It’s been about a year since we lost my grandfather to cancer. My heart wretched when I got the message, especially since I live a whole continent away and could not see him while he was suffering in hospital. We knew it was coming and I think it was a relief to him, or at least that’s what I keep telling myself, but it didn’t make it any easier at all!
He meant the world to me, so much so that we gave Billy his name! I want to remember him as the strong, quiet farmer he was and I hope Billy will one day read this and get to know him a little through my eyes and heart, so I thought I would put down my memories of him so he can live on a little.
As a farmer in the Karoo, South Africa during so much drought I know he had a tough life. Even though it may not have been like that their whole life, I know my grandparents struggled, I know they worked hard and I know they truly tried to live off the land as best as possible. I remember many a holiday learning to bake biscuits, bread and cakes in my grandmother’s kitchen. Feeding chickens, lighting the old black Agga stove and playing with their many animals were just part of the farming life fun. As much time as I spent with my grandmother in the old farmhouse, I have some fond, fond memories of the time I spent with my grandfather.
He was always up at the crack of dawn, or at least a few minutes before that because it was always dark when he got up. As a young kid I would eagerly be lying in bed waiting to hear his beautiful black and brown Kelpies stirring and pitter-patter along the old floorboards to go outside. Shortly followed by the thudding sound of his veldskoene as he made his way past our bedroom to the kitchen for a cup of tea. I would sneak out the room and join him at the kitchen table in my pajamas while he sipped his tea and ate a yummy rusk or biscuit (which he would let me have too if I promised not to tell my grandmother or sister). He would head out to begin his day and as it was still to early to go out with him I would head back to bed and pretend to be asleep until my grandmother came to wake us or my sister would wake up and we would both sneak into her bed till the house staff came in to start work and make breakfast. Although now that I’m older and look back I’m sure they had all been up just as early as my grandfather, milking cows, starting fires, feeding animals etc. But in my childish mind I imagined that I had been up before anyone else and that he and I were sharing a secret moment in time where only we existed.
We would get ready for breakfast which had to be on the table at 8am, after which I could finally go out with him. I loved spending the day out on the farm with him while he worked. I especially loved that all I had to do was follow him around and he would give me little jobs to do at the same time. I learnt so much from him, he may not have even known how much he was teaching me at the time. But he gave me a true passion for animals, the outdoors and working out in the sunshine and wide open spaces. Even to this day my ultimate dream is to be on a small holding, working in my veggie garden, feeding my chickens; goats; pigs and geese and truly living off the land around us.
He probably also didn’t realise how many things he let me see that gave me a deeper understanding of the world around me, one such story remains with me. In south Africa there are these monkeys called Vervet monkeys and as much as they are a natural part of our ecosystem I now they are a great pest to farmers. There was a cage in each veld to catch them if they tried to eat whatever was growing in that field. One day I noticed there was a monkey caught in a trap, I was over the moon excited as I pictured my granddad telling me he would tame it as a pet for me (as if!). Instead he picked me up and put me into the back of the bakkie (ute) telling me not to hop down at all. He then got his sweet, sweet kelpies all riled up around the cage (I had only ever viewed them as the dogs I played with and would do anything I told them if I used the right commands). I had never seen his dogs so ferocious, even when they were working with his sheep or goats they were all business and obedience, nor had I ever seen these super cute monkey so vicious and scary. He then opened the cage and let the monkey out and the dogs went berserk, attacked and killed it. I was heart-broken, confused and good old-fashioned scared.
He told me that it made sure the dogs remembered how to protect his animals from predators and it was an important part of his dogs work and that the monkeys had become over populated because of the easy access to food on the farms as well as the fact that the farms were set up to keep predators away so they were over breeding.
I had never learnt that much about biology/science in the whole time I had been at school. I also learned that day that animals would always go back to their basic instincts when put into that kind of situation and as much as I love dogs, that day also taught me to respect them so much more. There were many, many more stories and lessons he taught me, some good and some bad but it would be way to many to put down here today.
He loved and trained his work dogs so well, they would know what he wanted them to do with just a whistle or command. He bred and trained them for other farmers and for me any memory of him was always accompanied by his dogs, who were either named Jesse and Jock or Sam and Lady, he reused those names constantly. If his bitch was pregnant you best know you don’t get to sit in the front seat of the bakkie, and if I managed to squeeze in I was NOT allowed to sit between her and him. So often I would be standing on the back with the male dogs and the farm staff while the female dogs got to sit on the front seat with him.
More than any memory of my grandfather the best thing about being with him was how he made me feel about myself. I love my family with all my heart and would never choose to be part of any other. But as a child I never quite felt liked I belonged, I always thought I was just not good enough, like I was supposed to be a better person or different somehow but I just couldn’t figure out how. I think I was a really naughty child, but not because I was trying to be naughty just because I never knew how to be anything different to who I was. Even today I have a constant inner fight between the free-spirited fairy I feel like I should be and the ordered, a-type personality that was instilled in me as a kid. My parents didn’t do a bad job and probably didn’t even know what was going on inside me, they just did the best they knew how to do and tried hard to give me discipline they believed I needed.
However when I was with my grandfather it all disappeared! He was like the calm within my inner storm. He stopped those nasty voices telling me how I wasn’t good enough and stopped all the fighting and the constant battle from taking over my mind. He didn’t try, he didn’t ask me how I felt, he didn’t do special activities with me… he just was. He didn’t need to talk to me, he just accepted me. He didn’t do anything special or try to connect with me on some deeper level, he just let me be who I was and never tried to make me do anything I didn’t want to do, he answered my questions without judgment and whenever I got into trouble (which felt like always) he didn’t pile on anymore. He just let me sit next to him on the couch and cuddle in silence, although he only ever watched the news which is kind of like torturing a child.
But no matter what happened or how I felt, no matter what I was doing or wasn’t doing I loved him. I felt at home and safe with him and whenever I would find out we were going there for holidays I would be over-the-moon, can’t contain myself kind of excited (my mom was a single mom so pretty much every school holiday would be spent on their farm). He was my safe person, my constant in our broken home, my friend when I felt like I had none and the one person I always felt like I could go to.
So to my grandfather: thank you for accepting me, thank you for loving me, thank you for teaching me, thank you making me feel OK with who I was and most importantly thank you for the memories. I love you more than words can say and miss you even more!