2009-02-20 00:00

Thea de Gruchy

My great-grandmother was a truly exceptional woman who, although having read English at Oxford, fell in love with the harsh Natal landscape and refused to leave her home in East Griqualand until her death at the age of 93.

Born at the turn of the century as the daughter of a diamond auctioneer, who occasionally dabbled in Springbok rugby, Patsy Vigne grew up in Kimberley. After coming down from Oxford as a beautiful, bright young lady, she married a farmer, Pat Anderson. Moving to Pat’s family farm at the foot of the Drakensberg, 25-year-old Patsy was enchanted by the yellow plains dotted with blue koppies, through which the mud-brown Umzimvubu River flowed.

Not only was Patsy exceptional, but like all exceptional people she had her quirks and eccentricities. The most famous is that every day at 5.30 pm her husband, having come in from the farm, would take a bath, and then together they would dress up for dinner at the long, rather empty, but elaborately set dinner table.

Patsy’s truly exceptional side was most clearly seen during World War 2. With her husband fighting in Europe and then being held as a prisoner of war long after the armistice, the running of the 243-hectare farm was left up to Patsy.

Raging fires, dying cattle, negligent farm workers and mechanical problems were dealt with by this mother of three in her own unique way.

Like all young couples separated by war, Patsy also suffered from her share of heartbreak. Once, having written a long letter to her husband, something that she had to do entirely by candlelight late into the night, she and her three children walked to the nearest town to post it. After a couple of hours on the dusty roads, they arrived at the post box. Her two eldest children, unaware of how many hours had gone into patiently conveying her feelings and concerns, proceeded to have a fight over the letter and tore it in half.

All these experiences seemed to deepen her love for this beautiful but isolated and stark place. So that even when her husband died, she, now in her seventies, refused to leave and, instead of sitting about, moping, she started to drive again and revelled in her new-found independence. The story that, for me, cements her eccentricity is the story of her missing the bridge.

Delighting in her renewed ability to drive, Patsy planned to visit her eldest son in Pietermaritzburg. Several kilometres from the farm is a bridge that crosses the Umzimvubu River. But, not having driven for most of her married life, Patsy misjudged the bridge and crashed down the embankment.

Fortunately, she was unhurt. And, although the car was stuck, she was in no real danger, so she decided that instead of worrying about how to get the car out or how she was going to get home she would wait for someone to find her. Secure in the knowledge that one of her sons would come for her sooner or later, she settled down with a good book, most probably Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, and ate her sandwiches.

And, of course, her son did go looking for her. Finding her, he promptly confiscated her licence.

All her life, Patsy kept her reputation for unconventional behaviour. Owing to her refusal to leave the farm that had been her home for 68 years, her doctor had to airlift her to the hospital. And the countryside, seeming to respond to this with empathetic misery, came down in its anguish with such thick mist that the helicopter was forced to fly along the river path, hovering just metres above the river.

It is very rarely that one finds a woman, or even a man, who, after being exposed to luxury, wealth and upper-class antics, is able to make a home and feel content, if not joyful, to carry out the rest of her days on the side of a muddy river where a good view consists of an untidy hill and a clump of rock.

But then again, it is only an exceptional landscape that might so capture and enchant the heart of a young woman filled with airs, graces and twenties extravagance.

Thea de Gruchy

Thea de Gruchy is a matric pupil, and chairperson of the Student Forum at The Wykeham Collegiate. She has lived with type 1 diabetes for nine years. She has a love for writing and music; and as an avid lover of anything French, she hopes to live in Paris one day.

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