I remember many Christmases from when I was a kid. All of them had something that made an impression on my memory that just can’t be erased. But the Christmas of 1964 is etched so deep that it stands out in sharp relief to all the others.
The year of 1964 had not been a good year for our family. To improve our financial situation my father moved us to a small village about 30 miles from the large city we were living in. This move offered more money, 50 cents an hour as compared to the 45 cents an hour that my father earned at his previous place of employment. With the position went a company house, free lights and water. The work was exactly the same as in the previous position, and for eight hours hard, back breaking and exhausting work, in a noisy dirty factory, he earned the princely sum of four Rand, (R4) a day or about R120 a month.
The previous three years had been hard and very difficult. Serious illness in the family had added to the debt burden and any spare money earned in the new job was spent in paying off these debts. From July 1964, the month we moved to the new place, our main meal of the day consisted of samp, (crushed white maize) and cabbage curry. Samp took hours to cook, but it was cheap, and we had a wood burning stove and as much wood as we needed. Cabbage we grew in the garden with a few other vegetables, such as onions and tomatoes. There were absolutely no luxuries, we were down to almost less than the minimum.
Christmas eve, 24th December 1964, and all the cupboards were bare, open the fridge and all you found was the light that came on and empty shelves. My mother always cooked up a storm for Christmas, but this year there was nothing. She went through the motions though, cooking a pot of small onions in a sweet and sour sauce, but that was all there was. After putting the onions and the sauce in a small glass dish into the fridge, she sat down at the table and wept, defeated, no sounds just large tears running down her face.
The whole family was in the kitchen, my mother, my father, me about to turn seventeen in six days, my brother Boyce, fifteen, and my two sisters, Rosemary about eight, and Jo-Anne about nine years old. That kitchen scene is also embedded in my memory, a bare light bulb hanging on some flex from the ceiling. The battered old table and six chairs, everything spotlessly clean, but bare, the very image of poverty. Then my father sat down next to my mother and took her hands in his and wept silently with her.
Seeing my parents weeping left me shattered, until that moment I was sure they would be able to make a plan and our Christmas would turn out as good as all the others. Children cry, not grownups, not your parents, they have the answer to all of life’s problems.
Then my father took out his handkerchief, blew his nose, cleared his throat and said, “Let’s pray.” We all sat around the table while my father prayed a simple prayer, with very few words, asking God to help us, that’s all nothing more.
At seventeen I was already a budding cynic. My thoughts were, “God help us, how?” Here we were sitting in this bleak kitchen with nothing! Where was anything going to come from. Angels from heaven? Ha! Pull my other leg.
But the Angels were close, they were closer than I knew.