Mother – an unfinished lament

An unfinished lament for Margery McGregor

I think of your crisp blue eyes and wispy white hair
That framed your face like a penumbra of snow
I remember the night before you died and I sat
On the floor by your bed holding your hand
I think I never was as close to you as then, so connected
Although we didn’t speak and I knew that the end was near
I felt you like a little girl wanting to give up and trust
What was not in your nature to trust
And just be there and slowly not be there
You who loved to be in touch and free and felt so deeply
But showed so little out of consideration.
Lying on that high bed with the trees hiding the moon and the stars as the night went on
And you didn’t say a word.
The window at my back was cool
And Dad snoring quietly in the bed next to your all unknowing
And not ready to let you go and not knowing that he had no choice.
How dependent he was on you.
The bed lightly covered with the pinkish knitted blanket you loved so much
And that had been with you through so many years
Over your feet the crocheted cover from one of your sisters I think
And the pillows downy and soft just as you liked them.
I just held your hand all through the dark and lightening hours
Dad got up to shave and I noticed your breathing getting lighter and lighter
Until I knew it was time to call him
All he could say was “How will I live without you?”
And I knew that was literally true for all that he lived
For another twelve years it was not really life
He had relied on you too much to give him
The sense of connection and place.
And the dahlias and vygies[1] you loved so much
Are less bright and there is no marmalade bubbling on the stove
With bees being nuisances –
Life is less rich.
What about the roads you longed to travel and didn’t?
What kept you from going there? How did you feel about not
Seeing all the places you had wanted to see?
So a symphony will not be written for you nor will your voice
Rise in song nor speak lovingly and wisely again.
But what a symphony sounds in my ears for you
And ends always on that melancholic Celtic chord.
I miss those hands so business-like and loving
That held me back and pushed me forward.

[1] Vygies are very colourful, small, succulent flowers in the mesembryanthemum family which are endemic to the somewhat arid west coast of South Africa.

Unfulfilled desires

My mother Margery was born on 28 December 1907 and died on the last day of December 1986, a little more than a year after she and my father Murray had celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

She was the daughter of a pharmacist who came to South Africa from the United Kingdom and settled with his family first in Oudtshoorn in the Karroo and then in the small city of George, also in the Western Cape. She was one of five sisters.

The piece above I wrote a few years ago, just after my father died, but have never been able to finish or polish it.

My brother Chris was a great musician who lived in France. He came back to visit our father when our mother died. He told me he had always wanted to write a symphony for her, but that he feared no-one would want to play it.

Chris himself died in France at the age of 53 on 26 May 1990, coincidentally our father’s 82nd birthday.

Mother had always had a sort of wanderlust, a desire to move and explore, in contrast to our father’s desire for stability and routine.

The family together for the parent’s Golden Wedding celebration, Halfway House, 28 September 1985

Mother’s dream was, when my father retired, to sell all their possessions, buy a caravan, and hit the road! Dad on the other hand wanted his books around him, and teas regularly at 11.00 a.m. and 4.00 p.m.!

So mother threw herself into things like gardening, cooking (especially jamming) and looking after things. When we lived in Blythswood she kept cows, made butter and cheese, explored natural remedies and folk medicine.

Mother with our dog “Lucky” on the front lawn of our Blythswood house c 1953

I have these great memories of her in the kitchen with huge pots of bubbling jams on the wood stove, bees buzzing around them and sometimes falling into the hot sugary geysers, while outside the garden hummed with colour and energy, flowers and vegetables flourishing from the compost she made.

Even when she became very ill with the cancer that finally killed her she wouldn’t give in, wouldn’t acknowledge that she was suffering, so I don’t think Dad was even aware of how serious it was, how close to death she was.

Mother died without doing the travelling she yearned to do. I always feel very sad when I think about that.

So I guess this piece is all about unfulfilled desires – for a life of adventure and travel, a symphony and a poetic tribute. And life goes on for all that. We get past the Celtic chord and move on, leaving a bit of our hearts someplace, but finding new lives, new connections.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2012

From the Algarve to the Cape of Storms

“There is nothing – absolutely NOTHING – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
From Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows

One of my favourite books as a young child was The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. My father had a passion for ships and all things to do with sailing and the sea. He particularly loved the quote at the beginning of this article, using it often in both formal talks and informal conversations.

We had a bed-time routine of him reading to me some story, preferably an uplifting one, before I went to sleep.

The Manse at Blythswood where I lived with my parents from 1955 to 1960

The Manse at Blythswood where I lived with my parents from 1955 to 1960

At the time we lived on a Church of Scotland mission institution in the Transkei region of the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa called Blythswood. It was relatively far from most amenities and there was no electricity supply there so when the sun went down candles and paraffin lamps provided light for meals and reading.

So some of my earliest memories are of going to bed with a hissing Coleman or Hurricane paraffin lamp beside my bed and my father reading stories to me from Arthur Ransome, A.A. Milne, Fennimore Cooper and sundry others of the “Boys’ Own Paper” sort.

From these came my fascination with small boats. Where my father was really keen on the big ships, especially of the naval variety, I was fascinated by small craft, rowing boats and dinghies and the like. I was always interested in boats that could navigate small bodies of water, rather than the wide open sea.

Boats in Sagres harbour

On a visit to the Algarve in southern Portugal some years ago I found the small boat culture there very interesting, especially the colourful “paint jobs” many of the boats had, which contrasted strongly with the rather drab paint of the boats with which I was familiar from holidays in Cape Town and other South African sea-side resorts. The boats I knew were mostly painted green or black or a combination of those two colours.

Of course the maritime culture of Portugal, and in particular of the Algarve, is of interest to anyone who studies South African history, as the first white travellers to our shores came from this area, in all likelihood. While in the Algarve the party I was with spent a good deal of time at Sagres, the small fishing village on the south-western-most point of Europe (the Promontorium Sacrum, or Sacred Promontory, from which the village derives its name), where the man well-known as “The Navigator” lived and died more than 600 years ago.

The Navigator (o Navegador in Portuguese) was one of the “Illustrious Generation” (Ínclita Geração in Portuguese) of Princes of the Royal House of Avis, whose mother was the English Princess Philippa, who was in turn the daughter of the famous John o’ Gaunt. So a link was forged between England and Portugal which has remained strong until now.

The Navigator, whose full title was The Infante Henrique, Duke of Viseu, was the third child of King John I of Portugal and the Queen Consort Philippa, and in spite of his honorary title of “Navigator” did not himself do much in the way of exploration. Rather he set up a school of navigation and other seafaring skills on Sagres Point, which inspired the explorers Bartolomeo Dias and Vasco da Gama to sail around the southern-most tip of Africa, Da Gama eventually continuing to India, thus cementing Portuguese dominance early in the colonial race, a dominance which was, however, very soon challenged.


This bold exploration of seas uncharted and unknown to the Europeans was celebrated by the great Portuguese poet Luis Vaz de Camoens in the epic poem Os Lusiadas:

The entrance to Hout Bay on the Cape Peninsular

The entrance to Hout Bay on the Cape Peninsular


“I am that mighty Cape, occult and grand,

Stormy by nature, and ‘Of Storms’ by name:

Geographers have never mapped this land,

Into these seas no old explorers came.

Pointing south, last sentinel I stand

Of Africa’s long coast. Who comes to tame

This seagirt spine of crags till now unknown?

Your challenge puts a tongue in silent stone.

After setting sail from Lisbon in August 1847 Bartolomeo Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in late January 1488. He and his ships anchored in the bay they called Sao Bras, now known as Mossel Bay, and there occurred the first violent clash between Europeans and African indigenes in South Africa. This was a fateful day which foreshadowed many, many more to come in the centuries which followed. The clash resulted in the death of one of the indigenes who thus was the first African in South Africa to be killed by a white person. It was 3 February 1488.

When Dias and his men left Portugal they took with them four African women taken from West Africa, who “were to be put ashore at various places on the African coast with instructions to fo into the interior, there to sing the praises of the Portuguese king and the ‘grandeur of his kingdom’” (This from the book Frontiers by Noel Mostert (1992)). One of these women was put ashore at Algoa Bay, near the present city of Port Elizabeth. Mostert notes of her: “Few figures in the African story strike me as being more dramatically sad than this pitiful wretch, taken from her world in West Africa to Lisbon, possibly as a slave, taught the Portuguese language and the mercy of Christ, embarked upon that incredibly vile and arduous voyage into the unknown, and then summarily abandoned within sight of natives of unknown disposition towards strangers. They would be back, the Portuguese assured her, to hear her news. In this bizarre fashion the story of European contact with southern Africa began.”

Dias and his men and ships sailed on for a further three days or so before the men forced Dias to turn back to make the return voyage to Portugal. Along the way they went ashore west of the Bushman’s River mouth, at a place now called Kwaaihoek. Here Dias erected, on 12 March 1488, a padrão, a limestone cross, of which three had been brought with them from Portugal. He dedicated this padrão to St Gregory.

Great South African poet and author Guy Butler wrote a narrative poem called Pilgrimage to Dias Cross (Cape Town, David Philip: 1987). He describes the scene thus:

“And there beside his pillar of stone

The swarthy discoverer stands

“His truculent men who sweated to raise it,

Tightening, easing ropes through palms,

Are snoring long since.

Is his sleepless mind

Still on the East, his Prince’s hunger

For spices and converts? Or does he foresee

His cold homecoming, demotion

To third in command? About him cling

Silent conspiracies. Records are lost.

The name of his ship? No soul knows.

Mere scraps of gossip, disguised facts.”

And later in the poem Butler writes:

Dias drew away from that pillar

With pain and passion, as much as if

He’d left a son in exile there for ever:

Remembering the peril to his person,

To all his men and ships; embittered that

Their voyage should yield no other fruit

Than a branchless little tree of marble planted,

Its name soon lost on the charts.

So ambiguous was the first recorded encounter between Europe and southern Africa, so fraught with meaning in the light of the subsequent history of the sub-continent.

The brightly coloured boats of the Algarve are symbolic of the cultural riches that are the birthright of everyone, European and African, who have been touched by the maritime exploits of the people of the Algarve. Picturesque they might be, but they carry a weight of history and memory for me.

Where I am now, the person I am, is made up of all these strands of history and memory, culture and genes, threads that weave a pattern, a rich tapestry, full of colour and life, that make up my consciousness, my awareness.

To quote Butler again:

“No culture is large enough to contain

The fullness of being of those who comprise it.

History’s noise seems endless like the sea’s.

“We are the traffic on its surface,

The life that sweats and labours,

The singing voices on the shore.”


(All photos above by the author)