Easy come, easy go. We’ve been taught since childhood that unearned money doesn’t last. But it’s taken me a lifetime to fully understand that.
The principle that automatically grants the eldest child possession of the family property, no matter what their talents and interests, has caused many a family feud. This primogeniture has often set sibling against sibling from the time that the first sods rain down on the father or mother’s coffin until the day that the still squabbling descendants are themselves laid to rest. Forgotten in the feuding is the fact that family is unity, noble and priceless. In my life, I’ve all too often seen that what you receive free of charge is never really yours. I always envied the families that inherited those magnificent Stellenbosch wine estates – until I saw at first hand what a heartbreakingly difficult task it was to still keep a property in the family by the seventh generation or so.
I envied the Upington businesspeople that inherited their enterprises from their parents, because I had to work so hard to keep up the payments and meet the expenses involved in acquiring something of my own. Until I saw how those that had the most often also inspired the most malice, and how avarice became a curse visited upon father and son, and the generations that followed them. I had a wonderful aunt whom I loved as dearly as my own life. She suffered from cancer that slowly consumed every part of her being, and we kept vigil by her side, day and night. Late one night, as my mother and I sat outside on the lawn, freeing our thoughts for a while, she asked: ‘Why do you love her so much?’ ‘Because she never had children of her own,’ I replied. And I imagine it must have felt precious for my mother to know that she was sharing her own eldest son with a woman who had none. My aunt lay on her deathbed for more than seven months, and I tried to do as much as I could for her; I called every doctor friend for advice, fed her finely ground apricot kernels and any and every green thing, olive oil and, later, tiny spoonfuls of purée. And when her breathing became shallow, she lay there, her body a remnant of its former self. This was a woman whom everyone had envied for her lovely home, the furniture, her diamonds.
And not a single cent could ease her suffering, or bring her comfort, rest and quietude. Five days before her death, she whispered in my ear, ‘Lift me up, Niël, so that we can go running among the flowers in the veld.’ I closed her eyes and whispered back, ‘Come, Pikkie, I’m lifting you up… Look, we’re flying out the window. Do you see the lipstick-red cannas, the white daisies with their golden-yellow hearts dancing around the dam? Do you see Ouma Miemie’s Christmas roses in pink, purple, green and lilac on the stoep at Pinewoods? And Gielie’s patchwork of vineyards heavy with Hanepoot grapes and shiraz? Look, there’s the mountain at Jonkershoek, the colour of blue lead today. And see the streets of Stellenbosch with their whitewashed, gabled houses, like noble knights among the green of the oak trees. Close your eyes, Pikkie, I’ve got you.’ I inherited from her when she passed on. But she taught me early that everything I already had and everything that I would receive was merely borrowed. They’re simply material possessions. Now I walk past her armchair, stroking the polished walnut with my fingers and remembering how we sat chatting in front of the fire in the sitting room.
I remember how we ate green-bean bredies at that same fireplace, how she sometimes hugged me harder when I went to greet her before heading home to Upington. Then I remember again that an inheritance of earthly goods is merely borrowed. And those who know this, already have the wings they need to soar into the blue sky when their time comes… free of the chains that bind so many of us to this earth.