The day my daddy lost his laugh
Written by Johan van Rensburg
It’s a stare-off.
Little Steward stares at the man in the doorway -and the man stares back. It’s kind of funny, the seven year old braveboy in front of the dirty somewhere-around-thirty fellow.
More awkward than funny, though. Little Steward beholds the torn and muddy shoes, from which the big toe clearly gasps for fresh air, to the two sizes big jacket that clearly dated at least three centuries ago which stinks and clearly cries out for Nenna’s wash, to the long bushy brown beard. His gaze lingersin the cautious eyes, which seems so humiliated, eyes that are the brightest blue he has ever seen on a man. Where have he seen such eyes?
A vague memory dissappears in his mind as he remembers his eticet. “Good day, sir. Can we help you?”
The wonder of the moment disappears like a shooting star when daddy flung the wooden front door wide open.
It was a peculiar sight. Little Steward cautiously seeks the safety of his father’s legs and creeps in behind them. When his father pulls his blue eyes like that, there is trouble on the horison. His fathers stares at the man, maybe just a little too long for comfort’s sake. Then, as he clears his throat in a clumsy effort to break the awkward silence, little Steward can feel his daddy shaking the sight off of him.
“You are on the wrong side of town buddy. “ He lowers his voice to a bare whisper. Little Steward leans forward to hear his following words. It snaps through the fresh Sunday morning:“This suburb is no place for beggers and bums...what do you think?”
Daddy didn’t even linger to hear what the filthy man was about to utter. Little steward is sure that he saw the man opening his mouth to say something when the big wooden front door closed with a sure bang and shuts him out of their sight.
Little Steward comes out from behind his daddy’s legs. “Who was that man, daddy?”
“It was a bum.” Just that. Daddy’s face predicts that nothing good will happen if little Steward persist with more questions about the matter. “Go get dressed boy, I hate beingtlate for church.”
With his heart still overflowing with questions, little Steward turns around and strolls off to his bedroom.
Mommy laid his clothes neatly on his bed. He looks at his red spiderman socks. He looks at his shiny black shoes, his white collared shirt, and his neatly pressed trousers.
His shoes have no holes and smiles brightly up to him. Nenna polishes them every week. His shirt is just the right size and the aroma of stasoft still hangs around it. It smells like wild flowers.
The poor bum. He clearly have no Nenna to help him with his clothes.
Little Steward dresses himself. He is old enough. He can do many things for himself now, he is seven years old! And he’s been in school for a whole two years now! He looks at himself in the mirror. Wow, he is getting big!
He is a handsome guy. Smiling at himself the vision of the dirty bum jumps forward again. The man’s teeth were yellow, not pearly white like his. Do the man have a toothbrush?
Here comes mommy. She’s beautiful too! She always smells so nice! She always does the final check on little Steward’s “look”. She stretches out a loving hand and brushes her fingers through his neatly shaved hair. “Come on, daddy’s waiting.”
Little steward hears the loud footsteps of his daddy as he is making his way towards their car. By the sound of it, daddy is not in a good mood. Is he ever, these days?
Little Steward runs out of his room. He do not want to get on his father’s wrong side if he feels like that!
The car pulls out of the driveway with screeching tyres. The silence insid the car bangs against little Steward’s eardrums.. Little steward sits in the back of the car next to the window, eyes looking to and fro, as he searches... for any trace of the bum.
At last. Little Steward found him. He stands quietly in the shade of an old oak tree a few blocks from their house. He looks at the car, and for a brief moment, locked eyes with little Steward. Little Steward sees the man lifts a hand in a greet, but is too scared to greet back. Daddy might see.
His curiosity gets the best of him. “Mommy?”
Mommy tries to put on her lipstick in the little mirror on top. She smiles at him and catches his eyes from the mirror. “Yes, sweety-pie?”
“What is a bum?”
Mommy lowers the hand that holds her lipstiffy. Little Steward sees her peeking at daddy through the corners of her eyes, Little Steward notices how his daddy’s knuckles turns white as he clenches the steering wheel as he tries to remain calm.
Little Steward wonders what he said wrong now.
Then daddy breaks the silence.
“Its got nothing to do with small boys.”
Mommy looks at little Steward through the mirror and puts her forefinger agains her lips. Little Steward understands. He should not say anything more.
Church is full, like always.
Little Steward walks silently next to his parents. His father smiles as if he is having the best day ever. He is even holding mommy’s hand as they are walking through the people, greeting them heartily , making all kinds of smalltalk. Little Steward wonders about the bum. What if they brought him with to church?
Little Steward shakes his head.No. That will wil not work at all! Look how neatly dressed these people are, all look beautiful and they are so loud! Bum is dirty and quiet, the church people will scare him to death! They will never accept him the way he is...
They enter the church and walks right to the back, where their seats are. Now he should be very quiet. As he sits down, daddy hands him his tablet to play games with.
Their seats is so far at the back of the curch, he can hardly see the reverant on his pulpit. Daddy lets him play games on his tablet to quiet him down for the hour of church. He doesn’t want to be embarresed by a little boy not able to sit still in church. Little Steward shakes his head again. Daddy obviously do not know that he is big now! He can sit still for hours and hours...
Clever fingers direct his questionss towards aunty Google. Little Steward smiles. She will tell him the truth. She will not quiet him down. She will satisfy his curiosity.
Google is ready with her answer: a bum is a poor person, from the very bottom class of the society, a person that has no job,a person which have no home to go to and and lives in the streets and sometimes turns out to be a bully, fighting for his survival on the streets
It takes little Steward quite some time to read through these difficult words. Some of the words have to be spelled out almost loudly, and mommy pokes him once or twice as he forgets to be super quiet in church.
Little steward doesn’t fully understand the meaning of most of these difficult words. Two words that he does understand, is “poor”, and “bully”.
He knows that the bum is very poor. He could see that in the way he looks. But being a bully? It doesn’t fit. This bum was very friendly.
After the hour of church the family rushes to the safety of their home. Daddy is tired of people now. Little Steward knows. Their lives follows the same routine, Sunday after Sunday. Mommy would disappear into the kitchen to prepare Sundaly lunch, and daddy would go to their bedroom and hide behind the Sunday newspaper for hours.
Little Steward goes to the kitchen to help mommy cut the veggies for the day.
Mommy is quiet today. On other Sundays she would humm a happy tune, but not today. She is deeply thinking about something, something tat makes furrows on her forehead, and makes her biting her lower lip.
Little Steward jumps on the table and starts chewing on a raw carrot.
Mommy sees him, and weighs her words for a split second.
Then she starts telling little Steward the heartbreaking story of daddy’s brother that chose to live his life as a bum....
Little Steward listens attentively. Bum has a name...it is Herman. Uncle Herman.
Uncle Herman didn’t know that they were living at this address when he decided to knock on the door earlier this mornng, begging for bread to eat...
Apparently daddy immediately recognised him. It was a great shock. Daddy tries hard not to think back of his past, there are things that he tries to forget. Now uncle Herman came and opened old wounds...
Mommy asks little Steward nicely not to ever mention the episode again...and little Steward nodds. He is a big boy. He understands.
What he doesn’t understand is why daddy closed the door in his own brother’s face? How can he be so rude? Why didn’t he invite him for breakfast, let him have bath and borrowed him some of his clothes? Why can’t he live with them in the spare room?
Why didn’t daddy invite his brother to go with them to church?
Little Steward has to get out of the house. He needs to feel the wind in his face to clear the cobwebs that is starting to blur his vision. He has so many questions, but he dare not ask any! Not even aunty Google has an answer to these questions!
He needs to go to the park. He takes his bicycle and rides off, as swift as the wind. Mommy thinks he went playing with friend a few blocks from the house. Let her think that.
The public park is not really a place for small boys to hang out. Bigger children hangs out here: they play soccer on the lushes green grass, or sit under the shade of the trees and smoke cigarettes and other stuff, and some hangs out here to have a good time with their girlfriends. It is also the place where bums sleep and faggotsspend their days...
Little Steward is on a secret mission. His eyes are frantically searching the trees for the blue eyed man that he now knows shares his blood.Little Steward needs answers.
Suddenly he notices the man. Little Steward brakes. His throat is dry and his hands are sweaty. For a moment he just stands next to his bicycle, looking at he man in silence, wondering what to do now that he is so near. Uncle Herman is sitting under a big old oak tree on a rock. In front of him is a fire, and on the fire little Steward notices some sort of tin in which something cooks. Uncle Herman stirs the tin’s insides with a stick.
Little Steward forgets to whisper. “I shouldv’e brought uncle Herman a cooked lunch!”The words echoesthrough the quiet park. Some birds rise disturbed from their nests in the tree above uncle Herman and take flight. Oom Herman looks up and sees him standing besides the bicycle..
Little Steward is scared.
Oom Herman stirs for a last time and stands up from the rock. He walks toward little Steward. “Can I help you, boy?”
Little Steward looks at oom Herman. The voice is the same as daddy’s, but without the angry pitch that always creeps in his daddy’s. Their eyes are exactly the same, clear blue sparkiling eyes! It is the truth, this is his father’s brother.
Little Steward stretches his hand forward, the way mommy taught him. He is not scared anymore. He offers a friendly smile. “Good day, uncle Herman, my name is Steward.”
The man’s eyes dimmed for a moment. He looks at little Steward. He shakes the outstretched hand . “How do you know my name, Steward?”
“My mommy told me. She says that you are my daddy’s brother. You were at our house earlier this morning.”
There it is. Little Steward blurted it all out in one gasp. He feels mcsh lighter now as he looks up in the frienly blue eyes and the load he carried disappears behind the moving leaves, in the lush summer air.
“Oh.” Oom Herman just smiles and then turns around and make his way to the fire again. Little Steward wanders if he should follow him or flee home.
He decides to stay.
He parks his bicycle and follows the man into the trees.
Little Steward find his seat on a nearby rock in front of the fire and watches silently how oom Herman stirs his soup. Oom Herman has great peace. He can feel it. Little Steward feels safe with the man.
“I wasn’t aware that my brother lived at that house. I would have never knocked on the door if I knew.
I am sorry for the embarresment I caused.”
He talks while he tries to take the tin off the fire without burning his fingers. Little Steward wonders what the leafy soup would taste like. He shouldv’e brought the man of their Sunday lunch. Will he be having desert?
Little Steward also feels how his tummy rumbles and realises that he is hungry. He remembered that mommy said that he shouldn’t play long, he should be in time for lunch. He definitly will not eat of oom Herman’s soup. Maybe oom Herman is a vegetarian. His friend Marble’s mom is a vegetarian too...
He stands up from his rock. “I have to go now, oom Herman. Mommy said I shouldn’t be late for lunch...” He left the sentence hanging after uttering the word “lunch”...knowing that this leafy broth will never measure up to the lunch that he will get at his house....
Oom Herman also knows it. He looks at the tin’s insides andignores little Steward’s final greet. He is so hungry...
Little Steward fights the urge to invite uncle Herman to lunch with them. Therefore he rides away like the wind, so that the wind can dry the desperate tears on his cheeks.
Daddy sits on the bench on the stoep as little Steward enters. Little Steward swallows dry. He will have to lie to daddy today.
“And why the hurry? You are kicking up dust!”
Little Steward thinks. “I won the race, daddy! For the first time! Marble got second place!”
Daddy laughs. When he laughs he looks just like oom Herman. His eyes wrinkles on the sides and he looks friendly, just like oom Herman looks...when will daddy get his laugh back?
While he helps mommy with the dishes later in the afternoon, he prompts her again. “Mommy why is daddy’s brother a bum?”
Mommy doesn’t know.
Daddy never speaks about his past.
Little Steward realises something. Daddy lost his laugh when oom Herman became a bum. He have to get daddy’s laughback. The answer lies with oom Herman.
He visits oom Herman again the following day.
And the day thereafter.
On the third day the answers came.
Daddy and oom Herman stayed in the same house on the big family ranch, some twenty years ago. They were farming with wild, and they loved working so closely together, building a beautiful place for their families to come.
The unforgivable happened. Oom Herman smoked cigarettes. One day, when the grassfields were very dry and the rains stayed away, he caused a field fire, by the flick of the cigarette in his hand...
It was all over in a few minutes.
They lost their inheritance and the work of their hands turned to ashes right in front of their eyes. Nothing coud bring it back. Overcome by shame and guilt, oom Herman disappeared for good. He made a choice to never own land again- and become a bum.
Daddy lost his laugh and chose a life of wearing a suit and working behind a computer.
And this is how it is.
Little Steward doesn’t understand. With a heavy heart he rode his bicycle back home.
Daddy sits in his chair on the stoep.
His daddy – without the laugh.
And he so wishes he could help his daddy find his laugh back.
Little Steward realizes the fact that he is not big enough to understand all of these things.
But he knows of someone that is big enough. God is big enough.
He will pray. God will give his daddy his laugh back. And God will give oom Herman a forgiveness for what he did.
The next day oom Herman is nowhere to be found.
And the next day.
And the next.
Little Steward keeps on praying. Although little, he is a man of big faith.