Today is the 28th anniversary of my father’s death (July 14th) and as anniversaries often do, it caused me to reflect on the influence of my father – especially as I am a couple of years away from the age at which he died.
My Dad wasn’t perfect. A tradition I have faithfully carried on. He had a quick temper and could be stubborn. Traits that I dutifully learned as a young boy. But there are many qualities that I should have learned but was slow to grasp. He was a generous man: generous with his time, possessions and the little money he had. He was a man who took a keen interest in people’s lives and tried to help them as best he could.
Maarten, my Dad, was uneducated and this was largely due to the time in which he grew up – in the midst of economic depression, and later, war. But he was intelligent and astute. He saw through pomposity and bravado. On the other hand, he saw the best in people. When I might have been dismissive of someone, he would respond and tell me I didn’t understand the hardship and trials that this person had been through and which had, in turn, shaped their lives and attitudes.
He had that sense of responsibility that characterised many of his generation. Responsibility towards his family, his church, his customers and neighbours.
Also, he had a wicked sense of humour, liked a glass of wine or a cold beer on a blistering hot Aussie day, and loved his music – particularly Bach.
Looking back, I give thanks to God for having this dad as my father. He encouraged, at times bullied, me into making the most of my learning – one that he never had the opportunity to experience. He passed on beliefs and values for which I will be eternally grateful.
Twenty-eight years dead but still very much alive!
Memories are enigmatic. Fact and memory are not necessarily identical. Are the memories real or constructed? Are they made from genuine moments or reconstructed by photos and family tales? Where, exactly, does the truth sit? Or when it comes to the past is truth only relative anyway?
My earliest memory centres on a wooden leg standing in corner of a darkened bedroom. Only many years later when I asked my mother about it did she tell me that it belonged to a great grandfather, and I had seen it when we visited him. I must have been about two and a half at the time and the disembodied leg has been etched in my memory ever since. Other memories from that time include hiding under a desk which had drawers on either side and feeling secure while the adults talked. Taking a lolly(sweet) from behind the counter at the barber’s is another. A warm recollection involves being held and cuddled by an Aunty and my bare foot exploring her coat pocket as she always had a treat for her one and only nephew. There are vague recollections too of the trip to Australia on the Johan van Oldenbarnevelt.
By the time I emigrated to Australia I was three and a half. This life changing event only holds vague and, on the whole, unreliable memories. There was a model of a ship floating in a barrel. My parents couldn’t substantiate that one. There was also an overall sense of sadness. Not, I think, from leaving Holland but rather from the separation on the boat from my parents for long periods of time. I am told that I was sent to a crèche and that I didn’t like being with crying younger children. One clear image is standing on a lower deck and seeing my parents on the deck above – that memory is always associated with a severe heartache.
My memories take on a firmness (whether true or not!) after our arrival in Australia. All the recollections of the Anderson family at “The Hill” in Mepunga West: Ola, Beth, Old Mrs Anderson and the rest of the multi personalitied clan, represent a tangled ball of wool in which times and events are, after 65 years, impossible to disentangle. The overwhelming emotions, however, are one of joy and security. Even if I wasn’t fully aware of having left a family behind I was now truly embraced by a new one. The main characters in this experience have all passed on but they are still solidly secure in my head and heart.
“Helping” with the milking, feeding hay to the herd and taking the full milk cans to the depot near Smith’s Post Office and telephone exchange (a room at the back of another farmhouse) and the glorious spread of the afternoon tea before the second milking are all memory-videos that I can replay in my mind without hesitation.
After a few months at the Anderson’s we moved to a house in Allansford opposite the Post Office.
The warning my father gave me about not entering the shed was crystal clear. Many years later I found out that there was a water storage under the shed but floor of the shed floor had become rotten over time and one could fall through the floor and drown.
I had two Uncles who had arrived two years earlier and had been welcomed by the Anderson family. One of these, Adrian, built me a cart.
A clear evocation is walking to the depot (a truck-tray height platform where farmers brought their milk cans every morning and evening) and hanging a billy(milk can) can on one of a series of nails alongside the platform and then picking up a billycan of fresh milk later in the day. The depot was a little way along the highway out of town. I am sure that my mother would have come with me but all I can recall is walking with the billy-can along the side of the road.
Christopher Ingles’ parents owned the local general store just a few metres from our house. Fortunately for me they were kindly people who communicated with my parents. I learned an important life lesson in this store which was that you needed to pay for things in a shop. You couldn’t just walk in and get stuff!
I hadn’t started school yet and my mother had visions of me riding a horse to school. Mum got these visions from some of the films the authorities had shown prospective migrants about Australia. The only problem was that the school was 150 metres away – or should I say “yards” as this was predecimal Australia. In any case it didn’t matter as we moved to Ocean Grove before I started school.
These are some of my earliest memories. Just thinking about them brings an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. People’s faces flash past my eyes. Places and events parade in my mind. Real, partly real or imagined – to me, they live on.
I have had one of those days today. Yes one of those days! I had to write an email on the
Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times
Principal’s behalf. It turned out to be a great letter. It was punchy, pointed and passionate. I wrote it, reflected on it, reread it and finally sent it. No, it didn’t go to the wrong recipient and I didn’t say anything inappropriate (as has occasionally happens) but it was completely on the wrong topic. It wasn’t a bad letter but just not the one I was supposed to write. Now I have to write another email to explain everything. Humiliating!
Then I had to do a little background reading. I typed in the website I was supposed to look for. It had an easy acronym in its title. The website looked good. The acronym was splashed across the top of the page. There was a pleasant photo and an inspiring motto. “I am at the right place” – I thought. However, it took me a while to realise that instead of looking at the Australian Association of Christian Schools I was actually looking at the Australian Association of (good so far) Convenience Stores. The neurons were slow to fire today. We are coming to the end of a long year. Maybe it is time to go back to bed.
“What fictional book has challenged your thinking and touched your life in some way?” That was one of the questions we explored recently in a Literature class. Other questions included, “What character in literature do you identify with and why?”
Literature or story and the characters and ideas that it portrays is very powerful. Powerful literature works its way into our hearts and minds. Characters and situations become so real to us that it is hard to put the book down because we still want to be involved in this person’s life. Sometimes the novel ends so abruptly that we are confronted with a sense of loss. I am still waiting in frustration for Jasper Fforde’s second book in his series “Shades of Grey” (No! Not 50 shades!). Eddie Russet has been left in limbo for many years.
Scout in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” has forever made me more alert to the ways in which young people perceive the world. One student commented that Holden Caulfield’s struggle to accept adulthood is one with which he identifies. Steinbeck was a master at portraying the outcast and misfit. Once introduced to Lennie and George in “Of Mice and Men” we can never look at the people on the fringes of our society the same way again. Good literature confronts us and makes us sit up. We may agree or disagree with the author but at least he or she has made us take notice.
Arthur Miller’s exploration of the ‘American dream’ in his play “Death of a Salesman” discomforts us all as we reconsider our hopes, ambitions, failures and successes, and causes us to reflect on the stories we tell ourselves to justify our existence and legacy. Franz Kafka’s stories written nearly 100 years ago are an ominous omen of the confusion and lack of focus and direction our societies find themselves in today. I certainly feel like a confused “K” at times as I try to understand the world around me.
Is there a work of literature that will forever be with you? It may be one that you return to time and again. I’d love to hear about it.
I have a violin, which may seem strange, as I can’t play a note. Next month I will have had it for 20 years and I still don’t play a note.
It is my father’s violin. I say “is” because even though he died 20 years ago it will never be mine. It will always remind me of him – playing in the evening, in a group or even doing a duet with one of his granddaughters on keyboard or recorder.
The violin goes back as far as I can remember in my distant recollections – back to Holland. My dad had many musical instruments over the years: pianos, harmoniums, keyboards, recorders, pan pipes … He tried all sorts, even a guitar but his fingers were too short for the neck which made the violin ideal. He played by ear so it was not always enjoyable when he first got hold of a new instrument.
Dad and his violin
But the violin is the oldest. It is the one instrument that is always part of my memories of my father. Yes there are many other memories like dad packing my mother’s vacuum cleaner into a soundproof box so it could push air into the harmonium with the result that he didn’t have to pedal – and mum didn’t have a vacuum cleaner. Yet over all these moments the image of my father and his violin remains the most enduring.
It will be 20 years next month when my dad was promoted from being an earthly fiddler to a player in heaven’s orchestra with some of his favourite composers and musicians. I can imagine dad under the musical direction of J. S. Bach.
But even after 20 years I still miss his playing – the good and the bad.
The two of us in front of the autumn vine (mentioned in the poem the other day) May 11 1974
In the last two posts my wife and I have reflected, in poetry, on our 40 years together. I wondered at how quickly the time had passed but she thought more about the significant events enclosed by our marriage.
It made me ponder more deeply. In this time I have seen friends divorce and others tragically lose a partner. So I must praise God for keeping these two unique and stubborn individuals together and safe throughout those 40 years. Then I dug a little deeper and thought about the person that I was 40 years ago. To be painfully honest Pieter Stok, 40 years ago, was a naive, self centred and arrogant person. I can hear some of my friends say, “What’s changed?”
Signing our lives away.
I believe that I have mellowed and grown over those 40 years and this has all been due to a mystical combination of God using His Word, my wife, children, wider family and friends to grow me more like the person He wants me to be … and there is still a long, long way to go.
Now I know I wont get another 40 years of marriage this side of heaven but I am looking forward to what God still has in store for us. The journey to this point with its highs and lows, pains and joys has been amazing. I cannot imagine having gotten to this point with anyone else and I cannot express enough how thankful I am for the life partner He has given me.
So today we celebrate 40 years and anticipate a future.
When our inner child is not nurtured and nourished, our minds gradually close to new ideas, unprofitable commitments, and the surprises of the Spirit. Evangelical faith is bartered for cozy, comfortable piety. A failure of nerve and an unwillingness to risk distorts God into a Bookkeeper, and the gospel of grace is swapped for the security of religious bondage.
“Unless you become like little children …” Heaven will be filled with five-year-olds.
I wonder if the Psychologists and Psychiatrists would agree with me but I believe we are engulfed in tsunami of self obsession – “narcissism”. Our blogging and Facebook posts are only the tip of the iceberg. I find I am encountering “Hitler” and “Assad” styled self belief, in otherwise ordinary people, daily.
The symptoms include the idea that they are beyond advice and criticism. An issue is always, without fail, the other person’s problem. They will defend to the death, preferably the other person’s, their right not to be criticised. They are strident in interpreting all events and actions in relation to themselves and fail to see the perspectives of others.
If I am right, and my own narcissistic tendencies tend to suggest I am, where does self obsession come from?
I would like to suggest three reasons. You may wish to add more intelligent ideas.
As I have written previously, parents are giving children, starting at a very young age, too much choice: when they eat, what they eat, what they wear, what they do … the daily list is endless. Children are becoming wise in their own eyes. They are attributed maturity well beyond their years. In other words, some parents are setting a treacherous groundwork.
The advertising industry lives off narcissism. It is their bread and butter. We encounter the subtle and not so subtle messages to make ourselves “No.1” hourly. Their feeding of our narcissism is relentless. Consciously or unconsciously we absorb the seductive message.
Our hearts are wired to set our selves up as God. Our rebellious natures love the idea that we are the supreme being of our lives: we are the Captains of our destinies. We are ultimately only responsible to self. Incidentally, when for whatever reason this perspective is destroyed, one way out is, too often, suicide.
What is the antidote?
The solution is remarkably simple: Essentially “Christ”. In one fell swoop he is both the mirror that reveals the brokenness of our humanity and he also becomes our release from that brokenness and its impacts. He gives us perspective and promise.
A friend once said that we need to go to the cross, climb up and push the blood matted hair away from our Savior’s face and stare into his tortured eyes to understand the immense brokenness of our own heart, our motives, our actions, our words – our very being. The reason he was dying was for all of that and much more. Then, no longer, can we put ourselves on a pedestal of immaculate self belief. We are awoken to an amazing and confronting awareness of the depth and seeming unwashability our own corruption.
And yet, that very awareness leads us back to the same cross so that we can say in all helplessness. “Lord, Save me! Cover my brokenness with your own pure righteousness.”
To get a glimpse of that truth is a powerful antidote to the darker side of our heart as it whispers, “It is all about me”.