Family Tales

I wrote several posts about my childhood in Rhodesia for my friend Prema's blog, Kombai. I'm adding all the posts here, with a few extra stories and photos, so that family and friends can find them more easily.   
My Grandmother's House

All my childhood lies in my grandmother's house. No matter where I am, or what I remember, my mind takes me back to that house. It was the centre of the wheel for our entire family - aunts, uncles, cousins, friends... everyone met at my grandmother's house.
If I close my eyes now I am there at the gate, hot African sun scorching down on white picket fences and trellises heavy with honeysuckle, golden shower and coral creeper. A riot of creeping plants and flowers dripping bees. Below them, along the concrete path to the door, there will be sweet peas. Every summer there were sweet peas staked up against the freshly painted picket fence. It is cool under the canopy of green that leads to the door. There are two huge pine trees shading the back. They smell of resin.

Around the front there is a swimming pool my grandfather built himself, two aviaries of birds and the fruit trees. Down the side there is a dry sandy strip marked with little wooden crosses for all the many departed pets. Dogs, birds cats, rabbits and even a monkey have their sacred space in Granny's little garden. She pulls the weeds from around the crosses and drops a few tears and flowers on the "special" ones. There are grape vines and a guava tree up where the pets are buried. Once my cousin and I stole an enormous guava and ate it together under the grape vines, hiding in the green shadows, taking alternate bites from the fruit gran had been admiring a few hours before. It tasted like sawdust to my guilty taste buds.

Inside the house, at any time of day, it is always shady and shadowy. All the trees and the deep covered front veranda keep the house from direct sunlight. In the scorching African summer this is a good thing, but I do always remember feeling a bit creepy going down the shadowy passage to the toilet. There are family photos along the walls in the passage and several generations of family watch me with shadowy eyes as I dash for the toilet. Great-grandma stands at the end of the passage, beautiful forever since she died so young. Her sad Irish eyes seem to know this photo will be the last memory held of her passing through this world. She watches me, the third generation of girl children she will never see grow up.

In my grandmother's bedroom everything smells of old perfume and floor polish. Mary stands on the window ledge, with her arms outstretched. She is wearing a pale blue cloak over her ivory plastic glow-in-the-dark body. I love her. I love the fact she glows in the dark. I used to have a glow-in-the-dark Jesus nailed to a wood and mother-of-pearl cross, but then my mom found out the "glow" came from toxic chemicals and threw him in the bin. Very weird memory that - a snapped up Jesus pulled off the cross and thrown into the dirt bin. I can remember going outside and lifting the lid to look at him lying there with his legs and arms scattered amongst the potato peels. My mom tells me Jesus will still watch over me and answer my prayers at night, but I do miss seeing his soft greeny glow over my bed. But in my grandmother's house Mary will not suffer the same indignity. Gran doesn't care that Mary is toxic - Mary will stay.

At the end of the passage there is a little iron and glass table on which stands the telephone and four brass ornaments - the sphinx, two pyramids and Buddha. Mary in the bedroom and Buddha by the phone… is there some hidden meaning there? Mary will hold you while you sleep, but Buddha is better for communication? Who knows! I only know I am allowed to play with Buddha and the sphinx because they are made of brass and indestructible. I will lie on my play rug with Buddha and the sphinx. The sphinx was once a cigarette lighter and his head is hinged to open up the lighter. This will leave indelible scars on my understanding of ancient Egyptian history. For years to come I will think the sphinx's head comes off. The sphinx is okay, but I prefer Buddha. I smile back at Buddha while the grown ups sit at the table and talk. He's not as pretty as Mary, but he is more cheerful. Admittedly not as exciting, he doesn't glow, but gran says if I rub his tummy he will grant my wishes just as Jesus answers my prayers. I think to myself how clever God is. He has Jesus for prayers, Mary for comfort and Buddha for making wishes come true. It is a wonderful world with so many celestial beings to watch over your needs.

In my grandmother's house there may not be much sunlight, but there is always noise. There are birds in cages, radios and always people. People come and go in waves. Gran feeds them and makes them tea, but she never visits them. She is the hub and all spokes lead to her. The hub does not wander. It stays in the centre and keeps the wheel of life turning. That is gran - the hub of our wheel.


She is always in the kitchen, out in the garden or sitting in the dining room. I can't ever remember seeing her in the lounge watching TV. She is too busy for TV. She has plants to watch over, dogs, cats, tortoises, lots of birds… visitors constantly. Only the fish tank isn't her territory. Grandpa takes care of the fish. 

Grandpa has his small sections of territory staked and claimed - the fish tank, the outside room piled high with old junk and his own bedroom filled with fascinating things. If I am good he will take out the old tin boxes full of war photos. Then he fills his pipe and sits by the window, puffing soft smoke and telling me the stories behind the photos. I knew about Mussolini and the war in North Africa before I was eight. Grandpa has other photos too. Stationed in Egypt he went to every ancient monument and museum he could. Here there are photos of the real pyramids and sphinx. And if I get bored with desert stories there is a box of old toys at the top of the wardrobe. Paper dolls from the 1950s and marionette puppets. I love grandpa's room.

My aunt has the last bedroom. Here I can look, but not touch - except her big plastic bangles - I can play with those. They jangle on my arms, but I can't put my hands down or they'll all fall off. I walk around the house with my arms up to keep the bangles on. It's not as exciting as war stories or Buddha and the sphinx.. I go and put them back. For now I will sit with Buddha on the floor and be at peace. Here we will sit at the centre of the world and let it revolve around us. There will be dripping and tomato sandwiches for lunch and then later gran will let me feed the tortoises. Life is good.

Pula Pula

To me Christmas Eve in Africa means rain. Soft rain. Warm rain. African rain. *Pula! (rain) a blessing and a wish as powerful as “bless you” is to the Western soul. In a country where rain fall never lasts longer than an hour and puddles evaporate within minutes of the clouds parting rain is precious. Rain is survival. Rain is life, resurrection and birth.

Every Christmas eve we gather at my grandmother’s house. My dad is getting the presents out the car as my mom goes to open the gate. It’s dark leading up to my grandmother’s house, but the door is open and I can see light and hear voices. The door was always open, and the smells of cooking are hanging in the warm wet night air. Guti - soft soft rain on your face and hands that is more like a heavy mist than raindrops.

The dogs are barking and my grandmother yells at them, but they just ignore her with loving disregard. Inside it is hot and noisy with people everywhere. The Christmas tree smells dry and crackly in the heat, but the smells of meats roasting and puddings boiling is heavenly. Lots of tall people in the semi-gloom. The only lights are the Christmas tree in the entrance and the TV in the lounge (black and white). People are everywhere talking, nibbling from plates of snacks piled up on every empty flat surface, watching the TV in a vague sort of way grown ups do.

By contrast the kitchen is very bright… and full of women. Mothers and aunts and daughters in all their permutations are hovering around my gran as she barks out orders like a regimental sergeant. There are drinks being poured, sauces stirred, meats basted and puddings checked… and nothing in the kitchen is glowing more with heat than my grandmother! Her cheeks are red and her hair is stuck on her face with perspiration, but her eyes are bright and she still has the energy to tell my dad off when he tries to tease her.

I wander back out into the dark to stand by the Christmas tree. There are dozens of bags and boxes below it, since all the family will gather here again tomorrow to unwrap their gifts together. I’m not allowed to touch, so I can only peer sideways at labels and cards in the hope of seeing which have my name on them. There are nuts in their shells and fresh baked mince pies and a Christmas show with ladies dancing and lots of music. Nuts in their shells are a special treat we only get once a year. My grandfather helps me choose a good one and cracks it open for me and I sit on the piano stool and eat it slowly. How delicious is a nut when you are only allowed one each.

Later I will fall asleep on the couch or a bed somewhere and be carried to the car and home. Tomorrow it will be Christmas day and if we are lucky, there will be soft rain to cool the morning and bless this special day.
Pula, Pula...
* "..pula means more than rain: it stands for luck, life and prosperity.."

Going Home 1

I am eleven years old and I’m going Home for Christmas. I'm so excited. We have been living in South Africa for over a year now. Driving North I start to get the same stomach-tight excited feeling I used to get when we were returning from holiday. No matter how good the holiday was, home was always better. Now I watch out the window of the car for the first true sign I am close to home - baobab trees. They always make my heart sing. Some people think they are ugly trees, but I think they are beautiful. I wave to them as we pass. I tell them I'm going home. Through the tunnels in the mountains, back out into heat that shivers above the road like oily steam, and on to the border post and then the long incredibly hot road from there into Bulawayo.

We pass the hotel where they used to have the pet giraffe that nagged the guests for snacks by putting its head through the windows and staring at them. I wish we would stop there. I've never actually seen the giraffe, but it is too hot to be out here in the car. We need to get into town and out of the sun. I don't know when exactly I started noticing the changes. I know things feel different, but at first ‘different’ has no name. Streets, houses, shops pass by the car…it all looks the same as when I was last here and yet it all feels different.

At my gran's nothing has changed. Nothing changes in her house. This is what I love. The Christmas tree will always be in the dining room by the kitchen, dropping dry dusty pine needles on the parquet floor. The hanging things will always be up no matter how old, faded and tired they become. My gran's idea of Christmas decorations is "eclectic" (read that as tactful way of saying sentimental and eccentric). Chinese paper lanterns hang from the ceiling with spirals of foil that were once brightly coloured but now have faded to shimmery pastels. There are balls and bells made out of hundreds of folded and glued pieces of tissue paper. These were once bright too, but in all my childhood the reds have been faded pink. On the tree there plastic baubles that date from the 1950s which have "Coca Cola" written inside them in white and red glitter.

When I was much younger gran would let me put out the nativity scene with all the farm animals and the little baby Jesus, but then the world discovered that lead toys were dangerous and now I can only look at my old friends sitting in a box in the bottom of my grandmother's cupboard.
"Don't touch! They are poisonous!"

I miss the donkey the most. I look at him sadly, stuck forever upside down in a shoe box between the third King and Mary. His brown paint has chipped off his legs, but he's still my favourite. I will miss him. We close the box and leave them to rest in peace.

Later my cousins and aunts and uncles will all be arriving. My grandmother's house is the centre of the wheel of life in my childhood memories. Here I am HOME even more than in my own bed. It is a good feeling. A feeling that only several decades of hanging up the same Christmas decorations every year in the exact same places can bring… security. I have it here in a way I will never have again. I don't know that yet though. Now I am eleven and all I know is that later we will all be going to town Christmas shopping.

"Jenny is here!" My mother calls from the kitchen. Jenny, my best friend, who I haven't seen in almost two years. She lives just around the corner from my grandmother's house. I run to the door and… she has breasts?

I stand in shock and cannot stop myself from staring. She is a year older than me, but even so. Breasts? She smiles a strange new smile. Smug. She is different and I can see she is pleased with this difference. She is wearing little gold hoop earrings in her ears and a T shirt over those .. lumps. I will NOT think the "b" word again! She was my best friend, but now I don't want to see her. She reminds me that I am eleven and my body is changing. I can't see it yet, but I can feel it and it scares me. I have been the girl who was as brave as a boy. Now my body whispers of womanly things to come and I feel only horror. I do not want to become a woman. Women are mothers and grandmothers and teachers. They wear strange underwear and they do weird things to their hair. They have breasts and they complain about their body parts when they sit together drinking tea.

I do NOT want to become a WOMAN. I do not want to change. I do not want to become different. I want to be like my grandmother's house, where everything stays the same... except for poor lead donkeys who now live in shoe boxes forever.

Ok, so maybe becoming a woman is better than being a lead donkey?

We'll see…

Going Home 2

"So when are you going to write your letter?" my aunt asks, again.

I try to pretend she isn't there, but it's hard to make a grown-up disappear when you're eleven. She's been following me around my grandmother's house all day nagging me about this. I can't escape. I've told her three times now that Father Christmas doesn't exist, but every time I do she looks ready to cry and says things like, "Nooo!!! Of COURSE he's real! You must BELIEVE."

My aunt is thirty going on three. I can't win. She's going to go on and on until my head explodes.. or I write the letter. "Do you have writing paper?" I ask, defeated.

She dashes off to the kitchen yelling to my gran, "Shelly's going to write to FATHER CHRISTMAS! She STILL believes! Isn't that CUTE?"

My mom comes out the kitchen. She looks at me and says, "I didn't know you believed in Father Christmas anymore?"

 I just sigh.

I hate my aunt.

I hate my life.

I'd hate father Christmas, but that would be stupid, because…



I write the stupid letter, but it's not easy to do. This is Christmas in Rhodesia during the Bush War and it's hard to find anything to ask for. Yesterday we went shopping and it was a shock. The shops are virtually empty. Clothing racks with bare hangers rattling like old dry bones. Empty shelves with dust on them. I grew up with sanctions, but it was never like this. Back then there were things you couldn't get, and things that were smuggled in, but now there is simply nothing at all.

Everything is different. I felt it when we arrived, but now I understand the reasons behind the feelings. Trees and houses and streets are the same, but people are changed. Their faces are tense and they laugh too loud. There are soldiers in the streets and my uncle shows us his uniform and his guns. He has lots of guns. Ones for himself and ones for my aunt when she is home alone. They live outside of town. There are mines in the countryside. Some people got blown up by a mine placed in a picnic site. I know the place. We used to go there for picnics a lot. I wonder what a mine looks like. I wonder how people can want to kill each other at Christmas. Everything is different and changed.

"Well? Why are you taking so long?" My aunt is looking around the door at me writing my letter. I ignore her and go back to thinking about Christmas presents. Knowing what to ask for is hard because I am eleven. I want toys, but I don't want to want toys. I want to be big, but I don't want to grow up. I don't want to become a woman with breasts and responsibilities. I don't want to be a grown up who understands what a mine looks like and why people kill each other.

What can I ask for? I'm tempted to ask for things that aren't in the shops to prove Father Christmas doesn't exist, but I know that will only mean my mom will walk the town flat looking for something to buy me. I can't punish her for the fact her sister is a twerp. What about a jewellery box? Yes! I want a jewellery box, like the one I bought my mom when I was seven and had saved up my money for her birthday. One of those little satin-covered musical boxes with the ballerina. I love the way she turns around and around when the music plays. I saw a few similar boxes in one of the shops we were in yesterday. I'll ask for that. I feel happy now. I have no jewellery, except for a gold brooch my god-mother gave me when I was a baby, but that's okay. It's the dancing ballerina and the music that I'm really after.

On Christmas morning everyone is smiling a lot. My Aunt points to the corner of the lounge, "There's something there for you."

The whole family are watching me as I go over. There's a gift. It’s wrapped in old paper, because there was no wrapping paper on sale in the shops this year, but it has an "extra" of a picture of Father Christmas stuck on the top. I recognise it. It's one from my gran's collection. She has saved the pictures off Christmas crackers for years. I pick it up and look back at my family… they're all looking at me. I unwrap a little purple satin jewellery box. Inside a plastic ballerina in a lace tutu turns slowly to the tune of "Greensleeves."

Suddenly I feel stupid and embarrassed. Not because they think I'm a little kid and believe in Father Christmas. I feel stupid because I never realised they need me to believe so they can believe too. They want everything to be the same this year too, because change is scary, even for grown-ups. I never realised that before.

I look at their hopeful, anxious smiling faces. I understand now. It is up to me to keep them smiling. I will be excited to get this present from Father Christmas, for their sakes. For this moment they need him more than I do. They need to believe in simple magic and miracles. I lift the box up and say,
"Look what Father Christmas brought me!"

At that moment I'm eleven, but I feel a thousand years old.

Naming of Parts.

I am 14 years old and my mother's aunt and uncle are coming to visit. I've never met them. They are my mother's father's family - the Scottish Dutch side. My mother has cleaned the house for their visit and I've helped. We have swept and polished and dusted and now the house is beautiful and clean, but we are filthy. My mother is panicking because she wanted to wash and change into clean clothes and our guests have arrived early. She tells me to make tea and entertain them while she gets cleaned up.

I take as long as possible to make tea and hide in the kitchen, but I can't stay there forever. I take the tea through, and the tray with plates of little cakes and biscuits. They make me sit between them on the couch. My great uncle Laurence looks nice. He looks a bit like my grandfather, his older brother, but he's thinner and he smiles more. My great aunt Gertie looks okay. She has bright eyes like a bird and she's staring at me...
She says, "You have cousin Connie's ears. Do you see that Laurence? She has Connie's ears, but that nose… that nose is Doreen's."

Great Uncle Laurence smiles and eats a biscuit. He asks me some simple questions I don't remember anymore.

Aunty Gertie is still watching me. She sips her tea and continues talking, "Your mother now. Your mother has the same eyes as great aunt Ida, but I think her face shape is more like uncle Len's. Not like your aunt. Now she is exactly like aunty Phyllis... although Phyllis has Margery's teeth and that's unfortunate."

As I sit there between them I feel myself disintegrating. I am floating away on a sea of unknown relatives who all have prior claim to my "bits". Who am I? I am a patchwork collection of family pieces. There is no "ME". There is only Connie's ears and Doreen's nose and Gaileen's smile. I always thought I was ME. Unique. Complete. But now I'm finding out that I'm simply a collection of family body parts. Nothing belongs to me. I feel lost and strangely taken apart, like a human jigsaw puzzle.
Many years passed and one day I found myself at Great Uncle Laurence's funeral in Johannesburg. After the service all the family gather at the old family home. They are all there, all my Scottish-Dutch cousins... blonde and built like Vikings, even the girls are over 6 foot tall. I am 5 foot 3 and dark. I feel like a pygmy. I wander around, squeezing between unknown people eating plates of food. I feel lost again. I go to sit on the floor by great aunty Gertie. She is smaller and thinner, but her eyes are still very bright. We sit in the corner and watch five generations of family talking, eating, remembering… An unknown relative asks who I am.

Who are you?
Who ARE you?
Who are YOU?

…and Aunty Gertie starts to talk, "This is your second cousin, Michelle. She is your grandfather's brother's daughter's daughter. Can't you see? She has your mother's ears, but when she smiles she's the image of your sister."

As she talks I feel myself being connected. Before I felt taken apart, but here at this funeral I am being woven into the family by my ears and my hair and the colour of my eyes. I start to see things. My cousin Al has his great uncle's jaw and his daughters  look like Aunty Gertie's daughter's daughter. And how come I never noticed before that we ALL have the family nose? It is a big nose, it's hard to miss. A long sharp Scottish nose. Cleopatra would have envied that nose!

 I watch these unknown family moving and talking. Family groups laugh the same and their body language is the same too. I notice, to my embarrassment, that my own personal portion of family stand out like parrots in a flock of chickens. We may look like all the others, but we talk louder and we wave our hands around. My grandmother's Greek-Irish blood shows only in me physically, but all of us carry it in the way we talk. We are louder and more emotional. We are more fun… we are embarrassing. We are something I sometimes hate. We are something I cannot escape.

...and suddenly I understand. This is what family means. It isn't being torn apart - it's being created out of a hundred different people who are all unique and yet... we carry the same ears, the same noses, the same smiles. Wherever we go in the world we will take that with us. We will always have this "home" within us. It lies in our blood and our genetics. We cannot escape it - we are the sum of all those parts. We are family.

Small Histories. 

It is summer in South Africa, 1990. I'm sitting in a garage, holding an old tin box. It is so worn by age that the colour has no description in the English language. I rub my hand across the scratched and worn away surface, feeling old friends inside. I know their faces without having to see them. If I open the box... when I open the box... I will know them and they will know me, but for now it is enough to sit here and listen to them whispering within their tin tomb.

The sun is bright outside the garage. I can hear cars in the distance and birds nearby. My grandfather would sit here for hours, squatting on his haunches with ease, even in his seventies. Sit and watch the world... smoke his pipe. Now he is gone and I am here in old clothes to help family remove grandpa's collections.

Grandpa was a pack rat supreme. There are at least twenty jam jars of screws and nails so rusted no-one could ever use them again. There are five books of wallpaper samples he used to decorate two generations of doll's houses and eight tins of World War two tank paint used mostly to repaint the concrete garden gnome that now sits on the front steps. There are Rhodesian TV magazines dating back to the sixties. Their covers show girls wearing mini skirts and enormous hair. Their adverts are for products and companies long gone and their TV listings are heavily nostalgic - Star Trek and Twilight Zone, Fred Flintstone and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo.

My dad puts them alongside the rest of the junk to be recycled or dumped. So much of my grandfather's collecting was junk and yet he could create wonder from it. Like the penny farthing cycle he built from scraps of wire and metal or the castle forts and doll's houses he meticulously glued together from old empty matchboxes. I actually hated the doll's house. I'd wanted a castle, but even at eight I'd been awed at the craftsmanship that was needed to create a luxury double-story, with cardboard roof tiles and real windows of thin plastic sheeting, out of matchboxes.

Sitting amongst the dusty dregs of a lifetime's collecting I sit with "the box" and remember. I can't lift the lid. As long as the box is closed the memories inside are dormant - frozen. Inside this box time stands still. As long as the lid is shut my grandpa is alive and we are sitting in his room in Rhodesia as he tells me all the small histories. Once I lift the lid it will be over. The photos are not mine - they are going to other family members as keepsakes. So I sit and hold the memories a little longer. I have asked permission to scan as many as I want, but it won't be the same. I have no-one I can tell their stories to, as my grandfather told me, and scanned pictures on a screen aren't the same as brittle dry paper held in the hand.

Perhaps my heart is as sad to let them go as it is to let him go... but I have one consolation. I have the tales and the memories - the small histories. No-one can take those from me. I smile and open the box...

The Last Pioneer ..

Hubby said something this morning that was so obvious I'd never thought about it before. He said,
"It's rather nice having one of the world's last pioneers in your family."

He was meaning my mom. You see... my mom spent her late teenage years living in the wilds of Africa between Mozambique and (then) Southern Rhodesia. Her family were the first Europeans to venture through that area. My grandfather was sent ahead by the railways, before they started work on the line that would eventually join the interior to the Mozambique coast. He took his family with him. The whole family had some amazing (sometimes funny, sometimes scary) adventures during the years they spent living in the bush. They experienced an Africa that is ceasing to exist - a place of untouched mystery and abundant wildlife. Here's my mom posing with a hippo skull in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

It's rather nice having one of the world's last pioneers in your family...

I hadn't thought about the "last" before. In our world of travel and exploration there are so few places left untouched and unseen. How many people can say they were the first pioneer to travel through, or live in, an unknown portion of this planet?

My mom can... and yes, that really is very cool. :-)

My Sacred Clown ...

An interesting new Blog called Cloister Voices issued a rather unique challenge. You can read the long version on their blog. Here's the short version:
"Meme Challenge: Describe your first encounter with a hermit, mystic, or an unusually eccentric person."

My very first encounter with an eccentric has to be my dad’s father. He was someone I only knew literally between the ages of birth and four, but who came to me a thousand times through my life in the hearts and words of the people whose lives he had changed. He was there, one way or another, my entire childhood. He influenced everything from my sense of humour to my opinions on religion, but how do you describe a man who was so charismatic and yet so elusive?

My grandfather was born as the middle child of a large family in the British African colony of Southern Rhodesia. When he died, at a far too early age, so many people came to his funeral that they had to put chairs outside the windows and doors.

Named Gabriel after an angel, yet never angelic, he was a walking oxymoron – an extrovert who loved being alone. He was a born performer, the charmer and the clown who stood out at every gathering and yet he almost never spoke about himself. He loved to be with people and yet he would sometimes just pick up his gun and gear and vanish into the bush for a week or a day. He knew the land intimately, as only a lover can, and the people of the land loved him in return. He knew every edible and poisonous plant and he knew every stone… quite literally. Geology was one of his passions and he had barrels of agates, amethyst, malachite and tigers eye that he’d collected on his wanderings. He worked as a dowser finding not only water, but minerals and even gold. After he died the barrels came to us and as a child I’d sit in the sand and play with chunks of malachite and agate, pyrites and mica.

If I had to sum him up in one word I’d have to steal it from another culture and another continent. My grandfather was a Heyoka, the Lakota word for a Sacred Clown. I first came upon that idea several years back and the moment I read about it I knew I’d found my grandfather’s true spiritual calling...
Heyoka are thought of as being backwards-forwards, upside-down, or contrary in nature. This spirit is often manifest by doing things backwards or unconventionally.Their satire presents important questions by fooling around. They ask difficult questions, and say things others are too afraid to say. By reading between the lines, the audience is able to think about things not usually thought about, or to look at things in a different way.
Heyokas don’t seem to care about taboos, rules, regulations, social norms, or boundaries. Paradoxically, however, it is by violating these norms and taboos that they help to define the accepted boundaries, rules, and societal guidelines for ethical and moral behavior. This is because they are the only ones who can ask "Why?" about sensitive topics... Their role is to penetrate deception, turn over rocks, and create a deeper awareness.
(Quoted from HERE)

Just like the Heyoka, my grandfather poked silly sticks at every “sacred cow” and did everything backwards-forwards. As the entertainer he did vaudeville type shows for the miners and nearly got lynched one time when the miners realised that the “girl” doing a striptease behind a curtain was actually my grandfather wearing false wooden breasts he’d made himself for his act. He played over a dozen different musical instruments, sometimes creating his own “orchestra” recordings by using two reel-to-reel tape recorders to tape himself playing over himself playing. Perfectly able to create beautiful music from a whole range of perfectly normal musical instruments the one he is most remembered for is playing the saw as beautifully as a violin.

How he dressed with complete disregard to fashion in whatever he liked, which included going to town in his favourite pith helmet on Saturday mornings. He never went to any church, yet helped out at all of them.. he also laughed at all of them. He laughed at everything he thought ridiculous or pretentious, nothing was too sacred to be found silly, and yet he rarely angered or hurt anyone’s feelings with his laughter. His comic version of the Catholic Latin Mass has been known to leave good Catholics giggling hysterically. I think it’s because he laughed from love and a pure joy in the silliness of humankind. He was a terrible mangler of song lyrics, making up his own wickedly funny or just plane giggle-silly versions of everything from everyday tunes and classical works to opera and hymns. I grew up singing his versions, always naughty, sometimes rude, but never to the point of offensive or insulting.

I have no conscious memories of him, but he’s there in the sparkle in people’s eyes when they speak of him. Through him, and through his son, I grew up with an abiding sense of silliness and a complete disrespect for anything/anyone pompous. To this day, over forty years after his death, I still sing his song lyrics (as well as make up my own for new songs), I tend to dress with an equal disregard for fashion, and I have an obsession with stones that I think he would have approved of…
and he managed to have the last laugh on us all.

Six years ago my husband came out to Africa to marry me. One morning, a few weeks before we left Africa to return to Scotland, he came through singing. This might not seem very remarkable, except hubby isn’t a sing-out-loud type. He prefers an audience of one, not a kitchen full of people making breakfast. My dad turned to him in absolute amazement and asked, “Why are you singing that song?” Hubby shrugged and admitted he had no idea, but my dad did.

It was one of my grandfather’s favourites - an old song called “Home on the Range.” My dad shook his head in wonder, “Do you know what today is?” he asked us. I didn’t know, only my mom remembered. It was the date of my grandfather’s death.

Only a Sacred Clown could have pulled off a joke from the other side. ;-)