The Life Righting Collective runs courses to encourage self-exploration through life writing, raises funds for course fees and brings people together to share their stories and grow community.


Shannon Els
Published date:

My grandmother’s daily task of deciding what to cook drew heavy sighs and a shaking of her head. She would extract money from her slim purse and instruct me to buy R1’s worth of short rib or pork shank, maybe some cabbage or carrots, depending on what she already had in the pantry.

At nine years old, I vowed that one day I would give my grandmother lots of money to buy the Eisbein she loved, and also some fried fish, and the hamburgers which my uncle Joey brought from the drive-in every fortnight. She ate those with such enjoyment, because, she explained, she didn’t have to cook it herself. But until I was old enough to give her what she wanted, I demanded my 5 cents for a bag of crisps. It was my reward for going to the shops so she wouldn’t have to leave the house.

One of the highlights was when my grandmother dished up at supper time. Sometimes she would ladle her chicken curry on mealie-rice, alongside sweet pumpkin. Other times, when the beef stew bolstered with Bisto and onion was done, she would place a flour mixture on top, so that when she served, the dumplings were still fluffy and light. On cooler days, she would make roosterkoek directly on the plates of the coal stove and I would slather mine in apricot jam. The fragrant stews or curries were served on mismatched plates and in bowls which were often chipped. Disparate knives, spoons and forks laid next to the plates. Sometimes there were stubborn chicken curry and beetroot stains on the tablecloth which resisted my grandmother’s scrubbing. In places the fabric was threadbare but it was always clean and freshly ironed. The cracked linoleum that covered the squeaky wooden floor, the mint green dresser and the eclectic collection of chairs around the kitchen table, the coal stove and the pot plant on the windowsill formed the backdrop against which we played out our daily lives.

On crisp winter mornings, the fumes from my grandfather’s El Camino would drift through the kitchen door while he sipped his tea, waiting for the engine to warm. Cubes of butter were plopped into steaming oatmeal before it was doused with milk and then encrusted with sugar. I would shuffle sleepily into the kitchen, the childlike wonder and excitement of early morning unfurling in my belly. The hushed way in which my grandparents moved and talked felt like I was being let in on the magical things they had been up to while the rest of the household slumbered. My grandmother would look up from putting my grandfather’s six sandwiches, wrapped in wax wrap, into his little suitcase, next to his bottle of tea. Her eyes would soften as she greeted me. My grandfather would say, “Good morning, Ouvrou, (old woman) are you up already?”. Through drowsy eyes. I would take them in: my ’dad’ in his blue overalls and frowning work shoes and my short, stout little ’mom’ in her worn gown and slippers.

After dinner, the kitchen would possess a languid air. My Aunt Muriel and her husband necked in front of the coal stove and later I would hear their bed springs squeak. Aunt Muriel was the second youngest of my grandmother’s children and only thirteen years older than me. She was one of my misery-makers. At eight months old, she had a lack of oxygen to the brain which left her with a vicious temper and an insatiable need for stimulation; sexual and otherwise. Muriel was a drama-generator. She merely had to enter a room for everyone to know that trouble was smirking in the corner, waiting to join forces with Muriel.

Whenever Muriel was slicing bread, someone would be forced to take their health into their own hands and say, “Muriel, don’t cut the bread so thick.” Muriel would ignore them because she liked ’doorsteps’, upon which she piled her hot chips. The bottom part of her face would be happily chomping away, while two hostile eyes in the top part would be trained on anyone approaching her for a chip or two.

The kitchen was the room in which most criticisms and insults were launched. Sometimes the angry invectives would hang in the air for days until a remorseful glance or a peace offering, such as a cup of tea, would vanquish them from the atmosphere, but not from the bitter hearts which coddled them.

On Fridays my grandmother didn’t have to fuss about what to cook. The standard fare was fried liver and onions. I hated liver and waited till my grandfather popped my 50 cents pocket money into my hand from his weekly pay packet. I would fly down the footpath across the veldt, my bare feet hardly touching ground, and return with my two favourite things: a Russian sausage and a black and white picture book. The vinegar would be dripping out of the corner of the small paper bag. I would break the tight skin with my teeth, the flavour bursting into my mouth. Afterward, I would hop onto my single bed, which stood adjacent to my grandparent’s double one and lose myself in the adventures of my heroes.

At about eight o’ clock, I would be summoned to the kitchen to tell my most recent jokes or recite Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd…..”. I loved the attention as much as Muriel did it seemed and I didn’t mind that it was coming from a bunch of grey-haired drunk folk. My grandfather held me in the circle of his arm and proudly looked on, mouthing the words with me in silent encouragement.

Some Saturday mornings, at 2am, as I would lay in shallow sleep, my grandmother’s head would be slumping close to the overflowing ashtray, her index and middle fingers stained with nicotine. Her hair, which she had purple rinsed and set the day before, would hang limply in her eyes, heavy breasts resting on the kitchen table. Her words would blend and sway, revealing the resentment and self-pity growing beneath her skin. My grandfather, trying to sleep off the Klipdrift would stomp down the passage in his y-fronts and vest. She had scoffed at his numerous invitations to come to bed one time too many. As the first slap landed, she would scream for me. My grandfather would stop hitting her if I entered the room and my presence would prevent him from dragging her to the bedroom.

At about eight the next morning, my gran would shuffle into the kitchen in her faded housedress and slippers, holding her empty water glass and the ashtray from next to her bed, in her hands. Sometimes her eye would be black or she would cradle an injured shoulder or hip. The misery of the kitchen’s occupants was absorbed in its cold white walls and an abandoned feeling prevailed. The linoleum would be sticky from spilt alcohol, a sour smell emanating from it along with the bitter odour of stale smoke. The silence was interrupted only by my grandmother’s sighs and sometimes a sharp intake of breath as she leaned dutifully forward and poked at the coals to start the fire. Next would be the splish-splash of water from the bathroom, indicating that my grandfather was going through his morning routine of washing his face and rinsing his glass eye before replacing it along with his heavy black framed glasses. I sneered at my grandmother and would carry out any instructions reluctantly. I hated the martyrdom which she wore like a crown. I wanted to rip it off her head and scream, “It’s your own fault, you don’t know when to shut up”.

My grandfather would stride briskly into the kitchen. Silver hair, Bryl-creamed, and with fresh short pants and mid-calf socks, he would say he is going to buy spark plugs (which meant I couldn’t go with) and ask my gran if she needed anything from the shop. She’d say he needed to bring milk, and that she didn’t know what he wanted for supper. Translated that meant she didn’t know what he wanted to drink later, because though her dignity lay in tatters and her aching body housed a broken heart, she knew the only escape from her life would be through drinking with her intimate enemy again that night.

My grandfather would return with a loaf of bread and some steak wrapped in brown paper from the butcher, along with the rest of the supplies. Just to let him know I was onto him, I would ask innocently where the spark plugs were. He would smile and say I was “too big for my boots”; a sentiment which every adult in my environment would echo at intervals throughout my childhood. He would clunk the pan down on the stove, drizzle some oil and drop the steak in. While it was sizzling, he would place the warm bread on the breadboard and cut thick slices whilst the doughy insides collapsed under the gentle pressure of his hand. The delicious, reassuring smells of yeast and frying meat would fill the air and the kitchen wouldn’t be such a sad room anymore. I would salivate as our eyes met and he smiled, knowing I was going to want the crust. When the meat was ready he would pour some of the oil and burnt bits of fat on top of the steak along with some Worcestershire sauce. Then he and I would dunk bits of bread in the oil from the plate we shared and he would cut off small pieces of steak for me.

Many Sunday nights, I would hover around the kitchen as my uncle Joey made toasted ham and cheese sandwiches for Marvin, hoping for a portion to land up in my lunch box, it was a far cry from peanut butter and Marmite. Marvin, whose ferocious appetite for anything he could smoke, eat, drink, or screw, could never be satiated anyway. Unlucky for me, Joey didn’t have to pack lunch too often, because Marvin seldom had a job to go to. But Joey would find other things for Marvin to do, other things to buy for him, other ways to try and secure the acceptance, love and faithfulness which never came.

God decided to bless my grandparent’s union with six children. In my opinion, they were supposed to all be girls, but in order to liven things up a bit, He gave Joey a penis, along with the wrong balance of hormones. To boot, God launched Joey onto the planet during a time when he could be jailed for wanting to be a girl, so Joey’s journey was littered with drama, intensity and huge amounts of effort to hide his true feelings from himself and others. He was also appointed as one of my safe-keepers.

On school days, God would sometimes schedule me in and approve my request of “please don’t let her be drunk, please don’t let her be drunk” as I walked home. On those days, my grandmother and I would sit in quiet companionship as I did my homework and she peeled potatoes. A wire hanger served as an aerial so that we could listen to Esme Everard who shared household tips and recipes on Springbok Radio. Grumbling, the boiling rice would send plumes of steam into the air. Every now and then, the drone of a lonely aircraft from the nearby air-force base would cleave the clear blue skies, reminding us of what tiny little blips we were on the vast radar of forever. Sometimes, as I walked by myself across the veldt, with those endless, open skies above me and not a soul around, I felt so insignificant that I wondered if I existed at all.

We populated many different kitchens for the first eleven years of my life. My grandfather, whose restlessness could be detected in the way that he would bite down on his molars so that his jaw muscles were constantly moving, took us wherever there was work, or that was the story anyway. Perhaps he was seeking geographical cures but answers to what ailed him could not be found in a different province. The teetotaller he had married in his double-breasted suit, his hair smartly slicked back, his heart alive with hope and intention, was so unhappy that she drank secretly and the guilt he carried because he thought he was responsible, fuelled the tension he tried so desperately to outrun.

The Life Righting Collective runs courses to encourage self-exploration through life writing, raises funds for course fees and brings people together to share their stories and grow community.
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