxochitl,’ and it’s botanical name is ‘Euphorbia pulcherrima’. Everybody knows it as Poinsettias, but I prefer ‘Flower of the Holy night’.”

Boggel holds up a hand. He has  to know. “And what happened to Pepita and her mother, Gertruida?”

Gertruida falls silent for a while, thinking hard.

“Well, you won’t believe it! Because it was Pepita who brought the miracle to the town, all the gifts in the chapel were given to her and her mother. There were food and clothes, money and gold, ornaments and many more presents. Oh, they were so happy! It was the best Christmas ever! Her father returned from the city and her mother recovered completely.” She sighs happily. “Such a wonderful, miraculous ending…”

***

Of course Gertruida lied – just a little bit – about the ending. The Mexican legend of the Flores de Noche Buena doesn’t elaborate on what happened to poor Pepita, nor does it say anything about the fate of the family. But it was Christmas, after all, and Gertruida felt the obligation to bring hope to her listeners. It’s been such a hard year filled with so much trials and tribulations, she knew they’d simply love a happy ending.

No, it wasn’t wrong of her to twist the tale a bit. She did it with purity and love – which are the main ingredients of miracles, remember?

A huge ‘Merry Christmas’  to all the readers of Rolbos. May you and your loved ones experience this Christmas as a special one, filled with grace and blessing; kindness and hope.

And love, of course…lots of Love…

Gertruida’s Four Letters

Credit: bonhams.com

Credit: bonhams.com

Gertruida hates Christmas time. Well, strictly speaking, that’s not quite true – she doesn’t hate all of it. She loves the atmosphere in Boggel’s Place in the days running up to Christmas and attends Oudoom’s service on the day itself. There, with everybody saying nice words and shaking friendly hands, she always manages to shake off the black cloud hovering over her past.

But…

There is that black cloud. It’s that voice inside her head, reminding her of what could have been. She’s read somewhere that it isn’t unusual for people to become reflective towards the end of the year – before the blank calender promises new opportunities and the proverbial clean slate. She understands that Life requires one to take stock from time to time; that this analysis has to be brutally honest and that the report card of this examination isn’t always flattering. This, she is quite happy to accept. But those four letters, the backbone of the black dog sniffing at her heels, are different. They represent the poignant, sad moments of opportunities missed.

And every year, in the days before Christmas, she finds herself standing on tiptoe to reach the box she hides behind the old linen in the cupboard in her bedroom. How often has she wished she had burned them, torn them up, destroyed them! But no. She can’t. Even if she could, she won’t be able to forget the words. They have become part of Christmas. And, although she detests reading them again, she knows she has to. She believes – despite the pain it causes – that it’s a form of repentant healing. Limit the reading to once a year, she tells herself whenever she thinks of it,  that way you don’t ignore them, but at least they don’t rule your life.

Sighing,she spreads them on the table.

***

My darling daughter

You’ve made it through school! Well done! What excellent results! I’m so very proud of you. 

Well, this Christmas will probably be the last you spend at home. University beckons and you have a new life waiting. You’ll spread those clever young wings and discover new friends and new places. My Christmas wish for you is that you’ll find success and happiness in the years to come.

And remember – even if you’re far away, I’ll always be near.

Love,

Mom.

Gertruida puts the letter back in the envelope. Her mother died that February – a car accident – making this is the last letter she ever received from her. She should have reciprocated by writing something back: a letter telling her mother how precious she had been, how much she had meant and how much she loved her. She never did…

Hi Gerty,

Wow! It’s Christmas again! Can you believe the way time flies? When we started studying, university seemed so daunting – and here we are, graduated and ready to make a difference in our beautiful country.

I’ll be reporting to Voortrekkerhoogte on the 3rd of January to start my compulsory year in the army. It’s a drag, but we all have to do it, I suppose. I almost can’t imagine what it must be to march around in browns on a dusty parade ground, bearing a rifle – you know how I hate guns!  I’ll just have to grin and bear it.

How about you and I sneaking off to some remote spot over New Year’s? We can pitch the tent at that waterfall in Eastern Transvaal, just like we did over Easter. We’ll have wine, lots of debate and make love under the stars? Come on, Gerty, say yes!

Looking forward to your reply,

Love,

Josh.

The date stamp on the envelope is for the 4th of January. By the time she received the letter, Josh was in the army. And…he never returned.

Hello again, you sexy thing!

Gosh, you challenge me in so many ways! Well, this is Christmas and you have to give me a break. Let’s – you and I, alone – disappear for a while. There’s this delightful little hotel in Arniston – a great view over the sea, a fantastic menu and a wine cellar you won’t believe! We can read and have fun – which will be a change from travelling all over the world, trying to tell heads of state that we’re not such a bad lot. (An impossible task, but that’s the diplomatic corps for you!)

So, what do you say? Let me know so I can arrange the bookings.

Lots of luv,

Bertie

Gertruida smiles, despite the anger building up again. Yes, they did go to that romantic hotel. That’s where that bastard Bertie met that hussy. On the third day of their stay, this young…vixen...started talking to Bertie while they were on the beach. Despite the intervening years, Gertruida can still close her eyes to view the scene: Bertie the seasoned diplomat, so often on the front page of the newspapers. And Angie, the ‘American girl on vacation‘, dressed in the skimpiest tiny bikini, rolling her eyes and fluffing up her hair. Bertie had no chance.

Two months later Bertie knocked on her door at midnight. He was so sorry, he said. Made a huge mistake, Please forgive him? He had fallen for the oldest trick in the spy book and now the Russians had certain…er…compromising…photos of him, courtesy of Angelina Suvorov, Moscow’s GRU agent.

Bertie told her he had no choice in the matter. He was defecting to Russia. His career in South Africa was over, maybe he can start over in Moscow. He did, he reminded her, have a lot of information the Russians would kill to have.

She told him to go away, not realising how prophetic his words were.

Dearest Trudie,

It’s Christmas again and I must tell you how much I miss you. 

Let me start properly, otherwise I’d confuse you. I don’t want to do that. Remember me? Bennie Botha? We dated a few times – three, to be exact – way back in our second year in varsity. Two movies and the church picnic. 

Well, we were young and a bit stupid, I suppose. I was, anyway. I don’t think you’ve ever been stupid in your life. Still, as quietly as we drifted towards each other in those silly days of sunshine and laughter, so silently we drifted apart again. Students can be so…shortsighted!

And here we are, thirty years later, and I can still remember the yellow ribbon you wore in your hair. And the brooch, the one you said you inherited from your mother. And the way you laughed at my meagre jokes. And the tree. It is still there, on the lawn where we used to chat between lectures.

I’m writing to wish you a merry Christmas. In fact, many merry Christmases. You see, this will be my last Christmas – that’s what the doctors say. And, as such, I’m trying to make up for the many Christmases I didn’t wish you well. It’s not that I didn’t think of you. Never! I did…all the time.

You know – of course – that I eventually married Vanessa Greyling, who started studying law while we were in our final year. She loves me and I tried to be a good husband for her. That’s why I never contacted you – didn’t want to upset dear Vannie. But now, with the end nearing, I told her about you. You know what? She said she knew all along! And she encouraged me to write, saying she’d like to meet you someday. 

So. This is a confession and a goodbye. I needed to tell you that I thought about you often, that I cherish the memory of the time we spent together, and that you served as a guiding light – even in absentia – over the years.

And, Gertruida? Enjoy Life. It’s the greatest gift. 

Yours,

Bennie.

Gertruida stares at the letters. One from Mom. Another from a school friend. One, a reminder of such a sad affair. And one from dying man. All of them in the past, all of them reminders that life is fleeting and that nothing lasts forever.

And yet – this is the sad part, the reason for the hovering black loud – the letters also convey something else. Love, Gertruida realises, does not conform to the limitations of time. Reading the words every year, she gets the feeling that they are as real and actual now as when they were written. Before she returns the letters to their hiding-box, she hugs each one in turn – wishing that time wasn’t such a cruel thing. Would things have turned out differently if she had spent more time with the writers of the letters? Could she have said more? Or less? Or done things differently?

Oh well.

Once the letters have been read, Gertruida will return to Boggel’s Place. The patrons know her well by this time. They’ll let her sit quietly at the window while they joke and carry on at the counter. But then, later, they’ll draw her into some impossible argument and force her to debate a silly point. And then she’d thaw, laugh with them, and shove the black cloud aside.

Four letters. Life. Love. Hope. Time.

This Christmas, she decides, she’ll make time stand still. Cherish the moments. Live and love and hope with those around her. She will not repeat the mistakes of her past.

Gertruida’s Gift

What-Women-Really-Want-for-ChristmasThe orphanage in Grootdrink was much like Boggel remembers it. The buildings were a little more dilapidated, the fence a little more worn down and the cracked chimney had lost another few bricks – but the basic structure and layout had not changed since the days he spent his youth in the place. The new government didn’t have much funds for such social projects anymore; their attention was then on the voters, who relied heavily on social grants to eke out a living in the shantytowns the president insisted on calling informal settlements. It was two years after Nelson Mandela coined the phrase of The Rainbow Nation, and people still believed in a better future. Like the orphanage, the term would erode away in the years to come.

When they stopped at the gate, Vetfaan saw the curtains of the lounge part for a second, to reveal the excited faces of the children who had been waiting for Santa Clause – or Kalahari Santa, as they called him. This was a yearly pilgrimage by the Rolbossers (Boggel’s initiative) to bring joy to the rather dreary lives of the orphans. Vetfaan dressed up as Father Christmas because he didn’t need stuffing under the bulky red coat. The rest of the townsfolk came as themselves, each bearing a few presents. Even Servaas managed a smile when they knocked on the door – to give to these kids was a reward unto itself. When you have so little, the excitement of receiving surpasses the value of the gift. The children got something they could actually call their own, in contrast to the toys, books and clothes they were forced to share amongst themselves.

“Ho, ho ho!” Vetfaan had practiced a lot to manage an authentic Father Christmas laugh. It was Gertruida who suggested the double tot of peach brandy which perfected the sound. “Can I come in?”

“Yay! Ye-e-e-es!!” The exuberant welcome left no doubt about the children’s anticipation.

Oudoom quitened the children down, read the famous passage from Luke 2, and reminded them that Jesus too – in a manner of speaking – had been an orphan. The man who guided him into adulthood, wasn’t his father.

“We’re all orphans – did you know that? Yes, some of us have earthly mothers and fathers, but our true Father is in heaven.” Oudoom faltered for a second as he shot a nervous glance to Gertruida. They’ve had numerous arguments about heaven, where it is and what it is. Please, his look said, not now. We’ll just confuse the kids. He sighed in relief when she winked back. “And us grown-ups? Our parents may have long since departed, making us true orphans, as well. So…what I’m telling you, is this: being an orphan doesn’t mean you are unwanted or unloved. Nothing – nothing – compares to the love of your Heavenly Father….”

“…or Father Christmas!” A scruffy little boy with a mischievous grin interrupted Oudoom’s sentence, much to the delight of the rest.

“Ah yes. Father Christmas. The man with the red coat and the black boots. Okay, he might be an important figure at Christmas time, but where is he the rest of the year? Anybody seen him in June?”  Seemingly unflustered by the interjection, Oudoom picked up on the remark, anyway. He waited while the children shook their heads. No, the rest of the year, Father Christmas was strangely absent, indeed. “So I want you to change your thinking about Father Christmas a little bit. See him as the one who comes bearing gifts once a year – that’s quite all right.  But remember the other father, the Real Father, who loves you every day of the year.”

Satisfied that he’d said enough, he sat down. Now it was Vetfaan’s turn to be the center of attention. With solemn dignity, he picked up the presents the townsfolk had given one by one and proceeded to distribute these amongst the orphans.

“Johnny? Who is Johnny?” He read the little card on the box while Johnny rushed towards his present. “This is from Oom Servaas. Be careful, now.”

Johnny ripped the wrapping off the box and gasped as he stared down at the Swiss Army knife. “Wow!! Just what I wanted!” Vetfaan smiled at the matron – she had been the one who made the list of what the kids really wanted.

One by one, the kids got called to the front to receive exactly what they had wished for. Boggel’s gift was a set of children’s books for the clever girl who simply loves reading, Kleinpiet’s present of a toy train set went to the serious little boy with the dream of becoming an engineer. Precilla’s talking doll brought a yell of delight from a pig-tailed young lass…and so it went on until the last present – a beautiful leather-bound Bible for the solemn-looking young Paul, who wanted to become a social worker one day – was safely in the children’s hands.

“Gertruida!” Vetfaan’s whisper made Gertruida glance over at him. “Have you forgotten your present?” Having checked, he was sure he didn’t notice her name on any of the presents.

“No, Vetfaan. I have brought something completely different this year. Johnny, come here?”

And so Gertruida proceeded to do something odd.

“Johnny, my gift to you this year, is friendliness. With this gift, you will make lots of friends, do well at school, and become a very popular little boy. Use your friendliness well, and you’ll reap a rich reward.”

The girls received grace and kindness, respectively, while her gift to Paul was wisdom. Every time she gave the blessing-gift, she said a few appropriate words, until she at last called the final child: David – the scruffy lad with the impish face.

“For you, dear child, I have two gifts. The first is called Freedom. Freedom to be yourself and to be happy. But, remember, freedom isn’t free. It never was and it’ll never be. With Freedom you have to accept the second gift – it’s called Responsibility. In other words: you can do anything, be just what you want to be, say anything…but you have to accept the responsibility for those things as well. If your freedom leads you to kindness, you’ll never be sorry. But…if your freedom makes you do bad things, you cannot escape the consequences of your deeds or words. There. Take your Freedom, enjoy it…but never think you aren’t responsible for it.”

***

Matron saw the same thing every year. By the middle of January, the talking doll couldn’t say a word any more. The Swiss Army knife broke a blade when it was used to open a can of paint. The train set became an object of dispute after one of the tracks disappeared mysteriously. Even the set of children’s books ended up on the shelf after being read.

But somehow, Gertruida had struck a chord with the children . At the next year-end function, Johnny got the prize for the best behaved boy in the orphanage. Paul spent his last year in the orphanage before enrolling in a seminary.

However, it took David almost two decades to begin to understand his gift. By that time, he was a tall and emaciated man of twenty-eight. After leaving the orphanage, he joined a group of Rastafarians. Later – bored  by the laid-back lifestyle – he started peddling drugs in Hillbrow. By the age of twenty-two, he owned a BMW and had a string of girlfriends. Three years after that, he became famous for the endless party in his Sandton mansion.

Then, one day, he noticed the skin lesions and the swollen glands in his neck. He started losing weight. And then the cough started. Like the country, his freedom cost him dearly. His rainbow dream had become a colourless nightmare…

If his health permits, he’s planning to travel to Rolbos this Christmas, where he wants to have a chat with Gertruida. He’ll want her to explain – again – the implication of his two gifts. And then he wants to tell her what a terrible present she had given him, all those years ago.

A Rolbos Greeting for a very Special Lady. (And no, it isn’t a farewell…)

17ecb80

Reinet Nagtegaal

The problem was – quite obviously – that we had known it would happen. It had to. She had been ill for some time and all the signs were there. But still, it is the holiday season and Christmas is only a few days away. Some of the family hoped for just one more Christmas together, others were kind enough to wish that release would come soon.

The reason for these diverging wishes isn’t hard to determine: she was much loved, respected…even revered. During her lifetime she had achieved many goals, met thousands and thousands of people, loved her husband and cherished her children. And everybody – without exception – adored the way she drew them into her world. A fiercely independent thinker, she had been blessed with many gifts, amongst which her compassion and sense of humour stand out as beacons for her family and friends to follow in the years to come.

But there had been something else that made her unique: despite the serious nature of her professional career, she never lost the fun-loving imaginary world she had created for herself and those close to her. She crafted upside-down worlds for her children and made them marvel at the wonders of the universe – which she didn’t hesitate to populate with amazing characters.

Author, artist, academic, connoisseur of wine and expert on many other subjects, she loved being the perfect hostess – making each and every guest feel that she was there just for him or her.

And that is why her memorial service was maybe the most memorable of all the events she ever attended.

Attended?

After passing away quietly four days previously?

Of course! In her world everything was possible. Every problem had a solution and every obstacle had a way around. Wasn’t that what she always said? Her world – her universe – didn’t have to obey the laws we take for granted. She looked – no, she lived – beyond the known margins we accept as physical or mental horizons.

Photo: Carien Loubser

Photo: Carien Loubser

And that’s why I sat there, listening to her brother and children telling the stories of her special life, and realised I have to rethink the concept of death. You see…I felt her presence. Somehow, when the wind fluttered the yellow streamers attached to the branches of the trees forming a canopy over the gathered people, I saw her smile.

Yes, she said, champagne! Snacks! Music! Lively conversation! Laughter!

And so it was – just the way the perfect hostess would have done it. A sunny day, a beautiful garden, a delightful gathering of people – everybody swapping memories and stories. Oh, there were tears and the occasional wobbly smile, but everyone who attended felt that she was there, especially for each of them.

So, sadly, we can’t wish her to rest in peace. With that overused and hollow cliche, we greet the departed to go on with our lives. But not with her. She may be at peace, but she won’t rest. The way she became part of our lives, demands that her gifts of laughter, joy and beauty be nurtured in the lives of those she touched. She will be there in our future days, answering questions we have no answers for, She’ll encourage, soothe, be the beacon. And she’ll remind us not to take ourselves so seriously – this life is far too much fun to spoil it by worrying about trivial matters. Her knowing smile will be the rich reward when we discover she had been right all along: that our apparently insurmountable mountains are, in fact, only mere molehills.

That, after all, is what is meant when we say somebody enriched our lives. Such a person didn’t do what we’ve come to accept as the norm in society: to grab, to take, to see what to skim off the top  for ourselves. No, to enrich a life, you have to give selflessly. You have to take a humble step backward and empower somebody else to achieve the seemingly impossible. It is, in a nutshell, her enduring legacy.

mcgregor-header-newI left the memorial service in the picturesque town of McGregor – situated amongst the most beautiful mountains of southern Africa – with some sadness and much joy. Sadness, because there is so much I still wanted to talk to her about; but joy, knowing her voice hasn’t been silenced.

Lets listen to a wonderful bit of music she loved so much. During the service, Karen Zoid delivered an unforgettable rendition of the song. While listening to the words, one glimpses – once again – the magic of Reinet Crause-Nagtegaal; the woman who doesn’t have to be around to grace us with her presence.