The day of the fire…

18 Feb

There are some life stories that you don’t want to share, because it is painful, or because you don’t want people to know.  Some stories may cause hurt to other people. And therefore, out of respect for someone else you may choose not to tell.  But sometimes these stories pass their expiry date.  Sometimes the reason why you never told a story becomes irrelevant, for whatever reason. 

A few weekends ago, I attended a baby shower and was requested to bring along a baby picture of myself. Which I don’t have. I forgot about it anyway, but still… It made me realise that there are some of these stories that I have seldom told anybody.  And I decided that some of them are worth sharing.  For myself, for my kids, for other people.

Because, if there is one thing I believe, then it is that we are who we are because of what we choose to become.  Not as a result of our circumstances, but despite it.  One of the most pivotal moments in my life was an article I read when I was in primary school.  It was about two brothers.  The one was an alcoholic and the other a teetotaler (I didn’t even know what that was until then).  They were both asked why they were the way they are.  And their answers? Both of them said that is was because their dad was an alcoholic.  The alcoholic brother didn’t believe there was any other way he could turn out. And the teetotaler brother asked ‘what would you do if you had an alcoholic as a father?’

They both made their choice, but believed that it was their destiny.  That it was inevitable.  For me, it was a wow moment.  And I will never forget that.  Our history has a huge impact on what we are and who we become, but it doesn’t determine it. Our choices determine that. So, herewith a quote from the famed author J.K Rowling…

“It is our choices, Harry, that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”  ~ J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

So maybe I will tell you about the day our family lost everything.  The day of the fire.

I cannot remember how I came to be six years old.  They say in the first few years of a child’s life, their memories are images, colour and senses.  No words.  I cannot remember a childhood home or a childhood bedroom with plush toys and pictures on the walls.  My parents moved a lot when I was little.  My mom recalls that I used to ask if we were moving, whenever they started packing to go on holiday.

I can remember some things.  I can remember living in a caravan park just outside Johannesburg when my sister was a baby (or maybe it was because my mom used to re-tell the story about the strange neighbour who meditated in his garden winter and summer, so often).

I can definitely remember living in Volksrust, where my parents managed a hotel, and I can remember making light fittings from wool, wrapped around balloons, which was then spray painted in bright colours.  What the occasion was, I cannot remember. Quite a nifty little craft, I thought.

I can remember living on a plot in Bloemfontein at one stage, in a house with a huge pantry and leather chairs that always smelled of Mr Min.  And there was a photo of me in a Little Red Riding outfit, which was apparently taken in Windhoek, where we lived there after my sister was born.  But I cannot place these memories in chronological order.  Things only started to flow chronologically when I started school.

I started school in Kimberley (yes, I know…by now you probably think I should include a map with this story, like those insert in books like Lord of the Rings or something).  We lived in a caravan park in Kimberley.  Quite a settled spot, I will have you know.  My dad proudly erected extensions onto the caravan, so my sister and I had the main caravan all to ourselves.  My mom and dad had their own bedroom.  There was even a lounge and a kitchen.  And a small garden.

Shortly after Christmas, the year before I started school, we were visited a neighbour in the park one evening.  The kids were playing and at one stage, I wanted to go and fetch something at home.  My mom was not keen for me to go out by myself, but I whined and begged (I wonder if I did the doggy face, like my daughter did when she was that age).  Eventually my mom got fed up and said that if I go back, I must stay there and go to bed.  So I gave up and sulked off, pretty upset with my mom.  Soon after that, one of the adults went outside for some fresh air.  And started screaming. “Ben, your caravan is on fire”.  Ben was my dad.  The place we called our house was on fire.  If I had actually gone home, I might have been trapped there.

RooikappieThe next hour is a blur in my mind.  Someone must have called the fire brigade.  But by the time they arrived at the park, on the outskirts of Kimberley, everything was reduced to ashes.  My mom and dad were rummaging through the ashes trying to save what they could.  There was a little christening bible of my sister’s.  Some photos in albums were only burnt on the edges (one of them of me in a Little Red Riding hood outfit).  But mostly there was nothing left.  No baby photos, no momentos.

The people from Kimberly opened their hearts and offered clothes, toothbrushes, a tent to stay in.  There was no insurance payout.  But our family managed to find our feet again.  Strangely, the thing that stands out about this time is my mom’s struggle to find me new school clothes, as I was so short. We found a rental apartment in the city centre, above my dad’s shop.  I went to school that January of 1978.  Life moved on.  Less than a year later we were on the move again.  This time to Phalaborwa.  A new era, a new school, a brother who was born in Phalaborwa.

For many years after that, I was scared of fire.  In fact, it was with the greatest joy that I first bought one of those candle lighters.  I still cannot work a normal lighter (which is maybe subconsciously one of the reasons I never started smoking).  My fingers are just too close to the fire!  I still have a fear nestled in me of losing everything. Whenever I have been in a bit of a financial pickle, I would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.  And I have this obsession with giving my girls a stable upbringing.  It would take a lot for me to uproot them.

The problem is, that I think so many of the things that made me successful in life, came from choices that I had to make in the face of adversity.  And some days I wonder whether this ‘easier life’ for my kids will give them the perseverance in life, which they will need to succeed.  I wonder how to teach them the ability to be grateful for things in life.  I make them wait.  I made them wait for their first phones.  I made my daughter pay off her BlackBerry when her old one was stolen.  Hopefully, that it will teach them appreciation.  Hopefully they can learn the value of earning your place in life.

My wish for them is that they too, can be ecstatic about buying their first car or their first house.  I wish that they will realise that life doesn’t owe them anything.  I wish for them to realise that the world is their oyster and that they can reach for the stars, but that nothing comes without hard work and effort.

That is all I can wish for.


Posted by on February 18, 2014 in Family


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8 responses to “The day of the fire…

  1. Tina G

    February 18, 2014 at 8:19 pm

    Amazing Gerda!

    • Justcallmegertie

      February 18, 2014 at 8:51 pm

      We all have our stories, Tina…:-). Makes life interesting. Hope you are doing well in NYC!

  2. Kathryn McCullough

    February 18, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    Oh, dear Gertie, thank you so much for sharing your story. The Harry Potter quote is a perfect accompaniment to it. Yes, we are the choices we make, not necessarily the things life throws our way. It’s what we do with those events that matters.

    I’m so sorry you lost everything in that fire. I’m sorry you have struggled with a fear of fire. But it sounds like you have done so, so well in spite of that trauma.

    I know a bit about trauma. My childhood was full of it. But I’m glad for the life I’ve had, those happenings included.

    Thanks so much for sharing your story. I hope you will share more!

    Hugs from Ecuador,

    • Justcallmegertie

      February 18, 2014 at 8:49 pm

      Thanks Kathy! It has been so many years, but I still remember it to this day.
      I honestly believe everything that happens in life, happens for a reason, even if to teach us a lesson.
      I must still catch up on your memoir! Looks like a very interesting childhood…
      Thanks for reading

  3. Eha

    February 19, 2014 at 4:01 am

    Gerda dearHeart ~ I am pretending not to be on a blog break to tell you how much I have been ‘with you’ whilst you told a small but pivotal part of what made you you!! I fully agree that the choices we make as life moves on do determine the path we travel. And yet it can be so hard to step back at any given moment to be logical and see how much even a small move may change our lives . . . so often an impulsive gesture, word or deed may haunt us for the longest time to come . . . been there, done that . . . .lovely to read your post . . . . .

    • Justcallmegertie

      February 19, 2014 at 5:04 am

      Thanks Eha. You’re so right. I tell my 15yo teenage daughter that all the time, how some choices she can make now can change her life forever, which is why she needs to make responsible choices,even if she doesn’t feel like it.
      Thanks for reading!

  4. Anne-Marie Liebenberg

    February 19, 2014 at 7:38 am

    Ja my liewe ousSus, jy is so n speisale persoon, ten spyte van al die harde tye. My wens is dat die Here jou sal seen in abundance. Jou kinders is pragtig en ook so liefdevol, nes jy. Ek kyk hoe opgewonde hulle is as julle hier kom om met Cassie en die tweeling te speel. Daardie liefde wat hulle uitstraal kom van n ma wat haar kinders lief het, onvoorwaardelik, wat hard werk om hulle die beste te gee. Hulle is deel van jou, en daarom weet en vertrou ek dat hulle ook hulle eie suksesse sal bereik.
    Jy is n inspirasie vir baie mense, so n goeie voorbeeld. JY VAT KANSE – ek bedoel jy is nie bang om n pad te volg as n deur oopmaak vir jou nie. Jy is n voorbeeld vir my.
    Ek is so trots op jou- en so bly jy is in my lewe.
    Snaaks die paaie wat n mens se lewe loop. Jy is reg, n mens maak jou eie keuses, en agtergrond vorm jou, maar dit maak nie wie jy is nie.


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