The penguin in the stable

December 12, 2018 § 4 Comments

nativity

 

On my piano is my favourite Nativity scene. All of the usual suspects are there – Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, an assortment of angels – plus a mutant sheep and a penguin sporting a Santa hat.

The Nativity scene, you see, has been compiled from a collection of various figurines my children made when they were little, either as school projects, or during their brief flirtation with pottery.

The mutant sheep is so named because he’s bigger than Joseph. The penguin? Well, we felt he just fitted in the scene. It may not be the traditional way to depict the Nativity, and it probably wouldn’t warrant a magazine spread or an Instagram post, but it works for us.

I am unashamedly the very opposite of the Grinch. I love Christmas – I love to gather family and friends and feed them till they’re busting. I love to sing carols and play them in the car as I go about my December business. And while I hate shopping, I do love to find a gift that I know the recipient will love, and witness their delight when I’ve got it right.

But most of all, I love to decorate the house in red and green and silver and gold. I love putting up the Christmas tree with my daughters (with compulsory carols playing in the background). We giggle over the stickiness of the branches – let’s just say rock candy canes and Johannesburg heat are not good companions. We nervously wait for the lurching angel atop the tree to come crashing down. We hold our breath as we plug in the lights and wait for them to blink alive.

I’m told I have something of a tree ornament problem, but I promise I can quit any time. I still have the ornaments I made from bits and bobs in my flat many years ago, because I couldn’t afford to buy any decorations. I have treasured ornaments from a December trip to Athens, and a myriad tiny wooden trains and teddy bears given to me by a friend who died several years ago. I treasure my fat pink ballerina fairy and the matching fat Santa, and my elder daughter brought me a bauble and a twirling angel from Prague last year.

But my favourites, by far, are the stars and reindeer made from salt dough and paper, painted and daubed with glitter by small, fat fingers many years ago. They, and our strange little Nativity scene, remind me every year that Christmas isn’t about food or gifts or perfect decorating. It’s not about shopping and stress and maxing out your credit card.

No. For me, Christmas is a wondrous gift wrapped in twinkling lights. It’s about love and laughter, and friends and family, and most of all, about the memories you make.

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Eulogy

December 5, 2018 § 4 Comments

When Shakespeare wrote Mark Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar, he wrote, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” Today, we come to do the opposite for my dad. We are here to praise him. He was an honourable man and we are gathered here to celebrate his life and legacy.

As the messages of condolence and tribute have poured in via various channels, there has been one overriding theme: my father’s sense of humour. It seems to have been the thing that people most loved about him – his quick wit, droll comments and the ability to drop a terrible pun into any conversation.

So durable was his sense of humour, in fact, that two weeks ago when we all came to see him in ICU, and he was hooked up to a million monitors and tubes, at the height of his confusion and frailty, through slurred speech, he managed to direct a few rapier sharp quips at the nursing staff.

He raised us on The Goon Show and was a huge fan of Spike Milligan, which meant we all grew up with a very quirky sense of humour, to put it politely. I do recall that when I was at school, Spike Milligan came to PE to do a show at the Opera House and it was quite possibly one of the highlights of Dad’s life.

For weeks afterwards he would cackle to himself at odd moments, remembering some or other joke from the show. Or he’d suddenly pronounce, “There’s nobody here but us chickens, sir!” Then he’d laugh merrily, and carry on with whatever he was doing, while we wondered what on earth he was on about.

In his younger years, my father was a wonderful public speaker and a stalwart member of Toastmasters. Again his sense of humour stood him in good stead on the podium, helping to keep audiences engaged.

And when it was his turn to adjudicate other speakers, he loved nothing more than to take out an axe and place it pointedly on the table beside him as they were about to speak. He thought it was hilarious – I’m not sure they shared his sentiments!

His sense of humour was just one side of the coin, though. On the other was a man who took certain things very seriously – things like honesty, integrity, hard work and commitment.

When we were growing up, we knew exactly where the boundaries were, and what was expected of us. And while we all certainly had a few hidings in our time for overstepping the mark, the worst punishment, actually, was to hear the words, “I’m disappointed in you.” Nothing stung more than that.

Those very boundaries and his strong moral core, mixed with a good dollop of fun and lots of love, made him the wonderful father he was. We always had his support and he only ever wanted the best for all of us – that we should be happy, productive members of society, whatever path we chose.

As the eldest, I think I was expected to produce offspring first, but he never breathed a word for six long years after I got married. Not once did he put pressure on us about grandchildren, but when I called him to say I was pregnant with Tessa, all he said was, “Finally! I thought I was never going to get any grandchildren!” Today we have each produced two, and all six grandchildren are here today. He loved them all fiercely.

When our mother died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1985, my father was – understandably – at his lowest ebb. In the months that followed that terrible shock, I would come to understand what it means for someone to be ashen.My father’s face was literally grey with grief for what felt like an eternity.

And then he and Sandy started to forge a friendship and relationship, and the colour returned to his face. In what must surely be one of the greatest acts of bravery the world has ever witnessed, Sandy married not only my dad, but the three of us, aged 17, 14 and 11. And what a wonderful choice my father made, not only for us, but for himself.

Sandy has been the very opposite of a wicked stepmother, and the most devoted, loving wife a man could ever hope to have. If you ever needed a picture of what love looks like, you need only to have witnessed the way she cared for him for 32 years, and most especially, in the last year when his health deteriorated significantly.

It’s incredibly difficult to express just how grateful we are to Sandy for the way she looked after him, and how much we love her, when all we have are words.

Many years ago, I worked with a woman who remarked that you only really feel like a grown-up once both of your parents have died. The three of us, however, have been saved from this cruel fate, because while we have lost two parents now, we still have a third. And while most people feel blessed if they have one wonderful mother, we are lucky enough to have had two.

My father would want me to wrap this up now. He’d be caressing the axe handle if I were speaking at Toastmasters, so all I want to say in conclusion is that my father was a man of simple pleasures. He didn’t believe in having a cup of coffee all by itself, and besides a good buttermilk rusk, one of his favourite coffee accompaniments was an apricot jam sandwich.

So if you ever think of my dad, and wonder how to pay tribute to him, from time to time, toast him with a good cup of coffee and an apricot jam sandwich. And whenever you can, brighten someone’s day with a smile and a joke – the world can always do with a little more humour.

 

Leaving the cult of motherhood

October 31, 2018 § 1 Comment

We need to stop overthinking things. And one of the things we need to stop overthinking is parenting – mothering in particular.

I’m no sociologist, but my casual observation is that with the rise of social media, we’ve seen a rise in many mothers trying to do more, be more, have more – and all they’re doing is burning out. There’s almost a cult of motherhood that has arisen thanks to phenomena like ‘mommy blogging’ and Pinterest-inspired birthday parties, and I don’t think it’s doing anyone any good – not least, our children.

Of course, we do need to be good parents. Our job, as I see it, is to raise healthy, well-adjusted adults who will be functioning, contributing members of society. If you believe everything that’s written about millennials, then somewhere, we have gone horribly wrong.

So here are some bossy injunctions to some of the mothers coming up behind me. They are, of course, delivered in my mom voice, which is formidable. Here’s what I’ve learned.

  1. You don’t need about 80% of the stuff on that checklist in the baby magazine you’ve been poring over. Your baby needs somewhere safe to sleep, clothes, nappies, some basic toiletries and a few toys. Don’t overdo the clothes – they grow faster than you can ever imagine.
  2. Your child – at any age – does not need every item of clothing to be brand new. Swap with your friends because, again, they grow faster than you can ever imagine.
  3. Your child does not need to look like they just stepped off the pages of a glossy magazine. They need clothes that are comfortable, that they can move in, plus a hat for the sun and a raincoat for the rain. Small children and umbrellas are not a stellar combination – someone is likely to lose an eye.
  4. From about six months onwards, your baby doesn’t actually need food between dinner and breakfast – which means you can sleep train them. Find a method that works for you and grit your teeth for a week. It’s hard – but it won’t kill them. They are manipulative little sods even at that age, and they will try every trick in the book. But it’s not cruelty to insist that someone who can sleep, should. And if you do it at that age, they’ll be conditioned to sleep in later years.
  5. Like cats, children often prefer to play with the box. Don’t waste your money on the most expensive educational toy you’ve decided your child simply must have. The best toys are all around us – trees, parks, piles of leaves, mud, the contents of your Tupperware drawer, a pot and a wooden spoon, and so on.
  6. Remember that the baby joins your life – not the other way around. You don’t quite have to go all ‘children must be seen and not heard’ – but stop sacrificing your own life on the altar of being the perfect mother, for crying out loud. She doesn’t exist. Children need to know their place in the family – which is junior to the adults. A family is not a democracy – the adults are there to raise the children and they are the ones in charge. Be a good adult.
  7. Let your child get bored sometimes – and learn to sit through it. I’m talking about church services, or weddings, or speeches. It won’t do them any harm to learn to sit quietly for an hour or so once they’re five or so. Younger kids may need something to keep them busy, but make sure it’s analogue, and quiet – soft toys, a colouring book, or just a piece of paper and a pen will do the trick quite often. But they need to learn that there are times when you have to sit still and be quiet – even if you are bored stiff and the chair is uncomfortable.
  8. Boundaries are everything – and you have to enforce them even when you are tired and you’ve had enough and that child is pushing you again… Draw the line in the sand, and make very sure they know they may not transgress it. This is how we raise men in particular, who know without a shadow of a doubt, that ‘no’ means ‘no’.
  9. You may need to raise your voice sometimes – or at least change the tone to one that is stern and no-nonsense, so they know you mean business. If you always sounds sweet and kind they’re going to push their buttons. I’m not suggesting you scream hysterically at your children, or shout like some crazed lunatic (although some days…) but speak like you mean business – and then follow through.
  10. Consequences are key for undesirable behaviour – and they may have to be different depending on the child. I don’t agree with smacking children, but you do need to make them feel the impact of not behaving well. So while for your social child, being sent to their room might feel like the end of the world, for the introvert, it won’t be punishment at all. Think about what they love – something that’s a privilege – and remove. For a good long time. One of my daughters – whose greatest pleasure was TV – kept lying. We took TV away for two weeks, and she tells the truth now.
  11. When your child falls in the ordinary course of things – and I meant this literally and figuratively – allow them the opportunity to pick themselves up and carry on. Often they’ll get up without any fuss and run off to the next game. This is called resilience. We all need it. (Obviously I don’t mean serious falls that involve blood and loss of consciousness…)
  12. Limit screen time. Yes, your phone, tablet and the television are great babysitters, but you’re opting out of parenting. Children eat more when they eat in front of TV – and we have a childhood obesity epidemic on our hands. Those screens disrupt their sleep, keep them indoors so they don’t make enough Vitamin D, impact on their fine and gross motor co-ordination – the list is long. It’s not just scaremongering. You are doing your children a great disservice.
  13. Don’t let your kids get fat. You’ll set them up for lifelong weight problems. And that doesn’t mean you need to watch every morsel that goes into their mouths. Just do the basics – lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, plenty of water, lots of exercise, and portion control. Junk food is for birthday parties – it’s a treat, not an everyday occurrence. It’ll probably do you a whole lot of good too…
  14. Trust your gut – no one knows your kids as well as you do. If you think something is wrong, check it out. It’s better to be proved wrong than to ignore something you shouldn’t have.
  15. Finally, and most importantly, make sure your children know that you love them – even when they are driving you up the wall. Tell them you love them, often, and remind them that you are always there for them – no matter what they have done, and how much trouble they are in. Dole out plenty of affection, listen when they’ve had a bad day, and don’t put pressure on them to achieve anything other than their best.

Remember, your job is to provide a loving environment, guidance, boundaries, food, clothing and shelter. All of the rest is probably just making you tired.

Walk on the wild side

September 27, 2018 Comments Off on Walk on the wild side

I had accidentally shattered my phone screen. The phone was miraculously still working, but I didn’t want to tempt fate, and so I set off for a walk in the mountains without the umbilical cord that connects me to so much of my world.It was a cool morning, and a breeze carried the almost-silence to my ears. The sun had risen, but not yet crested the cliffs to my left. To my right, the just-waning moon sank into salmon-edged clouds, its bright night vigil ending at last.

I rounded a corner and sensed the herd of eland before I saw them. They, of course, had been aware of me for some time. Frozen in time, with their young ones gathered close, they stood and watched me, perfectly still, on high alert. A large male cleared his throat gruffly as I approached and they cantered as one to safer ground a little way off. On a slight rise nearby, a swart wildebeest stopped chewing for a moment to watch the herd move, then lowered his head again.

I strode on towards the overhang of “Holkrans” – a large, hollowed-out void in the sandstone mountain ahead. I paused on a rock, cellulited by millennia of weather beating, and listened. Somewhere I could hear water, underneath the dawn chorus. The ubiquitous hadeda wailed on the wing a short distance away. And then 10 birds of prey rose in tight formation from behind the cliffs and cruised across the sky, high above my head – near enough to count, but too far to identify. 

And I wondered how much of that I would have noticed if my phone were with me – if I were looking for the perfect post for Instagram, for Facebook, for Twitter.

Because as much as social media is part of our relaxation, it’s also work. And left unchecked, it can rob us of the very healing power of just being fully where we are at any particular moment, in immersing ourselves in the beauty of right here, right now.

I didn’t photograph the eland or the eagles or the impala I saw on the return journey. I didn’t struggle to focus on the minuscule white flowers that grew by the footpath. But I saw them all. I heard the birdsong, the water, the unmistakable bark of a baboon. I smelt the bush all around me. I trailed my hand over smooth boulders and through whispering grasses.

It happened, I was there, and that is enough.

Divorce isn’t the problem

September 21, 2018 § 3 Comments

My friend Cath remarked on Facebook yesterday how very uncomfortable people find it to talk about divorce. I found myself nodding my head as I scrolled through my feed. We do need to talk about it more, make it less uncomfortable, and be more honest about what it means, what it’s like, why it happens.

This morning, as I was engaged in my daily ritual of journalling, these thoughts arrived on the page. I share them with you as they spilled out – raw, unedited, unfiltered – as just a part of a much greater discussion, the beginning of a conversation, perhaps.

Sometimes I think divorce isn’t the problem – marriage is. Because society’s collectively held belief about marriage doesn’t give it space to have some flexibility, some looseness – it’s this all-or-nothing kind of arrangement.

And that is bound to set people up for failure, particularly when those people are anxious, deeply insecure and place their identity centre-stage in the court of what other people think.

Then it becomes about keeping up the facade, painting the idealised picture, rather than doing what works. Or just being honest – early – and saying, “This doesn’t work. How can we part peacefully?” And, if there are children involved, how do we co-parent and co-exist constructively?

Marriage needs a really big societal conversation. Less “happy ever after”, more “it’s going to be hard, much harder than you ever imagined”. Less “you have to make it work against all odds”. More “it’s okay to admit when it doesn’t work”. And definitely less pressure on people to get married.

The expectation that marriage provides stability for children is complete bullshit. It’s a legal transaction – nothing more, nothing less. And nothing makes you realise that more than divorce – which is essentially a financial separation of two people’s affairs.

The commitment you make is a separate issue – and can’t be governed by a religious or governmental body – the latter only really has power over the children you have together and your individual and joint responsibility as parents.

No, it’s that all-or-nothing, forever-together, till-death-do-us-part thing that sets up the divorce problems. Because there are all kinds of very good reasons for people to call it a day, to say, “I have given this my very best shot, but it’s just not working.” And the problem is that the pressure means most people do that too late – and then you get the train wreck and the damage that ensues.

The more I think about it, the more I think marriage is a very strange, often deeply dysfunctional institution, and yet it’s held up as something to aspire to, something to hang on to by all means necessary, and for many, this comes at an enormous personal cost that has nothing to do with money.

Sunday afternoon drive

August 29, 2018 § 7 Comments

As I watch the fuel price ever increasing, it’s hard to believe that at one point in my life, going for a drive was an activity all by itself.

Sundays had their own particular rhythm when I was growing up. I’m old enough to remember a time when the shops were closed on a Sunday – all except the corner café where my father stopped every week after church to buy the Weekend Post and a peppermint crisp.

Then it was home to a roast or a braai, most often followed by instant pudding and then the peppermint crisp was divvied up. Six squares in a family of five meant one piece each for everyone, except Dad, who got two.

It’s hard to decide whether washing the dishes after lunch or having to be quiet for an hour or so while my parents napped was the worse punishment. But finally we were released, and then it was time to go for a drive.

Port Elizabeth has a well developed, commercialised beachfront, but that wasn’t a good place for driving. Instead my dad would head for the western side of town, to Seaview, Beachview and beyond, where Port Elizabeth’s true wild beauty exists, where the coastline is rocky and the wind drives the waves onto land.

There was no stopping for a paddle or an ice-cream or a pit stop. He’d just pick a route, and drive. My parents would chat while my mother watched the waves, and the three of us would wriggle and irritate each other in the back seat.

But there were requests – and not the musical sort. At one point, my 6’2″ father bought himself a Mini station wagon. He’s had a lifelong love of the tiny cars, and was well known for unfolding himself from behind the wheel of a various Minis at various points in his life, much to the amusement of the friends and family who witnessed it.

All five of us fitted into this Mini, but there was a catch. I’m not sure if the car had poor suspension in the back, or what the problem was, but I do remember that if the car went over the smallest bump, anyone in the back of the car would be jolted into the air – this was long before compulsory seatbelts.

So we always begged to go down Westview Drive – a long, one-way street that had lots of bumps and indentations, and no stop streets. Also, because a Mini is so close to the ground, it feels like you’re hurtling along when, in fact, you’re doing a fairly sedate speed. It was a win-win situation: my father would sail down Westview Drive at his customary 55km/h, while we satisfied our need for speed. We squealed and shrieked in the back seats, bouncing around like ping-pong balls.

And then there was the time, on Seaview Road, I think, when my brother begged my father – just this once – not to ease the car gently over the speed hump we could see in the distance, but to ramp over it. My father – in a very uncharacteristic move – obliged, and we flew over the speedhump, landing square in front of a traffic policeman with his hand out. There was a speed trap on the bump, and there was no point in arguing whether or not we’d been in the wrong. My father grudgingly took the fine, and my brother never heard the end of it, but I don’t think he cared.

This past weekend, as I drove in quiet solitude to the far end of town to fetch my daughter from an activity, I reflected on how much more simple life seemed back then. I realised that I still love to drive on a country road and gaze into the middle distance, and remembered how lovely it was to have one day a week when everything slowed down and shut down, and people were just at home with their families, resting.

I also reflected how something as simple as going for a drive, could bring a family together and make lasting memories – even if they don’t seem particularly significant to anyone who wasn’t there. There was nothing very special about those outings – no glitz, no glamour, no entrance tickets or bookings required.

You just had to be there – and I was. And I’m so very glad.

 

Missing the notes

August 15, 2018 § 1 Comment

So it’s come to this. After an hour of inner cajoling and persuading and pleading, I sat myself down at the piano for a second or two this evening. Not long enough to play, mind you. Just long enough to feel the lump form in my throat, to close the lid again and leave.

I’m no concert pianist. I gave up in high school despite my mother’s warnings, and of course she was right – I do regret it. But the piano, preferably accompanied by singing, has always been my happiest place, regardless of the love-hate relationship I have with practising, and those damned key signatures that require remembering too many black notes.

At school I heard time and time again how very musical I was. It came easily to me – I was singing whole hymns perfectly in tune long before I could pronounce their words. I was permanently in trouble for not practising, but I passed my exams regardless. I could tonk out a simple version of  almost anything by ear, and often did. And playing music always energised me – whether I was belting out a show tune for a drama production, or trying to figure out how to play Chariots of Fire or Ballad for Adeline.

At university, I’d sneak onto the theatre stage to play the grand piano in the dark – just me, and the silence, and five hundred empty chairs. I sang away my homesickness, the overwhelm of being 17 and completely out of my depth. I sang to forget the still raw wound of my mother’s untimely death. I sang to remember – her, at the piano at home; her voice, so like my own.

Later, when I was a mother myself, I got a substantial tax rebate, and I could finally afford to buy a secondhand piano. My house finally felt like a home. I took lessons again and retook my Grade 5 exams. I returned to songwriting on that piano. I found like I was finally rediscovering my own voice.

Until I lost it. Not physically – it still works. But I’ve lost my nerve, and I don’t know why. 

I want more than anything to be playing, to be singing, but as soon as I sit on the stool, or open my throat to sing, the tears well up, my throat closes, and my joy flees. It’s like it’s all locked away, deep inside me. All that musicjust waiting to be released, but I can’t remember where I’ve put the key.

So here I sit, in a little bubble of sadness for the umpteenth time, and the worst part is, I can’t go to the piano for solace. All I can do is hope that either this is a phase, and it will pass, or that I will find myself a whisperer: someone who understands and can slowly coax me into letting it all out again – without fear, without tears, and sooner rather than later.

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