Dutch: God has shown favour
“A single syllable, strong male name. People called Jan have a deep inner desire to use their abilities in leadership. And to have personal independence. They would rather focus on large, important issues and delegate the details. They are usually excellent at analysing, understanding and learning. They tend to be mystics, philosophers, scholars and teachers. Because they live so much in the mind, they tend to be quiet and introspective. When presented with issues, they will see the larger picture. Their solitary thoughtfulness and analysis of people and world events may make them seem aloof, and sometimes even melancholy.”
The Jan that I am writing about today is the man that sculpted my world, by being my dad.
There was a short spell when I was in love with my dad, when I wanted to be wherever he was and be included with everything he did. It must have been when I was between 3 and 4 years old. The scents I inhaled were a mix of farm air, cold from my perch high up on the tractor, the smell of his woollen jacket, the grease in the workshop and the aroma that infused the interior of the old Opel bakkie. This was the fragrance of security, of being joined in flesh and blood and by a beating heart.
It did not last. It’s not that anything happened (I moved onto other things including a brief adoration of my mother), but I was a growing child and independence was inevitable. Looking back I have no doubt that the security my mother and father gave me was set like cement from the moment I drew my first breath. I loved them passionately before I even learned to love myself.
Jan was born on 21 December in 1928, a very good time on the farming calendar when there is a lull in activities. The elder of two sons, his little brother came along nearly 4½ years later but was gravely ill at birth and consequently never enjoyed good health. Naturally it was then required of the oldest boy to be the strong and dependable one. As a child Jan had farm chores to do before leaving on the 20+km journey to school every day, which meant that he would rise at an unearthly hour. On one occasion the school lorry-bus broke down and young as he was, he jumped in and helped sort out the mechanics. He liked machines. He never enjoyed the mules that were used for farm work. They were stabled at night and needed to be groomed and fed each morning, early enough to have digested their breakfasts before they were harnessed. His resentment came from having to give up his bed to do these chores. But he did them without argument. His dad was not a man you argued with.
He told me a story once about the truth of how many hands make light work. His father had sent him to the railway station at Klapmuts to fetch a consignment of fertiliser. He was to take the lorry with a few farm workers. This had to be done before the school bus came past their gate to pick him up. My father drove the lorry to the station, a distance of about eight kilometres away, and returned home in record time. “Hmph!” remarked his dad, “so you were speeding, weren’t you.” No, he told me, he wasn’t speeding at all. The accusation stung him enough to be remembered. Usually the “boss” would sit in the lorry and wait while the workers toiled away. Instead of sitting like a lord my dad had stepped in and helped with the loading, which saved a lot of time. It’s not the moral of the story that struck me. It’s the fact that my dad had been only 11 years old.
Descended from French Huguenots, Jan grew up on the Free Burgher farm Cuilenburg (later Kuilenburg). He was born in the house and it was his home until he retired at age 59. His mother Jossie, a cultured and capable woman with a very soft spot for children, could bake the finest cakes and tarts and put up a tea on the daintiest lace cloths crocheted and embroidered by her own hand, yet handle a rifle and skin a beast like any man. Tough on the one hand and womanly on the other with low necklines that suggested the cleavage of an ample bosom, the voluptuous sort that grandchildren also find comfort in, she was everything my grandpa wished for. I knew her for three and a half years before cancer took her away and brief as it was, my memory of her is clear. Hers was the gruff sort of affection, slightly terrifying but hugely magnetic. Especially when she secretly gave us sweeties. Ones engraved with I LOVE YOU and SWEETHEART messages.
When one of my sisters accidentally fell into a deep pit and sustained cuts and scrapes, my father felt bad. She was only a tiny child after all and the fall could have been fatal. He slipped her some biltong and told her “not to tell the others”. I think he was more worried about his mother’s reaction than anything else. I was even tinier and vaguely remember the scene in the bathroom where our middle brother was washing the mud off her and painting the cuts and scrapes with Mercurochrome. The deep hole had been excavated for the installation of an hydraulic jack and should really have been cordoned off or covered. Our dad knew his mother would be furious.
His father Piet on the other hand was a man who gave orders, did not unnecessarily get his hands dirty, and was obeyed. A gentleman farmer: always seen in a collared shirt and usually also a jacket and Panama style hat. When I was very little my grandpa teased me that he would steal me and put me in the boot of his car – until my eldest sister accidently nicked a chip out of my ear whilst cutting my hair. Then he claimed he couldn’t kidnap me any longer because I was “ear marked” and would be identified. I loved being special enough to be considered for kidnapping.
My grandpa adored the mules. He took them by train to the Rosebank show and won silver trophies for “Best Team”, “Best Eight in Hand” and, with his horse, “Best Farm Hack”. I have some of these trophies. He enjoyed horses and rode well. In these footsteps my dad ultimately did not follow. As a teenager he’d had a very special horse to which he was particularly attached. They understood each other. I never heard the whole story, but for some reason my grandpa decided to sell that horse. I can only guess at the sense of betrayal, the disappointment and heartache the young Jan must have suffered. After that he never loved another horse.
When the first mechanical tractor arrived on the farm my father was still in his youth. It was instant infatuation. A diesel engine and the needs of a mule couldn’t be compared – and neither could the horsepower! When his parents retired to a house by the sea after his brother got married, my father took over the farm. And made sure there was a small fleet of tractors, all of them International Harvester
In front of my grandparents’ house was a beach with many boulders. These rocks were a nuisance for bathing. When logic prevailed, the law held no power over my father’s decisions. The beach had to be improved, that is all. He transported a bulldozer from the farm and on a day when the tide was out (Spring low tide), he took his bulldozer down to the beach and pushed away the boulders. They ended up forming a line that went out to sea on the left side, clearing up a huge area of water. Voilá, it was a swimming beach! He did this before my time; when I came into the world I assumed that God had put all the boulders in a row to help me see the level of the tide. When the rock at end, which looked like a browned frikkadel, was covered it meant the tide was in. The water would be deep enough for me to swim and dangle my legs without fear of my toes touching something squishy.
Jan raised seven children. I was the youngest and some believe that I was indulged. I don’t think I was, but who am I to say. Perhaps there was some kind of kindred spirit in our being fiercely independent people who cared less about what the world prescribed and more about what felt right. Who could do a job, no matter what it took. Who, at once, had infinite time and also absolutely no time. Jan was in many ways a power house of inner strength. That is the man that the world and certainly his children saw. To us he was a very strict dad with whom you did not mess. He expected excellent table manners and no idle chatter at meals. You ate your food; that was it. He only took a nap on Sundays after lunch and would rise again promptly at 3pm. Then coffee would be drunk and we’d all pile into or onto vehicles for the customary Sunday drive out to the veldt. It was partly an opportunity for my dad to cast his eye over the animals and maintenance issues, and partly the real pleasure of being outdoors in nature.
For his own enjoyment (and ours) there were 80 hectares of uncultivated farmland with some recovering renosterveld and klipkoppies where Zebra, Wildebeest and Springbuck grazed unhindered. Small creatures came and went of their own accord. These klipkoppies were my dad’s most favourite spot on the whole farm – a bit of his own bushveldt – and where each year he religiously searched for the elusive, highly perfumed fruit of the koekemakranka. Ostriches also patrolled the area and were kept specifically to protect the sheep against predators. Especially human ones. The male ostrich was notoriously aggressive and one had to keep a sharp eye when out in the veldt on foot. My brother had a very close encounter with Japie, as did my parents. So rattled were they by their experience they came home with white faces and informed us that we’d very nearly been orphaned. We were horrible – we didn’t see the seriousness of it at all and were more interested in picturing our mother leaping over the barbed wire fence! Japie eventually succumbed when a worker in defense of his own life managed to grab him around the throat and throttle the ostrich to death. In truth, we could breathe easy on our “bushveldt” walks after that.
As young children we did not know that our father was a kind man. We did not know that he was respected and that people came to him for good advice. We did not know that he was considered a good and loyal friend. We weren’t aware that he did not want to be a stranger to us. That in his heart still lived a boy who never really got to play with toys. My mother knew all those things. She remained his stalwart, through all kinds of weather, for more than 50 years. To us he was more like an impenetrable wall. One that seldom showed any cracks. He was particularly hard on my brothers and they had no choice but to help out on the farm. School holidays were not opportunities for them to relax – the opposite was true: they worked really hard. I was a busy child and it irked me terribly if my father gave me jobs or chores to do. If I knew he was indoors, I steered clear because I believed he only gave me chores when he saw me and to avoid that, I needed to remain invisible. One day he asked me for a glass of milk and, tiny as this request was, it was the proverbial last straw. As I set his milk down, I hissed, “I’m not your slave!” He raised his eyebrows at me and said, “Oh yes? I’ll remember that.” Slowly and sagely he nodded his head, “I’ll remember that.” There! I’d said it. But of the two of us, it was only I who remembered. Years later I asked him and he didn’t recall a thing! Carrying that guilt for so many years had been my only punishment.
Our household of nine lived in the same Cape Dutch homestead from the 1700s in which my dad had grown up. It had been marginally modernized but remained a no-frills farmhouse with ad hoc décor. Needless to say, it had lots of character. Often guests came to stay, sometimes whole families, and my mother was a champion at managing a house filled with people. She ran a really good ship, in spite of some rather primitive “mod-cons”. It was a good thing she had studied Domestic Science….it could just as well have been hotel management!
Our father was a very keen auction goer. Where other men might gamble, he chose instead to go to sales. It must run in the blood because I’ve become well acquainted with the terrifying thrill of bidding on a ‘lot’. To us the auctions represented a Lucky Dip of enormous scale: you never knew what the lorry would bring home. The loft was full to overflowing with odd and interesting things. All headed for good use. But we learned a caveat, to not grow too attached to something he had bought; chances were it would get sold again. My dad did not stand back from business – there was no place for sentiment when it came to business. He was good at it.
As teenagers, some of his mannerisms irritated us, even embarrassed us. To some extent his saving grace was that, though he liked law and order in his household, physical disciplining was not his domain. It fell to our mother to take care of matters before they could reach “higher level”. Just our luck to have a mother who‘d been a high school teacher! I believed it was her previous career that set her apart from other mothers whom I felt sure must be soft and pliable. She could get pretty cross and knew how to sort us out. But it never stopped us from having the most incredible, hair raising fun. I think there were people in the congregation who gazed at us in sympathy when my father stood back proud as a cockerel while we quietly filed into our customary church pew on Sundays… Little did they know!
My parents retired from the farm and went to live in the same house by the sea. We all feared for our dad. We thought that without the farm to keep him busy he would perish. We weren’t aware of any hobbies that could fill his time. We were so wrong. Retirement suited Jan to a T. He was a good craftsman and as a farmer, never gave himself time to be creative, so we never knew how brilliant he was at woodwork. One of the garages was converted into a workshop, fitted with the woodworking machines he needed. Not only that, he began restoring vintage International Harvester tractors full time. He became the “go-to” importer from USA of spare parts for actual machines as well as toy models. He only stopped when he was forced to his bed, a few weeks before he left the world, not very long before his 81st birthday. Today his impressive collection of 25 fully restored vintage tractors is held in the museum at Sandstone Estates in the eastern Free State.
Jan despised the Nationalist government and aligned himself with progress. A portrait of Jan Smuts hung on his study wall… we didn’t know who the bearded man was and assumed he was one of our ancestors. He read “Super Afrikaner” and chuckled with amusement through the index of Broerder Bond members. He was always able to achieve whatever he put his mind to and he expected the same resilience, resourcefulness and competence from others. He had no insight as to what it was like to be in somebody else’s shoes. He did not suffer fools or weakness. At times his persona emitted a force that could crush you. Yet, we never said ‘die’ and by taking it all on the chin, we lucky seven gained our characters.
We got to see in our father, as an older man, how deeply sentimental he actually was. How deeply he loved. In each of us he eventually gained a friend. And funny, the behaviour he would not have tolerated in us as kids, he turned an absolute blind eye to in his grandchildren. No one was allowed to speak ill of them. I overheard him on the telephone once, shielding them when a neighbour insisted they were setting off fire crackers on the beach. “Oh no,” he said, “it definitely could not be them. They are all here with me.” But we knew exactly who the culprits were.
My father taught me many things, right down to the mundane task of folding shopping packets into neat triangles. But he never taught me to be afraid. The only thing he ever talked me out of, was studying Drama. Twenty five years later he told me he’d changed his mind.
Our father left the world three years after our mother. Separately they were scattered to the wind in that wild place on the farm they both loved so much. My father was the last to go. On that day, we came back to my house and celebrated his life. We sang and made a lot of noise. There was a grand piano and an electric guitar. And especially for him, we held an Oblietjie fest, the delicate biscuit he was so mad about. All hands were on deck and three oblietjie iron presses sizzled away with cinnamon flavoured biscuit dough. What a day it was! He would have loved it.
Oh I miss many things about my dad. He’s been gone for nine and a half years and there are still times I want to ask him something, tell him something. And I miss those bunches of sundried Orange River raisins that you pluck from the stalk ….