My darling child,
We closed a circle this week when you held my hand next to my mother's grave, just as I did with her 24 years ago.
(Except in Ouma's case, it was a metaphorical holding of hands because, as we know, she was not that enthusiastic about handholding and hugs and all that demonstrative love jazz that I make a point of with you.)
I thought about your great-grandmother's funeral this week as we drove to the farm through the landscape that we both love so much. Bleached grass and flowering wattle. Mountains like whipped blue cream. You, on the cusp of adulthood, for the first time are driving me.
My mother was the same age as I am now when we laid her mother to rest in Preetz, the small town in northern Germany where her family landed after fleeing from the east in the dying days of World War 2.
I remember the austere Lutheran chapel. The wreaths of chrysanthemums and lilies. The smell of candle wax. The pallbearers in their long black coats and hats and white gloves. I remember the precision of their goose step. It was snowing. The mournful sound of a funeral march. Onkel Eckart's tuba interlaced with my cousin Heiko's French horn and Thilo and Gerhard's trumpets. The coffin disappearing into the frozen ground. Black crows in the leafless plane trees.
When we left Germany after that sombre winter funeral, Ouma told me she no longer felt at home in Europe.
She was just three years older than you when she washed over the ocean to Africa with a broken heart, a short-term visa and not a word of English. And then she met Oupa. And married him six weeks later. And from that we came. And then you. The circle of life.
Ouma's funeral was a testament to how deep her roots had taken hold here. On the opposite side of the world to where she was born.
As I stood at the grave and looked out over the gathering, I was struck by how each person represented a thread in the rich tapestry of the truly African life she had built here.
The deep harmonies of the Xhosa choral song plaited and swirled in the air as people filed past Ouma's plain pine coffin with its rope handles.
Ndiyahamba ndiya ekhaya. Ngeke ndiphinde ndife. (I am going home. To die no more).
Ouma and Oupa lived a simple life of huge integrity. Their funerals reflected that.
Over the years we have had many conversations about life and love. You are now in the thrall of your first love, and it is a lovely thing for me to witness. And even at my age, the how and the why of certain people finding a place in someone else's heart remain a beautiful mystery to me. But there is one thing that is not a mystery to me, the one thing I know to be true. It is that love distilled to its very essence is the bond between a parent and a child.
You and me. And you and Dad. And between Ouma and Oupa and the four of us.
I have now held the hands of both my parents as they passed over. One moment they were still there, the next they had slipped away like water under a bridge.
I am not religious, as you know. But I keep my heart open for the mystery of the spirit and the invisible bonds that bind us with each other.
I drove down from Barkley to Indwe yesterday. From the mountains where Ouma and Oupa now lie next to each other to the farmhouse where, until some months ago, Ouma was still cooking jam in her kitchen.
The farm is so inextricably linked to Ouma and Oupa that it is almost unthinkable that we will never sit on the stoep with them again. (Remember those endless cups of tea?) Or around the big kitchen table for supper. Or around a fire at night. Or bundle onto a bakkie for tea at the top lands.
I felt such shattering sadness as I drove up the avenue. In the kitchen, a half-used olive oil bottle stood next to the stove. I walked down the passage with the old school photographs and collages of our weddings and baby photographs of the grandchildren.
The house is empty but I still feel their presence. Since Oupa died a year ago, I have not once felt he was completely gone. I speak to him often. And I feel Ouma now too.
Maybe I am willing my parents' presence. Maybe it is the spirit's way of navigating the fragile path to confronting my own mortality.
I do believe that the people we love most become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created. These are not my words but those of the poet Meghan O’Rourke in writing about losing her mother.
So maybe what I am feeling is simply the electricity of memory conducted through the motherboard of life.
You know the thing about birds in our family? I have told you how on the morning after little Emma died they found a sugarbird in her room. And how when Oupa moved down to us from the farm, his favourite bird, the black-headed oriole, appeared in the tree opposite the stoep one morning? We had never before had an oriole in our garden. And all through those harrowing last months of Oupa's life, that bird would sit in the tree and speak to him.
In the last week of Ouma's life, when we had all gathered to keep watch over her, a robin often watched us from the bougainvillea when we drank (those endless) cups of tea on the stoep. Your uncle Chris joked about it being Mamma's bird.
Let me tell you the most uncanny thing (although, I have to admit, these things no longer surprise me). It was there yesterday. In the shed when Mike and I went to open up for the undertakers who came to load the chairs.
A robin. Fluttering against the big window.
I write this letter to you because I know that one day I will slip away from you. And you will feel loss. And you will feel sorrow. And I want you to know that there is something beautiful and life-affirming too about the grief, because grief and sorrow cannot exist without love being there first.
As Philip Larkin says in that extraordinary poem, An Arundel Tomb: “What will survive of us is love".
Love will continue to bind us even after I am gone. And you to your children when you are gone.
As long as I have you, I have a something of my mother too.
Because you look so much like your Ouma. The same fine features. The high cheekbones and blonde hair and porcelain complexion. And the same blue eyes. (You are the only one who got her blue eyes. The rest of us had to make do with Burgess-brown.)
I know these past years have been difficult for you when I so often had to prioritise Ouma and Oupa's care above you. I am glad I could keep my promise that the end of their lives would not be in an institution. And that both of them could die at home, with their children around them. But now it's me and you.
Lots of love,
♦ VWB ♦
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