Thursday, December 13, 2012

Seven Lessons from my Father

[My father asked me to make the speech at his 80th birthday. This filled me with dread, for months. What to say, truthfully, but with immense love? About a man who was so many different things to different people? Finally, at 4am the day before the party, I sat down at the kitchen table in my parents' house, and wrote. Maybe jet lag helped. The next day the tent in the garden was filled 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, from the wonderful Food Fanatics, who are friends. There was much laughing. There was some crying. My dad laughed before he cried, and then he laughed again. One of his gifts - rare in most people - is to mock his own weaknesses.]

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 the age of four I already had a low startle threshold, helped along a little by a brother who liked to terrify me, and so 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 beyond the brown water the walls were smooth and I 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 creative with answers. 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 my father’s photographic eye helped me. That first photo I sold is now on the cover of a best selling gardening book.

Lesson No.2?  When in Doubt, Lie. Then work overtime to deliver.

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, when I was very young. 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, which he adores, 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. Inevitably, he says: "What privileged lives we lead." For me, this awareness is perhaps his greatest legacy. Because it is a way to live. It is a way to make mere survival pleasurable and it is an acknowledgement that most of our complaints are very petty. 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.  He is a man who knows that there is no greater meaning, no bigger picture, just Now. He 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 lens, 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, and a greater experience of the complexity, pain, and pleasure of life. In such a rare - and ageless - book, all of this life is reflected and is waiting for you to find, when you are ready.

In its pages, you will recognize yourself. And, if you are me, in yourself, your  own father.     


  1. Well said.
    My father and I "got along" much better after I'd left home.I thought, then, that my brief trips home left no time for bickering and animosity.But in almost half a century I have come to understand that the fabric's weave was more complex...

  2. a wonderful relief from the usual list of perfect qualities and relationships.

  3. So bitter sweet but ending in beauty. I never had the gift of coming to quieting conclusions with my father, and now he is gone. Bravo, Marie, for finding your path.

  4. I too had a Alpha male father. My choices were, as I saw it then, submit or fight. I fought. And lived to fight another day. But I hurt myself even more than him in the process.

    I still rail against attempted authority.My rebellious spirit brought me to the edge with drinking and smoking but I too have mellowed over the years and miss "Frosty" often.

    How wonderful you had the time to make friends and how fabulous you have the heart and the guts to write that speech.

    I love and admire you even more than before.

    Cheers to you Marie.

    xo Jane

  5. and I bet there was a nice 80 year old man in a three piece suit who could not be prouder of his daughter after that speech.
    What a tribute Marie! Well done.

  6. What a wonderful tribute to your father - I hope he appreciated and laughed along with you. I loved lesson no. 7 something we all should aspire to.

  7. Ek besef ek het jou pa nog net twee keer ontmoet, maar ek het van die begin af gedink hy is absoluut fabulous. So ook hierdie toespraak.

  8. Having raised four very different children to adulthood (or what we like to call that period when we think we’ve learned most of what there is to know), I often wonder what they say about me when I am not there to hear it. These would be lovely words for your father (and mother) to hear – no false praise, the recognition that we are all humans with our own idiosyncrasies, and that sometimes you have to go far away to discover what you always had close at hand.

  9. Wow Marie, just beautiful. He must be SO PROUD of you.

  10. Thank you Marie, for sharing such important and intimate words... Your father is blessed : )

  11. Oh Marie, so eloquent- just perfect! x

  12. I enjoyed reading this. I laughed out loud several times and shared your message with others in the room. (So they would know why I was laughing out loud so often.)

  13. Did we all have the same father? I laughed out loud at many similarities. Beautifully written and ending in such a loving fashion. Well done, Marie.

    1. Keep the truth for yourself for the melodramatic nostalgic moments that will show up when you least expect it.

  14. Such rich prose, so much wry wit and sly maneuvering. Just wonderful.

  15. Ons almal het miskien dieselfde Pa of dieselfde Ma. Ons almal se stories is verweefd. Hier en daar is 'n uitsondering. Ek het 4 susters en as ek na hulle stories luister, het ons elkeen 'n ander Ma en Pa gehad. Maar tog....hulle was dieselfde maar ons ervarings van hulle was anders.


Comments on posts older than 48 hours are moderated (for spam control) . Yours will be seen! Unless you are a troll. Serial trollers are banned.