***NEW***YOU CAN FIND THE AUDIO VERSION OF THIS WRITTEN PIECE AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS POST IF YOU WOULD PREFER TO LISTEN TO IT!
WHERE IT ENDS AND WHERE IT BEGINS…
I did not want to see it at first. It hurt me and frightened me. I wanted to run, I wanted to shield myself from what felt like a sword piercing everything I felt was real. I fought it like it was a wild, destructive beast intent on destroying everything I had worked so hard for. I would obliterate it , ignore it and block out all those beautiful past memories of unconditional love and acceptance just to feel that ‘this’ is real.
This time has bought us to our knees. It’s looked us in the eye and spoken those words that we fear most. Our worst nightmare unfolding; the person we hoped never to meet, standing right here before us, staring deep into our soul, saying ‘I am you.’
After a long period of busyness and disconnect, it was finally time for us to have a weekend away as a family, to reconnect and recoup. We’d go to ‘Experience 1880,’ a farm house with a history.
It was a winding, bumpy road that cut into the hillside and took us on a journey of many ups and downs, an imperfect road. We were going to an old stone house, faraway, deep in the Swartberg hills. It was the original 1800’s ox wagon postal route that linked the town of Umzimkulu to Underberg. Old wagon wheels, half buried in mud, half exposed, protruding rocks and old farm gates were a reminder of days gone by and a long, long history of travellers experiencing just this.
A storm was brewing. Bitter, reckless gale force winds gushed over the hill and down the valley towards the old dirt road, rocking the vehicle like a toy car, consumed with anger and deaf to its human cargo. The vehicle limped in. Broken and bashed – tormented by a pandemic that feels like it might never end.
We unpacked as quickly as we could, anxious to escape the chill and the voracious wind that knew no limits.
Before us stood a sturdy farm house built of stone; solid, unmoving and stronger than any storm experienced or to come – the house of love.
We opened the door, and stepped into another world.
Arriving felt like the warm embrace of an old friend, love and light flickering in every corner, a fire burning, enticing us into a world that we wanted to know, that we wanted to be ours. We kicked off our boots and sunk deep into the leather chairs and let out a deep sigh of relief. “Home at last,” we thought.
‘Experience 1880’ is exactly as the name suggests. This weekend would be something completely unique and like no place I have ever experienced before. It was once a post office, the special kind; the kind that was a guest house for the locals should they decide to stay overnight before returning home with their post. It was also an illegal distillery. A backyard moonshine operation flourished here and there was always an opportunity for a gathering, rather raucous one’s!
The owner of the house was named Fred. Fred, originally from England, first moved to Australia and then to South Africa where he would finally settle. He was a colourful character who by day operated an efficient post office and by night, was the host of the best parties in the district, where Mampoer seemed to bubble out of bottles like it flowed from a mountain spring. The authorities got wind of this Fred fellow, that he was distilling moonshine. They would send spies to observe the ‘post office,’ and would hide behind boulders and watch for any ‘unusual’ happenings. But Fred had many loyal friends who had access to information and they who would warn him about an imminent spy operation or whether the police were planning a raid. When there was a planned police raid, Fred and his friends would dump all the bottles of Mampoer in a reservoir that was used to irrigate the pear trees. Once the raid had been concluded, another raucous party would be had that Fred would famously call ‘The Drowning.’ Guests were expected to retrieve the bottles from the reservoir and drink them! On one occasion, Fred received information that there were a couple of spies behind a large rock on a nearby hill. Not letting an opportunity like this go, he immediately arranged for his friends to join him for some target practicing, in which they would fire a hail of bullets in the direction of the rock! A mischievous character he was and as slippery as a fish, impossible to pin down! After many years of dodging the law and many years of good parties, Fred finally met his end when he contracted the Spanish flu and the music that once filled the valley, became a distant memory of a time gone by.
The ‘romance’ of Experience 1880 was enchanting. It pulled us in and cast its spell on us as we discovered each and every room, adorned with artefacts and ornaments from the eighteen hundred’s. In each bedroom, there was a fire place, a metal bath tub and a toilet! No electricity. Candles and lanterns lit the room and down duvets warmed us as the storm outside clawed at the windows like a ravenous animal. Hot water came from a Donkey boiler in the smoky kitchen, and the fire place in the lounge burnt all weekend. We played board games and cards, we read, we cooked and we drank wine! There was a ‘magic’ pantry too, with everything one could imagine except food! My daughter spent most of the weekend here as there was a collection of dresses, jackets and hats of that era. She wandered around the house in a long dress, wearing a blonde wig and a bonnet, pretending to be ‘the forlorn servant of the house,’ but loving every moment! We relished these simple family moments, wrapped in warmth and unconditional love and a place we could just be . It felt like ‘home,’ these family moments.
The next day, we wanted to explore the farm and valley. We were expecting snow to fall so we dressed warmly and set off, following the old ox wagon route, up the mountain to the very top. It was so cold. My jaw ached and my fingers locked in position while clutching my camera, attempting to push the shutter. I needed to capture this moment. This moment on top of a mountain, as gale force winds whipped us with a ferocity that I had not yet known. Snowflakes began to fall. Not many of them, but a few! They were my son’s first experience of a storm like this and he held out his arms and shouted with all his heart, ‘Anything is possible!’ It was music to my ears, music that filled the valley and that boomed louder than the winds that came at us.
On our way back down, back to the house – I thought about what had happened. I thought of what family is and what it has been for me. Family, not always blood and not always traditional, but those people in our life who show up. Those people who love me for all that I am, in my ugliness and mistakes, in my moments of glory, in my moments of doubt, in my moments of happiness – in all the moments that make up me – they love me for me. These people are my family. It’s where I get to look at my wounded, imperfect self – and do more than survive, but to grow and to continue on through this bumpy journey called life. I know well that ‘family is my home,’ and this is what makes everything possible.