thoughtsfromthepanda

I do my best thinking while driving. I drive a Fiat Panda.

Archive for the month “February, 2012”

Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair

My husband found an old photo of himself the other day. He was – I’m guessing – about 26 at the time, and, I thought, absolutely gorgeous.

In the photo – which is sepia-coloured, to add to its nostalgic charm – he has long blonde hair with a bandanna tied around it. He’s wearing a flowing shirt and, around his neck, an amulet on a rope. He looks like someone straight out of the sixties.

As I initially digested the photo, remembering the Frank I’d first met – though not the Frank I’d first dated, because by then he’d cut his hair – I wished for a brief intense moment that he’d still looked like that when he and I were first sharing our lives.

In my younger years I was often a sucker for a man with long hair. I think it’s my yearning-for-the-sixties thing. I’ve always liked the idea of the flower power movement and that tipping point when the western world, for a short while, was less materialistic and young adults yearned for peace on a global scale.

(Note to cynics: no. It’s not about the sex and drugs, though I’ll surely subscribe to the rock and roll.)

I was lucky enough to work in California for a few months. I had my 27th birthday there. When I visited San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district (‘The Haight’) and walked the beautiful Golden Gate bridge, I felt that I should have been surrounded by long-haired ‘gentle people’ in flowing shirts and bell-bottomed jeans, strumming guitars and reminding me to wear flowers in my hair.

“If you’re going to San Francisco 

Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.

If you’re going to San Francisco 

You’re gonna meet some gentle people there…”

I heard the theme music everywhere I walked, and as a souvenir of my ‘California dreaming’ I got my belly button pierced in Haight Ashbury when I’d finished my temporary three-month job. Then I hopped on a Greyhound and travelled around the country for a few amazing weeks before finally going home to South Africa and the end of my American sabbatical.

I didn’t know it then but I was going home to a future that would include a gentle man who, in his early twenties, had sung and played the guitar in a pub. This was also the time he was growing out his hair and, with it, some of his memories of the war in which for two years he’d been a reluctant teenaged conscript.

We met years later and of course began sharing some of our stories – a necessary part of early dating, I think, before a new couple starts making their own memories together. But it’s crossed my mind on more than one occasion to be jealous that we didn’t know each other earlier in our lives.

I have wished that I knew the Frank with long hair.

I have wished that he knew me for more years with the body that was mine in my youth.

I have wished that we both knew each other when the wrinkles were fewer and the cynicism less.

When the background notes to life were more about music and less about money worries. When there seemed to be more time for fun.

I have been jealous of the women in his life who had those younger, less troubled, more energetic moments with him. I have mentally wished away the men I wasted my time on before he came. I have wished that we’d had our children together sooner. I’ve told him all of this. His response?

“I was too full of kak when I was younger,” he told me. “I would have ruined it with my issues.”

Yes, but that long hair.

That unlined face.

That untroubled gaze.

The music in your fingers that you release only seldom, now.

“And you,” I have told him mournfully, “could have known me with a better body for more years than you did!”

And he has reminded me that he knew the body that grew our two children. Which is logic that you simply cannot argue with, damn it. (Although the slimming efforts do continue unabated.)

And so I am okay with not knowing – and loving – the Frank who had the long hair.

Instead, I got the man who grew more gentle.

I think we must go to San Francisco together one day. I will wear a flower in my hair, and find a bandanna for his as we walk across the Golden Gate bridge. It doesn’t even matter if it’s short hair and not long.

And I think most people who see us will get it, and smile.

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Scenery to fall in love with

I always thought I wanted to live at the coast one day, instead of in land-locked Joburg. Now, I think I was made to breathe near mountains.

At first, though, I wanted to be in the rolling green hills of Kwa-Zulu Natal, somewhere close to Durban and the prettiness of the midlands, although I hadn’t decided exactly where I would plant my feet and declare “This is it! This is home.” I pictured my (not yet born or even on the horizon at the time) children going to the sun-drenched beaches at weekends and becoming lean brown water-borne creatures, comfortable slipping in and out of the blue-green ocean as they snorkelled, surfed and dived.

Then I realised that although KZN tends to have great winters most of the time (warm in comparison to the inland temperatures), the coastline is extremely humid in summer and you spend your life dripping with sweat and battling to keep your bedding crisp and fresh. And I also embarked on a once-off scuba-diving course, when I then remembered about all the big sharks that toothily inhabit the sea, so I decided the (still not born) children didn’t have to become water-borne creatures after all and that perhaps the KZN coastline, as beautiful as it is, wasn’t quite my ideal part of the world – at least not for permanent residence.

Still in pursuit of a dream (“When I grow up I’m going to live in X part of the country”) I have now turned my attentions to the western Cape. This part of the world enticed me after I’d fallen in love with Frank and we’d become an item. For our first Christmas holiday together, we went to the beautiful Paarl, where some of his family live.

The name Paarl comes from the Dutch name for a pearl (‘parel’) and like a pearl, the town and its surrounds are really beautiful. Legend has it that a Dutch explorer in the 17th century arrived in the area during stormy weather. As the sun came out, it glistened on three huge granite outcrops on the mountain looming over the valley below, reminding the Dutchman of diamonds and pearls, and so he admiringly named it ‘The Diamond and Pearl Mountain’. In the fullness of time the diamond part got dropped and the pearl prevailed and so from beneath the ‘Paarl Rock’ grew the town of Paarl.

The pearls of Paarl Rock

Frank unconsciously translates from Afrikaans when he calls it, in English, ‘The Paarl’, adding the definite article in front of it the way that Afrikaners call it ‘Die Paarl’. I think it deserves the honour of having the definite article in front of it in English too.

And so, the beautiful town of the Paarl is about an hour’s drive from Cape Town in the long shadows of the surrounding mountains, nestling in the enfolding wine lands that are around it, above it and even in it. You can’t drive in the vicinity of  the town without passing wine farm after wine farm after wine farm: some rich and resplendent with money and glamour; others smaller and cuter and dripping with character. And characters too, of course: human, canine, equine, bovine and, um, sheep. (What are sheep again?)

I fell in love with all of it – instantly. Frank and I drove from Joburg to Paarl that holiday, a distance across the country of about 1 400 kilometres. We therefore came to the Paarl having first negotiated the long dry flatness of the huge Karoo semi-desert area for more hours than I care to remember. My eyes were sore with the sameness of the Karoo: miles upon miles of (to me) visual boredom that the car just couldn’t quite shake, no matter how fast Frank drove to eat up the flat, dreary landscape.

I am aware that the Karoo has its own admirers who love the place and feel their souls are quenched there in its dryness and its unique semi-desert features, which bloom beautifully and surreally in the spring. Although I would admittedly like to visit in the spring one year, I am not a desert person, and so I felt my own soul start to perk up considerably when the scenery finally, bit by bit, started to change again.

Slowly, imperceptibly, the land morphed into something once more appealing.

Slowly the horizon grew a significant hill or two.

Slowly you saw signs of water that had arrived and then stayed to nurture the plants and coax the earth out of its dull palette of browns and greys.

By the time we drove through the Hex River Valley I was overwhelmed with the sensation that the world had exploded back to life. Ponds, dams, fruit farms and vineyards: all made bright patchworks of colour in the valley and up the enclosing mountain slopes before the gradient got too steep and the vegetation gave way to purple distance.

A valley exploding with life

I felt that I was home. I felt I was breathing air that had been waiting for me, ready to nurture my body and my spirit. We stayed for three blissful, soul-renewing weeks and everywhere we went in this amazing part of South Africa, we seemed to drive through beauty.

Then reality beckoned us back home and back to work.

Today, Frank and I live with our two boys in Johannesburg, one of the main economic hubs of South Africa. For now our jobs keep us here and we live in ‘the house that sang to me’ as I drove past it one day.

We love our house. We are really lucky with its unique vista, overlooking as it does one of the two Melville ‘koppies’ (hills), which are essentially unchanged since the days of iron age man. The east Melville koppie is a closed-off nature reserve and the west Melville koppie, which forms part of our view – the children call it ‘our mountain’ – is home on Sundays to a religious sect, who arrive in their blue, green and white robes and set the mini-mountain alive with their open air singing and the throbbing of distant drums.

'Our mountain'

To maximise the view of ‘our mountain’ and our exposure to the sky, Frank has built a deck in the back garden, above our storeroom (yes, he really did build it himself, plank by laborious plank). Here we like to sit for sundowners at weekends and on public holidays when the weather is kind. To our north lies the beautiful park surrounding Emmarentia Dam, where we walk sometimes with the boys and the dog, and to our west lies the Westdene Dam, where we also visit occasionally, although we usually find a bigger attraction en route in the glasses of good wine waiting for us at the cosy restaurant of ‘Tosca del Sol’.

In front of ‘our mountain’, flanking it as it runs west to east, is a long, thin valley and riding the thermals of the valley air we sometimes see the white flocks of sacred ibis on their travels. At other times, if we are lucky, they actually fly over our heads as we sit on our deck, astonishing us with the utter silence of their wings, which in flight are almost as quiet as an owl’s. At these moments, just sitting on our deck between earth and sky is like a benediction.

Flying soundlessly overhead like a blessing

My parents live just on the other side of ‘our mountain’, about five kilometres as the crow flies. My mom (sometimes aided by my dad, and sometimes apparently hindered) looks after the children in the afternoons until I fetch them once I’ve finished work. Most days, I’m happy to report, my parents are smiling when I fetch the boys and I hear tales of the funny things that were said and done. Sometimes I see my dad walking in the area with his neighbour, Sam, as I’m en route to work in the mornings. I always stop for a brief chat and a laugh, and revel in the quiet comfort of this unexpected domestic encounter. It is another piece of the puzzle that is my charming green neighbourhood and my home.

And yet sometimes, as we sit on the deck with a gracious bottle of dry white wine, I may inspect the label and see that it comes from the Paarl area, and it brings a little pang. While ever-conscious of counting my blessings, I look over then at ‘our mountain’ and wish, somewhat ungratefully, that it was a little bigger.

Or maybe even a lot bigger, with a long purple shadow and three glistening outsize pearls on its summit. Oh to have my cake and eat it too, and simply transplant the house. I’m sure I could persuade my parents to relocate.

Weekday mornings are not the same as they used to be

I’ve recently re-discovered the music of Barbra Streisand and have been playing it loudly in my car on the way to work. And singing along too, also very loudly. Which as any ‘Babs’ friend (and yes, I am sure she and I would be friends, if we had ever met) knows is the best part: the loud singing along to this awesome amazing voice, which so effectively drowns out your own feeble cheeping noises that you can pretend that Barbra’s voice is actually yours. It’s a great fantasy.

So anyway, Barbra and I sing very loudly all the way to work these days, once I have dropped off my two boys at pre-school (Matthew) and ‘big school’ (Liam). Where matters are currently quite interesting.

Matthew, aged four, has a girlfriend. Little ‘T’ is a tiny-boned, fragile-bodied child with flaxen hair (truly, it’s not often you get to write ‘flaxen’ and be accurate) down to her waist. Her eyes are a pale ethereal blue and her skin is porcelain fair (again, I use ‘porcelain’ and am entirely accurate). With her exquisite face, she looks like she has just stepped out of fairyland. And my Matthew, who is quite a pretty creature himself, even for a boy, is absolutely smitten.

Cicely Mary Barker's 'The rose fairy'

Lately, he likes to bring her flowers in the morning. Posies of rose buds that my mother makes up for him to hand over with as much love as if T belonged to her too.

And Liam, six-almost-seven, thinks it is just too icky for words. This ‘love stuff’. He cringes at the mere mention of it and tries to block his ears. Certainly this was his reaction when we were taking a drive one day recently, when all the schools were still on holiday. In the interests of revving up some back-to-school enthusiasm, I said brightly to my smallest son: “So, Matthew, who do you think will be back at school tomorrow for you to play with?”

“T…,” chirped Matthew confidently (as if there were any shadow of a doubt). “Because she loves me and I love she.”

I was so surprised and touched, I nearly drove into the pavement while trying to stifle a sudden burst of what would surely have been very inappropriate and hurtful giggles.

“Aaaaauuuuuggggggggghhhhhhhhhhh! Accccccckkkkkkkkkkkkkk!” roared Liam from his spot in the back seat beside Matthew, trying to block his ears and simultaneously making vomiting noises.

Upon which Matthew got very offended and started punching him forthwith, so that was the end of the icky love stuff. For a few short days, that is, until everyone was fully in the swing of the back-to-school energy that always seems to flow at the beginning of a new term.

We were visiting my parents on the second Sunday after school had begun when Matthew requested one of my mother’s famous roses from her garden. For T…. To take to school the next morning. Ignoring the loud vomiting and roaring noises from his older brother, he took possession of a rosebud with a very satisfied look on his face as we drove off home.

Sadly, though, when we got home we discovered that the little rosebud had got a bit battered during the short car journey, probably due to the proud manner in which he was clutching it safely to his chest. I decided to ask my mom to let us have another one the next morning. After all, when giving flowers, it should be done right, right? With flair and panache and above all pristine floral specimens.

The next morning we were all ready to collect a new rosebud for the unsuspecting fairy friend. First, though, we had to drop Liam off at ‘big school’, where he is newly in grade one and suddenly looking very small and forlorn – in comparison to the big children – as he wanders onto the playground in the mornings.

And this is an odd repositioning of my perspective, because Liam is actually very big for his age. One of the biggest, according to the paediatrician, because whenever the good doctor has checked him out over the past few years, Liam has consistently hovered at around the 97th percentile for his height and weight. (In other words, out of every 100 children exactly his age, he would be about the 3rd or 4th tallest and biggest in the group. Or something like that, but anyway it’s quite impressive.)

So there was Liam. My tall blonde curly-haired confident handsome son: suddenly looking small again in his new school uniform, wandering around a much bigger playground than he’s been playing on for the past four years, surrounded by loads of children much bigger than him. Heck, quite a few of them are bigger than me, and that’s just the girls. (Children are getting bigger these days, have you noticed?)

Matthew and I stood together and surreptitiously stared after him while he walked away. This was after I’d kissed Liam goodbye on the lips and he’d jogged off, wiping off the kiss, and I had called him back to insist that we try this small gesture of affection all over again, with no wiping off, or there will be a scene in front of everyone, see? (He really doesn’t like this ‘love stuff’.)

“I see Liam!” said Matthew excitedly, while continuing to grip my hand very firmly. As I said, the playground is much bigger than they are both used to.

“Me too,” I said, thinking to myself, Go on my son! Find someone to play with! Find a place to belong for the next ten minutes before the teachers call you to the classroom. Don’t remain all alone looking so small and lost – find a friend…

And he did. My little trooper. A male friend of course, but then again, if it had been a girl I would have been looking for the aliens and their cloning machine hidden in the bushes.

Happy again, I next zoomed off with Matthew to my mother’s house, where we collected a posy for T…. Picture some artistically positioned tin foil and wet tissue paper encasing a perfect cream rosebud, some rose leaves and a bit of fern for luck and there you have it: the little flower of yesterday had been magnificently upgraded. Bless my mother, who is also intent on raising sorted young men.

Consequently, there was much ooh-ing and ahh-ing when Matthew and I walked through the gates of his pre-school as he clutched his posy (we don’t have to go into detail on how the rose fell out of the posy as we were crossing the road and I had to run back for it). We were quite early and T… wasn’t at school yet, so Matthew put her posy into her locker. The teacher beamed. I beamed. Matthew beamed and then ran off to play in the classroom. I went back to the school gate so I could leave for work – and there was T and her mom.

“Matthew has brought T… a flower,” I whispered.

Her mother dissolved instantly into a puddle. We all walked towards the classroom together, where I stood outside and looked through the window so as not to embarrass my small son on his brave new journey.

“Look T…!” said her mom. “Look what Matthew has brought you!”

The little fairy child bent down, picked up the posy and dropped her perfect rosebud mouth into a classically feminine ‘Oooooh!” of surprise and pleasure.

Matthew got up from the circle of children seated on the floor around the teacher and walked shyly towards his sweetheart. He suddenly looked taller and was wearing an air of pride. Slightly embarrassed pride, but pride nonetheless. There was a new dawning in his eyes as he staked his first ever claim to a lovely young female’s affections.

I brought that for you. Nobody else. And sure it’s a little awkward – I get that now – but know that it was me.

“Thank you Matthew!”

“You’re welcome!”

With T… clutching her posy they sat down together in the circle of children around the teacher. Looking really happy and proud, Matthew put his arm around her in a brief hug and then dropped it again to concentrate on what the teacher was saying.

I drove off with a song in my heart and slightly moist eyes. When I finally turned on Barbra’s music, it was to one of the songs that Frank and I played on our wedding day. Which Barbra had composed especially to sing on hers.

Listen here...

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