An unassuming, debaucherous weekend led me on a serendipitous ancestral pilgrimage to my father’s birthtown.
A couple of months ago I spent a weekend on a farm celebrating a friend’s birthday. We camped, drank and ate too much, and danced till the early mornings. A fun party, but nothing extraordinary. I returned some of the camping gear to my dad a few days later, and I casually told him about the weekend.
But as I talked about the farm specifically, I noticed he was getting very animated. The reaction was unbelievable — after peppering me for more details, it turns out it was the very farm where he grew up on!!
I knew he was born in Omaruru and I have been through this sleepy town many times before, although I never knew exactly where he grew up. What blew my mind is that I just spent a weekend on his childhood farm as I am experiencing this amazing transformation in my life — a transition into a new phase of my life, where serendipity is my constant companion.
Therefore I decided to take him back to the farm to celebrate his birthday, which was only three weeks later and have him guide us through his childhood memories.
And thus, early morning that Saturday, the 7 January, the four of us (Vati, his wife Brigitte, my sister Steffi and me) journeyed to the place where my dad was born exactly 65 years ago, to the day.
As we cruised through his childhood home, my dad navigated us to all the landmarks that may appear so insignificant from the outside, but which made an indelible impression on him.
We visited the modest church where he was christened in. We stopped at his old primary school, now the town municipality. He pointed out the old cafe that baked meatpies (sausage rolls) — even now my dad’s annual breakfast birthday treat are meatpies laddered with tomato sauce. We drove past the dilapidated, empty public pool, with it’s jumping boards still intact, which was a favorite hangout for little Rudi. Like I did as a child, he spent his weekends hanging with his friends at the pool, daring each other to jump from the high boards. Although he unlike me, he did not hit the edge of the pool with his forehead jumping from a 7-meter board.
As we stopped outside his second primary school, he laughingly told of a friend who pursued this girl all day. Eventually, his friend pinned her down in a corner in the school yard to kiss her during “Pause”, and then, promptly dumped her before the end of school that day. My dad had naughty friends. ;)
We visited my grandfather’s grave, the first time for me. Vati, Rudolf Alexander Mohrmann, born January 22, 1902 in Oberpeilau, Kreis Reichbach, Schlesien, now part of Poland. He died before I was born and my dad was only 22 at the time. But my grandfather was already a frisky 50 when my dad was born, the youngest of 6.
Next to my grandfather’s grave lay a barren place where my great-grandmother was buried. There is no gravestone and not even a plaque to commemorate her, only my dad’s memory to identify it. As we stood in the baking heat of 40 Deg Cel, I couldn’t help but wonder, what legacies did my great-grandmother and grandfather leave behind? Did it matter that my great-grandmother didn’t even have a marker to point out where she was buried? Did my grandfather know how much my dad missed him, even now?
We continued our slow cruise around the town, my dad shouting in his typical Captain Haddock-animated voice pointing out everything. I know where I inherited my enthusiasm.
And then, the grand finale — the farm.
When I was young, my dad used to entertain us at the dinner table with stories of his childhood escapades on the farm. I remember laughing so much, the lessons learned, never quite understanding the anguish of poverty, and being in awe about how industrious he was.
And now, here I was, finally at his home that I had heard about for decades.
My dad’s original family home is now the staff quarters. A modest building, squalid even, but still very much intact. My grandfather built everything himself; the house, the irrigation systems, the pig sty, the cellar; and 70 years later most of these structures are still standing, even when they were not maintained. Strong and sturdy, despite neglect, so like my father’s life. Even the three wells were still standing, though not functioning anymore. Little Rudi located one of the spots where to dig water using divining rods.
I took a picture of my dad standing in a spot where so many decades ago, he posed with his siblings for a photo — that typical organ pipe family portrait of large families. He was the youngest, and obviously identifiable by the knobbly knees.
He pointed out the half finished room my grandfather never got around to completing. He pointed out where the Omaruru River flooded. Where he drilled a hole into a rock whenever he was bored, until you could stick your fist into it. Where they grew veggies, where their citrus fruit garden was. There was nothing left of this garden of Eden. They toiled hard on the farm for a pittance. They even kept beavers to sell for their pelts — we often forget what a different perspective there was about pelt only a generation ago.
But despite the industrious and hardworking attitude of my grandparents, it was hard to raise a family of 8. Vegetables from South Africa were cheaper, and local small farmers couldn’t compete. And yet, they kept farming.
My favorite moment of our weekend was when we arrived at the scene of the “Chicken massacre”. This was a story I particularly liked, which always garnered a lot of laughs and cringing sympathy. Little Rudi loved to ride his bicycle round and round around the house. One day a chicken crossed his path, head and neck stretched out. My dad drove straight over the chicken’s neck, and that was the end of another paltry poultry. Yes, that is why chicken shouldn’t cross the road.
The situation was even worse for my dad — every livestock had a purpose, a monetary value, and the unnecessary killing of a chicken was a punishable crime. My grandmother, loving but harsh, send my young dad into the bush to select the perfect punishing rod. If he selected a weak stick which broke at the first stroke, he had to return and find a better one. Of course he didn’t want to find the hardest stick either, out of consideration for his backside, so it was a tormenting task selecting the right stick. Every time my dad told of the chicken incident, I laughed tears but also felt such grief for both chicken and little Rudi. He had a way of telling a story that pulled me in. And now here I was standing at the spot of the chicken massacre, imaging little Rudi on his bike as the horror dawned on him when he realized what he had done.
His family moved to Outjo when he was 13 and the farm sold to a few different owners before it became the family home of my friend in the mid 90's.
At the end of that day, I was emotionally drained. My sister and I took drinks up to granite boulder to process what we had experienced that day, watching the sunset over the town that shaped my dad.
It was such a positive, powerful experience, as it showed who my dad was and who he is now. He was poor. He walked 2 hours each morning to school, barefoot. He shared a ramshackle home with 8 family members. But what struck me was how proud my dad was of his childhood. He was not ashamed of his past. He held no regrets and showed no resentment. He embraced the poverty, and yet recalls the funny sides of him being a naughty, boisterous boy getting into trouble a lot.
My dad remembers where he came from, but more importantly, where he is now, and shows such gratitude for how far he has come, despite a difficult start in his life.
This is what makes my dad great. So many blame the past, their parents, their bosses, their exes, their circumstances for the misfortunes in their current lives. Embittered people lamenting the poor opportunities given to them in life. But my dad always takes responsibility for his actions (nothing like selecting your own beating stick to instill that in you). He takes charge of his life and accepts that what is, is. He works hard, he believes in getting the job done, and to make the most of any situation. “Vati macht ein Plan” is a favorite saying of his.
He is so proud of his modest life and chose not to live a lavish lifestyle. He faced many more hardships in his adult life, but in his retirement, he is rich in contentment.
Watching him, standing tall posing in front of these debilitated buildings, I couldn’t have been prouder to be his daughter and how much I am his child, down to the knees and loud personality.
My family legacy is not a century old mansion. Instead, it’s a little town called Omaruru, and a run-down house on a farm. We don’t have a family emblem, but a drilled hole in some rock. I honor this place which shaped my dad and thus me.
It was the best birthday gift we could have ever hoped for. I have no idea how I will top it for his 66th. But I can continue listening to his stories, write a few down, and honor our past, and how far we have come so far.