My Time Machine is powered by Candletricity

On Friday night the lights went out and life in Naboomspruit came to a sudden, shocking halt. No television, no Wii, no DVD movies, no music, no lights... so all that was left to do was go to bed. I was not tired and my laptop's battery was at maximum power so I decided to stay up a little longer. I lit a candle and then found that I had suddenly lost all interest in my laptop. The flickering flame of the candle inexplicably transported me back to my childhood.

There we all were in the kitchen of the old house: my father reclining on the sofa and my mother in her armchair, knitting and listening to "Die Mense van Soetmelksvlei" on the radio. My brothers and sister bent over their homework and I scribbling and drawing in imitation of my siblings, imagining being big (the brothers) and pretty (the sister) just like them!

When we lived in the old house, we did not have electricity. Who needed it anyway when we had perfectly good Coleman lamps for lighting, a coal stove for cooking and heat and a battery-powered radio for news and entertainment?

In winter the coal stove were stoked well before we went to bed every night to make sure the fire did not die off during the night and when we rose in the mornings, the whole house would still be warm. I believe that the thick mud-brick walls also contributed to the retention of heat. In summer, the windows and doors were left wide open to the night breezes to cool the house off - only the screen-doors were closed to keep creepy crawlies out. Again, once the mud-brick walls cooled off, it stayed cool.

From the roof of the kitchen hung a paraffin lamp of brass and copper and it was always beautifully polished, or in my mother's words: "blink soos 'n nuwe pennie" (shiny as a new penny). Another lamp stood on the table. This one had a brass foot-piece with a round middle-piece topped by a tall glass flute covering the flame. This lamp generated light bright enough for easy reading, knitting, sowing, or whatever needed to be done, or was desired to be done at night and could be moved to any room in the house. Of course, when we went to our rooms, my parents took the lamp and us children took candles with us for light. How well I remember the scary shadows the flickering flame of the candle threw on the walls of the "gang" (passage) as my sister and I walked to our room. Until this day, I still associate the smell of a snuffed candle with the last moments before falling asleep.

We ate the evening meal early and directly after the meal my father would hold "Boekevat". "Boekevat" was the practice of my father reading to his family from the bible and praying for his family, the neighbours, the country and all the ills of the world at large. (Sometimes it was such a long prayer that I would drop off to sleep and my sister or brothers would wake me up with a sharp elbow punch in the ribs.) "Boekevat" played a major role in my upbringing. This is where I learned the story of the Bible. From my very beginning I was fascinated by the wonderful stories and characters of this book and the absolute majesty and power of God (portrayed as a rather stern entity who watched us every minute of every day for any wrongdoing, by my oh so Calvinistic father). Only much later in life did I experience first hand the love and grace of God, but I had my father to thank for my knowledge of the Bible that stood me in good stead. Only on Sunday nights we did not have "boekevat" because after supper we would all sit around the kitchen table and listen to a church service on the radio.

After "Boekevat", my father listened to the news on the radio and then came the story of the people of Soetmelksvlei (a radio soapy). The characters in this story was very colourful and funny and so impressed me that even now, when someone is very slow, I would call him a "Harmansdrup" - the nickname of one of the characters. In reality Harmansdrup was on of the Lennon's Home Remedy medicines that was very thick and flowed very slowly from the bottle.

Some nights we would listen to music on the radio and although my father's favourite music was "boeremusiek" (the music played by the Afrikaner at any kind of celebration that was not of a religious nature), my mother listened to everything from "boeremusiek" to classical - I believe it was from her that I inherited my love of a wide variety of music.

It was also from my mother that I inherited my love of books and reading. Whenever she did not have needlework or knitting to do, she would sit with us at the kitchen table reading. She read everything and anything she could lay her hands on: magazines, newspapers, books, whatever was available. She was a very gentle, quiet and unassuming person, but I have come to believe that she was also a highly intelligent woman who just happened to live in a time and culture where intelligence in women were not developed, encouraged or appreciated.

Nighttimes of my early childhood were always spent around the kitchen table and the glow of a Coleman lamp or candle. This is where we shared our lives with one another and grew the bond that not even the passing of years or death could severe. This is where I became aware of wonderfully mysterious things like school, religion, politics, the world, the universe and Sputnik.

Yes I know, electricity is good, and practical, and safe, and necessary for progress, etc., etc., but it is also cold, and stark and impersonal and unromantic. Not so the warm, cosy, fuzzy atmosphere of candletricity! I think we have lost much with the advent of electricity.

PS: Only the first photo is my own, taken on Friday night when the lights went out. Note the "forgotten" laptop in the background. Thank you Google for the other photos and please apologise to the photographers for my use of their photos. The lamp and radio is not identical to those from my childhood, but very similar.


Jo said...

What a beautiful post! You're a good writer. I was right there with you in your house, with your father reading.

I have such an affinity for South Africa. My mother told me so many wonderful stories of growing up there. When I was a little girl and I got home from school, I used to ask my mother what was for dinner, and she would say "Insects with long horns" in Afrikaans. I laughed every time. I wish I could remember how to say it.

I love reading about South Africa.

A human kind of human said...

Jo, I am sure it was: "Hisse met lang ore". It is a common Afrikaans saying, especially to children when they ask questions and you do not want to answer or if you want to joke with them. Was your mother from an Afrikaans speaking family?

jfrancis said...

Time Machine

Twelve moons have loosed
the pearly chains of gravity
to send the sea back,
back to it's tidal rest
past the gately towers
of Queensboro's
rich and stately spires,
back to strawberry fields
and imaginary times
of peace and love
when lyric and rhyme
mesmerized the mind.

Jo said...

That's it! "Hisse met lang ore". Thank you! :-)

Yes. Her mother's family had been there since the original Huguenots, so they had a long history in South Africa. I have a lot of relatives there still, but I am not in contact with any of them, sadly.

My grandmother was born in Stellenbosch and apparently was related in some way to Isie Smuts. My mother said when she was just a very little girl, she remembered meeting Isie Smuts, and said she was very lovely and down-to-earth.

It's a small world, isn't it? :-)

Argent said...

I really enjoyed your post and wish we'd have had such a lovely evening routine as that. The only time we had to use candle was in 1971 when the miners were on strike and there were power cuts. Then, out came the candles onto the mantlepiece with some kitchen foil taped to the wall to reflect the light and we'd play cards and talk... Thanks for awakening that memory with your lovely post.