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Blast from the past

calvinia1File this one under “random weirdness”. A few weeks ago, the editor of an anthology of poems, intended for South African high school students, asked for me to renew permission for them to include this poem of mine.

I’d forgotten that I was in this anthology – in fact, I’d pretty much forgotten that I used to write poetry. Anyway – for the interest of very few of you, here’s a free verse something about the death of my grandfather, from (I’d guess) 1993 or so.

Calvinia, 1976

Kicking pebbles along cracked pavements,
my brother and I strolled through this Karoo town.
Past pale houses, dusky streets, past the Saamstaan store
where we could always find a spinning top, stop
to listen for the sound of windmills, or watch
the trucks pass by with their smell of sheep;
their cargo destined for a place alongside potatoes
and an occasional vegetable on blue china plates.

In Calvinia, I slept in my Oupa’s bed, both of us tired
from mending farm fences, or from circling this small town
in the hours between the day’s labour, evening’s quiet.
We would wake at dawn, when he led me to the kitchen
to pour five spoons of sugar into my enamel coffee mug.
Strangely, the thermos was always full and waiting –
waiting to be emptied, along with the small jars of lard
that lined one pantry shelf; lard to spread on our toast,
or to fry the bacon and eggs of a Sunday feast.

My brother and I found a chest of drawers
in Oupa’s room one day – inside lay his store of treats:
Wilson’s toffees, the peppermint creams he placed
in our palms after dinner, or presented in small plastic bags
when he came to visit us in Cape Town. As he grew older,
and I grew older, I began to realise the purpose of these trips
to the Cape – not the gift of sweets, but a hospital bed,
transfusions, chemotherapy.

He began to visit once a week, but only to sit, drink tea,
smile weakly at my brother, me. Before long
he no longer visited, but became a regular shadow
on the living-room wall. It wasn’t too long
before the hospital became his home, and the hospital
was not his home for long.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.