googlead166c37c697d4d3.html Glenn Ashton Author Blog: Mom, Dad, a metal time capsule, and a deep cave


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Mom, Dad, a metal time capsule, and a deep cave


When my partner Loraine had a Significant Birthday coming up, I suggested that we celebrate it by circumnavigating the world, using any means of transport she wanted: plane, car, bus, train, camel, donkey, rickshaw, canoe …

And we would go to any country of her choosing.

She thought about it and picked South Africa as one of the countries. I had left there many years ago, and had last been there 36 years ago, in 1981, to attend Mom’s funeral. 

I had met my eldest sister in Florida, where she moved after becoming an American, and my brother in Bellingham, where he was staying for a while after also becoming an American. 

But my two younger sisters and I had not met for 36 years.

So we started our 45-day circumnavigation of the world and flew from London down to South Africa. Before we left, I used photos and stories sent to me by my siblings, and stories I knew, to write a book about our Mom and Dad.

I self-published it on Amazon and sent copies to my siblings before we arrived, so that they could give each of their own children copies as well.

I named it Ray & Shiny, and the blurb on the back cover reads:

When I took pen in hand, I wanted answers to 10 questions:

1.      The blood of which nations pumps through the veins of the five Van Siblings?

2.     What crooked paths did our ancestors wander before we dropped, in rapid succession, onto the scene between 1940 and 1949?

3.     Who was the first van Schalkwyk to arrive at the Cape of Good Hope?

4.     Who was the first Linforth to arrive in South Africa?

5.     Where did Mom meet Dad?

6.     What made Mom marry Dad?

7.     Where did the Vans wander before we ended up in 15 Contact Street, where we Siblings spent most of our younger years?

8.     What forces shaped Mom and Dad?

9.     What was it like to grow up with them as our parents?

10.  How much of Mom and of Dad lives on in the Siblings?

We spent a wonderful two weeks meeting family and friends, and Loraine was swiftly adopted as an Honorary South African, and even earned how to pronounce some Afrikaans words, like koppie, boerewors, and ag shame…

And Ray & Shiny helped us revisit our childhoods.

We spent four days in a lonely cabin built on a hill looking out at the magnificent Drakensberg mountains, in Zululand. Built by my youngest sister and her husband, over ten years, the cabin can sleep ten, with more in two tents pitched outside.

Where the Time Capsule is hidden ...

We had been asked to bring something to nail to the huge tree trunk that supported both the second floor bedrooms and the roof, as a token of our stay there. Loraine brought a gilded metal maple leaf, which she nailed to the Memory Pole.

My eldest sister then suggested that the siblings all sign a copy of Ray & Shiny, and she placed in in a metal time capsule, along with other items contributed by siblings and other family members. 

Then the time capsule was hidden deep inside a narrow cave in the slope of one of the many valleys around the cabin, with instructions to the offspring of the siblings to take it out in ten years time, read Ray & Shiny out loud, add more items, and then hide it again, to be taken out in another ten years, and another ten after that, and so on.

In that way, memories of our Mom and Dad would not fade from the earth for a long, long time.

And so, the book now rests in its time capsule, in its cave, while we go about our lives.

We miss you, Mom and Dad.

A lot.

Here is the final chapter in Ray & Shiny:

The Siblings gathered in 1981 for Mom’s funeral.
We were in a room, sprawled on the floor and talking.
Gigi walked in, and placed something heavy, wrapped in a towel, on the low table before us.
I am concerned about Dad, she said.
She lifted the towel to show a large revolver, with a long barrel.
I found his gun.

Earlier that day I had walked around the small home that Dad and Mom lived in. There were lovely flowers all along the side of the fence.
Something puzzled me, so I dropped to my knees and moved some flowers and leaves aside.
Someone had chipped a hole in the thick concrete slab laid up to the fence, and the flowers had been planted in the hole.
I checked the next cluster of flowers. A similar hole.
There were at least a half dozen holes, cut through the concrete.
Dad had wanted to grow flowers for the woman he had loved for so many years, and had taken a chisel in hand and hammered holes into the thick concrete slab, so that the flowers would be able to take root in the soil beneath.
Many years later, in Canada, I was laid off by the Royal Bank when they downsized and eliminated the corporate finance group I led. I had tried to earn a living doing some consulting, but my heart wasn’t in it and I was not very successful.
So I took stock and decided to go back to my very first love, law.
When I came to Canada in 1977, the laws in force did not allow me to qualify as a lawyer, because my South African qualifications were not recognized. We were not part of the Commonwealth, and South African law was a mixture of Roman-Dutch and English law, and not just English common law.
For eighteen years I had worked as a banker, in the investment banking side of two large commercial banks, with important sounding names: the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, and the Royal Bank of Canada. My work had involved a lot of legal issues, and financing structures.
So, having been laid off by RBC, I decided to re-qualify as a lawyer in Canada.
The rules required me to spend two years at law school, then a year of articling, followed by the bar admission exam, and then I could seek a job as a newly-minted Canadian-qualified lawyer.
I enrolled in York University and was set to start my studies, using our savings for the two years, when someone mentioned that the province of Alberta had a slightly different view of South African legal qualifications.
I checked; they said if I passed an exam in four subjects, I could spend a year articling, write my bar admission exams, and be practising law in Alberta within 13 months. Was I interested?
Was I?!
And that’s what I did.
Within three weeks, studying almost night and day, I passed the four exams.
Then I lined up articles with a law firm, served articles with kids half my age (I was told I was the oldest articled student in Alberta’s history), and passed my bar exams.
That meant I could apply to court to be admitted as a Barrister & Solicitor. 

Canada had only one bar, unlike South Africa, which copied the British system of two bars, for solicitors and then for advocates, who could appear in court in serious cases. I had been admitted as an Advocate of the Supreme Court of South Africa after finishing my articles in Joburg, but had never practised as an advocate there.
As part of the court application, you had to write a letter to the judge explaining who you were, what your legal experience was, and why you wanted to be a lawyer and thought your were fit enough to be one.

And that brings me back to Dad, and to his chisel, and the concrete and the flowers.

In my letter to the judge I wrote about how Dad would approach problems, and described finding the holes in the concrete he had cut so that Mom would have beautiful flowers.
I explained that this was typical of Dad’s approach to problems, and that I had learned from him how to go about solving problems.
I had learned, I said, that if you came up against a problem, you should first try to go around it.
If that failed, you should try to go over it, or under it.
If that failed, you should hunker down, take a hammer and chisel in hand, and patiently chip your way through the problem, no matter how big or hard the problem was.
And I explained how it was I came to be in his  court, applying to be re-admitted as a lawyer.

The judge spoke to the court, explaining that he was going to read to them my letter to him, and that he expected that they would then understand why he thought I was fully qualified to practise law in the province of Alberta.
And then he swore me in.

So, seeing Dad’s chiselled holes in the concrete in the home in 1981 stood me in good stead so many years later, when I needed something to help me realize my dream of being a practising lawyer in the country I had chosen as my second country.

Now we looked at the large revolver on the low table, and Gigi said she was worried that Dad was so despondent over Mom’s death, that he would kill himself.
We debated what to do; and decided that Gigi should hide the revolver, and return it Dad at a later time, when she thought it would be okay.
Then we went to bed.

The next morning I rose early and went outside to look at the flowers again.
The door to the house burst open, and Dad came rushing out, a small book in his hand, tears cascading down his cheeks.
Look, he said, thrusting the diary in my face, today – it’s the same day, the same month, that I met Mum for the first time.
His finger touched a line.
She was walking down a hill, he said, with her head full of shiny black hair, singing a song about a passenger plane high in the sky, with only a paper moon high in the sky …
He stood, weeping, among the chiselled holes with their profusion of flowers, the little diary in his hand.
A Van does not fall easily. But a Van falls hard when a Van falls.

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