Read this touching extract from a new memoir by Jonathan Jansen, Song for Sarah: Lessons from my Mother.
Jonathan Jansen is the former Vice Chancellor of the University of Free State, and the book is a tribute to his mother.
Doughnuts and Duty
“Under her roof Sarah’s family were together as one, steered by an undiluted value system that cherished hard work and complimented discipline. There was no room for lazing about.
On the first day of the school holidays or any Saturday morning there was nothing more deflating than Sarah storming into the boys’ bedroom at 7am to open the curtains with the words, ‘Die son sê ting… and you’re still sleeping.’ Why did she always have to speak Afrikaans only in unpleasant moments? And since when does the sun utter the meaningless word ting?
Wash the dishes, feed the dog, clean the yard, go to the shop… how did she make up so many chores in one breath? Nothing upset Sarah more than sloth. It was pure joy when Sarah worked the day shift as a nurse because then at least the children could sleep in or just hang about.
The Port Jackson always had a way of discovering chores not done. And as the tree branch shed its leaves off your body, Sarah recited her own poetry about children trying to deceive parents; her favourite was Dink jy ek is onder ’n kalkoen uitgebroei? (Do you think I was hatched under a turkey?)
Or the other animal reference, Moenie vir my sê bokdrolletjies is rosyntjies nie (Don’t tell me buck droppings are raisins).
Sundays were the worst for family busyness. You would be greeted by the smell of freshly baked doughnuts from the nearby kitchen, an activity started by Abraham and taken over by Sarah as their popular koeksisters were in demand by church people and neighbours alike. In time you got to hate that smell because it signalled the start of a very busy Lord’s Day.
The family had no car for periods of time and so everybody walked the forty minutes from Retreat to the far end of neighbouring Steenberg to attend the 10.30am Sunday-morning service.
You spent an hour and a half in the service and then walked all the way back. Lunch followed, and then you trekked back to church for the Sunday-school service, and home again an hour later. Then back again for the gospel service at 7.00pm.
Up and down, up and down. You literally grew tired of church but Sarah made sure her children were lined up for the marches to and from the Steenberg Gospel Hall.
The lessons of Sarah were not easy but they made all the difference. Under her roof the children were safe; outside her influence danger lurked on every corner.
The gangs were everywhere, from the Americans to the Mongrels, and a wayward boy would easily find solace and self-esteem inside those organised groups of school dropouts and drug addicts who spent their time alternating between Pollsmoor Prison and the streets.
Hardly a week went by without one of those young men ending up in Grassy Park or Muizenberg cemeteries as a result of a stabbing here or a gunfight there.
Buried in memory are so many of these tragic encounters, like watching the feared Martin twins from up the road beating each other senseless on the tarred road right in front of Sarah’s house.
One day Firstborn witnessed, from inside the schoolyard, two gangs approaching each other along the narrow, fenced-in throughway that ran between the school and the endless series of block flats buildings. Within seconds, sharpened spades and iron pitchforks came down on male bodies as blood spat everywhere, all within sight of traumatised young schoolchildren.
Schools were not equipped with psychologists offering trauma counselling in those days. For Sarah such terrifying events were cautionary tales – what would happen if you stepped out of line.”
The memoir Song for Sarah: Lessons from my Mother by Jonathan Jansen with Naomi Jansen (Bookstorm) is out now.