Aging Gracefully: My last surviving Van Pletzen Aunt turns 90
By Roon Lewald
Readers of earlier postings by and about my mother – Helen Lewald, author of “Die Van Pletsen Saga” – may remember that she started life as the oldest of the five children of Francois (Frans) and Dina Johanna van Pletsen on a farm in the remote Eastern Cape region of Barkly East.
Reinet Senechal Vincent (née Van Pletsen), who recently celebrated her 90th birthday, is the youngest and only surviving child of my Oupa Frans and Ouma Dina. At elder sister Helen’s suggestion, her baptismal first name was derived from Graaff Reinet, the town where she was born in hospital in 1920, but she has always used the simplified spelling “René”.
In a large, widely distributed family clan whose love of exuberant celebrations has left me with unforgettable memories of long-ago tribal weddings, Christmasses and other festivities, René’s 90th birthday on October 23 drew friends and relatives from all over South Africa to celebrate the great event in Durban.
No wonder, because my absolutely most favourite aunt is a person you can’t help loving. In “The Nightingale of Natal”, I described how she took me to Durban’s South Beach one sunny day and stole my heart away at the tender age of four. As she held my hand at the edge of the sea that day, the sight of her graceful young figure in a modish,1940’s-style two-piece bathing costume, with her brunette hair framing her lovely, smiling face, could have captivated any male whatever his age.
Yes, she has always been a looker. But to me, the most attractive thing about her is the sweet, kind nature underlying what I can only describe as a kind of becomingly modest English reserve. For, like many Cape Afrikaners, her manners and graces owe much to the British colonial influence. Shakespeare would surely have approved of her. Her voice is soft, gentle and melodious, which, as he said, is “an excellent thing in woman”.
More than half a century later, René is a truly beautiful old lady who retains the gracious poise of her youth. Though she’s a bit hard of hearing now, she is still a highly active member of a circle of friends who often meet for discussions in her large apartment, worship together at her Presbyterian church, help each other, meet for lunches or dinners and visit concerts. When I phoned her from Germany to congratulate her, she was as mentally chipper as ever, with that same positive enjoyment of life and the same delightful, girlish laugh I remember from childhood days.
Apart from triggering many memories of her, René’s 90th birthday was a historic milestone for the descendants of Frans and Dina van Pletsen and other closely related branches of the clan. Having grown up on her father’s farm in the Barkly East highlands, where the snow lies deep in winter, she is the last of our line to have been born in the East Cape region where Carl Johannes von Plessen, the immigrant founder of our tribe, settled in the early 19th century. She is therefore the last link of our family branch to our agrarian roots: a country girl who, like so many other young Afrikaners of her generation, left the wide open veldt behind her after matriculating in the late 1930s to study, work and settle in urban surroundings.
She can now look back on a full life which spanned school teaching, speech therapy tuition and 39 years as the wife of Malcolm Vincent, a proverbially canny Scotsman whose hard work and business savvy left her comfortably well off as the widowed mother of three daughters when he died. Her daughters are all or have been married and two of them – Linda and Helen, the youngest of the three – have gladdened René with five grandchildren.
René and her brood are a close-knit family. Linda in Johannesburg, Helen in Durban and three of their children live within grandma’s reach in South Africa. Only Dina Ann, the eldest daughter, and two grandchildren live in Europe. Dina (who introduced herself in this blog as “Another Van Pletsen Storyteller”), managed holiday cottages on the South Coast with Dutch-born husband Johan Boessenkool before emigrating with him to the Netherlands in 2005. She now lives and teaches at a school in Almelo.
For all René’s hospitability, pleasure in the company of relatives and friends and natural gift for attracting love and affection, her “English reserve” and a certain shy sensitivity can create a hardly perceptible barrier against unwelcome invasions of privacy. She has been described by a friend as “one of the the most fiercely independent people I know.” Says another,“She is very much loved, but it takes a long time for her to get intimate with you.”
“She’s very intuitive. She always knows when something’s wrong,” her daughter Dina Ann says. In a quiet, unobtrusive way, she never hesitates to help people in need. One of her most attractive traits is her strong optimism and appreciation of the good things in life.
However, longevity is not an unmixed blessing. To her grief, more and more elderly relatives and close friends are passing away. Treasured by all in her childhood as Frans and Dina van Pletsen’s “laat-lammetjie” (”late lambkin” or late-born youngest child), René saw her older siblings die one by one during the past few decades. Brother Carl, Oupa Frans’s second-youngest child, was the first to go, followed by brother-in-law Cois (Francois) van Pletsen and her two oldest siblings, my mother Helen and Cois’s widow Frikkie (Frederika). Tough, sardonically humorous Dulcie, the second-youngest, was ready for Death when he came. Outliving her husband, retired chicken farmer Gert Kroon, she bought herself a plain pinewood coffin and painted it a defiant purple with her own hands. She kept it in her shed and stored apples in it for years until her three sons bore it to her grave.
René’s greatest loss was the death of her husband at the age of 76 in 1988. Malcolm Vincent was as much a part of my childhood as my Aunt René. Then a lovely apparition in her late twenties, she lived with us in my parents’ home in Durban for a while after qualifying as a teacher and speech therapist and teaching at various Natal schools in Donnybrook, Vryheid and elsewhere. Malcolm, a carpenter by trade who was then teaching woodwork at a Durban school, fell for René’s looks when he spotted her waiting for the bus he also took to work every morning. He struck up a conversation and, so the story goes, determined then and there to marry her. During subsequent bus trips together, he discovered that she was living in the house of my father, a private singing teacher. Malcolm promptly knocked at our front door a day or two later and arranged to receive singing lessons from my father. With no voice to speak of and even less musicality, he doggedly persisted until he and René were going steady.
They were married in Durban a year later on 16 December, 1949 – the Geloftedag (Day of the Covenant) holiday, a revered commemoration of pioneering Afrikaner settlers. My sister Deanne and cousin Nina (daughter of my Uncle Carl) were bridesmaids. Nina’s kid brother Francois and I concentrated on stuffing ourselves with cake and other goodies at the reception until we both felt rather ill.
The newly-weds had little money at that time, so they set up house in a one-room ward of the Addington Maternity Hospital that had been converted into a spartanic, low-cost flatlet – probably one of the few couples who started married life in a maternity ward. Self-reliant Malcolm soon bought a small house in Northdene for a song, secured building materials cheaply and – while holding down his teaching job – used every free hour to build extensions which turned the place into a sizeable, pleasant bungalow once the chaotic mess of building finally subsided. A bargain-hunting genius, Malcom bought a succession of ramshackle used cars, reconditioned them himself and sold them at a profit. He was forever dragging new acquisitions home from auction sales, such as a load of old timber which he (but not the seller) identified as genuine, well-matured stinkwood. As a kid of eight, I admired him in his well-equipped workshop as he crafted the wood into a beautiful dining table and chairs for my aunt in the intricate Cape Dutch linen-fold style.
René was the quiet – though sometimes a bit bewildered – sheet-anchor of this one-man campaign of wheeling and dealing, car-fixing, carpentry teaching, building, investing and re-investing. A self-made man who worked tirelessly to surmount his underprivileged origins in a world-renouncing family of fanatical Holy Roller sectarians, Malcolm was an intensely practical man who firmly believed that a man can learn to do anything if he reads the right literature and tries hard enough. He might suddenly conceive an interest in, say, table tennis, pick up the equipment dirt-cheap at an auction sale and become a fearsomely scientific player by studying and practicing every slice, hook and slam in the book. In the business matters which were his main preoccupation, he was a scrupulously ethical, fair-minded man. His Scottish love of family made him feel very much at home amid the Van Pletsen clan even though he never learned to speak Afrikaans fluently. Nobody could be a jollier uncle or a more generous host than this stockily built, pleasant-featured master of all trades.
My favourite memories of the Vincents and my three pretty girl cousins date back to the period after 1967, when Malcolm bought one of the first houses ever built in Northdene, a rambling, 19th century colonial planter’s mansion faced by fretted wooden verandas all along the front. This museum piece was an impressive but rather wacky place to live in. It had been converted into a maternity home at some stage and one of its long, dark passages was still lined with bathrooms and toilets for the former residents, so you could use a different bathroom every day of the week if you liked.
Sheltered by sub-tropical araucaria, avocado and papaya trees on a vast, densely overgrown property, the house became a magnet for tribal Van Pletsen get-togethers every Christmas. We all loved the picturesque, sprawling Vincent mansion, which the family jokingly dubbed “Snaresbrook Hall”. Shortly before December 25 one year in my teens, my mother drove us down from Pretoria in her vintage 1936 Oldsmobile to join aunts, uncles, cousins and various close friends from the Cape, Natal, Free State and Transvaal, all of whom Aunt René easily accommodated in her big house.
Malcolm helped me to jury-rig a Christmas tree from wired-together araucaria branches for Christmas Eve, which was celebrated mainly for the benefit of the German contingent (us Lewalds). The REAL festivities started early on the 25th, when René and various sisters and in-laws would bustle over a wood-burning Aga stove in the vast old kitchen to prepare:
— a fat leg of mutton (from my Free State sheep-farming uncle Cois van Pletsen);
— a monstrous turkey with three kinds of stuffing;
— mince pies (from Kokstad farmer Carl’s wife Joan);
— at least three kinds of dessert, including sherry-soused trifle with loads of cream and a plum pudding with sixpences and lucky charms to fish out;
— fruit punch, wine, champagne, soft drinks and
— etcetera, etcetera, you name it.
This Dickensian fare was consumed around a huge table decked with crackers, streamers and paper crowns – but not before mine host had his say. Genially beaming over the groaning board, Uncle Malcolm would propose several toasts and wind up with his traditional command: “Let battle commence!”
By the time we had eaten so much that we all had to run twice around the house to prepare for attacking the desserts, we were merry enough to take turns to tell jokes or sing funny songs. One aunt was much applauded for a ditty about little ducklings which “swam and swam all over the dam,” a male guest got us chorusing “Hold him down, you Zulu warrior! Hold him down, you Zulu chief chief, chief!” and another aunt sang a nonsense song in pidgin Zulu which went: “Giiii-o-le-li mama, esteshina, we-sebenzani esteshina mama, we-mama!”
At one stage, I looked behind me and burst out laughing. My pert little sub-teenaged cousin Helen, already a charmer, was curled up on my bald-pated Uncle Carl’s lap and actually conjuring a bashful, blushing smile on his normally stern face as she tickled his chin, saucily crooning into his ear: “Cootchie-coo, baldy-head! Ag, come on now, baldy-head, smile for me, hey!” It seems Helen had a special licence to ruffle his dignity,.because he clearly loved every moment of it.
The growing prosperity of the Vincents was outwardly marked by the quality of the second-hand cars that were parked in Malcolm’s backyard in various states of repair. Even after moving into Snaresbrook Hall, his fleet included a battered Ford pickup and a 1930s Studebaker. When my first wife and I visited the Vincents on our honeymoon in 1969, he showed typical generosity by lending us an old Standard Vanguard to tour the district. It was an ugly, tank-shaped little car in leprously faded paint that had once been pink, but Malcolm’s mechanical skill ensured that it ran like clockwork. Later, when he bought a more modern house for René, he graduated to a regal Austin Princess.
Memories, memories…That saucy little puss Helen with her dark, Italianate looks is now a matron in her mid-fifties, happily married to Angelo Montemarano, an Italian-descended hydraulic project manager. Of their two children, daughter Marisa is a publisher executive in Cape Town and son Carlo works for a marketing firm in London. Helen, an Afrikaans school teacher, is the only one of Rene’s daughters who lives in Durban, so René often visits the Montemaranos and their house is now the focus of joint family activities. Helen and Angelo therefore hosted the two-day festivities marking her mother’s 90th, starting with the main function at Nazareth House, a church social centre near René’s flat.
The snapshot below, for which Helen posed with daughter Marisa, is a charming study of two striking, look-alike women of two generations. Though no immediate relatives of René’s generation were still alive to share the fun, they were well represented by younger family members including deceased brother Carl’s son Francois van Pletsen with his wife Myrna and sister Nina du Randt. Daughter Dina Ann flew out from Holland and sister Linda, a Johannesburg-based market researcher, was there with her architect daughter Taryn and youngest son Jonty. Linda’s eldest son, actuarial science graduate Nicholas, married Jessica Ross on 26 September and is now based in London.
“Sjoe! Dis nou alles verby!” (Whew! Now it’s all over), hostess Helen sighed to me in an e-mail report on who was there and what they did. “The party was lovely and everybody enjoyed themselves. On Sunday, we put a fillet to roast on the braai and had another party and Mom opened her presents.” Apart from relatives, “all Mom’s friends came”, reported Helen, “the close ones from church and the ones she goes out with to dinners, lunches and symphony concerts.”
Now the party is over, René has time to reflect on her blessings as well as the growing number of bereavements which are such a penalty of advanced age. She was particularly shocked by the death of three close friends during the past two years. Yet the supportive love of her daughters and their children is a boon not granted to all that many elderly people in this age of small, widely dispersed families. With two of her grandchildren recently married, she may well be comforted by the arrival of her first great-grandchildren in the foreseeable future.
Those who know her are confident that her unquenchable optimism will not desert her in her remaining years. And her spacious, 11th-floor flat in Durban’s North Ridge Gardens area is an abiding joy. Since it is a corner apartment at the top of a ridge, its picture windows command two magnificent views – inland towards Pinetown in the west and the grand sweep of Durban Bay with the busy harbour to the east. She can therefore watch the sun rise on one side every morning and see it go down on the other in the evening.
This strengthens her feeling that every new day is a new beginning for her, says daughter Dina Ann. “She loves life so. She told me once, ‘You know, I just couldn’t wait to go to sleep last night because I so badly wanted tomorrow to come quickly!’”
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