The rows of dusty black shoes and ankle length white socks entered the great hall in single file. Always in a single file. Row after row of ill-fitting maroon blazers that were too long and too baggy. Hanging off our shoulders because our parents could no longer afford the changing bodies of a teenage girl.
We sat down in the great hall, yawning, fiddling with our cuticles and reapplying our sticky, sweet cherry-flavoured lip gloss. We had not been told why we were called to assembly today. Probably something about Jesus. It is always about Jesus, and when only the girls are called to assembly then it’s probably about Jesus and breasts or Jesus and the length of our skirts or how Jesus hates teenage girls who wear their mom’s mascara.
I was sitting between Jade and Kelly. I would rather have been sitting next to Tori. Jade was popular and the captain of the netball team, but my mom said she was a bit of a slut. I mean, she isn’t wrong; the whole school knows what she did with Matthew when they went to the movies last weekend. Or rather, to Matthew.
I keep trying to catch Tori’s eye, just so that I can roll my eyes. Private school girls love rolling their eyes. We learn it from our private school moms.
I am mid-eye roll when a lady I don’t know walks into the hall. Oh God, yup. This is definitely about Jesus, this lady definitely loves JC. Her hair is cut short, but not in the cool way like the girl from that 90210 tv show. She looks like she goes to the same hairdresser as Mrs Laategaan, my Afrikaans teacher. Surely only one hairdresser in Joburg can master that very particular kind of purple, red and orange highlighter combo. I feel Kelly’s shoulders shudder as she tries to swallow her giggle and I know we are thinking the same thing.
The longer I stare at this woman… no, scrutinise her… no, judge her, the more I start to crave a Steri Stumpie. She is shaped a bit like a Steri Stumpie, dumpy and round. She is also wearing a light pink blouse, with matching light pink slacks and creamy white sandals that make her look a bit like strawberry milk. Anyways, she is of course a ‘straight out of Foschini’ fashion emergency. I do love pink Steri Stumpies though; I’ll get one from the tuck shop at break.
‘’Good morning girls. My name is René, I am a friend of Mrs Laategaan and I have been invited here today to talk about sex..’’
I knew it.
‘’… And how important it is to wait for marriage.’’
I knew it.
Rene rummages through a small wicker basket. She looks more prepared for a picnic than a speech telling teenage girls about the eternity of fire that awaits them if they even think about fiddling around with a boy’s penis. She pulls out a marshmallow easter egg. I mean, niche. I have always hated those eggs, I far prefer the hard white ones, that you have to suck before they get soft. The marshmallow ones always feel more like a handout than a treat.
Nonetheless, she’s got me interested now. What the fuck is she going to do with this egg? A reward maybe, for the person who can shout “SIN!” the loudest?
She unwraps the chocolate and holds it up like a new age body of Christ. My Catholic father would hate this, his convenient Catholicism (my mom’s term) means that he hates everything even slightly new age. I recoil as I remember his tantrum when the priest made us sing happy birthday to Jesus on Christmas day.
OMG. I gasp as Rene starts aggressively breaking the egg apart. Pulling at the edges and stretching the sticky white marshmallow before throwing tiny pieces of egg onto the floor. Oh, she is stamping on them now.
‘’This’’, says Rene, her once mousy voice now booming through the hall, ‘’is what happens to your soul every time you have sex before marriage.’’
“I see my purpose as supporting individuals to nurture their greater potential,” I blurted out to Gabs when he asked me about my mission in life. I felt quite proud of myself for using words that sounded virtuous to my ears. After all, everyone else I said this to were impressed by this lofty purpose.
Gabs however, seemed unimpressed. We were in his office in Noordhoek for our weekly coaching session. I was sitting on the soft and comfortable black leather couch, and he was on a one-seater version opposite me. Even though we were in the middle of winter, natural light was streaming through his large office windows. The electric heater created a toasty warmth in the spacious urban-like studio. Aside from the space to sit and chat, there was room to work and many bookshelves filled with second-hand books. Behind Gabs’ chair was a big red heart – representing Gabs’ Heart Intelligence Coaching logo.
Gabs felt like the male version of me. We were born on the same day, both Aries. He from Venezuela, me from South Africa. He had a typical Latino sensual look, black hair and a two-day unshaved beard. Sometimes I convinced myself that Gabs’ good looks and accent that sealed the deal in me choosing him as my coach. However, in moments of radical truthfulness, the real reason we clicked was because he could see through my bullshit and call me on it, gently at times and at others taking a hard stance.
Gabs always said I’m like a Ferrari, that everything about me is in top form, I just need to be tuned in the right places – and he is the person to do it. I believe him, and know that coaching me was a big hairy challenge. He admitted to me in a moment of vulnerability when we celebrated our birthday together, that I intimidated the shit out of him when I first showed up at his studio. I could relate to this. When I am intimidated, I’ll fake it until I make it. The second quality that Gabs brought to our dynamic was a softness, one that I was not necessarily in touch with. I found it ironic that Gabs was more in touch with his feminine energy than I; to navigate this world I’ve shrouded myself in masculine energy.
Gabs continued to hold my gaze. I tried to distract myself by paying attention to the way his unruly hair kept falling into his face. Using his facial features as a focal point was a respite from a conversation that seemed to be heading into a danger zone. He knew I was stalling.
“Shamillah,” he said. “I wanna know the story behind what you just said. Tell me why you think that is what you are meant to do. If you want, tell me about the wound you are trying to heal.”
With a heightened sense of danger, and deep discomfort, I started fiddling with my fingers, changing my sitting position, and looking around the studio at the different pictures on the walls. My gaze landed on a sketch of a little girl in a field of flowers. The stark contrast of the girl sketched in black and white against the field of colourful flowers stirred my senses. I looked down at my hands, still avoiding his gaze.
The image on the wall evoked much more than I could handle. I felt myself gasping for breath, and realised that it was time to stop hiding. I looked at him, and made the brave decision to trust him and myself. ‘I am afraid to go there, Gabs,’ I whispered. In the most gentle way, he returned my gaze with unconditional love and acceptance. He said nothing and simply waited.
We had been doing these sessions for more than a year. Each week, I had to drive over Ou Kaapse Weg to get to Noordhoek. That drive over the mountainous pass was inevitably filled with noisy inner dialogue.
‘What more is there to say to Gabs? There’s nothing more that he can uncover. This is taking up too much of my time.’
On and on those voices went, rebuking me for continuing this very inconvenient trek up the mountain every week. Amidst all this noise, somehow, the voice I call my inner activist always managed to sound out all the others.
This voice would say: ‘Even if there is nothing more, making time for myself is a revolutionary act in and of itself.’ I liked the idea of an inner revolution.
Gabs continued holding space for me in that warm, soft manner. He sensed I was about to open a box, and that this was something I had never allowed myself to do before. So he simply waited, neither prodding nor encouraging. Letting me know that whatever I did would be ok.
I felt safe and held. So I said, ‘I am going to tell you something that I don’t think I have ever said out loud before. I have always prided myself on just getting on with life, of not dwelling on parts of my story, or to feel ‘sorry’ for myself. So, I don’t tell the story of my past or my circumstances that has made me who I am today. I am okay with others doing that, but I don’t give myself permission to do it.’
Although Gabs was saying nothing, I felt as if he was holding my hand – walking with me to gently open the box. Ready to catch me if I fall.
‘The truth about me and my wound, you ask? I have never even acknowledged this to myself. You have noticed this red birthmark on my face. When I was born, it was blue, and it covered half of my face. This mark, has not only visibly affected me, it is also one of the reasons I am who I am today.’
I began to tell the story of a little girl, born into a big family, who because of the mark on her face felt different. In this family, people often end up with nicknames, something related to a physical feature or character trait. This little girl’s nickname was ‘blou oog’ (blue eye) because of the appearance of the blue on her face, making her eye appear blue too. This nickname made her stand out even more, just like the ugly duckling amidst the other ducks, because she looked so different from her siblings and cousins.
In the years that she was growing up, everyone else was told they were beautiful or pretty, yet she cannot remember anyone saying those words to her. Like any other little girl, she craved acceptance, affirmation and acknowledgement, and in her child’s mind, the mark on her face prevented that. She imagined that the only way she could get positive regard was to be very good. She would be praised for being a good child, but soon she realised that being good over time meant you got even less attention, less acknowledgment. Not ready to give up, she decided to apply herself to be outstanding in everything. She completely shut her mind to the fact that she had a mark on her face, hardly looking into a mirror and avoiding being in photographs. Instead she focused all her energies on this mission to be exceptional.
The little girl grew into a teenager who discovered that because of the birthmark, she was completely blind in her right eye. Again, she absorbed this information, and never told anyone, except her mother. She was determined to maximize the use of her other eye, and managed this quite well without letting anyone know. The teenager was quite good at hiding, she cut and combed her hair so that her bangs would fall across her cheek and eye, so no one would notice. She excelled as the top student at her school, and at home she was the known as the most responsible and reliable member of her family. She was the only one in her entire school that got admitted to the University of Cape Town. Moving through early adulthood, even when she struggled, she kept at it – working on weekends to pay her fees and earn money for bus fare. The little girl had grown up to achieve the kind of success that others recognised and valued, for many years being the only one in her family who had a university degree, that had traveled outside Cape Town, that had traveled the world, and so much more. Even though she appeared as an adult, she was still nursing the wound of childhood. Up until her 30’s, she continued to hide her face from the world, afraid of being rejected or dismissed again.
This is one of the reasons she stumbled into the field of coaching, wanting to help young people who, for whatever reason are different, and may feel unseen, unloved, unworthy, and, as a result, might limit themselves. She supports these young people by helping them to discover their inner value so that they are not hurt when those around them do not recognise this. With a renewed confidence, they can set out to achieve what they want.
As I finished my story, I felt emotional and had to stop to control my breathing.
“So that is my wound, Gabs. Every time I work with the youth, and coach somebody, I want them to feel valued and accepted. Most of all, I want them to realise that the love and acceptance they need most is within themselves.”
Gabs helped me to see that the one who came up with the strategy of being exceptional was a child using childlike reasoning. He stood me in front of the mirror so that I could acknowledge a naked truth: as a result of my early experience, I had rejected myself. This truth bomb was the hardest to accept or own.
But I did.
Quietly, I stared at the reflection in the mirror, my naked face, my birthmark, my blind eye, and connected to a truth that the greatest rejection was actually within myself.
I knew that my healing journey had begun.
It’s a stinging hot day but we’re in the shade of Dad’s wattle plantation now. I’ve got her to myself at last. Grannie has her knobbly wooden walking stick with the little black rubber cap on the bottom. She’s wearing one of her pretty silky dresses. You can see through the material to her lacy petticoat underneath. She likes purply colours all linked up with black, swirling curls. If I look across at her, I can see her two melon-titties pointing out in front of her.
I sat on the bed this morning and watched her dressing. She puts on a corset which goes from her shoulder straps down to her waist with the two enormous bowls for her melons. Then the corset goes even further down, to just above the top of her legs and it has four suspenders hanging off it to attach to the dark rim at the top of her purplish nylon stockings.
She has to lean her titties into the bowls made for them and she has to do the whole thing up with hooks and eyes which go all the way down her back. She squeezes her face – open and shut, open and shut – as she curls her arms round to the hooks and eyes behind her. If she joins the wrong ones up at the top, then they’ll all be wrong and the bottom of the corset will be uneven and she’ll have to start all over again. Sometimes she looks at me with her pointy dark eyes after she’s heaved the first hook and eye together.
“Are they right? Do they match?”
And I’m allowed to say, “Yes” or “No”.
I don’t need to worry about the silver hooks and eyes stabbing into her puffy back. That’s because there’s a flap of pale, smooth satin that goes underneath them to keep her skin safe. Sometimes I’m allowed to pull it out into its right place if it’s been flapped backwards while she’s been hooking and eyeing.
It all takes a long time, and my mother is usually shouting down the passage, “Mummy, it’s nearly breakfast time. Boef, are you there with Grannie? Peter and your sisters will be back from milking any minute. Are you dressed?” Of course I’m dressed but Grannie is still struggling like a tortoise trying to turn onto its little feet from lying on its shell-back.
There’s still the stockings to do. She gets them out of my little sister’s drawer where she packed all her things after she got off the Orange Express from Cape Town. My little sister has moved all her things to our room. Her room is Grannie’s now for the Christmas holidays.
This morning I looked around at how it is when Grannie owns it. There’s a forest of creams and lipsticks and even eye-shadow and a bottle of rose water on the dressing table beneath the window. And all her hair brushes and the stick with a pad on the end for hitting under her chin at night to make her extra chin go away. There’s a rolled-up newspaper on the small wooden bedside cupboard.
That newspaper is The Natal Witness. We get it every day at the post office inside the railway station where the Orange Express stops for a few minutes to hurtle Grannie out into our arms and our kisses and bursting tears. Sometimes the guard has to blow his whistle twice before the train chuffs off again because there’s so much hello-ing that we nearly forget her suitcases.
Grannie opens The Natal Witness and wears it on her head in an upside-down long V-shape when she has to go the bathroom for a wee at night. That’s because a bat once got tangled in her long, thin, grey hair in the middle of the night. She screamed and screamed and every one of us five – my Dad, my Mum, my two sisters and I, all rushed into the passage to see what was happening.
At first I thought there was a snake, like the one that held my mother prisoner in the passage for ages one summer day while my Dad was on the hill. The kitchen girls were too scared to do anything. And so was Mshwathi, my nanny. Mswhathi and I watched from the dining room. My mother was as still as a stone. And so was the snake. It stood up on its own tummy and stared at my mother in a mean sort of way. The only thing that moved were the two silent streams down my mother’s cheeks and the spots of wet that grew on each front side of her green dress. In the end, the garden boy came in with a broom and killed it quite a few times and my mother fled to her bedroom and locked the door. I could hear her choking herself with loud tears but she wouldn’t let Mshwathi and me in. She stayed there, all locked, till my Dad came home from milking. I just sat in the passage on the green concrete floor outside her door, guarding her from snakes and everything.
I was quite shocked about the bat. So shocked to see it dancing in my Grannie’s hair in the moonlight that came in through the bathroom window with the dark poinsettia flowers shadowing the wall above the bath. The bat was busy lifting her grey hairs like strings on a silver harp in a crazy dance in that moonlight. Her scream didn’t stop – even when we were all pouring ourselves into the bathroom from the passage. Us three in our flowery shortie pyjamas, Mum in her nightie with no knickers and Dad with his no clothes on and his thing hanging down.
Grannie had her plastic suit pants pushed down to the floor. The plastic top – neck to wrists to waist – was all in place. You could see her through it, especially her titties. They were a bit flopped because of no corset in bed. At night she wore the plastic suit for sweating and getting thin while you sleep. As we pushed through the door, she was standing and screaming and her hands were trying to beat that little bat out. But it wouldn’t.
So even though you could see her bottom and everything, my Dad went straight in and, with his arm that has no hand, he pushed his way into her hair to reach and hold down the little bat. And with his hand-arm, he untangled the tiny mouse-thing and let it use its wings to fly out through the white-framed bathroom window.
My mother had done quite a few shrieks and had raced off down the passage before my Dad got the bat free. She came back with her giant silver sewing scissors to cut Grannie’s hair off and free the bat. Grannie yelled at her to NOT. Her boyfriend, Eric, was coming soon, she said, to take her away to a more civilised place.
I was laughing with terrified tears, and crying with scary feelings at the wildness and funniness of what was going on. And then she said about the boyfriend. Everything in me went still and very cold in my chest, like a hard chunk of ice from the freezer. What did she mean? My little sister blinked quite a few times as we turned away to go down the passage to our bedroom. She blinked and she whispered, “Grannies don’t have boyfriends – do they?”
“Don’t be stupid. They can’t. Because they’ve already been married.” My voice was hot, not like the ice block in my chest.
“Go to bed. Shoesh now. Go to bed and go to sleep,” my mother said.
I turned to look at her down her end of the passage. My Dad had his hand-arm on her shoulder and was looking right at her face. She had a terrible face on. It was the face she got when she was sad and cross with all of us – especially with Dad – because we lived on a dairy farm with cabbages and mielies and cows and wattle trees and not on Boyes Drive in the big, pale-yellow double-storey house in Muizenberg with Grannie in it and the sea down Jacob’s Ladder below, and with the grandfather clock in the hallway with the ship that sailed across the clock face, across the face and back, across and back, with each tick and each tock.
While I looked at her under the passage light, I saw she was crying again.
So, anyhow, there was the rolled-up The Natal Witness newspaper on the little white bedside cupboard this morning. (Of course my Dad always puts it there now when Grannie comes for Christmas so he doesn’t have to do the bat-saving thing with Grannie’s tricky hair.
There are always a few gum tree leaves sticking out from under her mattress. Dad puts those there when Grannie comes to stay. She says we have fleas in the house. So he gets one of the umfaans to bring some gum tree leaves from the bush and he stuffs a ton of them under her mattress which is really my little sister’s mattress. And, like I said, some of them stick out. I think my Dad does that on purpose so he doesn’t have to have the conversation with Grannie about the gum tree leaves and the dreadful fleas we breed all over the farm and in every crack in our house.
The thing we just can’t understand is why we never have fleas in our beds but Grannie does. Maybe it’s because she is from Cape Town, and Natal people maybe don’t get bothered by fleas. Maybe the fleas like Cape Town blood. Or maybe sweat. Because that plastic sleeping suit for getting thin has elastic at the neck, the wrists, the waist and the ankles and really makes a lot of sweat. Actually, perspiration or glow – my other grandmother has taught me that only farm workers and factory workers actually SWEAT. Gentlemen PERSPIRE and ladies GLOW. But I can promise you, what I see in the morning when she takes off the slimming suit…it is sweat. It really is. I can smell it. It makes my nose and my mouth and my eyes crunch up and salt burn my eyes under the lids.
Just about at the end of doing all the little silver hooks, Mummy is still calling us to come for breakfast.
So she gets her rolled-down stockings ready, one for each leg. She sits down on the bed and rolls them up each leg very carefully and very slowly. “They snag so easily,” she says, as if she is telling me a very important thing. I nod and look and swing my feet a bit to show I am listening.
Up, up – to nearly her bottom. Then she stands and hooks the little round, covered, silky buttons into the metal loop with the top end of the stocking stuck into each loop. Her bottom and everything is sticking out a bit because the corset ends before they end. Not like a swimming costume that goes over everything so there’s nothing to see.
Corsets are lovely things if you consider the front which has a satiny panel. Somehow the corset factory-people manage to put beautiful patterns on the panel which, if you look very carefully, are roses. “Barely visible roses,” she showed me once in a secret voice as if nobody else should know. Now I always see them. The panel goes right up to the bowl part and even is the bowl part. So there are roses shining and sliding all over the front of Grannie.
“Tummy control,” she teaches me.
Then it’s the silky knickers that go over it all. She likes those. She slides them out of the drawer and then softly skids them across her face, covering every bit: her cheeks, her nose, her closed eyes.
“Ah…silk,” she says.
When they are on, everything is covered up at last.
She really truly loves those silk knickers. She has lots. I picture all of them sliding around inside the knicker drawer all by themselves, even when the drawer is shut.
Then it’s the petticoat and the slippery purple dress – or one of her others. It can be a pinkish one, or mainly blue, or sometimes grey. They all have the dark swirls winding through the colour. All her dresses open low down the at the front and, where her corset pushes her bosoms together, you can see soft pink skin with a few of what she calls beauty spots (my mother calls them age blemishes) decorating them.
Today, she puts on a purply dress and her black walking shoes with laces. She has promised me, promised me at last, that she’ll go for a walk down to the wattle plantation and back and that we’ll go alone without my sisters, only with Gretel, my black Daxie, allowed to come with us. We’ll wait till my sisters have gone off with my Dad onto the farm and my mother has gone to town.
She’ll do this because I’m her favourite, I think. She’ll do it even though her knees, she says, are “riddled with arthritis” and the doctor in Howick has injected her right in the knees with a needle as big as her knitting needles. She’ll be fine, she says. She’ll take her shining knobbly walking stick to help.
And so here we are in the wattle plantation. The air is crackling with hot December sun. There are still yellow puff-ball flowers on the wattles. My nose is itching already. I hate that – and the line of joined-up sneezes that follow. But I don’t care. I’ve got Grannie. Gretel is yapping around us. She runs ahead and comes back. She yaps some more and then scuffles in the dust and dashes off the path into the trees for no good reason. Grannie loves Gretel and says dogs don’t need a reason.
This is Heaven and Grannie is telling me all the stories about how she was a grand lady in Norfolk in England, where I haven’t been, before my grandfather found her between The Great Wars and captured her heart and brought her back on the Union Castle Line to Muizenberg.
My grandfather had the garage on Main Road and bought her the huge house on Boyes Drive and they had three children, lickety-spit, then twins five years after the others. My Mum was third, after the two boys. The smallest twin shocked everybody because nobody – not even the doctor – knew she was there. She was so tiny and such a surprise she had to sleep in a shoe-box in an open drawer in the big bedroom and she was blue when she was born.
My grandfather doesn’t live in the big house anymore. Something bad in a foreign language happened. Whenever my parents speak about it, it is definitely foreign stuff that made my grandfather have to leave. My Grannie did in flagranto dilecto with the GP, that’s the doctor who didn’t know the smallest twin was there, in the lounge in the big house and then my grandfather left. I think it was something to do with having those twins and one of them so small. I think the doctor had to go to the big house a lot to check on the shoe-box baby.
I’ve heard the grown-ups talk about how, on the flagranto day, my mother, who was ten years old, got on her two-wheeler and rode away when no-one was looking. They always say how she was found half way to Cape Point, peddling like mad into the darkening sky, with tears like flags of solid water streaming off her face in the wind she made with her speed. They say it was like she was pursued by the Devil. I don’t like thinking about that little girl. I think they found her near Boulders Beach. They captured her and took her home. I think her Dad was the main person capturing her. My Grannie had locked herself in the big bedroom that looked over the Muizenberg sea. Only she wasn’t looking at the sea, I think, because I heard the grown-ups say she was howling on the bed with shame.
But now, here, in the wattle plantation, everything is perfect. I have Grannie all to myself. I keep saying that in my head. The world is big and hot and endless all around us. And when we get home I’ll have a swim in the pool my Dad built for my Mum in the front garden. “Her little bit of Muizenberg,” he calls it. My Mum is lucky. Grannie won’t swim. I think it’s because of being a Norfolk grand lady. They don’t swim.
Grannie suddenly stops her story in the middle.
There’s a cloud of dust hurtling down the summer road. She strains her neck upwards to look through the trees. It’s a car. I can see it. But it’s not my Mum coming back from town. I don’t know this car that’s coming so fast.
Grannie gets her walking stick going – step, snap, step, snap – back down the path towards the farm road. I call Gretel and run after her.
“What’s the matter, Grannie?”
She flies on and her grey hairs begin to fall out of the little bun at the back of her head. She begins to glow, but she doesn’t stop.
“It’s Eric. He’s come! He’s come to take me for Christmas. You’ll have to tell your mother when she gets back from town. Tell her Eric’s a member of Parliament, you know.”
But I don’t know. I don’t know anything about Parliament. Or Eric.
Grannie has very little breath but she waves her stick in the air. The big brown car with wings at the back sees her stick and it stops exactly where the wattle plantation path meets the farm road.
Grannie’s face is red. She leans right into the car window where the man is. And then she stands up and Eric is unfolding himself out of the car door and then he is folding his long arms all around my Grannie.
I feel a bit sick. Vomitty sick. I don’t know what Parliament is, or why I must say that to my mother. I just know my mother won’t like Parliament at all. Maybe it’s a flagranto foreign sort of thing.
“I’ve got to pack,” she says and rushes round to the passenger door. Her knees are fine. Our doctor’s knitting needle injections must be so strong. She’s nearly been running. Eric rushes after her and he opens the car door. She looks up at him as she melts into the car and her eyes are all silly. I hate Eric’s poky face.
“You walk home with Gretel. We can’t put a dog in this car,” she yells out of her wound-down window as the car jumps up and runs away from me and my small black dog.
I’m not even home, and I’m sweating, yes, sweating, in the hell of heat because I’ve been walking so fast to catch Grannie and the car, when I see that Eric’s fierce tiger-car has already turned around, and it’s coming back towards me. It swoops past, not slowing one bit as Gretel and I jump out of the way.
There’s dust on my face. And wet tracks through that dust. Like my Mum’s when she was ten years old and flying away from the Devil near Boulders Beach. There’s no-one here to come after me and capture me on the farm road, though. I have to blink my eyes a million times to stop the tears so I can see properly.
I won’t be able to tell my mother. Her face will be too angry and too sad. I’ll find my Dad and I’ll tell him what happened when he comes in from the farm.
Then I’ll go down past the camdeboo stinkwood tree, through the archway in the hedge and into the plumtree orchard. And wait.
You are pregnant
I know it now
I did not know it then
I am about six years old
You are a young mother
I look up into you
the way one would shoot
their eyes into a starry night
You’re caramelized glory
hair tied back
every strand accounted for
bouquet-ed by a floral hair band
your top is cut
from the same cloth
and the flowers bloom
across your belly
Your hands are busy
over a stove
but your attention is stolen
by a landscape
framed by a tiny window
In a tiny kitchen
You are not crying
but I sense
your sadness gathering
I knew it then
I know it now
You speak to me
assuming I don’t understand
but I understood then
and I understand now
I am leaving him you know
I believe you
because I’ve heard you scream this
at him and into vacant nights
I can raise you and your brothers
you are full of running
but you never leave
You thought I could not see you
I saw you then
I see you now
you spent your life
in tiny kitchens
looking through tiny windows
that framed landscapes
you would never reach
I spend my life
for the both of us
The small boy has come in for his therapy session. He is flushed and excited and filled with joy.
“And what has made you so happy, Lwazi? “I ask.
I am eager to know. The words tumble out from his mouth with six-year-old enthusiasm.
“I have been running with my friends,” he gushes. A game of catches on the school field at breaktime it seems. He proceeds to demonstrate. He flings his arms onto the wheels of his wheelchair and swings the chair with vigour around the physiotherapy gym in a few haphazard circles to prove the speed of his running.
“Well done!” I enthuse.
A week previously, he had said, “I wish I could run with my legs like the other boys do.”
His voice had been sad and tinged with hope.
“And so, you can,” I had responded. I proceeded to explain that while some children ran with their legs, others, like his friend Noah, ran with the help of a walking frame.
“You’ve seen Noah?” I asked. Yes, he had nodded.
“And what about Esihle?” I had continued. “He runs with his crutches!” The erstwhile despondent head was now nodding vigorously. “And as for you, show me your strong arms.” He showed me his bulging biceps muscles with pride. “With these you can push yourself fast in your wheelchair,” I said. “You have wheels. You can run. Your wheels are your legs!” By this stage his smile was broad. He giggled.
It was the encouragement he’d needed.
He changed from the boy with the flail legs in the wheelchair who could not run, to the boy who ran on the field with his friends.
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.
When by some accounts
a vast and thrilling sound
shall resonate through the cosmos
and the dead shall arise in-
corruptible from various tombs,
heaps of ash now scattered
and recycled, and obscure
ditches and other places of dis-
solution, what would I
be wearing, if anything, beyond
my own reconstituted
skin, and what state of skin,
mind and experience would best
suit eternity? Fantasies
of youthful perfection
flicker like lightning
seen far off, with promise
of soothing rain, but my footing
is here, and there is no other
than joy in the vicissitudes
of my unalterable years.
When I was five, my step father took me on a journey. We made our way to a building in central London where, without explanation, I was told to be a good girl. As we stepped inside the self-satisfied polished odour of this place, I knew immediately I was somewhere important. We sat waiting in a dim high-ceilinged office until we were called into a room where a man with glasses sat behind a desk. I was frightened by the cavernous room, the glint of the man’s glasses.
I remember little of what was said. Mostly, I remember the falsely confident tone of my stepfather’s voice as he spoke to the man, the kind you might use when embarrassed, and you try to hide your discomfort through a feigned carelessness, a counterfeit bravado.
The man wrote with his pen as he listened, then instructed me to stand up and come towards him. Uncertain, I looked at my stepfather.
‘Go on. Listen to the man.’ Reluctantly I stepped forward.
‘She must lift up her dress.’ I didn’t move.
‘Go on!’ my step-father insisted. Then he softened his voice. ‘It’s okay.’ I lifted up my dress.
The man waved his pen upwards.
‘Higher.’ I obeyed again, this time lifting my dress so that my panties showed. Behind his glasses he eyed me coldly, measuring me against some invisible standard.
‘Now turn around.’ Slowly, wobbling with fear, I rotated before him.
‘You’ll need to pull her panties down a bit.’ I froze. It was worse not being able see his glittering glasses, only to feel them behind me.
My stepfather did as instructed. I could feel his uneasiness as he tugged down my panties. A moment of silence followed and then my father pulled my panties up again. I turned around while my stepfather retreated to his seat.
The man grunted as I faced him once more. Waved his pen again to show he was done with me. With relief, I ran the few steps to my stepfather.
Later we would learn I had passed.
As we walked away from the big building hand-in-hand, I looked up at my stepfather.
‘Papa, why did that man make me lift up my dress?’
Actually I don’t remember asking him that. By then I had already learned that to remain silent was a refuge from the frightening parts of my life I didn’t understand, a way of warding off danger. Still, in my fantasy, I like to think that I did ask, that the little girl who was me was brave enough to voice the more difficult question and that we had the following exchange.
‘Papa, why did you let that man make me lift up my dress?’ My stepfather looks down at me. ‘He needed to see if you were white enough.’
I imagine how it might take a moment for me to absorb this disturbing answer. I am silent. In the pause, my stepfather smiles in answer to my as-yet-unspoken question, and in his best final-line-of-a-fairy-story voice adds, ‘and of course you are.’
Despite being half-Japanese, my bathing costume line had shown me to be ‘white enough’. Now my parents and I, along with my younger, blonde brothers could travel unhindered back to South Africa, where being Japanese meant being classified as an honorary white. I had been given clearance as completely white, a whiter person than I had any right to be.
So began my initiation into being someone other than who I was. It would be many years before I understood the full burning shamefulness of that small but potent event. It was 1967.
Author’s Note: this is the prologue to a memoir in progress about growing up foreign in South Africa and the search for my Japanese father.
When the wind hits my skin,
it reminds me I’m alive.
When I exhale
I feel my heart
push against my chest.
During the day, I hear –
the sound of footsteps hitting the ground,
the voice of a man growling in complaint,
and a woman laughing at the top of her lungs,
only to convince another that she is okay,
and her family affairs are in order.
With the smell of a cooking pot blending,
with a disturbing unfamiliar smell,
I find myself trying to figure out
what this other strange smell could be.
All this is none of my business,
but the wind still blows it my way.