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.

That was the name given to her by Joanne, our youngest sister, who surely resented her the most. She might have been Mildred or something, and her surname is lost to me, but we knew her as Aunt Millie, and somehow she managed to waddle around on a pair of grossly saturated legs, rather like sandbags, and which defied any laws of physics. She wasn’t really our aunt, but had been a kind neighbour in Kroonstad when our father was growing up, especially when he hid on the roof to avoid the wrath of his own irascible father. Being childless herself, she often gave him a refuge, plus sweet tea and biscuits.

In 1963, we had recently moved into 909 Church Street – a large double-storey house in Arcadia, Pretoria – and were relishing a new sense of space, when this portly stranger suddenly came to live with us along with some heavy furniture, crockery and a budgie. This meant that we four sisters had to squash into one room again, as the idea was that Auntie Millie’s railway widow’s pension would help to pay our rent at a difficult time. She also gave Daddy a lathe and workshop tools that belonged to her late husband, Harold, who had been a train driver. It wasn’t long before Dad had sold all the tools to a neighbour for some cash. I don’t know if Aunt Millie ever knew about this betrayal; but on the other hand, our mother gave her a warm home for the last years of her life, and kindness and respect.

Millie’s main pleasures were a daily box of Peter Stuyvesant, a glass of sweet sherry in the evenings, and letters from her relatives. She had to wait a whole day to do the crossword in Daddy’s Rand Daily Mail and Evening Star, as he needed time to finish the horse racing columns and plan his spread for Tattersalls. Being a railway widow, Millie was entitled to a free pass once a year so she always used it to visit the relatives who had never offered her a home as we did. But apart from that, her Saturday treat was to don a hat and gloves, catch the bus down Church Street and have cream tea with scones at Garlicks in central Pretoria. I don’t think Millie had friends in Pretoria but that didn’t make any difference to her weekly outings. And now I ask myself – how ever did she heave herself on and off that bus, never mind the steep steps to get up onto to railway coach for her annual train ride? It must have been a sore trial to her that we lived in a double-storey house. We all heard those slow gasps as she negotiated one step at a time, going up or down.

Aunt Millie soon adapted to us, her ’new family’, although it was not so easy for us to accept her old lady ways, especially as she sent us hither and thither to fetch pills, cigarettes, crochet work or crosswords which were always in another room. Joanne had the worst time of it and was not allowed to be cheeky. It was painful to watch Aunt Millie heave her waterlogged weight out of a chair, onto those misshapen tree stump legs. She also doused herself generously in a cloud of cloying lilac perfume. Wheezing or coughing, she left a trail of sweet-stale air and cohorts of upended stompies in ashtrays around the house – especially on the glass shelf above the bathroom basin. “Damn drowned submarines,” muttered our father.

But one afternoon, she must have been dozing while an unextinguished stompie next to her bed smouldered silently. It stood upright on the chest of drawers pushed hard against her bed, dropping hot ash onto her crocheted pillow case. Then it slowly burnt an acrid hole through the feathers and smouldered deep into the mattress. Even a corner of the bed base and the wooden headboard began to char and smoke.

A foul cloud suddenly billowed out of her upstairs window, and we heard her shouting. Rushing into Aunt Millie’s room, we saw the bed was on fire so, with one mind, my sister and I shoved the glowing mattress out of the window. We dragged it on to the grass and sprayed it with the garden hose, but the foul rubbery smoke spewed out unabated. So, we phoned the Hatfield Fire Brigade – merely to ask for advice as how to douse the stinky embers ̶ but they said they would send someone. They didn’t say they would send a monstrous brigade with flashing lights and siren jangling all the way up Church Street and into our modest driveway. Within minutes, a whole team of fire fighters in shiny black uniforms and hats were aiming heavy duty hoses at a ludicrous single mattress on the grass. We teenagers cringed in embarrassment as curious neighbours and passers-by gathered on the pavement to stare at the sight, and at us. It was all over when Daddy came home. One of his obsessions was extreme safety consciousness, and he fulminated if wall sockets were switched on when not in use. I can’t remember how he reacted but I imagine he must have been incandescent with fury that she had almost burnt our house down. And Millie would have been overcome with tears, distress and abject apologies. I have no idea how she slept that night on a blackened bed. We must have found an old spare mattress in the garage, so life went on. There were fewer flotillas of submarines for a while.

Like us, Millie was confused by Daddy’s rages, and she learned to keep well out of his way. But she became very fond of our mother who valued the extra household income and an adult presence for us children while she was at work. Aunt Millie didn’t endear herself to us, as she would reprimand or boss us, Joanne in particular. “Ag fie,” Mom would say when we grumbled about heavy-winded old Fat Legs, who competed with us for our mother’s attention at the end of a long day. I suppose the poor old woman had some charm, because, by Jove, she always responded warmly if one bothered to crack a joke or chatted with her. On the day of my matric dance, she gave me a tip to soften my hands by rubbing them with a spoon of sugar and cooking oil and then washing with soap. I haven’t done it for years, but it worked the other day after a muddy session in the garden.

Millie also had a litany of repetitive stories from her Kroonstad days – or Croonstard as she called it, trying to make dressing up for the Sunday evening promenade past the shops sound more like Paris than a boring dorp in the Free State. ‘Poor old sausage,’ Mom would say. ‘She means well.” And she reminded us how kind Millie had been to our father – as if that made it any better. For her part, Millie sometimes made us supper – her signature dish was ’hedgehogs’ or pale frikkadels wrapped and stewed in cabbage leaves, which we ate without relish. Cabbage poultices were part of her arsenal to treat those vast appendages that hardly looked like legs at all. Gargantuan old lady stockings and damp bandages dangled from a coat hanger at the bathroom window, and were also used to wrap pawpaw skins over suppurating ulcers. We children were not the most compassionate creatures, and spoke rudely behind her back, mocking her stock phrases,” My word! “and “By Jove!”

After her husband Harold’s death, the love of Millie’s life was a little blue budgie called Winkie. “Kiss me, kiss me,” she would croon as he sat on her shoulder, and he would dance from side to side, or nuzzle her ear. “Pretty boy, pretty boy,” he chirped repetitively for hours. I think a cat got him at some point and she was bereft, keeping the empty cage on a stand in her room.

Millie was away on one of her holidays when I was writing Matric, so I had the idea to camp in her room. It was musty and redolent of stale tobacco, but it gave me the quiet and privacy for last minute cramming late at night and again before dawn, without disturbing my sisters in our ’dormitory’. Somehow, I got used to the old lady smell and I slept in Millie’s charred bed until she returned. I regret to say that I also scratched through her chest of drawers looking for mottled chocolates or furry peppermints to keep me awake. Leaning against her blackened headboard gave me a different perspective on her life, and how she came to be part of our lives, and helped our parents to pay the rent.

Millie moved house with us from Arcadia to a plot at Mooiplaas, and then to Swartkoppies, and Mom made sure she always had a sunny room. Mom was as good as her word. She took care of Millie to the end, through all the chaotic years that she lived with our family. Meanwhile, I fled to Wits University and never gave her another thought. In one of my rare phone calls home, I heard that Millie was in hospital with bronchial pneumonia – or perhaps it was heart disease. The details are missing from my consciousness, as was my presence at her funeral. When I came home for the holidays, Joanne had appropriated Millie’s room and it was different. Life went on, and one by one, we all left home, taking bits and pieces with us, items that were useful, or which we were attached to.

Recently I was looking at the heavy chest of drawers that I appropriated when Arno and I set up home together, and I suddenly recalled that it used to belong to Aunt Millie. I could picture it in her room, housing her embroidered blouses, shawls, petticoats, corsets, stockings and stale peppermints, from when I had holed up for the duration of my Matric exams. That chest of drawers has been part of my own household for fifty years, and I seldom give a thought to poor old Fat Legs.

“Ag fie,” as Mom would say.


I should know by now that some of my dreams have been deeply significant in my life, but mostly I don’t even remember them, or forget to record even the really vivid ones. Listening to other people’s dreams can be extremely boring – yet for myself I cannot deny certain messages that have arrived from my subconscious. When a dream comes along which makes my hair stand on end, then I need to pay careful attention.

In 1975 my husband at the time was doing his national service in the navy. We lived in Glencairn and I had a five year old child and a four month pregnancy which was not going well – I had ongoing nausea and pain which were warning signals in themselves.  Then I had a dream that I parked an old-fashioned baby buggy along the coastal road near Fish Hoek, and when I returned a pink parking ticket was flapping on the cover of the pram – it simply said ’meter expired’. That was enough.

The next day, a check up at the naval clinic in Simonstown revealed that the foetus had died inside me. It was supposed to come away within two weeks, but in the end I had surgery for a so-called ’missed abortion’. This took place at the Old Military hospital in Wynberg, which consisted of a jumbled series of prefabs On discharge, I couldn’t help reading my name on a pathology jar. The label said:  ’products of conception – suspected molar pregnancy’. It looked more like a bunch of purple grapes than a human embryo. How could I be surprised when my subconscious had prepared me for this event?

A few other memorable dreams beckon like beacons in the dark. Whenever I have felt sad or sorry for myself, I could always go back in my heart to savour a halcyon moment from a dream that came unbidden one night: I was floating high in the air like a Chagall figure in the sky, and there were angel figures floating around me who held me aloft, gently supporting me, and the abiding feeling was of warmth and total love – more than that – I knew that these beings actually loved ME. This memory was a precious gift and it has carried me through some lonely places.

Two years ago I took myself off to the Franschhoek Literary Festival and was proud of not talking myself out of it yet again.  I don’t like crowds of strangers, and I was nearly defeated by the complex on-line booking system which somehow cancelled my choices as fast as I made them. But I succeeded, and found a friend to share a slightly seedy backpacker room, and I loved every talk I had signed up for, and felt immensely fulfilled and stimulated. Coming home to a warm fire and a loving spouse who really missed me, was confirmation that all the plans I had resisted had worked out well.

But my dream that night brought such a wave of shock and sadness that I was wide awake for hours, wrestling with the appalling significance.  The next morning I related it to Ugo as soon as he stirred,  so that he knew what I might have to confront.  In my dream I had received a message that it was my time to die – I had three days, I had to do the work myself, and I had to take a certain medication that would be prepared for me. I was shattered that I had no choice, and I would not see my grandchildren grow up. It affected me profoundly. I know these things are not literal – the language of dreams is deeply symbolic.  I had to find the meaning, and whatever it was, it would not be pleasant.

The following night I hit my head really badly. I remember feeling slightly nauseous and getting up to go to the loo in the dark, and that was the last thing I was aware of.

Next moment I found my cheek was cold and clammy, and I couldn’t find my pillow. It was dark and somehow my face was squashed against the chilly, unforgiving, greeny-blue ceramic tile of the bathroom floor. I had no idea how I had got there, nor how long I had been lying there. I dragged myself upright and then I remembered I had gone to the bathroom to fetch a Rennie because of feeling a bit nauseous. A small bathroom is a dangerous place to come crashing down between treacherous porcelain impediments. Miraculously hadn’t hit my nose, eyes or teeth against any of these.

Only when I staggered back to bed and woke Ugo did we realise what had happened – that I had fainted, and a massive egg was puffing up on my forehead.  I needed a bag of frozen peas to calm the throbbing pain – and Arnica, and Rescue Remedy. Then I yelled out for a bucket – quickly please!

All of that Monday we swapped bags of frozen vegetables on my forehead, and I resolutely refused to go to the doctor because my rational mind said I could think perfectly sequentially and knew I hadn’t fractured my skull, but I just wanted to stay in bed curled up to keep my heaving head still. My faraway sisters overruled me. A whatsapp photograph of my two enormous black eyes had been circulated to them, and the Australian sister threatened to jump on a plane to take me to the doctor herself if I still refused to have it checked out. So I set aside my bag of frozen sweetcorn (we were working our way steadily through the freezer supplies) and relented. There was no way I could go out with my hair looking like that, so I took a careful shower and yes, I even used a hairdryer on my aching head because I still had my vanity.

The doctor on duty was meticulous in recording all the details of the ‘vaso-vagal syncopy’ as he called it, and was concerned about what could have caused the fainting episode – I told him about my childhood history of petit-mal epilepsy and the two seizures I had as an adult when I got up too quickly in the night thirty years ago.  On both those occasions I had remained conscious throughout the shaking and twitching, but this time I had no recollection of any convulsing. The brain scan showed no brain damage.

It was the doctor’s summing up words “you fell from standing”, that connected my dream’s shocking news that my life was about to be over to my loss of consciousness with no prior symptoms. The dream was simply warning me that I have work to do. All those things I constantly put off – all those unfinished intentions. I have a responsibility to live my life meaningfully and to do it now. I have memoirs to write, an Everest of books to read, lappies to quilt, travels to follow, fresh herbs to smell, wild places to relish, mountain views to savour, relationships to mend, and, most of all, people to love.

Life is short and can change in a flash.  I could fall from standing – without any warning. It has never been any different.

Then a few months ago I had another epileptic episode but this time I was lying safely in my bed in a half waking state, with Ugo dreaming deeply alongside. He was unaware of an automatic egg beater suddenly whirring away under the duvet next to him. But I knew exactly what was going on – it seemed as if I had somehow touched an electric wire which was causing me to convulse. I cannot say how long it lasted but my brain registered: Oh no – not this again! Once more I lay awake till morning fretting about yet another doctor appointment, about wires and electrodes for an EEG this time, and a press-gang of really nasty drugs for the rest of my life. But through all the tests that followed, I have been treated so kindly, and luckily I can tolerate the new medication which keeps me safe.

So once again my bed has proved to be my haven, this convulsion was an alarm bell from some deep place. It never happened while I was in a public place or far, far worse, behind the wheel of my car. Now I know my angels are continually guarding me; they keep watch even in my dreams. And I must honour them and honour myself − to live a life that matters.

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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