In a small office set apart just far enough from the hum of his factory floor the man behind the desk revealed his memory to me.
In front of me was a small spring mechanism of some kind. I picked it up and let it roll through my fingers.
He reached forward offering me a cigarette. Then he remembered. I do not smoke.
“Let me tell you one thing life has taught me.”
I listened close and watched the smoke from his cigarette fill the room as he cleared the past.
“I have learned this through hard times and lots of questions.”
I listened even closer watching his face, his expressions. They were familiar; the way he took a deep breath when he was about to say something important and meaningful, I had seen it before.
I put the small spring mechanism down in front of me and looked at my hands. They were familiar too; I had seen them before from the back seat of a green Mercedes with the registration “CC 212” on its way to Mozambique in that time of revolution.
“One day I will teach you how to slide a car sideways to avoid an accident. It can be done at speed and you can use the handbrake to turn a car around in a hurry if you need to. I will teach all of this to you in time.”
My heart filled with excitement. I felt safe. Those hands of confidence steered masterfully along dirt roads close to the Indian Ocean where families of color escaped South Africa and went on vacation.
“But won’t it take a lot of practice and years before I can drive as well as you,” I asked.
“The more you drive the more you practice even when you not thinking about it. There are different kinds of driving practice though. I learned to drive sideways when I raced Alfas in Joburg before you were born.”
His hands looked different. Not familiar. He flicked his cigarette into a full ashtray and then looked up at the ceiling blowing out smoke from his lungs.
I waited for him to speak and fought off the urge to pick up the small spring mechanism again.
“You cannot go back to the past and you cannot live with the past in the present,” he said thoughtfully as he leaned back into his chair.
“But I understand him now. I did not before I saw where he lived, how he lived and for what reasons. And now I know why he left. He met something meaningful in his life and he decided to change,” he said.
“You won’t know why he left. I know. He was trapped. Like me. I know him because I made the same decision. I cut myself off from them. The way they interfere in your life and make trouble. The jealously and hatred is too much. I understand why he left.”
“So your life is a lot like his?” I asked piecing together decades of silence and not knowing.
“When he came to see me he was quiet. Reserved. Dignified. I thought it was great to know he was there in my house. He held my daughter’s hand and would not let go. She reminded him of something or someone.”
I picked up the small spring mechanism. I wondered how it fit into any one of those huge machines that hummed from the factory floor.
His voice became familiar and even comforting. He must know where this small spring mechanism fits I thought as he talked about accepting the past and moving on with what is important now.
“Before you called me it was just me. Me and my family. Of course I wondered about him and why he was not there in my special moments. But like I say I have come to understand why he left. I did the same thing. I am stubborn too. Like him. He left me a gene.”
I leaned back in my chair crossing my legs reminding myself to run again and to run long and hard to counter the gene that took him from me.
I unfurled my hands remembering how he counted on his fingers even when he was driving. He liked that I watched him count and often he did so just to see my face light up.
“I can teach you how to count and multiply on your fingers faster than you can on a calculator,” he once said to me.
I also remembered how he detested cigarette smoke and smokers who puffed through sentences.
“Your clothes stink of smoke. I hate it. The smell is there long after they are gone. It is a dirty habit.”
My lungs made way for him as he reached for yet another cigarette. My eyes were teary but not from the smoke.
I thought it would be Ok to let go and to cry but I did not. Instead I listened intently as he remembered to forget the pain of coming to terms.
I read the emotion on his face and saw the love and respect he had for a man he hardly knew.
“I understand him. He left me a gene. Come let’s go. I want to show you this machine that makes plastic bottles.”
I put the small spring mechanism back on the table thinking that it was OK not to know what it was. Perhaps some things in life are best left unknown I thought.
And perhaps some skills like sliding a car sideways or counting on your fingers faster than a calculator is best left in the masterful hands of a knowing father.
He rose from his chair and he looked familiar. His manner pressed me to remember to forget what is not mine to know or to master.
“He left me a gene,” he said again as if to remind himself.
“Yeah I know. He left me the same gene,” I said as this man, the son of the son of the soil - my brother who has his own mother - walked tall like our late father to his factory floor.