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Father’s Day: My Thoughts

My father died when I was twenty-three. For years afterwards I hated the annual roll-around of Father’s Day. I put my head down, closed my ears and ignored it, apart from extending an ultra-gentle hand to my mother on those days, as I did on all his birthdays and the anniversaries of his death for the next twenty-three years that she outlived him.

When I first began to write, I wrote a fictional version of the story of my father’s ancestors and why they left England to live on a farm in Africa. The day I physically posted that heavy manuscript off to a local writing competition, I felt elation and relief in my car on the way back to work. Suddenly my joy gave way to tears, because I could imagine how proud my father would have been if only he had been alive to know what I had done, but he had been dead for twenty-two years by then – almost half of my lifetime.

A few days later my mother asked if she could read my novel. I was hesitant at first, but almost immediately I knew that I wanted to give her the opportunity that my father would never have – to read a book I had written. I printed out a copy for her, and I’m so glad I gave it to her to read, because little did I know that just over a year later she would be dead too. She never got to read any of my later novels, but she did read most of my early short stories. Five days before she died I sent off my second novel to another competition, and the following day I got the call to rush to her bedside because the end was near.

Neither of those novels ever went any further, but the year following my mother’s death I enrolled in the creative writing module of the honours course at my local university, and began a completely new work as my course writing project.

This later became From Daisy with Love, the novella that told the love story of my father’s parents and how they made it through the First World War. My father’s mother was orphaned young, and so was my own mother. Parents don’t feature much in my novels, especially not my parents. Most of my novels have a female protagonist who has been orphaned a long time before the novel begins. It seems that I want heroines who stand on their own and are able to travel far and wide in search of love and adventure.

But perhaps there’s another reason I seldom write about my parents or use them as models for the parents of any of my fictional characters.

This morning I read an excellent blog post by Vaughn Roycroft on Writer Unboxed. It was a Father’s Day tribute to his father, and both the post and many of the comments opened my eyes to several things. It’s a beautiful post and I strongly urge you to read it because he puts things way better than I can explain.

Part of me doesn’t want to share my parents with the world. They are now in my private memory and the memories of the people who knew them, and surely that’s no business of anyone else’s?

I never met my mother’s mother, I don’t remember much of my father’s parents, and the only grandparent I do remember died when I was ten. He was great fun, but like my parents, my mother’s father is now part of my private memory. I don’t want anything to interfere with the memories I have of any of those whom I knew.

However, the ones I never knew can become fair game in my writing because I don’t know what they were really like, so I can only imagine them anyway. Daisy and her boyfriend have become more real to me since I created an imagined life for them as youngsters during the First World War. I met my grandfather with new eyes when I read his war diaries and turned a page to see the words written in his small, neat handwriting, announcing that he was in the German South West African desert and it was his 21st birthday, only there was no one to help him celebrate it properly because all those he loved were far away.

I was forty-two when I read that – twice the age he was when he wrote it. To say that it fired up my imagination would be an understatement indeed.

And yet, perhaps all my loved ones are there in my writing, as Roycroft’s Writer Unboxed post points out. It all has to come from somewhere, doesn’t it?

In The Epidaurus Inheritance Zander speaks of his late parents with great fondness, and he has become a father figure to a younger cousin who rides a motorbike and occasionally stays over in Zander’s Athens apartment when he is too drunk to drive home safely.

There is a kindly old rascal of an uncle in Benicio’s Bequest who more than resembles my own rascally old grandfather who used to drive a steam train and get into all sorts of trouble and nonsense in his youth. The two brothers in that same novel are five years apart in age, and the story involves the younger one. Likewise, there are two brothers in Oxford Baggage, my current WIP, also born five years apart, and that story is also about the younger one.

My own father was the younger of two brothers, born five years apart. They were very different and they didn’t always get on, but a shared history between siblings can go a long way to smoothing that out.

My father was seven years older than my mother, as are the two main characters in Oxford Baggage. My parents married in the 1950s which is the era in which I have set this new work. I can’t help wondering how much more of them I’m going to find in my novel when I’ve finished writing it.

My modern-day protagonists in The Trojan Legacy are also six or seven years apart in age, and I wrote a glorious Christmas day celebration for them which included her parents and grandparents. Sadly I edited it out in the final draft because even though I loved the scene, it added nothing to the story and slowed down the pace going into the last quarter of the book. Such is the life of a writer…

To all readers out there who might no longer have parents with them, and who have mixed feelings about the celebration of days like Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, I hope you are able to use these days to reflect positively on the lives of the generations before us, and the vast legacy of memories left to us.

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Secrets of Scrapbooking

I started my first scrapbook in 2008. The previous May, I had spent a fun weekend with the South African Writers Circle (SAWC) on their annual three-day conference. For the first time, I had lost myself in the joy of meeting other writers, listening to guest speakers, entering writing competitions, and even winning two prizes. I was hooked!

After that weekend, I enjoyed monthly meetings and entered more competitions. At the annual awards ceremony the following January, I won the New Writer trophy, and by the time the next three-day conference rolled around in May 2008, I had decided it was time to start keeping a visual record of my writing progress.

My scrapbook advanced slowly but steadily. Each year the SAWC’s annual writing conference was documented in pictures and blurbs from the programme. The pages between celebrated my own success in writing competitions.

In addition, I made a page for each novel I finished – even the unpublished ones like Willowfountain, the story of my family’s settler history.  This was a modest page, with only the gravestones and memorial commemorating the original settlers, but with later pages, I became more adventurous.

I started to enjoy scouring the internet, printing out pictures of the places I wrote about, photos of the actors who I cast as my characters, and images of any interesting artefacts that played a role in the plot. During the writing of a novel, these are arranged across an A1 size whiteboard, but at the end of each novel, what better thing is there to do with these printed images than put them into a scrapbook?

In 2009 I did a university creative writing course and the project on which I worked was based on my own family history. I scanned and printed several photos for my whiteboard. The following year, when that project became a self-published novella, it got a page in the scrapbook as well.

In 2010, three writing friends and I shared messages and emails while we all worked frantically to finish our current novels for entry into a competition run by Penguin SA. None of us made the shortlist, but we won something more precious – we started our own small writing group to share readings and critiques once a month on the novels we were each busy writing. We called our group Writing Buddies.

In 2011, before my sister left the country to live in Australia, she made a scrapbook for her eldest daughter’s 30th birthday, commemorating my niece’s first thirty years. Because time was short, my sister needed assistance so my middle niece and I helped her to compile it. It was fun despite the bittersweet looming of her departure. Those last few days before she flew, we enjoyed several happy bonding sessions, celebrating the milestones in my oldest niece’s life.

My sister’s departure prompted my focus to shift to the wider world. In November 2011, after my third novel had been with Penguin SA for eleven months, I received the most encouraging rejection letter ever, and within two weeks I had self-published that novel on Amazon. Into my scrapbook went another page!

Around the same time I suggested to our Writing Buddies group that we should start a joint blog to get our names “out there” beyond the local confines of both Writing Buddies and the SAWC.

Early in 2012 I took my first holiday to Australia, visiting my sister after she had been in her new country for only six months. A piece I wrote while there had its debut on our new blog, Scribbling Scribes, and in due course the Scribes got a double page in my scrapbook.

A mid-year weekend writing retreat on a friend’s farm got its own page, as did another writing retreat with the same friend early in 2013, during which I completed the first draft of my next novel.

That original scrapbook has now almost doubled in size, but despite not having added a new page for several years, my scrapbooking hands haven’t been idle.

In 2014, while on my second visit to my sister in Australia, I was once again roped in to work on a scrapbook for her middle daughter’s 30th. The older niece had worked on it with her mother during her earlier visit to Australia, and together with my sister and my youngest niece, we completed it. My sister and I took it to New Zealand where my second niece had now moved with her husband, to give to her.

A few months after that, I began the harrowing process of getting myself to Australia, and both my writing and my scrapbooking fell far down my priority list. I still hadn’t done a page for my second novel which had been live on Amazon for almost two years by now, and my final weekend away with the SAWC didn’t get done either. With all my scrapbooking materials pared down and packed in a box, I knew it would be a while before I got around to any of it.

Mid-2015 found me in Australia, living in my sister’s house. A year later I finished and published my third novel, but the scrapbook remained in a box in her garage with all my other treasures for another two years.

A year ago I finally got a permanent job, moved into a cottage and unpacked all my stuff. My youngest niece, now married, was building a house with her husband. Because their house was in the area where my sister lives, and far away from the rental in which my niece and her husband lived at the time, they couldn’t track the progress of their build as often as we could. My sister decided that we should take photographs of every stage of the build and put together a scrapbook for them.

With all my boxes unpacked and loads of photographs finally at hand, I spread all my scrapbooking stuff out on my dining table, where it remained for several months.

What my sister didn’t know was that since June last year, I had already begun compiling a secret scrapbook for her 60th birthday in February this year. As far as she knew, I had started doing a scrapbook of my cats. Yes, my cats. That was the decoy album so that if my sister popped in unexpectedly, hers went into the ottoman. And if my niece dropped by to visit, the pages I was doing for hers likewise went into the ottoman. My sister and I managed to complete the house album for my niece and her husband in time for Christmas last year.

It was exciting putting together my sister’s 60th album. My three nieces and I sourced photos, images from childhood, pictures of family and friends and, mixed with a healthy dollop of love, we crammed it all into a scrapbook.

What my youngest niece didn’t know was that while we were doing her mother’s scrapbook, her mother was doing one for her. My youngest niece’s 30th birthday was coming up in March, and I was helping my sister, together with my other two nieces overseas – one in New Zealand and one in South Africa – to compile a scrapbook for her.

Last month, we presented my sister with her album, and a week later we gave my niece hers. At last we could be open and chat freely after all the months of subterfuge. No more secret scrapbooks!

My dining table is still covered with scrapbooking stuff. I love scrapbooking, and I think it’s time for me to catch up on those last few pages that still need to be done. And then I need to dust off the whiteboard and create some fresh images for the novel I’m currently writing…

The Red Poppy in My Neighbourhood

At the bottom of the hill below my cottage is a quiet shady road called Memorial Drive, named for the cenotaph and a small garden of remembrance to honour those local lads who fought in the First World War. Subsequent plaques have been added over the decades for other wars of the last century: the Second World War, Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Every day on my way to work I drive past this cenotaph, and somehow the knowledge of what it stands for provides me with a link to the soldiers in my own family history. It makes me think of my grandfather and all the other young men he mentioned in his diaries. Those diaries inspired my historical romance novella From Daisy with Love.

My grandmother Daisy was a letter writer for soldiers during the Great War, helping both injured and illiterate young men to stay in touch with their families and loved ones far away. I am far away now from where both of them were during that war, but the sentiments and memories have not changed with time or distance.

On Remembrance Sunday last November I had been hoping to attend a commemorative wreath-laying ceremony at this cenotaph, but our municipality chose to hold these ceremonies at four larger cenotaphs in more built-up areas instead, perhaps because ours is such a quiet, rural area.

So I attended a wreath-laying ceremony near my church that day, only about ten minutes’ drive away. It was understated but moving, and well-presented by a local scout troop. It was good to see that not only older people attended, but several youngsters as well. In this country, they don’t forget or cast aside their war dead.

Later that afternoon I drove past the little cenotaph in Memorial Drive, but it was bare. Not a wreath in sight, not even a single flower. I went home, fetched some green plant-tie wire, and attached it to the pin at the back of the red poppy from my lapel. I drove back down to the cenotaph. I was the only person there, and I don’t think anyone saw me quietly pushing the green wire stem of the poppy into a crevice between the stones of the cenotaph.

For weeks afterwards, every time I drove past it, that small dot of red near the base of the cenotaph reminded me that my reminder was still there. Early in January it disappeared after a heavy, violent storm. I knew it wouldn’t be there forever, but the two month stretch that it had lasted was longer than I had anticipated.

However, about two weeks later on my daily drive past, I saw a small dot of red on the cenotaph once more, slightly higher than where my poppy had been. I was elated that someone else had done the same thing. And then I began to wonder if it was the same poppy.

On the very next Sunday, I took a stroll around my neighbourhood with my camera. It was a beautiful hot summer’s day, and for some weeks I had wanted to capture the views across the valley, as well as the beautiful trees in the side road leading to my cottage – see the picture to the left. I began my walk with no particular destination in mind, and took several photographs along the way, but as I neared the bottom of the hill I knew exactly where my path would eventually lead me.

Along Memorial Drive the cenotaph was deserted once more, apart from the poppy. My poppy. I recognised it immediately. It was in surprisingly good shape, with its green plant-tie still attached to the pin at the back. Some kind soul had picked it up from where the wind and rain had deposited it, perhaps realised where it had come from, and had wedged it back between the stones.

It gives me a warm feeling to know that someone in my rural neighbourhood thinks along the same lines that I do.

Getting Back on the Treadmill – Figuratively Speaking

The last few years haven’t been easy, but my life has recently started settling into a vaguely normal pattern again. For a few years when I first arrived in Australia I felt like I was treading water, trying to stay afloat and hoping that something more permanent would come along.

2018 was a great year of changes for me.

Those of you who have been following my blog for some time will be familiar with this, but for those who haven’t been in the loop, here’s the quick version: the door of the veggie shop where I was doing casual work closed, but the door of the hardware store where I was also a casual opened even wider. Within a few weeks I was on a permanent contract in the hardware store, working part-time for 30 hours a week.

Moving into a cute little cottage, unpacking all my treasured bits and pieces and buying a car followed in quick succession. Soon I was up and running my own life again, but feeling rather exhausted by it all. Towards the end of last year I began to spend time looking back on my life, trying to take stock of where I was and how far I had come in the last four years. A close friend who lives far away told me to slow down and stop trying to do everything at once.

She’s right. The start of a new year is always a good time to look forwards, rather than backwards. The view from here is good. I’m happy and getting my life back on track, slowing down to a sedate pace and managing to do most of the things I set out to do.

There is, however, one area of my life that I’ve been neglecting. I’ve never been a fast food junkie, but I have come to rely too much on convenience foods. It’s easier to open a bag or box and microwave the contents rather than get out the cooking pots and make a mess that I’m too tired to clean up afterwards. Apart from fresh fruit in my breakfast smoothie, all the vegetables I eat have been prepared by someone else in a factory somewhere. Unfortunately this has had an adverse effect on my energy levels – and that’s a mistake that is entirely my own doing.

My excuse up till now is that I’m getting older, but in reality that’s no excuse. I have on my computer a 20-page file I began making more than twenty years ago. It has the very dry title of “Measurement and Weight Statistics” and I originally started it because I was trying to get in shape for my twenty-year high school reunion. I managed that in about four weeks. Over the years since then, every time I’ve fallen off the fitness wagon I’ve started a new page with a new number, listed my weight statistics and measurements, and outlined my fitness and eating programme to get me back in shape. For the next few weeks or months, there have been updates and comparisons with what’s been gained or lost. As the years have gone by, I have clocked up an impressive fourteen fitness or eating successes. Each time it’s been a little harder to get back into shape, of course.

Yesterday I added number fifteen to that file. I measured and weighed, and was surprised at how little my current shape differs from the last time I did this – nine years ago.

I know that my weight fluctuated more in 2015 than ever before. When I was packing to leave South Africa four years ago I dropped about eight kilograms in five months. I was too scared to weigh myself then, and it took another eight months and a road trip through New South Wales with my best friend Jackie to put six or seven of those kilograms back on.

I’ve added another few since then, but now it’s time to get rid of them. I’ve already started growing (and harvesting) my own tomatoes, strawberries and beetroot. It will take more effort to prepare a salad than a sandwich for my work lunches, but I anticipate that it will be well worth it in the end. This time the main objective is not to lose weight, but to gain more energy so that I can manage my time, my job and my writing from a healthier place.

I’ll let you know how it goes…

Summer Adjustments – and Bugs!

The seasons are changing here in Melbourne, and at last I’ve been able to shed the thermals and roll the heaters aside. Some mornings are still nippy, and every few days the temperature drops just to remind me that Spring is, after all, a transition between winter and summer, and we’re not quite there yet.

I’ve discovered a new joy in gardening. I have some herbs and lettuces growing in pots on my veranda, and the first crop of alfalfa sprouts on my kitchen counter is almost ready to add to my next salad. Winter bedding has been squashed into top cupboards and summer clothing pulled from storage tubs and aired. The ceiling fan has been dusted off, windows have been creaked open…

…and new bugs have found all the gaps in the screens to creep through and surprise me!

Some of my windows don’t open – warped wood, or too many coats of paint over the years have seen to that – but enough of them open to provide a cooling breeze. In addition to the view, another advantage of living on the top of a rise is that there is always a breeze.

In South Africa, the cottage I lived in for most of my last fifteen years there was cut into the bank of a hollow – not unlike a Hobbit house, although not as picturesque – and very few breezes ruffled my curtains. This was compounded by Durban’s consistently extreme humidity.

Here, my cottage is one of those old-fashioned Australian weatherboard bungalows built on stilts with slatted storage space underneath. Over the years, my landlord has dumped stuff under there, and even though weeds have grown up and obscured some of it, the wind blows through the slats (which may be one of the reasons why my floors are so cold in winter). Who knows what might be taking shelter in that crawl space for the rest of the year? No doubt time will tell.

My standard arrangement with all creepy crawlies is that they can have the outside, but the inside is my territory, because I pay rent for it and they don’t. However, despite being outside, my veranda (the only solid concrete and brick section of the foundation) is still part of my rented cottage, so snails and slugs will be severely dealt with if they come close to my lettuces. In the warmer weather, I have begun to claim this as my territory, with the acquisition of a few pieces of furniture, pot stands, more chimes and a large citronella candle to keep the bugs at bay.

Bugs must please keep away from my car as well because it’s mine. Three months ago I finally got myself a car and gave my brother-in-law his old car back. He found this one for me online and checked it out before I bought it. I love it so much because it’s small, zippy and not unlike the last car I had in South Africa. The only real difference? Instead of blue, it’s pink!

I love my life here in Australia. I sit on my veranda and dream about the lives of my characters in my (much interrupted) novel. Birds chirp, and bigger birds swoop down to chase my cat Valentine if he gets too close to their trees and nests. And rightly so – he’s in their territory out there.

His sister Galadriel doesn’t seem to want to go outside. She prefers the comforts of her home. Perhaps she knows the difference between her territory and that of others.

The other day my landlord cut the grass right up to the far fence because, he said, his wife doesn’t like snakes. He must’ve seen the look on my face because he grinned and said, “You don’t like them either?”

Too muted by terror, I shook my head. Living out in the country may have its drawbacks after all…

Three Hearts & an Angel

The frenzied activity of the last few months has finally slowed down to a more manageable pace. I’ve settled well into my cottage and now that the weather is warming up I have more energy because I don’t feel so cold all the time. I think my cottage is going to be lovely in summertime.

I’ve started a potted herb garden and bought some outdoor furniture for my veranda. The birds are chirping and making nests in the newly greening trees. If my cat gets too close the larger magpies swoop down to warn him away…

Above my bed I have hung some trinkets on the arms of the light fitting. All of these – in the true Marie Kondo sense – spark joy in me when I see them moving gently in the breeze.

A double heart made by my friends Mark and Tarryn, which they gave to all their wedding guests in South Africa back in 2012. It used to hang from the rafters in my Durban cottage. Mark and Tarryn moved to Australia long before I did, and they received their Australian citizenship this month. Their double heart is not only a reminder of the two of them, but a beacon of hope for that far off day when I too, will become a citizen.

The second heart was made by another friend, Shelley, for everyone in the cast and crew of the KickstArt theatre production of the musical Annie in 2014. This small ceramic heart brings to my heart a reminder of the fortitude of my friend Tina. She designed the most beautiful lighting for this show, after surviving a violent encounter which could easily have ended her life. She was determined to let nothing prevent her from creating beauty in the world, every single day, against all odds.

The third heart is one I purchased here in Australia at one of my favourite shops – Ishka. It is hand carved and comes from Indonesia. For me, it’s a reminder of the many hand-carved wooden objects I had to leave behind in Africa due to Australia’s stringent rules and regulations, and it is also a symbol of hope and love as I move forward with my new life here.

The last object – delicately packed for its journey from South Africa by my friend Penny – is a small glass angel given to me by one of my parents’ oldest friends; the same lady who came to break the news to me of my father’s death back in 1985. She gave me this angel about twelve years ago when she visited my mother and stepfather just before Christmas one year.

I’ve never hung it on a Christmas tree because it’s far too delicate. Instead, and because angels are not just for Christmas, it used to hang all year inside a glass-fronted dresser which I no longer have. Now, it will hang permanently above my bed, moving gently in the light breeze which passes through my bedroom. A reminder that sometimes we need to spread our wings in order to fly more freely than we once did.

A Reason, a Season, or a Lifetime?

Thirty-three years ago today, I was awakened early in the morning by a persistent knocking on my door in Johannesburg. I had worked later than usual the previous night, and desperately needed that extra hour of sleep, but it was not to be. Whoever was knocking just wouldn’t go away, so I got up and stumbled to the door, bleary-eyed.

There stood an old family friend of my father’s, with her husband, come to tell me that my father had died the night before. My mother had called her so that I wouldn’t be alone when I heard the news. They stayed while I phoned my mother. They made me tea and didn’t leave until they had helped me to make arrangements to fly home.

They’ve been on my mind this weekend, as have quite a few other people.

I spent most of Sunday with a friend who is about to leave Australia to live in New Zealand. She was the first friend I made in Australia. We connected because we were aliens from the same place, albeit via different routes, and we both related to the strangeness of our new situation in a foreign country.

It was great seeing her again on Sunday because we hadn’t seen each other in a while, but I felt sad afterwards and began to ponder the theory that people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. Will we ever see each other again? I’m sure we will, but even if it turns out that we were in each other’s lives for a season of only two and a half years, then we will be grateful that we formed our friendship at the time when we both needed it most.

Because I moved around South Africa a lot in my early years of working, I have had many fleeting connections with people. I always found it sad when we drifted apart. So many best friends faded from my life when I faded from their town, or they went overseas. In those days there were no mobile phones so we didn’t keep the same numbers when we moved, and most lost interest in writing letters after a short while.

It took me several years to stop resenting the lost connections, or blaming them. I eventually realised that not all people you meet in your lifetime will be there forever, and that’s not necessarily their fault. Most people come into your life and change it in some way – for better or worse – but either way you learn something from their presence at your side.

Some leave after a few weeks or months, some after a few years. Some you see again; some you don’t. Even our beloved pets don’t live as long as we do, but those seasons they spend with us are remembered fondly for the rest of our lives.

We all make connections, but just because people drift apart doesn’t mean that they’re not important. The short length of time we spend with each other doesn’t diminish the impact of the connection.

The friend who told me to read The Artist’s Way was a musical director I worked with eighteen years ago for the six month season of a particular show. I haven’t seen her since her now grown-up son was a newborn baby, but I do believe that she came into my life when I needed someone to tell me how to change my life’s direction. I’ll always be grateful that she did. And some years later I was in the life of another musician for a long enough season to give him a copy of the same book, because I knew he needed it too.

My father’s friend who came to tell me of his death was once his girlfriend about a decade before he met my mother. It hadn’t been a serious love affair, but they always enjoyed each other’s company and stayed friends all their lives. When I was a child we went to Johannesburg on holiday, and we visited her and her husband in their beautiful old house on the top of the ridge in Kensington, with its glorious view of the eastern suburbs. When they came down to the coast on holiday, they stopped and spent time with us on the way. Birthday cards flew via airmail between all four adults. She kept in touch with my mother after my father’s death, and after the death of her husband some years later. Some friendships really do last a lifetime, no matter the distance.

Today, thanks to email and the Internet, I have reconnected with two friends from primary school. When I was in high school, my friends and I had pen-friends in exotic places around the world. Now my high school friends are my email pen-friends in exotic places too.

Look at the people around you today and ask yourself: Are they there for a reason, a season or a lifetime? And then think about the reason why you might be in each of their lives. What purpose do you fill for them? Are you there for a reason, a season or a lifetime?