When I was a pre-schooler, we lived a seven-hour drive halfway across the country away from my grandparents. An oil boycott of South Africa in the 1970s meant fuel rationing and soaring fuel prices. My parents could only afford a trip to my grandparents once a year, and those years these were the only holiday trips we took. It was not only because of the rarity of those visits to Pretoria that I cherished them.
Our trek north-west for the visit to my grandparents was usually in December and offered a respite from the soaring temperatures and humidity in Empangeni, our hometown near the north-east coast of Kwazulu-Natal. It was also a welcome escape from thousands of holidaymakers that flocked to the coast for the summer holidays. We usually stayed with my grandparents for a week or two, but when it was time to go home, it felt to me like we were there for a mere two days.
Every morning before breakfast, I would jump from my squeaky bed in the guest room that my parents, my siblings and I shared and run barefoot along the timber floor of the passage to the kitchen. I only really woke up sometime later while sitting at the kitchen table with my grandfather, waiting for the dull and dented Hart stainless steel kettle to boil on the stove so that we could make our morning tea.
Before he sat down with me, my grandfather would take out a frozen loaf of bread from the freezer, for toast with breakfast and for sandwiches with lunch, once it defrosted. Lunch sandwiches consisted of two thick slices of brown bread per person, with a smattering of butter on one side, and either bright pink slivers of polony, or red Vienna sausages (my favourite) cut in half and split open, almost covering the bottom slice, with the second slice used to squash the insides from the top.
We called it the Post Great Depression Lunch, and it followed my grandfather’s Great Depression Breakfast, which consisted of bran with molasses, every day, even when we were treated to boiled eggs and toast during our visits. He once told me that fresh bread was for the birds because the bread would go stale before they could finish the loaf, and white bread was an unnecessary luxury.
(I have to confess that, at the time, I understood ‘for the birds’ quite literally).
In the late afternoons, I would clamber up the stoep bench to sit with my grandfather, looking out onto the orchard in the back yard – his pride and joy. Pulling myself up by the steel armrest, knees first, I took great care not to lose my footing on the shiny, red-polished stoep. My bony knees usually pushed into the gaps between the peeling, white wooden boards when I got up there and had to wriggle to turn around so I could glide into the hollow seat.
Following the exertion and a few minor bruises, I would invariably end up on my grandfather’s lap because the bench was also unkind to scrawny bums. We would squint against the sun, my purple-stained feet, from excursions to the mulberry tree, lazily dangling above the stoep. December was also stone fruit season, and if we were lucky, the sweet peach and plum aromas drifting onto the stoep from the orchard in waves would bring with them gorgeous, chunky, black and bright yellow African fruit beetles, or Pachnoda sinuata, as my grandfather would refer to them.
These moments with him were precious: he was not one to sit still for long. He was teaching me about plants and bugs – those years, he was the Secretary of Agriculture – when he stumbled across my love for learning words, probably seeing my ears prick up when he used Latin botanical names. He soon changed tact, from Biology to Latin lessons, as I rapidly transformed from a somewhat reluctant to a profoundly wonderstruck student-in-the-making. The intricate words with their strange sounds tickled their way into my ears, often turning me into a pile of giggles on my grandfather’s lap. The words were complicated, and hilarious, like brassica oleracea capitate (cabbage) and beta vulgaris (beetroot), or melodic phrases, like tempus fugit (time flies), carpe diem (cease the day) and my beloved omnes viae romam ducunt (all roads lead to Rome).
My grandfather would explain the hidden meanings of the phrases and translate the Latin words into Afrikaans, the language of my family. Afrikaans is a creole language and a mix of Dutch, Khoisan, Malaysian, French, English, German, and probably a few other languages too. The people of southern Africa originally used a kind of mashup of languages to communicate with traders, settlers, and slaves who came to the Cape of Storms, later also called the Cape of Good Hope, from 1488 onwards. The Latin words that my grandfather was teaching me sounded vaguely familiar. It was not long before I was repeating those marvellous words, and copying the singing phrases. I managed to maintain the phonetic integrity of the phrases, but without any idea where one word ended, and another began, I melted the words of each phrase into one.
When I started secondary school, I chose Latin as one of my subjects. Echoing in my head was my grandfather’s voice, repeating Latin words and phrases. Learning the proper Latin words as vocabulary along with the written form for the first time, I marvelled at the words and phrases that I could recall so vividly and so fondly from my grandfather’s lessons, seeing them for the first time, living in the pages of a textbook.
A well-educated Doctor of Science, my grandfather was an introverted, intelligent, knowledgeable man. For fun, he tended his orchard and dabbled in researching history and genealogy. I still have a copy of my family tree, which he compiled all the way back to the 1600s. Anyone who is Afrikaans, and who was fortunate enough to meet my grandfather, would testify that he only needed your surname and one set of given names in your family – these are traditionally passed on from generation to generation and often come in multiples, like Martha Sophia, or Pieter Willem – to expand on your familial heritage at length. Along with my surname, I have French and German Swiss heritage on my paternal grandparents’ side, and on my maternal grandparents’ side, Dutch and German.
I have always admired my grandfather – for his love for my grandmother, his inquiring mind, his work ethic, his courage of conviction and his incorruptible value system. He was not without fault and I never hero-worshipped him. He was old-school and by all accounts, a stubbornly consistent man: save, and waste not want not; always learn more; be grateful for work and work hard; vote first for the principle, then for the party, and never for the man; do what is right in the eyes of the Lord.
Family takes many forms and can mean many different things. Is family limited to the people that share your blood line? Does a shared blood line automatically establish obligations? Is the group of people who make up your family predetermined and fixed? The family that we are born into is our history, an undeniable and unchangeable part of our heritage. However, during one’s lifetime, family (in whatever form) also builds and leaves a legacy that can be continued, or abandoned, by the next generation. Even though most people believe that you do not choose your family and, therefore, your heritage, you can, at some later point in life, choose the family with whom you build your own legacy, and whose legacy you choose to build on.
My grandfather was family, not because of the blood in our veins or our surname. To me, his legacy is much more than just familial heritage. I see it in my love for languages, my quest to learn, my frugality, my pursuit of what is right, even my rejection of organised religion.
Many of the roads I have travelled, and many of the roads I must still go along, lead back to his legacy, somewhere in a family orchard that no longer exists.
Copyright © Leonie Vorster 2020