The misty mirrors of childhood
By Tom Brown
“The land of Song within thee lies,
Watered by living springs;
“Holy thoughts, like stars, arise,
Its clouds are angels' wings.”
“Look, then, into thine heart, and write!
Yes, into Life's deep stream!”
Like father like son
My late father was affectionately known as Buster, a name given to him by his grandfather when he was still a baby.
Frank Brown fought in the Boer War, he was only a teenager he was just a boy. He was a bugler. In the Great War he was one of the handful of survivors of the Battle of Delville Wood but his leg was amputated. Almost the entire SA infantry was wiped out.
I arrived with a teddy bear under the arm and a spanner in the hand. I could never understand how he always knew what number spanner he needed. Just one glance at the bolt or nut and he asked and he did not make a mistake once. My father was a motor mechanic.
My brother came in nappies with a bottle in the one hand and a hammer in the other. Even today still a hammer is his tool of choice.
As a baby I was looked after by African women during the day, a domestic worker at my grandmother's. It was not at all unusual at the time. My father was at work and my mother was attending university.
I remember the day I got my shiny red new trapkar (pedal-car), my father took me to a big toy shop and we chose one. This trapkar was sturdy it went a long way it worked with pedals and a kind of crankshaft. To impress the little girlfriend across the street I liked banging it into the garage door over and over. A habit it seems I still haven't quite outgrown.
My first hiding was around this time. On my little legs outside I'd been ordering around shouting at and cursing some labourers and for no rhyme or reason, black men who were working in the vacant plot next door.
One couldn't say that he really wanted to murder me but close. This hiding probably would make the top three. Although I think it was the very same day I thought it a good idea to vigorously shake the can of beer I fetched him from the fridge (and after he'd warned me not to).
Once as a toddler I ventured alone on a footpath in the grass between the bushes and trees and came upon a few black men sitting in a clearing. They were making mealie porridge on a small fire of branches and twigs. It was made in a big coffee tin on stones, and stirred with a stick. They let me sit there by them and listen. The men were labourers working close by. These people were very poor. When the stywe (very stiff) pap was ready we ate it with the hand out of the big coffee tin. We shared in the pap it was rolled into a ball and then eaten. It was the staple food in those days I believe it still is. It is very nutritious it gives a man strength and endurance for long hard work.
I knew I was quite safe there by them I did this more than once, the men were very kind. There on my haunches I sat listening to the men talking around the fire. In our country small children are expected not to speak when in the company of adults.
Out on the farm as children when on holiday we always played with the black kids the people were living in a kraal in much the same way as their ancestors. It is not so common now but many people in South-Africa and Africa still have this same rural lifestyle especially in very remote areas. They kept cattle and they tilled the ground for mealies and other grain as well as vegetables. It was subsistence farming.
In the evenings they lit up fires with dusk, sometimes it was more of a bonfire and the younger danced in the firelight by beating drums. My younger brother liked to join in and very enthusiastically, and we shared in the meal. The old men staring into the dwindling flames told stories until late into the night and speaking truths with solemn wisdom.
We were at home there as family, but my father didn't like this that much so we would go there when on holiday with my grandparents who owned the property.
The magic puddle
While visiting family friends I recall as a small child after lunch I ventured off alone. It had been raining and had cleared up and it was sunshine again. The grown-ups were visiting and chatting, nobody had noticed I'd wandered off and along down the street on my own. After the summer shower the road was shining wet and the lawns glistening as water drops still fell from trees' leaves and branches. Outdoors all was clean and new and the air crisp and fresh.
I loved adventure, a sense of anticipation. To explore this endless world always waiting full of promise of the new the exciting and unexpected.
Then there on the edge of the road on my haunches I discovered in amazement and disbelief completely lost to the world and time itself, a miracle. It was a puddle of all colours wonderful and magical flowing into each other most beautifully. In beautiful chrome and silvery gold flowing delightful patterns within patterns of all of many colours and gleaming hues.
I lingered there for long, fascinated by the sight.
It was there simply, and I was a very small child. I recall it quite vividly. It was just a small puddle of water stained by a bit of oil from the road.
“Sweet vision! Do not fade away;
Linger until my heart shall take into itself the summer day.”
“Visions of childhood! Stay, O stay!
Ye were so sweet and wild!”