Quest 2016 Drumming for the Tribe?

Reconciliation as the Theme of a life reflected in very varied books.

Aren’t words the devil? Dangerous too. I confess I recoil from all these buzz words like ‘tribe’, ‘brand’ ‘platform’ and even ‘quest’. They seem to position each of us with a loudhailer spitting in the wind. But give them a subtext, as Jeffrey does with ‘running with’ and suddenly the tribe is flashing through thin woods in moccasins in hot pursuit of a meal, a fire, and maybe ultimately rest among cheerful companions.

I confessed how reluctant I was to hail. But having accepted that conical amplifier and hardly before I put lips to mouthpiece the Cosmos took over.

(Don_Quixote) by Daumier

Now I have written a book, much maligned as weighty, or erudite, ( it is in fact light-hearted and irreverent) about the synchronicity of thought and event, and yet it still surprises me when its timing is immaculate and instantaneous. No sooner had I joined this new ‘tribe’ to take stock of where I stood then my past knocked me over, fairly viciously. I had to terminate its claims, and I did. The past was now another country.

Into the cold winds of a new and undefined freedom , and after three years of being wholly ignored I received within the week the attention of two publishers both suddenly interested in THE BOOK. One for its ‘literature’, the other for its ‘philosophy’. So the baby may not need to be discarded with the bathwater?

I read this as the Cosmos claiming the book and wresting it out of my hands. Nothing may happen with either of these but the message has been taken. No book belongs to the author, anymore than a child belongs to its mother.

Chris Brogan’s Quest 2016 prompt

How will you better clarify whom you serve and what you do for them in 2016? #Serve

All is now being ‘better clarified’. Involution was ‘addressed’ to entirely the wrong audience, the closed world of conservative, suspicious science. It was written as poetry to appeal to their hearts, but scientists don’t allow themselves a heart when evaluating a new theory based on experience, not even the experiences of their own geniuses! Especially when those solid hypotheses are losing gravitas, and shown to be crumbling. They will shore up, rather than ride a wrecking ball. I tend to be seen as a wrecking ball, however quietly I speak in dulcet imagery.

So its audience will be unlikely to be found in academic circles, unless it is the students facing the disappointment of such closed minds. Both these publishers believed in a different audience, and what that clarified was the broken lance. A kind friend who knows me and it well offered to remove all windmills and said I could call her Sancho.

Then when an embryonic and sobered modesty was ready to settle for something less ambitious and I was deliberating the matter of three fountains ( three possible books)…and which would make the most of the few years left, two things (again in synchrony) conspired to narrow attention. Yesterday a fellow Quester Suzanne Petersen Chriastiansen answered my appeal but unconsciously. She quoted most generously from a short story of mine she had read and said it .’brought back memories of all the beautiful Earthy books I grew up with like Cry thy Beloved Country or Kringe in a Bos…I especially love the African muse in the Afrikaans language… all African books have the thread of EARTHyness running through them…THAT is what I miss the most…and my thoughts are driven by me – or driving me? towards a new project’ . We Africans never shake its dust from our feet.

This observation fell like rain on parched ground.

I had bridged the great divide between Europe and Africa, and her longing had recognised it. Bridging the divides has always dominated precisely because ways to reconcile them has been the central search in myself, and my family which was to be explored in what now has a working title ‘The Tribe of Strong Women’.

With her comment arrived a book I had ordered weeks ago called ‘Every Writer has a Thousand Faces’. IT is a slim gem. David Beispiel ( the name could not be more apt to his message) suggests one should delay starting any writing as long as possible, and instead lay out an arbitrary ‘palette of words’. They will suggest themselves. Let the unconscious select what they point towards, and ultimately shape. The book has already been written, and the role of the writer is as scribe.

That seems as good an answer to Chris Brogan as I can find. The unconscious is the field we all share. All I can contribute is the vocabulary and I hope some sherbet humour, and interesting synchronicities. Forty five years ago I sought to ‘serve’ science. It has taken me almost to the end of my life to accept that was not the plan. Perhaps the plan is now simply to harvest the debris of experiences that spanned the divides, and find words for longing. It is what unites us all, and we shape it uniquely. If my drum is audible it will be heard by the longing heart.

Have another picture.   Less despairing, getting there.          DonQuixote2

“Honoré Daumier 017 (Don Quixote)” by Honoré Daumier – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

“Don Quixote 5”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Clamour of the Daimon-Part Two Motherhood

The Clamour of the Daimon- Motherhood Part Two.

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

(T.S.Eliot. Burnt Norton)

My second shot at renewed motherhood arrived without formal invitation, and was as ill-timed as my own birth had been. Teaching in a Catholic convent as a now unmarried mother, a swelling belly was as unwelcome as an invited priest suddenly swearing from the pulpit. The fact that the father was their beloved Director of Studies and the only honorary layman in a fluttering coterie of veils only compounded the disaster. He was (tactfully and regretfully) invited to resign.

Prego...per il bambino, Signora
Prego…per il bambino, Signora

Without a job between us we went to Florence to ponder on the future, if there was to be one. He had never been out of England, (except in the war in uniform) and we found a frescoed room near the Pitti palace, with a roof garden overlooking the Arno, and bought a Moses basket in the straw market. The bambino that should have occupied it was, instead and disappointingly to all clustering eyes, filled with bottles of wine and presents of Panforte for the children yet to be introduced. His respectable past life was over, and at fifty he contemplated unemployment with a baby on the way, two others to support, and an irresponsible scribbler, with mystical tendencies, growing larger by the day. He was thrilled, thrilled but terrified. He saw winter in Florence as though in a dream, a world of incomprehensible promise, and beauty, empty and shuttered with vacant streets filled only with literature and, perhaps appropriately, a galloping Renaissance, yet to breast the hill.

My second exposure to motherhood, was as though the first had been a pre-run for two more, to get better at it; again two girls and exactly the same ages apart ( to the day) as the first two. Life was on edit and redraft.

The first of the second pair, born at noon on a cloudless summer Sunday, introduced me to a conspicuous daimon, who scarcely asked her consent before stating his intentions. The doctor who delivered her, pronounced her ‘perfect’ and departed to play tennis. Her arrival filled with sunlight was the renewal of a life that she had come to teach me to navigate. She contemplated the world through wide open eyes, as though simply checking her recognition. Each phase was mastered and ticked off. I remember no tears or sleepless nights, simply a steadfast walk to inner certainty. By four she was a fluent reader with a passion for books devouring stories about children left to discover for themselves: Laura Ingalls Wilder took her to the prairies, Arthur Ransom to the Lakes, the Railway Children covered her in steam and the Wierdstone of Brisingamen terrified her, delightedly. C.S.Lewis was constantly bookmarked with a frayed nappy-rag, and Aslan shared her bed. I think he still does.

The preferred were about intrepid courage in difficult circumstances, usually the result of grown ups, screwing up. That figured. Like me her first passion was horses, and riding, spending every moment at the local stables where retired polo ponies covered in mud, saw out their days for children who curry combed, plaited, saddled and cantered about unsupervised through lanes of Lady’s lace and nettle.

Hup hup!
Hup hup!

When there was no pony the dog was saddled with her lolling and threadbare pink lamb and put through its paces over jumps made from any available stick or support. It took us years to discover why a collie that had never been fed, except at supper time, constantly begged for biscuits! ‘But I thought they are supposed to be so intelligent?!’ Since I was never a diligent laundress, the crumbs in the pockets were never found. I had assumed a willing collaboration; mothers can be incredibly blind.

 

These two passions for wild terrain and horses found a focus in a sudden and dedicated passion for American Indians, whose rugs, tepees, feathers and moccasins littered the five year old’s cell, and whose symmetrical designs in black, ochre and red were taken to art. When an elderly godmother announced that she was going to visit America she offered a caution ‘I wouldn’t bother going all that way, the prairies are not what they were, and there are hardly any buffalo left’! Her world was all in books and in the past.

Then the daimon took its firm hold on her collar, getting serious about the violin she was given for her sixth Christmas. The violin and the daimon took the opening bow together and the child disappeared. Playing the violin was all she wanted, in life: Except for horses— they remained—to be joined later by elephants. At seven she busked to streets of spectators in Spain, and kept a festival on ice in Portugal until the proper band sobered up. Playing was as natural as breathing to begin with. Only after a serious fall and a broken collar bone it became necessary to choose. Broken fingers, wrist or elbows was no longer an option, even the collarbone would raise its complaint, later. The daimon, given its head, is a ruthless master.

Unlike the unfathomable daughters that had preceded her, this was the easiest child to guide and provide for. She took the reins, what she was and needed was never in doubt. Finding teachers that took a six year old’s demands for technique, scales and studies was another matter. They all thought it should be fun or yoga and country dances. All local teachers excused themselves, finding her seriousness suspect, and incapable of feeding it.

I was, of course, accused of being one of those ‘pushy’ mothers. Little did they know I could hardly run fast enough to keep up with the instruments, strings, urtext scores or the expense of the few who would take her seriously but who taught in the Conservatoires and charged accordingly. I knew nothing about the world of musical education, or its ruthless demands for knowing the right people.  My Sundays were spent driving to London and using the available churchyard yews for essential purposes, while she was taught under a lofty coffered dome by an austere Japanese maestro. Her daimon lashed its tail over time and our very limited bank balance.

Ten Reasons why I should!?
Ten Reasons why I should!?

It also whipped up the jealousy of her sisters. Her younger sister also demanded a violin and played it with consummate ease, much more fluent, dextrous, and flamboyant. She wanted no bothering with scales or technique and refused to practise. Look it’s easy! It was, for her, because physical mastery came naturally, music was incidental. Yet the convincing fluency bought her an education, and the affluent school that gave her a full music scholarship introduced her to her other daimon, the ease of finding money and those that had it. Life, since, has trickled coins into her lap: From University she was head hunted before graduation, and she has never yet had to apply for a job. The violin has never been out of its handsome case since she played the Bruch violin concerto at a final concert and packed it away. Music was the core of existence for one, the means to ease and privilege for her sister. One language, two interpreters.

For me music and the disciplined training it demanded was the trapping of that sun through the bars of industry, the only thing that kept me connected to what I had turned from, for the sake of my second-chance daughters, and the only consolation to which I could willingly harness myself without too much regret. I attempted to master the cello, founded an orchestra and built a concert hall, since I knew none of the right people. Music linked me to early dreams, and to the highest of human aspiration, to articulate feelings, not merely to think.

So it incubated another refinement necessary to re-working of the book. It was the power of music that sought expression through poetry, the cadences of words, their evocative rhythms, and the shaping of themes, unconfined as to meaning, but no less accurate to the interpretations of the heart. So our daimons inter-twined: I needed her passion for music to educate my language for the passion to communicate ideas, ideas deeper than the intellect alone could apprehend.

My daughters have all held up mirrors to define my deficiencies, and to refine the conviction that nothing is without meaning, and that each partakes of All, but none will conform to expectations. Everything they became was evident within the first year, had I been more perceptive. The first walked away, seeking emotional disengagement, and now undertakes intrepid solitary journeys to remote African areas to survey for dams or roads. I’m told time out has sampled bungee jumping and white water rafting. The second is affirmed by domestic and parental perfectionism and bakes moist sponges for beautiful serene achieving children. The third still seeks service to music, teaching and playing whenever music takes the baton rather than egotism, and the fourth is still trying to discover where the pearl in the world’s enigmatic oyster might hide.

I hope I have finally learnt to get out of their light. It has taken much too long.

The book’s final resurrection, after forty years, is now no longer a theory, as it was originally, but a celebration of all creation and all creativity. It took its final shape from sharing the longing of one daughter for whom playing Beethoven was more vital than a longed-for pony. Longing is one thing I feel I have come to understand, more potent and present when denied. So Involution is entirely about longing, for recognition, for expression, for understanding, and all those inspired creators driven by its incremental refinement, to lose themselves and be carried towards a wider sea, and take us all with them.

Stillness now the new persuasion
Imperious stillness fills the ears…
The unmarked stave the new horizon
Makes music’s journey new, explicit;
To hollow the heart for a deeper longing,
To finger the strings of a naked thirst,
Prepare the ground for a joyful breaking…
Returning to silence its borrowed jewels of song.

(Involution: Canto the Seventh)

 

 

 

The Clamour of the Daimon- Motherhood

The Clamour of the Daimon- On Being a Mother

(Quilting Daughters)

Russian Fish Pie for supper!
Russian Fish Pie for supper!

The child is father to the man, each ensures
The safeguards to their hungers…
The correction of residual crimes…
Denial of appetites outgrown…
The shaping of their talents
Offers incense to the brazier burning
On the altar of mankind.

(Involution-An Odyssey…)

Blogs are supposed to have a focus. Mine, seemingly wide-ranging, is all allied to the book, Involution. A Book about Everything that needed all my living to supply its vocabulary and much of that living was motherhood. In this, like all mothers, I had to feel my way, and thereby come to encounter my daimon’s determination to wrest control.

My last post focused on my mother, and on being a single daughter, an only child.

As a perceptive comment to that post noted, everything recorded presupposed the book recently published; the early and necessary independence, into which a whirlwind experience threw everything into the air, rearranging all the components of life and leaving little but a bloody minded opposition to coercion or conformity. In every way I had to start afresh. In relation to motherhood one central pinion anchored resolve, the perception of what failing her daimon had led to in my mother, bitter regret. My inopportune arrival blighted my mother’s life, neither her fault, nor mine; a fact nevertheless.

Being inopportune, always too early, has been a constant. This book was conceived forty five years ago, forty years too early for its acceptance.  A better acquaintance with my daimon probably needed the necessary dislocation provided by time’s brake. It and I had an argument to undergo first. James Hillman’s extraordinarily powerful book ‘The Soul’s Code’ has helped put it all into perspective. Character finds wider cracks through which to enter as we age. The daimon or occupying genius (the active element of Soul) in each of us struggles against the distractions of middle age and of parenthood. It snakes its way through impediments and often disappears, reduced to a few remembered dreams, the inexplicable impulse, or sudden blinding shafts of recognition.

Between the book’s early failure (with two small daughters in tow) and its recent incarnation more motherhood intervened. That also required the mastery of house building, mixing mortar, carpentry, drains and daily doing at its most basic. I had flown too close to the sun, melted my wings, and fallen, badly burnt: the discipline of motherhood would re-connect me to ordinary life. It was the re-education necessary to render the sun a softer and more benign presence threaded on quiet days, sliced and apportioned by welcome oblivious nights of exhausted sleep.

Stone Crop, dereliction and one cold tap
Stone Crop, dereliction and one cold tap

 

Father doing Time. One day a garden.
Father doing Time. One day a garden.

 

 

 

 

 

The re-education also introduced a new realm of experience that would prove to be necessary to extend my vocabulary into architecture, design, music, the hunger for time to read and on being servant to necessity. The last was probably the most important.

In talking about my mother, I reverted to memories, and she, now safely dead, would be unable to correct them or to argue and be unlikely to feel aggrieved.  I feel I can count on her sympathy. Not so with my still very alive daughters. They would be mortified to be identified, and they have daimons of their own, refusing to be pinned, so I must confine their existence to what they did for me.

That seems sufficient, because I intend to examine the effect of both my childhood and theirs on the conceiving of a book. It is creativity at its broadest that draws upon everything, emotional and psychological, academic and philosophical, each intricately facets of the same enquiry. Who am I? Why am I here? Why did I come through that portal (my mother) or give birth to that child?

What shall I do with all this experience before I depart?

My own mother’s tight-lipped stoicism, which made my very existence a burden, had led me to take a vow at about sixteen. If I ever had children they would know, because I would share with them, all things: anger, impulse, confusion, and impetuous affection. Words would not be withheld. I would never have them say, as I had, ‘I would rather you beat me than stay silent, why won’t you tell me where or in what I have failed?’

If I had children I would also have more than one; they would have each other: An insurance against my own shortcomings.

I struggled to unite my four daughters in what I believed was a single family. Therein lay my failure to understand that unity requires the consent of all, to each. Much later I had to accept that I had two families, severed by the father of the first, whose refusal to include the second split us, as though with an axe. The father of the second family accepted all, in an almost saintly indifference to distinctions between his and another man’s children.

Daughters Part One

My first marriage had yielded two daughters, so different from one another they initiated the most essential lesson

Your children are not your children
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you.
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

(Kahlil Gibran- The Prophet)

The first at ten months walked away, escaped any lap, shunned hugs and kisses, threw herself into deep water, climbed up dangerous heights. She needed nothing from me, except the freedom to be left alone and watched from a distant eye. She asked for very little, gave very little. As an ingénue mother I mistook this for precocious advanced development; hurrah for independence!  Her sister was the exact opposite, needing a great deal of affection, constant reassurances and encouragement. Honing maternal skills required flexible adjustments between these extremes, one impervious, one hypersensitive, one over confident, one with only tentative questions.

The second, faced with living on a building site developed obsessional cleaning instincts and domestic virtues that manifested before she was ten, binging home the bacon for Thursday night suppers on her bicycle after ‘cookery’. She created order where none seemed to exist. Her sister, immune to labour, simply disappeared into a caravan where she painted her nails and revised for examinations in which she was determine to excel, and if possible exceed. Her fierce competitive instincts were equal to anything, from scrabble to chemistry.  It took her no time to persuade her father that her academic record would be much assisted by boarding away, away from the cold tap and the portaloo amidst the nettles. He obliged with alacrity. My vow needed pruning. Neither was like me, nor sought what I understood.

The refuge from labour.
The refuge from labour.

With both the vow was inappropriate. That is the hell of motherhood, you only have one to sample from, and without siblings you start completely un-apprenticed, learning only from sometimes serious mistakes. My mother was not ‘typical’. No mother is. She had taught me by default; I had been peripheral to her life, my children would be central and know always that they were. Pendulums are never a reliable pointer, but the circularity of existence is invariably reduced to the swing between extremes.

My oldest daughters did not want to know anything about me, but I had set a course of candour (hatched from my childhood of silence) and took much too long to realise its penalties. I lost both of them; not immediately, but later, when all that candour backfired and I was so very clear as target. Their father stripped me of them utterly, knowing how central they had been in every aspect of creative life. He waited until late adolescence with all its insecurity and resentment made them vulnerable to persuasion.  His revenge was served very cold, and wrapped with foreign travel and few returns.

They left, one for university in Africa, the other for training college in Switzerland and never looked back. I had served my purpose, with all the tedium of schooling, housing, homework and transport. Holidays had been treats with him, in exotic surroundings like Costa Rica, Kalahari or Galapagos. Half of my family were always severed from the other half, by money and partisan affection. While the older two were camping on beaches, or on film locations the second family stayed home and played with the dog or tolerated a Yucca plant as perennial pricking wicket.

Overwhelmed by labour and literally putting a roof over heads I failed to see this divide widening. The experience which had set in train both my divorce from him and the book took many years to develop its consequences, to alienate my children from me and from each other. I had complimented myself on a successful and benign divorce, (he and his new wife stayed with us occasionally) but instead merely provided labour and education, enabling him and his wife to live well under canvas, or in remote places without available schools, until his daughters were old enough to leave me without proving an imposition.

Self deception took a long detour, through illusion and dogged determination, but even this provided its salutary lesson; that one daimon (mine to foster unity) is powerless against another that preferred disunity, and could exploit every argument to make its case. The devil has all the best tunes, for sure.

 

But I had been offered a second chance ( to be continued).

 

Mother’s Day- The African Quilt Continues…

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.

Diathermy- Infra-red- Round the Clock
Diathermy- Infra-red- Round the Clock

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.

Louie ( Right) and Sister Ursula, Leaving School
Louie ( Right) and Sister Ursula, Leaving School

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.

Continue reading “Mother’s Day- The African Quilt Continues…”

South Africa Through the Eyes of Colour-blind Friendship

Portrait of Mildred Thoko Ndaba-

More of the African Family Quilt.

As a country to be born into South Africa’s politics shaped everything. The politics ate at the breakfast table, turned off the radio last thing at night… never something to be left to others. Not merely administrative decisions but every encounter influenced by its prejudices and expectations. We moved against each other, we blacks and whites, like separate shoals of fish, noticing, but seeming not to, separate doorways, separated schools and townships, and ‘whites only’ beaches, playgrounds, parks and buses. Because my family sailed against the winds, and pretended to be oblivious, and then defiant, I only really only see it clearly now: now that its worst excesses are past. That is not to say it wasn’t a constant subject of conversation, but Mildred Thoko Ndaba’s relationship with my mother was a bulwark that protected us all. It was their love for one another that triumphed, and for which they each sacrificed almost everything else.

How does one do justice to the character of everybody’s Mammy? Milly had the perspicacity and dishcloth efficiency of Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird, the everlasting loading of a table, the sharp remark at bad behaviour, but more laughter than I remember from Calpurnia. Always laughing, doubled up and wiping tears and singing, always singing out loud or, on if on her knees, below the breath. She had the capacious bosom of Mammy in Gone with the Wind and the quiet certainty that without her the world ceased to turn.

Milly and Windy
Milly and Windy

All of these similes are appropriate but none describe Milly (to most) Ndaba (to me). Ndaba as a name could not have been more apt- it means ‘big discussion-powwow’ in Zulu, and big discussion was her role, consulted by everyone, deliberating everything, and taking upon herself the management of lesser beings. We were all lesser beings.

Milly walked into our life when I was six. My mother had survived farming me out to crippled soldiers while she finished her medical training. Confined to wheel-chairs, or on crutches they had little else to do but build me a go-cart, read me stories and see that I drank my milk. Together my mother and I, the only females in this interim desolated boarding house, had early solitary servings in a dismal dining room; eating marrow bones on toast or sardines on limp lettuce, before she took out Grey’s Anatomy in the room we shared, and then studied or wept. Her life was over before it had begun.  On her graduation at twenty five, and landing her first job we moved out- into a high rise flat in the rougher part of Hillbrow with a balcony six floors above a square of grass, and a walkway on the outside.  I was sent to boarding school. My mother worked round the clock.

One morning, just on the point of departure there was a knock and a young Zulu woman asked for work. My mother had no time to talk, pulled her inside, and gave her the keys- of our life. When she came home the sunshine shone off every surface, and a meal was prepared. While she ate my mother asked how this rural girl (the same age as herself, about 27) had come, from where and why? It transpired that Charlie, who managed the garage below, parking cars for the block of flats, had been knifed in a fight, and killed. Milly, his young wife with three children to support had left Paulpietersberg in Natal, her rural homestead where her father had been Chief, and come to find work to support her children, now fatherless.

That was in 1947. My mother died in 2000 and Milly in 2005 and they remained together for the whole of their lives. She was my black mother and more present than ever my white one could be. She made my mother’s professional life as easy as possible, hospital uniforms were starched, ironed and hung in rows, one for each day of the week, shoes were polished and all food prepared. As time went on and my mother gradually acquired wealthy private patients, Milly would accompany her to houses in Parktown or Inanda and while my mother massaged, or applied diathermy treatments, Milly learned from top level chefs in their kitchens; borscht and gefiltre fish  (many were Russian Jews) and pickled and chopped herring, chicken soup, but also potato salad, meringues, fish pies, and goulashes. She then realised she could learn from cookbooks and her repertoire expanded with experimental dishes all her own. Independence was methodically achieved; there was nothing she would not tackle, except driving a car. No African woman in Johannesburg then did that.

She had been educated to standard seven at a mission school and could always read and write ( in a perfect looping copperplate script) but she began to master white commerce, and the telephone, making lists and ordering supplies from grocers, and wholesalers and taking command of the deliveries. This in Johannesburg then was almost unheard of. Milly would carefully wrap sub-standard supplies and return them. Her careful deference and innate courtesy smoothed all feathers. ‘Please sir…my Madame asks can you be so kind…’ In time my ‘madam’ did not even ask questions. Milly decided everything. I only ever wanted lamb cutlets and chips which she supplied, laughing, almost every night. But somehow I learnt to cook, because she made me chop and fry and assemble (and add spring onions, mustard and cayenne pepper to potato salad, still a speciality.)

Milly had little regard for men ‘Ow darling what they for? Make work, make babies, useless!’ When my grandmother could no longer be cared for in Lesotho she moved in with us for her final years in Johannesburg, and these two large women could be seen walking arm and arm through the suburban streets stopping to bend over with laughter, jelly moulds of shaking. Enough to stop the passing cars. Blacks and whites never did that, never showed such easy intimacy.

Continue reading “South Africa Through the Eyes of Colour-blind Friendship”

Stitching Memory- Voetstoets

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.

Barometer of Two Lives
Barometer of Two Lives

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 grandmotherand 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. Continue reading “Stitching Memory- Voetstoets”

South African Safari (circa 1944)

New Year’s Resolution (Now to take Action)

My few followers (probably sick to death of THE BOOK) have suggested that the South Africa I grew up in might find its way into blogs and stories. They are more relevant to the book than might be imagined since all I grew up with found its way in somehow, furnished images, spoke dialects, poked fun.  So are you sitting comfortably? What’s in it for you?  A safari round Africa, encounters with elephants and elephantine characters and then some Proper Stories (note the capitals) if you’d like. Just ask.

Recovering Maweni Heights.

 Mandela’s death has pricked slow oozing memories from my earliest life, like bitter beads of sap from a cut aloe. They are of the beloved country with its smell of grass, and wood-smoke, and the whiff of rain promised in sudden moisture; of mielie meal in sacking and pungent sweet sweat beneath blankets. The sounds are peppered with incredulity ‘Ow Nkosi!’ and courtesy ‘Sala gahle’ reassurance, and always laughter behind shy hands. There is singing somewhere, in harmony of seconds, and in the evening’s low light wending figures piled with wood, or water containers, going home. The sky immense, and unending, the stars bright salt in the black velvet of a night that falls like a curtain at an appointed hour. The day closing with the sudden certainty of an angelus, and the dim lights of the kraal fires flickering soon after.

Freestate Landscape
Freestate Landscape

Most of my memories are cast in the remote areas where a bushbuck might appear, mountaineous from horseback, or flat and arid from a ten ton truck grinding through sand, but no matter how different the regions we inhabited or travelled the essence remained, of tolerance, and gentleness, and above all an open curiosity. People were books to be fathomed, and opportunities to read them were precious. I never recall fear or any warnings, or prohibitions. From the moment I could walk I was encouraged to walk wide, as far as the eye could see, and away. Where people were concerned, nothing was unsafe. Nobody ever asked when I would be home.

Third Birthday- a necessary dress
Third Birthday- a necessary dress

My earliest recollections offer the view of legs below a table in a room with an audible clock. A clean scrubbed kitchen, with a cat cuffing a dog and eventually lifted onto cushions to eat a bowl of yellow mielie porridge with brown sugar and cream. I do not recall the faces but the sense that things would always be just like this, immortal and forever. The barefoot maids came and went with piles of ironed linen, and basins on hips or heads, and when spoken to raised their aprons to hide the smiles and embarrassment. Through the open doorways the light was blinding, and by contrast the room dark, with surfaces so polished that gleams from the edges of things, silver and copper would whisper grander rooms elsewhere, the rooms I later found in picture books or museums; grand tureens, silver trays, and by the back door saddle trees and boot hooks. The stoep (verandah) was where the older family lived and entertained the always unexpected guests (people were always an excuse for more strong coffee and peach brandy if sunset threatened) and over the stoep railings Catorba grapes rambled, the round small black grapes you popped by squeezing their sour skins, (sour enough to freeze-dry the palate) into the mouth, an explosion of unique sweetness, unlike any other grape.

Stoep with rambling grapes within reach
Stoep with rambling grapes within reach

Down along the left, marching away  from the house like defending warriors, were the oak trees and below them rusted old tractors where I had a swing and a bouncing metal seat afforded control of a steering wheel. The farm, braced against the buttress rock behind it, where a silver pencil of water fell into the pool below, was the only homestead visible in any direction.  Behind that waterfall the dark python cave held shivers of courage. My days were endless roaming between the kraal where I was teased by the women who plaited my hair, and the swing and the grapes, with a pocket full of dried peaches so hard they had to be sucked before they could be chewed. They were sour too, and green or sour fruit has always brought memories and been preferred.

I was less than three and probably only a few months on that farm, but the memory has flashed unchanged ever since as though caught swinging below deep oak.  I recall my first ride, in front of a saddle and the view of a rippling neck and the ears that flickered when the rider spoke but I have no memory of what the rider looked like. Three year olds seldom see a face. I recall the boots and the knees under khaki shorts, sharp brown against the blue-white sock covered skin. Mostly it was grass and the hurumph of a horse nodding and stopping to crop when it thought it could. I thought I might die for a horse, I loved them uncontrollably and breathed in their smell as though it was life giving. Horses understand passion, and accept it as their rightful due. So it is, which is why I daily gave my mother thanks for my name- lover of horses. My father was her big mistake but at least the first name she got right.

Always polished, mostly empty
Always polished, mostly empty

That was the van den Bosch farm where I was with my galleon grandmother while my poor abandoned mother returned to the Reef to finish her interrupted medical training. I was the interruption and I’ve tried not to repeat that in later life. I always retained the vivid memory of the farm but for seventy years no further encounter.  Later the van den Bosches were spoken of, occasionally; the polo playing wild boys, the Dutch home in the Heerengracht from which their forbears had sailed, the first qualified vet in the country, but they were the hidden side, from my grandmother’s mother of whom there are forbidding photographs and a terrible tale. From that terrible event my grandmother had sought refuge in the other half of her blood and other places. Her father was a Barrett, related to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a gentleman raised in a world of civilised discourse, at sea in those fields of limitless grass and the harsh barter of Afrikaanerdom. The farm might have been the setting for a book I had read rather than a memory. I was never totally sure.

Until…

Continue reading “South African Safari (circa 1944)”