Tag Archives: eulogy

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

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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.

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Widow Maritz’s Date

tombstone-3394lar“It’s about time for her to come to town again,” Gertruida remarks – because she knows everything and because nobody has said anything for some time now.

“Who?” Kleinpiet sips his beer quietly – he’s not really interested. He’s been contemplating the possibility of the president stepping down. Maybe, he thinks, he’ll jump; or maybe he’ll be pushed. Even more disturbing is the question: when did he stop caring? When did his presidency die? What was the date of his political demise…?

Still, Gertruida’s statement is an obvious attempt to break the silence and he’s gentleman enough to prod her on.

“Annetjie Maritz, the widow. You know, the one who stays on that farm on the other side of Bitterbrak.”

Of course they all know her. The crazy one. Lives on that farm alone with the few chickens and an old dog. Visits town every two months or so, to buy flour and sugar and coffee. Reed-thin with icy blue eyes and an unruly shock of grey hair. Used to be lovely once – a long time ago – but now age has withered away the beauty and replaced it with wrinkles and varicose veins.

“She’s not normal.” Vetfaan nods. “A strange cat, she is.”

“It’s the war, Vetfaan. Wars do that. It changes everything.”

That, they know, is true. Boys become men – and not all of them return home with happy smiles and fond memories. Families rejoice and grieve – and are left looking back at the time of conflict with puzzled frown. Why was the war necessary? Who won? Was the loss of life and sanity worth it? And, worst of all, the boy who took aim at a nameless opponent and pulled the trigger, wakes up in the small hours of the night, wondering how the family of his enemy are managing their loss.

“She’s still waiting for him, isn’t she?”

Nobody knows, really. Annetjie is a widow…or, at least: she’s an official widow. Bertus Maritz, according to the army, went MIA in 1986. Missing in action. Presumed KIA. No trace of him was found after the MiG bombed the camp and his tent took a direct hit.

“She told Oudoom a few years back the army couldn’t say what happened to Bertus. Was he in the tent when the bomb struck? Maybe he went out for a cup of coffee? Or answered a call of nature? And maybe, she hopes, he’s alive out there, somewhere, with no memory of who he was.”

Servaas, who knows all about the loss of a loved one during the war, shakes his head. “She’s clinging to a memory and she doesn’t want to let go. As long as she waits for him, she’s keeping him alive. That’s why she refuses to wear black. And one must never refer to her as The Widow Maritz. She hates that. Ignores you completely. You call her Annatjie or Mrs Maritz.” He sighs and stares out of the window. “It’s sad. She lives in her own world. Oudoom says she’s kept everything in the house exactly the way he left it. His pipe next to the bed. The book he’d read half-way through. And she lays a place for him at the table every night.”

They fall silent again, remembering the last time she came to town. Dressed in white blouse and a long blue skirt – with the straw hat perched on top of the mass of grey hair – she looked like any other older woman in the district. It’s only when you’re near that you realise she’s constantly chattering about how nice the town looks, and how Sammie has had to increase the prices in his shop.

“The way she talks to herself…” Kleinpiet gets interrupted before he can finish his sentence.

“…not to herself, Kleinpiet.” Gertruida holds up a restraining hand. “She’s talking to Bertus. Oh, she knows he isn’t here, but she keeps telling him what she sees.  It’s like an imaginary husband, you see.”

“But that’s not normal?”

“What is normal, Kleinpiet? Wars aren’t normal. Sending boys with guns to shoot other boys with guns isn’t normal. Hearing your son or husband died during a clash, isn’t normal. Politicians arguing with other politicians to the point where they say: ‘Now my side is going to show you. We’ll kill you all and then you can’t argue with me any more’ – we call that normal?

“No, for you she may not be normal in the usual sense of the word, but she keeps him alive – in her head – and that is ‘normal’ for her. It keeps her hope alive. And, Kleinpiet, without hope it is impossible to love…or to face the future.

“So she’s doing the best she can. Keeping him alive, keeps her alive. Letting go of him will mean she has no reason to live – or hope – for.”

Boggel looks up as the old Ford Cortina stops in front of Sammie’s Shop.

“Speaking of which,” he starts, but then lets out a long, low whistle.

The woman getting out of the car, can scarcely move. Every movement is slow and hesitantly deliberate. No hat. Long, black dress. They watch as she struggles up the stairs to the shop.

“Do you think she…”

“I’ll go and have a look.”Servaas gets up. She knows about Servasie. of course. The old man’s loss has always been a bonding factor between the two of them.

***

Later, when the old Cortina wheezes out of town, Servaas returns with bent shoulders and a stooped back.

“What did she say, Servaas?”

“Nothing much. Not too me, not to Sammie and not to Bertus. Only ordered a tomb stone. Said it is time.”

“Time for what, Servaas?”

The old man shrugs.

“The inscription made me wonder, as well.”

Here lies Anna and Bertus Maritz.

Twenty-seven letters to be carved out in granite. No dates. To add a date, you have to know when an individual ceased to love and hope and…live.

And that, Gertruida will tell you, isn’t always possible. She’ll ask you to consider the career of our president and leave you with an enigmatic smile.

The End of the Love Affair

Barack Obama“That was a nice speech,” Kleinpiet says as he sits down. “I mean, he stole the show.”

“Ja, very eloquent. The best of the day, I agree. But I think it was a bit more than a eulogy.” Gertruida, as always, throwing out the bait.

“You’re on to something again, Gertruida. You might as well share it.”

“Obama is a very clever man. Or his speech-writer is, if you think of it. Anyway, here we have the president of the United States, travelling all the way from America at great cost, to deliver a eulogy. No problem with that. Many world leaders did that, as we know. But…I think there was a deeper, less obvious reason for his visit as well. He came to give our government a message and I’m not sure if Zuma picked up on it.”

Gertruida can be such a tease. She knows she has them now, so she orders a beer and sits back with that all-knowing smile.

“Okay, I’ll tell you. He started off with the expected praise for a great man, but listen to what he said. He praised Madiba for his willingness to step down after only one term – that’s when I sat up. Surely he wasn’t implying anything with it? Or was he telling our president something? I thought I was wrong, but there was more.

“Then he said: It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection — because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried — that we loved him so. You know what I heard? He was telling us what he liked about Mandela. He was saying: If you can’t admit your mistakes, I see it as an insult.

“A few sentences later he went on: Moreover, he accepted the consequences of his actions… I think everybody listening to him, realised that half-truths and lies had no place in a leader’s political life. And also: Mandela taught us the power of action, but he also taught us the power of ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those who you agree with, but also those who you don’t agree with.

“Those are powerful words, my friends. I also liked the way he told us how Mandela was instrumental in creating our Constitution:  true to his vision of laws that protect minority as well as majority rights, and the precious freedoms of every South African.  Then he spoke about ubuntu: It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you… Trust? Speaking of trust in front of an audience that just booed our president?

“Towards the end of the speech, Obama encouraged his listeners to reflect, saying Mandela’s passing should be a time for self-reflection. With honesty, regardless of our station or our circumstance, we must ask: How well have I applied his lessons in my own life? Then he mentioned the problem of health care, unemployment and education, the major issues in the country; but he disguised it as a worldwide problem.

“And listen to this gem: There are too many people who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”

Vetfaan can only shake his head. Sure, he listened to that speech as well, but he thought Obama was talking about Madiba’s example.

“Exactly, Vetfaan. But think about it: on the stage of world politics, things aren’t so obvious as they seem. There are always subtle hints. Obama says hello to Castro – now there’s a little incident that may mean a lot…or nothing.

“But consider this: eulogies are for the dead, And dead people don’t hear so well. So who ends up hearing the message? The people listening – in this case, all the leaders of the world, and a global audience. And who’s the host of the day? Our president.

“I can tell you: Obama was here for more than one reason. He certainly came here to pay a tribute to Nelson Mandela – but he also used the opportunity to tell us something very important. He held up a political mirror for those brave enough to see themselves. Look, he said, at yourselves.”

“I don’t know, Gertruida. I thought Obama spoke about Mandela. Now you’re saying he was telling Zuma to get it right – or get out? Don’t you think you’re over-analysing this thing?”

“Vetfaan, you witnessed the end of a love affair. With Madiba gone, the world’s fascination with South Africa has ended. No more Madiba Magic. We’re on our own now. From now on, the buck stops in our president’s office.”

The debate in Boggel’s Place is far from over, but Gertruida will defend her opinion fearlessly. Kleinpiet will leave in a huff, saying he doesn’t get it. Vetfaan will continue shaking his head, and Boggel will smile – a good debate is good for business.

In the end they’ll agree: politics have many layers. And yes, eulogies are intended for those that stay behind. The question remains, however: what was said, and what was heard? 

The Memorial Service – For the Living…

Credit: M&G (mg.co.za)

Credit: M&G (mg.co.za)

“Gee, Oudoom’s Mandela sermon was picked up all over the world. Lots of people read it and some even commented on it. The old man must be proud.” Boggel isn’t sure whether Servaas aimed this remark at Mandela or Oudoom, but lets it slide anyway. “Whatever people say about Madiba, though, he certainly influenced the global village.”

“Maybe that was his secret – understanding the world as a village. Lots of opinions and lots of ideologies. But…in a village you listen to everybody before making a rash decision, and having grown up in a small village, that gave him the background, I suppose.” Vetfaan is all too familiar with villages – African villages – where a child has many fathers and mothers and everybody chips in when it comes to teaching, disciplining and caring. “I think that put him streets ahead of the Ivy League leaders of the world.”

“Amen to that.” Servaas scowls at his empty glass and waits for a refill before continuing. “It serves no purpose to have a pretty face and a wall full of diplomas. If you don’t have compassion, you’re a dictator.”

“There’s something else we have to remember,” Gertruida has that look again. “While everybody’s going to try to outdo the others with their eulogies, there’s a woman who’s going to miss him. Miss him terribly much. I feel for her.”

Boggel lifts an eyebrow. “Winnie? Graca?”

He gets a shake of the head. “Zelda, Boggel, Zelda la Grange. His private secretary. The power behind the throne, in some ways.”

Once again, Gertruida has the facts. She tells them of the young girl who landed a job as a typist in the president’s office. An Afrikaner girl. Later secretary to the first democratically elected president. White young woman. Older black diplomat. Initial inexperience combined with wisdom. Nationalist background slotting into the ANC. “It’s the stuff of fairytales,” Gertruida reminds them.

Ms la Grange is a fixer, Gertruida says. “She gets things done.” When Madiba quit being the president, he asked her to stay on as his personal assistant. She organised, accompanied, worked with Madiba right till the end. Travelled along on more than 200 overseas visits. Met people, organised even more meetings than she’ll ever remember. Met more people. Important people. Kings and presidents and rock bands and common people. “Where he went, she went. They were a team.”

“And now…?” Precilla lets it hang in the air.

“Oh she’ll manage. She’s a fixer, remember? But I guess she’ll miss the hectic life she had before. Or maybe she’ll welcome the change. But a bit of her died with Madiba, I’m sure. You cannot work with one of history’s greats for so long, and then just walk away as if nothing happened.”

Boggel raises a glass in a silent toast. Yes, so many tears will be shed. People will talk and write and televise – and the world will mourn. A few individuals will make derogatory remarks – an inevitability in the cynical, superficial world we live in. And yes, he will be missed in the turbulent times we live in, for somehow he had – even when he was critically ill – a reassuring and stabilising influence on the people who lived in his shadow.

But who will remember the woman who dedicated her life to serve Madiba? She never forced her way into the limelight, quite content just to smooth the way for her boss to do what he did best: building bridges.

That’s why Boggel replaced the well-known rugby-jersey-photo of Nelson Mandela next to the till with another picture. The old man, waving at the global crowd, saying goodbye for the last time. And at his side, a vivacious young lady with a smile to equal his. She, too, is saying goodbye – in a way. Not only to her boss, but to the bustle that made him instantly recognisable in almost every home in the world.

“Let’s raise a glass to a brave, competent woman. And when we say our sad goodbyes to the late president, let us spare a thought for everybody that helped and supported him.”

“…and his family,” Precilla adds. “Once Madiba brought us all together with hope. Now let us unite again by sharing the family’s grief. This is not a time to whittle away at what happened in the past – if anything, we should build bridges, just like he did.”

“And she did,” Fanny smiles sadly as she runs a finger over the photograph. “I think we should write her a letter, or something. Maybe Oudoom should write it, telling her we appreciate her work…and loss.”

“Or we can simply tell her ourselves?”

And that’s what they’re doing…

Eulogy

Photo Credit: Flickr

Photo Credit: Flickr

Oudoom sits in his study, staring at the blank page in front of him. Figuring out what to say as a eulogy at a funeral of a virtual stranger is not an easy thing to do. After all, how can he justify telling the congregation about somebody’s wonderful life; when his only involvement was with Kwaaikarel, the farmer whose nephew had the misfortune of underestimating the amount of cocaine in that last, final snort?

Kwaaikarel is an infrequent visitor to Rolbos. Living far out in the periphery of the district, he is a somewhat strange hermit who avoids human contact as much as possible. When Oudoom asked him about it once, Kwaaikarel simply said people have a way of disappointing him, and he prefers the company of his sheep. Look at the prophets, he said, they sought isolation when they needed to be near God. And that, in Kwaaikarel’s mind, was enough explanation – and he left it at that.

Now, after months of absence, he knocked on Oudoom’s door this afternoon; hat in hand and sorrow written over his face.

“I’m sorry. It’s my nephew. He died. We must bury him. Christianlike, you understand? It’s the least I can do. I have to.” Always stingy with words, Kwaaikarel obviously had great difficulty to string his request together. Long sentences, like people, seem to make him uncomfortable.

It took a good half-an-hour and three cups of coffee before Oudoom got the story. The nephew – one Gert Steyn – was his only relative. He died in Upington, where he worked as a clerk in the post office. A few years ago, Kwaaikarel went to unusual lengths to trace his nephew, because he felt the need to draw up a will.

“I never married, Dominee. My sister married this psychopath, and they had a kid. The man died in a crash. The police were chasing him. Then my sister got cancer. Gert was just out of school. Me and my sister, we didn’t get along. I had told her she married wrong, before the wedding. She told me what I could do with my opinion. Very angry. I didn’t go to the wedding. Or that crook’s funeral. I didn’t even hear about her cancer until months after her death.” Kwaaikarel needed another cup of coffee before he could continue.

“I’m not getting younger. The farm isn’t worth much. I don’t want the State to take my farm if I die. So I got a lawyer in Upington to draw up a will. He said maybe I should talk to Gert. I didn’t want to. But I went back to the farm and thought about it. So I went to see him.”

The meeting didn’t go well. The young man didn’t fit in with Kwaaikarel’s idea of what his nephew should be like.

“Long hair. Tattoos. Fancy clothes. Pointed boots. Big silver belt buckle. He had a motorbike and an attitude. Said I never cared for his mother. I didn’t get a chance to tell him why I was there. So I told him he looked like the devil and left.”

Somehow the morgue got hold of Kwaaikarel’s address (there are no phones in that stretch of the Kalahari) and they sent a man all the way out there to inform him of his nephew’s death.

“I didn’t like Gert. He was arrogant. Used drugs. All those devils tattooed all over. And he was right. I should have cared for my sister. Shouldn’t have stayed away after her husbands funeral. Shouldn’t have felt I told her so. Shouldn’t have been angry at her.” The deeply tanned hand wiped away a troublesome tear. “Now he’s dead. You must bury him. You and me, we’ll do it. The body will be here tomorrow.”

Kwaaikarel apparently settled the bill with the funeral parlour, arranged for the body to be transported to his farm, and had dug the grave himself. Once the coffin was delivered, he planned to ask the driver and his labourer to help him get the coffin in the grave.

“Then you can say a few words. Maybe we can sing a hymn. At least it’ll be Christianlike.”

Oudoom couldn’t refuse. Here was a man, already living at the outer edges of society, asking a favour. If he refused, it’ll just ostracise the hermit to an even greater degree. Yes, he said, he’d do it. He’ll be there around lunch time the next day.  Oudoom offered to do a prayer with Kwaaikarel, but he refused, saying thank you and Mevrou makes good coffee.

Now, the only thoughts in Oudoom’s mind are those concerned with grief. Grief and sorrow about wasted opportunities. Chances to fix things that were never taken. Soft words that could have avoided so many year’s worth of bitterness.  Simple little kind gestures that could have prevented the rift in this broken family from becoming an abyss of hate and misunderstanding.  And now he has to go and say nice things to make Kwaaikarel feel better about his past…

***

The sun beats down mercilessly as Oudoom negotiates  the rutted track to Kwaaikarel’s  mud-and-brick homestead next to the creaking wind pump. A surprisingly thin goat (most probably the milk supply of the farm) pokes at a shrub with a dusty foot as if admonishing it for its lack of foliage.  The disinterested grrr-arf! tells Oudoom where the grey old dog is sleeping on the porch. The place has the run-down look of a slowly dying animal.

The grave is just beyond the house, dug into the soft sand of a slow rise in the ground. Kwaaikarel has dragged out a chair and is sitting there, hat in hand, staring at the coffin in the hole. He doesn’t look up as Oudoom’s shoes crunch their way across the gravel.

“I should have done more.” The whisper floats away on the slight breeze. “Could have done more…”

Oudoom clears his throat.

“I tried to think of something nice to say…” His eyes rest on the coffin, varnished and shining in the grave. “But that would be stupid. Things happened. Life went on. Choices were made. Nothing I can say now, will change it.” Oudoom looks down at the tears on Kwaaikarel’s cheeks, wishing it was easier to lie. Eu-logy … Good Words. What good are words, afterwards? “We have to live with our pasts, Karel. We can’t change that. But we can learn from it…”

The drone of an approaching vehicle makes him hesitate. Both men turn to see the streak of dust on the track leading to the house. Kwaaikarel opens his mouth to protest, thinks about it, and clams up. No need to start a fight next to a grave. He glances up to Oudoom, and is surprised to see the pastor smiling.

The old Land Rover strains to a stop next to the house. They’re all there: Vetfaan, Kleinpiet, Gertruida, Boggel, Precilla – dressed in their Sunday best. Without a word, they take up position next to the grave.

“Good words…” Oudoom’s voice is suddenly filled with new enthusiasm. “Good words are for the living, Karel, not for the dead. Good words are there to direct your future, not to glorify the past. Good words serve to encourage and support. Good words are the friends that will journey with you even when the route is uncharted and uncertain.

“And today, we want to be good words for you. All of us. If you allow us, we’ll be here to help.”

He pauses a moment in thought, decides he’s said enough, and says: “Amen.”

***

Gertruida says it shows you: nothing in life is permanent. Kwaaikarel is an excellent example, she says; look at the way he’s changed. Despite his name and his past, it took a funeral to make him visit Boggel’s Place every two weeks or so. She says they will see: one of these days he’ll attend one of Oudoom’s services again. Not for good words, but for The Word. An eulogy, according to Gertruida, should tell us where to go and not where we’ve been…