Conversations with Uncle Piet

Uncle Piet was my father’s first cousin. Their fathers were brothers. But my father held Uncle Piet as an older brother, a village sage to cut through the smoke and mirrors of the modern world and to keep him from losing direction.

Uncle Piet was 20 years older than my father. He arrived in South Africa aged 13 in the care of his uncles. He grew up helping in the family corner store.  He spoke English with a strong Greek accent and very little Afrikaans. He never went back to Greece, never wanted to, but always got a shiny look as tears formed when my father came back from Greece with greetings from his mother, whom he had not seen until she visited South Africa once or twice in the seventies. He died in the early eighties, and left a huge gap in everyone’s life. He was our benefactor, playing the horses and distributing the winnings into bank accounts for us. He gave us cars (all Peugeots) and never asked anything except to be able to be in the garden, plant trees and windmills. He had a fetish for model windmills. A friend of his used to weld them together, culminating in a 2 meter working model with bearings and even a water reservoir to pump from. I am  not sure where that passion came from, as they do not  have windmills in Greece. But I think his friend was jobless and he was paying him to make these models. That was the generosity of Uncle Piet, that rubbed off on my father.

The other passion he had was playing the horses. Remember now that Alberton, our home, was home to the Newmarket Racecourse, and the horse trainers and breeders were all opposite the racecourse. There were two other racetracks within 10 minutes from Union Cafe, the family store in Old Alberton. Germiston and Turfontein. Uncle Piet knew everybody and they all owed him favours. I think from the early days when money was tight and the poor white problem made him a benefactor, he would easily undercharge for a week’s groceries for a family or even give it away while no one was watching. When my grandfather died he must have been left alone, with my father and Uncle Arthur to help. My father used to start his varsity day with a trip to the market at 5 am to buy vegetables and then deliver them to the shop before he attended lectures at WITS.

Uncle Piet  was the only person allowed in and out of my father’s office without notice. Everyone else would get the single bushy eyebrow frown from my father that would scare them away if he was in a meeting. Mind you, children were always welcome. Uncle Piet knew and mixed happily with some of the big guns in South Africa business, law and Hellenic circles. And my father was always proud of the small generous wise man at his side.

Saturday mornings he would arrive at home with the horse racing magazine and card, already having made notes on tips from the trainers and jockeys (I think he trusted the jockeys more) and they would sit at our blue kitchen table after my father had had his walk and place their bets. Then Uncle Piet would go to the tote or racecourse, depending I think on the size of the bet. Come Monday he would deposit money into our accounts.

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