Friday, January 23, 2009

To be young at heart and to live graciously

Of the many people I will never forget, I am thinking today of oom Outie
and tannie Margaret, as we used to call them. They were our next-door
neighbours when we came to live in Stellenbosch during the 1980s. I had
just started out in the student ministry and was looking forward to
working with young people and sharing in their worlds. Fragile and
slightly inquisitive old people were not an immediate part of my agenda.
And our neighbours were really ageing - both were in their eighties; they
had difficulty walking and taking basic care of themselves became
burdensome. There were hints of decay in accumulated rubble and a rather
musty scent of decay that struck one on entering their home. In many
things there was a subtle reminder that they were becoming increasingly
dependent and were battling to cope.

What I had completely underestimated was our older neighbours’ own brand
of youthfulness and the impact this would have on our family. Quite soon
we realised that in spite of their age, these were two extraordinary and
endearing people with an enduring zest for life and a keen, open interest
in other people. To them, having us as new neighbours not only offered a
new adventure, it was also a new opportunity to engage and share the
beauty of life with strangers.

Oom Outie, educated as a veterinarian, had been a university professor for
the larger part of his working life. He was an intelligent person who
could ask critical questions without being brutal or destructive. Auntie
Margaret had been a champion in doing fine knitting and embroidery, in
housekeeping and entertaining; she still carried the traces (and
confidence) of the remarkable beauty she had been in her younger days.

But it was their unique spirit and the gracious way in which they
approached life, that made the lasting impression. Having had their share
of heartache in their own family, they knew the pain of loss and
disappointment. But in a wonderful way they managed to overcome this,
refusing to become negative and cynical, remaining almost innocent in
their enjoyment of small pleasures like an outing to an exhibition and in
their appreciation of what they experienced as the undeserved richness
that life had to offer in things like their garden, the achievements of
friends, or the chatter of their neighbours’ two-year-old.

We remember very fondly how oom Outie and tannie Margaret celebrated
birthdays, bringing together numerous good and loyal friends who loved
them and enjoyed being with them. And we were lucky…even as newcomers, we
were always invited. We also remember with amazement the sincere interest
they took in our children who were busy, noisy, relatively selfish little
beings at the time. To this day I can still hear auntie Margaret
commenting on how sweet, how charming, how delightful they were. She had
the astonishing ability to pick up on positive energy, to focus on the
pleasurable, to remain oblivious to meanness or testiness.

I often think about our former neighbours at the start of the new year.
They were not pious or outspokenly religious, and yet they were living
examples of what I would call Christian values, of an almost childlike
capacity for happiness, care, hope and dignity. Their lives truly
expressed the title of a book I learnt to know in my parents’ home:
“Growing lovely, growing old”. May this also be true of our lives in SA
this coming year.

Carel Anthonissen

No comments:

Post a Comment