Friday, 9 September 2016

The end of a journey within a journey

Some people like to plan journeys or projects down to the finest detail. Some just like to have fairly accurate directions, an outline and a relatively solid idea of what the destination or outcome should be. Then there are those who like acting or working on instinct or sudden whims, going where the wind blows them. I guess I would fit somewhere between the second and latter group. Truth is: "The best-laid plans and schemes of mice and men often go awry"... or perhaps simply have a better alternative. Our journey into a new life in a mountain village was one of those...

Nothing went the way we had foreseen it. There was the traumatic accident two nights before the "groot trek" (the big move). During which our "new" vehicle, especially acquired for the mountain roads, was wrecked. The removal company was six hours late. When they arrived they rushed around like soldier ants and in the process the base of our double bed crashed through the bedroom window. With daylight fading, all our earthly belongings were crammed into a trailer, hooked onto the back of the huge bulk of the removal van like an elephant cow with a calf in tow. The self-same trailer was unhooked from the truck when the driver took a wrong turn and left it without the brakes on. It went rolling down an embankment with the Gladwin household stacked inside. When we ourselves, with cats on the back seat and dogs peering through the canopy window,  tugging my VW Beatle, finally set out for the place of new beginnings, we thought that the worst was over and that things would most certainly be smoothed out from thereon...

The kitties on the back seat woke up from their drugged state, a long time before the journey was over. We traversed an endless dark countryside, along a dusty potholed road, with two screaming, clawing cats in the back, the Beetle bouncing precariously behind us, our nerves frazzled. When we finally arrived in Hogsback, the mist as thick as semolina pudding, the romantic notions about moving to the country had turned rancid. Out of the mist a figure emerged, a toothless, benevolent specter. With the paraffin lantern held up in front of his grizzled face - he could have slipped out of a Rembrandt peasant study in a gesture of goodwill and welcome. An unexpected end to one journey, and a glowing start to a new one.

But our story of relocating is but one of many. Everyone has their fair amount of challenges in the process of being uprooted and transplanted into foreign soil. It is the grace and providence that accompanied us, and still does, which makes it unique.

At the beginning of this journey, I mentioned that I attempted to write a "book" about two years ago. I sat up late each night, after the house had become hushed. With the snores and deep breathing of my family as my soundtrack. I ground the seeds of memories into phrases, into paragraphs, into a wide-angled view of what lay behind. One cold night, with my neck-muscles in a knot and my fingers frozen on the keyboard in mid-thought, I stopped to question my motives for doing it. I realised that I was on a self-indulgent trip, with the main intent to somehow "make a mark". The milestones I had set for myself weighed heavily on my shoulders. I decided to stop. Part of those nightly musings made their way into these chapters, but with the weight of unnecessary expectations lifted. Some of the memories shifted painfully into perspective, while others made me laugh and cry with their poignancy.

Writing in bright daylight with the ongoing interruptions and daily responsibilities of a full-time mother, has helped me not to take myself too seriously. The road-side rests and dusty detours have made the journey so much richer, with unexpected sightings and re-discoveries. My children help to keep me grounded, and contrary to what I thought, have brought an extra dimension into all that I do. They teach me to see things afresh, always ready to embrace a new thing or thought, regardless of how unexpected (or unwelcome at times).

So it is with all this in mind that I look back one final time. To see if there is one glowing moment or memory which could be the star on the tree. But these are beyond words. It sometimes makes me wonder why I still persist. Trying to put into words so many things which somehow descend when given the weight of wordily perception.

It is the same with a photograph.  A frozen moment which, with a discerning eye, suddenly shifts out of the frame. To what happened before or after. To what the thoughts of the people in the image were. How the sun felt on that day, the fragrances in the air. So also, the words of others flow into our own thought processes, emotions or memories. Open up flickering reels and sensory perceptions of what lay behind and inside the words.

Most of all it has helped me to see that the past was neither as sweet or as bitter as I sometimes remember it to be. My mother was no angel, but she spread wings of caring over me, the best she knew how. My father was not an easy person to get along with, but he gave me a sense of security and solid values which I could only truly appreciate once he was gone. He loved by doing, not by feeling. Which often counted for a lot more than the fluff of emotions without the actions to ground it. Our grandparents were a dear and comforting presence in our lives, but they had shortcomings and doubts, just like everyone else.

My two brothers and the eldest, our sister, did not always seem to dote on their "kleinsussie" (little sister). But they loved me - each in their own unique and sometimes quirky way.  There was a lot of "pesting", but also pampering. Large age gaps were bridged with motor-cycle rides to the library, shopping-mall mornings, or an unexpected rough and tumble on the lawn. It was a sheltered childhood in a time when the streets were safe, and Mothers' apron strings were very elastic.

With a bicycle seat under your bum and a friend or cousin in tow - the world was ours to explore. We expected little but gained much in the process. Families were each other's best friends. Social events were often graced by three generations of loud Dutch relatives each vying for a speaking turn. Like a Dixieland jazz tune - brassy, upbeat and bold.

My husband and I have often been called soft spoken, gentle people. But you would not say the same of our small family if you were the proverbial "fly on the wall" in our home. The wooden house often reverberates with thuds and squeals or raucous laughter. Or ripples of mild thunder when someone is "vexed". Within these walls their have been battles and victories, heartache and incredible joy. The arrival of our firstborn, the birth of our second. Here is our hearth and our board, the nest where warm hearts beat out the rhythm of a family who have learnt the value of being both vulnerable and strong.

But it is a gentle hand which keeps us together. A gentle touch which lends the exquisite beauty to our surroundings and us in it. A whisper in the trees, which speaks of the deep love which strengthens and sustains our fragile lives. New tender mercies that mark each morning. For the name that stands above it all, until the glorious day on which He shall call us to our real home, shall ever be: JESUS.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Chapter 18 ~ Living small

One of my grandfather's early paintings, which hangs above our bed

My grandfather had a deep appreciation of beauty. It moved him, stirred his gentle heart. Beautiful music, prose, landscapes. People. He lovingly planted a garden of rolling terraces in a leafy suburb. (Which has now been taken over by high-rise apartment buildings and traffic). A painter by trade, he delighted in blending colours to the optimal effect. I was too young to appreciate the detail, the gentle dedication which he poured into the soil with every tilling and feeding. It was an old-fashioned garden of heady scents, blooms and blossoms, terraces and trellises. A narrow stone escalier led up to his studio and tool shed, where he painted pastoral scenes from the "Vaderland". There is a thick volume, which now graces our bookshelf called "Holland, wat ben jij nog mooi!" (Holland - you truly are lovely!). In a time of so much visual stimulation through electronic media, there is something restful about taking out an old book, letting the familiar spine rest in my hands, as my forebears have done before me. This particular book has some lovely colour plates in it, but the rest are in unassuming black and white. I find this comforting - the way the details are captured in an honest, almost stark manner. It draws the eye in, unlike bold technicolour, dazzling with the total effect of it.

It is most probable, that Barteld van Dyken (my maternal grandfather), as the head of his house, was the one who made the decision to emigrate. My father was the only one from his large family who made the same intrepid move. These men are the reason why four generations of our clan now call South Africa our home. What personal dilemma and doubt preceded this drastic move? All of Europe witnessed and experienced hardship during and after the war, with varying degrees and of a nature that we can never understand. There was propaganda, peer pressure and a looming depression. But the decision was still his. Perhaps the longing to surround himself with beauty, create it, find it in the most unlikely places, was partly his way of making up for what was lost, what he (with his family) had to give up. What a generation of victims had to surrender, to leave the horror behind and embrace the God-given hope of a new beginning.

He loved to walk. A dapper gentleman with a hat and cane. A felted and feathered hat which was tilted with the tip of his cane in greeting and held to his heart in moments of reverence. I clearly remember him arriving on our doorstep one mid-morning, out of breath and with tears in his eyes. My mother took him by the hand and asked in a voice filled with alarm: "Pappa, wat is er tog gebeurt?" (What happened, Dad?). To which he answered, head bowed and eyes moist but full of wonder: "Och, Janny, het leven is zo mooi!" (Oh, Janny, life is so beautiful). He had walked the approximately five kilometers from their home, observed all that was lovely on his path, and was overcome by it.

But this was not a man who was gushy with sentiment or flattery. (Which would have been very unusual for a Groninger and Dutch-man if he was). He was passionate but did not suffer fools. Had strong convictions and often did not shy away from sharing them. My cousins and I viewed him with a strange mixture of fear and trust. He was strict, but fair, and I never thought of crawling onto his lap or disturbing his concentration. I fondly remember a time when my mother was in hospital and I went to stay at my grandparents' house. Their home was cool, quiet and neat. My grandmother was unerringly tidy, but managed to maintain a comforting atmosphere of warmth and homeliness in her house. I enjoyed their hushed routine, which was quite unlike the racket which often ruled our home. During hourly news-broadcasts, the house had to be completely silent, and Opa's daily paper and pipe habit was almost sacred. It was a balmy summer, and the dining-room doors were opened wide to let the the smell of roses and purple rain wisteria in with the breeze. I sat at the tapestry covered table, trying to do a homework assignment on Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). I became aware of a presence behind me. It was my grandfather who had taken (to my dismay) an interest in what I was doing. When I could not find a picture to accompany the assignment, my grandfather fetched his pastels, sat down so near to me that I could smell the tobacco and turpentine on his fingers. Almost effortlessly, his hand found the contours of  wings, shaped the delicate form of a butterfly, gave it iridescent colour and life. I held my breath, not certain of how to receive such a gift. Long after the assignment was forgotten, the butterfly remained a treasure, reminding me of those rare intimate moments between an awkward girl and a man who always remained a stranger in a land away from home.

My grandmother doted on him and he cherished her. Never did a meal pass without a soft "Dank u wel Moeder" for the fare she'd prepared for him. She did not appreciate his habit of passing bits of food to his fidgety Toy Poms under the table, but only showed her displeasure with an occasional long-suffering sigh. Just outside the the back door in a sheltered area of dappled shade, stood a garden bench swing. It was a creaky seat, meant for gentle dozings under a floral canopy. Except if you were pre-teen cousins subject to fits of giggles. Each time we pushed a bit harder, the poor swing groaning with each wild sway. At the height of this silliness, the spindly front legs lifted off the ground, hung there for a moment and then surrendered to gravity once more. But this time the pull was back-ward, and it was as if the whole thingamajig just collapsed on itself like a stack of sticks. With it's occupants bottoms up and "all shook-up" (Kabouter Spillebeen Returns). Two ashen faced girls faced their fuming grandfather with shaky legs and grazed elbows. The swing lay in a sad heap, a fainted damsel with her frock over her face. As my grandfather stomped off, Oma came tottering towards us with an expression of motherly concern and a roll of mint humbugs for the shock. Oma did it with sugar and love, and it worked each time.

In such a way our young lives were shaped and nurtured. By ordinary people with an extraordinary acceptance of  LIFE. Not always wholly uncomplaining - but with a hearty gratitude for what was good and wholesome. They understood the joy and contentment to be found in simple pleasures, which was never greedy or gaudy. They knew both how to be abased, and how to abound.

Better a little with the fear of the LORD than great wealth with turmoil. ~ Proverbs 15:16

When I was in my mid thirties, I attended a course at our local Vineyard church dealing with "How to find your passion". The other folk all had very noble passions - a passion for the broken and lost, for the sick, for the poor, for growing the church. And me? It appeared I had a passion for - beauty... It felt as if I had missed the mark. The young pastor was diplomatic and kind, and encouraged me to pursue beauty and purity in all things. Looking back, he was probably speaking prophetically and with wisdom beyond his years or knowledge. I know that there is inconceivable beauty which awaits us in heaven in the presence of our Saviour Jesus. But on days when it is cold and dark, when children's voices become sharp shards, dog's snarl, the cat vomits up a mouse's entrails on the carpet, rice clumps and burns, eyes appear puffy and old  - I breathe deeply, stretch taller - and there it is. It can be as simple as crystal drops of moisture clinging to the fennel outside my window. A melody or symphony filling the house with pure chords and harmony. The way the cat is curled on a velvet pillow.

My boys have become sensitive to this. Probably not always completely unselfishly though. Life is much easier for little ones when your mom has a smile on her face. A few days ago they were dividing the contents of a pack of smarties, which they had received as a treat from friends. Twenty seven multi-coloured, candy-coated choccies where spread out on the table. Luke set aside ten for his brother, took ten for himself and offered the remaining seven to me in a damp, dirty little hand. "Because you deserve it Mamma", he said, very convincingly. Instant Mamma-meltdown...

Daniel's offerings come in the form of vividly coloured drawings, executed with bold strokes. Quite the little impressionist, he is proud and confident in his abilities as an "artist" - even if the gazelles look like asses and birds become pterodactyls under his hand. This morning I received a rolled up painting of a Bengal tiger, presented in an empty Lindt wrapping. A beastly beauty, with a whiff of dark chocolate emanating from it. Oh they know my weaknesses so well. I am often presented with slightly crushed flowers, which they arrange in my graying mop. I am then declared the flower-princes. Princesses don't growl and grumble - they are floaty, benevolent beings, who set the world aright with a magic wand, not with smacks on naughty bottoms!

I look back at the time when there was a waddling toddler and a babe-in-arms in our home. There was so much uncertainty, and little to sustain from day to day. But what remains in my mind are images which are so fragile and precious, that it seems parlous to handle them without utmost care. In the forefront of my memory are not the things that were hard and tough, but the times and moments which were made perfect by an all-enveloping grace and beauty. What we have now seems much stronger and more secure, but there are still those moments when with aching heart I realise how delicate this life truly is.

I feel that this story may need to come to an end soon. Not that there are no more memories to share. That is a suitcase with more compartments and false bottoms than I could ever explore. But I run the risk of repeating myself and becoming a bore. Writing can only stay vital if it stays fresh. I may change the format or start filling a new skin with snippets and thoughts. What else would I do with all these words which have no-where to go each day!

Charles Spurgeon, the "prince of preachers", once said: “Faith goes up the stairs that love has built and looks out the windows which hope has opened.” I get glimpses out of that window, and it is never a grand view of rewards and surety. It is a view of small steps flanked by thistles and blossoms, peril and sweetness. What has been left behind at the bottom or along those steps have made us stronger and brought us closer. What waits further along or at the top of the steps is not for me to know now.  But I know Who waits there and that is enough...

Care more for a grain of faith than a ton of excitement.” ~ Charles Spurgeon.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Chapter 17 ~ Learning to understand

Opa en Oma van Dijken and daughters (Mamma far left)
A child views the world through new eyes. Eyes that see leaves uncurl, the reverence in a praying mantis - a rabbit resting on the moon's face. Then we grow up, and look at the time, look in the mirror to see if you are presentable, look at robots change colour and work pile up and your shrinking bank account and messages and news on social media and the frown on your friend's face and... too often, SEE very little. Then a child takes you by the hand and says: "Come - look!" You bend down with one eye on the pot on the stove and glance down at the small hand under your nose. Right before your eyes a butterfly rests lightly on the soft palm, it's wings slow and trembling in the last minutes of life. And you see. Then the child looks at you and sees a "grown-up". Slightly alien, pre-occupied and perhaps a bit unpredictable, but one with whom he can feel safe and secure.

When you become a parent, you again start seeing things completely differently (you have no choice really...). You often have to "see" beyond what is before you. See the child's need in it's cry, the world he has entered into through his eyes. A new dimension opens up - life becomes layered, maddeningly complex at times, but wonderfully rich, and full of colours never imagined before. You look back and see your own parents with aching understanding and empathy. Saddened that you did not "see" then, when you were so heedless and self-absorbed. You long to understand more. To see them as children, understand what shaped their young lives, influenced their convictions and decisions. Determined their way of parenting, of loving, of surviving. Your eyes probe an old photograph, hoping to catch a glimpse of the heart behind the smile, the periphery of the scene beyond the picture before you.

And so, little by little, the angle widens, the picture grows. Fractions of a life lead before I became a reality, are revealed.

I could not hope to understand my own parents, without trying to enter into the joys and suffering they went through. Time and again this brings me back to the outbreak of WWII in Europe and the invasion of Nazi Germany in the Netherlands. For in the aftermath of this, everything was altered. Families, relationships, landscapes, global economy, industry, politics, religion, trust - nothing escaped.

The Netherlands proclaimed neutrality when war broke out in September 1939, just as it had in World War I, but Adolf Hitler ordered it to be invaded anyway. My mother would have been about 3 years old and my father a young boy of 10. On 15 May 1940, one day after the bombing of Rotterdam, the Dutch forces surrendered. The Dutch government and the royal family escaped and went into exile in London.

Following the defeat, the Netherlands was placed under German occupation, which endured in some areas until the German surrender in May 1945. Active resistance was carried out by a small minority, which grew in the course of the occupation. The occupiers deported the majority of the country's Jews to Nazi concentration camps, sadly with the cooperation of much of the Dutch police and civil service.

Most of the south of the country was liberated in the second half of 1944. The rest, especially the west and north of the country still under occupation, suffered from a famine at the end of 1944, known as the "Hunger Winter". This struck when my parents where aged 8 and 15 years respectively. I can understand neither the concept of real hunger or real cold. The combination of the two must have left a deep imprint on children of such an impressionable age. They were victims, but tracing their footsteps in the years after, also survivors. After times of refreshing had come, they prevailed. The scars had softened and they were able to look back with a gentle sadness for what was lost and nostalgia for what was good and sweet.

Mamma and my adorable sister
I now understand why there was always a bit of a veil over the stories told of their childhood. On the lighter side; I can grasp why my mother meticulously counted out the amount of biscuits according to the amount of people in the room, plus one extra, so that it would not look "mean". And no one ever dared to take the last one anyway... Why birthday presents and wrapping paper were often "recycled", why even loo paper was rationed. Why the cheese was grated and frozen, then measured out in exact portions for the daily need. Why nylon stockings were repaired with dabs of "cutex". Which also happened to be the only place nail varnish was used. Apart from a light facial powder, no make-up ever made it's way into my mom's "objets de toilette".

My mother once told me about an "onderduiker (person in hiding) who had taken refuge in their cellar during the war. I took the bit of information as a matter of fact, not understanding the danger the family had placed themselves in by doing so. The life stories of Corrie ten Boom and Anne Frank are examples of the real peril which people in hiding as well as the people offering the hiding places faced. This has made me view my parents and grandparents with a new respect, in light of the things they faced and the choices they made.

These quotes from Corrie the Boom's Hiding Place say it better than I ever could. For they flowed from a warm Dutch heart which had seen and endured the deepest pits of suffering, but did not stop loving, living and flourishing. Regardless.
Today I know that such memories are the key not to the past, but to the future. I know that the experiences of our lives, when we let God use them, become the mysterious and perfect preparation for the work He will give us to do. ”

“Do you know what hurts so very much? It's love. Love is the strongest force in the world, and when it is blocked that means pain. There are two things we can do when this happens. We can kill that love so that it stops hurting. But then of course part of us dies, too. Or we can ask God to open up another route for that love to travel.”

~ Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. ~ Proverbs 3:5

In all my quests to try and understand people, there is one person whom I have never been able to fathom out. Myself. But I have stopped trying to - and am hopefully learning that "understanding" is not everything and it is certainly not the same as "knowing". My days have become significantly lighter since I've given up all the inner probing and prodding. There is after all much more to captivate my attention these days...

We've celebrated birthdays, which seem to follow each other faster than the bodies can keep up with. I look back and can hardly believe that I am now the mother of a five and seven year old, and we are all still relatively sane and surprisingly content. There is much of what other parents have told me about raising children, which I have taken on board and appreciated. But there is also much that is more an old norm and pattern, which has been accepted - like an animal accepts it's fate when it is haltered and penned. We have so much more freedom than what we realise. This freedom is almost a bit of an inversion of what we accept to be logical. When I have made choices in order to gain a bit of freedom for myself, I have often ended up at a dead-end with another trap in it. But the choices and decisions which we have believed to be God's will, have often come a bit more grudgingly, with initial personal sacrifices and limitations. But then one morning I woke up and realised that a great weight had been shed. Our days start gently, with the merry sound of children at play. My husband is a joyful early riser, which affords me the luxury of letting the early hours unfold slowly and without haste. As the door closes behind him, the three of us snuggle a bit longer, often with a book between us or an invented game which mostly turns out to be the first "lesson" of the day.

The one choice which my husband and I have had to defend and explain more than anything else, was the decision to teach our children at home. "Home-schooling" it is called. But what is a school? And were did it start? When did "schooling" become public? Do our children belong to God or to the state? There are questions about what children should be taught at public schools and what not. Evolution theory or creationism. Objective history or politics. I often wonder if we are asking the right questions. What if we took it a step back and asked: Should there be public schools? Can of worms. We are afforded the chance to vote for who rules the country. But who "votes" for what should and should not be included in a school curriculum...?
The systematic provision of learning techniques to most children, such as literacy, has been a development of the last 150 or 200 years, or even the last 50 years in some countries.
Since the mid-20th century, societies around the globe have undergone an accelerating pace of change in economy and technology. Its effects on the workplace, and thus on the demands on the educational system preparing students for the workforce, have been significant. Beginning in the 1980s, government, educators, and major employers issued a series of reports identifying key skills and implementation strategies to steer students and workers towards meeting the demands of the changing and increasingly digital workplace and society. 21st century skills are a series of higher-order skills, abilities, and learning dispositions that have been identified as being required for success in 21st century society and workplaces by educators, business leaders, academics, and governmental agencies. Many of these skills are also associated with deeper learning, including analytic reasoning, complex problem solving, and teamwork, compared to traditional knowledge-based academic
skills. ~ Wikipedia.
Educators, business leaders, academics and governmental agencies decide what students and workers (our children) should and should not know to meet the demands of the workforce and society. What are "deeper learning" and "higher-order skills"? Perhaps, just perhaps it is not that people should not ask questions, but that we should ask the right questions about personal choices about how to raise, educate and discipline our children, not just for success in this lifetime, but for eternity.

We cannot know what the future holds for our children. Right now seems so whole and wholesome and I wish it could remain this way. But this is a dream-hope. We, as well as our sons will have to face much which we cannot possibly foresee, let alone prevent. There is a narrow tile, with a beautiful Dutch poem written on it in elegantly slanted script, which sits above the basin in our bathroom. It serves as a gentle reminder to me each morning as I splash my face and look up to see the first lines: "Ik leg de namen van mijn kinderen in Uw handen" (I place the names of my children into Your hands). To this Highest Order I surrender them, in His hands they are safe. Amidst all the controversy about what they should and should not be taught, this remains unshakable, infallible, steadfast and secure.

Our soft little ones have become tough and angular. Fortunately this has taken place on the surface only and they remain dear, with all the loving generosity of a child who feels secure. The circumstances which I sometimes bemoan as being limiting, have also led to an unusually deep bond and understanding between the four of us. I grew up with two brothers who were (and are) like opposing poles. Chalk and cheese, mist-rain and monsoon, day and night. Therefore it did not come as such a shock, that the two entrusted to us sometimes seem to be two different species, as far as character is concerned. Both are precious, with his own gifts and talents and short-comings, but they each dance to their own beat. Despite the differences and occasional fisty-cuffs, they get along remarkably well and never seem to tire of each other's company. "Boezemvrienden" (bosom or heart friends). Luke sums himself up as a "head-guy" - meaning his mind is ever busy, curious, hungry. Daniel tempers that with his easy going - stay in the background, then they demand less of you - approach. Until he is crossed or loses a game or is called a baby. Then there be dragons...

I turned away from my writing for a moment to stretch and look out over the peaceful, hazy scene outside the window. The top branches of a silver birch swaying in the breeze, a hint of new green where the first sign of spring is borne. A cardboard box moved into view, then continued floating across the deck unhindered. I blinked hard, did a double check as it floated out of view. A few minutes later it re-appeared and I stretched taller to get a better look. From under the box protruded a pair of arms, hands holding firmly onto a push bike being propelled by a sturdy pair of legs. Upon closer investigation I learnt that this was in fact Daniel "in disguise" - a spy looking out for "bad guys". That was until the spy crashed into the rails, resulting from "box vision".

So my days continue unfolding with moments of sweet simplicity. I could sweep and stoop and become weighted down by the magnitude of a task which, even though it has no externally imposed deadlines, never ends. Or I could look up and see the little spies with sparkling eyes, the bees buzzing busily around the new lavender and honeysuckle blooms. The cat stretched out in a lazy curve in the sun, the wide, wide vista of mountain and forest with whispering tree-tops. I may not always be able to understand everything. But I breathe deeply and raise my arms in gratitude to the One who does.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Chapter 16 ~ Digging deep

Your's truly in the sandpit and in the "kaskar"

Families are often likened to trees. Branches reaching far and wide, but with roots anchored together in the same place. Some branches reach further than others, but the tree compensates by digging the roots deeper to keep the tree from toppling over. The actual trees of my childhood were places of refuge. Places for dreaming, where I could side-step life on the ground for a while. Our suburban garden was simple, no-fuss, with a wide lawn and a narrow flower-bed planted with hardy shrubs flanking the sidewalk. There was no wall or gate, merely a low pole-fence, declaring the border between us and the busy road. The back garden was practical, but offered more than enough diversity for an imagination which had no borders to limit it. In the limbs of a Jacaranda tree, I could be whatever or whoever I wished. Or I could just be me. Often with a book tucked into a bag slung sideways over my shoulder and chest, I could skim a tree in a tick. From there I could watch the goings-on in the "parkie" behind our house as well as the comforting rhythms of family members. I became invisible - not because I could not be seen. The Jacaranda's foliage was hardly dense enough for that. Simply because people get so used to seeing something in a certain place, that they stop noticing it. I was out of reach, above it all. An observer of life's little drama's unfolding at ground level. The Jacaranda was not my tree-friend and I don't recall ever wanting to hug it... It was just - freedom.

At some point my father succumbed to the local "braaivleis" fixation, and a metal braai on a pole was erected under my hideout... At times when the noise-level piqued and there were more bodies than chairs, I still longed to escape into my fine-leaved sanctuary. But many sweet times of family togetherness were wiled away under that canopy. During early summer, hung with heavy purple blooms or on a lilac carpet spread underneath. With the strange intoxicating incense of roasting meat swirling around us. This was my father at his best. He came to life, merry and content to be the affable patriarch.

I came across an amusing description of the good old South African "braai" by a "foreigner" from the Netherlands, having observed many South Africans at their favourite pass-time. This is more or less a summary of it:
"The subject of braaiing deserves a dedicated article in itself. A braai, or braaing, derives from the Dutch word ‘braden’, which means roasting.
Some might argue that a braai these days is considered more of a social event, which also just happens to involve the roasting/grilling of meat on an open fire. Regardless of how you see it, South Africans are completely obsessed with it.
You can find braai areas everywhere, especially in parks. I mean, they even have a national holiday dedicated to it (re-branded by some for Cultural Heritage day, or ‘braai for Heritage Day’) with a mascot called Jan Braai. No joke.
I guess the main purpose of a braai is togetherness and enjoying the simple way of making food outside over a long time, with a group of people. I envy the abundance of opportunity South Africans have for this.
In the Netherlands, this type of event would simply not work because of three reasons:
1. Lack of space. (There is no space. None.)
2. Lack of weather. (Whatever it is in the Netherlands, it is pathetic)
3. Lack of masculinity.
The first two are pretty self-explanatory, the latter might need some elaboration. You see, South Africans are pretty tough. In a country with such extremes, I can imagine you immediately toughen up.
Here people grow up with an abundance of meat, endless games of wrestling rugby and the constant looming of a potential hijacking at gunpoint.
For that reason, survival skills are the basics, including the making of a brutal fire. I, however, refuse even to prepare a mango because it makes my hands sticky, and I cut an onion wearing a snorkel.
Be careful not to confuse a South African braai with an American barbecue! These two are hardly related. Barbecues are made for laziness, safety, comfort and speed. These days, American barbecues are so sophisticated they are self-cleaning, come with a remote control, solar panelled electric fryer, GPS and a tan-bed.
South African braais are simple. A few bricks here and there, a roasting rack. That’s it. Starting it up requires some actual skills, and my few attempts have mostly resulted in setting myself on fire.
Nowadays, I’m only allowed to make the side salad.
Once everything is fired up, and you’ve got the smell of burning wood and meat coming through, you’ll most likely be busy chatting to your friends, neighbours and random bypassers. Patience is key, and you’ll probably be completely drunk before the first piece of meat ends up on your plate.
If you don’t pass out behind a tree or dance into the braaimaster, you’ll easily eat huge amounts of boerewors, steak, chicken legs and lamb chops, as everyone always brings way too much food. Few will eat your side-salad.
I have left every braai full-bellied and satisfied, and I thoroughly enjoy the social purpose of bringing everyone together for food. Nothing beats the joy of spending a day roasting meat, and South Africans can do this like no other.
Luckily I’ll have plenty of more braais to come, and I’ll try to attend all of them. Except in winter, of course. Then you guys are definitely on your own."
To get back to the trees... In the park behind the house stood a cluster of trees in a circle. These were not really places of refuge, apart from the shade that they could offer on really hot days. They were rough-barked specimens with branches too high to reach up to. The ground underneath them was hard and dark - grass could not root there and the surface was unyielding and uninviting. The park was a stark, wide open place, which town-planners had probably set aside for recreation of sorts, but never got beyond putting up three sets of swings and a rusty see-saw. At times the wooden seats of the swings would crack from neglect, and pinch your bum if you were wearing shorts. The see-saw, had no bouncy tires underneath -  it was simply a hard-edged yellow thing with red handles, with the paint often peeling off in crumbly flakes. But none of this ever deterred or bothered us much. We flew and spun at crazy heights on the swings, performing daring feats worthy of a Boswell-Wilkie act. Bumped each other higher than the handle bars on the see-saw, while the older, meaner kids would often jump off in mid air, leaving you to crash down so hard that it felt like your seat-bone had knocked you over the head. A young girl once got her foot caught under it and was sped away in a ambulance amid much blood and hysteria. Soon after that, a whole team of workers arrived with two tyre halves, spending most of the morning digging them into the hard soil on either end of the ominous see-saw...

The only other plant-life in the park were a few narrow trees, with large hand-shaped leaves that come autumn - turned into fluttering jewels in rich earthy colours. Clambering single roses hugged the chicken wire mesh on the one side, with 19th avenue leading the eye up and away into the Magaliesberg. The soil was lightly covered by a hardy perennial veldt-grass, which would be cut back occasionally by a tractor-pulled mower. This was achieved with relative speed, since there is no place for a team on a tractor...  It was the venue for serious soccer matches, gravity-defying bicycle rides and neighbourhood disputes (rock spiders vs rooi-nekke), all removed from the ears and eyes of parents.(Until the father of a bloody-nosed kid arrived on the doorstep for a reckoning).  The proximity of this strange "park" to our home, may have been one of the reasons why I have always longed for wide open spaces. I'm not claustrophobic, confined spaces are not threatening. Just sooo limiting.

The other tree which I was drawn to, was a densely-leaved, slightly gnarled hardwood on the side of the house. I don't remember anybody else going there much. It was dark and quiet place where the leaves hissed and branches creaked when the wind blew. It was the faerie tree. As a bit of a tomboy I did not possess any faerie frocks or magic wands, but this place just felt like there could be small mysterious beings who hid among the branches and slept in the abandoned bird-nests. I recall a disturbing incident which happened when I picked up a small cracked egg under this tree. Inside was a wrinkled, purplish little bird, the eyes covered by the most delicate covering of skin. The beginnings of wings were tucked against it's body, all stiff, cold and lifeless. From that day, I believed that the beings living in that tree were not benevolent, but impish creatures who toppled the birds and their young from their nests. The tree took on an sinister air, making it ever more alluring, somewhere you don't really want to be, but can't keep away from either. Many  years after, when the tree had to be felled to make place for a flatlet adjoining our house, I watched it go down with mixed emotions. Sunlight streamed into all those shadowy corners - the threat, but also the delicious mystery, all gone...

It was a time when everyone still planted fruit trees, and our garden had it's fair share of it. A prolific peach tree yielded a bounty of fat, softly downed fruit each season. Nowadays, smooth, bare cultivars have taken over the market. But to me they seem naked, and could never compare to those luscious fluffy peaches, and the joy of rubbing it gently on your sleeve, before sinking your teeth into the rich complex flavours of a sun-ripened fruit.

There was an apricot tree behind a split-pole partition, where the compost heap and garden rubble and everything else which was considered unsightly was stowed. It was as if this poor tree merely took on the air of things unwanted in this place. Each year it pushed out its blossoms, briefly residing over the rubble as a fair damsel in her finest. But then the fruit would form - tight and full of promise. Year after year, the result was the same - a tree full of glowing little apricots, almost each of them rotten at the core or with a wriggly worm inside it.

The other apricot tree, which resided over our sandpit, was the grande dame of the fruit trees. It's blossoms were a sight for sore eyes after the bleak winter months. The fruit hung heavy during the heat of summer, and many happy hours were spent playing in the sand, with the heady scent of ripe apricots overhead. When I became bored with the sand, I devised a make-shift laboratory out of a long plank, wedged in-between the lower branches. This was used to arrange a row of glass jars, syringes, food dye, pins and needles nicked from my Mom's sewing basket, a Minora blade from Dad's shaving paraphenalia and a little net. Here the budding scientist dissected many a poor six-legged critter. Grasshopper legs floated in jars of coloured water and flies and "gogga's" (insects) of varied sizes and colours were pinned to apple-box polystyrene. Fortunately the life of this little shop of horrors was short-lived, and I cannot imagine what sparked this murderous spate in a girl who rescued spiders and moths from the bath-tub.

Children adore trees. Those who grow up without them, are all the poorer for it. It is like family pets, we can survive without them, but our lives are given texture, lustre and warmth with them. They are part of what makes memories, provides places where we can breathe deeply, stretch out longer and higher and be lulled into slow contentedness. As I look back, I hang each one of these recollections on an evergreen memory tree, and watch it become more breathtakingly beautiful with each addition. The people and places I loved and love, transforming it into something I return to time and again, to look up with wonder and thanksgiving.

"They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit." ~ Jeremiah 17:8

At Inesi, the saplings we had planted when we first arrived here, had grown into handsome young trees. At first, I sorely missed the established order and simplicity of the city garden we had left behind. A stately old Camphor- and a Stinkwood tree stood sentinel in the back corner of that property - a place where I could always go to become restful. The branches of the two trees wrapped their limbs together at the top, forming a cool green dome. When the wind blew, one of the branches creaked and scraped against the corner of the roof, just like the creaking of a ships's hull. Variegated Ivy curled and twisted around the trunks, hung over the fence and covered the greatest part of the outer front wall of the house. During the deep hours of the night, a red-eyed dove called from the trees, right outside my window. At first I found it a bit baleful. But once I got used to the bird's strange habit, it became a comfort to me - as I too was often awake at night, and it broke the silence and solitude.

We planted a tree for each of the boys. We waited until they were old enough to partake in the little ceremonies, and watched each one in turn as they clumsily heaved heaps full of soil around their "twees". The Luke-tree has grown vigorously, with a showy crown of dark-red leaves. As it's name-sake, not a presence to be easily overlooked. To my alarm, the neighbour's horses snapped off a large part of the Danu-tree. By accident probably, but I watched with apprehension to see if it would recover. Fortunately the small Japanese Maple righted itself slowly but surely, subtly changing colour with the seasons.

There were few friends for our boys to interact with, but they became each other's best buddies. Luke has always had great ambitions, and one of them was to climb trees. Even though we have a whole forest at the bottom of our property, not many of these trees are of the proportion to allow for climbing. But that did not deter a little daredevil on a mission. I've watched him dangle from branches, thinner than my forearm, always expecting that awful ripping sound of breaking wood. But it never came. He seems to have an inborn taste for adventure, with just the right balance between risk and caution to keep himself in one piece. (So far...) Daniel on the other hand stays more "grounded", and weaves fantastic tales around his favourite places in the woods. But to him they are not tall tales. They are elaborate and detailed, and they come to life in his imagination. To the point that they convinced their mother to join them on their next visit to "Neverland". I was promised that it is not so far"... just a little bit up and down and then you're there. We set out for "Neverland" through a small gap in the fence to the adjoining property. It is a wooded area between us and the dwellings on Bubuhle, the first place we ever visited in Hogsback. I slipped into the cool forest with two blond heads bouncing ahead of me, caught up in their lightness and feeling young and carefree. After about a quarter of an hour of clambering and leopard crawling, I was wining like a kid on a road trip. "How much further guys?" I gasped. For two little hobbits, this was a walk in the park, but for their 1.7 m tall, gravity bound mama, it was a minor trial. I was more than "glowing", with quite a few scratches and scrapes to tote. I was just about ready to turn back, when Luke announced - "Here we are!" I eased through a small opening in the branches and entered: "Neverland". A small glade lay before me, with a carpet of ivy and the sun touching every surface with silver light. There was just enough space for us to each stretch out and let the warmth melt away all recollection of the recent jungle-bash. The boys placed ivy leaves in my tangled hair, and I wove two crowns for my little princes. I may have bars of bones and "older" joints to limit these adventures, but for a golden hour I could feel, breathe, touch and taste childhood again.

My brother used to play a song on his guitar, written by a lone country boy that longed for the dusty road home. In this song, Mr Denver waxed lyrical about a "gall" who "filled up his senses, like a night in the forest". (I'm giving away my age...). My guess is that the forest filled up his senses, long after his senses and his beloved had left him!

Hogsback naturally attracts many "tree-huggers". I have more than once been encouraged to find my tree-spirit or -friend here, from whom I am meant to receive wisdom and inner peace. The focus is on earthing, connecting inward and downward. There is an undeniable "something" that can be felt when you are surrounded by trees, especially the really old specimens. Off coarse there will be. On a physical level - they provide oxygen, food, fuel, shelter, building material, medicine, tools. They conserve water, preserve soil and support wildlife. One acre of forest absorbs six tons of carbon dioxide and puts out four tons of oxygen. Trees, shrubs and turf also filter air by removing dust and absorbing other pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. After trees intercept unhealthy particles, rain washes them to the ground. Trees control climate by moderating the effects of the sun, rain and wind. Leaves absorb and filter the sun's radiant energy, keeping things cool in summer. Trees also preserve warmth by providing a screen from harsh wind. In addition to influencing wind speed and direction, they shield us from the downfall of rain, sleet and hail. Trees also lower the air temperature and reduce the heat intensity of the greenhouse effect by maintaining low levels of carbon dioxide. So - trees are amazing and good for us and to us. But it is quite simple: Like the daughter of a dear friend once explained to a little one who asked her in the classroom: "Miss, do you believe in the stars?" She smiled gently into the curious little face and answered: "Why would I believe in the stars if I can believe in the God who created them?".

We live among an abundance of trees. The village itself is home to a popular tree park - "The Arboretum". Here, giant Californian Redwoods are surrounded by a myriad of exotic and indigenous trees. When we first settled here, this was a place we often returned to for easy walks and picnics, frolics in fallen leaves and dippings in the streams. It has since become a bit over-popular and we avoid the crowds by finding our own natural "arboretums" and special places . When Luke was just a babe in arms, my husband once stood under one of these Redwood trees cradling him in his arms. I watched their faces lifted towards the tree-tops, dwarfing them and casting long shadows around us. He spoke to our firstborn about growing up strong and tall as a Redwood. It was at once a prayer and a moment when the deep bond was sealed between them.

As I write the fire sputters and dances behind me. It is fueled by a supply of wattle wood, the tree with which mountain folk have a kind of  love-hate relationship. If left unattended, it will take over a piece of land in an alarmingly short time, and inhibit most other growth in the process.  But the fragrance from a wattle fire, is the incense of Hogsback. Locals still build houses with "wattle and daub", which involves a woven lattice of wooden strips, which is "daubed" with a sticky material usually made of some combination of wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung and straw. Wattle and daub has been used for at least 6000 years and is still an important construction material in many parts of the world.

We collect mushrooms among the fallen leaves between the trees, with that unmistakable musty smell on our fingers. We kick up the rustling leaves, shower each other with pine-needles. Occasionally there is the gift of a small deer or antelope darting in and out of sight among the tree-trunks. The sweet calls of wood-pigeons above our heads. A flash of red from a Knysna Loerie's wings. It is a dance, a song, a life of simple pleasures in a place which we have come to love so dearly. And just as I think that there could not possibly be an inch left on my memory tree, richly decorated with shining moments, it grows a bit taller. So I will keep recalling and recollecting - hoping that our "lads" will grow tall and strong, reaching ever higher; to place their own memories alongside mine...

"You will go out in joy and be let forth in peace. The mountains and hills will burst into song before you and the trees of the field will clap their hands"(Isaiah 55:12)

Friday, 1 July 2016

Chapter 15: Making Memories

The Kooi-kids

December family holidays ... For a little girl leading a sheltered life, this was the absolute highlight of the year. The magical event to which almost everything else led up to. It was not a mere long-weekend break for weary parents or a luxury reward for hard work. It was big... Over a month of seaside bliss. Sun-kissed days of simple languid pleasures. Salt on the lips and breezes to temper the heat, the ocean always in your ears. Wide horisons of blue upon blue, with wild white horses dashing to the shore. Stretching over warm rocks, peering dreamily into tidal pools, sunhats filled to the brim with sea treasures. The feeling of warm sand between toes, diving under waves with mermaids and selkies in a world where everything seemed possible. Life teeming everywhere, yet so peaceful. Sandpipers darting to and fro in constant search of a snack. Muscles and barnacles clinging tenaciously to the rocks, minuscule crabs running drunkenly for the water's edge and leaving tell-tale pock marks in the sand when the waves withdrew. Sea urchins, like tiny headless hedgehogs, with their shells washed up as dwarf pumpkins on the beach. The rare find of a perfect Pansy shell, delicate and other-wordly, the lost coins of Atlantis and mermaids.

Many were these seaside wonders, but the most wonderful of all, was the amazing transformation in my mother and father. Apart from the weird sight of their bare white limbs, this was a yearly miracle which never ceased to amaze me. Gone were the pursed lips and worry lines, stern stares and strict rules. A softness crept over them, rendering them haplessly happy and carefree. One of my favourite mental shapshots of "Mamma" in holiday mood, finds her sitting in a low deck chair. Her feet are bare and waxen. Feet which could still take her wherever she wished to go. She has a loose dress on, her glasses are pushed back onto the top of her head. Her hair is curly from the sea-air and wind-tossed. I had been picking small daisies growing in the sandy soil and sticking them into the curls. She looks radiant. We are all laughing unchecked - she had been looking for her glasses again, and my cousin was mouthing the "Waa's my bril" (where are my glasses) line from a silly TV program featuring a certain owl and crow (Karel Kraai) of the famous: "Ek wil iets se en ek gaan dit se" quote. It is a fragile picture, of people content in a moment in time, still unaware of hardships and heartache to come.

My father is a bit more in the background in these memories. He loved to visit places, monuments, historical sites - not high on the wish-list of the rest of the family. But on the days when he insisted on tearing us away from our fun in the sun to take in some "kultuur", we saw some pretty interesting places.

On a visit to Paarl we approached a strange looking monument consisting of lofty, white, tower-like structures pointing starkly up into the heavens. The light was harsh and the wind flew around the curved structures like a restless beast. I recall that I found the whole place weird and could not understand why people would go through such great lengths to build a shrine for a inanimate thing like a language. I felt dwarfed, and itched to get back to the familiar warmth of the beach. Recently, when I became curious about the the symbolism behind the design,  I discovered that there was much more there, than what I could see at the time.

To the left (west) of the approach to the monument stand three columns, representing the languages and cultures of Western Europe – Dutch, French, German, Portuguese and others. No single column represents a specific language; the number three was used because it is indivisible. The columns progressively diminish in height to express the diminishing influence of the European languages on Afrikaans. These columns begin as separate structures which then merge into an ascending arc to form part of the main outline of the monument.
To the right (east) of the approach is a podium, which represents the southern tip of Africa. On this podium are three round convex mounds, symbolising the influence of the Khoi, Nguni and Sotho languages. These structures progressively increase in size, thereby indicating the increasing African influence on the language. They are positioned in an arc that connects with the monument’s main curve (symbolising Afrikaans), thereby connecting them physically as well as spiritually.
Where the two arcs of Western Europe and Africa meet, a bridge is formed, symbolising the fusion of languages from these two continents.
The Malay language and culture is represented by a wall on the stairs leading towards the monument. The wall is positioned between the arcs of Western Europe and Africa so that (being from the East), it is separate, yet united with these two cultures, which combine to form a bridge symbolically depicting the basis of Afrikaans.
The main column or spire, represents the ‘rapidly ascending arc’ and accelerated growth of Afrikaans. This column stands in a pool of water, further reinforcing the concept of Afrikaans as a living, growing entity requiring sustenance for its continued existence. The sharp lines of the spire suggest Van Wyk Louw’s ‘double-edged sword’. The spire is approximately 57m tall, with its tip blunt and open, to indicate continuing growth . The play of light inside the monument, caused by the pond and openings in the main column, symbolises the language as a ‘gleaming tool.’
A second, shorter column, representing the Republic of South Africa stands in the same pond. This free-standing column does not relate to Afrikaans specifically, but is an integral part of the whole. It is hollow, and open to Africa, indicating the continuous interaction and discourse taking place between Afrikaans, South Africa and Africa. A grand design, lofty ideas and symbols. But interesting...

It made me realise that my father was (just like me in years to come), trying to understand the language and culture in which he had become immersed after emigrating. A culture which was so unlike his own.

Generally frugal by nature, this was one time when he relaxed the tight budget, to allow for certain luxuries. Especially in later years, when the three older siblings had left the nest. A day or two before the 16-18 hour trip, he'd go to the local butcher and buy a generous quantity of his favourite "droge worst" (dried sausage). The meaty, coriander smell wafted through the car all throughout our journey. Mixed with the smell of my mother's padkos and flasks of coffee, (the boiled eggs still safely in their shells), it was an olfactory feast. That was until we traversed the barren, hot stretch through the Karoo "vlaktes" (plains). All one could do then was to close your eyes, think cool thoughts, and hide your face in a pillow when the bouquet of hot bodies and roadside provisions became too much to bear.

"Op vakansie" (on holiday), we drank fizzy drinks, ate Simba chips (pronounced "ships" by my father in his Dutch accent), and licked Napolitan ice cream, banana splits, and popsicles. While there were "pilsjes" (Pilsner bear) in the fridge and company to share his genial moods - the days would pass in sweet harmony.

Neither of my parents ever learnt to swim well. My mother could swim a fairly decent breast-stroke, and my dad would (on the odd occasion), paddle cautiously in a swimming pool, but preferred to stay where his toes could touch something solid. They hopped delicately in the sea-shallows, but deeper water was revered, respected and admired from a distance. Pappa rarely took off his grandpa vest, even on the hottest days. On a few occasions he would brave the shallows, bare chested and clad in mustard- and orange-coloured swimming trunks. My mother I remember in a brown bathing suit with all the proper support, hidden under a modest beach frock. (This must have been during the unfortunate autumn-colour-, crimplene, safari suits- and Brylcreem era).

When the family of six used to embark on these epic trips, it was in an ungainly brown Plymouth Valiant. Wide enough to seat three to four comfortably in the back, with an additional perch between the two front seats, it was a virtual ship of the highways. But it had one feature which endeared it to us through these long journeys. Air-conditioning. Had it not been for this, there may have been some sibling slaughters on route, but the hot tempers were cooled by the icy breath emitted from the Valiant's vents. My father had a proclivity for brown cars. Before "the ship" it was a sweet Volkswagen station wagon. Colour: mocca brown. Valiant colour: moose brown. After that: Audi 100. Colour: Cadbury Top-deck. Cocoa brown with beige vinyl roof. He finally broke the mould with a beige VW Passat, the last car he ever owned or drove.

Extended family often joined us on these vacations, so there were always cousins to help colour in the days and share in the mischief. We must have been a noisy bunch - Dutch family gatherings were hardly subdued affairs. But if people stared (as they often do when faced with something foreign or unlike themselves), we were blissfully unaware. Aunts and uncles argued and laughed together, like mynah birds in a mango tree.

These early days, with the strands of family life woven snugly around me, gave me a sense of belonging. The warp yarn was laid down by generations of parents and grandparents - firm and strong. The weave has been tugged and pulled, through separations, disagreements and individual trials. But somehow, we always manage to pull it all together again, with a few lumps here or there, the colours running into each other and frays at the edges. But with bonds that run deep - it has withstood the test of time. And, with willing hearts and God's grace, will continue to do so.

Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. ~ Psalm 8:2

Our "Nest" had become a stead where there was not only a warm "board and hearth", but a place where hearts had found an anchor. The wooden walls hem us in on cold days and the wide doors in each room can be thrown open to invite the breezes when it is hot. It is compact, but has a generous stretch of deck that runs the length and breadth of the building. The view from the windows lead your eyes outward and upward, lending a feeling of freedom even when the weather keeps us indoors. The night-sky enfolds the house, literally forming a starry dome, as when you are on a vessel at sea.

Days started flowing with a more regular pattern, with the occasional nose-dive days, when toast burns, water-pipes freeze, the cat scratches and kids screech. Days when silent prayers became groans and pleas. But when night fell peacefully and without malice, and heavy eyelashes lay sweetly on rosy cheeks, all was forgotten and forgiven. Meal-times became less messy, with each member of the family feeding himself, and not so much for the hopeful dog under the table. Table manners seemed to be less instinctive, and we were by no means ready for high tea with the queen. Our children developed appetites like wolf-cubs, and with similar eating habits. But I was told that if you persist you can teach a child anything, so I became Barbara Woodhouse for boys. And learnt that my children are not puppies, and we did not want to make little English gentlemen out of them just yet. So I reverted to the "monkey see, monkey do" technique, and found that my own habits often needed to be refined and explained in the process...

Outings and the occasional few days' break away from home, became less of a major undertaking and more of a pleasure. We had discovered a little haven on the outskirts of Port Alfred where rows of pre-fab cottages lay staggered along a small section of the coastline. We merely had to walk a few meters and slip-a-slide down a dune to a wide, gentle stretch of beach. With a rocky tidal pool, bounteous pebbles and shells, it is paradise for little ones.

This lovely coastal town lies between East London and Port Elizabeth, just west of Cannon Rocks, at the mouth of the Kowie river. British settlers initially used it as a buffer between the Cape Colony and the Xhosa people. Towards the beginning of the 19th century two industrious Englishmen (Cock and Hodgekinson) started to block the natural river mouth to the east and canalise the present opening to the sea. By 1841 South Africa's first man-made harbour was opened after completion of the stone lined channel between the ocean and the Kowie river. This allowed high-masted sailing ships with their heavy cargo to dock at the wharf and Port Alfred became a buzzing commercial harbour. Sadly all that is left of this now, is a small craft harbour, which gives safe anchorage to the toys of the very rich who mostly have residences and holiday homes along the Royal Alfred Marina estate.

But the Gladwin-hillbillies were content to kick off their mountain-boots at a humble sea-side cottage. Nestled in between dense shrubs and and low growing bush, it felt like our own hide-away, with just the sound of the sea and many winged visitors as company. During our first visit there, Luke was just a little "tyke", toddling and tumbling along, nappies full of sand and happy as a lark. There was a patch of sand in front of the cottage, the biggest sand-pit a "babba" could wish for. On one occasion, my husband was making a "braai"-fire, and for once, not surrounded by a forest of wood, he used charcoal and fire-lighters. The sunlight played sweetly on the faces of father and son, a serene picture. Or so I thought. A shout of alarm broke the reverie. I sprinted outside and found my husband bent over our son's blond head, his fingers prying open the little mouth. He brought forth a white blob and stared at it in horror. It looked much like feta-cheese (with lots of drool on it). But then I smelt it. B-L-I-T-Z. My heart stopped, thumped a few times in my throat and then seemed to sink into the pit of my stomach, where it sat throbbing in a tight knot. We had no way of knowing how much of the firelighter he had actually swallowed and how poisonous the stuff is.With shaky hands I phoned our doctor friend and told her what our son had just "snacked" on. She reassured me that at the worst, it could give him a bad tummy ache, but hopefully the bad taste would have stopped him from actually eating it. Oblivious of all the "maracas" he had caused, he returned his attentions to the sand, giving me one of his million bucks smiles. My husband gave a deep sigh, ran his hand over his number two crew-cut, and warned me with a wicked smile, not to change his next nappy near a open flame...

When we returned the year after, there was a little brother to divert Luke's attentions. But only for short periods of time. He darted over the white sand like a little "strandlopertjie" (sand piper), and one of us always had to keep track of his small body, which flew as tumbleweed before the wind. Daniel was quietly watching from a perch on my husband's back, his dreamy eyes peering out from under a sun hat. These days have an almost dreamlike quality in my mind's eye, short beautiful dreams that always seem to end too soon.

The next year there were two small bodies running in and out of the surf. Bounding after a huge translucent beach ball with colourful butterflies on it, and discovering the marvels of an environment so different to their own. Together we feasted on fresh fish and other special treats reserved for these generous days. We found a small secluded beach around the tidal river inlet, where children can play safely and parents can relax and enjoy the endless wonder of children at play. One can learn so much about "being in the moment" by just watching them. Things that no guru can put down in words. Things which are "unlearnt", when we start having expectations and forget how to be open to whatever God sets right before us to enjoy. Someone asked me how I was the other day. I surprised myself by answering: "My family is well, and then I am well also". And realised how true that is. I sometimes have the opportunity to do things on my own. Just me with me. For a while it is sheer bliss, (especially the silence...). But then I start picturing my three guys somewhere on a forest road or next to a waterfall in the mountains, and there is a small ache, which is only stilled when we are all together again, a sweet circle of hands joined in dance.

Even though I love discovering new places, we return to this coastal haven time and again. We explored the river from a small wooden boat, painted a merry white and blue, with the outboard motor chugging as the wind rushed past our faces. (Or more recently from a paddle boat, slower and more arduous, but no less fun). Once again it is the memory of the other three people in the boat which stands out above way the sun reflected on the spray of water, the smell of the sea, slightly sulphury, with a pinch of green, and a briny finish. The joy and contentment reflected on those precious features is the zest and substance that truly brings the surroundings to life.

The crabs crawling over a little hand are fascinating, but even more so, the faces looking down on the creature, the way they respond with their whole bodies to external sensations. Moments made complete when I see their father looking on with a mix of pride and tenderness, and then meet his eyes over their heads. I am often a little disappointed when someone shows or sends me their holiday pictures, and there are endless images of impressive architecture, wonderful scenery or wildlife and well-known landmarks. I scan through the images with oohs and aahs, but it is always those snapshots of  people caught in a moment of joy (preferably not selfies), which make me stop, look again and share in the moment.

The best memories are made by people, not things or places. The surroundings may provide a wonderful backdrop, as decor and props on a stage. But these memories are sealed when you are able to take someone's hand, give it a squeeze, and say without words: This is good...

Monday, 6 June 2016

Chapter 14 ~ Becoming a "Learner"

Jan Kooi (right) the builder

I grew up in a time when people kept an "open house". Whether anyone ever received angels as their guests as a result of it, I do not know, it was just something they did. The Dutch homes that we visited when I was a little girl, all had a "voorhuis" - a place to "arrive" at the home of another, hang your coat and hat, catch your breath and smooth down your coif. Apart from the coat rack - there would typically be a tapestry or wall hanging, to provide a sense of warmth and welcome, a mirror, and a place to rest your umbrella or walking stick. Having thus composed and made yourself comfortable, you were ushered into the heart of the home.

Afrikaans homes also had a "voorhuis", which was more a type of a formal lounge, where the good furniture, rugs and ornaments where displayed. Children were not allowed in these soundless, spotless rooms, and the doors were kept closed and even locked at times. It was part of the strangeness of the culture which I was trying to adopt. These rooms were not inviting. They were stale, like the display rooms of museums. I came to understand later, that this was simply a way of setting the best aside for your guests, and learnt to appreciate a different way of hospitality. People's hearts are larger and more revealing than rooms, as long as you take care to look into them with empathy.

It was almost never a "wrong" time to call. Hospitality was not practiced but lived. The Dutch word for hospitality (a rather "sterile" sounding word) is "gastvrijheid" - guest freedom. There is another lovely Dutch word which rolls off your tongue like the concept it is meant to describe: "gezellig". It is a feeling, a term which encompasses the heart of Dutch culture. It can mean cosy, convivial, warm, welcoming, hearty, friendly, or comfortable. "Gastvrijheid" and "gezellig", go together like Siamese twins, the one would have no "life" without the other.

This may seem to contradict the stereotype image of a "Hollander". Frank, miserly and a bit crass. The people tend to view themselves as modest, independent and self-reliant. They value ability over dependency. They  generally have an aversion to the non-essential. Ostentatious behaviour is something to be avoided. Accumulating money is fine, but public spending of large amounts of money is considered something of a vice, and associated with being a show-off. A high lifestyle is considered wasteful by most people and is often met with suspicion.

Dutch manners are generally blunt with a no-nonsense informal attitude. This might be perceived as impersonal and patronising by other cultures, but is the norm in Dutch culture. This directness may give the impression that they are a bit rude - attributes they prefer to call ‘openness’. Dutch egalitarianism is the idea that people are equal, especially from a moral point of view, and accordingly, causes the somewhat ambiguous stance the Dutch have towards hierarchy and status. What may strike other cultures as being blatantly blunt topics and comments are no more embarrassing or unusual to the Dutch than discussing the weather.

Someone who may have done much to alter that image is the celebrity violinist Andre Rieu, with his charming and seductively plush tone. But even this stage persona allows for glimpses of the no-nonsense, straight forward approach to life. At a recent concert in Dublin, (referring to the howling gales outside), he introduces the "Skater's Waltz" as : "The perfect music for your shit Irish weather"... And is loved for it more than ever.

A lane for singing cyclists
A fairly recent article in "The Economist" describes the Dutch as a "generally pretty content bunch". The Netherlands consistently ranks as one of the best (and safest) places in the world to live. According to a survey by "Unicef" - Dutch kids are among the happiest in the world. The high quality of life and general good nature could be attributed to a rather laid-back approach to work: more than half of the Dutch working population works part time, a far greater share than in any other rich-world country. Fathers are allowed to take "Pappa-dag" days off,  to be with their children. Woman who do enter the workplace are also more likely to work part-time to adjust to family life.

Part of the reason is that Dutch women were relative latecomers to the labour market. Compared with other countries, few men had to leave to fight in the world wars of the 20th century, with the result that women did not work in factories as they did in America and Britain. Thanks to the country's wealth, a dual income was often not a necessity for a comfortable life. Dutch politics was dominated by Christian values until the 1980s, the focus was mainly on providing state aid, so that women could stay at home with children. And as the saying goes - happy wife, happy life!

The flip-side of this relaxed attitude is a slackening of moral values also. Lines become blurred when absolutes are replaced by a more liberal and "freeing" approach to life. But that is another smelly kettle altogether...

To get back to the "voorhuis"... My Father was too practical to waste space and building material on an entrance hall. But he created a little foyer by building a high narrow wall next to the front door and proudly placing a self-invented "room divider" next to it. This was an ugly metal and tile contraption where-upon the family cockatiel loved to perch (and poop) in later years. A prolific creeper completed the screening effort. The creeper only just managed to survive my mother's feather duster, countered by my father's continuous and more subtle care. "Mamma" quietly resented this unsightly piece of furniture. After many years of sighs and suppressed grumbles, my dad brought home a few fine imbuia planks, and produced a softly glowing double-sided cabinet, which greatly pleased the whole family (except the cockatiel I guess).

Just on the other side of this improvised entrance hall, was his "seat". It was a place he retreated to at the end of a tiring day at the building site. The cabinet contained some books, a tobacco pot and pipe, his Ritmeester cigars, bills, papers, odds and ends. Next to it stood a fairly comfortable low chair and a three legged footstool covered with dark floral fabric. Above it was a wall mounted light, which could be extended and folded back on a neat wooden hinge as needed. It seemed as if there was nothing that "Pappa" could not make or fix. He did not have much creative flair beyond the functional, but he certainly knew how to make a space his own. I never thought of sitting in this corner, even when he was not home. It contained his smell, his austerity. But there was also a hint of mystery, which I found conflicting in a man so predictable in routine and habits. He read voraciously. Impressively thick novels, filled with suspense and intrigue. While he read, glasses perched on his broad nose, feet vulnerable and shoeless on the footstool, he looked so approachable, like a kindly uncle who read bed-time stories and liked to tousle children's hair.

Apart from our mutual passion for music, it is the shared love of books and stories, which often drew us together, despite the prickles of misunderstanding. Every fortnight I got to go with him to the local library. I was rarely rushed, and we both returned home hugging our new-found treasures. When the house became silent we could escape. "Pappa" with his book and I with mine, James Last on the turntable, and a fire in the "kaggel" (hearth). No words needed. Just that sweet togetherness - each in a wonderful world of their own. Places of endless possibilities, no boundaries or barriers. Beyond words. Wide as the endless night sky of wonders.

Duizenden sterren vullen de duistere hemel aan.
Glitters hoog in de lucht.
Met vermoeide ogen kijk ik ernaar.
Een laatste blik voordat ik ga slapen.
één ster die opvallender is dan alle andere,
is de grote witte maan
in het midden van een zwarte achtergrond.
Omringd door de glimmende kleuren,
als een kunstwerk er omheen.
Als de sterrenhemel me een slaapwel sust,
begin ik pas aan mijn goede nachtrust...

Train up a child in the way he should go,
And when he is old he will not depart from it.
 ~ Proverbs 22:6

“Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” ~ Emily Buchwald

Our wooden house has no entrance hall, improvised or otherwise. There is not even a front door as such, since the deck area which is the front of the house, has three doors leading out onto it, and you have to walk half way around the house to reach it. When people do call, (which is sadly not often) it is past the herb garden, over discarded bicycles, gumboots, empty dog bowls - via the "back door". As the Afrikaans saying goes: "Jy val met die deur in die huis" (literally to fall into the house with the door. This saying is mainly used when someone wants to get straight to the point, without wasting time on arbitrary niceties).

But we do have books. We go through phases of accumulating them, then thinning out the volumes from overflowing shelves, tables and cupboards. We have not yet joined the "e-reader/tablet/ phablet/whatnot" generation. I shift between being amazed and grateful to frustrated by the mazes of electronic reading matter available at our fingertips.

Hogsback has a sweet little library on the village green, musty, damp and dusty as only a really old rondawel-library can be. Even after almost seven years, I am still surprised and intrigued by the variety and quality of the volumes that my husband brings home for the children. Library day has always been a highlight in our home, and the boys fall on new books like hungry wolf-cubs.

From before they could understand words, they have known books. Many sweet hours have been spent with a fragrant blond head (or two) near my cheek and an open book on my hands. From this flowed story-telling. Our eldest (who totally disproves the "theory" that men receive less words to use each day than woman), used to sit on the loo, telling elaborate, fantastical, disjointed tales to himself and all who cared to listen. The youngest has turned out to be better at this, his thoughts being a bit more ordered and his speech more "filtered".

Finally free from the bum-focused part of having little ones, with our "kids" settled in a room of their own, our family shifted gear. We seemed to cruise along slightly more comfortably, but also more accelerated. There was freedom, but ironically, also a little ache of separation, as the boys relished the independence of their own space and ever widening horizon. Little minds grew more voracious each day, feats more daring and appetites larger and larger still.

I learnt about learning, about being willing to approach everything with fresh perspective, unlearning what I had learnt about how to learn... I did not want to be their "teacher". Although both my husband and I wanted to "home-school", it was like the concept of "home-birth" (at first) - I loved the idea, but did not think I was cut out for it. So while it was wonderful to really get in touch with their unique personalities and spend lavish time encouraging natural curiosity (and renewing my own in the process), I dreaded the "formal" part of it. I feared that it would spoil the special relationship we had. I had to confront this fear and realised that it could have but one origin, and that it was steeped in lies.

I realised that as parents we had been given the privilege of being stewards of our children’s lives for a very short time, but the "training" we provide is eternal. Our (my) task being to diligently, lovingly show the “way they should go” and trust that even when they slip along the way, they will return to it. And making sure that my own plumbline remained true. When I let go of the fear, the way forward was confirmed, and yet another journey began.

Never before had any reward been as great, as the small successes in those early days of learning. Every bright smile of understanding, every cheer as a new concept took root, those high five moments when eyes lock in a shared triumph.

There is this idea that when children arrive on the scene, marital bliss and romance departs. I was surprised to find that I fell in love all over again with glimpses of my husband in our boys. I believe that this was and is one of so many ways which God uses, to "renew". We relished the discovery that our boys love many of the things we love. Having to share these with our children, did not diminish them, but made them richer, deeper.

I am always amazed at their endless curiosity, which is effervescent, even when their mother's cocktail has gone quite flat. They have a very eclectic taste in music, and express themselves so deliciously through dances and jigs, that you just want to join in. I remember the mutual friend who introduced my husband and I to each other saying to him: "She loves the same weird music that you do". At the time we were both "into" West-African music, as well as a variety of slightly obscure artists and recordings. This has been part of the soundtrack of our love story. And the soundtrack continues, with new discoveries, as well as new ways to view worship through music, as only a part of a whole wondrous way of a life.

We will learn, whether through singing, dancing, reading, reciting, exploring. Walking through each day with eyes wide open. I have my own two troubadoures who serenade me with an out of tune guitar, a steel harmonica and whatever other means of joyful noise-making they can find. TV does not exist in our home, but we started a much-cherished end of the day tradition of watching movies together. We all snuggle on the couch and re-live the simplicity of old gems and discover new favourites. Movie themes are used in role-playing, which is often more entertaining than the films themselves. Many colourful questions, discussions and comments also flow from these times. Very recently, I watched our youngest regarding a youthful Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn going through their paces in a clip from "Swan Lake". With a solemn little face he declared: "He has a very smart shirt, but not so smart pants"... He could not understand why his parents collapsed in giggles as a result.

I remember a time when I felt so smug and content in my independence. I used to regard tired-looking mothers with upset hair and tell-tale stains on their clothes with a sigh of relief. And occasionally recoil in horror, when a child screeched or rebelled or vomited or "tantrumed" in a public place. But then feel an indescribable ache, when I watched a family, laden with extra baggage, bumping, apologising and finally collapsing in a happy heap in the furthest corner of a child-friendly restaurant. Something bound them together, so close, so intimately scary and wonderful.

Many times have my eyes since met those of other parents in these safe corners. I "get it" now. We smile at each other knowingly, smiles that say so much more than words. "Isn't this just special?" these smiles say, or "It gets better", or "don't worry, I understand."  And at times secretly thinking - "thank goodness my child has never done that!" (and being humbled when many moons later they do). Regardless, who would take the highway if you could spend your days in the adventure parks and bumper-cars of parenthood? Write with black on white, if you can paint bold strokes with crazy colours? And most of all, love and be loved in a way which remains as always: Beyond words...

Friday, 20 May 2016

Chapter 13: Becoming rooted

Poster for Dutch herring
When I was a young girl, I could never remember the difference between emigrants, immigrants and migrants. The words all sounded like a type of insect which crawled into your ear, resulting in one of those intense headaches that made adults shut themselves up in dark rooms and insist on absolute silence.

Later I made a formula for myself which made it easier to understand:
My family where ex-inhabitants of the Netherlands, = emigrants from Holland.
They then moved into South Africa = they immigrated to their new home.

But they did not stay on the move = migrants.

Emigrants are often seen as people with one foot in their place of birth and the other in their adopted country. This feeling of not quite belonging can unwittingly be passed onto siblings, and intensified when they are ostracised by their peers. That word in itself becomes a contradiction, when your "peers" (meaning equals); start treating you as something "less", strange or foreign. Fortunately there will always be individuals, who look with their hearts as well their eyes. And "see" that the differences are really only skin-deep. Friendships are forged with others who are seen to be "odd", and these bonds can outlast childhood and overcome distance.

But a part of the emigrant never lets go. They cannot forget the way the soil of the "Vaderland" felt under their feet, the sound of their mother-tongue or dialect on everyone's lips, the caress of a familiar landscape on their eyes. The climate, the habits, customs and traditions, the TASTES! Wherever there has been an influx of South African emigrants, you will find shops selling: boerewors, biltong, koeksisters, melktert, SA beer (ag siestog) etc. The list of things that people miss, range from the obvious to the bizarre, but all tell of a privation of that familiar comfortable something, which reminds you of a time and place, when you felt rooted and secure. Recently a feature called "Rainbow Friday" was started on a website called "Cashkows". Although the focus of the website is financial assistance for South African expats, "Rainbow Friday" is purely a shopping feature. The page features various shops with names like "Springbok Foods", which offer the homesick a taste of home. (So, they lend you money and then give you a place to spend it - or something like that...)

It was the same with our family. Most of the Dutch delicacies were luxuries which did not often feature in our house, but we had the opportunity to sample some of them in my grandparent's home. At the time I did not know that it was Dutch fare, I only knew that somehow it was "apart" - special. Syrupy, spicy, melt in the mouth little waffles, that tasted like the warm embrace of a grandmother.  The raw and pickled rolls of herring with a crisp gherkin at the centre (rol-mops ) and "maatjesharing". These are made from the first herring of the season, simply filleted and salted and eaten with finely chopped onion, or on fresh bread rolls (broodje-haring). In Holland, the herring season starts early in June every year, with the traditional auction of the first tub of Nieuwe Haring. After that the herring is sold everywhere and herring feasts are organised far and wide.

The thought of a Dutch kroket also known as "bitterballen", still makes me salivate and sigh. These started as a way to use up left-over meat (an unknown phenomena in our home at the time!), which would end up in the meat grinder, folded into a rich creamy gravy, left to set, rolled into bread-crumbs and deep-fried. There would always be liberal lashings of good hot mustard to cut the rich filling and clear the sinuses at the same time. Komeine-kaas (strong Dutch cheese with cumin), appelmoes (a very fine apple-sauce), spekulaas (biscuits with almonds and spice)... and so many more. These flavours and dishes are locked in my taste memory, some simple and hearty, and some at home among the delicate cuisine of swanky restaurants.

But the one unique taste that stands out in my memory, and enfolds all the longing for kinsman togetherness (apart from my grandmother's vegetable soup) is "zoute drop". Mention the word "drop" to just about any Dutch person, first or second generation, and watch the dumb, dreamy look and licking of the lips that follows. Salty liquorice, also known as salmiak or salmiakki (in Finland), is a variety of liquorice, flavoured with ammonium chloride, common in the Nordic countries, the Netherlands, and northern parts of Germany (which borders on the Netherlands). Ammonium chloride gives salty liquorice an astringent, salty taste, which has been described as "tongue-numbing" and "almost-stinging". Salty liquorice is an acquired taste, and people not familiar with ammonium chloride, often find the taste physically overwhelming. Considering that this mineral is commonly formed on burning coal dumps from condensation of coal-derived gases, found around some types of volcanic vents, and mainly used as fertiliser - it is hardly surprising.

A very dear aunt of mine still recognises that longing, and regularly sends parcels with goodies to her hillbilly family. Those treasures of  "drop" in all their enticing varieties are like black gold in our home. They are kept in a special "naughty tin" - well out of reach of small fingers... You either absolutely love it, or you can't abide the taste. The content of my naughty tin is shared very selectively, and my heart always sinks when I reach for the very last one, and only the smell lingers to taunt me.

I remember when the boys were still quite small and I used to go about picking up toys and spares so often, that I would just stick the "parts" in my pocket to repair at a later stage. (Much of what a mother does is done robotically after a while). The one day I had put a few "droppies" in my pocket to savour later. My fingers closed around something black and soft, and I could already imagine the familiar flavour on my tongue. I gagged on what turned out to be the taste of  rubber - the tiny wheel of a toy Landrover. Needless to say, since then, I always check the contents of my pockets carefully, before putting anything in my mouth.

I never realised how many of my precious blood- and heart-family memories include the sharing of a meal, the blessing of finding that elusive flavour of childhood and belonging. Flavours that bring it all as near as your own heartbeat. But having said all that, it ultimately is a memory of togetherness, where the food was merely the garnish on the feast of fellowship.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him. They will be like a tree planted by the water, that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought, and never fails to bear fruit." ~ Jeremiah 17:7-8

On Inesi, we dug into these traditions and memories, to mark the milestones of our own young family. Soon we realised that it would be much more meaningful if we started our own new traditions. To work with what we had before us, rather with what was left behind. It took concerted effort at times, but the best ones came naturally. Our boys flourished and grew stronger as their small legs (and arms) learnt to carry them up and down the steep slopes and hills of their home-ground. As a land-lubber on an ocean vessel has to develop sea-legs, I had to earn my mountain-limbs. (And just when I thought I had it, as I hurtle toward the big five, it presents an ongoing challenge once again...)

Picnics with toddlers were no longer the languid affairs of our pre-baby life. At times it involved a tumble of arms and legs and overturned food, spiked with insects, leaf matter and mud from the extended family of canines, but they were precious times none-the-less. The focus shifted from the food to the whole happy chaos of being together in the natural splendour that is Hogsback. Our eyes drank in the sweet images of children and dogs cavorting in gem-coloured leaves, sending up sprays of rainbows in a rock-pool, or dancing before us on a cool forest walk. It was never the same. Each time there would be new discoveries, a new confidence in their small bodies, new smells in the air, the varied ways in which the sun would play hide and seek among the trees. All new again, each time. New words, gestures, moods, tastes, likes and dislikes. Truly together again, we adjusted, shifted a bit this way and that, re-adjusting the seams of parenthood as the demands grew.

Winter-walks would mostly culminate in the finding of a perfect sunny spot, then peeling and sharing juicy segments of naartjies or oranges. Games evolved around these simple pleasures. Lessons, stories, pine-needle battles, races and chases. There are reels of beautiful moments, some so fragile in their perfection, that I often held my breath, to stop the film from spining to a dizzy end too soon. But truth be told - we were not living a fairy tale and the challenges were real and hard at times. But with new hope and perspective, joy was rarely suppressed by it. I believe it rather served to heighten it instead.

I didn't expect motherhood to be so daunting and at the same time, so rewarding. To have little ones, utterly dependent on your every decision to feed, clothe, nurse, entertain, protect, teach, and love them in such a way that they would be (or become) healthy, secure, well-adjusted, well-stimulated, safe, well-educated etc. is no small feat. There was no mother, or mother-in-law or any other family members nearby, who could quickly be called on for sage advice, a word of comfort or a moment of sanity when the edges of reason became frayed. For the first two plus years, it was a team effort, while my husband was working from home. But then as the financial needs of our small family grew, we needed to look at new ways of creating a sustainable income. The prospects for a forty plus, pale male to find gainful employment on or near to a remote mountain village, were not very bright. But we had learnt to expect the unexpected. Living the miracle which was our daily life and bread (literally), gave us hope and trust which went beyond what "normal" people would term as realistic.

One sunny Saturday morning, among the bustle of trading at the village market, the anticipated unexpected happened. Over a table of fragrant bread, an offer of employment was made and accepted. I was like the dog who caught the elusive car and had no idea what to do with it. I remember watching my man close the gate and drive away in the early morning mist on that first day. A new phase had begun. There was me, two rowdy boys, three dogs and a semi-incontinent aged cat. No wheels, no extra pair of hands or voice of reason to help me get through the day. There was a nasty sensation of being lost, without a glimpse of the familiar or a sense of direction. The old cliche "You don't know what you have until it's gone", was suddenly very real. In those first days and weeks, I came to understand that God knew so much more about mothering than I could ever have imagined. How many centuries of rebellious children has He had to deal with! My little storm in a tea-cup could hardly compare...

A new but also familiar strength and surety slowly ebbed into my days. Some days I got caught up in the unstoppable energy and enchantment of early childhood. But at times the hours simply followed one another with an endless, draining monotony. In moments of self-pity, I imagined the lustre slipping away, like pearls unworn or a record played too often. During this time, I rediscovered a little volume on our bookshelf. Reading had become a luxury. I managed to snatch a few lines from my bible, before my husband left for work and the floor-boards started vibrating. But when little bodies collapsed and a blessed hush settled over the home, I re-read about the simplicity of  "practising the presence of God." All of Brother Lawrence's letters and musings are not scriptural, but at the time, it gave me a glimpse of how any task, however insignificant, repetitive or thankless could be given new meaning and significance when the love of God becomes the end of each action. The old Carmelite monk wrote to his friend that he was well pleased when he could take up a straw from the ground for the love of God, seeking Him only, and nothing else, not even His gifts. That in order to form a habit of talking with God continually, and referring all we do to Him; we must at first apply to Him with some diligence: but after a little care we should find His love inwardly, move us to it quite naturally. He cultivated a keen sensitivity to the presence of God in everyday life.

I knew full well about picking things up from the ground, but I was not often "well pleased" to do it. I longed to talk with someone in full sentences, which included three-syllable words. But talking to the Lord about what to make for lunch, or how I felt trapped in domestic apathy, seemed "ungracious". Nonetheless, the next time I bent down with aching back to retrieve yet another discarded toy, and felt resentment over my plight push to the surface, I checked it and said out loud: "This is for you, Lord". And when anger towards a rebellious two year old threatened to override my self-control, I bit my tongue and said: "Jesus, please give me your patience" (before I knock this child over the head with the soup-ladle).

Little by little I started seeing the tapestry that was my life. And was surprised by the richness and depth of it, the warmth of the colours, the intricacy and care woven into the pattern. And the frayed edges - aah well, there will always be a bit of fraying, but that is part of the design, isn't it!

I learnt to look up - not too far or too wide, but just at what had been before me all the time, but had passed me by so far. I noticed the sun birds probing for honey from the pineapple sage flowers, while I prepared meals and snacks, or washed dishes. I noticed the perfection of dew drops on the filigree of fennel leaves or spider-webs, butterflies around purple heads of lavender, the constant busyness of bees around the honey suckle flowers. All, right outside my kitchen window. Mushrooms started sprouting in our young "garden", and we learnt which to eat and which to just admire. I once again found joy in cooking, playing with homegrown herbs and earth-coloured spices. Tempting the taste-buds of my family with new flavours. In all of this, there would always be two blond heads, dancing somewhere in this new picture that was: my life. And in these seemingly little things, my heart was constantly refreshed.

I learnt to breathe, deep hungry draughts of it, sometimes to check a reaction, but mostly to let the wonder of my new role sink in. And be content. Surprised also - to find that I truly loved being someone's "Mamma".

And of course, I discovered that I could write down all those unspoken words swirling around in my head. Speak to people through what I wrote - be "useful" outside the boundaries of my home. Even though it did serve as a bit of an escape, it has mostly helped me to be more "here".

Unknown challenges still lay ahead, but I knew that the dew of those little things would always be there, to uplift, refresh and soften the edges; and keep my chin lifted of the ground!