A dead ostrich, a rough brick house on a bedraggled hill, and a celestial name that inspired heavenly possibility.
This was what greeted me as I took ownership of an African farm, named after Angels. It was to become a journey, and an initiation into the unknown. An innocent move to the “simple” life on a farm actually came loaded and charged and I was about to meet it all head-on.
Living here brought up every aspect to the surface, and it forced me to look at each one individually, to make sense of it, and to leave no stone unturned. Life on the farm was both a backdrop and a blank canvas, and I was compelled to enliven and to enrich both. It seemed that this would be the way to move forward into the “afternoon of my life,” as this period has been called. It felt like I was in an extreme sports television program where there are no half-measures – either you jump off the cliff or you don’t even try to get up to the start line at the top of the slope in the first place.
I wrote a book, Lemons & Angels, of this time, as it evoked all the challenges, and all the beauty of life that we all face and overcome in some way. This is a universal story; it is everywoman’s story, no matter where in the world you live.
This is an excerpt of Lemons & Angels, as I reflected on the sum of experiences lived, and this excerpt is about relationships, love, hurt, endurance, and truth:
“During this era, dating and relationships in the thirty-somethings also featured to a lesser and greater degree amongst my women friends, as well as me. We all struggled in one way or another with this strange dance, and every story known to humankind played itself out in some way, shape or form—including divorce. But they say that divorce is a modern-day initiation, and that relationships are the way that wisdom comes to us; that everything has its place, and happens as it should—even though it definitely doesn’t feel like it at the time.
While often it may seem that what it takes to last in a relationship can be a hit-and-miss affair, we should also look to the people who have stood the test of time. And at the merit in seeing the mellowing art of compromise in action. These are the relationships that have weathered all the storms, and did not lose their moorings. A depth of understanding built up over the decades of a life lived, with love, acceptance, and devotion at the heart of it. And humor to hold it all together in light.
I once met an old couple who turned their fish pond into an exercise pool for aqua-robics to work-out the husband’s hip after surgery. They used to climb in together every day, with her propping him up. And I remember another elderly couple, where the wife said to her husband, “For a moment I thought you were throwing yourself around with gay abandon, until I realized you were trying to get onto the bed!”
A closer look at some of these relationships that endure reveals a great love that can last a lifetime.
I once taught painting to a five-foot ball of fire. She was sixty-nine years old when she first asked me to teach her painting. Her name was Joyce, and she epitomized pure joy. She had an open-mouthed laugh that came from deep within, and a bright light that shone through her eyes. So I had to digest it when she once told me that, when her husband had died many years before, all the joy had been taken out of her life.
‘He was my big love,’ she said, ‘and I just didn’t know what to do. I had no more joy. It had gone with him.’ I simply could not imagine her not joyous. Her very name said it all to me. She went on to tell me that it took a good number of years to make the choice to live with the lightest of lightness of being that I had ever seen in anyone of her age—nearly seventy. She was an effervescent being.
When she reached seventy-five she sold some of her artworks, and she told me she would have to scale them down in size because she couldn’t carry these large canvases, which were taller than her, for much longer. Every now and then she would consider moving into an old-age home, but it took quite a while before she was eventually ready to do so. ‘Everybody is so friendly that I feel like telling them to get lost,’ she would tell me.
It must be hard to part with such a deep love after so many years—I have yet to experience this kind of loss at such close range. But someone else I knew had the same kind of lifelong soul love with her husband, a priest. He adored her, he needed her quiet force that could temper any challenge. The chemistry was palpable, and the adoration returned. When she held a séance in the rectory, although he fumed about it, he forgave her. As with Joyce’s husband, he died a long time ago and she had to embark on a life lived alone. And just like Joyce, she embraced this in full, travelling locally and abroad, living an independent life, exhibiting her paintings too, and fending off checking in to an old age home for as long as physically possible.
At one of my last visits to her home, she shared her latest project with me—a labyrinth. It was wrapped around her birdbath in a corner of her garden, a hodgepodge of old bricks from many different-coloured buildings. Remnants of turquoise or white paint still brightened the old brown bricks, which she had packed into a paved spiral.
‘I collected these in the boot of my car,’ said this sprightly eighty-four-year-old lady. ‘Whenever I saw a pile of loose bricks while driving around, I’d stop and load up a few. I guess one could call it stealing.’ She laughed mischievously, this priest’s wife, whose appearance, grace and regal stature often caused her to be likened to the Queen.
She mentioned that the priest from her regular church had referred to labyrinths as being ‘from the dark side’, but at this stage in her life, she was not too fussed about this potential holy transgression.
But the best part, for me, was her idiot’s guide to walking the labyrinth. Labyrinths for Dummies. Each laid brick had a number on it, written in chalk. ‘This is so I can find my way!’ she explained.
I pondered to myself, about the main purpose of a mystic labyrinth being to find one’s way through a spiritual process, but hers looked like an elaborate combination of join-the-dots and hopscotch! It took all the guesswork and mystery out of it!
The first summer rains would, in any case, wash away the sequence of chalked numbers.
I loved her labyrinth.
Then there was George and Pixie. We met them during our trip to Zambia when they were camping out along the Zambezi River in mud huts on stilts, like ours, with open-to-the-elements toilets and a thousand bugs for company. They were deep into their twilight years, but they had made a pact with each other—to travel as much as possible while their health permits and while they can afford to. They have been to Alaska, Turkey, Italy, and many other places that their fingers located on a map of the globe.
But now they told us how they had fallen in love with one of my favourite little towns in the Free State—Clarens. They had been there for just one day and decided to buy some land. In order to get the best impression of the area that they wanted to buy, Pixie had climbed into the boot of the car with her video camera. George, with his two newly acquired artificial hips, drove the car up the hill while she filmed, with the boot lid intermittently thwacking her on the head as they went over the bumps in the road.
The whole operation was aborted the next day, with Pixie becoming filled with remorse at the thought of being far away from her children and grandchildren. And besides, she said, the video looked really strange, having been filmed from out the boot of the car. Everything was moving backward. ‘It looked like we had taken some mind-altering drugs!’ she giggled.
And then there are those who have a different view. I was shopping for shoes in a small women’s shoe shop. Two elderly women poddled in. ‘Excuse me, don’t you have any men’s shoes?’ asked one.
‘No ma’am, sorry, we don’t,’ was the reply.
‘Oh, so men don’t have feet,’ retorted the old lady, obviously not happy that the women’s shoe shop didn’t carry men’s shoes.
They went off muttering to themselves, ‘Mind you, they only have one foot and it’s usually in their mouth!’ I had to laugh. The combined life span of these two old ladies was probably a good one hundred and fifty years, and this was their one-line conclusion, possibly formed by a lifetime of living with their husbands.
But one of the finest wisdoms about what makes a relationship work, came from someone on the other side of the age spectrum. Though not yet twenty, she was an old soul. Her partner had hurt her badly, in a way that would have sent many of us running for the hills for good. We, as her circle of friends, had rallied around and whisked her away for the weekend to surround her with friendship and support while she nursed her wounds. ‘I’m going to go to bed early,’ she told us, ‘because the pain of staying awake with my thoughts is too much to bear. If I go to sleep, maybe my sleeping dreams will be kinder.’
He had written to her to say he was sorry, to tell her he loved her despite his deception and all the hurt he had caused—about which we, her round table of friends, were all still angry on her behalf. One night, as she sat on the edge of my bed, quietly hurting, she said, ‘I don’t want a love letter. I want the truth.’
I think it’s the truth that ultimately amplifies the love in the end. She went on to marry him and have children together. It has been fifteen years already and the naked truth that got exposed, and then integrated into their everyday, has carried them well through the many complex layerings of their life’s love.
She had worked with the notion that, if she chose to follow through with this relationship in those early days, then she could not sit back and expect either one of them to do all the giving, nor all the forgiving. She realized that there was no shortcut to understanding what had happened; but that they had to live it out, grow with the experience, and with the journey it took them on.”