Chairman Mao might have been aiming these words directly at a local son of the soil who has devoted his entire adult life to the creation of beautiful gardens. His name is Graham (Charlie) Felix. For almost 30 years he has been the Head Gardener at the Fynbos Park Retirement Village in Hermanus, bringing peace and joy to the hearts of generations of elderly residents, while his wife Veronica has tended to their physical needs for the past 18 years as a cleaner.
In his family’s small house in Grassy Park when he was growing up, there was no space for flowers, but when his brother-in-law got him a job at a nursery in Diep River, it was love at first sight for Charlie. In the 11 years he worked there, he learnt every plant’s common name – in English and Afrikaans – as well as its botanical name. He learnt how to care for them and how to eliminate pests, and he learnt about pruning and propagating and landscaping. But happy as he was to have his hands in the soil from morning to night and to see his flowers bloom, he and Veronica were worried. The Cape Flats were not a safe place to bring up their six children.
Family members persuaded them to move to Hawston and the die was cast. Shortly after arriving, Charlie heard of a vacancy for a Hermanusat the newly-built Fynbos Park. When he arrived for the interview, references in hand, he found he was last in the line of applicants. “When I saw them going in one after the other, I got very worried,” he recounts, “but I decided, no, I’m going to wait my turn and see the man.”
After reading his references, the interviewer smiled and said, “Ja-nee, you look like the guy we’re going to need, but how do you get on with older people? What if they want to interfere with your work?” Charlie assured him that he had no problem with older people and he would demonstrate his loyalty. The job was his; it was 1994.
“When I started here,” he continues, “all there was, was rocks. They had to be blasted out of the ground and there was only one small single-storey building. I began this garden from nothing. The trees you see here now, I planted them; they were just little sticks, and look at them now.” For two years he laboured in the garden alone, laying it out from scratch. And as the buildings in the retirement centre grew in number, so did Charlie’s gardens. There was simply no stopping him. And each separate nook and courtyard garden he created had its own unique character and arrangement of plants.
“Oh, I loved it,” he says with a faraway look in his eyes. “I knew every plant; it was like living between heaven and earth. I gave them compost, super phosphate, lots of water, and they grew. When I went home in the evening with dirt on my hands, I knew I had done a good job that day.” One handlanger followed another as the gardens grew too big for one person to handle, but Charlie wasn’t happy with any of them (“They just weren’t willing to work – they were lazy!” he snorts). But in 2008 Dennis Ndinisa arrived and they hit it off from the start.
“Charlie taught me everything I know about gardening and I am still learning from him,” he says with his big sunny smile. “But Charlie will always be boss – you can’t buy his experience. So why be jealous of him? You can learn more if you are friends.” And after 12 years of working side by side, that’s what they clearly are.
In the meantime, with the children no longer needing her full attention, Veronica was appointed as a cleaner at Fynbospark and is still the only one there full-time; all the others are contract workers. “Ja, I’ve seen many passing through and also dying here,” she sighs. “I’ve had some favourites, but all of them are my people. After I’ve been away on leave, they’re all asking, ‘Where’s Veronica?’”
Charlie has a special story to tell about one of the residents, Mr R, a man who never had a good word to say to him; who, indeed, was downright abusive. As he tells the story, tears well up in his eyes. One day, he says, one of the staff members came to call him with a message that Mr R wanted to see him urgently. “I said I wasn’t going; someone else could go,” he takes up the story. “I was sick of his rudeness and preferred to stay out of his way.” However, the messenger reported that the old man was insistent that he see nobody but Charlie.
“So in the end I went,” he says. “When I arrived at this flat, I found him leaning against the sliding door. He stuck out his arm and asked if I was prepared to shake his hand and forgive him for how badly he had treated me. ‘It’s not for me to judge,’ I said and shook his hand. With tears rolling down his cheeks, he said, ‘Thank you, my son’, and closed the door. The following day he was dead.”
Veronica says she is looking forward to retiring, so that she can devote more time to their eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, but Charlie has no desire to give up his work while he still has the strength to carry on. “My work is my life,” he says. “I even dream about it at night. But when I do leave, I want to be able to pat myself on my shoulder and say I have done a good job.”
Phillip du Plessis is a resident and the Trustee in charge of the grounds. He says they are so proud of the prize-winning gardens Charlie has created that they have a special budget for their upkeep. “No one tells Charlie what to do in the garden, though; he tells us what he needs and we get it for him. Some of the residents who have themselves been keen gardeners enjoy pottering around here, too,” he adds, “but all under Charlie’s supervision. It’s spring now and just look at the mass of colour everywhere, but no matter what the season, the gardens are always a sight to gladden the heart.”
Charlie is already hard at work planning his next project which is to plant more fynbos, in line with the name of the centre. It is clear that more than anyone else, he epitomises the sentiment of Thomas Jefferson: ‘Those who labour in the earth, are the chosen people of God.’