Tag Archives: hope

There is no excuse. None at all…

Leslie-and-May-Lemke1

Leslie and May Lemke

“Sometimes,” Gertruida says after switching off the radio, “we are just too keen on wallowing about in self pity.” She’s been harping about this lately, especially whenever Servaas gets going about politics. “Look, we’re still living in a wonderful country. Yes, we can moan and groan about students burning art and defacing statues, but what about the real people of South Africa? Granted, we have our fair share of scoundrels, crooks and other governmental officials, but we also have good, peace loving and kind compatriots who are only trying to make things work – for all of us.”

“Blah blah blah, Gertruida.” In his usual bad mood, Servaas isn’t taking this lying down. “We’re stumbling about in the dark, hoping against hope that things will improve.”

The remark seems to stem Gertruida’s flow of thoughts.

“Stumbling about in the dark? Hope? Mmmm.”

Now everybody knows how kantankerous Gertruida gets when you disagree with her. It’s an invitation to a verbal brawl where there can be only one winner.

“Ever heard about Leslie Lemke, Servaas? Tell me, have you?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. “Of course not. Your world stops at the end of Voortrekker Weg. You live – quite happily, I might add – in your own little bubble where you only think about yourself and all the trouble surrounding you. Now, let me tell you….”

***

Leslie Lemke was born prematurely in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1952.The doctors and nurses – even his own parents – soon gave up hope for the tiny infant. As a result of his complicated birth, he was spastic and had severe retinal problems. Glaucoma developed. He was also obviously mentally challenged. And then, as was done in those days, the already blind child’s eyes were removed within the first month of his life to ease his discomfort.

His parents just couldn’t take care of him.What to do? They gave him up for adoption…

Enter May Lemke, the petite nurse in the district. After being approached, she immediately took the baby under her care. A deeply religious woman and the epitome of love and hope, she took care of the helpless boy, despite the massive obstacles in their way. While everybody expected the child to die, May fed him and stroked his neck to make him swallow. She spent hours and hours trying to get his unwilling legs to move properly, hoping he’d be able to walk one day. She sang to him, played music for him…and prayed.

Eventually it became clear that the boy could talk – but he simply repeated the sounds of the words and May wasn’t sure that he actually understood what he was saying. Feeding remained a problem, movement was arduous and hesitant, and his quality of life far below zero.

But May refused to give in. At the age of seven, she bought a piano; hoping that the sound of music would have some influence on his slow development. For seven years she plinked and plonked the notes while the blind child listened and sometimes tried to find the right note with the right sound, to follow his foster mother’s example.

Leslie turned fourteen. The years ahead stretched out with insurmountable challenges. Leslie, blind and retarded, had no future.

They watched TV at night – or rather – May did and Leslie sat there, impassively, listening. He did like music though, and one night they listened to a rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no 1 , the background to a programme.

That night May woke up to music. The Piano Concerto was playing again! At first she thought the TV must have been left on, but when she walked into the living room, she stopped dead in her tracks. There, in front of the piano, in the dark, the blind, mentally and intellectually challenged boy was giving a perfect rendition of the concerto…perfect! With every note, every nuance, of the music played exactly like they had heard before bedtime.

Amazingly, incredibly, the hands that could almost not handle eating utensils now flew over the piano’s keys in fluent movements.

That was the start of the career of one of the most amazing musicians of our time. He could play back any tune after listening to it only once. And then he started singing with the tunes – also pitch-perfect and not at all with the struggle he had while trying to speak normally.

rain-man-poster-007 (1)May was overjoyed. Local concerts led to TV appearances. Dustin Hoffman saw him play once and found inspiration for his movie, ‘Rain Man’. More concerts followed as well as tours to the rest of the USA, Scandinavia and Japan.

A favourite challenge during these concerts was to ask anybody in the audience to ‘Stump Leslie’ by naming a song he couldn’t play. The only times that happened, was when he’d never heard the tune before – then he’d make one up then and there, on the spot, lyrics and everything.

Leslie’s concerts are free. The miracle of music, he maintains, was given to him to share with others. What he had received was grace and making money out of his gift would be wrong.

***

“You see, Servaas, sometimes we are put in a situation that seems hopeless. Maybe, according to all known information, we are stupid to go on trying and the urge to surrender and walk away is overwhelming. But May Lemke showed us a different way – not by fighting in anger, but by persisting in love.

“Sure, at times we feel blind and helpless. No way forward, no way back. That’s when you have to look up, not down. Faith and love breeds hope, Servaas. Hate and anger will see us doomed. No matter what Life throws at us, we cannot ever forget that.”

When Gertruida shows him the short video on her new smartphone, he gets up to go outside. He’ll have to think about Leslie Lemke for a while.

And feel just a tad ashamed about his constant moaning…

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Optimism…

Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. – Nelson Mandela.

This is true, especially in Africa, where the sun is such a prominent presence. But it cuts deeper than merely the physical, doesn’t it?

c2Mothers guard their young with  worried frowns. What about tomorrow? What dangers lurk in the shadows of the night? How shall I manage?IMG_4786The young bachelor is lost and lonely – will he find that special someone, that ultimate mate to share his life with? How does one go about it? How to avoid the many mistakes waiting in the future? And…will he be good enough to match what she has to offer?

IMG_4846Camouflaged in the desert, the chameleon might well ask what has happened to the trees? His family has it so good, so easy – and he has to make do with so little. Does that mean he didn’t make the grade; that he is being punished for something? The pessimist is prone to depression –  will he give up, surrender, and slink away to mope in the vast empty space around him?

IMG_5000a.jpgIndeed, Life regularly seems to turn her back to us, leaving us wondering what it’s all about.

IMG_5116aWith so many predators around, any single individual becomes prone to doubt. Life seems to blur as we tend to consider the problems bigger than the solutions. Is there – when all is said and done – any sense in going on? Should one not just wallow in the profound pessimism that surrounds us, give up…and die?

IMG_4670But then – oh, the bliss! – we look up at the sun and don’t get blinded by its rays. For look, there is the promise; the rainbow; bringing hope. It lures us on and on, for no matter how heavily pessimism weighs us down, it’s darkness can never outshine the brightness of hope.

In the words of Helen Keller – arguably the epitome of optimism and an example to us all: “Be of good cheer. Do not think of today’s failures, but of the success that may come tomorrow. You have set yourselves a difficult task, but you will succeed if you persevere; and you will find a joy in overcoming obstacles. Remember, no effort that we make to attain something beautiful is ever lost.”

 

An Interview with an Ailing Man (In Afrikaans)

kleur-1000This post is directed at all people who love that most beautiful language, Afrikaans.

This interview was broadcast this week. It is in Afrikaans, and the reason for posting it here, is to reach out to the many, many expats living all over the world.

‘Kleur’, the biography, concerns the life of Randall Charles Wicomb. It traces his childhood years against the background of Apartheid – and the battle his mother fought to ensure that the word ‘European’ appeared on his birth certificate. The book explores his life, his loves, and his terminal cancer. It tells of his musical achievements and the long and winding road in the search of identity. In the end, it’s a poignant tale of a man who looks back, remembering the good times, but not shying away from those incidents that caused hurt and sadness. Between the smiles and the tears, the book aims to convey a simple message: we all belong to the human family. And also…enjoy life; we don’t live forever.

Photo Challenge: Transitional Normality.

We all start life filled with hopeand innocence. Oh, parents mean well, don’t they? But how can anyone prepare a child to live in a world where hope and innocence are so easily lost? Teaching a child to be a ‘normal’ member of society often leads to a life of pretence – you have to act, speak, talk and exercise your choices in an ‘acceptable’ manner; denying the instinct to be an individual with unique characteristics.

t1We grow up, losing much along the way. And then we get to that point in the woods, where the two roads diverge, just like Robert Frost promised it would…

t4

‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth…’

t3Of course we choose one…expecting to find rest, comfort, good fortune…and possibly, Love. That is, after all, the promise of ‘normality’…isn’t it?

t2Sadly, all too often these dreams are shattered by the thorny seat we eventually find ourselves in. Here the dreams of a quiet life, ‘normal’ relationships and peace are shattered by the reality of the outcome of our choices. Pretending to be content, just isn’t good enough any more.

IMG_2528That’s when we begin to realise: ‘normal’ doesn’t mean a thing. It’s time to shun pretence and follow the heart. If it raises a few eyebrows, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all.

t5And then, having lost so much and found so little – we start afresh: finding happiness in simplicity; hope in reality and love in the most unexpected place. Love isn’t out there, waiting for us to find it; love has all along been  inside us; the sad  prisoner of pretence. Only once those walls are shattered, can we reclaim the hope and innocence we were born with. That’s when we dance on sunshine…

On Waiting

550“Why,” Gertruida asks, because for once she doesn’t know the answer, “do people spend their lives waiting?”

Questions like these crop up from time to time in Boggel’s Place – and the result is always the same: frowns, shrugs and another round of peach brandy. Once Gertruida gets into one of her rhetorical moods, the others occupy their minds with more practical things – like the drought or the pothole in Voortrekker Weg.

“No, seriously, guys.” A tinge of frustration adds an edge to her words. “People wait for rain. For a better political dispensation. For the ultimate love affair. For the petrol price to come down. For Escom the get its act together. For…”

“Blissful moments of silence.” Servaas interrupts her flow of examples. “Look, Gertruida, you can’t generalise like that. Take us for an example: we’re just sitting here. We’re not waiting.”

“Yes, you are. You’re constantly hoping Vetfaan will pay the next round…that’s waiting, too.” She rolls her eyes and sighs. “Life is wasted if you keep on waiting for something to happen. What about the now and the here? This is where Life happens, not somewhere in the future. You can’t live tomorrow today. You live in the moment, the now, the present second.”

“That may be true, Gertruida. But there is a difference between waiting and hoping. In fact, waiting is an important component of hope. Waiting with hope is called faith, and without that, the present moment becomes meaningless.” The way Oudoom says this, makes everybody nod. Of course! They wouldn’t dare argue with him. Encouraged, the clergyman continues. “And what do you get when you add faith, hope and waiting together?” He waits, but only Gertruida seems to ponder this seriously – the rest stare at the empty glasses in front of them. “Love! Beauty! That’s what you get.”

Realising his audience isn’t with him any more, Oudoom sinks back in his chair, mumbling something about  ‘waiting is sooo important‘.

“Ag, dominee, it’s okay.” Vetfaan pats the older man on the shoulder. “A successful waiter has learnt the fine art of patience.” He suddenly realises that he’s said something rather meaningful, smiles happily and snaps his fingers. “Now there’s a thought for you, Gertruida! We are all waiters at the Table of Life, hovering discreetly in the background before serving the next course.” Almost dizzy with this erudite line of thought – and thoroughly surprised by it – he pauses to compose his thoughts. “Er…yes, that’s it! We’re not sitting at the table, waiting to be served, no sir! We’re the waiters, there to obey orders and fulfill requests. Hey, we’re not even in charge of the menu, either!”

“Sometimes, Vetfaan, you do show signs of latent intelligence.” This must rate amongst the biggest compliments Gertruida is capable of. “An African proverb has it that at the bottom of patience, heaven is found. Marcus Aurelius likened the passage of time with the flowing of a river. He said all events, all issues, eventually disappear down the stream of Time. Patience then, represents two things: waiting for the current of Time to carry off those things we need to forget…or…running along the riverbank until the things we need, are swept to dry land.”

“And that, Gertruida, kills your rhetoric. You’ve just discovered that waiting is as much part of Life as rejoicing in the present. Patiently waiting on Life is what happiness is all about.” Boggel sees the look on Oudoom’s face and quickly adds: “And faith, as well. Faith is patience, too.”

***

An outsider walking into one of these conversations in the little bar in Rolbos might consider the patrons a bit odd, to say the least. The Rolbossers aren’t worried about that at all. The people in the bigger cities like Upington and Prieska don’t talk about the things that matter any more. They spend their days killing conversations by talking about stuff they can do absolutely nothing about. It’s no use lamenting the performance of the national cricket team, the failure of Escom or the amount of children the president has fathered. Sadly, these are the subjects of ‘discussion’ for bored people waiting for Life to serve them a better dish.

In Rolbos, the waiters hover quietly in the background, knowing Life owes them nothing, but that they’re there to serve, and not be served. Their waiting is a constructive act of faith, an affirmation of hope and an expression of love.

This realisation causes Gertruida to fall silent as the conversation drifts to the drought and the pothole in Voortrekker Weg. Waiting, she realises, when done in faith, is the essence of Life.

“Then impatience is the ultimate expression of stupidity,” she says finally. She gets a few nods while the patrons in the bar wait patiently for her to fall silent.

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.

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…)

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

When the Black Dog Gets You

_65927423_cingulumcloseupx1Gertruida, as we all realise, knows everything. She is opinionated, passionate about the truth, and seldom hesitates to respond to the most impossible situations. This, Servaas says, is both a blessing and a curse, and maybe he’s right. After all, when Gertruida started staying at home while they all partied at Boggel’s Place, they all knew something was terribly wrong. And later, after Precilla said that  she had seen Gertruida walking up and down Voortrekker Weg at 3 am (she was closing the window because of the cold), it was Oudoom who remarked about the sleep disturbances you get with depression.

Servaas, of course, blames himself. Before he went on his memorable road trip, is had been he, Servaas, who wore black and was cynical about everything. At that time it didn’t bother him in the least that the townsfolk joked about his morose nature – in fact, he rather relished the attention he received as a result of his dark moods and comments. But now, after enjoying the time on the old Enfield so much – and having met such wonderful people – Servaas simply loves being called The Kalahari Biker. Men of all ages admit (some under duress) to a strange phenomenon: if you manage to astound your peers, you get a weird sensation of superiority. It’s a primitive, childish reaction, yet this is exactly the stupid reason why men climb mountains, participate in drinking competitions or go to parliament.

And who can deny that the Servaas who came back from that trip, is a completely changed man? The bushy eyebrows no longer gather in disapproval, the kudu-ponytail bobs up and down when he laughs, and the dark suit seems to be a thing of the past. Oudoom says the change is a miracle, while Mevrou occasionally pokes fun at the much shorter church council meetings – Servaas seems completely happy with the sermons these days. In short: the cantankerous old man has become the life and soul of the parties in Boggel’s Place.

And this new-found happiness has had a devastating effect on Gertruida. Somehow she seemed to have found solace in his depressed state in the past – as if his dark moods were confirmation that somebody else in town was worse off than she was. With both of them being single, she could always point out that Servaas was more lonely, more obtuse and more depressed. But now, with Servaas regaling them with stories of his adventures, Gertruida has had to face the fact that her life is empty and dull. Sure, she has this vast knowledge and can contribute to any intellectual discussion…but where is the fun, the adventure, the joy? Servaas has broken out of the prison of self-pity and solitude, explored the wide world out there, and came back as a new man – while she, Gertruida, still has to read the National Geographic to kill her many lonely hours.

***

“We have to do something,” Vetfaan says when Oudoom sits down with a contented sigh. It’s Monday and he’s already worked out the next Sunday’s sermon. Servaas actually suggested the theme of ‘Joy’, and supplied several verses which turned out to be most helpful.

“About Gertruida?”

“Yes, Dominee. She doesn’t join us here anymore, rarely leaves her house and refuses to answer the doorbell. Precilla tried to talk to her, but Gertruida slammed the door in her face.”

Oudoom sits back, laces his fingers behind his head and stares at the ceiling.

“I think,” he says after Boggel pushed a beer over the counter, “that she’s depressed because we’re too happy. And, because she knows everything, she realises the problem isn’t the fun we’re having – but the lack thereof in her own life.” Quite accurately, the clergyman sums up that the change in Servaas’s demeanour precipitated the plunge in Gertruida’s mood.

“Well, I like Servaas the way he is now. Wouldn’t change it for anything.” Vetfaan shrugs. “But that doesn’t solve the problem with Gertruida…”

“No, it doesn’t. We’re really stuck, aren’t we? There isn’t any eligible bachelor in the district we can ask to help, either. And she doesn’t come to church anymore, so my sermon on Joy isn’t going to be useful either.”

hjarna3Boggel shakes his head. “We will just have to be inventive, that’s all. The latest National Geographic has an article on Professor van Wedeen, a neuroscientist working in Massachusetts. It’s fascinating. They use a scanner of sorts, a huge thing, that uses enough electricity to power a submarine. They are trying to explain how the brain works, see? Now, if we can get Gertruida to talk to him, it’ll boost her morale, don’t you think?”

They gape at him.

“Sure, it won’t be easy…but it’s worth a try.”

“Are you suggesting that we phone the professor in America and ask him to be interviewed by a woman – not even a journalist – from a place that’s not even on Google Maps? What are the chances…” Vetfaan purses his lips – Boggel can be so naive…

“Well, what about a journalist phoning her for an opinion?” Clearly desperate to find an answer, Boggel shrugs as he spreads his arms wide. “What can we lose?”

It takes three rounds of peach brandies to hatch the plan. Since they know no journalists, they decide to manufacture one. If they can get Sammie to talk with two ping-pong balls stuck inside his cheeks…? Of course! Great idea…! (The logic behind this idea will confound even the esteemed professor van Wedeen, but we all know how convincing peach brandy can be after the second tot.)

***

“Hello (mumble-mumble-click), is that Gertruida?’

“Yes, what do you want? I’m busy.”

“Ghood. (mumble). Ah’m phoning in connection (mumble-click) with that ahrticle about van Wedeen. Ah, mmm, the phrofessoh. We nheed infohmation abaht his wohk (mumble) foh ahn ahrticle (click) foh tha Uhpingthon Phost.”

The group in the bar wait with bated breath. Will she take the bait? A long silence follows.

“Juhst youhr thoughts. (mumble-click-mumble). Youh’re the ohnly pehson who chan hhelp ush.”

For a moment they thought they had her. Then…

“Oh, for Pete’s sake! Sammie? Take your bloody balls out of your mouth and speak properly. Goodbye!”

***

Prof van Wedeen is most probably the world’s best researcher into the working of the human brain. Using the powerful scanner, he has mapped out the pathways thoughts travel and has formulated new theories about brain function. For this he deserves praise.

But in Rolbos – in the humble bar run by a hunchback – they’ve discovered the cure for depression. It’s not anything new, mind you. It’s called laughter.

When Gertruida stormed into Boggel’s Place after the phone call, she was spoiling for a fight. She was met by such sheepish looks and suppressed giggles, that she considered turning around and leaving the silly group to continue the party.

But then she saw Sammie, who couldn’t get the ping-pong balls out of his cheeks; looking for all the world like an overgrown chipmunk who had just robbed a chestnut warehouse.

And she found – much to her own surprise – the corners of her lips moving upward.

“If you can whistle, I’ll forgive you,” she said, forcing a straight face.”Otherwise I’ll have to kill you.”

***

Isn’t it strange that a single event can jeopardise a life-long friendship? Or, on the other hand, how a single giggle can defuse the most depressing situation? Still, Servaas isn’t taking any chances. He’s taken to wearing his black suit again, and tucks the kudu-tail under his hat when Gertruida is near. He’d rather fake a black mood than face Gertruida’s black dog. Still, although he tries to hide his new-found sense of adventure, he can’t disguise the glint in his eye.

Oudoom did give his sermon on Joy that Sunday – a powerful message of faith if ever there was one – and concluded that joy is a most fragile commodity.

“Joy, brothers and sisters, is a state of mind. It is the source of contentment, of acceptance, of the will to go on. Without it, faith – even life or love – cannot survive. But…,” and here he paused dramatically, “it needs to be nourished. And how do we do that? I’ll tell you.

“Joy lies not in what we have experienced in the past – although we might cherish some wonderful memories – but it is in the realisation that the future is what we are destined for. We nourish joy by hope. Without hope, there can be no joy.

“So, when we find that joy has left the building, we must look at what we’ve let in.” He ticked off several points at this stage. “Dispair. Self-image. Taking ourselves too seriously. Losing faith. And what are these things, my brothers and sisters? They are self-made – they are produced up here, in our own minds.” He tapped the side of his head. “If you are not the master of your own thoughts, you will be a slave to your own self-destruction.”

Boggel reckons Oudoom can teach that professor something, but that could be the peach brandy talking. In the meantime, he keeps two ping-pong balls under the counter. He says it’s a better antidepressant than Prozac.

The Kalahari Biker – Midwife…

Credit: growingmychild.com

Credit: growingmychild.com

Still smiling about the splendid night he had spent with Esmeralda-who-turned-into-Agnes-again, Servaas was guiding the old Enfield through a sandy patch on the road to Omdraaisvlei (about halfway between Britstown and Prieska), when he saw the bedraggled figure waving frantically at him. Already going slow, he stopped next to her in a cloud of dust.

Servaas – also a sight for sore eyes under the layer of dust and sand – stared at the person for a while. He made out that it was a female – the ragged and torn dress suggested as much – but that was where deduction stopped and guessing started. How old was she? And…was it just a deep tan or was she San or of mixed descent? The wrinkles and lines on her face suggested a lifetime of hardship while the bare feet must have walked for many miles since the last bath.

“Morning…” Servaas said courteously.

Môre Baas.” Well, that sounded strange to Servaas. White people aren’t called Baas (Boss) anymore, not like in the 60’s and 70’s, when Apartheid herded people into unnatural layers, sedimenting some lower than others.

“I’m Servaas,” he corrected the old woman.

“You must help, Baas Servaas, my daughter…”

The toothless mouth explained – in a mixture of broken Afrikaans and English (with a few click-sounds thrown in for good measure) – that her daughter was dying in a hut nearby. When she heard the motorcycle, she ran to the road in the hope of finding help. Would the Baas please come…?

What could he do? That was no time to discuss the changed politics in the country, let alone giving the old woman a lesson in correct use of language in 2014. Following the slowly jogging woman, Servaas putt-putted along behind her to reach the wooden shack a few hundred metres into the veld.

“Come Baas, help…” She beckoned him inside.

The sight that met Servaas when he entered the gloomy interior made him blink a few times before he took off his hat and used it to cover his eyes. Yes, he’d seen naked women before…not long ago, in fact, in the nudist camp. And yes, he promised wholeheartedly never to lay eyes on such a sight again… And how unexpectedly ironic was this?

The woman in question was laying down on a threadbare mattress, as naked as the day she was born and moaning softly. A sheen of sweat covered the copper-coloured skin that stretched over the distended abdomen.

“She’s having a baby?” Servaas had to repeat the question from behind the hat.

“Yes, Baas. Since last night. I’ve burnt some herbs and danced for her, but it didn’t help. You must do something, please, Baas.”

What followed, might be described as Servaas’s worst nightmare. Peeking from behind his hat, he tried to make sense of what he saw, and quickly covered his face again.

“I…I…can’t…”

A desperate argument ensued. Realising that his ignorance and the woman’s desperation weren’t doing any good at that moment, Servaas eventually knelt down to inspect the uninspectable.

“I can see the head…,” he whispered. “It seems to be facing the wrong way.”

When Siena was giving birth to Servaasie, Oudok gave a running commentary on what was happening while Servaas cowered behind the door. He remembered how Oudok described how the head crowned, how the shoulders were released and the little body extracted. Quite clearly, Oudok described the boy’s face before the birth was complete – he said something about Siena’s nose. That meant the baby was facing…upwards? Or was that at a later stage?

Gritting his teeth, Servaas touched the head gingerly. It was warm and moist and covered with blood. And then…something extraordinary happened. It was as if the feeling, the touching, of the human infant transformed Servaas into an automated being. No longer did the sight of the naked woman have an impact on him. No longer did his mind work like an elder’s as he became unaware of his surroundings. He didn’t think about him as a male or the woman as female. The only thing that mattered, was the child – and the realisation that if he didn’t do somrthing, a life (or maybe even, two) would be lost.

The mother-to-be relaxed between the contractions. Tentatively, carefully, Servaas tried to push the little head backwards. To his utter surprise, the head did, indeed, move. The next contraction started, accompanied with a tired groan from the mother. And then, amidst a gush of fluid and blood, the head slowly progressed to eventually rest in Servaas’s trembling hands. By now he was praying loudly.

The little body followed. Shoulders, arms, torso, legs…and then the little boy lay limp and still on the mattress.

He’s dead, Servaas thought. I’ve delivered a corpse…

The old woman snatched up the baby, held it against her chest, and started crooning something that sounded like a lullaby. Still the infant remained quiet.

“Slap it!” That’s what Oudok did after Servaasie was born. Held him upside down and slapped the pink little bottom rather smartly.

The old woman looked at Servaas, not understanding what he meant. Servaas sighed, reached over with a blood-splattered hand, and whacked the baby on the bum.

It wriggled a bit.

The little chest heaved.

And it let out a mew-like whimper.

***

The two women wouldn’t let Servaas leave.

“Stay for the night, Baas. Please. Just for the night. You can leave tomorrow, but don’t leave us alone now. We may need your help…”

And so he did. The mother recovered surprisingly fast and Servaas watched – not ashamed, but in complete fascination – as the baby took the mother’s breast to suckle contently. The old woman busied herself by cooking some porridge, which Servaas truthfully declared to be the best meal he’d had in some time. Afterwards, when the mother and the baby drifted off to sleep, Servaas listened as the old woman described their life of hardship and suffering.

“We’re simple people, Baas. My daughter can do house-work, and I like to plant herbs..but that’s all. Nobody gives people like us work anymore. It’s not like the old days…”

“You mustn’t call me Baas – my name is Servaas.” Then he remembered how Agnes planned her new future. She had told him how her life as a gypsy had been a sham, and how she was going to find a patch of ground. Herbs, Servaas, she had said, that’s the future. Organic herbs. Fresh. I’m going to grow herbs and supply shops and restaurants. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be honest. I like that.

***

The next morning he said goodbye to the thankful two women.

“I’ll name him after you,” the mother said, smiling.

Servaas started the Enfield and rode off, leaving the women waving. They watched as he turned into the gravel road leading to Omdraaisvlei, then hugged each other.

“Baas Servaas.” The young mother whispered as she tickled her son’s little chin. “You’ll go far…”