Stitching Memory. (Voetstoets)
I have decided to take a break. Not exactly a holiday, but a change of wind, tacking to the side. Ultimately all is relevant to everything else. Voetstoets in Afrikaans means ‘as found…warts and all’. It was legally used to clarify that a house buyer took it ‘as found’. IE No come back or complaints or changing your mind. No whinging.
Although my book ‘Involution…’ is about memory, it gives it a seemingly ‘worthy’ importance (Books have a habit of looking ponderous or self-important) and I want to make it simple. Memory for each of us is pretty simple, often fragmentary and from fragments we stitch together some significance. The more I look into what people write, the more obvious it becomes that they are doing just that. Their sleuthing detectives wander the streets they recall, their romantic couples lean over bridges whose views once detained them with duller disappointing men, their crimes happen in the Estate they never pass without a shiver. Their revenge is sweet when it draws in their torturer of any stripe. Writers have only memory on which to draw, even if they call it imagination. It is woven from the familiar.
I confess Involution, outwardly a scientific thesis, takes all its images from what I chance encountered and somehow stored in haphazard piles until they leapt out as apt, pithy or stuck up two fingers to challenge all misgivings. I know where all of them come from—the patchwork of my life, haphazard, unplanned, but re-ordered somehow meaningfully creative.
So I have decided to share a real patchwork. The idea of a ‘family quilt’ was inspired by an envy of that fabulous quilt that wrapped the girl led through an orange grove by a blackbird ( in How to Make an American Quilt) My hopes of leaving such a legacy to the few that might recall that I existed ( my children- I was less ambitious then…) began my own chronology through memory. I set to with a will and kept going for two winters. At the moment a few panels await joining, and the construction of a few more and a border. Since it may never be finished I thought my blog could exhibit and explain (and invite a few similar associations or opinions).
It will force me to persist with it. I often think those Victorian samplers, with their delicate stitchery convey something apart from what they portray; privation of children kept indoors, imbued with the modest expectations of nothing but more of the same through marital life. Cedar chests to chase away moth, boudoirs of bare boards, lace edged dowries increased for each year of dying hope, all convey a disciplined emotional containment, paid for in pricked fingers and failing eyes. (To quote e e cummings in a recent blog… a pile climbing up as hope away down…)
Mine, I regret, is not that. Rather a spontaneous image just to capture some essence of personality, recalled, for the most part with affection ( and frustration when it gets to my children! As you will see if you visit again…)
I have written about my grandparents in previous blogs- Marna, my ‘galleon grandmother’ and my somewhat saintly diligent grandfather, Heli. In this panel they are captured on an average day, my grandmother out of doors whenever possible engaged in the supervision of planting; my grandfather nailed to his desk with minions forever waiting for missives. The barometer of their lives divides two people, entirely different emotionally and intellectually.
She loved gardening (which in the barren landscapes they occupied posed a challenge) he loved languages and the written word. His letters to Whitehall couched in diplomat’ese’ expressing ‘concern’ for ludicrous instructions on the teaching of Latin to Zulus, tendering gentle urgings of English instead. His reports would never express his fury at the vulgarity and disrespect shown to African teachers by racist visitors like Harold Nicolson, but be sealed with wax into which his ring would be pressed before dispatch. Spread-eagled on his study floor I would read the sighs and clenched teeth, while I made brass rubbings of coins or Meccano structures from a book of plans. Nothing pleased me more than the use of a spanner, and undoubtedly often in his works.
In Mafeking (now Mafikeng) Marna would send me with two embarrassing baskets to the Government buildings where a dusty avenue of Seville oranges, shunned for bitterness by everyone else, would yield a sparse crop that would give us marmalade for the year. ‘Tell them you have come to pick the oranges, and I sent you’ It usually sufficed, hugely embarrassing. At Christmas the postman left us until last and tipped out loose walnuts from Harrods onto the stoep. They bounced like ping pong balls on the hard polished surface. They had always decimated their packaging. It was a wonder we received them, but nobody else would have ordered walnuts. Nevertheless the Christmas cake demanded that we gouged out fragments of walnut, and lacking nails, bit out seeds from raisins and dried our own citrus peel before the grand mixing could start. The annual treat was licking out the bowl, killed by the arrival of a rubber spatula that left nothing in its efficient wake. The cake was a week’s work, and the resultant triumph secured for a year of special allocation on birthdays and anniversaries. Hidden in her underwear, its tin was under lock and key.
How slowly time moved!
In the flagging heat under a tin roof we slowly roasted. When I lamented that we should have a swimming pool she calmly set the cook and gardener to digging a pit five feet deep in the garden in which I was allowed to bake mud pies in a pair of knickers while the precious water trickled out of a hose onto my shoulders and I sat in a blissful puddle. I remember the only breeze was to be found up the loquat tree, and when I refused to come down my meals were sent up on a tray on the head of a poor benighted gardener. Marna understood the caprices of a child, although she never indulged bad manners, or lack of consideration, fantasy was always spared room, dreaming was what life was for.
It was she who insisted that my grandfather took me on safari when he set off for the annual inspection of schools in remote areas. It lasted about five weeks. I was allowed three books and I admit they were usually Enid Blyton. Those were my 5 to 7 years. Before the sun was up we departed in a ten ton truck that seated five abreast, the driver, my grandfather, me and whoever else was invited. Once it was my mother, and once my favourite Uncle Tom, a useful physician whose bag and stethoscope were always put to use wherever we stopped. The landscape was partial desert, thorn scrub with the statuesque Baobab or flat topped fever trees offering noonday shade from the pitiless heat. We travelled in the early and late parts of the day and panted through the noon in the lee of a tree; only termites for active company.
Our canvas water-bags hung on the front bumper, half a gallon each for all purposes. Behind, under a tarpaulin travelled the camping gear, potatoes, onions, ammunition and on top the cook, the camp attendant and Light, the half Hottentot, half San Bushman tracker, whose skill in tracking and accuracy with a rifle or a shotgun would keep us in meat. It was mostly guinea fowl roasted or stewed: Bigger game, like impala were allowed to Light ( who lived for the challenge) when we planned to stop for a few days, since hanging them required thorn hedging round the tents and fires all night to keep lion at bay. If I was a nuisance it was for my demands that the portable loo should be surrounded by hessian-on pole privacy before I would contemplate using it. I was terrified of snakes, of which there were many. The servants shook their heads, but surrendered: it was erected first.
I often wondered whether Whitehall realised the work of their Director of Education, or gleaned anything from those polite reports typed on a folding table by a man with his head wrapped in a wet towel.
Sometimes distances were marked in days of driving, fording swollen rivers like the Limpopo on rafts or shallow weirs that might take two days waiting to drop below the axles. At every school the expectation of the honour would have taken days of washing and the ironing of immaculate white shirts or dresses by flat irons heated over kraal fires, and the children shone as though buffed for military inspection. There was always choral singing, and often a night feast supplied from meagre rations gathered over miles. Although I was very young I was embarrassed by this generosity, though I realised that Heli, fluent in their language was embraced wherever we went. He became a different man in the bush, at ease with himself, in love with his people. As the truck ground away through the sand we were accompanied by running children until the speed left them behind. Sometimes we had managed to leave a buck for later skinning and fireside talk.
This rather pitiful panel contains all of that. And more, but I wanted to give a taste of needlework’s addition to photography.