Rainhill Farm lies nestles at the foot of the Magaliesberg Mountains, just outside of Rustenburg, South Africa. The whitewashed, thatch-roofed farm buildings are laid out in the shadow of a precipice called Cathedral Rock, and gleam in the midday sun just as they have for nearly a century. The brilliantly purple Jacaranda trees decorate the dusty path with violet pools of fallen blossoms, but nothing else is blooming yet.
Not yet. But it's ready. You can feel it, you can almost smell it. Pregnant with promise, restlessly patient, the farm is just waiting for the first rain of the season.
At the dawn of the 20th century, a 19-year-old boy named Frank McGregor arrived in Johannesburg, where he joined his older brother Duncan. Fleeing from their tyrannical father, they had come to South Africa determined to make a new life for themselves. Years later, when they had the means, they sent for their mother Clara and sister Helen to join them.
Frank's dream had always been to be a farmer. And so in 1913 he paid a little over £2,000 for a venerable farmhouse surrounded by orchards and mountains, and he named it Rainhill. There he lived with his marvelous, formidable, exceptional wife Eleanor, and their sons Hugh and Maurice.
Maurice went on to be a brilliant cardiologist, Dean of Medicine at Montreal's prestigious McGill University, and (as of one month ago) an Officer in the Order of Canada. (In attaining this honor, Maurice finally caught up to his equally brilliant wife Margot, who had been named to the Order herself a few years ago for her own pioneering work in the field of respiratory medicine.)
Maurice and Margot have always been immensely important people to me. They had moved to Canada in the 1950s, so when my parents came to live in the United States in 1970, they were the only family that wasn't an ocean away. From the time I was a small child, I imprinted on them not as great-uncle and great-aunt, but as nothing less than my grandparents.
As for Maurice's older brother Hugh, my actual grandfather, I have only stories and photographs. I never had the chance to meet him. He died the year before I was born.
My father was born on January 8th, 1942, in a little mining town called Brakpan, South Africa. Not long afterward, his father and uncle went to Europe as soldiers (Hugh in the engineering corps, Maurice in the medical corps). And so my father went to live at Rainhill Farm with his mother and his grandparents. It was there he spent the first years of his life. He would spend the next three decades returning again and again – sometimes to live, sometimes just to visit. Rainhill was, for him, the happiest place in the world.
I grew up hearing stories about Rainhill Farm. It became part of the fuzzy landscape of my family history, a place I knew everything about... and yet knew nothing about. It was almost mythical to me, a place that I so firmly associated with my father's childhood that it didn't seem to exist in the real world anymore. And so somehow I never wondered what had become of it.
On January 2, 1975, less than a year after losing his oldest son Hugh (my grandfather), Frank McGregor lost his amazing wife Eleanor. Two years after that, he left this world as well, and Rainhill Farm went up for sale. It was purchased by a wonderful man named Henry Hartley, who promised my great-uncle Maurice that he would keep everything exactly as it was.
Henry kept his word. Today the gleaming farmhouses stand just as they did when my great-grandfather first built them. "The people may have changed," Henry says, "but the mountain and the farm will always be here."
Every morning at dawn, he and his luminous wife Berna each select a walking stick from a barrel by the door and head out to walk the grounds and hills of the farm. And the farm they see is, as Henry said, remarkably unchanged from the one that stood here 60 years ago, when my father was a boy. Or, for that matter, the one that stood here decades before that, when my grandfather would play in the orchards while his mother Eleanor supervised the production of "Helen McGregor's Famous Marmalade."
The old milking-house stands just where it always has – except that today it is a marvelously comfy pub. And the farm buildings where my father grew up, and where his father grew up before him – today, they are a bed and breakfast.
And so it was that on October 28, 2010, Jessica and I first walked along that dusty driveway dotted with purple piles of Jacaranda blossoms. A place that had previously only existed to me in stories and photographs lay before me, the mythical made real. As we walked along the path from the road to the farmhouses, I told Jessica that I felt as if I was walking into my father's memories.
The days we spent there were dizzyingly happy. It all looked just as I'd always imagined it, just as my father had always described it. Everything had a story for me, everything felt steeped in my family's history.
Here was the water tower my father had laid atop as a child, looking up into the starry night. Here was the whitewashed building where my great-uncle was born over 90 years ago. This was the dam that irrigated the farm, where they would swim on hot summer days. And this was the room where Frank would play the piano while his children and grandchildren sang together, with the fire crackling in that fireplace right there.
Just past the farmhouses and a little way up the hill, we found the grave of Clara McGregor, my great-great-grandmother. She passed away a decade after following her sons to South Africa, and today she lies in the quiet shade of a small clutch of trees.
As Henry said, the one thing that has changed at Rainhill Farm is the people. Today it is his family, the Hartleys, that lives in the shadow of Cathedral Rock. And they just could not be sweeter, more wonderful people.
The bed and breakfast is run by Henry's son Simon, and Simon's wife Adel. In the days that we spent there, Jessica and I felt completely welcomed into their family, completely at home. When we asked about extending our stay by a couple of extra nights, Adel didn't let the fact that Rainhill was fully-booked stop her – she offered us the use of her children's magnificent treehouse, and free run of their own home while we stayed there.
At night, snug in a comfy bed perched some twenty feet in the air, we listened happily to the sounds of Simon whistling to himself in his workshop below us. It was such a comforting sound, such a "dad-sound," and it reminded us both tremendously of our own fathers.
After my grandfather and my great-grandparents passed away, my great-uncle Maurice climbed to the top of the mountain behind the farm and erected memorials to them. Of the many things I wanted to see when we came to Rainhill, none compared to these. For reasons I can't explain, I had become completely obsessed with the idea that I needed to see these memorials with my own eyes, that it would be the closest I could ever come to meeting my great-grandparents. To meeting my grandfather.
And so it was that Jessica and I spent a total of eleven or twelve hours hiking in the Magaliesberg, searching for two small stone plaques. We had no map to guide us, and that high on the mountain there are no marked paths, so finding the memorials was no easy feat. Once, by pure chance, we happened to come within twenty feet of them before turning back. On that occasion, though, something happened.
We'd spent a long day climbing in the mountains, soaking in the incredible views and half-listening to the odd hooting noises down in the valley. (We wouldn't learn that those noises were troops of baboons until the next day.) Towards the end, I was becoming a little panicked, worrying that we'd never find the memorials that had become so important to me.
And then, suddenly, that didn't matter anymore. Standing atop a rocky precipice and looking down at Rainhill Farm – a place that was no longer just a myth to me – I suddenly understood. I wasn't going to meet Frank and Eleanor and Hugh at their memorials. I had already met them. They were everywhere in Rainhill, and they always would be.
I know it might sound silly, that it might sound trite. But at that moment, standing on top of a mountain and sweating under the African sun, it was a revelation to me. Jessica felt it too, felt it first in fact. She squeezed my hand and murmured, "It feels like they're so close to us right now." My obsession evaporated in an instant. Finding the memorials wasn't so important anymore. I had come to South Africa to find my family, to find my roots. And in that moment, however odd it may sound to say, I met my grandfather for the first time.
The next day, we told the Hartleys about our adventure in the mountains. When we described where we had been standing, they told us that we needed to return to exactly the same spot, and then go less than a dozen yards further on.
A day after that, we did so. And so it was that we at last found the memorial stones.
And looking out over what a wise man once called "a view that goes on forever," I touched the engraved words with trembling hands. And again I felt that same warm feeling, that closeness.
And it never went away. Today, sitting here three months later and half a world away, I can feel it still.
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