Monthly Archives: February 2016

I miss my mum

To this day I become angry when I think about my mum’s treatment by her parents when she was a young woman.

She was the eldest of five children and the only female child. Her father should have known better, I tell myself. After all, he was someone who was passionate about the value of education, a professor of literature at the University of Cape Town and later the Superintendent-General of Education for South Africa. His four sons were all sent to university to pursue their areas of interest. Boet (Dr M C Botha) studied medicine and was the immunologist on Dr Chris Barnard’s team who performed the world’s first heart transplant. Paul became a corporate accountant, Jan a journalist and André a lawyer and eventually an appeals court judge. Sus, however, was not given a choice of what she could study. Her parents simply enrolled her in a Domestic Science degree course, an area of study in which she had no interest.

This occurred at a time when women were generally not afforded opportunities to pursue a tertiary education at all and I am sure that her parents meant well in sending their daughter to university. It nevertheless angers me that her parents had been so constrained by society’s cloistered view of women’s roles at that time that they had shackled a highly intelligent woman, who would no doubt have excelled in any course of study of her own choice. Her interests were in subjects like astronomy, botany, art and literature, rather than in the Domestic Science studies into which she had been corralled.

These shackles dragged her back for the remainder of her life. She only lasted at university for a few months before dropping out and, at the age of 21, married a school teacher fifteen years her senior. I know that she had married for love because I have read a couple of the love letters that she had written to my dad at the time. I suspect, though, that she must also have realised that marriage was the only ‘career option’ that had remained open to her.

 Sus in 1941 (2)

 Sus at the time of her engagement in 1941

My mum had an enquiring mind. She was an avid reader of books on a great variety of subjects and she enjoyed doing the newspaper crosswords, which she generally completed with little trouble. Although she was a good cook, she lacked enthusiasm for cooking. Fortunately my dad, having been a bachelor for many years, was adept in the kitchen and he willingly shared the responsibility for preparing meals.

*        *        *

On completion of my final year at high school I was conscripted for military service. As I said goodbye to my parents on the morning that my brother was driving me to the Cape Town railway station, where I had to catch the train to the army training camp in Oudtshoorn, my mum suddenly started weeping. I had not expected this and I told her not to be silly, because I was only going to be away for a year.

“You don’t have any children of your own”, she said. “You have no idea what it’s like for a mother. You were inside my tummy for nine long months and during all that time I was so excited that I could barely wait to see you. Now I won’t see you again for a whole year.”

Eleven years afterwards I said farewell to her once more. This time I was leaving South Africa permanently to emigrate to Australia. My mum knew about my opposition to the government of the time, with its abhorrent Apartheid policies and its merciless treatment of anyone who dared to criticise or to oppose them. I realise now that it was a measure of her concern for my safety and of her love for me that she never said a single word to discourage me from leaving.

My parents, who had never travelled overseas during their years of marriage, visited us regularly in Australia and also in Papua New Guinea, when my wife and I worked there in the early 1980s. Because I only saw my mum intermittently, the times we spent together were always special to both of us.

There was little to do in Port Moresby, so I took my parents to a coral beach to go snorkelling. As my mum and I swam over the coral towards the edge of the reef she became agitated and told me that she needed to get back to the shore. Back on the beach she told me that she had become exhausted. “I’m an old lady, you know,” she reminded me. “I’m 62.”

A few days afterwards she sheepishly confessed that she had not really been tired, but that she had lost her nerve. I was having none of that, so I took her back to the coral beach, where we took our time moving away from the shore. I got her to stand on a submerged rock every now and again, where she could look around for a while. We eventually made it to the edge of the reef, where the coral dropped away sharply and large tropical fish cruised through the deep water. She stood on a submerged rock and looked around in amazement at this colourful wonderland of coral and fish.

After a while I said, “Let’s go back to the beach. I’m getting cold.”

“You go along,” she said. “Don’t wait for me. I’ll just stay here for a bit longer.”

A year after my parents’ visit to Papua New Guinea my dad rang me with the news that my mum had developed a cancerous lump in her thigh muscle, which had been surgically removed. I was horrified, but the surgeon appeared to have removed the lump all in one piece and we were optimistic that it would be the end of the matter. However, the virulent cancer reappeared a few months later, spreading rapidly to her lungs and other organs.

In August 1984 my mum and dad visited me in Australia so that we could say our final farewells to her. At that time I was unable to travel to South Africa due to my anti-Apartheid activities in Australia. When time is running out, one values every minute spent with a loved one. I clearly remember the small slivers of happiness, like how she had beamed with joy whenever Pavarotti, our friendly magpie, had come to warble on our balcony and how she fed him by hand every day.

Sus, August 1984

 Tim’s last photo of his mum, August 1984

My mum died a mere four months later, shortly before Christmas Day. She was 64. Even though I was well aware that her illness was terminal, the actual news of her death ripped my heart open.

In time I got over the pain of losing my mum. Our kids were born, my job kept me very busy and life went on. More than a decade later I had a very vivid dream one night in which my mum suddenly appeared. She looked as real as if she were standing there in the flesh.

“I thought you had died!” I exclaimed.

“No, I’m still here,” she replied.

“But why do you never come to see me anymore?” I asked.

She just stood there, smiling at me kindly.

“You’re not real, are you?” I asked.

She instantly disappeared.

I woke up. My pillow was wet with tears.

I miss my mum.

A moment’s hesitation

Anyone with a modicum of common sense knows that you should never point a firearm at anything that you are not willing to destroy. But try telling that to an immature 17 year old boy in South Africa in the 1960s, especially one who had been conscripted to the army against his will and who had made a point of breaking the military’s rules whenever he could get away with it.

It all started with the lock on my metal army trunk. We all had to have locks on our trunks, but I kept mine unlocked because I had lost the key. While I was in the shower early one morning, one of the other blokes in my barracks had noticed this and locked it. When I returned to the barracks and saw that my trunk had been locked I panicked because I had yet to polish my boots and my shoe brush and polish were inside the trunk.

Only a few minutes remained before we would have to assemble outside on the parade ground for the morning inspection.

“Hey, Ewald,” I pleaded, “come and help me open this bloody lock quickly!”

Ewald was a guy with many talents, one of which was picking locks. He picked at the lock with an unbent paper clip and it sprung open just as we were ordered to assemble outside for the inspection. There was no time to polish my boots.

Tim (aged 17) in the army, August 1964

 Tim, aged 17, sitting on his army trunk and polishing his boots

Our sergeant strutted along our squad with his swagger stick under his arm, malevolently looking each of us up and down as he did each morning. He came to a halt in front of me and my heart sank.

“Bruwer,” he screamed, “your boots are dirty!”

“Sergeant, what happened was …”

“Shut the f*ck up!” he howled, shirtfronting me. “Did you hear me asking you to open your bloody mouth?”

That morning we embarked on our usual routine of drills, taking apart and reassembling our 7.62mm FN rifles at speed, and setting off on a route march. At lunchtime, somewhere out in the bush, we were allowed to sit down to have our lunch of dried biscuits and coffee.

“Not you, Bruwer!” shouted the sergeant. “You get your rifle and come over here!”

He told me to lift my rifle above my head and to run around in a wide circle which included scaling the earthen wall of an old disused dam, about three metres high. After a while I was so exhausted that I could barely move my legs and I struggled to keep the rifle lifted above my head, but he kept spewing a stream of invective at me and I had to keep going. I ran up the dam wall for the umpteenth time and as soon as I crossed it and was out of his line of sight I just rolled down the other side, totally exhausted, throwing the rifle recklessly ahead of me.

My rifle must have struck a rock in the process, because the metal plate above the trigger had acquired a few dents and scratches. I survived this harsh punishment, but its dents on both my rifle and on my psyche remained. During the months that followed I could easily identify my rifle by these dents and scratch marks whenever we had to retrieve our rifles from where we had propped them up during a break.

Towards the end of our year of military service we were stationed at an army camp outside Cape Town, where we were on guard duty. For us it felt as if we were on a holiday because we only had to do a minimum of drills each day and there was none of the daily grind of route marches and field exercises. Our guard duty consisted of a four hour stint, followed by an eight hour break.

We were required to have a full magazine of bullets on our rifles at all times, but I had emptied my magazine and always carried the bullets loose in my coat pocket.

During a break in guard duty on an icy cold, sunny, early spring morning we propped our rifles against the wall of a storage shed. Later, I got up and retrieved my rifle, which I recognised by the small dents.

A couple of soldiers were chatting to each other about a hundred yards from me. I lifted my rifle and carefully aimed at one of them, with my finger curling around the trigger. Knowing that there were no bullets in my rifle, I was just about to pull the trigger when I hesitated at the last moment and pulled the slide back just to make doubly sure that there was no bullet in the chamber. A live bullet was ejected from the rifle and fell at my feet. I stood there frozen, looking at it in stunned disbelief. I had picked up someone else’s loaded rifle which had similar dents to my own one by mistake.

*     *     *

Over the subsequent years I have replayed this incident in my mind many times. I have no doubt that if I had pulled the trigger on that day I would have shot the soldier dead, as he was within easy range and the FN rifle was a very powerful firearm. But for that short moment’s hesitation, my life would have unfolded entirely differently from what it had. I would have been imprisoned for years in a military prison for manslaughter.

I cannot even kill spiders that venture into our house. Instead, I catch them in a glass jar and deposit them alive outside in the garden. I have no illusions about the severe mental scars that I would have carried all through my life, had I killed another human being.

With such a blot on my record it would have been impossible to secure any job that required even a minimum of responsibility and I would never have been able to emigrate to Australia or to anywhere else.

That one moment’s hesitation determined the future course of my entire life up to, and including, today.

JOYEUX NOËL

When I write about an issue that I feel particularly strongly about, my natural inclination is to use words as rocks that I would hurl at the imaginary glass pane between myself and the reader and render it into shards. Then I have to remind myself that a heavy-handed approach would only alienate the reader, so I back off and attempt to use less extreme language and imagery. This is the approach that I attempted when I wrote about Christmas, although perhaps not entirely successfully.

Christmas-time is a period of celebration, of catching up with family and friends and for exchanging Christmas cards and gifts. It is a time for having fun, for eating and drinking. Call me a party pooper if you wish, but I must confess that I find it hard to engage enthusiastically with all these joyous festivities and celebration.

The thing that brings me unstuck is the sheer excess of it all. The shops are bursting at their seams with consumer goods and the cost of the Christmas decorations alone could feed an army of homeless people. Hordes of desperate people shoal around the shops looking for presents that most of the would-be recipients do not need and that many would not really want.

Here in Australia presents are unwrapped. There are expensive toys like hoverboards, bicycles and electronic gadgets for the children and DVD box sets, clothes and much more for the adults. Meanwhile, in Kgubetswana, a small settlement down the road from the rural town of Clarens in South Africa, a Christmas Party was held for 150 less privileged children.

“As we get into the spirit of giving and sharing with our loved ones, we must reflect on how privileged we are to be surrounded by our precious family and friends. We need to remind ourselves that there are little children who are affected by HIV, who do not have a Mom and a Dad to love and feel loved by and this time of the year is a sad and desolate time for them. We cannot fill this void but we can ease their sadness by showering them with gifts and a fun filled day,” said Ntsebe Mofokeng, Director of Phaphama Youth Development.

“We took it upon us to replace the brick that the little boy is pushing as a toy car and to give a gift to the little girl whose eyes are shining bright and who made her doll out of ragged cloths.

One couldn’t contain one’s joy at seeing the excitement on the children’s faces. They were glowing with joy and they kept on singing and dancing as a celebration of the precious gifts they received.” 

Manana, one of the beneficiaries, said that it was her first time receiving such a wonderful present. She said she will treasure it for a very long time. “I can’t wait to show my friends that now I have the same doll as theirs.”

Back in Australia there is the Christmas meal. There is such an abundance of food that much is left over, even after everyone had eaten far more than they usually would. I cannot help thinking of my friend Suenel’s recent email, sent from the small rural town of McGregor in South Africa:

“I am back in the Kindergarden at the Waldorf school and a new little girl wept bitter tears today – she was terrified of the flush lavatory as she had never experienced one before. We give them porridge as they arrive because some pass out from hunger. It wipes me out that the bigger ones always immediately give some of their food to the smaller ones.”

My mind also reaches back to the image of a homeless man that I saw in Cape Town earlier this year. As he was walking down the street he spotted a discarded mango peel on the ground. He picked it up and chewed at the remaining strands of fruit inside the skin, before throwing it away and striding purposefully to a nearby rubbish bin for something else to scavenge.

For the sake of my family and friends I play my part in the Christmas ritual every year without giving voice to my angst. I participate in the sending of Christmas cards and in the giving and receiving of presents. I drink a glass of champagne and load my plate with Christmas turkey, roast potatoes, green beans and carrots. I wear the paper hat from the Christmas cracker and read out the silly joke that comes with the cracker. Then I have some Christmas pudding and a slice of pavlova.

I do not wish to cast a pall over others’ enjoyment of the Festive Season. But, deep down, I sometimes struggle to contain my tears.

Under the Clootie tree

When I visited London earlier this year I went to see the 2015 BP Portrait Award Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It is the UK equivalent of Australia’s Archibald Prize Exhibition. The portraits on show were of an exceptional quality, as one would expect from an exhibition at this level.

One of the portraits that particularly caught my eye is called “Under the Clootie tree”, by a young female artist, Lyndsey Jameson. The painting depicts a glum-looking young girl sitting by the trunk of a tree. Colourful strips of material which are tied to the tree’s lower branches are blowing in the breeze.

The artist’s statement reads:

 The portrait is of the artist’s niece … ‘Clootie’ is a Scottish term for a strip or rag of cloth. Here, each once brightly coloured strip represents a particular wish that will fade over time … The portrait considers the hopefulness of youth and subsequent disappointment.

This painting got me thinking about my own childhood. Unlike the girl under the Clootie tree, I do not think that I had any specific hopes or wishes which had faded over the years through disappointment. What strikes me now, though, is that at her age I was in such blissful ignorance of what lie ahead for me over the next six decades.

It is just as well that one’s life unfolds day by day, week by week, month by month and year by year. I cannot imagine why anyone would want to visit a fortune teller because they are keen to know what the future holds for them. It is hard enough to deal with life on a day by day basis without knowing what lies ahead.

Looking back over the sixty-nine years of my life I can recall a great many happy and enjoyable times, but there were also occasions of intense physical and emotional suffering, depression and unbearable stress. Such really bad times are sprinkled through virtually every person’s life. On occasion I have found life so unbearable that I have simply longed for sweet oblivion. Then I had to force myself to take life one day at a time and to look no further ahead than to the end of each day, knowing that all things must pass.

This morning there were some children in the playground that I pass on my daily walk along the Diamond Creek. None of these littlies have any idea of what lies ahead for them in the years to come, I thought, nor do they have any inkling that there will inevitably be some very bitter times, along with the good.

I did the only thing that I could in these circumstances. I silently wished them well on their journey through the years.