She felt the familiar tightening of her chest as the car began to descend the winding mountain pass which would take them to the enormous valley that stretched out far below them. Even the excited chatter of the children couldn’t intrude upon the private pleasure she always felt when the familiar mountain range was glimpsed for the first time. The hazy smoke hid the familiar landmarks from view, yet she was still able to point out – even from so far away – the short strip of dusty road that led to the farm.
The mountain pass flattened and straightened out, entered the valley and at last they were achingly close to the world of which she had been a part forever. The car sped on under a canopy of acacia trees, crossed the bridge over a river long since hidden by a tangled mass of syringa trees, reeds and some bushes indigenous to the area. She wondered whatever had happened to the muddy river of her youth and to the floods that had drawn them to the river almost every summer to witness the turbulent waves and broken, tossing trees …
The children had been looking out for the dusty road. They chatted excitedly all the way, oblivious to their mother’s inner world where she remembered riding a bicycle that was much too large for her, recognised the place along the road where she had skidded and grazed her arms and legs in the fall: her mother had disliked the idea of her leaving the relative safety of the farm …
And there it was … the water tanks on their tall stand, bright splashes of deep purple and red bougainvillea, the jacaranda trees … one last turn in the driveway and the familiar farmhouse was there. This time there was no welcoming bark, for the dogs hadn’t been replaced as each had found their Elysium in turn. The clean-swept back yard, the bright flowers nodding merrily around the stone rondavel – even the smoke rising from the chimney of the combustion stove were welcome enough until her mother emerged from the kitchen door, her face wreathed in smiles and her arms outstretched.
The welcome was too bright, their happiness too intense – even the children seemed determined to extract every bit of pleasure and happiness they could before the farm changed hands and was theirs no more. Her eyes darted around the farm house, which looked much the same even though a lot of packing had already been done. The sealed cardboard boxes that lined the wooden-floored passage and spilled into the bedrooms bore mute testimony to the end of more than thirty years of occupation. The family had only two days in which to bid farewell to another way of life.
Sitting on the high veranda, she noted that the view was as breathtakingly beautiful as always, stretching as it did across the whole valley to the small town nestling at the foot of the encircling mountain range. From there too, one was privy to the ceaseless coming and going of a great variety of birds as they bathed, preened, or drank from the stone bird bath half hidden by creepers. The water spraying on the lawn reminded her of the shortage of water that had always been drummed into them as children. Even the vegetable garden had had to be abandoned as one borehole after another had dried up. It was ironic that the lawn her mother had battled to save for so long was now lush – waiting expectantly for the new owners.
Beyond the thick, neatly trimmed hedge of spekboom (she recalled in a flash the short sticks with fleshy leaves that had been planted – when?) were the lands which had once produced a plentiful supply of dryland cotton, and later maize, before giving way to the natural grasses to provide grazing for the cattle. These had been sold a long time ago and so now the tall grass waved in the wind and hid the children from view as they walked around the farm for the last time. They picked up stray guineafowl feathers, interesting looking sticks, and skipped along the narrow road while their mother remembered doing the same in her own childhood and their father recorded their movements and laughter on film.
They measured themselves against familiar landmarks almost lost in the tall grass and picked lemons they didn’t really need. At the clump of bamboo, the children collected fans and old bird nests and sticks, while their mother recalled a time when this had been her only world … the children were getting tired and all were conscious of returning to the farmhouse in time for lunch.
She longed to break free and lose herself in the land stretching away from them and to follow the watercourse which occasionally oozed to the surface in spongy damp areas. She ached to smell again that strong odour of wet clay, to pick her way through the thorn scrub along half-forgotten footpaths. She needed to commune silently with her childhood. Instead, she hoisted her daughter to her shoulders and listened to her sons complain about the pepper ticks and the prickles caused by the fine hairs of the bamboo.
The early morning mist hid the valley and the mountains from view, revealing them only once the sun had warmed sufficiently to disperse it. In the front garden, the elm tree shed its delicate leaves in beautiful shades of yellow, orange, red, and brown; the sunbirds stood out clearly each afternoon as they fed on the nectar in the bright orange flowers of the spathodia tree or flitted in and out of the yellow tecomaria blooms. The rhythm of nature pulsed on, oblivious to the encroaching sorrow of the people who loved it so.
The day of the final parting was tinged with a sense of loss from the beginning, even though everyone made an effort to behave normally. It reminded her of the time her father had died – everyone being cheerful when together, but grieving quietly and alone, just as she wished to do then: quietly and alone. Her outward calm was dented further each time she passed her daughter on her way to and from packing the car. The little girl sat glumly on the step separating the lounge and dining room, her head held between her hands: the five years the farm had been part of her was a lifetime. Earlier, the boys had been determined to prove for the last time their ability to climb the swaying chain ladder leading the way to the wooden base of the tank stand so very high above the ground.
Her reserve finally broke when she set out to find her younger son, missing from the group gathered for the final farewell. He was sobbing with his face pressed against the rough stone of the rondavel wall. She pulled him away gently, not daring to speak as she guided him towards the tall syringa tree. Together they looked at the mango orchard and to the mountains beyond. He reached out to touch the rusty barbed wire fence. Memories crowded in while the tall Indian cane rustled its mournful farewells in the autumn breeze. It was time to leave.
As the car left the dusty road for the last time to join the tar, all eyes turned to the mountains. Those mountains which were always there, and yet were always changing. She saw them in her memory emerging from the early morning mist; slashed with ribbons of flame at night during the fire season; and once even mysteriously covered with snow.
Sorrow hung heavily about the family as they drove on in silence. All too soon it was time to turn away from those softly beckoning mountains and begin the long winding ascent out of the valley to the highveld beyond. Her husband looked at her tear-stained face, filled with grief at the final parting from her childhood. Acting from years of experience, he automatically slowed down at the last corner from which the receding valley could be seen below them.
She never looked back.
Note: It was in 1988 that I bid farewell to our family farm.