Tannie, she speaks
Of eating flamingos
And the fisherman who cleaned
The brak spring by the bay
A line of men
The buckets of muddy water.
Of getting lost
In the veld, surviving
Of all the people dead
And all her
Cousins and brothers
Twenty-three of them
That live in the
Dust Mountain fountain
Of the burn when she was five
Boiling water from the pot
An accident while cooking
And the one place where the doctor coming from the town
Could cross the lagoon in a boat with a sail
Of the oysters and everything
That is now long gone.
Of the snakes that have come
Cobra, pofadder and boomslang
Since the Parks board
Have been here these
With their many rules
Of how first the rich came
Then the thieves
No one knows from where
To take away from the rich
We say goodbye
Her bright eyes
In the shadow of the past
The rain is still pitter-patting around my silent house, large drops, after the enormous thunderstorm. We drove through it all the way from Birdhaven, it became hectic on Linksfield road where hail began. The hail, which had the little Mathilde and Apolline hysterical with joy as we approached the Airport, was growing bigger with each kilometer. You just don't get that kind of storm in lowlands of the Pas de Calais. The chatter from the back seat matched the cracking sound of the rather large stones hitting the windscreen and the car body.
I felt strangely alien in the swirling crowds of the departure desks, the coffee shops and the stringent controls, the girls were giggling through. They made it with their precarious passports and unabridged birth certificates and a little too much peri-peri sauce from Nando's in the hand luggage. They will have to make their own in St. Omer. Then they were gone, flying to the north.
The pillar of strength, Gaelle who was there through the weeks of the trauma of Aline's pain and death, drove back with me, in near silence punctuated by her knowledgeable navigation commands. Then Gaelle was gone and the house was bereft of chatting people and permanently active, bright little girls and very caring larger ones.
Just a little blue box on the window sill. It seems only a bit lighter than the live person I picked-up in my arms only ten days ago and carried to her bed.
I lit every possible light inside and outside of the house, tidied up a little but not too much, it's better to go slowly. Every candle is burning.
Now is the time to start again.
The beginning of the last lap. Without those familiar sounds and pictures of forty-five years.
If I could save time in a bottle, the first thing that I’d like to do…” [Jim Croce]
In exasperation one day, my husband says to me “you have a dysfunctional relationship with time”. The pronouncement of his analysis, his finding, sounds so scientific, so clear, so final, it brooks no argument.
The clocks I have everywhere are ironic evidence that I can’t get enough of it – Time. There are literally three clocks in my study and at least one in every room. I have three simple but expensive swatch watches, chosen because they are lightweight, waterproof, have easy-to-read big faces, thin straps and I can barely feel them on my wrist. But still I remove them whenever I can, and so two are lost and one has a broken strap. So, right now, I do not have one on my wrist.
The reasons stare me in the face. Not the face of the watch. In the wristband. I cannot keep the watch on for more than a short period, perhaps 30 minutes, but mostly not even 10. There is always a good reason for removing it. I have to wash up, or bath the kids, so it might get ruined. Yes, it’s waterproof, but just in case, you know? Or the wristband – it is too tight, or too loose, so I remove it to bring some relief to my wrist. Or it gets too sweaty under it, and I have to give my wrist some air. Or despite how thin it is, it bumps awkwardly onto the laptop or desk as I type or write. So, I have to take it off, for comfort, for release from the pressure.
And so I lose track of time.
But I am extremely conscious of Time and how much has to be done, before it runs out.
Time does run out, like the sand in an old-fashioned, clinch-waisted timer. Each grain of sand is some thing. Some thing to do. And I try to get in as many grains, or get out of as many grains, what it is that I need to get done. Things as weighty as deep thinking, as light as dusting a desk, or picking up a piece of paper from the floor, or a feather left behind on the ground for my grandchild by a bird flying off.
My husband’s pronouncement, however, disturbs me. It rankles. It sounds true; it sounds so clever.
I use many of my left-over grains of time to ponder this. Often. Although it sounds true, I know it isn’t. But I can’t say why.
At last, I think of a comeback for him. It may seem a bit lame, I admit, but there is a grain of truth in it too, I think and smile smugly.
“Perhaps,” I say, “it is YOU who have a dysfunctional relationship with time?”
And my argument? I am an African. A South African, like my husband is. And in Africa, amongst other Africans, (unlike those who, somewhere in their lineage far far back in time, are of German descent – hint, hint, husband), Time is not ‘of the essence’. Rather, what is ‘of the essence’ is savouring, nurturing, feeding relationships with people, with one’s environment, and not with Time. This is what makes the hands of my clock, my grains of sand, move. This is what takes up, deserves, my time. And there is not a clock in the world that can measure this. They just do not have enough Time.
“And so what,” he responds, “if not being ON time, is disrespectful of other people’s time?”
Hmmm. Stumped? No. I realise that there isn’t a simple comeback. I’ll have to ponder a more complex argument. And what could that be? Only Time will tell.
Between my childhood and youth – a time of innocent spring, there stood a great big syringa berry tree. Like a proud old man upon the green carpet of our uneven backyard.
Under his canopy of buzz and twitter and fresh green leaves, surrounded by scents of earth and perfumed fruit, sat two girls – similar yet different.
One was my dear sister of wedded womanhood and safe in her belly she held a hopeful life of growing possibilities. The other was my immature self – a sibling’s shadow but gaining substance as a would-be aunt.
A pair of pink little woollen socks I held. So soft and delicate, oh how joyous it was to spin a dream of butterfly feet.
With a frowning scowl, my mother stood, like an unhappy tigress by the water-stained kitchen window, around swirls of cake flour dust, appearing quite sinister.
We knew! Yes, we knew why drawn-down lines formed upon her tired brow. We knew why her old heart fluttered like a caged bird. We knew the bitter taste of silent dread – the aged rumoured superstition that they said.
It was cold and shrewd, spoken for decades, sparing no woman, telling of a witch deprived of a child. Cunning and ugly, snatching away possibilities. Fear she feasted and babies were a treat, living forever upon the syringa berry tree.
With an unseen child defiantly we sat, giddy with laughter – women of modern truth.
The balloon of happiness grew until autumn, bearing news of celebrated rejoicement, like strawberry twirls. A life was born, a little girl. Once a shadow, now I was an aunt.
But – oh this happiness! How short-lived it is. To a point where a little life lay hushed and blue in her small hospital crib.
What is this superstition, compelling me to tie the little woollen socks on the syringa berry tree, begging the witch to let the little life be?
What is this hope, to bring a little life home in a cold wooden box of silence?
Questions! So many questions!
But the White Coats say, “Maybe it was fate.”
I was an aunt for one whole day, now I am a shadow again.
Hear the wind, the witch chortles. See the dry, falling syringa berry tree leaves! Scars they be on my crying, bleeding heart.
High above the freeway,
and the harbour,
I see small tugs nudge giant tankers out into the bay.
All night twin lights flash at the entrance to the docks.
Early morning traffic inches along below,
catching flashes of early sunlight.
Sunrise over the Hottentot’s Holland.
One night: a helicopter, silently suspended just outside the window,
its underside lights blazing into the ward.
Beside my bed yellow roses light up the ward.
The kindnesses of staff nurse Thandeka and Mr Xholisa warm me.
Here, close to the sky, looking out over the city,
I am suspended, in time, an endless trance.
A week ago,
in the shadowy subterranean world
Ghostly figures – was it day? Night? –
appeared beside my bed to take blood,
to feed me bowls of ‘clear fluids’
and numbing opioids,
to bathe me.
And to fade away again.
Every hour a ghostly robotic rubber band tightened around my upper arm.
Machines humming, bleeping,
somewhere someone snoring through the night.
Now, here, in Surgical One, thoughts come unbidden.
Will I float again on the waves of the ocean?
Swim lengths in the Sea Point Pool?
I will – probably – never swim naked in a mountain pool again.
I am not immortal,
The last verse of a Wopko Jensma poem [¡] comes to mind:
i hope to live to the age of… sixty (ninety?)
i hope to leave some evidence
that I inhabited this world
that I sensed my situation
that I created something
out of my situation
out of my life
that i lived
I hope to have glowed, however briefly,
to have warmed those close to me –
My daughter, my son, grandsons, granddaughter,
there are endless SMSes from GEMS [¡¡] “A claim from Dr Patrick Morton for 431 rands and 99 cents received”
“ A claim from Dr Leon Varkel…”,
hospital authorisation numbers.
I owe the stoma clinic R3 000.
They supply the urostomy pouch,
the bag for nights.
My ten-year-old grandson,
keen marine biologist,
says my stoma “is like a sea anemone,
a closed- up one”.
Now memories of feelings felt two months ago arrive.
The post-surgery pain memory dissolves into the misty, floating, opioid Oxynorm distance.
Clearer is the memory of the kindnesses of the nurses, doctors, dietician, physio.
My daughter, in that long-ago time before the surgery,
now full of concern,
sweetly solicitous, bringing food, perfume, an orange squeezer.
My son calls every day.
There are affectionate, concerned phone calls, from my ex-husband,
messages, calls from friends.
I describe the surgery to them as “Life changing”.
Tessa replies, “Ah, but you have your life!”
I feel gently held by unfamiliar woven threads of care, of love.
My mind is drained,
weighing less than a gossamer of dandelion seeds.
For a month I have not looked at FaceBook or emails.
I feel cleansed
of the endless low-grade bladder infection,
most of all washed clean of anxieties, long incubated resentments.
The nightly urostomy bag ritual,
the twice weekly
plastic bladder renewal,
the cleaning of the sea anemone…
A small price to pay.
i am wide awake again,
i have swum twice in the Sea Point pool.
[¡] from ‘Spanner in the what?’ – Works by Wopko Jensma
[¡¡} Government Employees Medical Scheme
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.
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.
When Grace came for her interview, she struck terror in the residents of our Group Home. She entered in the doorway which, in terms of width, she filled. In height she was but a gnome, barely reaching my shoulder. The group were genuinely afraid of her. She had deformities of her face and body but what unnerved them the most was the glare from her very large, green, ex-ophthalmic eyes. Everything about her stance and her expression proclaimed a fierce self-will.
From the background given by her family, the social worker and from her records we learned that Grace had been born with scoliosis, brain damage, a weak heart and generalised disabilities. The doctors predicted she would only live until she was about 16. Her parents therefore decided to give this child the best 16 years they could. They chose to do this by never saying “no” to her. By letting her do and have whatever she desired. While she was still very young, she spent many months in hospital undergoing surgeries to help straighten her spine. This only compounded the sympathy her parents felt for her and they simply gave in more and more to her every whim
So, this young girl grew up feeling thoroughly entitled. She was demanding and discourteous, especially to those closest to her. By the time she was twelve she had no idea of boundaries and it was not unheard of for her to walk into the family kitchen before a meal and eat an entire roasted chicken on her own. Nothing was ever done to correct this.
By sixteen she was still very much alive.
Then her father died and she stayed with her devoted mother until she was thirty-five. Then the mother passed on and her older brother and sister-in-law had to take her in. But they soon found they were out of their depth with her and they came to us desperate, explaining that she disrupted their household, was rude, spoilt and did not cooperate with them or their two growing children.
According to her medical records, Grace had Type 2 Diabetes, hypertension and the beginnings of heart failure. She was on medication for the blood pressure and the diabetes but her obesity and eating habits were never addressed
During the interview I was sitting on the same side of the long dining room table as Grace. So, I did not look directly at her but was strongly aware of her presence beside me. This turned out to be very fortunate because I did not expect what then emanated as a very clear feeling from this obviously difficult woman. I sensed in her something subtly different from the personality and form she was presenting. What came through to me was soft, kind and actually quite beautiful. This was the deciding factor for me in the meeting with Grace.
Over the years, anyone coming to be interviewed for our Group Home for Adults with Intellectual Disabilities would need to spend some time alone with our other residents. Afterwards we could ask them if they felt the person would fit in. Their opinion was always taken very seriously.
So, after Grace left, we waited for their reactions.
The response was unanimous – “NO!”
“Nee – she’s scary!” said Anna.
“Ouma, did you see her teeth? Her eyes?” said Edgar.
“She is so bossy and cheeky. No!” said Clive
“Sy lyk soos die tokolos Ouma**” whimpered Marie.
[**Ouma was my nickname, given to me by the residents. I was in my thirties.]
We had never admitted anyone that the group did not feel happy about. But this time I said,
“I really believe we must give her a chance”. After some discussion I could more or less reassure them that this was the right thing to do and we agreed to admit her for the usual 3-month trial period.
She arrived on a Sunday. Her brother took her many suitcases of clothes and boxes of personal items to her room. Then he fetched in about six fully laden shopping bags of cookies, chocolates, candies and potato chips which I thought must be a gift for our whole group.
“Should these go to the kitchen?” I asked.
“No, no these are for Grace.” he said, heading to her room.
“May she eat all those things? They are regular sweets, not diabetic ones.” I mentioned, astonished.
“Well…. she loves them…and…. you know how it is?” he said shrugging. He dropped off the bags and quickly ushered his wife out to their car.
Before speeding off, he handed me several containers of artificial sweetener through his open window, as if he had just remembered them. “She must use this in tea and coffee,” he said.
I just shook my head as they pulled away.
That Monday first thing I took Grace to the local doctor who found her blood pressure reasonably controlled but her blood glucose level was up in the high twenties. This was serious and could not go on he told her looking earnestly at her. I nodded. Grace scowled as if she knew she was about to be told “No” for the first time in her life.
“No more sweets Grace, no cakes, no puddings, no jam, no nothing unless Ouma puts it in front of you – alright?” he said to her firmly.
Green fire flashed at us, her jaw tightened and she clenched her little fists as we left the doctor’s office. She was still complaining loudly to me when we arrived home. She could not believe it when I removed all the snacks from her room.
“You heard Dr Simons.” I said.
So ensued a standoff of mutually dug in heels for some time. But there was no relenting on my part and no matter how many grumbles or tantrums, I made sure she remained scrupulously on the correct diet. Of course, I felt for her because it could not have been easy to suddenly have to watch others eating a malva pudding with custard dessert while she had to be satisfied with a piece of fruit and some unflavoured yogurt. But she was given so much consistent praise and endless encouragement for sticking to this regime that as the weeks went by, she began to adapt to the change with fewer grunts and glowers.
Integrating our residents into the community of our small rural town was a cornerstone of our program. So, getting Grace to stick to her new eating plan outside of the house also had to be faced. Our residents went visiting in town regularly and attended many functions where they were warmly welcomed and offered generous refreshments. We had to drill Grace to say “No thanks I am not allowed to, I am diabetic” and this was a lot harder than controlling her diet at home. Often, when I could not be at these outings, I would appoint one of the other residents to try to keep watch on what she ate. And as to be expected this often ended badly. Fights and arguments ensued and these discords needed resolving when they returned home. But in time, I was able to convince the very generous hostesses of the community to please offer Grace something not loaded with starch and sugar. And they did and this problem was then handled.
But during the first few weeks and months with Grace we not only worked to alter her appetites but we also had to challenge her behaviour especially towards her fellow residents. She had good “company manners” and was always charming and agreeable to the public. But she was so used to manipulative relationships with “family” that initially, at home with us, she was a tyrant, still expecting to always have her way and be put first. It was a surprise for her to find that although we wanted to love her and that we deeply cared about her, we refused to pander to rudeness.
Right from the start I had mainly been the one to correct Grace when she was bossing another resident around, giving orders or pushing someone out of her way. She refused to be contradicted ever and would answer back with venom. She did this once with me. But only once. And she was genuinely shocked at my immediate censure.
The difficulty was that she held the residents in a spell of almost superstitious fear. She only had to glare at someone to get her way or have her demands obeyed. This of course had to stop.
“Why do you allow her to yell at you, to boss you around, to grab things from you or make you do her chores?” I would ask them as one by one they came to me to complain about her bullying.
“But Ouma she gives us that look!” They would say, noticeably distressed. “She must go. Tell her brother to take her away.” I was often quite torn by their discomfort but kept remembering what I had felt about Grace during the interview.
“I can’t tell her to go just yet.” I said to them “But anyway she is half your height, most of you. She can do nothing to you.” I would say to both the men and the women who equally backed down for her. “She is not magic, no matter how she looks. Just say “no” to her and see what happens.”
I repeated this for weeks on end.
Eventually the group somehow gained resolve and began to react to her in a more realistic way. Together we could now go on grinding away at Grace’s stony surface and after a few months of this unified stance, Grace began to change. More and more often she would respond pleasantly. She would react in a fair and reasonable way towards the others. Until she seemed to realise how much better things turned out if she cooperated, was polite and got along with everyone. At last she must have experienced how it felt to be included and liked rather than just always obeyed.
Grace’s eventual transformation was astounding. All in all, it took place over about 1 year. By then she had also dropped about 4 dress sizes and in the process, had turned into a disarming elf. The bullfrog cheeks hollowed down. The strange undershot jaw and protruding lower teeth were no longer so disturbing in what emerged as the delicate face of a sprite. Those enormous green eyes still protruded but the brittle glare had completely dissolved. So that, now, diminutive in stature and open-hearted in demeanour, with an ethereal dignity, the Grace I had sensed that first day finally stepped free.
As with many transformations there is no one point where you can say ”Aha, that was what did it – that was the day it happened.” We simply realised, as time passed, that Grace had been so helpful, so sweet for so long; she had caused no fights, been loving and agreeable for so many months that no one could even remember what she had been like before. She was now a real treasure to have in our family.
Then one day she began to fade.
She returned from a short vacation on her uncle’s isolated farm in the cold shadow of the mountains, looking tired and drawn. She was very pale; her belly was badly distended and after the mildest activity she would be exhausted and breathless. Previously she could stride briskly along with the others but now she found that even the two blocks to church was too much for her.
Our local doctor examined her thoroughly and grimly told me he was sending her to the hospital in the city for tests. This process was to turn out lengthy but they eventually confirmed the diagnosis we had all dreaded. Her kidneys were failing. Years of uncontrolled diabetes had left her body ravaged and she had aplastic anaemia. There was nothing that would reverse this; we could only manage it for as long as possible. Bravely, without really understanding the full implications of her illness she began to submit gently to her growing discomfort and progressive loss of vitality.
She received regular blood transfusions which meant time in hospital. We preferred it when she could go to our small town’s cottage hospital so we could be with her. But most often she had to go to the city two hours away because other treatments were also needed. Despite having her brother there, she received virtually no visits. We would call the hospital every day and she could sometimes talk to us on the duty room phone. We always heard from the staff how she lit up the ward she shared with the poorest of the poor; of her friendliness and the beautiful prayers she said for them. Everyone, doctors, nurses and patients loved this elfin woman who smiled and chatted and never complained.
When she came home, she was more and more confined to bed. As she weakened, she could do little for herself. We bathed her, changed the diapers she eventually required and assisted with whatever she needed day and night. At this stage she was being showered with attention and pampering when she actually did not want it anymore. By now she had become so sensitive that she apologised continuously for needing so much care and expressed endless thanks. Neither were needed as it was a true pleasure to assist her.
Her room-mates Dana and Maxie were inspired. I have never seen such joyful, selfless care. Often, they would call me at 2 or 3 in the morning so we could change the bedding and lift Grace into a warm and cleansing bath. They helped me care for her like two professional nurses with tireless patience and thoroughness. Every so often Grace would whisper to me, out of their hearing, to buy them some gifts from her pocket money to show her appreciation. She would look utterly delighted when they showed her the new crayons or the chocolates she had given them.
As her physical state deteriorated so her radiant spirit came more into view, a significant light in our home as her condition worsened. And so, we could share in her brave and gracious preparation to release a body that had troubled her all her life.
On Easter Saturday the housefather had an idea to set up his video camera in the dining-room in front of our Easter display. Each of us in turn was to speak for a few moments, with only the eyes and ears of the camera present, alone in the room filled with green and gilded palm branches, painted eggs, black, red and green drapes and dozens of candles which we lit at all meals during that week. At the end of the day we gathered together to view our conversations.
Each one was perfect: innocent, uncontrived and unique, addressing their own perception of Deity or their departed loved ones. Some expressed many thoughts and feelings, others only spoke for a few seconds; some were funny, some shy and some messages were just silence or sighing or a smile.
We carried Grace from her bed in her yellow fluffy pyjamas and she had a turn speaking in a soft unhesitant voice. Like a prayer she said how much she loved and appreciated Jesus. She told him how she missed her mother and she shed a few tears. Then she thanked him for everything he did for her and for her wonderful friends.
As we watched Grace on the tape, all around her the screen began to glow, with a luminous golden yellow that had not appeared with any of the others’. Even long afterwards when we played that tape no-one could decide if it was just the candle flames reflected off her yellow pyjamas or did Grace, that last Easter, already begin to move off into the light.
Her birthday came that spring. It was a quiet and happy day. None of her relatives visited, but they called and sent gifts. She was forty-three.
A week later she had to return to the local hospital very ill and we were told to notify her family urgently that weekend.
They never arrived saying they were busy, or their car was broken.
We stayed with her. She was barely conscious and, on the Sunday, her little limbs could not find rest but thrashed around as if wanting to begin on a journey. She smiled a lot.
Early Monday morning she stepped across into the golden yellow light.
Now the family found the time and attended her funeral and I watched their tears and again could only shake my head.
We would visit her grave often and leave flowers but there was no money for a headstone. The following Easter Saturday, we packed the minibus with plants and a pile of clean, white river stones. We decorated her grave with pagan flourish in a riotous planting of flowers and set a large cross of the white stones into the silver-grey Karoo earth. We said prayers, one by one, as the autumn clouds lowered over us and we all felt Grace’s deep, glowing peace.
To my knowledge none of her family has ever visited her grave.
I was here. This is what happened.
‘Je m’appelle Christiane. Je suis née à Calais le 11 juin, 1905…’
This is the simplest act of existence. Something we all can claim. A name. A place and date of birth.
And from there, in a little black Croxley manuscript book, a story unspools, a thick, multi-coloured thread winds its way back through the years, weaving a story of a life. It creates a rich tapestry that says ‘I was here.’
I used to think writing one’s life story should be reserved for celebrities and famous people. Anyone else who dared to write, ‘This is me. I was here.’ was being self-indulgent. Possibly even narcissistic. Who cared about the life story of Joan Schmoan?
But this is the story of my French grandmother’s life. And I care. My whole family cares. This little black hard-covered book is now a cherished part of our heritage. An heirloom.
When I was in my late teens, my mum and I bought my gran an A5 manuscript book and asked her to write her life story. We thought my gran would welcome this task. We imagined it would give her a renewed sense of purpose, fill her mundane days with enthusiasm. But I think she agreed to do it just for us, because we wanted it. She accepted the gift reluctantly, asking us what we wanted her to write.
‘Write about your life, grand-mère. Tell us how you felt during the World Wars. Raconte nous tes amours.’ (‘Raconte’, that lovely French word that means so much more than ‘tell’.)
But it wasn’t in her nature to reflect on and share her inner life with anyone. Nor was it something her generation even seemed to contemplate. I doubt anyone ever used words like ‘inner landscape’ or ‘personal journey’.
My gran was very practical when it came to matters of the heart. If you were sad, or ‘faisait une petite déprime’ (‘making a little depression’), which makes this affliction sound like something that is both cute and purposeful, you were briskly told to ‘fait les poussières’ (do the dusting). If you were tired, she’d ask about your bowel movements and suggest strongly that you needed to pooh more regularly.
I think she dragged herself to these blank pages out of a sense of duty towards us. When her task was done, she gave back the book with a shrug and a moue of the lips: ‘I don’t think I did it right.’
I laughed and assured her: ‘It’s your life, grand-mère. You can’t get it wrong.’
But when I began to read it, my 18-year-old self was disappointed. There were no agonized explorations of the self (unlike in my diary), no musings on life and humanity (both of which occupied pages of my journal), and hardly any ‘feeling’ words (my diary was filled with them).
Instead, she’d begun with ‘Je m’appelle Christiane’ and plodded on dutifully from there. So I put it aside then and never read it fully. We’re very fickle when we’re young. This year, I rediscovered her life story. And suddenly, as I cracked open the pages, I caught a whiff of her Peter Stuyvesant cigarette. I could hear her deep voice calling me ‘ma poulette’, her rich, smoky chuckle. Through the lines of blue ink written in her shaky, 80-year-old handwriting, the colour and substance of a life – her life – shone through.
And I’m so glad she left this for us. This simple creative act that says, ‘I was here.’
So it’s not about being a celebrity. Nor is it about writing a misery memoir that may or may not become a bestseller. It’s not necessarily for the public eye at all. It’s about a simple act of existence. An act of faith in the face of the extreme fragility of our animal bodies. ‘Je m’appelle Catherine…’
Do it for you. Do it for your children, your nieces, your nephews. Tell them. Tell yourself: ‘I was here. This is what happened.’
Lying empty on the floor at my feet, the worn leather holdall is a thing of beauty, harking back to a time of artisanal labours of love, quality and long life. It conjures the image of a dog lying close by, one of protective companionship.
Beautiful as it is, it’s not an easy carry. When full, the narrow strap doesn’t feel robust enough to hold its weight and the handles although strong, require the arm to be held at an unnatural angle if one is to avoid bruising one’s calves, and I bruise easily. It is not suited to airline travel, and a seasoned bushwhacker might argue that it wouldn’t be useful on safari either, as dust and unwanted curious creatures may enter the gaps between the zip and beautiful side folds. Even when packing, ideally someone needs to hold it open whilst you load it up. So why the sentimentality? Why the unnecessary friction to reclaim it during the breakup of my marriage? I had in fact gifted to my husband, then insisted that because it had belonged to Spike, it was mine.
I’m woken by a loud knock at the door, it’s pre-dawn on a Sunday morning. I sit bolt upright and scream a single scream. I’ve no idea why. My husband gets up and goes to the door. I hear voices, him asking what’s going on and their insistence that they need to talk to me. I venture down the open wooden staircase that separates the lounge and dining room of our Victorian home. James turns, concerned at once for me, the situation and the sheerness of a simple but pretty cotton nightie and my naked body beneath. The nightie had belonged to my late mother. She’d passed on 14 months earlier and I’d kept it when Spike and I had packed up her home in Durban. James and I had married, two months ahead of our planned wedding so she could be part of our celebration and union. After beginning married life as a grieving wife, it had felt good to say to the bereavement counsellor two weeks earlier, that I could feel spring in the air, I could notice the world around me again.
I take myself immediately to the couch, perhaps for the modesty sitting might provide whilst also intuiting I’d not be stable on my feet. The two young policemen remain in the doorway, not wanting to intrude and to ensure a hasty getaway. They reconfirm who I am and ask me what car my brother drove. They say there’s been an accident. I hear myself: ‘Is he ok?”
Images of hospitals and injuries flash through my mind. More bedside care; the world I’ve been all too familiar with in the final months in the lives of both my parents.
“I’m afraid he didn’t make it.”
James, who is standing midway between the police at the door and me on the couch, rushes over exclaiming loudly “She’s lost all her family”, as he wraps his arms around me.
I feel numb, the words seemingly hanging midway in the air. If I could only keep them suspended there, then I’d not have to feel the full blow of their impact. Instead I imagine these two young policemen on duty at the station, almost at the end of their Saturday all night shift, receiving the call from their colleagues in the Franschhoek station, possibly even drawing straws as to who would go. Is this their first time? Did I make a lousy job, a little easier? I marvel at how quickly I’ve been informed. Learning only later that the car windscreen had blown out, flinging the bag on the passenger seat out of the vehicle as it flipped on it’s head and caught alight. Spike, with a little Moleskin book that must have been fairly new, had listed me as his next-of-kin, address and all. If only he’d have been as thorough as to complete that will template I’d given him some months earlier and would find lying in its cellophane wrapper in his desk drawer in his office at the wine cellar.
I’m standing in my kitchen, preparing a spontaneous meal with my new, big love, sharing the spaces of uncertainty and anticipation ahead of this Life Righting Course I’m going on in the morning and these objects I need to take along…and I begin the story of the policemen at the door and my voice cracks all over again, tears prick my eyes and we are both taken by surprise. Some hours later, after a beautiful evening I walk him to his car, a Land Rover, and am reminded for the first time in decades of the awful fights with the man in KZN over the Land Rover Spike had bought, had customized and not yet taken delivery of at the time of his death. Me, screeching in desperation at the hole ripped right through me by the thought of journeying through life without my younger brother, accompanied instead by this worn, leather holdall…an awkward bag, so difficult to carry.