Friday, July 11, 2014
Friendship across the years
I was a 15 year old boy. I came from a middle - to working class family. Church was my staple diet. It was here and at school, that I met people. They were all, (pretty much) the same kind of people with, (pretty much) the same kind of ideas and views. I sang in the church choir. And it was here that a remarkable friendship was struck. The organist (who was also the wife of the priest) was a woman whose horizon was quite a bit beyond anything I had ever come across before. To me (and I guess to others as well), she was quirky, independent, irrepressible, strange. She had a loud voice, for which she made no apology. She had views, for which, equally, she cared little about crossing the line of acceptability. She was incandescent.
And the friendship we struck was remarkable. She taught me the organ. She would hitch up her skirts and smash a shuttlecock on the badminton court. She would drive me, in her off-brown, two-tone Morris Minor, to the remote outskirts of Johannesburg - (a wild place called Fourways), for a picnic. We went to the Ballet together. We went to the Opera. We went to the Wilds and the Melville Koppies.
And all the while she would talk. She would talk about Literature, about Art, about Music (ah yes, music, music and more music). She would explain why she hated this and why she loved that. She would ask my opinion on a painting at the Art Gallery. She would moan audibly when the conductor was Edgar Cree and the pace of a particular piece of music was boringly militaristic.
She had a foul temper. More than once I was struck across the head when I played badly, or when as her badminton partner, I missed a shot in a game of doubles. She swore. She said words like "shit" and "fuck" and made no apology for them. Not often. But my mother would have fainted had she heard them. She would laugh until the tears rolled from her eyes at a good joke and she would yell at people she considered bad drivers. She would roll her eyes at stuffiness and she would shriek in derision at any sign of prissyness. Her husband, the priest, could not have been a more middle-of-the-road personality. He adored her, but remained grey and dull. Steadfast, but somewhat dreary.
Politically, she was conservative. I suppose she would probably would have voted for the United Party, rather than for the Nationalists - but largely because of a deep-seated prejudice against Afrikaners, rather than because of any objection to apartheid.
Another older person I befriended, later on in my life, was a Monk of the Community of the Resurrection. Brother Charles was the exact opposite to Sylvia Glover, politically. He matched and raised her eccentricity at every other level, but politically, he was radical in a way I had never come across before. He believed, extraordinarily, that we were all equal. That we could all have a place in the sun. He believed Nelson Mandela was a hero and that his banned African National Congress was good. He would collect people off the street in Braamfontein and invite them (and me!) into his office at lunchtime. He would spread a tablecloth over his desk and open a couple of cans of tinned fish and share a loaf of white bread amongst us all. It was food fit for royalty, believe me, for so we were served and treated.
Brother Charles was also a man with an eye for the off-beat. In his long life, he had read much, experienced hugely, loved variously, lived passionately. He talked non-stop. He repeated himself at will. He laughed by throwing his head backwards - flinging his skullcap off the top of his head - and exposing his dentures.
His humanity was endless. He loved people, especially poor people. He was a friend to everyone. To walk with him down a central Johannesburg street too forever, because everyone knew him, and would greet him and would hug him and love him. When I stayed with the community for several months, he once took me to meet some friends of his down the street in Rosettenville. A Portuguese couple. It was around nine o'clock in the evening, and they had already retired when he rang the doorbell. No matter! We were ushered into their bedroom, their got back into their large King-sized bed and treated us to a glass of wine.
Brother Charles taught me about a Christianity which put people before dogma, which laughed uproariously at silliness and stupidity and anything which counted against people. He thumbed his nose at it all and lived his life on the absolute edge - with the poor and the hungry and the marginalised. He took me to them. They welcomed me too. I was changed forever.
And I have had many more older friends in my life - and I still have them. They have always enriched me and challenged me and laughed at my pomposity. I have had the privilege of learning from their lives and their ideas. I have had the joy of being a friend to them as well.
I look at my children, young as they are, and I hope so much that they too will have the privilege of meeting eccentrics like these - while they are still young and while their ideas are still forming. Older people who can show them how to be something different. How to be bold and bright and irreverent. I wish them this gift. I wish them this extraordinary path to insight, which older people give to us. And just this knowledge stops me, the older I get, from the worst excesses of grumpiness and dismissive attitude, in case I too could possibly be someone, for someone young to remember.