The Woman who made me Fall in Love with Afrikaans Words only to Realise that she was Actually Writing in English and was an American

Helen

I remember my pre-school growing up years in two phases – a phase where we lived on two farms, although I actually only remember the second farm. Of the first I only have two memories – one where I received my soft toy monkey and namesake, Fielies, as a Christmas gift around my third birthday (yes, I actually remember getting the present and opening it) and the other where my sister, twelve years older than me, ignored my mother’s instructions and gave me Coke-Cola in a baby bottle, even though I wasn’t supposed to having Coke or be drinking bottle anymore.

Of the second farm I have many happy memories, much of them involving my brother, father and grandfather.

The second phase was living in the neighbouring town. Here my memories contain mostly our house, my brother who was nine years older than me and in high school in the next town during the week – and my grandfather’s shop. (See my blog entry for more on this at https://fieliesdekock.com/2013/04/02/my-grandfathers-shop/).

My grandfather sold stationary, fireworks and also gifts and gift cards in his shop. My grandfather and grandmother taught me to read and write numbers and I helped them put handwritten prices on the products in the shop. This made me feel very smart. But what didn’t make me feel smart was that although I could write numbers, I couldn’t read letters. The gift card display cupboard filled with Helen Steiner Rice cards made me realised that. The cards were different than the other cards in the sense that they didn’t only have words inside the cards, but also on the outsides.

I was fascinated by these little symbols that, when put together with other sets of letter combinations, formed words. I was even more amazed by the fact that so many different words could be formed by using those letters. And with that, if you know how, one could make sentences using all kinds of different words. And these sentences became the keys to creating other worlds. Worlds full of stories.

To overcome my frustration I sometimes asked my grandmother or grandfather to read me some of the cards instead of a storybook. I didn’t understand much, because the words confronted emotions and life experience I could yet identify with. But what I did get, was the wonderful rhythm of the rhyme that made those words sound as beautiful as a symphony in my ears. I could just listen and listen. As soon as I learned to read in school, I used Helen’s cards to practice my reading.

Then one day a new order from the big city arrived which got mixed up somewhere and the shop got someone else’s order and to my shock and wonder I found out that Helen was speaking English too! I could now practice my English reading too. It paid its dividends, because my English spelling became very good and my vocabulary grew beyond my second language reading book’s arsenal. I won’t comment on my speaking ability though because in our town no one spoke English. There were Afrikaans, Tswana, Portuguese and Lebanese people living there, but somehow no one spoke English!

Only many years later I learned to my surprise that Helen Steiner Rice (I thought the name was a bit foreign) wasn’t a nice Afrikaans speaking boere antie (boer aunty), but actually a very nice American woman who started writing greeting cards when she took over a greeting card company and she realised the need for cards with feel good messages.

Although Helen was dubbed ‘Ambassador of Sunshine’ at the Gibson Art Company in Cincinnati, she didn’t only know the sunny side of life. Her father died when she was young and instead of pursuing her dreams, she helped her family survive. She married a young business man who lost everything in the 1929 New York stock market crash and was left widowed at age 32 after he took his own life due to depression related illness. But she became a successful business woman and ran the greeting card company for forty years, while keep writing her beautiful poems and unknowingly taught a little Afrikaans girl how to read, first in Afrikaans and then in English. And then to write. First in Afrikaans and then in English.

Thank you, Mrs. Helen Steiner Rice, for unlocking the world of words for me.

HSR 10 Commandments

PS: You can read her story on a website dedicated to her at http://www.helensteinerrice.com/hsrinfo.html.

PPS: I found out today that either Google doesn’t know everything or that I don’t know how to get the information I need out of Google. I tried to find out who was responsible for the translation of Helen’s poems into Afrikaans, but I couldn’t. I also tried to find out into how many languages her work is translated into. I’m still searching. If you have more information on this, please comment.

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© 2016  – I, Fielies (Riëtte) De Kock tries hard to be a Proverbs 31-woman – excellentest wife, finest mom, greatest lover and successful ‘wordpreneur’ all at the same time. I share my current living space in Cairo, Egypt with my husband, young-adult son, the building’s ginger cat – and the space in my head with way too many ideas and multitudes of story characters to function as a normal human being.

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