Snippets of Memory–A Work in Progress

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Leon with his father, Chemush, outside their home, Bloemfontein, South Africa.

On this blog I like to present different types of thought provoking material, and this time I have chosen another poem that deserves your attention. More often than not, we are so consumed with our modern-day lives that anything from the past either, movies, radio, even books seem unnecessary because for some people they are not as relevant anymore. However, take a moment to enrich yourselves, and read this beautiful poem written by a man who had experienced Apartheid in South Africa, and his memory  is that of a young boy surrounded by prejudice and apathy. He possesses a sense of humor and straightforward honesty throughout his recollections that make his experience all the more biting and relevant. Politics and policy intertwined with everyday life. “Snippets of Memory–A Work in Progress,” is a poem written by Leon Levinsky, my father.

“Snippets of Memory–A Work in Progress”

I looked at  a photograph

Am I dead?

Lying in repose

Embarrassing close-up

Eyes closed

Bushy white beard

Black eyebrows

Worried expression

Large nostrils.

Not a face

I would like

To be remembered by.

So what will I look like

When I am dead?

“I tell my cane

That I want to live”

Exclaimed my father

As he struck the floor

Beside his bed.

The following day

He was incoherent

As he was carried to the ambulance

On a stretcher.

“Master, “ We will meet in heaven “

This from Sarah,

The African  maid

Who thought she

Protected the family.

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Sarah, the devoted maid.

I cycled ten miles

To the German deli

For half a pound

Of potato salad.

When we were in standard six

Johan Vorster gave a shout

“ Sir look what I found in my bible”

Inscribed on the first page

“ The Devil’s Bumbook”

Stern Mr. Douglas gave

A handwriting test

And I trembled in case

He found I was responsible.

But no, it was one of the orphans from the group home

He bent over

And stoically received

Six of the best.

“ Thank you sir”

latinmaster

One of my teachers, our Latin Master.

So we waited in the National Hospital

For Nehemiah to die

The nurse called my mother

“He is asking for you”.

She returned and said

“ No, he is calling for his mother.”

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Chemush, at age 3.

Stertorous raspy breathing, thin chest

Eyes closed, calling out “Mama, Mama !”

That was the last time

I saw my father.

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Older than his years, right before Chemush died.

Listlessly, I lay on the floor

That wintry July

And read War and Peace.

With Patat Cronje in geography class,

Willy van der Merwe raised his hand

“ Sir, I have the solution

To South Africa’s Black problem,

“Yes van der Merwe?”

“ We dig a giant hole

And push them in”

“ Heh heh heh”, laughed Patat

“We can’t do that,

We are Christians”

Nineteen fifty four,

Only twelve years after

Babi Yar

“ It is a Jewish Holiday,

Why did you come to school?”

 P1000711

Grey College.

“ I am an atheist”

“Then you must be a communist!”

Silence, because I was.

Mr. Faure our principal,

Pinstriped black suit waist coat over a pot belly

Made an announcement

“ Too many black boys

Are wearing  the

Grey College blazer.

If you want to dispose of your old blazer

First drop it in a vat

Of purple dye”

In 2008 I visited Grey

Plenty of black youth

In Grey blazers.

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Leon in his school uniform.

I remember my first day at school

White shirt, navy shorts,

Hair neatly combed.

Eunice girl’s school

With a smattering of boys.

“ Hole in the wall

A mouse crept in

Kitty came by

And she peeped in”

Miss Dunn home from the war

Overwhelmed by her

First teaching position

The headmistress took me home

I had pee-ed in my pants

Too shy to raise a hand,

Bullied during breaks

Until my mother

Taught me to box.

Then I was left in peace

To eat my marmite sandwiches.

At the age of nine

I went to Grey College

For the first time,

With Ivor Simmons.

We walked up the dirt track

Between tall pine trees

To the imposing building

Cape Dutch architecture,

Addressed at assembly

By the new head master Mr. Faure

Half in English

Half in Afrikaans.

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Grey College.

He exhorted us to uphold

The tradition of

The Grey gentleman.

Nine years later Ivor

Came to my room

At Driekoppen Residence

At the University of Capetown

And looked with disapproval

At the crate

With empty bottles

Of Lion Lager.

They were not mine.

I kept quiet.

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Afrikaner neighbor.

“ Why did you kill Jesus?”

“ Just think!

If I hadn’t killed him

You would be a Jew!”

Roland and I

Cycling home from school

To be ambushed by

A posse of Afrikaner thugs.

“ Oh hell, I have

To get out of this

God forsaken country.

“ Fokken Kaffir “

“Bladdy Jew “

“bloody redneck”

“Fucking Greek”

“ Kaffir boetie”

“ Kaffir lover”

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The three Levinsky children.

My father insisted that

We live among the Afrikaners

To be part of the country.

Must have been strange for them

For it was a very simple house

And we had an old car

A garden where no plant thrived.

We watched each other warily

Across the road

Only meeting at the

Regular punch ups.

Our father was oblivious

To the tribulations of his sons.

I guess in retrospect,

He had experienced far worse.

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The Levinsky family, South Africa.

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