Not just another winter’s tale

He was born on the winter solstice in Edinburgh in 1926. He died on Christmas Day in 1992, on the warm tip of Africa. A lovely, gentle, talented, troubled, kind soul he was. He was my father-in-law and this is his story.

As life and breath poured into his infant body on that cold and wintry December night in Edinburgh, so life and breath drained from his mother’s. She breathed her last and died that day. Life and loss. His young father was stricken with an overwhelming grief that veiled his joy at this brand new life.

My father-in-law was adopted by a family whose name we now bear. They lived on the island of North Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. This new family ran a hotel and my father-in-law spent his days living the life of a young, country lad: fishing and hunting and finding the best that the beautiful, bleak, cold island could offer. His days were underlined with sadness and a constant wondering about his father on the mainland. He knew who he was, he knew where he lived and he so longed to meet him.

As a young man he met and fell in love with a beautiful young woman from the mainland. They married and lived on the island, going over to the mainland for the birth of their first son. With the hope and promise of seeking their fortune in Africa, the three of them chose to join her brothers in Zimbabwe (southern Rhodesia as it was known then). He travelled ahead of his wife and son and, before he left, went to Edinburgh to meet his real father. He wondered nervously whether or not his father would welcome him. His fear of rejection turned him round again and off he went to begin a new life in Africa.

Son number two (my husband) was born in Zimbabwe, and the family enjoyed living in the warm, friendly heart of southern Africa. My father-in-law was a talented musician – a self-taught pianist and accordion player – and he played in a Scottish band. He would lose himself in his music, and played the piano with a gentleness of touch that kept me riveted. I often wondered where the music took him as I watched him play. When he died, I inherited his piano. Such a gift it was; such a gift.

He loved his sons and watched, with pride, as they grew into young men and created lives of their own. His daughters-in-law became part of his family, and he loved us with a gentle passion that I will never forget. His heart beamed as his grandchildren started to appear, and each of them loved their “Pops”, with his ready laughter and unconditional love and pride.

One day, when he was almost 60, he received a letter out of the blue. It opened with, “You don’t know me, but we’ve known about you all our lives…”

The writer of the letter told him his father – who was also her father – had been 23 years old when he was widowed. He had married again and had had some children, but she didn’t elaborate. She wrote of her father’s longing to meet him, but how, for fear of rejection, that had never happened. She told him his father had died in 1976. Oh the sorrow that both men had felt the same way, and their perceived fears had kept them from meeting each other.

The writer concluded her letter by saying she’d send him more detail of the family if he so wished. She added, however, that if the communication had made him uncomfortable, she would not continue and would, with respect, leave it at that.

He was amazed. My father-in-law wrote back immediately and asked to know more. He soon got a letter with details of his family tree. It turned out that at the time of his birth, and his mother’s death, he had an older sister. She was three years older than he was, and was raised in Edinburgh by a grandmother (we have yet to discover which grandmother this was). His father then remarried and had seven daughters and two sons. She shared some detail of the siblings, their names and where they lived.

The correspondence continued for a while. It wasn’t long before my father-in-law decided to travel back to Edinburgh to meet his new family. A brother travelled across from Canada to meet him. Most of the other siblings lived in or around Edinburgh. Great excitement, anticipation and a huge nervousness accompanied him on his journey.

He spent a number of days with his new-found family of half-siblings, and met his full sister too. This is the part that always gives me goose bumps: the siblings he met all said, without exception, that having him around was like having their dad back in the house. He had the same mannerisms as his father’s, he coughed like he did, he walked like he walked and he talked like he did. If that isn’t one for nature versus nurture, then I don’t know what is.

He returned to Zimbabwe with tales of his new-found family. A man of few words, he had plenty to say about his family and father and the joy of blood ties. It seemed to fill something of a hole in his heart.

Not long after that, he became ill with emphysema and struggled with ill-health for the rest of his life. He and my mother-in-law moved to Cape Town soon after we did, and enjoyed their retirement in the city nestling beneath the beauty of Table Mountain. Our boys have vague memories of their Pops, as they were both very small when he died. My older son, who was three when Pops died, told me Pops had gone to heaven and had been given a brand new body. I loved that thought.

So there it was that we celebrated Christmas in the warm sunshine of a Cape Town day in 1992. And as we celebrated the birth of the Saviour who breathed his first on that day so many many years ago, my father-in-law took his last, painful breath and we mourned. Joy and grief. So much joy and grief.

Sunshine signing off for today.

My African Christmas

Today is both the shortest and the longest day of the year, depending on which side of the equator you call home. While I am falling in love with the snow and the wintry charm of short days in London, I try to imagine South African sunshine lasting into long, balmy evenings. Please take up your gingerbread latte or chilled white wine, and join me on a journey through our Saffa Christmas.

My husband and I were both born in Zimbabwe; he to Scottish parents and me to South African parents. His family’s Celtic Christmas in Africa was always festive and loud, with lashings of alcohol, sword-dancing and tearful renditions of “My Ain Folk”. Ours usually involved a journey from Zambia or Zimbabwe to my parents’ home town of Cape Town, and loads of cousins and relatives and beaches and food. Together, we developed a Christmas tradition that merged the best of what we both knew and loved: booze and beaches. Not exclusively. Walk with me…

In our early married years, we would use every free moment, every spare dollar, to go and see a movie. Christmas Eve was the perfect opportunity to do just that, so that is something that we have done almost every year since we got married: a Christmas Eve movie. We took a break when our boys were small but roped them in as soon as they were old enough to sit through and enjoy a movie. It doesn’t have to be a Christmas movie, a feel-good movie will do, so “Love, Actually”, “The Holiday” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” have featured in our ritual on the night before Christmas.

Our drive home from the movie would always include a drive along Adderley Street – the high street through the centre of Cape Town – to see the Christmas lights (illuminations). These always incorporated nativity scenes alongside scenes of Africa. We would go home and sit by the decorated Christmas tree and, sometimes, sing Christmas carols together. We would all retire to bed, and – one by one – each of us would sneak back to the lounge to put Christmas gifts under the tree.

When our boys were small, we would put empty pillowcases at the ends of their beds, and Father Christmas would fill them during the night. Then he would have a mince pie and a cold drink (or a beer) that had been left for him next to the Christmas tree. He would usually leave a lovely letter for the boys too.

On Christmas morning, we would wake with the sparrows and launch into the excitement of wishing each other Merry Christmas and giving each other gifts. With paper and boxes all around, we would have coffee and mince pies for breakfast before either going to church, or preparing for the day ahead.

We always gathered together as family, and would alternate hosting the festivities at our various homes, although we always shared the catering. At our home, we made one long table that extended from one end of our dining room/lounge area to the wide-open French doors on to the swimming pool area on the other. The table would be set for around 20 people or more, depending on which brothers and sisters were in town. We would decorate the table with Christmas crackers and tinsel and bowls of nuts and chocolates along the length of the table. My sister-in-law made beautiful decorative little Christmas trees that would add creative charm to the table.

Everyone would arrive at around noon and share gifts with each other.  Some would have a cup of tea or coffee; others preferred cold drinks, wine or beer. Each person would add their contribution to the meal on to the sideboard, where the bowls of salads would line up under cover from the summer-time flies. Lunch would begin at around 2.30pm with the turkey and ham having been carved, and everyone helping themselves to the meat and salads. Yes, salads – the best thing for mid-summer!

With each person seated at the table, we would put on our paper hats from the Christmas crackers and open the bottles of champagne. With bubbles flowing freely, we would toast Christmas, each other and absent friends before beginning the meal. It was always loud, loads of laughter, the telling of lame Christmas-cracker jokes, the sharing of memories of Christmases gone by, more champagne and more and more and more food. Christmas pudding would make an appearance at the right time – usually flaming and filled with silver coins. I’m the only person in my family who likes Christmas pudding, but my boys always had some just for the coins!

After totally over-indulging at the table, we would all get up, find a comfy seat in which to settle and snooze, go out and laze on the lawn or a garden chair next to the pool, or go and find a bed to sleep off the meal for an hour or so. The afternoon usually flowed into an evening spent outdoors in the creeping, cooling darkness of the setting sun, splashes in the pool, cold drinks a-plenty and an endless supply of food if anyone had room for more.

Sometimes the teenagers of the family would head off to the beach for a while for a refreshing dip in the ocean. The beaches were always busy but always worth it to splash in the crashing, cooling waves of the beautiful Cape Town coastline.

At some stage, a number of us would gather in the kitchen to wash the dishes and put the food away, always accompanied by laughter and hilarity. The food would be shared out to go home again, although someone invariably ended up with lashings of turkey that would appear in various guises in meals for the next week or so! Noisy, laughter-filled farewells would take place in our driveway, as cars pulled away at the end of a perfect day.

Replete with food, love, family, laughter and sunshine, we would retire to our beds and snore before our heads hit the pillow. Although Christmas in Africa is slightly different from the northern hemisphere experience, the love, unique traditions, shared memories and joy at the significance of the celebration, transcend time and geography.

So on this winter solstice, my heart and my thoughts bask in the long day of Cape Town sun and my body shivers and freezes in the bitter cold short day of London. Technology keeps the two hemispheres together, the shrinking world makes contact with my precious family so easy, and I realise that straddling two worlds can be both tender and heartening. And I’m okay with that.

Sunshine signing off for today!


Childhood Christmas

Last night we went to our church carol service. It was a wonderful, cosy evening of Christmas celebration. The new gospel choir sang contemporary gospel songs, intertwined with old favourites and we sang along. Those carols transport me through years and countries to Christmases I have known and loved.

I think of my childhood in Zambia and going to a Christmas party at the sports club in Lusaka. The tall and kind-eyed clown took a keen interest in four-year-old me and kept coming over to chat to me, and ask me if I was having fun. I was always nervous of strangers and my wide eyes stared anxiously up at this plastic-nosed giant. I kind of liked him but wished he would leave me alone. It was only years later that I discovered that that clown was my Dad.

I remember being picked to be Mary in the nativity play at our church in Mazabuka. The boy I’d had a crush on was going to be Joseph; at the very moment he was picked, my crush ended. We had to walk arm-in-arm down the aisle to the awaiting nativity scene; I can’t tell you how awkward and uncomfortable I felt with the closeness of the boy I now preferred to admire from a distance.

Wherever we lived, church was our Christmas Day companion. I loved the carols but can remember longing for the singing to end so we could go home and open our presents and begin the long, exciting day of celebrations. I can remember countless “carols by candlelight” services where I hoped I would and wouldn’t set light to the brown paper bag hosting my candle.

My sons’ Christmas concerts in Cape Town were a delight. My younger son made a fleeting first appearance at his play-school concert as an angel. He walked on stage and immediately thought it better to observe from the safety of his mother’s lap, so he came down off the stage – in his white slip and silver tinsel halo – and sat on my lap for the rest of the concert.

He watched his older brother play the role of messenger, bringing scrolled news to the people of Israel. Dressed in a plastic shield and very short trousers, my older son recited his words and then began to torment the girl sitting next to him. She had a long, blonde plait and, when she stood up for her moment in the spotlight, he pulled her plait. She turned round, glared at him and made a fist at him. He giggled for the rest of the concert. So did we.

That same year, the boy playing the part of the innkeeper was quite overcome after voicing his “no room!” lines. He put both hands on his head and panted like a dog until Joseph and Mary found alternative accommodation.

When my younger son was about four years old, he asked me one Christmas evening to play the piano. We sat together on the piano stool and I asked him what he wanted me to play. “The piano, Mommy,” he said. I asked him what tune, and he said he just wanted me to play the piano. I suggested “Away in a manger”, and he nodded.

I began to play and he began to sing, at the top of his voice, “We three kings of Orientare!” He just needed accompaniment. Any accompaniment.

Snowy London town today feels a lifetime away from summer-time Christmas in Africa. I kind of love the wintry charm of Christmas in the north, but I would trade anything to celebrate this special holiday with my family. There’s always next year.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Magic, mayhem and grass-heads at Christmas

Uncle Paul’s Christmas parties were always magical. I remember going to them when I was a child on holiday in Cape Town – way before the rindepest – and we took our boys to them when they were small.

It was an annual event that marked the beginning of Christmas festivities for us. We usually went early in December, and we always went with our dearest friends whose children were the same ages as ours. The weather was always good, the children always had fun and the enchantment of Christmas sparkled and shone under a royal blue, twinkling Cape Town sky.

Organised by local service clubs, Uncle Paul’s Christmas party is a not only a Cape Town institution but a significant fundraising event for local, deserving charities. With tickets almost as difficult to come by as Wimbledon Centre Court tickets, we’d have to book our berths early in the year, and wait in eager anticipation for the tickets to arrive, along with detailed instructions and our allocated date.

We’d arrive at the beautiful wine farm, show our tickets to the volunteers at the gate, and my husband would have to get out and hand over the carefully disguised swag from the boot of our car: a disposable container of food to contribute to the communal supper, a gift for an under-privileged child and a black bin-bag containing a gift (at a specified maximum price), labelled and chosen specially for each of our children. Our boys would keep their eyes focused ahead – they could barely contain their excitement.

We’d park our car, catch up with our friends, and join the queue for the tractor ride. Sitting on bales of hay in a trailer pulled behind a tractor, we would travel up to the bespoke castle at the top of the hill. Seating (for the adults) was arranged around a central, hay-filled area that faced the castle. We would find a place to sit and the children would jump into the hay, and begin their feast of hay-fights.

We were back-row parents. My friend and I would sit close to each other and catch up on the news and chat about everything we could think of. Our husbands would sit next to each other, share a few words here and there and laugh like drains. Such is the nature of our relationships. There was always plenty of laughter.

As soon as everyone had arrived at the castle, Noddy, Big Ears and Mr Plod would arrive and try and create order in the midst of the hayfights. This was always hilarious and over-the-top for the children, and they would try and bury the characters under the hay. The manic playtime would end with the welcome arrival of ice-creams for each child.

A marching band usually arrived after ice-creams, and the children would follow them as they marched this way and that. They would stop and play a few familiar tunes, and encourage participation from the children. By now, the light was starting to fade, and the communal supper would be passed around for all to share.

It was at this point that the Christmas carols would begin. And the laughter – from our quarter – became increasingly hysterical as our friend did his Elvis impersonation to each carol. He would sometimes liven up the songs with some hand-clapping or occasionally go reggae on us. It was hard to stay focused, but at least the children were sitting quietly in front of the band, singing as they should!

Usually the last carol to be sung was “Silent Night”, and it was at this point that the Christmas fairy would arrive. She was beautiful. She had a wand, and she would weave her magic as she lightly touched the tree and turned on the Christmas lights. The children would help with shouts of encouragement, and requisite oohs and aahs. As she was getting ready to light the star at the top of the tree, the children would be encouraged to be quiet as mice and listen; if they listened very carefully they could hear the sleigh bells in the distance. They came closer and closer, and the excitement and anticipation became almost too much to bear.

The fairy would light the star at the top of the tree and, as all little eyes were on her, Father Christmas would “land” on top of the castle. He would make his presence known, the children would look over at him and would screech and whoop and clap and jump around in excitement.

Father Christmas would come down from the top of the castle, sack on his back, and would dig into the sack to take out presents for each of the children. They would be called up in turn and, with shyness and wild excitement, the children would go up, look longingly into the eyes of this jolly man dressed in red, and receive their gifts. Paper was torn and tossed this way and that and the gifts were received with shrieks of joy.

Children would run around flashing their light sabres, wearing their neon head bands and bangles, playing with their action figures or rugby balls or toy drums (heaven help us) or toy cars and dolls. Sound effects rang through the air along with shrieks and laughter and vocal happiness.

One year, my friend had a great idea for gifts for all four of our little ones. She described them to me, and, encouraged by her enthusiasm, I agreed and went along with her. She bought the four items, wrapped them and surreptitiously passed two of them to me ahead of the Christmas party.

That was the year that all the children shrieked and laughed and showed off their gifts for all to see. Except our four children. Each of them took one look at their grass-head and came and sat quietly alongside us and watched longingly as the other children ran around and played with their cool toys. (The grass-head was a toy made out of an old stocking, filled with sand and grass seeds. The idea was that you put the grass-head on a jar filled with water, with its knotted bottom half dangling in the water. In time, the seeds would germinate and grass would begin to grow through the top of the stocking, creating a kind of long buzz cut: meet Mr Grass-head! It would be about six weeks before any “hair” appeared.)

My friend and I cast knowing looks at each other – what were we thinking? Our husbands looked at us less graciously, with expressions of WTF (why the funny-toy?), and our children sat there trying not to look ungrateful but so wishing they had cooler toys. What was Father Christmas thinking that year?

Fortunately “he” redeemed himself the next year with cool toys, and the children have long since forgiven us. It never detracted from the magic of Uncle Paul’s Christmas parties, but added a new dimension to our shared memories of those days.

Our four children still cannot figure out what we were thinking that year. I do wonder, myself, my dear dear friend: what were you we thinking?

Sunshine signing off for today!