Face #12: Carmen

For the past couple of weeks, I have been working at a little boutique in a local mall. Carmen is the manager. But she is so much more than that label. She is kind and gentle. Hazel-eyed. Petite. Smiling and cautious. Talkative. Adventurous and anxious. She’s quite the paradox, and utterly lovely.

Carmen loves pearls and stud earrings. Desserts make her particularly happy, especially when she bakes them. She’s a dreamer. She longs to open her own store and to design interior items. Travelling is at the top of her bucket list. France, Italy, Spain…backpacking through Europe.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have come to care so much about her. She seems like she just needs someone to talk to, to tell someone about herself and her dreams. It’s a lonely job. I can attest to that. You spend hours by yourself. When you see a customer, you are so pleased that you just about tell them your life story.

Carmen has gently placed pieces of her puzzle in my hands, and I have tried to put that puzzle together. There is such a beauty to her. There is also such a beauty in getting to know people, their puzzles, their stories. There is an even greater beauty in making people feel loved and accepted, even if only for five minutes of their story.

Carmen does that. She listens. Accepts. Most people often simply need someone to talk to.

Recently, I was watching a documentary. The last line of the documentary is:

“Sometimes you have to ask yourself which part of someone’s day you want to be.”

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Face #11: Wilfred

Today, my dad and I decided to take a walk around a local nature reserve as part of an effort to get fit! We decide to get fit every year and it is usually forgotten about after a week or two. Nevertheless, as part of our tradition, we began the ‘get fit’ regime with enthusiasm and went for a short hike. At this time of year, Pretoria is especially beautiful. We walked through pathways of little yellow and purple flowers. Everything is greener. Fresher.

He was standing on a small bridge. Cigarette in hand. Leaning against one of the wooden poles with a kind smile on his face. Not one hair on his head. Circular glasses and grey braces. He seemed to have walked straight out of an era long forgotten as he nodded his head at us as we passed. I liked him instantly.

My dad and I could not decide which way to go. We heard him ask whether or not we had been to the nature reserve before. I detected a rich German accent. We chatted to him for about fifteen minutes. He told us about his favourite nature reserves and how much he loves his walks. He suggested a beautiful route through the reserve.

His name is Wilfred. He has a firm handshake and warm crinkles around his eyes.

We were walking through the picnic area about an hour later when we came across Wilfred sitting at one of the benches. Cigarette in hand. Staring at something in the distance.

“Wilfred!”

“Ah, hallo! You walked very quickly! These days… I can’t walk so quickly. But, I still come here every day.”

“It is a beautiful nature reserve!”

“It is indeed. Have you seen the zebras? I like to greet them. I say: ’Hallo!’”

He continued to chat to my dad. I stood there watching them chat, laugh, connect. I don’t really remember what they were chatting about. I do, however, remember their happiness. The glow of reaching out and reaching back.

“We’re each of us alone, to be sure. What can you do but hold your hand out in the dark?”

—Ursula K. Le Guin

Face #10: Gisela

A lovely German lady who lives in my estate. Small and strong. Determined. Soft white hair resting lightly on her forehead. Green eyes which sparkle with youth. Blue eyeliner. A gold broach. She smiles with love, with trust.

Yesterday I was almost at my estate gate when I saw Gisela walking along the road carrying two heavy bags. She marched on determinedly in the midday heat. I got out of my car and offered to drive her to her house. And she told me her story.

Her name is Gisela and she is 77 years old. She says she feels her age. But her eyes tell a different story. She grew up in a small town in the south of Germany and immigrated to South Africa in 1967 with her husband and their first child. She told me about her children and her grandchildren. Her one grandchild, Anais, lives with her. She also told me about the love of her life. She lost him a year ago over Christmas time. As she said that, she looked at me with her youthful, searching eyes.

 “But I cannot think of that now…I cannot hold onto it. If I do, I won’t be able to speak.”

I put my arm around her shoulder.

We arrived at her house and I carried her bags inside. She turned to me and smiled. I can still hear her accent.

“I cannot believe that I am letting somebody else carry my bags!”

She laughed with absolute delight while she brought her hand to her chest.

She welcomed me into her home and we continued to chat. When it was time to go, she put her hands on my shoulders and pulled me in for a tight squeeze.

 “I feel like you gave me Christmas!”

Face #9: Jan

A security guard at the estate where I live.

Jan loves jazz. He wears a shiny black cap on sunny days. He always rubs his hands together and nods when he greets people. He is tall and lean. Gangly with a caramel complexion. Serious eyes peer at me from their wrinkled cases. But he very rarely smiles.

We greet each other every day. He rubs his hands and nods. I can hear his strong accent.

“Have a nice day.”

One day, I was on my way home from university. I was playing some jazz music in my car. I arrived at the estate gate and rolled down my window to greet Jan. Suddenly a wide toothless grin burst onto his face.

“You like jazz?”

“I LOVE jazz Jan!! Do you like it too?”

“I do! I do!”

When I arrived at the gate about two days ago, I was playing jazz music in my car again. I saw that Jan was on duty and turned the music up. I rolled down my window.

“Here’s some jazz music for you Jan!!”

“Ahhhh!”

And there he stood. Smiling that rare smile.

Face #7: Grace

The beautiful lady that works at our house. She loves colourful earrings and eye shadow. Her hair is intricately braided. Her smile absolutely brightens my day. Her smile would brighten anyone’s day. She bounces when she walks and sways when she hums. She is rhythmic joy.

Grace came into my life a few months ago. And what a blessing she has been. She is the epitome of the fact that the little things count. I think I loved her from the day I met her. She shines.

On a Wednesday morning a couple of weeks ago, I walked into the kitchen in my pyjamas, a half-asleep gollywog. I am sure you have those days when you wake up and you just don’t feel good. Perhaps a bad dream. Perhaps a broken heart. Perhaps you have been hurting for a long time. Perhaps you just had a really bad day yesterday.

I walked into the kitchen sad.

“Hello my darling!”

She wrapped her words and her arms around me.

I cannot express how loved I felt at that moment. She was light and love. She is light and love.

On Friday, I was studying when she came to say goodbye. She looked so beautiful!

“Bye Gracie!! You look so beautiful!!”

She lit up like a Christmas tree.

I could have sworn she laughed and swayed all the way to the door.

It really is the little things.

Face #6: Kevin

A guy in my English class. Kind eyes framed by hipster spectacles. Button-up shirts and hair gel. A broad smile. Small build. Big personality. An even bigger heart.

We had been in the same classes for about two and a half years before we met at a mutual friend’s 21st birthday party. He was confidence, energy, openness. He came whirling into my atmosphere. The laughing face with the serious eyes. A complex paradox.

A former stranger became my friend over cups of conversation and coffee. His story explains his serious eyes. His attitude explains his smile. He has not had it easy.

But it is not my place to share his story.

I would like to share something he told me the other day.

“Instead of judging people, why don’t we try to understand them? There’s no room to love when you judge…You know, Kirst, that way, we can change the world for the better.”

I once had a headmaster, Mr Sabine, who used to sit with us and tell us stories when we were in grade one. I can only remember one of the stories and the end of the story went like this:

“When you give other people lots and lots of love, you just land up having so much more love to give. So, if we give love to other people, imagine how full of love the world will be!”

I remember that story every time I see Kevin.

Kevin is that story.

Face #5: Nelisa

A beautiful little darling I encountered on the streets of Pretoria. She is innocence. She is inquisitive brown eyes and rosebud lips. She is exquisite openness. She is plump cheeks and little reaching hands. She is wonder.

It was a warm breezy afternoon. Nelisa was sitting in her pram. She was observing the changing world buzzing around her. She was all eyes and gleeful abandon.

“Hello little one!”

She put out her hand. How could I not take it?

She wrapped all of her fingers around three of mine. She squeezed and giggled.

“You are too beautiful!”

Another squeeze.

I chatted to her mum while we held hands. She was watching me the entire time.

Analysing. No judgement. Just observation.

When it was time to go, she wouldn’t let go. Those sweet sticky fingers were stuck to mine.

As we get older, we rarely lift up downcast eyes to connect with another. We do anything to avoid that passing moment of decided vulnerability.

Not only little hands need to reach out.

Face #4: Joe

One of the security guards of the estate where I live. Tall and smiling. A round belly pushing at the buttons of his faded white shirt. Gleaming teeth contrasting with a smooth, coffee-coloured face. Warm eyes sparkling behind thick round glasses.

I arrived at our estate quite late one evening after a very long day. I was feeling down…listless and discouraged. I was playing loud upbeat music in my car in order to lift my mood. It was not working. The gate opened and I rolled my window down to greet Joe.

He was dancing! Jiggling! Jiving to the ridiculously loud music I was playing. There he was at 10pm on a Monday evening. The memory seems so surreal. The orange glow of the estate lights. The little bugs buzzing around the street lamps behind me. The joyful man enfolding me in his glee.

I sat there as the boom opened and closed in front me, staring and smiling at him. He said: “Ah, but this music is good! You always play such nice music and I always want to dance. So, tonight I am dancing!”

His eyes closed. He smiled and swayed.

The moment was so simple and so happy.

Life’s too short to not dance to the music.

Face #3: Ashley

A student who came running into my office once. I saw her again on Friday morning. Petite and powerful. Concerned, restless brown eyes with fairy eyelashes. Olive skin. A forehead all crinkled up with anxiety. Dark hair which is mahogany in the sunlight. Nervous. Vulnerable. Determined.

She hurried into my office on a quiet Thursday afternoon. She was a gust of energetic intensity waving papers and throwing questions into the air. I wondered when she was going to breathe. An anxious hour passed. And I am not even sure what questions I really answered. Every time I tried, her words were stumbling out of her mouth as she asked me a new question. Reflecting back on that moment, I think she probably just needed someone to reassure her that everything would be okay. I wish I had done that. I was too busy trying to make sure that I taught her all she needed to know. The sad part? She knew all of her work already. She left my office with a heavy backpack and an even heavier heart.

I saw her again on Friday morning. I was sitting on the steps outside our Humanities building when I saw her rushing towards me. She sat down right next to me and began unloading. I took her load away from her and put it on the steps next to me.

We put our arms around each other and remained still amidst the bustling throng filtering out of lecture halls.

Face #2: Hayati

An old craftsman I bumped into on Monday evening while I was having coffee with two dear friends.  As I sit at my computer, he illuminates my imagination the way short bursts of lightning illuminate muggy evenings. A shiny caramel complexion and short dark hair. A few strands of grey in his beard. A broad and toothy grin which makes him seem much younger than he is. Only one crooked tooth which proudly pushes in front of the rest. Smiling. Luminescent.

I was chatting to my friends about something or other and suddenly burst into song (as is my habit). Hayati was walking past our table, stopped and said: “Ah! Sing more! I want to hear!” I stopped singing and, smiling shyly, acted like a clown in shoes far too big for her feet. We saw Hayati a few more times that evening. He eventually sat down at the table next to ours and offered to buy us all drinks. We thanked him but said that we had had enough to drink. It’s sad to live in a world in which we might be thinking: “I better not accept that drink…You never know what a stranger wants.” I know I thought it.

Hayati suddenly looked incredibly sad. He looked at me and shook his head. He said: “I don’t know why people don’t want to connect with other people.” His hand dropped to his side. “I just want to be kind, to talk to you, to connect.” Lovely kind eyes were looking at me – looking through me.

We landed up chatting to him for the rest of the evening. He told us about his life, his experiences, and asked us about ours. He left Turkey in 1992 and immigrated to South Africa. He is a craftsman and started a small business which he has developed over the past 22 years. He works in Johannesburg. I can tell you his story, which was fascinating in itself, but what I really want to share with you are the gems that fell out of the pages.

I can still hear his delicious accent.

“Over the years, I have been lucky to do what I love to do. It’s because I made a decision.”

 “The thing is, we’re all given gifts. Depending on what you do with that gift, you become a hero or an asshole.”

“Life is too f**king short to not love people, to not connect with people.”

“I should have died 9 times by now. I think I must still have work to do.”

“Why is it all about the material, the material, the material? It does not matter what you have. They’re just things. People. People matter more.”

When it was time to leave, I turned to Hayati and gave him a hug. He was glowing. He had reached out. And someone had reached back.

Words seem inadequate when someone is unabashedly raw and unguarded, when someone shows you their indentations, their cracks, their beauty.

Today, I googled what ‘Hayati’ means in English.

‘Hayat’ means ‘life’.