Help!

I need somebody
(Help!) Not just anybody
(Help!) You know I need someone
(Help!)

“Is that close enough?”

Behind me, over my right shoulder, someone is being maneuvered into a spot for the table. I don’t look, continue drinking my late breakfast coffee, scrolling through the article about the Jay’s loss in Tampa on Thursday.

“Yes, thank you. Could you put the brakes on?”

“Of course. Will you be needing anything else?” asked the young woman.

“No. Thanks again.” His voice rising above the crackle of the unravelling sandwich wrap.

The hospital atrium is a hub of care workers, patients and relatives finding solace in some refreshments and a respite from mask wearing. An indulgent apple fritter and another medium dark roast has prolonged my stay. One more hour before Olga is out of the operating room and then another hour and a half for recovery before I can venture back to the day surgery reception on the third floor.

The bats were quieted again by a series of relievers.. THUD! I whip my head around to catch the plastic Coke bottle rolling away on the floor.

“Oh man. Ugh.”

Smartphone still in hand, I shove back my seat, move to the right of the wheelchair and bend down to return the drink to the table.

“I have some extra napkins to wipe up the floor.”

“Is there a big mess? My eyesight is poor and cannot see beyond what is close in front of me.”

“No, not a lot. The lid helped.”

“Thank you. Nice to meet you. My name is Gerald. And yours?”

“Henry. Nice to meet you as well.” I sit back in my seat, sneaking a glance at Gerald’s bandaged leg with a metal prosthetic shin and ceramic foot.

With the last of the highlight videos and the final gulp of tepid coffee, I stand up to begin a slow stroll and think to ask Gerald if all is okay.

“I need to find the bank machine. There is one just around the corner of the pharmacy, over there to the right. Would you be able to push me to it?”

“Not a problem. Brakes off?” and away we go. Around the staircase, dodging the parade of people traversing the floor, Gerald directs me to the ATM machines, asking for the one on the left because the other had accepted his card earlier but did not dispense any money. I inch him up until the foot petals touch the wall. “All good?”

Hunched over, Gerald coddles a tattered money purse, opens it and asks “Do you mind looking in there for my bank cards? There is a green one for the TD and a blue one for RBC. Yes, that one; and that one. Good. Thanks. Can you put in the TD card into the machine for me? I can’t see very well and I need to get some money for groceries. I only do this about once a month. I need six hundred dollars. I will tell you the pin.”

I hesitate. Am I hearing this correctly? He wants me to use his bank cards to withdraw cash? Is he trusting me to not abscond with any of the money? Can I trust him to not falsely report a crime? Is his eyesight that poor? Is this a ruse? Secret camera somewhere?

Gerald looks up; I cannot say no, so I insert the card and begin reading out the prompts.
Pin? He rattles off the four digit number.
Account? Chequing.
$600? Confirmed.
It only allows for a maximum of $400? You will need to cancel and do it twice – one for $400 and the next for $200.
What is your pin again? And we repeat the procedure.

Eventually the machine spits out a stack of twenties which I extract from the dispenser, unsuccessfully attempting to place the bills in Gerald’s hands before he suggests putting the money directly into the pouch along with the card.
Now you want $360 from the RBC account? Yes.
Pin? He repeats the exact same numbers.
Another transfer, before confirming there is a wad of bills adding up to $960, the amounts from each bank separated by the respective cards. He stuffs the closed money purse into his satchel without checking, without question.

I wheel Gerald to the volunteer desk as he thanks me for the time. Wandering back to Tim Horton’s, I am half expecting to be apprehended by security or police in the foyer for stealing money from a blind and lame victim. The opportunity was there. No one was paying attention.

Yet Gerald, in a position of vulnerability, put his faith in someone he did not know, could barely recognize, and only just befriended in a chance encounter.

And his faith was rewarded.

Scatterlings of Africa

We are on the road to Phelamanga*
Beneath a copper sky

It was an inauspicious start to the day, my last in South Africa. The 8:00 am pickup was delayed until 8:30; not a problem, more relaxing for breakfast. Out in front of the hotel promptly, I began pacing in the sun as each minute ticked past the allotted time, inching ever closer to 9:00. I was in the midst of composing a text when the vehicle arrived to park in front of the gate. The driver popped out of the Corolla; tall, sporting a fedora, he waved me over, offering a seat, front or back, whatever my preference because I would be the lone tourist, unexpectedly, for the Apartheid Museum and Soweto tour.

We exchanged greetings and engaged in some small talk. Audrey then began talking about the day, confessing he was not certain the Apartheid Museum would be open. I was puzzled, thinking, as the guide, he would have that information at his finger tips. No worries. Yet.

Audrey started explaining about buildings within our sights, providing some history to Johannesburg, pointing out attractions as we motored through the city in the direction of the museum. The parking lot was empty, a lone security guard lingering outside the entrance doors. Maybe we were early.

Nope. Audrey was informed the museum was closed Mondays and Tuesdays at this time of the year.

Now what?

“I guess we can substitute another venue. I had seen a number of sights suggested by Trip Advisor. Perhaps we could explore some of those instead.”

“Okay. Was there anything you wanted to see?” Audrey asked, not offering up any suggestions.

I dug out my smart phone and began a Google search of sights in Johannesburg. The only one of interest not already included (presumably) was a place called Constitution Hill.

“What do you think?”

“Okay. We can do that. I will drive to Soweto. After we will stop at Constitution Hill.”

Back onto the road, heading for the highway, we continued, the remainder of this half-day tour now in question, at least in my mind. The descriptions started up again, pointing to a modern, enclosed stadium built to support the World Cup several years ago, allowing 3,000 fans. When questioned, he changed to 30,000 which on the ride back ratcheted up to 90,000.

In the distance, we caught a glimpse of Constitution Hill. Audrey’s tone changed. His statements emphatic. “The courts were built on the site of a prison where the people were treated like animals. No, they were treated worse than animals.”

The Hector Pieterson Memorial would be our first stop in Soweto. The accompanying museum was closed. Audrey began describing the 1976 events which led to its construction.

Without hesitation, he spoke with reverence of the protest for equality in education, how the site was named after the young boy in the picture, one of several hundred who died that day when troops opened fire on the crowd. The running water represented the tears, flowing over the stones which were the only weapons of the people, the pillars depicting the lives lost, the spaces in between for the unidentified victims.

Back into the car we headed for the stacks, now an iconic symbol of the township. Built by the people of Soweto, within its confines, providing electricity for other parts. Soweto itself would remain dark, a hint of disgust in Audrey’s voice.

On to Vilakazi Street, home of two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. With equal pride, I recalled watching the release of Mandela from prison. Audrey was too young to remember the day but emphasized its importance.

Leaving Soweto Township, we engaged in conversation about class and wealth; Audrey began identifying areas according to their income status, placing himself as middle. The towers of Constitution Hill were in our view again, so Audrey repeated some of his earlier history lessons, ending with an indignant, “Prisoners were treated worse than animals.”

The list of sites to visit understates the significance and impact of Constitution Hill. A trifle unassuming when we arrived, the horror of South Africa’s past and the hope for it’s future are encompassed in a recreation of the old and the construction of the new.

The notorious prison stripped the dignity of its captives with open lavatories adjacent to the eating quarters, frequent use of isolation cells without light and blankets, food rationed according to your race – white, coloured or black. Audrey examined the exhibit with the interest of a tourist, absorbing the material, listening intently to video explanations, ensuring I did not overlook the salient pieces.

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones – and South Africa treated it imprisoned African citizens like animals.” Nelson Mandela.

The judicial chambers of the Constitutional Court were built with the bricks of the holding towers to constantly remind the judges of the grounds surrounding them, of the ghosts which haunt South Africa’s history. The atrium outside displayed the art of apartheid and the vision of reconciliation.

Walking to Mandela’s cell, in the old fort portion of the complex, Audrey repeated for the third time, “people were treated worse than animals” with a conviction emboldened by the displays. If his description of most aspects of Johannesburg sounded learned and static, Audrey’s portrayal of black lives under Apartheid emanated from emotions deep within.

Time was up, the tour was over, Audrey had more customers for the afternoon. He drove me back to the hotel, hoping it met my expectations and apologized for the museum mix up.

The accidental stop, Constitution Hill, arose as the most important visit on my very brief stay in South Africa.

Scatterlings and fugitives
Hooded eyes and weary brows
Seek refuge in the night

They are the scatterlings of Africa

*the end of lies, where truth begins

Downtown

Things will be great when you’re
Downtown
No finer place for sure

The Playground, a market only open on Saturdays, is listed among a number of sights to visit in Johannesburg. My South African colleagues were not aware of the place, asking me to be more precise about the location. When I showed the map, they classified the immediate area as orange: safe to visit, just remember to be careful, typical precautions of a big city. You might also consider visiting an area call Maboneng, a fledgling new hotspot. I am sure they assumed Uber would be my form of transportation because there was no mention of the space in between.

The Uber driver let me off at the requested address, a twenty minute ride from the hotel. I recognized the building from the website and eventually found the entrance. Greeted there by a jovial black man and a young white woman providing guidance, I inquired about food, asking for their recommendation. Both immediately pointed to the Argentinian stall serving the most delicious steak sandwiches. I sat with my order at a nearby table and engaged in a conversation with a couple originating from China who have lived in Johannesburg for 17 years. The crowd at the Playground consisted of white tourists and South Africans, checking out the wares, marveling at the variety of food, enjoying a drink, bouncing to the beat of the DJ, absorbing the warmth of the sun on the wrap around balcony. It is a hub of diversity and activity.

Rather than hang around, however, I decided to venture to Maboneng as suggested. I entered the address of a district store into Google Maps, which estimated a 45 minute walk. The sun was shining, the temperature was a pleasant 20 degrees Celsius so I eschewed another car ride for a self directed sightseeing city stroll.

As I marshalled along the prescribed route, smartphone in hand, the conditions began to worsen. Garbage was heaped in every corner, brown water pooling in all the crevices, bodies hidden under mounds of material. The streets were in upheaval, blistering walls, boarded windows, hangers on at each corner, evidence of poverty abound. The tourist guide book didn’t mention these parts, except as a place to avoid, especially at night.

I was the oddity, the interloper, the only white person in the maze from The Playground to the Maboneng Precinct, wearing a Cubs pullover jacket, a brown felt Indiana Jones style hat atop my head. Stalls of fruits, and vegetables, open cooking fires, cheap wares and material for the inner city residents lined the streets. I garnered some curious looks, eyes observing as I walked, assessing the surroundings, stopping only to check the GPS on my phone. The occasional vendor sought my attention, the rest sat slumped on the ground awaiting any semblance of interest. I was not accosted at any time, although a couple of idle taxi drivers offered a ride, one who explained I was not safe and he could drive me out of the area. I would rather put faith in the street than in his vehicle.

Sporadic cell coverage silenced the familiar computer generated voice, constantly recalculating my position, consistently lagging my progress. I walked through intersections where I was supposed to turn, headed west instead of east, turned circles around searching for unmarked streets. Forty minutes in and I was still forty minutes away. There were moments when I was becoming apprehensive. Where am I? Which way do I turn?

Finally, I found Joubert Park which immediately became my respite from the streets, an opportunity to settle and regroup in the sun. Worn from usage and neglect, the oldest park in Johannesburg appears to be a refuge for the locals, with people lounging on the grass, mothers and children strolling the grounds, pairs of men playing chess.

Somewhat rested, determined, I continued, exiting onto the street, moving parallel to the park, the stench of urine soaking the outside walls. I became a one man gauntlet through several blocks of people amassing in a Saturday market, a turn into the half empty street of shuttered buildings, down to the underpass, dodging traffic crossing to the other side when the scenery noticeably changed. Metal sculptures spelled out the name of the Maboneng district, buildings were refurbished, the people better dressed. Two blocks later I am at it’s heart. The main intersection flooded with young, hip people, music pumping out of vehicles, exuding the vibrancy of this gentrifying section of the city’s core. I had arrived.

Tired, thirsty, I settled into Mama Mexicana restaurant for a Marguerita before ordering a plate of Nachos. It was now approaching five o’clock. In a half hour, darkness would descend upon Johannesburg; time to beckon an Uber back to the hotel. The owner and the staff recognized me as a foreigner and helped confirm the location for me on the app. One waitress suggested waiting inside because phone snatchers will take advantage. Compared from whence I just came, this section of downtown was a safe zone. I had no concern although I was touched by hers. With the car nearing I stepped outside; she accompanied me, watching the progress on my app, escorting me to the corner where the car awaited, ensuring it was the correct vehicle. The ride back to the hotel was quick. Today’s adventure was over.

I have found myself in similar situations during my travels in the past. I recall a walk, totally unbeknownst, from the hotel in Atlanta, Georgia to the Martin Luther King Memorial through one of the poorest and most dubious sections of the city. I have witnessed places and people normally left off the map. Downtown Johannesburg reflects that of most every major city. Although unplanned, I am richer for the experience.

And you may find somebody kind to help and understand you
Someone who is just like you and needs a gentle hand

Wild Thing

You make my heart sing

There was an understated anticipation on the mini bus. We exchanged the obligatory polite hellos, names and where are you from questions. Gerald travelled 30 hours from his home in Seattle to arrive in Cape Town before making a last second decision to join this tour. Sean is originally from South Africa, currently living in England, while his companion, Mary, lives in Wales. This journey was billed as the Ultimate Pilanesberg National Park Safari Tour – A guided safari of Pilanesberg National Park to spot the ‘Big 5’ and other species. The price and the timing fit my schedule. And like my travelling companions, the decision was last minute, for the same reason: How could one travel to South Africa without exploring the wild life.

Sean and Mary sat a couple rows to the back for the two hour ride; I was behind the driver, Dennis, and Gerald was ensconced in the passenger seat. Gerald and I relayed stories of our other travels, spoke of sports, and bandied thoughts on colleges, as Dennis navigated through some very early morning fog, the three of us sharing my massive take away continental breakfast courtesy of the hotel. Occasionally we included Sean and Mary with intermittent questions, however, they were content with their own company.

Our van met five more vacationers at the park and were introduced to our guide at 9:00 am, before piling into the open air jeep. Desmond introduced himself and the basic rules: don’t leave the vehicle at any point in time, lest a waiting lion leaps from the grass and haul you away; don’t hang your arms out the side because that same lion may rip it off for a snack; and think of the bumpy ride as a bonus massage of your bottom. His humour established, Desmond popped into the driver seat and we were off.

In 2017, Olga and I embarked on a grand safari to the NgoroNgoro Crater and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, collecting pictures and memories of numerous birds and animals. So I was not as excited when the rest on the jeep jumped at the sight of some grazing small antelope. I didn’t even take a picture. “We will move on”, says Desmond, “there will be many more throughout the park. We guides refer to them as McDonalds because the lions can find them everywhere. “

Five minutes later, just around a bend, a male giraffe was chomping on some leaves, twenty feet in front of us. I rose to my feet, snapped out my phone, twisted my body for the best angle and clicked away until I achieved the perfect shot.

I was surprised at my own excitement. Thirteen pictures in total. Half a kilometre down the road, after a detailed explanation of the significance of rhino dung, we spotted two white rhinoceros. I snapped away again. Zoom in, raise the camera, wait and click, and click, wait some more as they move around, another dozen photos and we are done.

This pair was my first close look at a rhinoceros. I was hooked. Again.

Wild thing. You thrill me.

The remainder of the day was in pursuit of all the other inhabitants of nature’s zoo. The most challenging proved to be the lions. Radio exchanges between guides about a possible pair on the next road turned out to be a false alarm. Skepticism on the sighting of a herd was vanquished when a game ranger informed Desmond of sime on the other side of the range, far end of the park. “Let’s go hunt the hunter.”

And there they were. Two. Snaking through the grass in a stealth crawl, a herd of small antelope ahead. The beginning of a low trot raised everyone’s expectation, silent, watching. Perhaps it was the sight of two vehicles which twigged a careful assessment by the antelopes; the herd appeared to have caught wind of the lions’ presence and began bounding away. The lions abandoned the pursuit and slowly walked past the paparazzi, up the dirt path, and onto another private road with a sign forbidding any human to enter.

By lunch we had managed to have found two and a half of the big five – lion, elephant, white rhino (as opposed to the black rhino) – spotted a leopard hanging in a tree, too difficult to see with the naked eye and too far for a smartphone camera. The prospects of encountering an African water buffalo appeared slim.

The most adorable sight was a mother hippopotamus and her baby lounging in the water, meandering to the shore. Raising her heft onto land, massive body supported by short stubby legs, the mother began her stroll inward. Baby hippo lingered behind, chomping on fresh foliage before realizing it was being left behind, scampered it’s cannon body in a rush to catch up.

Wild thing, you move me.

Another giraffe, zebras, a brown hyena, king fisher birds diving for fish, two more white rhinos. The tour ended by 3:00 and we headed back to Johannesburg.

The ride home was quiet, tired from the 5:30 am start, each of us sharing our good day on social media. I continue to marvel at the wonder of nature.

I realized after this visit the importance of taking advantage of opportunities. They are a connection to ourselves, to the wider world. They help me appreciate how fortunate I really am.

Wild thing, I think I love you.

5 Days in May

My accent gives me away.

People then leap to the assumption I am American, which I quickly correct before they ask if this trip is my first time in the country. My response immediately induces a smile and the understandable question: “So how do you like South Africa so far”?

With a sheepish grin I confess to having seen very little beyond the boundaries of my hotel, a handful of government buildings, their internal workings and whatever sights observed through the window of the vehicle transporting us between locations in Pretoria. For these past five days in May, my experience has been limited to meetings and conversations within the confines of business rooms, hotel restaurants and the adjacent bar. The sun drops below the horizon by 5:30 in these winter months, when the working day is over, further reducing the opportunities for sight seeing. Save for the people themselves, I could have been in any small city in Europe.

There are some differences, systemic and quirky. Driving on the left hand side of the road, for example, confounds me every time I step into the vehicle. As a passenger, I find the ride disconcerting. Of course the driver navigates the streets with ease while I cringe thinking he is proceeding into the wrong lane and we are going to crash. Right turns appear too wide; left turns feel as if taking a short cut. When it is the only car on the street, I assume it is a one way; and I startle whenever another zips past in the other direction, on our right. Perhaps I would acclimatize more quickly if I were driving myself. Or not!

Had I been at the wheel when the blackout started, my response may have been questionable. On two occasions, retuning to our hotel after dark, the power kicked out across the city without forewarning or apparent cause. The South Africans did not blink an eye. Another day, another power outage. Moments later a scattering of buildings and business flickered into full illumination because they had invested into a generator for these regular occurrences. The street lights and the traffic lights (‘robots’ as per one colleague) remained unlit as drivers proceeded, traversing each intersection as a four way stop. No fuss, no horns, just carrying on. Slower movement and some longer waits, all in keeping with the expected norms. Eventually power is restored. The next day, at almost the exact time, power went out again on our trip. Yawn.

Some of the quirkiness was noticed at the hotel, my home for these five days. It operates as a small conference center with numerous public bathrooms. The set up is familiar, the bathroom signs were not.

I smiled when my search for the facilities uncovered them. Perhaps the designers were remembering their experience in meetings and conferences where coffee is consumed one after another after another out of habit and availability. All that liquid needs to be released at some point.

The predominance of instant coffee in Africa is amusing. During my time in Tanzania and again here in South Africa, instant coffee is common. And not just your regular freeze dried version, but powdered as well, all flavoured with chicory specifically for the continent.

The coffee “machine” in the room is a kettle.

My African colleagues recalled how the testing by large purveyors of coffee products had shown African’s preferred the additional taste and consumed it in larger numbers.

The days had been melding together and then Friday happened. At four o’clock I was officially “off the clock”. One colleague had family in Pretoria and we were invited for dinner consisting of oxtail, stump pot, roasted vegetables and salad. We left immediately to the home situated above the city to catch the sunset for the first time.

We had a very enjoyable evening of drink and conversation, exchanging stories and laughter from each of our respective countries and perspectives. Indeed, everyone with whom I have encountered has been welcoming and warm, genuinely interested in my well being and comfort. Sure there is an element of novelty, someone from Canada tends to prompt a number of questions about geography and weather, economics and politics. The interest is also in you, as a person, ensuring your time in their city, their country is enjoyable.

My remaining time will include sightseeing in Johannesburg and a one day safari, the standard itinerary of international travelers here. In these 5 Days in May I have enjoyed my interactions with the people of South Africa and with them have come to learn a great deal more of the country, one where I would excitedly return.


How will you ever know
The way that circumstances go
Always gonna hit you by surprise

Jet Airliner

Ridin’ along in this big ol’ jet plane
I’ve been thinkin’ about my home

I was thinking about my inaugural plane ride when the family travelled to the Netherlands in the summer of 1967. The trip was Mom and Dad’s first time back, almost ten years after their arrival in Canada, to celebrate Dad’s parent’s golden wedding anniversary. It was a highly anticipated event, years saving the money, months in preparation. Mom wanted to make every aspect perfect.

The four boys were dressed for Sunday church, white shirts, black pants, bow ties; eight, seven, six and two. Michael was young enough to be deemed a baby, not requiring a separate ticket, no seat, sleeping at my parent’s feet, in economy class. The neighbour across the street chauffeured us to the Toronto airport, traversing the 401 highway, three hour return, to save on the cost of long-term parking.

We arrived at the requisite two hour advance time for the 7:00 pm departure only to discover the Martinair flight was delayed for some imprecise mechanical repair that stretched to midnight. It’s hard to keep a white shirt clean when you are bored and hungry and tired, squirming to find comfort on utilitarian seats. The meticulous outfits lost to the vagaries airline travel. The entire De Cock and van Rooij families greeted a bedraggled couple with their disheveled four boys in tow.

This trip to South Africa is my first since March 2020, days before the world began to shut down, precipitated by contract work accepted because it would involve travel. All elements are organized and paid by the International Finance Committee of the World Bank, featuring the luxuries of business class with the concomitant priority lines and free lounges.

China and glass and silverware. Wine and liquor and beer. Napkins and comfort and service. Individual pods and sleeping seats and noise-reducing headphones.

This trip is me, alone.

Statue welcoming passengers at Johannesburg – OR Tambo International Airport

This experience is not that first one to the Netherlands almost 50 years ago. My world has changed and taking opportunities to opt for convenience becomes an important goal in planning our growing list of desirable destinations. The prospect of spending seventeen hours in a plane, squeezed into seemingly small spaces with diminishing quality frightens me.

Yet I would travel in any manner, any time, any where if it meant travelling together, with Olga.

Big ol’ jet airliner
Don’t carry me too far away

I got loaded

Last night. On a bottle of gin.

Not really, but I savoured every ounce.

KLM, Royal Dutch Airlines, Flight number 692, Toronto to Amsterdam. First leg of a 24 hour journey to Johannesburg, South Africa.

I noticed Bols Corenwyn – Aged Dutch Genever at the top of the spirits list on the menu as I settled into seat 2G, getting comfortable with the luxuries. In taking my dinner order, the attendants had already established I could not speak Dutch in spite of my name. When asked about a liqueur with my sweet dessert, I stumbled over the pronunciation and pointed to the words.

“Oh! but of course” beamed the server, abandoning her cart and disappearing behind the curtain, returning some moments later with a tiny brown bottle.

“We don’t get much call for this anymore. It is a special one. Corenwyn.”

She twisted off the seal and passed over the classic crockery.

“I cannot buy it in Canada. A Dutch friend would bring me back a bottle whenever he visited the Netherlands.”

“You must visit the distillery in a small town outside Rotterdam whenever you visit Holland” she encouraged before smiling broadly and moving on to the next passenger.

Later, a different flight attendant stopped her cart to clear away the dinner dishes.

“Did you like the Genever?”

“Yes, I love it.”

“Oh! you have tried it before.”

A few minutes later, moments after the lights dimmed, she returned to my pod with an unopened crock. “Save this one for later” she whispered. I slipped it into my bag.

A third attendant noticed my glass, reached in to clear it away before realizing I had not finished.

“I am sorry. Would you like some more whiskey?”

“I am drinking Genever”, sounding more Dutch.

“Oh! Do you like it? Do you want another?”

Excited, she retreated to the front of the plane, returned with a refill and emptied the light amber nectar into my glass.

“Do you like the bottle?”

“It was one of the reasons I bought one the first time.”

“Would you like to keep it? Or maybe next time?”

“Maybe next time.”

Celebration

… There’s a party goin’ on right here
A celebration to last throughout the years
So bring your good times and your laughter too
We gonna celebrate your party with you
Come on now

Yesterday would have been Mom and Dad’s 64th wedding anniversary; given Dad would have been 89 and Mom 93, the chances of celebrating the occasion were slim. Mom’s untimely death in 2005 meant they did not make it to number 50 either, a milestone which would most certainly have been marked with a party.

My parents did not let a special day pass without a card, a telephone call, a visit, a cake or a drink. Their own birthdays were treated as merely another year, just don’t dare forget it. April 30th was an all together different matter, especially the milestone years. And when they celebrated, it was with gusto.

The first recorded collection of photographs stem from the silver wedding anniversary in 1983. I remember the planning, the preparation, the people, and the late night. A review of the picture collection reveals a very proud couple, enjoying the day and the company.

One of many toasts. From left to right, Tante Toos, Dad, Mom, Uncle Herman and me.

The measure of it’s importance was reflected in the visitation of relatives. Dad’s two older sisters, Anne and Toos, were in attendance along with Mom’s eldest sibling, Fr. Herman van Rooij, flying in from the Netherlands. The day started with a special Mass at Mary Immaculate, led by Uncle Herman, Gary and Peter as altar servers, Michael delivering the readings, Olga and myself singing and playing in the folk choir. It was a very special event.

Five years later, I remember a spontaneous and somewhat raucous night of drinking and dancing with all the boys and their partners after a celebratory dinner at Kostis Avenue. A very young Nicholas and baby Olena upstairs asleep while the adults played, loudly.

Couples in the Netherlands don’t wait until the Golden anniversary for the next major wedding celebration. The 50th might not happen so they begin with number 40, then number 45 and then the big one. By the time of my parents’ 40th, the clan had grown considerably with a boat load of grandchildren. Mom and Dad hired a catering company to cook and serve within their home, a family friendly event enjoyed by everyone. Even though the partying was subdued, the gathering itself was remarkable.

In 2008, Olga and I celebrated our 25th, the same year which would have marked my parents 50th. Learning from them, we wanted to honour the auspicious occasion with a party of family and friends. Mom had passed away three years earlier. We wished she could have been there; I know Dad missed her dearly. Despite her absence, he made the day feel extra special and enjoyed the company of everyone, especially the grandchildren.

Dad enjoying himself with the grand kids at our 25th anniversary

The gathering of entire families seems increasingly rare. People reside in different cities, live divergent lives, occupied by all encompassing matters. The reasons not to get together are easy to count, the excuses not to make the effort recited effortlessly. And maybe not everyone can attend, or the measures are simpler; nevertheless, whatever the day, the event, the moment, it is important to celebrate. You may not get another opportunity.

May we all find occasions to celebrate and share our blessings with others.

Ahead by a century

“Your uncle would have been a product of his time.”

The statement weighs heavy as the last line of my notes from an afternoon of conversation with Fr. Cor Schilder, appointed as our host on a visit to Mission House Vrijland, a retirement home for Dutch Mill Hill missionaries in Oosterbeek, the Netherlands.

Fr. Kees de Cock was ordained July 6, 1947 in the immediate post war period, his studies interrupted by the German invasion of the Netherlands. An earnest young man, eldest son of a weaver, living in row housing adjacent to the textile factories of working class Tilburg, his only window to another world through the teachings of textbooks and priests, one would expect his views to reflect those of the immediate elders and surroundings.

Yet, I don’t know. How do I write about a life of which I have little understanding, about a time period distant and foreign or about a person who I met last as an eleven year old?

My attempt to delve into the mind of Uncle Kees has been informed indirectly through the experience and voices of his extended family in the Netherlands, of his fellow seminarians and priests, of people who worked with him in Uganda, of his parishioners from the church in Kamuli, and of archival documents buried in the libraries of the remaining Mill Hill holdings.

Fr. Herman Hofte was a classmate of my Uncle at the seminary and travelled with him to Uganda in December 1947. I stumbled upon an interview with Fr. Hofte as part of an oral history project of Dutch missionaries housed at Radboud University in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Eventually I was able to acquire the 180 minute recording conducted entirely in Dutch, a dilemma since my level of understanding the language is rudimentary. Through another fortunate encounter, I have befriended Dr. Cees van Deursen, now retired, living in the Netherlands, whose first assignment as a young physician was to work in the mission hospital in Kamuli from February 1978 to March 1981. Cees agreed to listen and translate.

On the accompanying permission form, Fr. Hofte questions his own importance and wonders why the interest in his experience: You may skip me, it seems all very scholar like. I have not done anything special. I have no idea what to tell you in 4 – 6 hours. I am sure you can use your time in a better way. When asked, he could not formulate a concise reason for becoming a missionary, appearing to have evolved into the vocation after an initial feeling, recalling visitations and presentations from returning priests at his school. His attraction to Mill HIll was the apparent freedom in comparison to monastic orders. Once in Uganda, Fr. Hofte described the missionary work as conveying the message by example, being there when needed. His was a “welcoming” church to anyone interested. The teaching of the catechism did not focus on the moralistic but more about loving one’s neighbour. In his teaching and his actions, Fr. Hofte concerned himself more to the intention rather than the letter of the rules. Fr. Hofte’s own spiritual life was enhanced through the work of a practical person who put his trust in God.

In an earlier letter exchange with Cees, I had asked what he recalled as my Uncle’s approach to Catholic theology. Dr. van Deursen couldn’t answer directly except to compare Fr. de Cock’s approach to his own uncle. A Benedictine monk, he preferred working to praying, adapting St. Benedictine’s adage, “ora et labora” (pray and work) to ‘my working is praying”. My Uncle, according to Cees, operated in the same manner.

“I hope you enjoy reading this translation/summary [of Fr. Hofte’s recording] and that it helps you to picture your uncle, Fr. Dikoko. I think an interview with him would have been quite similar.”

In describing his own motivation for priesthood, Fr. Cor Schilder talked of his attraction to adventure, with a desire to get away from home, be heroic and save people from going to hell. Even when he was ordained, he still believed the best way to heaven is to be a Catholic. God, he said, has strange and different ways of attracting people, eventually molded them into His word. Clearly Fr. Schilder’s own thoughts about Catholicism were enlightened by his experience and listening to him expound on an alternative way of approaching religion made one believe again in the power of faith.

Fr. Schilder was very much impressed with letter from Fr. Joseph Willigers, the bishop, announcing my Uncle’s death in 1981. Fr. Schilder responded saying Fr. de Cock was a “hero” in the ordinary, in the everyday, reflecting the future of the church, less of a spectacle, more to being of the people.

Uncle Kees would have been a 100 years old 2022. Memory is what we want it to be, so I wonder how my ongoing research will alter the existing images. For now, however, I will think of him as being ahead by a century.

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