When The Last Tree Falls…

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

― Clare Boothe Luce

Today, our family is saying goodbye to the last surviving soul of a great generation – the backbone of our family: My aunt Hettie, who lived until the age of 94.

Over the past few days, since her passing on Thursday morning, I have been lost in the most comforting and beautiful memories of her in my childhood.

As an English teacher, she instilled in me a love for books, learning and languages. Visiting her meant no television, but rather picking up a book, drawing, building puzzles and figuring out crosswords and riddles… Knowledge is power. Use your mind. Think.

As a young woman, Hettie travelled a fair bit (an exotic luxury only a few enjoyed at the time). Her stories of foreign countries and strange cultures planted the seeds in me of wanting to discover and explore our wonderful planet. I still carry with me (and cherish) a pair of leather gloves she brought back from somewhere (I’d like to believe it was Paris) as a gift for me when I was 5 years old.

My bookshelves are bursting at the seams because of you Hettie and the travel bug inside me remains restless and thirsty for more places to see, foods to taste and people to meet… there is always more to experience, right?

Hettie was a dedicated homemaker with an impeccable sense of style – Africa with a hint of Scandinavia. The eclectic spaces she created, wherever she lived, told the story of who she was, where she had been and the beauty of how she viewed the world. She dressed simply – almost minimally. A wardrobe cut, sewn and knitted mostly with her own two hands. Linen. Cotton. Wool. Soft, pale and natural colours. Comfortable, practical and elegant.

When I look around my home, I can see your creative influence. I know a part of you has always been with me. Sadly, it’s only now that I recognise where that gift came from. 

She spent hours grooming her garden and flower pots, no matter what the season. We’d often arrive at her home and hear her talking to the tadpoles in her fish pond and gently (albeit it a bit impatient) encouraging her willow tree to grow. She had an astonishing talent to nurture plants on the brink of death back to life. Love. Care. Attention. Dedication.

Her dogs, Dandle and Jean, two Spaniels, were not just her companions and friends but four-legged soul mates who followed her everywhere. Spiders came to no harm in her home – they were regarded as friendly spirits who briefly visit. She adored all animals and was connected to nature in an admirable and almost Holy way — like we all should strive to be.

Hettie, your wicked and teasing sense of humour annoyed many of us. Your sharp and observational wit called a thing by its name and often caught us off guard. No nonsense. Just honesty. You made us laugh with your random quips and straightforward punch lines.

You always said to me: “You should find yourself a lovely English girl with rosy cheeks and blue eyes”, but you knew full-well that it was never going to happen. Accepting. Kind. Graceful.

As a single parent, she raised her children in an exemplary way. She loved her husband dearly. But once he passed away after just a short few years of being married, she never remarried and dedicated her life to living – not seeking, not wanting, not pondering. She knew who she was. She made her own rules and created a beautiful life.

There are so many things, Hettie, which I want to say. But ‘Thank you’ comes to mind first: Thank you for the impression you made on my life. Thank you for being a friend. I am so bitterly sorry that I let our relationship slip in the last decade, and that I carelessly neglected you. I did not forget you but I was selfish. I regret this. I am sorry.

May you rest in peace in a beautiful heavenly garden, among flowers and animals. I hope your reunion with all the others are joyful: Granddad Frankie (he did not like you calling him that… but you insisted), Grandma Tilly, Aunt Bella, Uncle Billy-Boy, Hector, Dandle, Jean, Dada and every single beautiful one that is no longer with us.

I know they’ve waited for your arrival with great anticipation – the same way we did when our family gathered for lunch on Sundays under the big old tree in Grandma’s front garden. You’d arrive a little late with sugar cookies, fruity fudge squares and Roly Poly – your signature dessert… and then the laughter started.

The last majestic tree has fallen in the forest. And now, all that remains for the saplings to look upon is the empty space it leaves behind.

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Coffee, right?

3

You might think it’s nothing.
Just a cup of coffee,
right?
It’s not.
It’s more than that.

It’s not just beans,
dried and crushed
and purified
and ground
and perfectly brewed.
No, it’s more.
Right?

It becomes part of me
when I swallow it down.
It enters me
and stays inside,
Like the thoughts I have of you –
the ones I try to stop,
the ones I hide
because they hurt,
the ones that make me cry
and long for you.
The ones that’s bitter,
and no milk or sugar will ever mend.
The ones that haunt me
in the morning, noon
and all day long.

It’s not just a cup of coffee,
right?
It’s more than that.
Like you and I.
Right?


Credits:
Image – FR Lubbe
Text: FR Lubbe


Life Answers Life’s Questions In Due Time

4

If the writing is honest it cannot be separated from the man who wrote it.

– Tennessee Williams –

“… Eight months have passed since we have lost our dad on that bright blue New Year’s Eve. He won’t be coming back to us. It’s only now that I am starting to realise what hit me and my two pre-school boys.

During the past eight months, I was able to cope with any crisis, but last week things came to a grinding halt as I told my two boys that I needed to be on my own — to go away for a week and take stock. For the first time in months I was unable to explain to them exactly why, because not even I knew what was busy happening to me or how I was feeling.

In hindsight, I honestly don’t know how I was able to tell the five-year-old Abrie “Daddy Sickheart has died. He had no pain and we must not be sad. He was good to us, he loved us and we must be thankful that God lent him to us, but he is now needed in heaven and we won’t see him again.”

I remember how, on that endlessly painful New Year’s day, I repeatedly said: “Please don’t cry, we must not be sad.” Yet, crying is all I have done for the past week — me who supposedly could carry on without showing any emotion.

I was able to comfort the two-year-old Retief when he woke up three o’clock in the morning, crying inconsolably about his daddy… “Will Daddy never come back? Can the doctor not fix him? Not even with an injection?”

At the funeral, I had the strength to walk in front of the procession holding Abrie’s little had tightly in mine, with my heartache so tremendous that it burned all my tears away. Still, the strength came from somewhere as I told my confused little boy who it was just his Daddy’s body in the coffin and it didn’t matter that we buried him in the ground, because his heart was in heaven.

To give consistent support and comfort to such young children under these circumstances, require superpowers or at least that’s what it feels like. They are so stunned and dumbfounded and I had to learn that their disobedience, wild temperaments and stubbornness really is a cry for help, saying: “Mummy, help us understand this pain we don’t know anything about.”

To always know what my boys are feeling and to understand what goes on in their little minds, is near impossible. Then there are also my own loss and longing to cope with… I am still looking for my lover, friend and husband everywhere and in everything.

Our current circumstances quickly taught me that I must protect myself and my children against well-meant advice, criticism and sometimes uncalled for meddling. Children don’t know how to process or understand their own sadness. Even I struggle with it. How can one possibly undo the harsh words of a playmate who says: “Look what my dad made for me. You won’t have something like this, because your dad is dead.”

People can be very cruel. This is something I had to learn time and again in recent months. Pitying glances and tactless remarks: “Shame, look how young and beautiful you are, and your children are still so small. You’ll have to marry again soon. A woman like you must not be on her own and boys do need a father, you know. Did he at least leave you in a good financial position?”

The day will come that I won’t bite my tongue and I will say what is on my mind to those who now see me and my boys as a threat: We are not the first family that must ‘struggle’ without a husband and a father; my boys still have their mother, wonderful and supportive grandparents, and loving and caring friends… It’s the realisation that we are not welcome in certain circles anymore that hits me the hardest.

I have to admit it’s tough without my husband. He was so much more than just the breadwinner. He was my companion and soul mate, and a friend for his boys. So, I pray that moving forward without him will teach us how to make the most of life and that we will come out on the other side more confident and much stronger. My husband also grew up without a dad and he was a positive and self-assured man who taught our boys how to appreciate the beautiful things in life — nature, neighbourliness, respect, humility and an unwavering belief in goodness and God. If he could do all that, then surely I can continue to do the same for my children.

If I can give my children security, confidence and unbendable faith, then I am sure they will be richer human beings because of what they have to go through now. To cry our days away will bring us nowhere. Even though the temptation is there to give in to my heartache, I have a responsibility to two very young and vulnerable boys. I am so thankful that my boys are in my life, because without them I could easily lose direction and my purpose to carry on.

For their sake and my own, I have to look to the future. I have to be attentive and focus on their development and their interests. I am planning to study again, practice ceramic art and pottery, and I want to teach my two little ones the value of a healthy body, mind and spirit.

I am sure there will still be many days of asking ‘why’, wishing and wondering… but we must find peace and happiness in the fact that there is a much bigger plan for our lives. We’ll have to remind ourselves that without a father and a husband it is possible to live a normal life. That’s why, when I return home after this week of alone time, I won’t leave my boys on their own again. I now need to turn my back on the past and focus on our future. The days burdened with emptiness will surely pass and while we wait for that to happen, all we ask from the people around us is patience, understanding and thoughtfulness.

As I watch the wind sweep across the moors and mountains, I notice that it doesn’t move the rocks or even cloud the bright sunshine but only weighs the grass down with its gushes for a moment. The death of a man whom we loved presses down on us for a while too. We have been swept off our feet, but we will rise again to be stronger, wiser, more resilient and open to all the goodness life still has to offer…”

My mother wrote this as a diary entry eight months after my father died suddenly of a heart attack, on New Year’s Eve 1976. I was two years old. Later, it was published as part of an article in a national newspaper, in April 1981. My mother died three years later, on March 17th, 1984. I was nine.

My adoptive mother gave the article to me as a keepsake, when I turned eleven. Apart from a few photographs, this is all I have of my mother. When I read it, I can hear her voice and see her face. This usually gives me with a sense of comfort, but also a degree of distress. Over the years, I have read her diary entry a few times and focused on the ‘drama’ of it all and the losses I’ve experienced as a young boy, usually ending up a puddle of tears on my bed. I never thought of it as something that would inspire me.

Today, as I went through some old stuff in boxes, sorting out paperwork and throwing away things I no longer have a use for, I found the article again. I sat down with it for a moment and spent some time with my mother’s words, allowing her to pay me a short visit.

As I read it, different words than the usual ones jumped at me from the paper. I no longer held onto my mother’s sadness and her grief. Nor did I ponder over the fact that she didn’t keep her promise of never leaving me and my brother, and that our lives as small boys changed dramatically after she died. Instead, I was drawn to what she wrote about my dad and her intentions of wanting to be a brave, protective and loving single parent.

See, I don’t know much about my father, because no one told me anything about him. This always bugged me. It made me feel unrooted and I had no sense of where I came from. I felt abandoned by my father. Yet, the truth is, I had a dad. He was in my life for two years and he was my friend, who loved me and instilled in me the values that I still hold dear to this day: neighbourliness, respect, humility and an unwavering belief in goodness and God. He also loved my mother. He was her companion and soul mate.

For years, I have harboured resentment towards life for losing both my parents at such a young age. I always felt that I did something wrong and they were taken away from me as some sort of punishment. Much as I know, as an adult, that those thoughts and feelings hold no truth, the child inside me still believed it. I held onto this lie that they did not love me for nearly 30 years. I blindly searched for them or a substitute for their love in all kinds of places. I didn’t find them and neither could I replace their love. This left me with so much anger. Then today, I stumbled across a testimony of who my parents were and how they truly felt about me. I can do nothing else but accept my mother’s words as the truth. The answer has been right in front of me, on black and white, all this time… I just wasn’t ready to see it. I bet my mother never anticipated that what she wrote in her hours of despair, would give me so much comfort and peace decades after she passed away.

A door opened for me today and the little boy that struggled to grow up has now been given the chance to take a step closer to manhood. It may have taken me a while to get to this point and it will take a while to get use to this sense of relief and wholeness, but I’m going to run with it and see where it leads me to. My only failure now would be not to honour the fact that I was very much loved by both my parents. They obviously wanted me to be happy… the rest was just life happening.

A shrine for my mother


Credits:
Text: Francois Lubbe
Images – Francois Lubbe