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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Oupa Neels (Grandfather Neels)

In an ongoing tribute to great people in my life, I have decided to write about my maternal grandparents. I called them Oupa Neels and Ouma Annatjie.

They lived on the plot which I've written about before - the place of my childhood holidays.


Oupa Neels (Grandfather Neels)

I suppose some historical facts are needed.

My grandfather was Cornelius Stephanus Heyneke and he was born on 16 September 1906. The family settled in Bethal some years after he was born. I've written about his mother, my great grandmother before.

My grandfather studied at the then Transvaal University College (TUC, now the University of Pretoria) around 1927, completing his B.A. degree in Political Sciences before returning to Bethal. There he worked at the OTK (Eastern Transvaal Cooperation) of which his father had been a founding member.

He met my grandmother at the OTK because she also worked there. They were married in 1940. He built her a house on the plot adjacent to his parents'. Two daughters were born: Alida E. J. Heyneke (my dear Aunt Alda) in 1944 followed by Hester M. Heyneke, beloved Mother, in December 1951.

Oupa Neels was elected Mayor of Bethal for some years and he was also President of the Agricultural Show for 10 years. That was as far as his political career went.

Enough history. I want to get to personal memories of Oupa Neels.

I got to know him when my consciousness was awakened around 1978; he was 72 years old at the time. Almost entirely bedridden, he only occasionally ventured outside wearing a paisley robe and using a very shaky cane, bent almost double from his crippling disease. I don't really know what illness confined him to bed; I think it was rheumatism or arthritis or one of those bone things.

I remember his dimly lit bedroom which was filled with all kinds of mysterious objects; a treasure trove to my four year old eyes. His bed stood at one end of the small room. The rest of the space contained a large workbench cluttered with all kinds of interesting tools as well as bookcases filled with lots of fascinating books. There were also many cupboards with little doors and drawers that contained all kinds of marvellous things.

The single window in the room looked out on the kitchen porch and to the farmyard beyond. Sometimes chickens would perch on the windowsill and stupidly peck their own reflections. He would grab a cane and tap dangerously hard against the window to chase them away. He chased off a snake the same way once. He was that kind of man: no darn nonsense.

When I was about seven years old, I phoned my cousin one evening. His family was living with my grandparents at the time. The phone rang for the longest time. I guess no one was close enough to hear the phone but I stuck to it. Finally, my grandfather's stern voice greeted me. He was huffing from the effort of getting out of bed and painfully shuffling to get to the unrelenting phone which was in the dining room. I was so shocked when I heard his voice that I put down the phone.

Every time we'd leave my grandparents to come back home, I would go say goodbye to Oupa Neels on my own. He would sit on the bed and hand me something. Sometimes it would be an envelope filled with powdered biltong. Sometimes 50c or R1. Often it would be a little handmade gift - a small metal box, a biltong-carving knife. He always wrote his name on his handwork. Sometimes he wrote in shaky capitals with a black marker, sometimes he punched the letters into a tiny metal plate. "Aan: Oupa se Charlie. Van: Oupa Neels".

That's what he called me: Oupa se Charlie (Gramps' Charlie) .

Sadly, I don't have any of those precious objects which he had crafted for us with so much love anymore.

Greeting him was a solemn and sad ritual, until he'd ask me with glittering eyes: "Is jy nog Oupa se Charlie?" ("Are you still Gramps' Charlie?"). When I replied, "Yes, I am!", he would laugh long and deep. I don't remember ever hugging him. I wish I had hugged him more.

I still use Oupa Neels' paisley robe which is one of the few of his tangible things that I possess. I think have inherited a greater number of intangible things.

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