Today we celebrate Freedom in South Africa. Freedom is something we humans need in so many different ways, and for each of us it has one, or many, different meanings. What does freedom mean to you ? For me it means being in charge of my choices – to love, to do, to be. And most of all, to be allowed. In this century, there is far more permission than there ever has been before and it is a wonderful thing to see who does what with this permission. I tend to steer clear of those who are focused on their rights, hammering away at old walls, and find resonance with the ones who really want to get on with their lives and enjoy what there is to be enjoyed. So I have decided to start writing … (thank you Colette – you put the thought into my head!)…because there is so much to be shared in what we love and the exchanging of all things lovely will spread happiness and sunshine….completely for free.
Here in the Western Cape, between the winelands and the weatlands, is my prairie. When it was shown to me 15 years ago, I did not want to move here. A piece of land that my husband bought, with nothing on it. Absolutely nothing……save this old olive tree. It is a wild olive, and estimated to be at least 200 years old. I fell in love with the tree, the love of the land came later. Behind this tree you will see a planting of lots of baby trees; this is one of the first things we did, to plant more than 100 trees. How easily 100 trees get lost in the landscape!
“A single syllable, strong male name. People called Jan have a deep inner desire to use their abilities in leadership. And to have personal independence. They would rather focus on large, important issues and delegate the details. They are usually excellent at analysing, understanding and learning. They tend to be mystics, philosophers, scholars and teachers. Because they live so much in the mind, they tend to be quiet and introspective. When presented with issues, they will see the larger picture. Their solitary thoughtfulness and analysis of people and world events may make them seem aloof, and sometimes even melancholy.”
The Jan that I am writing about today is the man that sculpted my world, by being my dad.
There was a short spell when I was in love with my dad, when I wanted to be wherever he was and be included with everything he did. It must have been when I was between 3 and 4 years old. The scents I inhaled were a mix of farm air, cold from my perch high up on the tractor, the smell of his woollen jacket, the grease in the workshop and the aroma that infused the interior of the old Opel bakkie. This was the fragrance of security, of being joined in flesh and blood and by a beating heart.
It did not last. It’s not that anything happened (I moved onto other things including a brief adoration of my mother), but I was a growing child and independence was inevitable. Looking back I have no doubt that the security my mother and father gave me was set like cement from the moment I drew my first breath. I loved them passionately before I even learned to love myself.
Jan was born on 21 December in 1928, a very good time on the farming calendar when there is a lull in activities. The elder of two sons, his little brother came along nearly 4½ years later but was gravely ill at birth and consequently never enjoyed good health. Naturally it was then required of the oldest boy to be the strong and dependable one. As a child Jan had farm chores to do before leaving on the 20+km journey to school every day, which meant that he would rise at an unearthly hour. On one occasion the school lorry-bus broke down and young as he was, he jumped in and helped sort out the mechanics. He liked machines. He never enjoyed the mules that were used for farm work. They were stabled at night and needed to be groomed and fed each morning, early enough to have digested their breakfasts before they were harnessed. His resentment came from having to give up his bed to do these chores. But he did them without argument. His dad was not a man you argued with.
He told me a story once about the truth of how many hands make light work. His father had sent him to the railway station at Klapmuts to fetch a consignment of fertiliser. He was to take the lorry with a few farm workers. This had to be done before the school bus came past their gate to pick him up. My father drove the lorry to the station, a distance of about eight kilometres away, and returned home in record time. “Hmph!” remarked his dad, “so you were speeding, weren’t you.” No, he told me, he wasn’t speeding at all. The accusation stung him enough to be remembered. Usually the “boss” would sit in the lorry and wait while the workers toiled away. Instead of sitting like a lord my dad had stepped in and helped with the loading, which saved a lot of time. It’s not the moral of the story that struck me. It’s the fact that my dad had been only 11 years old.
Descended from French Huguenots, Jan grew up on the Free Burgher farm Cuilenburg (later Kuilenburg). He was born in the house and it was his home until he retired at age 59. His mother Jossie, a cultured and capable woman with a very soft spot for children, could bake the finest cakes and tarts and put up a tea on the daintiest lace cloths crocheted and embroidered by her own hand, yet handle a rifle and skin a beast like any man. Tough on the one hand and womanly on the other with low necklines that suggested the cleavage of an ample bosom, the voluptuous sort that grandchildren also find comfort in, she was everything my grandpa wished for. I knew her for three and a half years before cancer took her away and brief as it was, my memory of her is clear. Hers was the gruff sort of affection, slightly terrifying but hugely magnetic. Especially when she secretly gave us sweeties. Ones engraved with I LOVE YOU and SWEETHEART messages.
When one of my sisters accidentally fell into a deep pit and sustained cuts and scrapes, my father felt bad. She was only a tiny child after all and the fall could have been fatal. He slipped her some biltong and told her “not to tell the others”. I think he was more worried about his mother’s reaction than anything else. I was even tinier and vaguely remember the scene in the bathroom where our middle brother was washing the mud off her and painting the cuts and scrapes with Mercurochrome. The deep hole had been excavated for the installation of an hydraulic jack and should really have been cordoned off or covered. Our dad knew his mother would be furious.
His father Piet on the other hand was a man who gave orders, did not unnecessarily get his hands dirty, and was obeyed. A gentleman farmer: always seen in a collared shirt and usually also a jacket and Panama style hat. When I was very little my grandpa teased me that he would steal me and put me in the boot of his car – until my eldest sister accidently nicked a chip out of my ear whilst cutting my hair. Then he claimed he couldn’t kidnap me any longer because I was “ear marked” and would be identified. I loved being special enough to be considered for kidnapping.
My grandpa adored the mules. He took them by train to the Rosebank show and won silver trophies for “Best Team”, “Best Eight in Hand” and, with his horse, “Best Farm Hack”. I have some of these trophies. He enjoyed horses and rode well. In these footsteps my dad ultimately did not follow. As a teenager he’d had a very special horse to which he was particularly attached. They understood each other. I never heard the whole story, but for some reason my grandpa decided to sell that horse. I can only guess at the sense of betrayal, the disappointment and heartache the young Jan must have suffered. After that he never loved another horse.
When the first mechanical tractor arrived on the farm my father was still in his youth. It was instant infatuation. A diesel engine and the needs of a mule couldn’t be compared – and neither could the horsepower! When his parents retired to a house by the sea after his brother got married, my father took over the farm. And made sure there was a small fleet of tractors, all of them International Harvester
In front of my grandparents’ house was a beach with many boulders. These rocks were a nuisance for bathing. When logic prevailed, the law held no power over my father’s decisions. The beach had to be improved, that is all. He transported a bulldozer from the farm and on a day when the tide was out (Spring low tide), he took his bulldozer down to the beach and pushed away the boulders. They ended up forming a line that went out to sea on the left side, clearing up a huge area of water. Voilá, it was a swimming beach! He did this before my time; when I came into the world I assumed that God had put all the boulders in a row to help me see the level of the tide. When the rock at end, which looked like a browned frikkadel, was covered it meant the tide was in. The water would be deep enough for me to swim and dangle my legs without fear of my toes touching something squishy.
Jan raised seven children. I was the youngest and some believe that I was indulged. I don’t think I was, but who am I to say. Perhaps there was some kind of kindred spirit in our being fiercely independent people who cared less about what the world prescribed and more about what felt right. Who could do a job, no matter what it took. Who, at once, had infinite time and also absolutely no time. Jan was in many ways a power house of inner strength. That is the man that the world and certainly his children saw. To us he was a very strict dad with whom you did not mess. He expected excellent table manners and no idle chatter at meals. You ate your food; that was it. He only took a nap on Sundays after lunch and would rise again promptly at 3pm. Then coffee would be drunk and we’d all pile into or onto vehicles for the customary Sunday drive out to the veldt. It was partly an opportunity for my dad to cast his eye over the animals and maintenance issues, and partly the real pleasure of being outdoors in nature.
For his own enjoyment (and ours) there were 80 hectares of uncultivated farmland with some recovering renosterveld and klipkoppies where Zebra, Wildebeest and Springbuck grazed unhindered. Small creatures came and went of their own accord. These klipkoppies were my dad’s most favourite spot on the whole farm – a bit of his own bushveldt – and where each year he religiously searched for the elusive, highly perfumed fruit of the koekemakranka. Ostriches also patrolled the area and were kept specifically to protect the sheep against predators. Especially human ones. The male ostrich was notoriously aggressive and one had to keep a sharp eye when out in the veldt on foot. My brother had a very close encounter with Japie, as did my parents. So rattled were they by their experience they came home with white faces and informed us that we’d very nearly been orphaned. We were horrible – we didn’t see the seriousness of it at all and were more interested in picturing our mother leaping over the barbed wire fence! Japie eventually succumbed when a worker in defense of his own life managed to grab him around the throat and throttle the ostrich to death. In truth, we could breathe easy on our “bushveldt” walks after that.
As young children we did not know that our father was a kind man. We did not know that he was respected and that people came to him for good advice. We did not know that he was considered a good and loyal friend. We weren’t aware that he did not want to be a stranger to us. That in his heart still lived a boy who never really got to play with toys. My mother knew all those things. She remained his stalwart, through all kinds of weather, for more than 50 years. To us he was more like an impenetrable wall. One that seldom showed any cracks. He was particularly hard on my brothers and they had no choice but to help out on the farm. School holidays were not opportunities for them to relax – the opposite was true: they worked really hard. I was a busy child and it irked me terribly if my father gave me jobs or chores to do. If I knew he was indoors, I steered clear because I believed he only gave me chores when he saw me and to avoid that, I needed to remain invisible. One day he asked me for a glass of milk and, tiny as this request was, it was the proverbial last straw. As I set his milk down, I hissed, “I’m not your slave!” He raised his eyebrows at me and said, “Oh yes? I’ll remember that.” Slowly and sagely he nodded his head, “I’ll remember that.” There! I’d said it. But of the two of us, it was only I who remembered. Years later I asked him and he didn’t recall a thing! Carrying that guilt for so many years had been my only punishment.
Our household of nine lived in the same Cape Dutch homestead from the 1700s in which my dad had grown up. It had been marginally modernized but remained a no-frills farmhouse with ad hoc décor. Needless to say, it had lots of character. Often guests came to stay, sometimes whole families, and my mother was a champion at managing a house filled with people. She ran a really good ship, in spite of some rather primitive “mod-cons”. It was a good thing she had studied Domestic Science….it could just as well have been hotel management!
Our father was a very keen auction goer. Where other men might gamble, he chose instead to go to sales. It must run in the blood because I’ve become well acquainted with the terrifying thrill of bidding on a ‘lot’. To us the auctions represented a Lucky Dip of enormous scale: you never knew what the lorry would bring home. The loft was full to overflowing with odd and interesting things. All headed for good use. But we learned a caveat, to not grow too attached to something he had bought; chances were it would get sold again. My dad did not stand back from business – there was no place for sentiment when it came to business. He was good at it.
As teenagers, some of his mannerisms irritated us, even embarrassed us. To some extent his saving grace was that, though he liked law and order in his household, physical disciplining was not his domain. It fell to our mother to take care of matters before they could reach “higher level”. Just our luck to have a mother who‘d been a high school teacher! I believed it was her previous career that set her apart from other mothers whom I felt sure must be soft and pliable. She could get pretty cross and knew how to sort us out. But it never stopped us from having the most incredible, hair raising fun. I think there were people in the congregation who gazed at us in sympathy when my father stood back proud as a cockerel while we quietly filed into our customary church pew on Sundays… Little did they know!
My parents retired from the farm and went to live in the same house by the sea. We all feared for our dad. We thought that without the farm to keep him busy he would perish. We weren’t aware of any hobbies that could fill his time. We were so wrong. Retirement suited Jan to a T. He was a good craftsman and as a farmer, never gave himself time to be creative, so we never knew how brilliant he was at woodwork. One of the garages was converted into a workshop, fitted with the woodworking machines he needed. Not only that, he began restoring vintage International Harvester tractors full time. He became the “go-to” importer from USA of spare parts for actual machines as well as toy models. He only stopped when he was forced to his bed, a few weeks before he left the world, not very long before his 81st birthday. Today his impressive collection of 25 fully restored vintage tractors is held in the museum at Sandstone Estates in the eastern Free State.
Jan despised the Nationalist government and aligned himself with progress. A portrait of Jan Smuts hung on his study wall… we didn’t know who the bearded man was and assumed he was one of our ancestors. He read “Super Afrikaner” and chuckled with amusement through the index of Broerder Bond members. He was always able to achieve whatever he put his mind to and he expected the same resilience, resourcefulness and competence from others. He had no insight as to what it was like to be in somebody else’s shoes. He did not suffer fools or weakness. At times his persona emitted a force that could crush you. Yet, we never said ‘die’ and by taking it all on the chin, we lucky seven gained our characters.
We got to see in our father, as an older man, how deeply sentimental he actually was. How deeply he loved. In each of us he eventually gained a friend. And funny, the behaviour he would not have tolerated in us as kids, he turned an absolute blind eye to in his grandchildren. No one was allowed to speak ill of them. I overheard him on the telephone once, shielding them when a neighbour insisted they were setting off fire crackers on the beach. “Oh no,” he said, “it definitely could not be them. They are all here with me.” But we knew exactly who the culprits were.
My father taught me many things, right down to the mundane task of folding shopping packets into neat triangles. But he never taught me to be afraid. The only thing he ever talked me out of, was studying Drama. Twenty five years later he told me he’d changed his mind.
Our father left the world three years after our mother. Separately they were scattered to the wind in that wild place on the farm they both loved so much. My father was the last to go. On that day, we came back to my house and celebrated his life. We sang and made a lot of noise. There was a grand piano and an electric guitar. And especially for him, we held an Oblietjie fest, the delicate biscuit he was so mad about. All hands were on deck and three oblietjie iron presses sizzled away with cinnamon flavoured biscuit dough. What a day it was! He would have loved it.
Oh I miss many things about my dad. He’s been gone for nine and a half years and there are still times I want to ask him something, tell him something. And I miss those bunches of sundried Orange River raisins that you pluck from the stalk ….
The first hen I ever owned was brought here soon after we moved in, in the summer of 2010, along with her 17 chicks as a gift from my brother who has a farm. She was just a common brown yard hen, very peaceable and an extremely good mother. It became natural to refer to her as “Mother Hen”. We had built a very sweet little poultry house, complete with a large window that looked out into a small yard, for the hens we were going to keep.
It had a front door for humans, and a hatch in the back wall for hens. You only had to stand at the door (ducking your head because it’s quite low) and pull on a rope that hoists up the hatch, to let the hens out onto the farm.
Except for a small chicken I called Kentucky many years ago, Mother Hen was my first proper hen. On the farm where I grew up, my mother had a very large fowl run, almost like a small park, with a roomy old hen house. The front wall was made up of wire mesh so it was airy and not the slightest bit gloomy inside. The perches were along the back wall and the nesting boxes out front – you could access them by lifting a lid and not have to go into the hen house at all. The poultry and the Muscovy ducks had to share this accommodation every night and my job was to feed and water them and collect the eggs. The food and water containers were set about more or less in the middle and, since the Muscovy ducks’ love of water along with their toilet habits made this poultry house floor particularly messy, the experience for a barefoot child is perhaps something I should leave for you to imagine.
All was fine until the arrival of a particularly vicious Rhode Island Red rooster who had a penchant for chasing children. He had a very sneaky way of sidling closer while I was busy at the tap or somewhere in the yard, unnoticed since he was pretending to peck at things, then suddenly turn and pounce. How often did my heart stop in those days! And how often did I run home in terror with a brown feathery streak on my heels, more often than once falling on my face just before I reached the safety of our door!
Then Zak arrived. Zak was a black rooster who as a baby had been saved by my niece and nephew from a sure death after being struck down on a road. He was what one would call “road kill”. My older brother had no choice but to stop the car when his children saw poor flattened little Zak. They took him home and fed him water with a dropper until he sort of plumped up again and looked less flat. In time he gained strength and could eat, then use both of his legs. He made an amazing recovery and as he grew, they came to realise that Zak was a boy (that is when he got his name) and that he would not be able to stay with them because neighbours in a suburb become very annoyed with you if your rooster wakes them up at 4am. So Zak was brought to us, on condition that he would never be killed for the pot.
By this time Mother Hen had had a narrow escape when Fara, my Boston Terrier of a similar size, decided to try her for lunch (I was very surprised that Fara hadn’t gone for a chick – so much easier) and in the process injured Mother’s wing. The wing was dragging on the ground and she kept tramping on it. What a quandary! In a moment of ingenuousness I made a sling from plastic netting that potatoes are sold in; I needed something that would not get wet, was strong and could breathe. Every morning I had her on my lap, tucked the wing into the sling and tied it in a bow on her back. It was quite a sight to see a brown hen out and about on the farm festooned with a yellow bow. I had to do this every morning, because between being shut away at night and being let out in the morning, her 17 chicks had pecked at the bow until it was undone. But the system worked and Mother Hen’s wing was restored. When Zak and Mother Hen met, each had a story of survival to tell.
Years passed, many families were raised and hens came and went. Zak eventually was buried in the animal graveyard beside the copse. He had been a perfect gentleman and getting a new rooster worried me, with memories of that wicked old scoundrel on the farm. But I need not have worried. The new king of the coop, a very handsome, shiny rust-brown Rhode Island Red, although slightly stand-offish to humans, was well behaved and also a very good husband. He always made sure his girls ate first. We raised so many chicks and watched in delight as little fluffy puffballs appeared from under the mothers. But also sadness every time a chick didn’t make it. The amazing thing was that, within a day or two of hatching, their small legs would be going like pistons as they mimicked their mothers in scratching for grub. Nature! Watching my hens over the years has more than convinced me that it is a crime to keep hens confined. Scratching, pecking and foraging about is just who they are.
In my first year of school I ran into trouble with eggs. We had a farm breakfast at the big table before grabbing our school bags and taking a swift walk down to the gate, about 300 metres away, to wait for the school bus. And then lurched along, stopping at each farm to pick up more kids. And all the while the scrambled eggs which I couldn’t bare but managed to get down with sips of milk, jostling about in my stomach. Until one fine day when all of it came up. On the carpet in the classroom which was truly mortifying. Miss Cairns was terribly kind and asked me what I’d had for breakfast (could she not see?). It was such a huge relief to at last tell somebody that I was made to eat eggs but couldn’t stand them. She suggested that I tell my mother I should not eat eggs any more. And I never ate them again. Until I met my husband. He could make a delicious breakfast fit for a queen and gone were the memories of those eggs that turned my stomach upside down.
With collecting eggs every day and writing the date on them, we never have a bad or even an old egg. When your eggs are so fresh, and the yolks so orangey-yellow, there is only one way to enjoy them best: poached. I cannot help it, but when I get asked to choose, it will always be to have my egg poached. Occasionally we make delicious omelettes, and very occasionally we have them scrambled.
Breakfast is my best meal of the day – not the finest restaurant can beat my view from where I sit at the kitchen table, looking across to the orchard where at the moment the trees are groaning with apples, with a beautiful egg on a beautiful plate.
Keeping hens is not only moonlight and roses. They can drive you mad. Most of my plants that live in pots have wire hoops over them to keep the hens out. Hens dig and scratch wherever they go. And the vegetable garden is their absolute favourite! Don’t think it’s only the grubs they are after – they are particularly fond of seedlings and any juicy leaves. We have tried trimming their wings to keep them out, a job I detested, but it worked for a while. They crawl through holes, fly over gates and walls; they can go wherever their beady eyes take them. In the end we plan to put up a trellis fence with climbing wisteria along the top of the vegetable garden wall; but until then it’s going to just have to be ‘make do and mend’.
Today I no longer have a rooster. The worries that go alongside raising chicks became something I could no longer do. The hens lay eggs until they are too old, and even then they may live out their days along with the rest, and life is quiet and peaceful. There is something very companionable about the hens being all over the place. They have a quiet, contented way of chatting as they go along. There is one exception: Joan Jet (she’s black). Every evening she demands with her croaking and squawking at the back door that it is time for food. Eventually when I take along a scoop of mixed grain, it is almost alarming to hear the sound of a someone running after me in army boots. Without turning around I know that it is Joan.
Kitzwallace is a tortoiseshell cat. Not the sort of tortoiseshell that looks like ‘brindle’, but the orange, black and white, patchy sort. My one son thinks she is the prettiest cat in the world. That is because she has a dainty, sweet little face and tidily places her tail over her front paws when she sits down.
She loves his lap. He cannot touch her because his lungs will object. But she seems to love him most of all. And WILL seek his lap.
She has a way of staring at a person, not in a manic way, but in a narrow-eyed kind of gaze. And when I catch her eye, she will blink in slow motion, just like my mother did when we were children and looked her way for reassurance if ever we found ourselves in a strange situation. She would wink at us with both her eyes, squeezing them for a full second. Kitzwallace does that and I find it uncanny. There is something that cat knows and I wish I knew what it was.
Occasionally she comes to sit with me while I am watching a movie. She will perch with her back to the television and gaze at me, for a long time. And then she will shut her eyes and stay that way, as if asleep, still facing me.
She came to us just over 13 years ago. She was a teenage kitten and just arrived at our house, which was on a different farm then. Tame, clean and hungry. No neighbours had lost a kitten and we concluded that some cowardly person had come from town and dropped her off along the road…probably hoping that she would survive. Strange but true. There are people who live in town who do that. In my life, I have seen this several times. How do those people sleep at night? But Kitzwallace found her way to us and was such a joy to our two boys. They were sure that God had sent her. Maybe this is true.
In the 13 years that she has been with us, she has had several lives. I lost count and am not sure whether we have passed nine or not. I am too nervous to check. I have cried many tears when I believed I was having to say good-bye. We’ve been to the Vet many times. There is never a known cause for her troubles, yet somehow she rallies and returns. I have resolved to stop crying and just enjoy the days we have, knowing they could end at any time. She seems to be in charge of her destiny and all I can do is facilitate the journey.
She eats with the delicacy of a spoiled princess. Only a little food at a time. And she will return to her bowl when she feels ready for another nibble but because her feline housemate Katja is a very greedy, opportunistic cat who is obsessed with eating, she will find it empty. So the routine is to feed her only a small amount and if she doesn’t eat it all, to put her bowl in the cupboard. In any case, she gets given food whenever she asks and she has never been obese in her life. (Darling Katja, even though on very strict rations, has a way of strolling that sets her large stomach elegantly swaying like a hanging bridge. She regularly supplements her meals with rodents. Yet she complains that she is about to expire of starvation. But her complaints fall on deaf ears. For her own good. Only the house sitter has ears that are not so deaf.)
The way that Kitzwallace announces she needs “a little something” is quite something. First of all, the voice she uses makes me think she is under the impression it is a very beguiling, irresistible sort of voice. A pitiful, whispery croak. There is nothing rude and demanding about the voice. But it gets you right behind the knees. Secondly, her choice of TIMING. Bizarre. I have found that the minute I am in the process of slipping cracked eggs into the pot of boiling water to poach, or grinding coffee and filling the mocha pot and setting it onto the stove to percolate, all of which is a process of concentration, precision and timing, is the minute she requires more food. And how do you concentrate when your cat is sitting in the doorway, with her tail neatly laid across her paws, and croaking at you like Marianne Faithful?
So the other morning, when I was intently busy making coffee and this little croaky voice came at me from the doorway and I was trying to shudder away my irritation and impatience, a big thought occurred to me.
Of course Kitzwallace did not understand that I was occupied with something from which I could not tear myself away. Of course she didn’t have the slightest idea that coffee was being ground, an operation was underway and that timing of the whole process was crucial. No indeed. Of course not.
Kitzwallace does not know anything about making coffee.
Winter has finally arrived, two weeks ago, and with it the joy of taking out of storage all the lovely things that keep us warm. Number One on my list is down.
When the boys were little, I made an investment and bought Four Seasons down duvets for all the beds in our house. Pure Goose Down. Airy and light and when two duvets are clipped together, incredibly warm for the deepest winter. The Four Seasons from Granny Goose, or All Seasons from Royal Comfort or Makoti are such a practical solution, offering you three duvets in one: Summer, Autumn/Spring, and Winter.
But what I miss, are the down quilts I grew up with. Starting out my life as a child sleeping under heavy cotton sheets and blankets, the way I got to know life, every bed was topped with what we called an ‘eiderdown’ in winter. No matter that the fluffy down inside never saw an Eider duck in its life, it was an eiderdown. And my grandmother made them all. She lived in the farmhouse where I was later to grow up, being an absolute domestic goddess capable of the finest tatting, embroidery and lace making, choux pastry and delicacies like pickled tongue and then, without blinking an eye, being able to deftly skin a rabbit and pluck the down feathers from her own ducks.
The fabrics, oh those beautiful ,tightly woven fabrics that no feather could poke through. The colours, the patterns, the choices! I wonder why they have disappeared, when down products are still available. The best you can do, is dig out what you inherited from your granny or trawl through antique shops. If you like the busy patterns, that is. Personally I think an eiderdown must have a pretty fabric, whether paisley or sprigs of flowers or granny print. Especially if you have a bed with plain linen, the prettiness of the quilt will be even more striking.
Recently the vintage shop Gister in Somerset West posted this picture (below) of a few quilts for sale and they looked so beautiful, I thought I should go and see them for myself. Gister is a very well curated, small treasure trove. The displays are like story boards. Needless to say, the quilts were already sold.
But it did make me remember that deep in a drawer I still had a single bed eiderdown quilt from my childhood. I’d put it away because it has suffered a fair amount of abuse from the long line of children that slept under it and it has been roughly darned as well as (yes, you may be horrified) a few ink blots, no doubt from school homework being done on the bed in the days of fountain pens.
There is no chintz, patterned, down-proof fabric to be found these days, so my solution was to choose a very pretty cotton quilting fabric, sew up a cover to the exact measurement of the eiderdown and then enclose it. The most difficult part was to pin all the channels precisely, then with a triple-stitch zigzag, sew right through the whole thing, all along the seam line of the inner quilt, with my sewing machine. It worked, and now my old eiderdown is back in play.
You can do exactly the same, if you have the patience. Alternatively you can make a cover from the prettiest cotton fabric you can find and then fill it with puffy polyester, which is very light. Some may shoot me for even mentioning the word polyester but hey, are you about to go and pluck a duck? I know I couldn’t. Quilts were filled with anything at hand – if polyester was available 100 years ago, they may well have used that too. Though, in truth, it is not nearly as cosy and warm as down. A few years ago I restored another ancient quilt – and found that all the pockets had been stuffed with silk stockings!
Down is almost impossible to work with. Once upon a time I had the bright idea to make my own down duvet and ordered the 900 grams of goose down that was needed. Carefully, with my hands deep inside the bag, I managed to divide up all the down into nine small bags, each intended for one of the channels in the duvet. The down didn’t want to cooperate, it wanted to go everywhere. My husband suggested I should blow the down from the small bag into the duvet’s channel with a hairdryer. I gave this a try and at first it seemed to work, until the plastic of the bag got melted by the heat of the hairdryer and WHOOSH! all the down shot up into the air. It was literally airborne, like a blizzard of fluff. And just then, there was a knock at the door. I think there was somebody very startled that day, when two downy white apparitions with fluffy white eyelashes opened the door! Let’s just say, that first duvet did not lead to a long and happy and successful career in duvets. It ended before it even began.
We have a shed, a nice big shed we built in 2008 from the steel frame which once housed a tennis academy in Rondebosch.
I remember landing on a cloudy, drizzly day at Cape Town International airport on the 10th of September 2001. It was the day before my birthday, also the day before that terrible disaster in the U.S.A. I was returning from a three week visit to England where I’d gone, among other things, to meet the penfriend with whom I’d been corresponding for 27 years.
My husband collected me and my luggage and one of the first questions he asked me when we got into the car was, “Do you want to see your new house?”
We were not planning to move. Our home of ten years was a small abode we built ourselves. Well, not with my hands exactly; my husband and one helper did the whole project completely on their own, with my occasional input of ideas, from the foundations to the roof beams and purlins which he made from Blue Gum trees he felled and cured himself. In the first few years it was the sweetest, quaintest little cottage with only two rooms, an open pitched roof, a bathroom that housed a cast iron tub so huge and deep it could bath a whole family of small people all at once (we’d fetched it from my brother’s farm where it was intended as a drinking trough for cattle) and a petite walk-in wardrobe. He and I had plotted the exact position of the cottage one afternoon with four pegs and a ball of yellow twine. Later, in two separate flurries of building, we added more rooms until at last it more or less resembled a normal house. It had the dearest little stoep on the front overlooking a big dam. We had a small sailing boat and when the dam was full, it could be launched straight from our garden gate, which stood in the water.
Now I was being invited to view my new house. What can I say. It was very big, very IBR and very green. That means it was a big steel structure completely clad in “Inverted Box Rib” metal sheeting and painted tennis court green. “It’s got lots of space…” is what I did say. And, as an afterthought, “The tennis net comes too.”
My husband had seen it advertised, the price was pretty good, and the deal was that he had to take down the structure and remove it. This was done in due time and all the pieces came home on a large lorry. And the tennis net came too.
We had bought a piece of land outside Wellington that year and sooner or later it would need a house. And my husband thought this was the quickest way of getting one built. My challenge was therefore to convert a rectangular space of 22m x 9m with 4,5m side walls and 1,5m roof pitch into something liveable. A rather lovely challenge, I thought. So I got going and drew the plans. And then filled a whole book with artistic impressions of what it would look like and what the garden would look like with an abundance of magnificent trees (the property had none, except the single ancient wild olive). The only comment I received was, “You have drawn the trees with such spreading branches, but actually, they will never look like that.”
And they don’t. Today they all look, to greater or lesser degrees, like old women bending under their loads into the wind.
For years nothing happened. All the steel and sheeting lay stored in heaps. In 2008 there was a change of plan. We would build a shed with the tennis academy structure and then a proper house for ourselves with bricks and cavity walls. All the steel and sheeting was moved to the farm outside Wellington. A trip to a demolition yard yielded what we thought were wonderful windows and so, bit by bit, the steel frame was erected and the shed came into being. Amazingly, a thief came with a lorry in the night and removed most of the stored IBR sheeting – the small pile they left behind they thoughtfully weighed down with rocks. For a reason…several nights later they came back and removed those too. There was not a soul about to see them or stop them. Buying brand new sheets for just the roof cost more than what we had paid for the entire shed with all its cladding.
With so much space on hand, we decided to build a flat on the end of the shed – you never know what you might need in years to come. In fact, we thought we would probably move from our small house and temporarily live in the flat while our new house was being built. I measured the areas, drew templates of our furniture to scale, and planned the interior.
Then my husband changed his mind about living in the flat. He said he did not want to have to move twice. So, building complete and after 19 years in our previous “handmade” home, we moved straight to our new house on the prairie.
That was January, 2010. But…..the excitement of what we could do with the flat was quickly dashed when the farm worker couple we had employed came to us with big eyes and said they had nowhere to stay. They were squeezed into some tiny place on a farm nearby with relatives and were very uncomfortable. Well of course they could stay in the flat!
While we moved into our house, they moved into the flat and made themselves at home. The mother was afraid of heights, so chose not to let the family occupy the bedrooms upstairs. However, her two little boys did not mind scampering up there and having themselves a bit of a ball. I don’t suppose she ever knew what mischief they got up to.
For a few years we exercised tolerance and forbearance. By 2013 we came to the end of our rope. Our working couple was so often drunk and unfit for work and their one son in particular so partial to breaking into our house whenever we were away and making off with our children’s prized possessions that we had to call it a day. They had to go.
By the end of that year the flat was vacated. It required a good deal of scrubbing and paint, but it emerged reasonably intact. Since then it has served the purpose of storing hay for our cattle and being sleeping quarters for orphan lambs at night. The little pilot light that had once burned to “do” something with it had gone out. The pigeons moved in en masse, the dust and cobwebs settled like blankets………. It is not looking so good.
Kitchen area….about 3,5m x 5,5m ….slightly divided from the living area…..about 5,5 x 5,5m
Front door leading from the stoep closer view of the living area
View from bathroom door with stairs going up Shower area in bathroom A bedroom in the loft
A second window in the main bedroom From an upstairs bedroom – as the view looks now
And now, more than three years on, I am looking at this space and thinking, “Do I do it?” Do I fix it up, furnish it and make it available?
It could be beautiful. People could be happy here. For short stays, or even just overnight. There is not a soul or other house in sight. If you were to sit on the stoep in the evening with a glass of chilled wine from our beautiful Boland, all you would see would be the views I have shown you in my la vie de Praerie Facebook photographs – the prairie, the distant Kasteelberg mountains and the nearby Lemietberg mountains. Within a radius of 10 kilometres you would find African buffalo, golden wildebeest, black wildebeest, Bontebok, Eland, Quagga, and not to mention the roaming wild creatures – Cape fox, bat eared fox, karakul, wild boar, porcupines and deer. Also an Alpaca farm down the road with its mill and gorgeous products and a goat farm up another road with its cheeses….
How many hours does it take for the earth to go around the sun – 24? But since the world is apparently going pear-shaped, I’m not sure that this is still the case. What if you were on the plump bottom end of the pear…then perhaps a rotation takes 32 hours and on the leaner, upper end it takes 16?
I think I live on the upper end of the pear. For time surely flies. As it says on the faces of the numerous grandfather clocks that my brother has built: Tempus Fugit.
This morning something interesting caught my eye – “The Fifteen Minute Mentality” and it gave me food for thinking. You see, time has always been a cause of issue in my life. Usually I’m accused of ignoring its existence.
My rough guide would be to get up and get going when it is light enough to see without a light bulb and only come indoors when the sun has set and it is dark. But alas, I’m not a farmer …. My working day, or being busy day, is usually from when I open my eyes in the morning until I shut them at night. And my hunger for what I really want to do must fit in with what I really have to do. There is no way you will have a quality life if you never get to do what you really want to do – that is my opinion. And in my case, since I’m on the part of the pear which spins really fast and I have only 16 hours in a day, I ought to be one extraordinary, mega-super operator! But I don’t win that badge. It makes no difference to me how many hours there are in a day, the number is always wrong. There isn’t a sadder person shutting their eyes at night if I have not ticked something on my list of things I wanted to do – and so this has been, ever since I discovered I was a person.
To be really successful at extracting 24 hours’ of time out of your 24, not even to mention 32 out of 24, one would have to be, not only super organised, but selfish too. You would not have time to take that phone call from a friend who needs a (lengthy) listening ear, time to wait in a queue while somebody in front tries to find change in their purse, time to say “hello-how-are-you” to anything or anybody. (“How are you” becomes a speed-greeting and not a question). But do we want to live like that? A lot of us are being chased by everything yet feeling on top of nothing. If I were to guess, I would imagine the councilling couches are filled with people desperate for advice on how to enjoy their lives more, with people crying for a shoulder that will understand how wretched their lack of time makes them feel. And I detect a small irony here: it takes time to go and see somebody professional for help. It takes less time to actually stop. To look. To listen. Required is only a small mind shift which, paradoxically, is not a move towards becoming more selfish. It is true, when you feel you have too little, you are afraid of giving. A small manoeuvre will make you realise you have enough, and set you free to give and to share and to enjoy!
How can we do this? How about doing something new, something called “Fifteen Minutes with Me”. Every day, make a date with yourself. Diarise it in your cell phone if you must. We so often don’t get to do something for ourselves only because we have a mental picture that is will take too much time. Time that we do not have. But you do have fifteen minutes. The bit I read this morning was by a well-known needlewoman in USA who advocates that if you do just 15 minutes of embroidery a day, you will get a project done before you know it. What good advice. It boils down to that old question: How do you eat an elephant? Yes exactly: in tiny bites.
So go on, turn your day into bites, not bytes. Spend 15 minutes with yourself, for yourself. You are the most important person in the world you will ever have a date with. Aren’t you lucky!
We were always P.O. Box 39, from the year dot which must be when that old post office building came into being. The letterboxes looked like a solid wall of tiny metal doors, each with a cluster of small round ventilation holes. The key that unlocked the mini metal door with a particular amount of pressure and a certain ‘click’ was also small. This was a key that mustnever be mislaid.
Whenever I was sent to collect the mail (usually when my mother went inside to buy stamps) I couldn’t help feeling full of anticipation while turning the key and listening as the lock clicked, letting the door spring free and…oh joy, the box crammed from top to bottom with mail. Letters, bills, cards, brochures, catalogues, free calendars from the insurance companies and my father’s rolled up Farmer’s Weekly (not in plastic, just a band of paper with his address). And…yes! A letter from my penfriend.
The trouble with such a post office box was that if you didn’t empty it at least once a week, it would get crammed so full that nothing more could fit inside. The mail being collected depended on a trip to town to get supplies for the farm. If a parcel had come for you and was either registered, or too big, you would find a small note in the mailbox notifying you that you should collect it from the counter. I loved that little blue slip of paper! I still do. (Except now it is white.) “Brown paper packages tied up with string, these are a few of my favourite things”…if you have never received a parcel in the post, you’ve had one thrill less in your life.
Now I ask you, what happened to time, that there seemed to be so much of it then and so little of it now? Christmas cards came thick and fast and there was always a bit of a quandary as to where to display them all. I try my best to send cards to as many people as I can, mostly friends and family….even if it is possibly an unfashionable thing to do. I think people do still love receiving cards, even if they haven’t the time or inclination to send any themselves. I do still receive a few cards, mostly from abroad, and I love them to bits.
There is a very special thrill about receiving a letter by mail. If you are the sort of person who prolongs pleasure, you will not rip it open then and there. You will wait until you are home, study the stamp, the address, the postmark, the ink (all right I am exaggerating now) but nevertheless you will open it properly by sliding a letter opener in the fold of the flap and let it tear neatly. You will have something nice to drink by your side, and you will settle down to read.
To write somebody a letter means you travel into the depths of your mind and memory, recalling things in an interesting way. The conversation might be one-sided, but once you start, it can be quite difficult to put down that final full stop! The crown on this whole letter-writing experience would be if you have luxurious writing paper and an excellent fountain pen. Neither are so easy to find these days.
Texting…Even though sending a WhatsApp message is so much quicker than writing a letter by hand and also far quicker than typing an e-mail, I have been surprised to see how much time it does take….when you add it all up. Being quite pedantic about spelling and language, I’ll re-type a word that isn’t right because these days, “to save time”, all cellular phones seem to think they know what you are going to say. And my fingers are not very accurate on a screen, which is truly irritating. If you are not careful, you’ll be writing a whole lot of junk that is nothing close to what you had in mind. I can type blind on a keyboard, using nine fingers, but to fiddle with one finger at a time on a glass keypad can drive me nuts.
We take time to send even the most trivial little messages on WhatsApp, wait to see if they have been read, forward any number of silly video clips, have a laugh, spread the fun….When you spend a lot of time alone, these bits of contact are so welcome, they colour in your day. Yet that bit of happiness is fleeting. Nothing about the moment lasts – it must make way for the next beep. You could not tie these messages up in bundles with pretty ribbon and save them in a drawer….to be found by your descendants in a hundred years’ time! And if you had to add up all the minutes you spent in a day checking your phone and being busy on it, you could have sat down somewhere, quietly and quite relaxed, with something nice to drink and written someone a beautiful, interesting letter.
That reminds me, I received one this morning, a big fat envelope in an otherwise almost empty mailbox. (Which is no longer number 39) And I am going to find a quiet spot, put my feet up, and begin to read.
“People are hungry for genuine human stories now more than ever. We’ve gotten so caught up in this culture of self-branding where everybody cherry-picks what they show on social media and glosses over their failures and setbacks… But it’s the failures and the setbacks that people want to hear about, not these carefully curated success stories. That’s not real life. Nobody is interested in following yet another picture-perfect life on Instagram. Nobody.”
“We’re also living in a time where everything feels a bit pessimistic, even apocalyptic. I think there’s a desire for more real-life stories that have a positive message, that are hopeful. There’s a certain comfort in having an 80-year-old tell you, ‘I was 15 years old in 1940 when the Germans invaded Paris and it was la grosse merde but in the end, we got through it.’”
From an interview with Laurence Guilloud and Fabrice Le Dantec, founders of the magazine, L’Instant Parisien
Who are we, what are we trying to do, what’s this big deal about our Instagram life?
Go back 40 years. (Oh I hate saying that, it means I have enough years under my belt to be able to go back forty years and still be on the page. But this is a mindset thing…what is wrong with not being young (???) so yes, go back 40 years.) You will find a 12 year old girl hammering away at a black Corona portable typewriter with silver rims around its keys, dreaming up stories.
No Tippex then (and now almost obsolete). Typing errors were crossed out by hitting the hyphen key and you had to change reels when your ribbon ran out of ink. Copies were made with carbon paper — I had not heard of a photocopy machine, nor a scanner; computers belonged in SciFi movies and certainly there were no cell phones. The idea that one day you would be able to talk to somebody and see one another via a screen was a fascinating, far-fetched thought. People saw you in the flesh…or not. There was no way you could pretend to be who you were not. “Hard copy” was all there was.
Now to the present. While in the old days we could admire all the cinema stars as untouchable, awe-inspiring and, somehow, charmed, Cyber media has presented us with the opportunity to be such stars ourselves. Life has become a cinema. And thanks to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, Gramblr, flickr, we have become movie stars. We put our best face forward…our best moments forward. Quelle horreur, what would we do without the delete button! Much of what we are actually experiencing is not going any deeper than how quickly we can curate it for the public eye. And then, editing complete, we re-live the moment by looking at it on a screen. We never really lived it as it happened, while it happened. Our mind was too governed by recording it, by how it would appear not only to others, but also to us. This cherry picked, curated life is called living by proxy. [Definition: by proxy the ability to do or be something without actually physically doing it.]
Somehow, we are protecting ourselves and others from our reality. But when real life happens, when our reserves are called upon, when the merde hits the fan, really hits the fan, no one will have time to think about “how this is going to look”.
That is the genuine human story we are actually hungry for.
Today is Sunday, 22 January 2017. Weather forecast: “Blazing sunshine and very hot”, predicted temperature 39ºC, real-feel 40ºC. The week ahead promises “hot with plenty of sun” and temperatures in the high thirties. But wait a minute; this is what I want to see: “Cooler with spotty showers, 26ºC” – on Tuesday. Yay!
In our Mediterranean climate here in the Western Cape, hot summers are usual. Hot and dry. Although rain is not unheard of, humidity is very low if at all existent and this is good for healthy vines. Interestingly, after an incident of rain, there will usually be a good old blow from the notorious Cape Doctor, the Southeaster, clearing the air around the vines and helping prevent mildew and rot. We really do want our wine farmers to have a good crop – what would summer be without a delicious glass of crisp, cold white wine sipped slowly while you kiss a hot day goodbye?
As a want-to-be gardener, none of this suits me. I want the rain; I do not want the wind. More specifically, it is my garden that does and does not. Having rain and then wind is like giving with one hand and taking with the other.
All good things come at a price and living out here in this amazing wide open world with sweeping views towards the mountains has quite a steep price ticket: hard work and resilience. Having the heart of an ox will help too. When the south east wind passes over the plains at 80kms/hour and does not let up for three days, screaming and screeching and whistling through closed windows so that you must plug your ears to get to sleep at night, you have to bite on your teeth and carry on living, pretending to be unaware that all this while, plants, tender and otherwise, are being battered and burned alive.
When the wind finally subsides you run outside and administer first aid and water to everything with roots in soil. It breaks your heart to see tender new little leaves, having just burst forth from the stem of a plant, scorched to paper. How long will it be before another new little leaf might appear….? Baby fruit blown off and strewn; branches snapped and young stems bent or broken. Sometimes trees are wrenched from the ground.
This happens time and again and you have to just keep going. The first trees planted in our garden have been growing since 2002 and none are yet taller than 15 metres. It is not easy to grow skywards when it would seem the elements want to plunge you back to earth. A poor earth, at that. Soil here is hard and fairly barren….to change this requires work. And water. From November until March, we water half of our garden by hand, four times a week – pots are watered every day – this takes nearly half a day. The orchard and copse is watered every night via a drip system directly from the borehole. But this year, we drew the line when it came to watering the lawn. The whole country has had two years of drought and although we have a good supply of underground water, we’re not going to take it for granted. At first it was a tough call; a beautiful, gloriously green lawn is a winner in everybody’s book – who can resist its soothing effect? There is nothing quite as therapeutic as a thriving, luxurious garden bursting with succulent shades of green…and equally, little that is more exhausting than seeing a sad and struggling garden. Ah, but we are adjustable….
The landscape around us is dressed in its summer clothes: a creamy shade of yellow. And since we have not been watering our lawn, it has turned the same yellow. And how beautifully it merges with the world around us, “blending seamlessly”. Who wants a green lawn now, in the face of water restrictions and terrible drought?
No indeed, I am quite resolved: Yellow is the new Green.
Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. –Theodore Roosevelt
Belonging to a country is like having a surname – it doesn’t define you personally but it gives you an identity, more than your first name alone.
Were I to not like the name my parents gave me, I could have it changed, and people do, which is perfectly acceptable. But to change my surname and to change my nationality would be quite a different matter. If I were to translocate to another country, I could adopt all the habits of that country and become a loyal citizen, but in actuality I would until the end of my days be a South African living in a foreign place. My children born there would be nationals – the country of our birth is who we are – and not just born, but also where we grew up.
So why are there disgruntled people who begrudge their fellow countryman/woman equal nationality? If I were born in a small country town, or in a big cosmopolitan city, or a rural hamlet or even in the bush or wilderness, I am neither less nor more an indigenous person than the next. I would not dream of telling you that you don’t belong here, just as I would not like you to tell me to go back to ‘where I came from’, when actually I come from the same country as you.
Part of how nations have formed is through the people that came from different countries and settled in their new adopted home. With them come new genes, new skills, new traditions. It is an ongoing dynamic among humans which began at the beginning of time. Whether my ancestors migrated here 300 years ago, 10 000 years ago, or two generations ago, this is my home.
With the way people have evolved, there is no possible way to unravel the knitting of who we are today, into separate origins. Perhaps you could do this very broadly from an historical point of view, but the “origins” of a person and also a nation are like a tapestry. Unravel or remove some of the threads and you will lose the picture.
Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I do want to own up to being worried about how we as South Africans do or do not cherish what we have – our history, our science, our music, our culture, our natural resources….our future. Instead of bickering about who invented what and whose technology is entitled to being preferred and practiced, let us take stock of what we have and fall silent in our awe and gratitude.
Thankfulness, no matter who you are, is a very good state of mind.