Christmas, a time for reflection

2007-11-29 00:00

I’m contemplating this photograph of a man and woman. I love the way their faces are shadowed under their hats reminiscent of that era. It creates an element of intrigue.

“Where are they striding out to so purposefully?” one may wonder. “Who are they? Were they in love? Did they have the any idea of what lay ahead?”

I’m fortunate to be privy to this, although I do ponder in the same way when looking at yellowed photographs from previous eras. I attempt to recreate the story behind that moment captured in celluloid.

The two people in the photograph are my parents. It’s January 1940 — their honeymoon in Durban. They were in love and lived happily for many years, although not “forever after” as in fairy tales. None of us write our own script accurately. Many of us have idealistic dreams as we venture into the unknown. We imagine languishing in that bed of roses, forgetting about the thorns.

They must have had an idyllic beach holiday, their future stretched out before them. But it was World War 2. My dad was stationed in Egypt, where he contracted malaria. The women stayed at home, waiting anxiously for letters, enduring nightly blackouts, their nights unbearably long, dark and empty.

My dad returned home gravely ill. After his recuperation, my parents’ lives settled down on their Free State farm. My father was a farmer, who played the occasional game of polo until he was severely injured. My mother was a dance and drama teacher, who staged ambitious theatrical productions in the nearby dorp in which I loved to participate.

Their lives were full of the 360-degree circle of events dictated by and symbolic of the cyclical rhythm of seasonal changes and the weather. Mealie crops destroyed by a malevolent hail storm were juxtaposed against a magnificently fertile wheat crop the following season.

Children were born and celebrated. I was the last born. There would be glorious sun-kissed days when cumulonimbus clouds hovered high above the sunbaked koppies. Rain would pelt down to nourish the crops. Autumn would emerge with its exquisite hues, then winter. There’d be bitter frost on crunchy, dead, white grass, the snowcapped Maluti Mountains framing our chilly vista. Then cherry blossoms would burst open in spring.

I was a tomboy, particularly attached to my father. I’d accompany him on sorties in his ancient truck. The bizarre things stand out in my memory. I watched him shoot a dying cow. I saw the Sunday dinner rooster dancing around after being slagged. I helped him rescue lambs that were orphaned at birth, which I bottle fed in the kitchen beside the comfort of the Aga stove.

My world was mostly out of doors. Indoors was for meals, bathing and sleeping. I was a free spirit, learning to drive a John Deere tractor and firing a .22 gun at the age of 10. Once I gouged my leg badly on a barbed wire fence as I crawled through to have a face-to-face encounter with a puff adder.

And there were the abundant Christmases with crazy relatives descending on us from various cities for carol singing, followed by Christmas dinner served on a laden table stretched out on the veranda.

In later years, my father developed motor neurone disease and was confined to a wheelchair. He refused to surrender his passionate work ethic and his wizened form was carried in a wicker chair by two of his labourers so that he could oversee the daily farm routine. Mum’s many creative pursuits ceased so that she could nurse him. And now they are long dead. We, their offspring, are adults. I am a grandmother. One day our children will reflect on our lives while peering at old photographs captured in a split second. Each photograph may be the starting point of an elaborate narrative.

I reminisce most about my parents at Christmas time. I treasure this photograph and celebrate the cyclical nature of life.

• Eve Hemming is a local educationist.

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