Poppy Day remembrance

All over the world Remembrance Day was commemorated on November 11. Lest we forget the horrors of the world a war.

As November rolls around, I remember a special woman. Feisty, fearless and a force to be reckoned with. Corrie van Rhyn was her name. In my younger days she was a legend in our community.

She was nurse during WWII, served in Egypt and Italy as part of the war effort. She came back after the war and continued her nursing career.

I met her in the 1990’s at the local cancer society where I was appointed manager.

The strict big-bosomed widow served on the volunteer committee. When she started crunching her dentures, trouble was brewing. But for all her harshness, there was a philanthropic heart hidden deep inside. She worked tirelessly to support every project to raise funds and awareness for our cause. She was active with the St John’s Ambulance service and upon retirement was working at the local air force base. Story was, they had to close down the base to make her retire!

She would walk into my office when I was down, and command me not to give up, never.

Every year in early October, all of us were roped in to make crepe paper poppies for Remembrance Day. She lived in the MOTH flats. MOTH stands for the Memorable Order of the Tin Hats. Hats worn by soldiers in the World Wars.

I parted way with the cancer society at the end of 1999. I heard from Tannie Corrie from time to time. Mostly admonishing me for leaving.

In 2005 I received a call. Tannie Corrie was very ill, and was a patient in the very facility she worked so hard to raise funds for. I went to visit one afternoon. Strange walking into a place where so much of your blood, sweat and tears was put into. As I turned the corner into her room, a face from way back, 1977 to be exact, jumped at me.

Coming from the bathroom, was my senior at university. We forgot where we were in that moment. Of all places to see each other after all these years. Tannie Corrie was awakened by our loud yelps of utter joy. Grumpy she asked what we were on about.

“It’s Wenda,” I stuttered.

“It’s Erna,” Wenda said.

“So, what. People are here for peace and quiet,” says our favourite grumpy person.

What a joyous serendipitous moment. There I was in 1977, and Tannie Corrie was already casting her influence on my life. Wenda was her beloved niece. Wenda, my senior.

I had many precious experiences with Tannie Corrie. Three highlights stand out.

In my early days as professional beggar for charity, she accompanied me to many teas. One day, we were invited by the Pietersburg Ladies Club. The club, a bastion of the stiff-upper lipped of our community. So here Afrikaans speaking us walk into the tea and cucumber sandwich do. Ladies in hats and thin red lips. I do my very best to promote our cause, get smiles and tears, as that is what I am good at. After formalities, we sit and chit chat.

Two ladies at our table, not particularly impressed with the two Boertjies in their midst, where going on about their latest European tour. I glance to Tannie Corrie, and she is rolling those dentures. Trouble. She clatters down her cup and saucer, and leans in towards the two women. “My dears, it all good an well to go overseas, but tell me, have you ever been to Pofadder,” she quipped. Oh my word, I had to excuse myself quickly. The astounded looks and silence was priceless. Tannie Corrie did not suffer fools lightly.

Another fond memory was a fundraiser for our charity organised by our local radio station, RMFM. A train more than one kilometer long started off in Pretoria and stopped in the major Northern Transvaal towns all the way north. We boarded in Pietersburg. Next stop Louis Trichardt then Beit Bridge. We were going to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

There were more than 900 people on board. One restaurant to serve us all. Needless to say, we survived on beer, whiskey and biltong for three days. Now Tannie Corrie and our chairman at the time, Bain Lavers, were berthed in the first cars. My husband and I right at the back. It was chaos when Tannie Corrie, her knitting bag with her whiskey and wool, ample bosom had to make her way to us. The four of us played cards, laughed and watched the countryside shift by. Oh,what memories. When we arrived at Victoria Falls our adventures did not stop. A sunset cruise with elephants and hippos all around us, it was magical.

Later I nominated Tannie Corrie for the Cancer Association of South Africa’s prestigious Mariette Loots Award, which was duly awarded.

Fond memories of this formidable woman.

Back to her last days. We spent hours with her at her bedside. One morning she asks me to get the poppies. Where are they. In the cupboard. I find her sewing bag, blue file and rolls of mainly red crepe paper. We must make poppies, time is running out.

We had to say goodbye a few days later. Poppy day months away. I could not leave her final project undone. So we soldiered on like she taught us. Tearful but determined.

We made and sold 2000 poppies on 11 November 2005. For Tannie Corrie and the brave people like her.

I still have her blue folder, notes and patterns for the crepe poppies. Cannot for the life of me cast it aside. A piece of her always with me. A fingerprint indelibly printed on my heart.

Her belongings were packed, and Wenda had what she wanted shipped off to Cape Town. A rocking chair and some other pieces of furniture remained. I asked what was to become of it. It was to be sold. There and then I made an offer. Today, it has pride of place in a corner of my house. I often see her sitting there. My favourite grumpy person of all time!

I am blessed to have had someone like her to walk the walk before me! Blessed by her example.

Tannie Corrie, I salute you. Your folder is in my memory box. Your ashes, at your beloved MOTH memorial. It was a sunny day! Love always.

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