My Mother, Louie. The African Quilt continued.
Let’s face it: Mothers are ‘off limits’. To write about one’s mother is the emotional equivalent of a strip search. Yet, for writers they have probably shaped the way we see, the things we value and care about. Whether we loved or hated them, battled or bruised them, cosseted or cared, their shadow looms larger than any other. As writers we step round it. It’s considered only decent.
Yet as a four times mother myself, I recognise the crucial necessity of probing and unclothing the role of mother, to understand how it shaped my life and now the book that wrote my life, wrote it on my own mother’s stooping back. There is no aspect of the book that cannot trace its origins to her necessary neglect, her interest in the self-sacrificial and heroic, her solitude and mine. She made no choices for me, which necessitated me trying everything, and ending up writing about everything without any guidelines, or narrow pathways.
I want to paint my mother ( and I have elaborated her friendship with Ndaba) but the reluctance to focus a glare bites even now, and I shall take my cowardice into the third person to begin with, because she was probably more important to others, a public life, heroic though not renowned. All she was, and gave, was in spite of me. And because of me. I was her cross; I was never unaware of that, although its weight became a familiar monkey on the back. It was during a ‘metaphor therapy’ workshop that I ran smack into our mutual obliquity and looked it, unflinchingly, in the eye. By then I was in my early fifties and she just into her seventies. The group of metaphor spinners was given large sheets of paper and a set of drawing pens and asked to ‘Draw what you remember of your mother’.
The woman next to me drew a pair of legs in elegant shoes that ended at the skirt hem. It was all she remembered, as a child. Her mother was always hidden by a table, and, as an Italian, that continued. Mother meant pasta ribbons, food and the ferrying of food.
I drew a wet towel, coiled as though being wrung out.
‘Explain this?’ said the therapist.
‘It is what my arrival did to my mother’ I found myself saying ‘Go on…’ he said.
‘Well it’s pain, and grief and conflict, being wrung out and inescapable, as strong as a wet towel…the sort boys flick each other with in the shower- the better to sting’
‘Well now, draw what came before it’ he said.
So I will. You have heard about consequences, I now lay out some causes. For the present, facts will be bare boned. How they structured my life and interests and the ‘book that wrote my life’ will follow anon.
My mother, Louie and her sister Ursula were the second family for my grandmother, Marna, and the first joyful arrivals for my grandfather Heli. They had run free in Uganda, swum in wave-dashed pools in Natal, camped under the stars with horses cropping the grass on the Freestate Farm. Then Education dictated imprisonment, in a boarding school, in England, (since there were none in Uganda) and life had to prepare for a Future. From twelve to eighteen they never saw their parents, but spent holidays with remote cousins in remote Wales, where Sundays were bible black Chapel kneeling, and book bound with prohibitions, no running, no paddling.
Service loomed large for Louie. Her father, sweltering in Africa, for those aspirants who walked five miles for the privilege of school, had laid the foundations for missionary zeal. The Welsh abstinence might have contributed its saltpetre. Louie had studied against the call of Spring, developed a poetic appreciation of the Seasons ( as can scarcely be avoided in Staffordshire) in which Easter was the high and polite point of some ancient rite, made doubly precious if snow fell on the straw ‘boater’ on the way to Church and the bells rang slowly in the pebbles of the holy streams…but she had identified her calling. She would become a doctor, in a country devoid of doctors. It would be a hard road for one, not academically outstanding or retentive, but dogged and dedicated. Medicine came bound with Schweitzer, Pasteur and Fleming, whose self denials stood at her shoulder, mixing their brew of nobility and rewarding virtue.
Leaving school with an adequate matriculation, she boarded a Union Castle Liner in Southampton for the journey towards her adult and independent life. After six years she was going home; life was opening out and there were ship board rituals of evening dress and the Captain’s table. It was heady and disorienting.
Louie’s natural shyness and self effacing uncertainties shrank in the sun of some attention, from the conspicuous uniformed Ship’s Doctor. Twelve years her senior, clearly a man of the world, he was stained with the romance of his profession. Confident in his tropical ‘whites’, good looking, a suave and pleasing dancer, he talked of anaesthetics and surgical procedures, seemingly fostering her interests, but paying more attention to her looks and the corsages her dresses merited. Always at her elbow he ‘brought her out’ as confidently as any matriarch with a debutante for the London Season. He would assist her commitment; surely he would. Life would be a partnership of dedication.
At nineteen she was in love. It was 1939. The War summoned. He obeyed and was drafted to North Africa. She applied for Medical School and took long teas with her mother and the tedious women with nothing but gossip in Kampala. One or two brief visits from the Front, her suitor now in khaki and heroic about field stations and round the clock surgery, necessitated a whirlwind tour of introductions, and a marriage planned for the next opportunity. It came in the summer of 1940. Her daughter was conceived on their honeymoon, and born in his absence. Louie’s life was over.
Helped into a mission hospital for black babies, she delivered the unwanted white impediment in an agony of desolation. Its father had already found a worldly nurse with red fingernails, more to his taste, and in the deserts of North Africa distractions were few. On the few occasions he returned to Natal where Louie and child were installed near an army base, it was to the convivial company of the Officer’s mess, where he lodged, drank whisky and wrote long letters to the nurse. Louie now pined only for medicine, but instead had a baby.
Her child was not yet two. An unexpected visit from its father in which he demanded to hear the prayers it should by now have known, and didn’t, was punished by the removal of a comfort pillow, without which there would be no sleep. That was the final straw. Close to midnight, Louie boarded the last train out of Pietermaritzburg, and left with a bag of nappies, a suitcase, and a sleeping child across her shoulder.
They were on their own.
As an Army Officer he could, and did, withhold his pay from his wife and child. In the ranks he could not have done so. Louie was penniless, homeless, and stripped of hope. It was the birth of a child that had done that. She had no choice but to return to her parents. Medical school was three day journey from their home and a seven year commitment. They would scrimp and save and might manage to help her, but not for seven years.
Physiotherapy and a boarding house full of the wounded but not far from the university, was the enforced compromise, and the doctor she had dreamed of becoming fled in the harsh light of a new reality.
She and her child were locked together, and Louie paid for that for the rest of her life.
So did I and so did Ndaba. The wrong done to Louie by my father and my birth dined at our table, mainly because she never spoke of it. Her easy laughter and sense of fun froze inwardly; the open warmth of optimism, and wild impulse (‘No swimming costume? So what? Now, ready? Jump!) gave way to discipline and fatigue, and the solace of stirring a pot with Ndaba, who better than anyone understood. She had made equivalent sacrifices. They could only comfort one another, and give to others.
I was horse mad, and had a friend. We spent every moment at a stables and riding wild over the veldt playing ‘cowboys’, or competing in gymkhanas. I hardly ever needed to go home. She had a much older brother and sister, who occasionally told us to brush our teeth, but always took us with them, to the Drive In Cinema ( they snogged in the back of open top sports cars) or away on holidays, in an ever welcoming home, where a grape vine and a swimming pool, and the latest musical records occupied endless hours of jiving and unthinking privilege. People arrived and were fed in waves, and left. There was a drawer of small change for ice-creams, and unripe plums for fights with boys. Hers became my family, warm hearted, generous, and undemanding. My mother was too unselfish to mind, or to show if it hurt.
After my grandmother died, and vacated her room, it was occupied by a new ‘husband’ for Louie. Max had met her as a patient with a slipped disc, living in a bachelor’s pad, having been evicted by a wealthy wife on black Friday, the day the Stock Market crashed and he was declared an overnight bankrupt. He moved on to trying to persuade my (by now very wealthy) father to support me, (without success) and from there had been wining and dining Louie (she paid) for four years and after the death of my grandmother he lost no time making himself exceedingly comfortable. He was a lawyer who insisted on ordering shirts from Saville Row (again she paid), and came home at nine in the evening to drink a leisurely whisky and milk (for his ulcers) before expecting Ndaba, up since six and grey with waiting and fatigue, to serve supper. It had to start with herring, chopped on toast, or pickled with cream. Max now presided, his shirts, his shoes, his habits and preferences.
He spoke to Ndaba with peremptory demand, but only when Louie was absent. My bond with Ndaba was strengthened by a new and cordially shared detestation of this leech who would bleed Louie dry. I was mostly at school but in the holidays less able to go home and less welcome when I did. In one way he was irrelevant to our threesome, but he occupied the manger and he barked; orders to Ndaba, and provocative political opinions to me, for the pleasure of riling the adolescent, and then grinning when I left the table. Nothing pleased him so well as winding up the opposition. Case closed. He feigned a loud political liberalism on matters of race, but every encounter with a black man, and with Milly belied it. Hypocrisy is my first deep phobia, I can now detect it at twenty paces.
Louie seemed to maintain a wilful blindness, (and refused to believe my stories of his ill-treatment of Ndaba- I was clearly biased…indeed I was.) Even in their final years, when he daily took a taxi to the Casino where he squandered every penny while she worked was suffered in silence. He now lies buried without an inscription; an anonymous grave on a hill for a man without qualities. After his death she never once mentioned him. After her death Ndaba cut every photograph of him in two before burning them. When I asked Ndaba why she had put up with him she said ‘How could I leave her with him? She was punished enough. God stayed away, so I must stay instead.’
The choice of husbands was not Louie’s strong suit.
So the sunlight of Mildred Thoko Ndaba fell upon a dingy and disciplined poverty, and sustained it, a stoic restraint into which she brought hourly abundant comfort. Food for the Soul.
But I have told you about that.
The story of my mother’s final peaceful years with Ndaba and her tragic end has been told in a short story ‘The Miracle Worker’ If you would like a PDF, sign up as a friend of Philippa’s to provide an email. (You will never be plagued with offers, only informed of new work when available) I am hoping to put together a collection of stories in which characters epitomise the difference between the Old and New Worlds. Its working title is ‘Minding the Gap’.
I believe people are coloured by their geography but they reveal it in subtle ways, more about cast or temperament than time’s dominion of events. It has to do with wide skies and limitless horizons; space for derring-do, rather than the navigation of unspoken prejudice, or manoeuvres through class distinctions, and competition. The call of Africa, unceasing in those who it nurtured, is the call of openness and liberty of impulse; its judgements may be harsh, or blunt, but they do not constrain or bow the shoulders.
In Europe an African longs to stand up straight and stride out. I can only write my way back up tall.
8 thoughts on “Mother’s Day- The African Quilt Continues…”
What a wonderful and sad story! You have such a wonderful way with words and ability to make everything so real and tangible. It is so heartbreaking what your mother had to go through. But in many ways, it’s even harder and more painful how you yourself have felt like an inpediment for her all these years.
Hello Joanna! Yes, in some ways it was a tragic life for her, but not for the 300+ who walked miles for her funeral and for whom she gave everything. Me, as impediment, was a historic fact, but I never doubted how much she loved me! Thanks for reading.
Gripping. I pondered while reading that, in some way I don’t get, writing about your mother in the third person intensifies these poignant reminiscences.
I think that writing in the third person gives a veracity that the first person ( about my own mother) would have rendered somehow suspect. I had to get far enough away to recount facts, which had to stand alone, apart from what they did to both of us. Perhaps that gave them authenticity. It just seemed instinctive, I did not think it out.
What a wonderful series! These reconstructions of a now distant South Africa are anything but quaint, picture postcard reminiscences. You wrote, “I believe people are coloured by their geography but they reveal it in subtle ways, more about cast or temperament than time’s dominion of events. It has to do with wide skies and limitless horizons; space for derring-do, rather than the navigation of unspoken prejudice, or manoeuvres through class distinctions, and competition.” However intensely personal the drama of these stories, they do not feel narrowly personal at all. On the contrary, I would say that there is something rather uncanny both about the life-patterns that you describe as well as the particular way that you evoke them. You are not only revisiting stories from your past, you are also conjuring up a whole world.
I might describe your approach as a kind of “magical realism,” except that this would place the focus on a recognizable literary technique, which is not what I want to do. Instead, let me say that, as rich as this technique is, it seems to exist in order to point beyond itself, to call attention to the vast and mysterious forces that move behind the surface of even the most everyday events.
From what you have said, “Involution” was a book written before you set one word on paper. If anything, this was a book that wrote you, and seems to have arranged all of the events in your life to provide you with the necessary skills and experiences and relationships and frustrations and ordeals to be able to actualize this predetermined end. I pray that you will continue with these deeply moving and challenging excavations, whether the book ends up being called “Minding the Gap” or something as yet to be determined. As with “Involution,” I believe that this book is already out there, somewhere, and is doing everything possible to coax you into bringing it into full and physical existence. This is not just a collection of faded photographs put into words, nor do the presences of the people that you describe feel safely in the past; I believe that what you are doing is actually creating a kind of “geography of the soul.”
A most heartening comment, and generous in both thoughtfulness and depth. I had fretted that perhaps people may not be able to fathom the reason for such a personal account, and instead you have extracted the very pith of what I hoped would be seen. Thank you!