Two To Remember
Friday. August 1, 2009
“EVERYONE GET UUUUUP!” Pat Duffey’s voice comes muffled through our door. I grab my watch off the bedside table. 6:07am. Ok, ok.
6:35 we clacked around the kitchen in heels and dress shoes.
6:42 we walked down a dark Kimberley Road towards Pearnel and Sharky, tea in hand.
6:47 the vans, eternally smelling of petrol, puttered us to Saint Georges cathedral downtown Cape Town.
7:02 the sun began to turn the sky a light periwinkle. We looked even more out of place than usual; dressed up and walking downtown before the South African Friday begins. Only construction workers and the destitute accompanied us in the streets.
Entering the cathedral our steps echoed in the empty hall. I was surprised at the barren pews. Filing towards the alter, a small chamber to the right of the stage came into view. Intimately set, there were about 40 chairs creating a square with a small, simple alter. We were early, and only a few of the seats were taken. Walking into the chamber, our soles were muffled in red carpet, and our conversations fell silent in reverence; in anticipation. It was cold in the room, but for once no one commented on the goosebumps prickling our arms.
Slowly the chairs filled. A tall woman in her early-sixties on crutches, and her husband. A well dressed elderly man with penny loafers. A young blonde with three small children. A beggar with a few shopping bags tied around his right shoe. Soon the empty seats were gone. The man with penny loafers began to hand us books: The Anglican Prayer. “Thank you” we hushed through smiles.
7:20 A small man dressed in the long green vestments ambles in from the back of the room. His hair already white, small rectangular glasses add distinction to age. He sets a book upon the alter, positioning it just so. Then pulling on the burgundy ribbon within it’s folds, he opens to a specific page. “We pray the Anglican prayer. Page 219.” There is a crinkling of rice paper as everyone flips hurriedly to the page. The silence is broken once again, as the small congregation begins in unison. Those of us with Catholic backgrounds stumble over the familiar, yet foreign words… “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Then and only then, did former Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu look up at the room. A smile broke out over his being, as though joy so overwhelmed him that there could be no evil in the world. “Goodmorning” he offered.
“Goodmorning!” we beamed back at him.
“So many new faces.” He commented.
“Would you like to do introductions Father?” Asked a woman sitting opposite; her white hair resting just below her chin, adding an air of sophistication to her affluent South African accent. Desmond Tutu smiled again, and nodded.
The woman gestured toward a group of us encouragingly. Ellen Eckamn, our academic director while in this program, stood from where she had been sitting with her husband, Frank. Throwing her hand out in our direction, “These are students that are here from Marquette University in Wisconsin. They are studying here for 5 months” she said in her best Bostonian accent. She sat, nodding more to herself than the room.
“Welcome” Mr. Tutu smiled. Then he craned towards the other side of the room, waiting. Another woman stood to introduce a group of European volunteers that will be working in Cape Town for the next 5 weeks. “Where are you all from?” He asked. They listed a series of countries, Germany and Scotland among the group. “I wish we were doing names” he said. Then, realizing the extended process it would be, waves his hand in dismissal of the thought. Once again he craned forward, eyebrows raised, poised to listen. The blond woman with her three children and husband spoke next: “We are on sabbatical. From the States” she said.
“Welcome.” He smiles again. Then leaning back off the alter, he looks to the left, with a questioning glance. The man with the penny loafers stands, reading the first scripture.
8:15 service was over, and Desmond Tutu walked out into the main cathedral to greet people as they left. Each of us stood in procession to shake his hand, then wait anxiously to see if he would sign our books and journals and postcards, or take a picture with us. Kelly walks over to me: “I’m never washing my hand again!” I thought about it for a moment, then the germaphobe inside thought better of it. I pulled out my camera instead, thinking it a better memorial.
8:45 Tables were pulled together in a long line down the front of cozy Cafe de Roche. At the head of the table sat a white haired woman who carried the dignity of a self-awareness which only comes through a lifetime of service. To her right, a shorter, brunette with vivacious laughter. (It would later be explained to us that “these are my doctors.” The white haired woman heads the Desmond Tutu TB clinic in Kayalitcha. She also was the first doctor to examine Nelson Mandela when he was released from prison and “came to stay with us.” The brunette is a Dr. of Pediatrics at University of Cape Town). To her left, Desmond Tutu. People began to move towards seats and Meghan and I, who had been most eager to leave the rain puddled streets, were pushed forward. Unsure, conscious of every contraction of my heart, I sat down, next to this fabled man. He didn’t acknowledge my inserted presence. Rather he concentrated fixedly on the croissant and preserves before him. “Tell us about your trip Father.” Said the white haired woman gently.
I would not be part of this conversation, but allowed to be privy. Mr. Tutu started slowly, speaking of Fiji and rugby. They talked as old friends do when the threat of losing the other has long ago passed. Friday morning breakfast was a tradition among them for decades. These tables witnessed the destruction of Apartheid in these friends conversations long before it’s demise in 1994. These walls held tight the schemes of the ANC, and the coagulation of the TRC. But today they absorbed lighter discourse. “You’re leaving us soon Father.” Smiled the brunette. “You’re going to America to see Obama.”
“Oh?” Eyebrows raised, waiting to smile. Someone produces a paper.
“See here Father” the brunette points to a small article on the third page of the Cape Times. “ANGLICAN Archbishop Emeritus and Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu has been awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian honour. Dan Vaughan, Tutu’s personal assistant and spokesman, said Tutu would go to Washington to collect the award at a ceremony on August 12…” He laughes, not quite acknowledging and not quite dismissing the article. “Did you not know Father?” And he laughs again, expelling light into the room like a Patronus Charm.
“It must have been my smile” he jeers, artfully dodging the praise. And silently I agree. It must have been that smile Apartheid could not permeate.
. . .
Part 2 of 3