I always questioned my father’s rituals. He had many. Some every day, some every week, some every season.
It is easy to see why the seasonal rituals worked well. He used to go to Greece every June and July for six weeks and have a good rest.
He would wake up every morning and say a short prayer. I think it was the same one all the time. Then after his mother died in 1981, he would touch the garlic keepsake she had sewn in a linen sachet held on a small gold chain around his neck. And think of her, and of being kept safe from evil. He used to exercise every morning, and when he had the dogs he would walk the same route. To the point that after he died and I took Leon for a walk, if left on a loose leash, he would walk the same route my father had taken him.
Ritual can teach children something. Even dogs.
He would devour the English and Afrikaans newspapers after eating grapefruit and taking his medication with a Vitamin C effervescent booster. Breakfast would be two slices of black toast and black instant coffee. His treat for breakfast on rare occasions would be eggs and kippers.
A more subtle ritual and not obviously clear was to anticipate issues at work and delve into various scenarios in his mind. Sometimes he would make notes. When the work was done, his filing of documents was a ritual, perfectly labelled and collated.
On Sundays, depending on which priest held the Liturgy, he would visit the cemetery to pay respects to his dead father and mother, cousins and friends. He always said that he found God in the cemetery; that he not distracted by people. I suppose he meant living people. He would clear the flowers and place new ones. Then he would light incense and let his prayers and thought float up to heaven with the white smoke, and be at peace.
He would never leave a house other than through the same door that he entered. Ritual allows control in a strange place. When he travelled his documents were always kept in the same place, with a certain heightened tension attending their retrieval from my mother’s bag. But he never lost his passport in Greece like me. Ritual keeps you safe.
His daily walk in the fields and mountains in Greece, followed by his visit to the kafeneio with his friends, set the tone for his day there and months in South Africa. He would always walk the same direction and route, stop at the same spring for a sip of clear life giving cool water and proceed with his shepherd’s crook to share conversation and coffee with his friends. Even the way they approached any greeting and discussion was ritualised.
Ritual is an amazing anchor in our lives of uncertainty. We can learn, be safe from evil, be organised, be in control and be more human.
I have only understood that now.