Thursday, December 13, 2012

Seven Lessons from my Father

[I was asked to speak at my father's 80th birthday. This filled me with dread, for months. What does one say? The truth? Finally, at 4am the day before the party, I sat down at the kitchen table in my parents' house, and wrote. Maybe the jet lag helped. The tent in the garden was full, with old friends, some traveling far to be there, who have known each other and my father for longer than I have been alive. Visiting family. My two brothers sitting beside each other, who have not spoken in years. Oceans of wine, rivers of flowers, and very good food. There was much laughing. There was some crying. It helps if you know the characters involved...and my dad can took it on the chin.]

Seven Lessons from my Father                                                                               2 December 2012

1. The first lesson my father taught me:

Every Sunday, in Bloemfontein, my father took my brothers and me to the big playground opposite the zoo. One Sunday my father engaged in a game of beach bats with a friend on the grass beside the lake, there. While he played I ran around and around the edge of the lake. Suddenly a small and very loud dog jumped from behind a tree and barked at me. At four I already had a low startle threshold and immediately jumped into the air and sideways and fell into the water. I sank. I had not yet learned to swim. My father didn’t notice. He went on playing beach bats. I remember trying to find something to hold onto but the walls were smooth and went straight down. A stranger hauled me out and carried me around the lake, bawling, to my parent. We all raced home in our old pale blue Kombi and I was put into a warm bath, still wearing my brown sundress with yellow flowers on it. My swimming lessons began the same week.

If you can’t swim, you will drown. It was a lesson in extremes.

It was Lesson No. 1: Sink, or Swim

2. The second lesson.

When we were little the only possible way to avoid my father’s punctual wrath upon the identification of a transgression according to the penal code of 54 Paul Roux Street, Dan Pienaar, Bloemfontein, 9301, was to lie. It took me some time to realize that simple denial of an action wasn’t good enough. Had I bitten the hole in the leather upholstery of my father’s Jaguar so that the stuffing had come out? No! Then who had, since I was the only occupant of the back seat?


And that taught me to be wily. And to stop biting upholstery.

In my peripatetic travels through three careers, white lies and a mild wiliness have occasionally been very useful. Could I design gardens? Why yes, of course I could. The lie bought me time. And I used that time to learn how to design gardens. Fast. Years later, when asked if I could produce professional quality photographs, the answer was an instant yes. 21st century technology and the inheritance of father’s photographic eye helped me. That first photo I sold is now on the cover of a best selling gardening book.

(And "best selling gardening book" means it sold about five copies.)

Lesson No.2?  When in Doubt, Lie.

3. The third lesson.

I’m not sure that my father has ever abandoned a tough situation. His admonition and motto is Deursettingsvermoë. Tenacity. A quality he regularly told me I lacked, along with guts. His own youth epitomised deursettingsvermoë. He spent his days in his father’s clothing shop and his nights at university; he wrote down every bob spent in a little pocket book (which he still owns). He worked his way up from selling socks to SC.

When I left the country in 1994, it was after a very rough year in our relationship. I was leaving not only to pursue a singing career, but to put as much distance between myself and my father as possible, and as fast as possible. Civil war was imminent.

Although I did not realize it, then, tucking my tail in and running away was the first step towards developing a good relationship with him. The process only took about twelve years.

But you have to start somewhere.

Lesson No. 3 was: To hell with deursettingsvermoë: When the Going gets Tough, Leave.

4. Which brings us to No. 4.

Running away leads, if you are lucky, to independence. Which is my father’s middle name. John Donne was entirely wrong about no man being an island. He never met Henri Viljoen.

My father was the unapproachable and unpredictable Krakatoa of our childhoods. And he became the Manhattan island of our growing years, his standards intimidatingly high, and his judgement swift and final.

 Lesson No. 4 was: If You can Make it at Home, You can Make it Anywhere.

5. No 5 is mercifully brief.

Nobody in the greenbelt gets as much respect walking their dogs as the man in the three piece suit with the pocket square and tie pin.

Lesson 5 is: Dress for Success.

6.  No. 6.

The man in the three piece suit was - and is - the owner of delicate 50’s era cocktail glasses, a hand-cranked ice crusher, a magnificently stocked bar and books of encyclopedically mixed drinks. I inherited this cocktail fetish. Luckily, I also inherited my father’s physical distaste for liquor in times of crisis. I drink when I am happy. And since the balance of any life is skewed, according to my father, toward unhappiness, with brief flashes of bliss, my sobriety has been guaranteed.

The cocktails and aperitifs that precede each menu in my book are a tribute to my father, and to the pleasure he takes in a well-mixed drink and its accompanying sense of occasion…

Lesson No. 6, with apologies to Paul Simon and his appearance with the Muppets, is: Drink Fast!

7. Finally:

Whether he is sitting under the tree here, looking at my mother’s garden or up at the mountain, or whether he is having supper at the candlelit wooden table in the kitchen, my father is able to submerge himself entirely in the pleasure of the moment. This is, for me, perhaps his greatest legacy. Because it is a way to live. It is a way to make mere survival pleasurable. Looking at what is right in front of you, now, and appreciating it for what it is, is the life’s ambition of spiritual travelers and religious nomads worldwide. My father is the antithesis of both types.  This is a man who knows that there is no greater meaning, no bigger picture, just Now. This is a man who feels privileged to be alive.

He gets on his loathed bike and rides to a point of exhaustion in order that he may stay alive longer, to see more of this garden, or his next case, or to drink another glass of Nelson Estate Shiraz (2004), and to suck just a little bit more from the giant marrow bone of life. And if you think the metaphor is unwieldy (which it is), you have never seen – or heard - my father sucking an actual marrow bone.

But that is another story.

The final lesson is: Live: Now.

There endeth the lessons.

In closing, and to tie up some loose ends, I can only say that the man I resented, so much, 18 years ago, is gone. My father has changed. And I have changed. Then, I was more a sum of my fears than a sum of my parts; and fear has a very distorting lense, obscuring what is good and amplifying what is bad.

My father is like the best books. The kind you read again and again, like War and Peace, finding in its pages, at every fresh reading, something new. Because in the interim you have changed, and you return to this book with altered sympathies. In such a rare - and ageless - book, all of life is reflected.

In its pages, you will recognize yourself. And in yourself, your father.       

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