The Syringa Tree (Grief and Grace)

July 18, 2014

There was so much beauty in this book…..

When we buried my grandfather, my grandmother sat very quiet and still.  The skin on her face, neck, and much of her shoulder still wept with burns.  It was as if she saw and heard nothing.  In the hospital, she had repeatedly asked, ‘What did they want, Dr. Winston, what did they want?  Did you know, they took his medals, his war medals from the trunk under our bed.  They took them.’  Then she sat on the end of the hospital bed, staring ahead as though she could see whoever he was running through the hills soaked in blood, sporting the medals of the man he had murdered.  Her hand inadvertently folded and re-folded the edge of the hospital sheet, pleating her life back into place.

My mother had had to be restrained when we first arrived at Clova, when Sergeant Potgieter said, ‘We believe he was a freedom fighter from Rhodesia, ….’

‘What does murdering people have to do with freedom?’ my mother screamed, and seemed to want to run into the hills herself to find this man, to demand that he answer her.  My father held her arms down to her sides, then carried her crying like a child, to lie down.

Now we stood, huddled around a hole in the earth at the small, bleak cemetery…The wind swirled around us in a lonely wail.  It lifted the dust at our feet and curled it over the edges of the grave, softening the dark pit, making it seem kinder.

‘Let us pray,’ Father Montford said into our grief.

‘…our life, our sweetness, and our hope.  To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve….’

I looked up and saw, across the veld, a tall Venda slowly approaching.  I saw another, then another, then several more.  They must have walked for hours, many all the way from Clova, many from the farms around us.  Soon a column of Vendas, led by Thoyo, wound toward us through the windswept, graveyard veld.  Many I had never seen before…Like an army of men, they walked in silent unison, shoulders gleaming in the sad light, their tearstained women following, wrapped in black batik-cloths.  And quietly behind them, the Clova picaninns, all wearing white shirts from my grandfather’s shop.

Father Montford waited until they had gathered, a wall of comfort, around us.  Then slowly, he resumed.

‘To thee, do we send up our sighs, Mourning and weeping in this vale of tears….’

My grandfather was lowered down into the ground.  I thought of his hands.  I thought of gifts.  I thought of friends — how he had been mine.  I wondered if he could ever have imagined a hundred Vendas come to say good-bye.

And I thought of foes.

Even as I wanted to pat him down into a rose-brown blanket of earth, where he would be safe and warm, I could not think about leaving him there.  Father Montford continued his soft-spoken Irish words:

‘Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us, and after this exile…

When it was over, we walked away.  The Vendas stayed by George Waltham’s grave to mourn him into the night.  We left him tucked deep into the dark soil close to the place he loved, close to the land no one had wanted, where, trying to forget, trying to redeem himself, he had brought barren earth back to life.

pp. 210 – 211, The Syringa Tree, Pamela Gien, 2006.

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