In memory of my sister, Deanne Seneschal Raszat, née Lewald, born 31 Jan. 1940 in Durban, South Africa; died 26 Sept. 1996 in Leimen-Gauangelloch, Germany
By Roon Lewald
After cancer won a five-year battle for my elder sister’s life, my brother-in-law sent me a parcel of old studio recordings of Deanne’s singing recitals made by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC/SAUK) between 1953 and 1958. Apart from a pile of yellowed newspaper clips and eistedfodd certificates, they were all that remained of the years when my mother’s coaching of Deanne’s voice propelled her into brief local prominence as a promising young singer. My dutiful elder sister had already been slaving away at her piano lessons for nearly five years when, at the age of 10, our Ma yoked her girlish lyrical soprano too into the musical harness of our parents, both of them singing teachers. At the age of 13, she piped German Lieder and Afrikaans liedjies into an SABC mike for the first time and was introduced on the nationwide “Young South Africa” programme as a young singer with a great future.
She went on to cut a broad swathe through local eistedfodds until, at the age of 18, her radio and concert recitals of Lieder and arias from oratorios and operas were earning high praise from local critics. Encouraged by my mother, she seemed all set to storm the European concert and opera bastions which Ma herself had failed to breach while studying music in Berlin in the 1930s.
Little came of these high hopes. In seizing on Deanne at such an early age to prove that her stage experience as a concert singer made her a better voice trainer than my father, my domineering, extrovert mother bruised my sister’s more sensitive nature and made her nervously insecure. I greatly loved and admired my elder sister as a boy. But I pitied her too, and I could hardly bear the stage fright that visibly clutched at her vocal chords at the beginning of every public performance, making her rasp her throat repeatedly before quavering into the first notes. Deanne finally rebelled and left our parents’ home to spread her wings in Cape Town, where she sought out another teacher to try and rid herself of my mother’s domineering influence.
As a lad in my rebellious days of Elvis Presley fandom, I resisted all parental attempts to herd me into their musical treadmills even though I loved singing and was frequently told that I have a good baritone voice. I would listen in amazement to the exercises my parents imposed on their respective pupils. “Imagine you’re a bell!” or “Sing inside your head!”, they would command. Once, I was stunned to overhear one of Pa’s pupils endlessly whispering “Tick! – tick! – tick! – tick!” with quiet, passionate concentration. Other teachers have training exercises which can seem equally weird to outsiders, so I do not presume to judge my mother’s or father’s methodology on such evidence.
But I do know that, for all the learned textbooks written by great classical singing teachers since the Middle Ages, the art of singing remains so instinctive that a good voice teacher must finally rely on psychology rather than convoluted theories about the physiology of trained voice production. That probably explains why Ma’s technique produced such mixed results in her own daughter, and why the new Cape Town teacher’s efforts to expand Deanne’s lyrical soprano into a deeper dramatic-soprano or mezzo range simply added new complications without removing her psychological hang-up. Consequently, she achieved little lasting success in Germany even though her cultured voice, musicality and sensitive interpretation earned her some appreciative critiques of her occasional solo performances on local oratorio and concert stages in the Heidelberg region. She finally settled for music teaching at a Heidelberg high school, where she met and married Horst Raszat, a genial arts and crafts teacher at the same school.
The studio recordings I received from Horst were made with the long-obsolete techniques of the 1950s on thick shellac or shellac-coated glass discs at speeds including 45 rpm and even 78 rpm. Designed for one-off playing, the fragile surfaces were already so worn that Deanne had very rarely played them or found anyone able or willing to re-record them.
So, after buying a USB turntable and editing software, I re-recorded them myself and suppressed the worst of the thunderous surface noises. The result made me gasp: Clear as a bell, the sweet voice of little big sister Deanne in her first radio recital cut through the remaining hisses and crackles to me for the first time since 1953, the year when she appeared on the cover of the weeky SABC Radio Journal in the cute dirndl uniform of the German Primary School in Pretoria (see photo above). The later recordings of progressively more mature recitals remind me of my intense youthful pride over her precocious artistry. But there is always a hint of suppressed nervous tension there: the old stage terror that always set in the day before a public performance, bringing on the first of the severe migraines that plagued and troubled her for the rest of her life.
When I think of the twin-like emotional bond that developed between us in later years, it seems difficult to imagine our frequent squabbles during my earliest years. In those days, my German immigrant father had an uphill struggle to establish his singing studio in a hostile, English-dominated white community soon after World War II. That kept my mother working as a school teacher to pay the rent for a shabby semi-detached in Durban’s Berea suburb. His improving fortunes allowed us to move to Pretoria in 1949 and finally buy the red-brick bungalow at 789 Park Street, Sunnyside, where my father’s private studio grew from strength to strength.
One and a half years older than me, Deanne was a serious child who accepted music as her personal mission and knuckled down to a taxing routine of piano lessons from the age of six. She practiced scales at home for hours every day to satisfy Mr Godfrey, the strict private teacher who irritably rapped her knuckles when she faltered. Since I have always been a more slipshod character with no yen for consistent self-discipline, her intimidating example made me reject all parental attempts to train my own voice. I was childishly enraged by her goody-goody-two-shoes tendency to snitch about my crimes of greed or wanton destructiveness, viz. stealing cookies or biting a chair back for the fun of seeing my tooth marks in the lacquered wood.
Our African nursemaid Ellen was another source of early discord. A rather fierce woman steeped in the macho traditions of the warlike Zulu tribe, she spoiled me with maternal affection but treated Deanne with reserve. “We-Tinizaan, we-Lollozaan” – my little one – she would croon over me. But in her eyes, Deanne was a mere girl-child and sly besides: “Little snake,” she once snapped at her, an insult my sister never forgot. All the more unfair since it was dutiful Deanne who responded best to the Zulu lessons Ellen gave us at my mother’s request. Ellen earned high praise from all the other nannies on the lawn at Mitchell Park when her little white pupil told them the unfamiliar tale of Little Red Riding Hood in idiomatic Zulu.
When we became old enough to sense the low-key tensions that divided our parents, serious-minded Deanne naturally gravitated towards my metaphysically preoccupied father while pragmatic, extroverted Ma pulled me to her side of the fence. The parental conflict reached its climax during our teens, when the real possibility of their separation loomed for the first time. That made us team up as juvenile mediators, shuttling too and fro between our parents to try and make them appreciate each other’s point of view. As communicative, reasonable people who shunned noisy confrontations and treated us like young adults, our parents gratefully accepted our intercession. That made it worse in a way, because our institutionalised honest-broker role was a heavy emotional burden which hampered our adolescent attempts to develop our own interests and personalities. At the same time, it bonded me closely to my sister.
By the time Deanne left the house, the thick fog of emotional cross-currents in 789 Park Street had intensified my inherent depressive tendencies and turned me into a lonely, insecure, morbidly unhappy youngster. A year of military service and first-year BA studies at Pretoria University, then an academically inferior stronghold of repressive Calvinist-Afrikaner values, brought little change. Deanne opened the door to freedom and a happier phase of my life by convincing my parents that I needed a change of scenery. They agreed to let me continue my studies at the University of Cape Town.
UCT (along with Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University) was then one of the two last, surviving bastions of liberal academe in a land that a spate of monstrous racist legislation was turning into an internationally despised police state. Still beset by emotional problems, I dropped out after another year of BA studies. But I treasure the memory of you, alma mater, nestling against the eastern flank of cloud-blanketed Table Mountain with the Atlantic and Indian Ocean waters meeting beside the white beaches of the fairest cape in all the world. And you, Cape Town, Big Easy of Apartheidland, fabled harbour of the seven seas, where the traditionally more tolerant attitudes between cohabiting white and Cape Coloured populations were then still resisting the designs of the grim Apartheid architects up north…
There, as I arrived at Cape Town station on a glorious summer day in 1962, I was met by an unforgettable vision: my tall, beautiful sister, laughing and waving as she ran up to my train window with the foreshore breeze whipping her gaily flowered summer dress around her long legs. Then working as a librarian in Cape Town, she comforted me during my first lonely months on the unfamiliar campus until the discovery of new friends loosened the chains of my depression. They introduced me to the youthful normality of making out with girls, shared digs, pubcrawls, midnight tours of the dockside lowlife area and, above all, golden days of dipping in the sea from The Boulders or lazing on a white beach in a pleasant haze of poeswyn (cheap wine). We used to buy that rotgut “Liebies” (Lieberstein) by the gallon from Charlie, our illicit supplier of booze and boom (grass) in the vibrant old Coloured ghetto of District Six with its little Georgian-era cottages and Cape Malay mosques. I think I owe my sanity to that awakening, and Deanne’s intervention made it possible.
I also owe the start of my journalistic career to her. Still full of psychic hang-ups at the end of my first year at UCT, I dropped out and thankfully accepted a job she wangled for me through personal contacts. As an SABC radio news cadet, I was working for a miserable, unprofessional news organisation that blatantly toed the government’s political line. But I eventually graduated from there to the Johannesburg bureau of The Associated Press and was finally transferred to The AP bureau in Bonn, then the capital of West Germany. I spent over 30 years there as an international political and business news correspondent and remained there after retiring.
In Germany, my first wife and I witnessed the wedding of Deanne and her husband Horst Raszat in Heidelberg. I got on well with Horst from the start. Some 20 years older than she, Horst was a personable, highly talented man who made up for educational opportunities lost during World War II by belatedly re-qualifying himself in a completely new field – art education. To me, Horst was an interesting study in the “lost generation” of Germans who were ruthlessly programmed by the Third Reich from childhood. These propaganda-saturated youngsters were catapulted from school and Hitler Youth straight into Hitler’s war. Old photos with serrated edges show a confidently smiling Horst in the uniform of a highly trained electrical systems officer aboard the great battleship Tirpitz.
But when repeated aerial attacks on Tirpitz and finally explosives attached to her hull by daring frogmen from British mini-submarines left her half-submerged in a shallow Norwegian fjord, Horst and his mates were kitted out in field grey and thrown pell-mell into Hitler’s last, demented land battles on the western frontiers of the Reich. The gory insanity of that experience, the rough treatment Horst and his broken comrades got from GI guards in a shelterless POW field enclosure and the bitterness of his return to a shattered, impoverished homeland made him vow never, ever to believe any politician again.
Horst never spoke about his wartime experiences unless asked about them, but his naval background showed in his penchant for shipshape orderliness in everything he did. Himself a talented sculptor, carpenter and graphic illustrator, Horst had an encyclopaedic knowledge of art history and a gift for blending inspirational teaching with the kind of natural discipline that quells the unruliest schoolboy. Developing a special puppeteering sideline, he and a circle of voluntary pupils designed and crafted technically sophisticated marionettes and staged performances (sometimes of entire operas) which became annual highlights of school life.
When Deanne’s already mutating breast tumor was discovered, I was grateful for the bonding experience of the many evenings I had spent with Horst down the years, gradually killing a bottle of good aquavit or Scotch whenever we felt the urge to philosophise into the wee small hours. The news hit me like a bombshell, and steadfast Horst was the only reliable point of reference at a time when aloof specialists in the impersonal Heidelberg University cancer clinic kept us guessing about their prognosis. Deanne had become an increasingly important factor in my life since the years when inherent psychic instability wrecked my career and my first marriage. That had saddled me with debts and depression while I sought to understand myself in a series of lengthy sojourns in mental clinics. When my wife and I were on the brink of final separation after nearly 20 years, it was Deanne who helped me cope with my despair and self-recrimination during our many walks near her home in rural Gauangelloch on the Odenwald plateau that overlooks Heidelberg.
I have a clear memory of her silhouetted against an open, breezy sky in late winter. I can see her tall figure now, striding ahead in a long, flapping overcoat. Her strong, shoulder-length brown hair frames an oval face that resembles my own. Her familiar voice and the blue Van Pletsen eyes of my mother channel thoughts, realms of experience and feelings that interlock perfectly with mine. Elective twins. Zooey and Franny, straight from the pages of J.D. Salinger’s “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters”, I remember thinking.
Oh, we weren’t always of one mind, of course. We were very different people in some ways. Aquarius and Gemini, perhaps: the divergent characteristics classically attributed to our zodiacal signs were actually quite close to our own. She, the daughterly disciple of my father in his role as a yogic Sarastro, world-renouncing priest-king of a one-man Temple of Wisdom; I, the son of Helen van Pletsen, that theatrically extrovert “Nightingale of Natal” and descendant of a long line of humorously sceptical, down-to-earth Boer farmers.
But Deanne and I had eaten a bag of salt together, as the Boers say. And we were the last survivors of our close-knit family, for both our parents had died and left us to sift their mingled heritage of painful and affectionate memories together. I was on holiday in Crete with my wife and small daughter when they took my mother to the Pretoria General Hospital in 1980. Horst phoned from Heidelberg to alert me as soon as we returned to Bonn. I took the first available flight, but she had died by the time I reached South Africa. Thankfully, Deanne had flown out earlier to hold the fort. Progressively robbed of breath by a lung emphysema, Ma had already suffered greatly for over a year. In hospital, a jungle of life-support tubes prevented her from surrendering her futile struggle at last. In her unrecognisably empurpled, agonised face, the eyes rolling wildly above the tubes taped into her mouth and nostrils indicated that she was conscious at least part of the time.
Deanne was so horrified by her suffering that she made the reluctant doctors disconnect all life-support and let nature run its merciful course. Our father was so distressed that he let her do as she saw fit. Although she thought Ma had given a confirmatory nod when asked whether that was what she wanted, Deanne was plagued by doubt over whether she had done the right thing. I believe she was somewhat comforted by my heartfelt approval of her action. Deanne and I had little time to mourn as we teamed up to host Van Pletsen aunts, uncles and cousins from all over the country and a wide circle of Pretoria friends at the memorial service. We also had to help my emotionally shattered father face the practical consequences of her death. During my mother’s last year, when her laboured breathing filled their bedroom every night, he had kept her supplied with fresh oxygen cylinders and ham-handedly took over all the cooking, gardening, business and other chores as best he could – a taxing experience for an old man as hopelessly impractical as he was.
My mother’s body was incinerated at Grobbelaar’s Crematorium in the West End of Pretoria. A few days later, a receptionist at Grobbelaar’s dumped a cardboard box containing her ashes on the counter. We had no settled plans for their disposal, so we three – my dad clutching the shabby box to his bosom – set off to find a suitably atmospheric spot in the veld. We eventually headed for the scenic Hartebeestport Dam in the Magaliesberg hills outside Pretoria, homing in on a flarepath laid ahead of us by the blood-red rays of the setting sun. When we helped my stumbling father down the steep bank to scatter my mother’s ashes into the lake, the afterglow in the sky cast moiré silk patterns on the glooming waters. A high, dark headland on the opposite side reared up like a natural tombstone and a nightbird’s call accentuated the silence. I never want to visit that place again for fear that mundane reality might sully the perfect space-time dimension which shelters my mother in my memory. After my father died, only Deanne was left to revisit that secret place in our minds with me.
My father’s death in 1988 deepened our bonds still further. Death can teach you so much about life. The final lesson this gentle, kind man taught us two was the dispassionate fortitude with which he faced his painful physical decay from a slowly spreading prostate cancer. It ended his life at the ripe old age of 83. Despite the support of several faithful friends, he must have been very lonely at times in his two-roomed flat in ‘Sonnheim’, the senior citizens’ home where he spent his last few years. Having both emigrated to Germany many years previously, my sister and I kept in touch as best we could through long-distance phone calls and visits every few years.
Bhicka Chiba, an Indian disciple of the Rishikesh-based guru who also became my father’s spiritual master, was Pa’s closest friend. Our father’s unwillingness to complain left only Bhicka to rush him to hospital towards the end and urge us to fly out immediately. Watching at my father’s bedside for several days, we saw him die like a Roman. In conscious moments between bouts of morphined sedation, his untroubled acceptance of his passage allowed benevolent currents of love to flow tranquilly between us. Even a hint of the subsumed male sensuality which had always counterbalanced this physically attractive old man’s spirituality revived briefly when he made a pretty young nurse blush. Becoming aware of her at his bedside, he opened his eyes wide under his bushy brows, gave her his most charming smile and exclaimed in his German-accented Afrikaans:
“Here, maar JY is ‘n mooi meisie!” – Lord, YOU are a lovely girl!”
So you do have balls, old saint, I thought with satisfaction.
Bhicka needlessly sought to comfort him by announcing that his old guru in faraway Rishikesh had agreed to let him declare his erstwhile disciple a sanyasi, even though Pa had by then abandoned the swami’s teachings to pursue his own undogmatic path. My father gracefully accepted the orange scarf of yoga sanctity which Bhicka draped around his neck. But my sister – more familiar with our father’s thinking than I – told me later that he privately scorned such marks of institutionalised holiness. In me, however, Bhicka’s gesture conjured up the wryly comforting thought that my old man may indeed have levitated from his earthly shell into the nirvana he had pursued so devotedly for so many years.
In life, he had often made me wonder whether he was a saint or a fool. I still don’t know the answer. But the thought that possessed me at his bedside in his final hours was: “This is a very special death; I too wish to die so well when I have to. I must capture these impressions.” And so I calmed my emotions by sketching him repeatedly at various intervals, until his facial muscles slackened, his head fell sideways and his eyes stared blindly between half-closed lids.
Strangely, his death left Deanne with more complicated feelings than mine. Though his naive otherworldliness had severely troubled me in my youth by robbing me of a conventional male role model, I had made my own peace with him in his final years. By contrast, Deanne’s early closeness to him had been forged by her sympathy with his meek acceptance of my mother’s constant nagging and mockery of his practical shortcomings. This exposed her to his unconsciously selfish exploitation of her youthful maternal instincts and burdened her adolescent personality with his monkish, often rather morbid desire to renounce worldly pursuits. Her consequent tendency to seek out maladjusted males in need of similar motherhenning caused her much grief until she gratefully accepted the normality of Horst’s reliable, sheltering masculinity. When she later tried to make our father see that he had leaned too heavily on her adolescent support, his seeming ingratitude deeply shocked and hurt her. Revealing a heedlessly egocentric core within his outwardly selfless search for spiritual perfection, he mildly told her: “You needn’t have helped me. I never asked you for it.”
And yet, he possessed a childlike goodness and love of all humanity that must have continued to yeast in her after his death. Deanne in her mature years was one of the few truly radiant personalities I have personally known. Her great charm resided in the way she put her body, heart and soul into everything she did and said. When she sang for her friends or her own pleasure, she was Inyoni (songbird), the Zulu name she originally received from her enduring friend Letta Shabalala, my mother’s pert, quick-witted housemaid in 789 Park Street. It is as Inyoni that I remember her: Inyoni, the bird who sings because that is how God made her.
When discussing a serious subject, she was highly concentrated. She had a good though not exceptional intelligence. But she was a very good learner and she had that woman’s knack of arriving at sound, humane conclusions by using both sides of her brain, filtering logic through her compassionate instincts. When she was enjoying herself in a good conversation, she laughed freely, her facial expressions changed from moment to moment and she used her hands and arms like an orchestra conductor to emphasize the points she made.
I captured this series of impressions in one such conversation:
With a spontaneity and idealism that attracted a motley collection of friends all over Germany and South Africa, Deanne tackled the proverbially thankless task of teaching the grace-and-favour subject of music to generally disinterested schoolchildren. It cost her many migraine attacks before she learned how to assert her authority while attracting the interest of blasé juveniles with the right blend of classics, light musicals, folk and pop. In later years, the annual school concerts she organised with her kids were good fun and good music, giving many talented youngsters a chance to play instrumental solos, enact favourite scenes from “Phantom of the Opera” or belt out rousing gospel choruses. At home, her widowed husband’s two adolescent children soon adopted her as a cross between a favourite aunt and a mother-substitute. Later, she became “Oma” (Granny) to all Horst’s grandchildren.
Deanne was not a politically sophisticated person, but she was deeply concerned about the deteriorating race confrontation in South Africa. While visiting the country in the 1980s, she seized on the opportunity to make contact with a self-help group of Soweto women and launch a school fund-raising campaign to support them. In her will, she instructed me to endow whatever charity might best advance South African women with a major portion of her estate. After her death, I duly had the money transferred to the Treatment Action Campaign against the HIV-AIDS pandemic which kills so many women and wrecks the fabric of the black society they uphold as mothers and often as bread-winners.
Deanne’s 50th birthday was the occasion of my last entirely carefree encounter with her in 1990, months before the evil day when Horst and I waited in a Heidelberg hospital for the final, crushing result of her first tumor tissue test. Looking fabulous, Deanne was typically ebullient as she welcomed each newly arriving guest. “This is mein bestes Stück (the best thing I have) – my brother!” she cried as she introduced me to her friends. Many of them in that happy crowd were musicians. A comely Bavarian lass called Iris played the violin, a concert pianist gave us Schumann, Deanne’s best private singing pupil trilled a showy coloratura aria. And then, as we had often done in the old days in 789 Park Street, she and I sang the duet between fair Princess Pamina and the carefree birdcatcher Papageno from The Magic Flute. Its stilted, 18th century text seems so trite on paper but rings so eternally true when animated by the genius of Mozart:
Pamina: In men who feel the joy of love
a good heart surely dwells…
Papageno: The urge to share those sweet emotions
calls women to their highest mission.
Unisono: Let us enjoy the power of love –
through love alone we live!
I always associate Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” with the sombre leitmotifs that clouded our later encounters, beginning with the dark lord’s first knock at her door and intensifying as he swept her away in the gradually quickening rhythms of his dance. The ruthless suitor was not fobbed off by the diseased breast the surgeons sliced from her body and her feminine identity. His rapacious courtship was aided by her hostility to conventional, technologically driven medicine – an attitude which can only have diminished the slight chance of survival she may originally have had. She loathed and feared her frequent visits to the huge, impersonal cancer clinic for tumor marker and X-ray tests – especially the claustrophobia of complete enclosure in the cold metal tube of a nuclear spintomograph, where white-gowned attendants wordlessly performed technological rites that seemed inimical to nature and life itself. In the few years left to her, she increasingly turned to ineffective homeopathic medicines and phony “magic cures”. I was particularly enraged by the cynicism of the quack peddlers who sold her several packages of a dark, humus-like substance they advertised as “Chinese Earth”. Horst sensibly soothed her by paying several thousand hard-earned Deutsche Mark for this muck – and quietly dumped it in the garbage can after she tried it once and couldn’t keep it down.
Even at a relatively early stage, Horst realistically accepted the medical evidence that the cancer had spread too far to be halted. I myself eventually realised that she had decided to fight on terrain she had chosen herself: the battlefield of her own psyche. She clutched at the fixed notion that she could claw her way back to health by rooting out and eliminating some causal psychological factor buried in the dim recesses of her mind. It was an unbalanced – though understandable – idea. But I will say that she put up a tremendous fight. While she still had enough energy to live a halfway normal life, she lived as intensively as she could and reached out to all the friends she could count on for helpful insights and emotional support. The warmth and understanding they received for their own problems made it a fair trade.
We two drew closer still in frequent phone calls, long letters and my occasional visits, tossing all sorts of topics to and fro for joint consideration. In one letter, she demanded to know what I thought about the biblical story of Job: why did his God keep piling such agony and indignity on such an allegedly upright citizen? What was so false about the false comforters? And most importantly: What changes in Job himself finally get God off his back? And what kind of God is this who demands uncomplaining submission to His every whim? I immediately studied that Rubic’s cube of a moral conundrum and came back with a detailed response. I don’t know whether it really made sense to her or even me, but I hope she drew comfort from my willingness to share her quest.
One day, remembering the historic sailing ship models displayed on the top of my bookshelf in Bonn, she asked me to build her a ship that would symbolise her life. So I made her a small-scale model of a smart, sturdy ocean yacht with a gay blue-and-white hull. Her single-masted rig was based on the U.S. East Coast architecture of a fine 19th century American revenue cutter named “Alert”. The sails were furled because she was riding at anchor in Table Bay, home at last after her many passages through frequently stormy but just as often smooth foreign seas, I told her. She was especially taken with the name I painted on the stern: “Inyoni”.
On another occasion, I reminded her of our shared Afrikaner heritage, pointing out that a proper Boer is apt to express himself very frankly when irked by senseless bureaucratic restrictions of the type our German fellow-citizens accepted as the price of civilisation. She loved the idea. And henceforth, whenever the German she married got too finicky about petty things like stashing cutlery in the “right” dishwasher compartments, she would crush him by crudely retorting: “Ag man, gaan kak in jou hand” – meaning eff-off, or words to that effect.
Last scene of all that ends this history is Deanne in the final weeks before her death, a gaunt spectre with a spinal column so hollowed out by ravening cancer cells that any sudden jolt might literally have snapped her backbone. Horst called me in to help him at her bedside throughout her last weeks, and we were a great team. That was the beginning of a community of loving friends such as I have never experienced before or since. They kept popping in and out, and people I had never seen before embraced me, or wept over or with me. Four or five women – one of them a trained nurse – cared for Deanne tirelessly in day-and-night shifts. By then, she had learned Job’s lesson of uncomplaining acceptance and had only a few more things to settle in her mind before letting the morphine plasters on her chest drift her away into final oblivion. One last question she asked me: what if — after a lifetime of religious speculation that had skirted but not fully embraced the Christian creed – she accepted it on her deathbed? Or rather, what if she confessed to the Lutheran faith of our German forefathers – not the Lutheran-Evangelical Church of Germany as a dogmatically institutionised organisation, but specifically the local village congregation that included so many like-minded friends?
Dieter Günther, the local pastor who knew her very well as a member of the church choir, was already in the house. He immediately agreed to confirm her. Her whispered responses to his recitation of the Credo were the last words she uttered in my hearing. Was it that night or the next when she died? The nurse friend called us in after midnight. We sat there for several hours, listening to the chest-wracking convulsions of that awful, rattling breathing that heralds the end. The dim light beside her bed lit up a single long-stemmed, blood-red Baccarat rose that had bloomed tirelessly all week, and now seemed to glow even more intensely as her life ebbed away. As I remember it, at the very moment when her skull-like head lay still and the death-rattle ceased, that perfect symbol of man’s and Christ’s love drooped and shed all its petals. Its vital essence had shared the last earthly moments of her soul, only to flee elsewhere with it and leave both their empty husks behind.
The chapel in an old, thickly wooded Heidelberg cemetery was packed for the memorial service. Up in the pulpit, friend Dieter introduced his moving sermon with one of Deanne’s favourite quotations – the famous lines that a namesake member of his church, the dissident Nazi-era pastor Dieter Bonhoeffer, wrote in his cell before they led him to the guillotine:
“Von guten Mächten wunderbar geborgen
erwarten wir getrost, was kommen mag.”
(Miraculously sheltered by good powers,
we are content to wait for what may come.)
I sat in the front row with Horst, daughter Sibylle, son Andreas and their families, anxiously awaiting the arrival of a Mr Pointdexter, leader of the local American community’s black gospel choir. He had promised to sing the hymn Deanne had requested for her funeral. Dieter wrapped up his sermon and announced: “And now, Mr Pointdexter of the Mark Twain Village Gospel Choir will sing ‘Amazing Grace’ in Deanne’s memory.” Still no Mr Pointdexter. Horst looked aghast at me, I looked back at him, and finally I got up and told the astonished congregation I would sing the hymn myself. Unaccompanied, I managed to get through two verses without breaking down. Bearing that small cross alone was the last thing I was able to do for her.
Postlude: Sarastro’s Temple
When I last saw 789 Park Street, Sunnyside, Pretoria in 1988, a few years after my father’s death, I hardly recognised the scene of my late childhood and adolescence. After my widowed father sold the house to retire to a senior citizens’ residence, it had swiftly degenerated into a cheap boarding house for students.
Old Duncan Livingstone, the Scottish building contractor who built the sturdy bungalow for his wife with his own hands and the best materials he could lay hands on in 1922, would have grieved to see it that day. Grubby chipboard panels in blind, glassless windows disgraced the granite-framed facade of ruddy brick from the old Kirkness factory outside Pretoria, itself now a mouldering ruin. The flaming bougainvillea bush that once shaded the trim path to the front verandah was gone. The front hedge my mother used to make me clip every few weeks was a sagging, gap-toothed mess. Ma’s dahlias and roses had vanished from the erstwhile flower garden. Both it and the adjacent lawn had become a waste of trampled dirt, khakibos weeds and grimly surviving clumps of shaggy kikuyu. At the back, one side of the garage was scorched black. Neighbours told me that careless lodgers let it catch fire during a riotous braai one night. God knows what they did to turn the adjoining brick garden wall into mounds of weed-entwined rubble interspersed with the rutted tyre tracks and oily dribbles left by their clapped-out cars. Instead of the scales and opera arias which once wafted all day from Pa’s private singing studio in a walled-in section of the front stoep, mindless disco rhythms thump-thump-thumped out to the lilac-blossoming jacarandas along the pavement outside.
A friend who saw the place during a recent visit to South Africa tells me you cannot even see the house from the street now. It has hidden itself in behind a high, fortress-like security wall – the penalty suburban home-owners must pay nowadays to survive in a dangerously crime-ridden society.
But in my memories and dreams, it is once more the stage on which my parents, sister Deanne and I played our allotted roles in my adolescent years. I associate the emotional cross-currents which beset my sister and me in our progress towards maturity with the complex layers of meaning below the innocent surface of The Magic Flute, Mozart’s fairy-tale opera. Only Bach stood higher in my father’s eyes than his beloved Wolfgang Amadeus, and he taught my sister and me to appreciate The Magic Flute and its underlying human truths as deeply as he did.
They are all dead and gone now, those three fellow-actors. But the footlights dim up again in my mind when I think back to those days. On cue, I come on stage in my double roles as the noble, high-minded Prince Tamino or his alter ego companion, the carefree birdcatcher Papageno. In the wings, my mother is getting ready to bring the house down again as the magnificent Queen of the Night. Soon, my father will once more baffle her impious assault on his temple walls in his wishful guise as the wise priest-king Sarastro. The fair Princess Pamina is Deanne, by turns the twin-like companion of my high-minded Tamino or the friendly ally of my intrinsically cheerful Papageno in the despondent moods which suppressed that blither aspect of my nature in those days.
What nonsensical bilge the text cobbled together by that cheap Viennese showman Emmanuel Schikaneder is! And yet how his one-dimensional characters come to life, how their trite sentiments gain universal truth once they are transformed by the sublime beauty and profound human insight with which Mozart’s music fleshes them out! Sarastro’s morally rather questionable behaviour as the self-appointed high priest of a vaguely Masonic temple are forgotten when his deep bass voice intones that only love resides and vengeance is unknown “in these sacred halls”. The vengeful Queen of the Night‘s furious coloratura arias are incomparably magnificent, but Mozart’s music manages to reveal a vulnerable chink in the armour of this prideful woman, hankering after her kidnapped daughter. Schikaneder cribbed the spiritually purifying trials of fire and water Pamina and Tamino must undergo from the sententious rites of his Masonic buddies (including Mozart), but I see them today as metaphors for the emotional trials Deanne and I underwent in my parents’ house. And the magic flute “carved from a thousand-year-old oak” that helped hero and heroine to survive their test stands for the parental heritage of love and civilised traditions that guided my sister and me in our often troubled later years.
And so, the parental differences that once disturbed us so have lost their sting. Stripped of their costumes and greasepaint, Sarastro and the Queen of the Night are revealed as my father and mother – two equally dear individuals whose respective merits I am better able to appreciate outside the context of their troubled marriage and involuntary failings as parents. As I head towards my seventies, my three dead companions are more vividly alive in my mind with each passing year. In my apartment in Bonn, a pretty lustre-glazed vase that my mother particularly treasured shelters a small portion of my father’s ashes. Above the sealed package of whitish, grainy particles rest the withered petals of the blood-red rose that bloomed so intensely beside my sister’s bed during her entire last week of life, only to expire and fall apart with such mysterious promptitude when she died. Thus sheltered by my mother’s vase lie the symbolic essences of the husband and daughter who knew both the depth of her love and the invasiveness of her attempts to recast them in the mould her practical instincts dictated.
It is my father whose presence I feel most often now. To my own satisfaction, I have resolved the dichotomy of his personality: unworldly saint? Or maladjusted, self-engrossed fool, driven by an unhappy youth that triggered his lifelong quest for humanly impossible spiritual detachment? Whatever, he is constantly in and with me now. I often detect traces of him in my thinking patterns, my own intermittent bouts of metaphysical questioning and even certain physical tricks, as when the face in my shaving mirror adapts itself similarly to my razor strokes under the same eyebrow antennae he sprouted in later years. He is the chief ancestral guardian who presides over my apartment from his resting place in Ma’s little Doulton lustre-ware vase.
My share of his ashes was posted to me from Pretoria by Bhicka: a little heap of whitish, grainy particles carefully wrapped in stout blue garbage-bag plastic. The package arrived in Germany weeks after my sister and I flew home in the wake of the non-denominational memorial service we arranged for his many friends and former singing pupils. Heeding his wishes, Bhicka had previously scattered a larger portion of ashes over the quiet expanse of natural veld on Meintjies Kop behind the Union Buildings, where the old man had communed with the hilltop rocks and veld flora or meditatively gazed down on the jacaranda city on many sunny days. Bhicka sprinkled a few grains of ash into the Apies River at a scenic spot where the two friends had often strolled together.
He sent yet another parcel of ashes to his guru’s ashram in the shadow of the Himalayas. Proving this beyond a shadow of bureaucratic doubt, I possess a chit from the Rishikesh ashram of Sri Swami Sivananda’s Divine Life Society, officiously stating:
“Dear Sir, hereby please to receive confirmation of our receipt of your gratefully accepted donation in the amount of …rupees for prayerful disposal of your departed father’s ashes in the holy river Ganges.”
Following the centuries-old path of countless millions of Hindus on their ultimate journey, a few minute particles of my father quite probably travelled all the way from Rishikesh to the Indian Ocean in the fullness of time, to be carried who knows whither by wandering currents. No, it wasn’t a conventional funeral, this tripartite division of my father’s mortal remains between Africa, Europe and Asia. But then, the stations of his life were similarly divided between Germany, South Africa and the Indian focus of his metaphysical thinking. I am thankful to Bhicka for committing his remains to all the world rather than any particular country.