MY FIRST AND ONLY DRIVING LESSON WITH DAD

My brothers were all taught to drive as a matter of course – and well before the legal age for a learner driver! This was easy enough to accomplish on the farm roads. Somehow, I slipped through the net.

It must have been a holiday spent at home during my first year of university when Dad surprised me with an invitation to “drive my truck.” His truck was a GMC pick-up with a powerful throaty engine. To my eye it both looked and felt enormous for I couldn’t really see over the long, broad bonnet very well.

How exciting, I thought, as we walked towards the GMC parked under the shade of the large white mulberry tree growing next to the farmhouse veranda. I got in behind the steering wheel and waited for Dad to settle on the passenger seat – an unusual position for him for Mom couldn’t yet drive. It is significant to mention at this point that seat belts hadn’t yet made their obligatory appearance in vehicles.

Dad sat back with his elbow resting on the open window. I turned the key with the confidence of the ignorant and listened to the roar of the engine under the bonnet. So far, so good.

“Change into first gear, release the clutch and we’ll get going.”

‘Get going’ were the operative words here. I don’t think either of us was prepared for what happened next. I changed from neutral into first gear, let down the hand brake, released the clutch and pressed the accelerator.

No-one had ever shown me how to use an accelerator. It isn’t a pedal easily observed by a passenger either. All I knew was that one pressed one’s foot on the accelerator to get a vehicle moving. And ‘press’ I did – my foot pushed the accelerator to the floor; the engine roared; the truck took off at full speed – doubtless leaping into the air as it did so. Okay, the latter might be a bit of an exaggeration – it certainly felt like it – but I was in no position to tell for I had a major problem to contend with.

Instead of me being able to steer around the curve of the driveway towards the farm road, the powerful take-off I had initiated with my heavy-footedness sent the truck charging ahead at speed – heading straight towards the bulk fuel storage tanks and the engine room of our lighting plant!

The bulk storage tanks are in the background, behind my mother watering the vegetable garden.

You have heard the expression ‘slamming on anchors’. Well, that’s exactly what I did: still gripping the steering wheel with white-knuckled hands, I pushed my left foot down hard on the brake pedal. We lurched to a halt as the engine cut out. Dad almost went through the windscreen, so great was the jolt.

I turned to look at him. My heart seemed to be pumping audibly. His face was ashen. He opened the passenger door and got out in silence – he had not uttered a word. I too got out and surrendered the truck keys in silence as we walked towards the kitchen door together. “I thought you could drive,” he managed in a shaky voice before turning to my mother with “I need a strong cup of tea.”

She put the water on to boil while I washed my face and wondered if my legs would ever stop shaking. “I thought she could drive,” I heard Dad saying. He had sat down heavily on a chair in the dining room, probably unable to make it as far as the front veranda where we usually had tea. His legs might have felt as wobbly as mine did. He went on to explain to Mom that because my brothers could all drive, I would ‘somehow’ have learned too.

The truck remained where it was for several hours before Dad parked it properly. He never offered me another driving lesson.

FORTY-EIGHT YEARS AGO

Forty-eight years ago today I embarked on an adventure that continues to this day. A momentous decision made then saw me moving back to my university town from the coast. Among the adventures there were regularly hiking in the Drakensberg and visiting game reserves in the now KwaZulu Natal as well as becoming a mother for the first time and then another. The move to Johannesburg was a short-lived revelation that led to putting down roots in the then independent homeland of Bophuthatswana. I became a mother again, endured terrific dust storms and met a group of people so wonderful that I cried when I left to let my tap root find its way in the land of my maternal ancestors in the Eastern Cape. The latter happened thirty-three years ago.

Of course the ‘I’ had become a ‘we’:

Through all the adventures of rock climbing, hiking, travelling, motherhood, moving home, and bringing up children; enduring storms, riots, muddy roads and dealing with whatever life has thrown at us – good or unpleasant – I have had my lifelong friend and companion at my side. We have made a good team and my life has been enriched by the event of forty-eight years ago – it still feels like yesterday!

CHILDHOOD SWEET TREATS

My father liked to round off our main meal of the day with ‘something sweet’, a desire my mother was often hard-pressed to satisfy. Not only was she a reluctant cook, but we lived far from town and our local grocery store stocked only basic items – the ‘essential for survival’ ones. This meant that the default pudding was jelly – easy to store and both quick and easy to make.

Mom would ring the changes by producing a jelly of a different flavour or colour; beat up the jelly mixture with ice cubes to produce a ‘frothy’ look; add tinned milk (Ideal milk) to the jelly; and would occasionally make a jug of custard to serve with the jelly – then my brothers and I would all clamour to get the ‘skin’ of the custard! More rarely, she would add fresh mulberries to a dark purple jelly, or a small tin of sliced peaches to a peach jelly. Jelly was mostly a summer treat though. I still enjoy jelly: the wobbliness of jelly; the way it splits or tears open if you have a large blob of it; and the lovely cool feeling of jelly making its way down your throat. I never tire of jelly, even though I have seldom made it since our children left home.

How can I forget the instant puddings? Fresh milk was in short supply, unless my parents brought milk from the farm after spending weekends there. The powdered pudding simply requires the addition of milk to create wonderful flavours such as caramel, strawberry or even chocolate (which we quickly dubbed ‘mud pudding’ and which was a firm favourite).

During winter, such as it is in the Lowveld, my favourite dessert was bread-and-butter pudding. Of course this was an excellent way of using up stale bread. What I liked were the plump raisins or sultanas as well as the sweet crispiness of the crust. As my father had a very sweet tooth, we were always allowed to pour a spoon of golden syrup over our serving. Although I seldom make it anymore, I still enjoy bread-and-butter pudding sans the additional sweetness.

Mom’s Christmas puddings (like her fruit cakes) were legendary, packed as they were with fruit and, in the days before decimalisation, a few tickeys and a sixpence or two! This was usually served with brandy butter or cream – if it was available.

Fresh fruit wasn’t always readily available: my father would order a box of apples every year; we picked oranges and mangoes from the farm; gorged on mulberries in season; and occasionally had bananas, lychees or fresh peaches. We had pawpaw trees growing in our garden and during the fruiting season we would either get half a pawpaw to eat (Dad always sprinkled sugar over ‘for the crunch’) or use them as the basis for a fruit salad. I made a very early vow to always have fruit available when I was ‘grown up’.

Reluctant cook or not, with four children to feed, Mom used to bake biscuits once or twice a week in sufficient quantities to fill the tins stored in the pantry off the kitchen. Favourites were ginger biscuits, fruit squares, vanilla biscuits and rock cakes (which my father, whose Afrikaans vocabulary was very limited, called Klip cookies). I took over the family baking when I was a teenager, poring over recipes and narrowing my choices according to the ingredients available. Bought biscuits were very rare in our home – I imagine they were expensive too – and we were strictly limited to having two only with our tea.

I don’t bake very often anymore and seldom make a dessert either – unless our children or grandchildren come to visit, we have invited guests, or we have something special to celebrate.

WHAT BLUE WAXBILLS SYMBOLISE FOR ME

Blue Waxbills were always present on our farm, Dunduff, in the De Kaap Valley that stretches out from the foothills of the Makhonjwa Mountains. They would frequently gather around the outbuildings to feed on the spilled mealie meal or congregate at the bird bath on the front lawn.

My parents were particularly fond of them and, because the colour of their feathers were akin to the beautiful blue of my mother’s eyes, my father dubbed them ‘Mummy Birds’ when we were very young.

It is probably because of this that Blue Waxbills symbolise the enduring affection my parents had for each other.

Through all the ups and downs in their lives, my parents were the perfect role models for me in terms of their loyalty towards each other; their trust in each other; the forgiveness they showed; the compassion they both had for others; and above all, the love they had both for each other and for their children. It was love that bound us together as a family.

These tiny birds are among those that led me towards an interest in birds that has blossomed over time. Blue Waxbills still remind me of my mother and the close bond we shared.

FOR MY GRANDCHILDREN

Once you cross the suspension bridge across the Storms River, you come to a very small boulder-strewn beach that boasts a variety of rocks that have been tumbled and smoothed by the action of the waves.

Over the years our four grandchildren have visited this beach and been fascinated by the size, shapes and colours of these rocks – and experienced the thrill of escaping the odd wave that is closer than they had thought.

We have listened to the magical rumble as the rocks roll over and clink together when drawn back by the sea, only to be pushed up the gentle slope by the next wave.

The magic of this beautiful place is best shared with the joy of watching my children, and in recent years, my grandchildren exploring the rocks, laughing as they too tumble over or calling out with glee when an especially beautiful rock / stick / piece of sponge is discovered. They built towers too – choosing their rocks with care. It was not the same without them this time. Instead, I sat on the warm rocks for a while and let my memories float about me, listening to the echoes of their voices and the all too distant sounds of their joy mingle with the splashes of the waves … And so it was, my dear, dear grandchildren, that I set about making a tower for all of you.

Every stone I used came with a memory of each of you – over and over. The tower will have been knocked over with the next high tide that brings waves strong enough and high enough to smooth out and level the rocks again. That does not matter for memories and love are much stronger than those natural forces. So, it was with each of you in my heart that I left this small tower behind – for all of you!