Tag Archives: miracle

The Miracle of Silent Night (#2)

The Organ in Oberndorf

The Organ in Oberndorf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But how?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(To be continued…)

The Miracle of Silent Night

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

(To be continued…)

The Miracle

hare-head01plFaith and politics, Gertruida will tell you, have a lot in common. A lot of what we believe are based on promises that we choose to believe. The action following the promise, however, is a matter of personal interpretation.

Take for instance – and here Gertruida will smile knowingly – the case of Ma Roberts’ rabbits. If ever there was a club for non-believers, then Ma would have been the founding member and life president. And it wasn’t like Oudoom didn’t try either. Back then, the townsfolk would observe a full minute’s worth of silence – staring longingly at the glasses in front of them – every Wednesday afternoon as Oudoom’s old Ford huffed its way down Voortrekker Weg to pay a visit to this formidable woman.

Oudoom used to say Ma Roberts was his equivalent of Jonah’s whale, especially placed on earth to test his faith, his conviction and his commitment. To his credit: it must be said that he never wavered. Regular as clockwork, he visited the huge lady with the short temper – every Wednesday afternoon. He took his Bible along, of course; but he was careful not to overplay his hand. With Ma you had to be careful…extremely careful. She had a way of clamming up, growing red in the face while her eyes bulged ominously, before telling you what (exactly) you could go and do with yourself. This was the same for the occasional traders that visited her farm, the campaigning politicians, and poor Oudoom. He said she can move surprisingly fast, just like a hippo – which we all know is the animal responsible for most killings in Africa.

And, Gertruida will add, one must not forget that Ma was a progressive farmer. Quite successful too, if one considers her methods. She started off with chickens, which she supplied to the fried-chicken franchise in Grootdrink. It is rumoured that she made quite a fortune with this endeavour; which one can understand if you take into consideration that after two months, her neighbours didn’t have a single chicken left. These neighbours remembered what happened to Japie Mulder, the chap who had a dream of representing the district for the ANC in the town council. Oh, he can walk quite well again, even without the crutches (for short distances).  But still, one thinks about such an incident quite deeply before accusing Ma Roberts of stealing a simple thing like a chicken.

With her supply of chickens gone, Ma Roberts contemplated the prospect of a diminishing cash flow, which would have meant reducing her intake of peach brandy. That’s when she took up rabbit farming. Actually, it wasn’t rabbits she kept in that cage behind her house: they were hares. But skin a hare, marinate it ever so slightly in lemon juice, and not even an expert will tell the difference.

Gertruida says one mustn’t confuse hares with rabbits. Rabbits have a soft, succulent flesh – which is why the Belgian restaurant in Kimberley was keen to procure the real thing. But hares? They’re a lot tougher than rabbits. They occur naturally in the Kalahari, fend for themselves within an hour after birth, and do not need the fancy feeding rabbits do. As an aside, Gertruida will remind you that a baby rabbit is called kittens, while the young of hares (which are hairy at birth) are called leverets. This she says just to impress you – not because it has anything to do with The Miracle.

So Ma sent out her labourers to catch the hares on her farm (for a start) and after a week she had eight of the furry animals living in her old chicken coop. After a month, she had twenty-four, due to the original hare’s natural…er…social interaction.

And during this time, Oudoom redoubled his efforts to get Ma Roberts to reconsider her faithless life. He told her about Hope, Love and Mercy. Ma wouldn’t listen, telling him that’s why the country is in such a terrible state. Oudoom changed tack and told her about Jesus – His life, His teachings, and His crucifixion.

Now, Gertruida adds happily, it’s time to talk about Herman du Preez, the chickenless neighbour. Herman was a sickly old man, patiently waiting for the end of his days on the dying farm where the drought (and Ma Roberts) finally stole his hope of a better life on earth. Realising The End was slowly creeping up on him, he took to reading the Bible on his stoep every day, while the only other living thing on his farm – Butch the sheep dog – rested at his feet. Oudoom visited him occasionally to assure him the Paradise was real, and yes, the streets were paved with gold, indeed. This made the old man very happy.

That is, until the day he realised Butch was missing. He closed the Bible, noting the chapter in the book of Job he was studying, and shuffled to the back of the house to look for his faithful friend.

And he found Butch.

With a hare in his jaws.

The hare was dead.

And old Herman looked up at the sky and told the Lord he still had to finish Job. And the New Testament, old Herman prayed earnestly, needed another going-through as well. Surely he can finish that before he closed his eyes for the last time? He reminded his Maker that Ma was a rather deadly opponent, just look what happened to Japie Mulder?

So he sat down, took the dead body from the guilty-looking Butch, and he thought about his problem deeply. If Ma knew his dog had taken one of her rabbits…er, hares…

Herman washed the little body in the basin in his kitchen. Then he dried the dead hare, fluffing up the fur as well as he could. He remembered his long-departed wife’s meagre collection of cosmetics, fished out the almost-dry lipstick and added colour to the lips and a touch of rouge to the cheeks. The brush came in handy, too.

That night, when all the Kalahari slept peacefully, old Herman walked all the way over to Ma Roberts’ farm. Being old and frail, this took longer than he expected, but he made it an hour or so before dawn. He found the wooden gate to the chicken coop, opened the latch, and quietly deposited the small corpse next to the one sleeping hare, who didn’t seem to mind too much.

Then he started shuffling back home.

That Sunday he attended church as usual and was completely surprised to see Ma Roberts in the front pew. Oudoom smiled broadly and halfway through the service he said one of the members of the congregation had something to say.

Ma Roberts hoisted her hefty frame upright, turned around and said she was happy to announce that she’d been wrong all along.

“Look,” she said, “Oudoom has been badgering me about faith for a long time now. As you all know, I thought it was just to soothe his own conscience. But…” and here the whole district saw Ma Roberts falter for the first time in her life, “I was wrong.”

She took a deep breath.

“Oudoom told me about the Resurrection last Wednesday. I listened with one ear. He asked if he could pray for me. I said yes because I wanted his sorry ass off my property.” She ignored the giggles. “Well, he prayed for a sign. Any sign, he said, to make me see the Truth.”

Another deep breath…

“Then one of my rabbits – er… hares – died and I buried it in the veld. It was dead. Really dead.

“And you know what happened? That bloody hare rose from the dead, returned to the coop and looked more alive than I’ve ever seen any hare look like – in all my life.”


Old Herman died the following month – peacefully in his sleep. When Koos Kadawer laid him out, he was amazed. Corpses, in his experienced opinion, have slack faces. Mostly expressionless. Unless they died of fright or after being struck by lightning, like Electric Eddie, the best weather forecaster the district ever had.

Not so with old Herman. He looked contented. Happy. His lips curled upwards in death, like a smile.

Or like somebody who knows a delicious secret he doesn’t want to share.

The Miracle of Rolbos…

A toga has a certain dignity to it. It changes the wearer from a average person to somebody with authority. Or knowledge. Or wisdom. Maybe even into an extension of some higher power – especially amongst the faithful who flock to churches every Sunday. The message from the pulpit becomes a missive from Above, and not the ramblings of a Common Joe who fretted a week long to find new words to describe sin. Without the toga, the sermon loses its weight, and the congregation gets exposed to a preacher who can claim no more influence than they can.

Oudoom has always been meticulous about his toga. A crumpled toga belongs to a negligent pastor. A dirty toga (thank goodness it’s black) is unthinkable. During all the years of guilt and anger, he needed that toga to give him the strength to climb the few steps to the small pulpit in the tiny church in the diminutive town of Rolbos.

But not today. After glancing over to Mevrou, he pauses longer than usual at the steps as a murmur of surprise ripples through the gathering. What? Oudoom in jeans and a plain shirt? No tie? Where’s the man’s toga, for goodness sakes! She nods with a sad smile, and he climbs up to the pulpit.

The whispers subside when he looks up; as if in surprise at their reaction; when he reaches the top stair. He greets them with is usual salutation, sighs, and sits down so they can sing the first hymn. As usual, the congregation follows the slow pace of the organ, stretching the words into almost-unrecognisable forms. Oudoom often wonders if the Lord likes slow singing – or if it matters at all how these songs are sung. Is it simply a matter of repeating the right words – without having to grasp the depth and the meaning of the hymn? Funny how he never worried about this – and now, today; on this most important day; these thoughts are bothering him. Toga’s and hymns; the opium to the masses? The thought causes an unexpected smile.

When at last the congregation sits down, Oudoom gets up with slumped shoulders. Better get this over with. Tell them about the past, greet them, and get out – three main points, like a good sermon should have.

Before he starts speaking, he notices old Marco and his pretty daughter sitting in the bench near the door. Prabably came to gloat, he thinks, to see how my life finally caught up with me. Ah, well, maybe just as well. Now they will hear the news first-hand and won’t have to rely on gossip.

“Today I want to talk to you – not as your pastor, but as a man. A simple man. A man that has lived a lie for too many years. Don’t look at me as your Dominee today, or even as Oudoom … today it is I, Hendrik Vermeulen, husband of Issie, who wants to talk to you.”

Again the murmur – only Gertruida knew Mevrou’s name. Oudoom coughs, holds up a hand, and continues.

“Issie and I know about your meeting last night. I’m sure you discussed the … developments … of recent times in detail. I see Mister Verdana and his daughter are here today, as well, and that makes it easier to say what I have to.

“I want to start with the reason why I came to Rolbos. I need to confess…”

“Excuse me, Dominee.” Servaas – dressed in the obligatory suit and white tie – uses his church voice to interrupt. “I have something to say.”

Oudoom hates interruptions; everybody knows that. A small irritated frown forms on his forehead, but he manages to nod. Servaas gets up to address the pulpit.

“You know we are taught – every Sunday – about morals. About right and wrong. About sin.”  Servaas talks to Oudoom directly, with his back to the audience. “You have scolded us when we were – in your eyes – straying from the path of righteousness. And you know, Dominee, that’s what we talked about last night. We simply cannot go on the way we are doing. It’s not right. The Lord will frown down on us if we don’t cleanse this congregation of falsehood and deceit.”

Several heads nod amongst the people in the benches. Yes, they’re saying, Servaas is right, we’re with him on this one.

“Rolbos, Dominee, is a small community. We depend on each other. Why, the other day when Vrede went missing, we all looked for him. And when we found him quietly gnawing a bone behind Sammie’s Shop, we were glad. And when Boggel needed a new roof, we all worked together to fix it. That’s how it is in Rolbos. We know we can depend on honesty and if one of us has a problem, we stand together to fix it.

“That’s what we talked about. Gertruida told us. She said you carry a heavy yoke and you never had the courage to share it. Now we, Dominee, take a dim view of that. Very dim. We are your flock and we expect you to share with us.

“But Gertruida also said another thing in Boggel’s last night. We didn’t want to hear it, no sir! It cut too near the bone! So we talked about it a lot and came to a decision. Maybe it’s not what you and Mevrou would approve, not during a service, but that’s what we decided and that’s what we are going to do.

“Now Dominee, we decided…”

“Oh for goodness sakes, Servaas, get on with it.” Vetfaan’s irritated voice drowns Servaas’ monotone. “Let’s get this over with. It’s hard enough the way it is.”

Servaas turns around to face Vetfaan. “Listen, I am the elder, and it is my duty. Now why don’t you just remain quiet while I do my job. I remind you that Oudoom appointed me as head elder and not you.” He stares Vetfaan down, who drops his head in his hands, muttering something about somebody’s inflated ego.

“So, as I was saying, Dominee, we came to a decision.” Servaas turns on his heel and takes his seat next to Vetfaan, who gets an elbow in the ribs.

“And what, Elder Servaas, is that decision?” Oudoom knows – from years of experience – that a Dominee must always listen to his congregation. If they have something to say, it’s better to let them air their opinions. You don’t have to agree, but you must seem to be interested in their drivel.

To his surpise, Boggel shuffles to the front after Servaas stared at him. This, Oudoom decides, is something they agreed on.

Boggel, despite his hunchback, straightens himself as well as he can.

“Dominee, I grew up in an orphanage. There I fell in love with a girl. Her father abused her…” Boggel speaks for a full ten minutes, telling them about his past[i]. When at last he finishes, Kleinpiet gets up and tells them about the girl he left when she fell pregnant. Then it’s Precilla who – blushing and stuttering – informs them how she made money to pay for her studies, and what price she had to pay for it eventually. Sersant admits he hates his job and how he struggles to understand the way the police force works these days.

To their utter surprise, Sammie walks into the church at that point, and confesses how he has been diddling his books to avoid paying taxes. Ben Bitterbrak tells them about his childhood and how he learnt to curse like he does. He manages with only three bloodies and a single f-word. Gertruida takes them back to her affair with Ferdinand, the spy, and their evenings in his flat.

And so, one after the other, the members of the congregation impart their deepest secrets. By this time, Mevrou has joined Oudoom on the pulpit, where the couple listens with tears streaming down their cheeks.

It becomes one of the longest services the little church has even seen. Wiele Willemse stands up to say he’s sorry for all the fake sick notes he has handed in at Kalahari Vervoer. It is almost as if they are all overwhelmed by the need to get rid of the stuff that has been bothering for years. At last, Servaas confesses to the communion-wine debacle.

The meeting falls silent. In a long, drawn-out few minutes, nobody dares to speak. Oudoom tries to clear his throat and is about to start talking when an extremely guilty-looking Vrede ambles down the aisle. In his mouth is a piece of biltong he just stole from Servaas’s stoep. With a muffled grrrr-arf  he flops down in front of the pulpit.

All of a sudden, the spell is broken. The congregation collapses in laughter; but whether it is relief, or mirth or just the fact that everybody got rid of some nasty baggage, is difficult to say. Servaas gets up, bends down to take his biltong back – but straightens up again, shaking his head.

“You see, Dominee, we all have secrets. Maybe we have less of them after this service, but last night we decided it is wrong to live with so much pretence. Now, Dominee, Gertruida refused to tell us what this yoke is that’s bearing you down. She also said there is a season for everything. She assured us you have other priorities now, and that you and Mevrou will need some time to sort things out. You’ll tell us when you’re good and ready and when the Lord leads you to do so.

“So we all chipped in, Dominee. We think you and Mevrou need a bit of time to yourself. Sammie, here, has a brother who has a flat in Onrus, that little seaside village near Cape Town. We want you to take Vetfaan’s pickup and drive there today. Lucinda packed some padkos, Marco gave some wine and the rest of us want you to accept this small donation we collected last night.” After stretching to place the envelope on the pulpit, he turns to the congregation. Servaas spreads his arms wide and blesses them with the benediction.

Oudoom is left gaping as the people file out. Here he was, ready to resign, and … He turns to Mevrou with a trembling lip.

“This isn’t happening,” he says.

And Issie, with a tenderness so long forgotten, tells him yes my love, it is.


When the pickup drives down Voortrekker Weg, the crowd in front of Boggel’s Place waves until the dust on the road to Grootdrink settles.

The woman next to the driver glances back with a wry smile.

“You know that lot is going to have a week-long party, with you out of town and nobody to guide them?”

The driver laughs. “Honeybunch, it’s okay. They taught me more about faith in a single morning than the university did in all those years. Let them be. They deserve a break from us.”


“You know, this is special town,” Marco says as Boggel shuffles over with some wine. “I never hear something like this. You make history today.”

“No, Marco, not history. We just did the right thing.” He smiles at Lucinda who blows him a kiss. “And we made a memory.”

“And you make two people very happy,” Lucinda says. “I like that.”

Servaas storms in, red in the face and out of breath. “Has anyone seen that damn dog? If I find him, I’ll skin him alive! He took ALL of my biltong.”

“No Servaas,” Gertruida calms the old man down. “I took it and hung it on my porch. The roof is higher. It’s like we did with Oudoom and Mevrou – it’s safer when you move nearer to heaven…”


And so, after reading about 160 Rolbos stories (and writing them), it is time for us to leave Boggel to pursue the lovely Lucinda; for old Marco to settle in the community; for Gertruida to catch up on her reading of  National Geographic;  for Vetfaan and Kleinpiet to do a bit of farming for a change; and for Mevrou to unpack (to Oudoom’s delight) her new frillies – which, incidentally, helped settle many problems in the pastorie. Precilla still dreams of love, Sammie hopes for a bumper season and Wiele Willemse hopes Kalahari Vervoer will buy a new lorry..

To all the readers who lived in Rolbos for the last six months – a BIG thank you. God willing, the journey will continue in September…

Bless you all.

[i] https://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/framed/   Boggel did a few nasty things, he even lied to Sersant dreyer