Conversations with a Parrot

Jako cannot talk much. He could call Zorba the dog, and utter a guttural “hello”, otherwise he just sat in his cage, watching the world go by.

My brother received this blue and golden Macaw parrot in 1974 from my father as a gift. At first he stayed in a a standard parrot cage in the playroom. This later became the TV room when television arrived 2 years later. He migrated to a bigger cage that was custom made of stainless steel braai grids, commissioned by my father’s cousin, Peter Manelis. Finally, and to this day, he stays in a standard Alberton Construction facebrick custom made cage building, complete with French doors, which stands in the garden under a willow tree.

A few years later when my brother completed his MBA Cum Laude my father bought him a Lancia Beta Coupe. From T.A.K. Motors in downtown Johannesburg. Occasionally when we went to movies we would detour past the shop just to drool at the cars. That was the era of the Dino, Tony Curtiss’s car in “The Persuaders”. It was a work of art. As was the Lancia Monte Carlo, and later the Integrale. What legendary cars all of them. Unlike the parrot, the car did not last and was sold.

They were both gifts.

My father was good at giving. Like most of us, he could not receive easily. He never got the right mileage out of giving. He never engineered the fanfare or newspaper articles in recognition. But he treasured the thank you. That is what kept him going, as much as the joy or relief on the face of the recipient. Relief as many of his gifts were in the business world, in the form of loans that were never repaid, in order to keep a friend or compatriot alive in his chosen business. The thank you’s still arrive, when I meet people who say thank you to me for what my father did for them.

As children we never wanted for anything, even the tough years when the business was close to liquidation and was kept afloat by the credit of numerous credit cards. I was jealous as a child of the parrot and later the Lancia. But I was different. My gift from my father was his tolerance for my difference. Instead of completing my degree in Engineering he signed my application for medicine without questioning, relishing the story later.

When I was in hospital for 4 months he visited me every day. Just to be there, asking about progress, never judging. The he often left after the late afternoon visit to attend a business or community or school meeting and arrive late at home.

His gift to me in fact was total acceptance. Even when I bought my own Alfa Romeo and dreamed of owning a Ferrari car.

Conversations about Books

I could ask for any book, and my father would allow me to buy it on the credit card he had given me. The card was for emergencies only, and I suppose owning books must have been an emergency at some stage in his life. Perhaps, it was owning the time to read them that was so precious.

When I started university he expected feedback from registration week. Who were the lecturers, which lecture halls were we using, what was the schedule like? But the recommended book list is what blew him apart. He saw all these subjects, with two or three recommended textbooks per subject, and he just said:

“You must get whatever books you need to study.”

After my first first year (remember, both he and I changed courses) I had an answer.

“But Dad, I have already checked at the book store and some of them are really expensive and have to be imported from England or the States specially.”

Secretly hoping he would back off, so I would not have to wade through volumes and be nervous about cracking the covers and then facing the official exam paper at the end of the year. But he persisted and I had to show him to proof of order. Sometime the books came after the first quarter exams which I passed without the attendance of these sentries in my bedroom.

So when I turned 21 and people asked my mother what they should get me for my birthday, I was quick to say I wanted books. I still have all of them in my study now, pleasant company, some read, some paged through and some just there. I have some beautiful rare books and a collection of South African first and subscribers prints of various natural history topics. In the spirit of decluttering I only have two medical textbooks in my study at home. Man’s Anatomy by Tobias and Arnold, to remember the beauty of the working of the human body, and Apley’s System of Orthopaedics, a classic in case I forget and someone phones for advice. I can quickly reference his clear explanations. I have a few more orthopaedic textbooks at work. They would make good flower presses. The internet has become useful for research and the Kindle for reading without feeling paper.

I wonder what my father would have thought of a Kindle. His whole library at home, the New Encyclopaedic britanncia, 26 Volumes and the Collections of Great Books with leather-bound spines, had a lot more character than a Kindle. I can remember settling bets and completing school projects from these books. I can remember learning so much, not just about the subject matter, but the way in which the articles were researched. And how static the world was, because the next edition of the encyclopaedia would take a few more years. So a country would not change its borders in that time. Nor would an economic crises envelope it.

For all the great books my father’s real love was comics. Dennis the Menace and Archie were his favourites. He could lie down at home, in the village or on the beach and disappear into a peaceful world of pictures that spoke.