A wise and fitting memorial

2009-03-20 00:00

If I were a professional journalist I would have been fired. Journalists must get names, dates and places right. And in a recent article on Darwin where I talked in passing about the delightful statue at Cordwalles School, I got the name wrong of the man in whose memory the statue and new pre-primary premises are named. iBhanoyi, the boy named for an aeroplane, was Andrew Rattray.

Andrew Rattray was born under an aeroplane wing. He arrived a little earlier than his mother had expected and the little plane in which she was travelling had to make an emergency landing. His nickname thereafter was Bhanoyi, the Zulu word for aeroplane. He went to Cordwalles in the seventies, where those who remember him say that he made a name for himself as a lively, likable lad. He sang in the choir. He did well at both sport and academics. Although not an extrovert, everybody liked him and, like all happy little boys, he met life with exuberance.

He went on to Michaelhouse, where after a year or two he contracted an illness that led to kidney failure. He was sickly at Michaelhouse and, despite a kidney transplant, was sickly for the rest of his life. Because of these limitations he was never able to fulfil all of the exuberant promise that he showed at his preparatory school.

He died as a relatively young adult. His happiest years had been the years at Cordwalles before the illness set in. His family, in his memory, made possible the rebuilding of the pre-primary school so that succeeding generations of little boys could experience the same joy and energy that had marked Andrew’s early life.

How do we remember the dead? It is tempting to do so in marble and granite. In some of our poorest communities the idea has crept in that our love for the departed is best expressed with a huge funeral and a large and monumental tombstone. But monuments do not always last. My parents, at my mother’s wishes, are buried at Mountain Rise. To be honest, because of the conditions at Mountain Rise cemetery, I have not visited their grave for more than a decade. The last time I was there, the headstone was standing at a 45-degree angle and the grass had grown over the marble margins.

My great-great uncle, one of the early pioneers of Maritzburg, was buried in the Commercial Road cemetery with a fine Victorian tombstone. But in the seventies, vagrants destroyed many of the memorial stones there and his tombstone, and even the location of his grave, is lost forever.

If we are famous, we may have a road or even an airport named after us. But that too does not last. That same great-great uncle’s son in the early 20th century became mayor of Durban. Nicolson Road on the Berea was named after him. But political loyalties change. In the 21st century, Nicolson Road has been renamed by Michael Sutcliffe along with all the other roads in Durban and is no more. Unlike everyone else in Durban, I have no quarrel with Mr Sutcliffe over that. It is probably appropriate to drop the name of a mayor long forgotten in favour of fresh memories.

So how much more sensible to remember those whom we love with something that makes a difference. Perhaps in time, as generations pass, no one will know to whom the name refers. I doubt if the school children traipsing through the Tatham Art Gallery know anything of the talented and civic-minded Tatham family.

But their lives are changed and enriched by a memorial that makes a difference. The influence of those commemorated lives on though their names no longer resonate. So perhaps it will be with Andrew. A hundred years from now perhaps none of the little Cordwalles boys will know after whom their premises are named. But his life, and the generous memorial made by Andrew’s family in his name, will have made a difference to them.

A wise and fitting memorial is one in which the essence and the spirit of those whom we loved and admired live on in the generations that follow.

• Ronald Nicolson is a retired academic and an Anglican priest.

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