BOOK REVIEW: THE WALLED GARDEN BY CATHERINE DUNNE

This sensitively written account about the healing of the relationship between a dying mother and her daughter is compelling. Catherine Dunne’s fine-tuned descriptions and imagery draw the reader right into the context and setting of her story:

Listening to the uneven breathing of the frail, elderly woman [her mother] beside her, Beth hoped it wasn’t already too late for her to feel beyond the years of sharp exchanges, the slow foxtrot of anger and disappointment that had kept them at arm’s length from the other, dancing to the same old tunes.

The narrative follows Alice through a series of small strokes that leave her increasingly incapacitated. Reconciliation, she realises, will have to come in the form of writing letters to her daughter while she still has the capacity to do so:

God alone knew how long she had left. Now, she was going to give Him a run for his money.

Her daughter, Beth, finds the letters whilst sitting at her comatose mother’s bedside. It is through them that we learn about the background to their estranged relationship; of sacrifices made; of hurts, disappointments and misunderstandings. There is no sentimental soppiness about these letters. Rather, readers are more likely to identify with aspects of their own relationship with their parents or children: life is not always easy.

Alice concludes that:

It was time she apologised to her daughter for holding on too tight, for making hoops of steel out of bonds of love. Mothers and daughters needed ties that would give a little, would bend and stretch with generosity, not break and unravel at the first tugs of defiance and misunderstanding.

As the narrative unfolds, we learn more about the relationship between Beth and her brother, James. Like her, he has domestic troubles of his own to contend with. For now though their focus remains on their dying mother.

I found this novel to be a quick, satisfying read that has left me with a lot to ponder about in its wake. My paperback edition was published by Picador in 2000.

CHILDHOOD HOLIDAYS

During my childhood, we spent most of our school holidays either at our home on Sheba Gold Mine or on my father’s farm, Dunduff, in the De Kaap Valley near Barberton. There was always plenty to do, so I cannot recall any of us being bored.

Reading has been a life-long favourite past –time for me and school holidays gave me the opportunity to read whenever – and almost wherever – I wanted to. I often kept Mom company in the lounge while she was reading. I have mentioned in other posts that I enjoyed sitting on a branch of either the large lemon tree growing in the mine garden or hidden within a mango tree growing next to the top dam on the farm. Another favourite place to read was in bed before falling asleep.

We had a fairly meagre selection of suitable books at home, but I was able to borrow books both from the small school library and from the even smaller ‘library’ in the mine recreation hall. The latter consisted of two steel cupboards!

The mine public swimming pool was only a short walk from our house. My brothers and I practically lived there during the summer. I also played tennis; as I grew older and more adept at the game, I was frequently drafted to make up a fourth with the adult women whenever they were short of a player. I became a regular player with them during the holidays once I had reached high school.

As we lived on the side of a mountain, it was inevitable that my brothers and I would explore the veld. We loved climbing trees too and I enjoyed swinging on the swing Dad had erected in our mine garden. I have had my share of making mud pies and sneaking into the neighbouring garden for the sheer fun of being in a place we were not allowed to be. We used to watch a film in the mine recreation hall every Friday evening: rather a mixed bag for we were never sure what was to be screened.

Left to my own devices, I was happy to play in the garden, creating fairy glades among the rocks or between the exposed roots of the flamboyant trees (Delonix regia) that grew near the bottom of the garden. I spent hours combing through the gravel on our long driveway looking for large pieces of iron pyrites – also known as fool’s gold – for the sheer fun of finding something pretty.

I loved listening to the radio when I was a teenager; playing cards with my mother; colouring in – and writing. Several exercise books were filled with lists of the songs I heard on the radio; lyrics I had copied down; new words I had come across; titles of the films we had seen; and snatches of stories that even then floated about in my imagination.

Of course there was always a lot to be done during the time we spent on the farm. It wasn’t all work and no play, however, as there was the opportunity to walk around the farm; catch fish; climb trees; eat whatever fruit was in season; make fires; and to watch the cattle. I absolutely loved the braais we had over a weekend once my Dad had relaxed a little and we gathered around the flames and chatted as a family. He could tell the most entertaining stories too.

Me with a cow named Paraffin in 1969.

On very rare occasions, Dad would sacrifice some of his precious leave (and thus time on the farm) to drive us down to Southbroom along the south coast of what was then Natal to visit our maternal grandparents. Granny and Grandpa Donald’s home there was called Stonybrae – a nod to his Scottish origins.

How exciting it always was to see the sea! We spent a lot of time on the beach during those visits: exploring rock pools; swimming; building sand castles; and picking up shells. It was an adventure to walk along the rocky shore until we reached the swimming beach – and very exciting to see ships passing along the horizon.

At the swimming beach we would dive fearlessly into the waves; try out body surfing; laugh when dumped by a wave or our bathing costumes were filled with sand. There was a tidal pool to swim in too. A real treat, usually shortly before we walked home, was being allowed to buy an ice-cream cone: a tickey for one scoop and a sixpence for two scoops. I unfailingly chose green lime ice-cream – still a favourite.

MY FIRST AND ONLY DRIVING LESSON WITH DAD

My brothers were all taught to drive as a matter of course – and well before the legal age for a learner driver! This was easy enough to accomplish on the farm roads. Somehow, I slipped through the net.

It must have been a holiday spent at home during my first year of university when Dad surprised me with an invitation to “drive my truck.” His truck was a GMC pick-up with a powerful throaty engine. To my eye it both looked and felt enormous for I couldn’t really see over the long, broad bonnet very well.

How exciting, I thought, as we walked towards the GMC parked under the shade of the large white mulberry tree growing next to the farmhouse veranda. I got in behind the steering wheel and waited for Dad to settle on the passenger seat – an unusual position for him for Mom couldn’t yet drive. It is significant to mention at this point that seat belts hadn’t yet made their obligatory appearance in vehicles.

Dad sat back with his elbow resting on the open window. I turned the key with the confidence of the ignorant and listened to the roar of the engine under the bonnet. So far, so good.

“Change into first gear, release the clutch and we’ll get going.”

‘Get going’ were the operative words here. I don’t think either of us was prepared for what happened next. I changed from neutral into first gear, let down the hand brake, released the clutch and pressed the accelerator.

No-one had ever shown me how to use an accelerator. It isn’t a pedal easily observed by a passenger either. All I knew was that one pressed one’s foot on the accelerator to get a vehicle moving. And ‘press’ I did – my foot pushed the accelerator to the floor; the engine roared; the truck took off at full speed – doubtless leaping into the air as it did so. Okay, the latter might be a bit of an exaggeration – it certainly felt like it – but I was in no position to tell for I had a major problem to contend with.

Instead of me being able to steer around the curve of the driveway towards the farm road, the powerful take-off I had initiated with my heavy-footedness sent the truck charging ahead at speed – heading straight towards the bulk fuel storage tanks and the engine room of our lighting plant!

The bulk storage tanks are in the background, behind my mother watering the vegetable garden.

You have heard the expression ‘slamming on anchors’. Well, that’s exactly what I did: still gripping the steering wheel with white-knuckled hands, I pushed my left foot down hard on the brake pedal. We lurched to a halt as the engine cut out. Dad almost went through the windscreen, so great was the jolt.

I turned to look at him. My heart seemed to be pumping audibly. His face was ashen. He opened the passenger door and got out in silence – he had not uttered a word. I too got out and surrendered the truck keys in silence as we walked towards the kitchen door together. “I thought you could drive,” he managed in a shaky voice before turning to my mother with “I need a strong cup of tea.”

She put the water on to boil while I washed my face and wondered if my legs would ever stop shaking. “I thought she could drive,” I heard Dad saying. He had sat down heavily on a chair in the dining room, probably unable to make it as far as the front veranda where we usually had tea. His legs might have felt as wobbly as mine did. He went on to explain to Mom that because my brothers could all drive, I would ‘somehow’ have learned too.

The truck remained where it was for several hours before Dad parked it properly. He never offered me another driving lesson.

FORTY-EIGHT YEARS AGO

Forty-eight years ago today I embarked on an adventure that continues to this day. A momentous decision made then saw me moving back to my university town from the coast. Among the adventures there were regularly hiking in the Drakensberg and visiting game reserves in the now KwaZulu Natal as well as becoming a mother for the first time and then another. The move to Johannesburg was a short-lived revelation that led to putting down roots in the then independent homeland of Bophuthatswana. I became a mother again, endured terrific dust storms and met a group of people so wonderful that I cried when I left to let my tap root find its way in the land of my maternal ancestors in the Eastern Cape. The latter happened thirty-three years ago.

Of course the ‘I’ had become a ‘we’:

Through all the adventures of rock climbing, hiking, travelling, motherhood, moving home, and bringing up children; enduring storms, riots, muddy roads and dealing with whatever life has thrown at us – good or unpleasant – I have had my lifelong friend and companion at my side. We have made a good team and my life has been enriched by the event of forty-eight years ago – it still feels like yesterday!

CHILDHOOD SWEET TREATS

My father liked to round off our main meal of the day with ‘something sweet’, a desire my mother was often hard-pressed to satisfy. Not only was she a reluctant cook, but we lived far from town and our local grocery store stocked only basic items – the ‘essential for survival’ ones. This meant that the default pudding was jelly – easy to store and both quick and easy to make.

Mom would ring the changes by producing a jelly of a different flavour or colour; beat up the jelly mixture with ice cubes to produce a ‘frothy’ look; add tinned milk (Ideal milk) to the jelly; and would occasionally make a jug of custard to serve with the jelly – then my brothers and I would all clamour to get the ‘skin’ of the custard! More rarely, she would add fresh mulberries to a dark purple jelly, or a small tin of sliced peaches to a peach jelly. Jelly was mostly a summer treat though. I still enjoy jelly: the wobbliness of jelly; the way it splits or tears open if you have a large blob of it; and the lovely cool feeling of jelly making its way down your throat. I never tire of jelly, even though I have seldom made it since our children left home.

How can I forget the instant puddings? Fresh milk was in short supply, unless my parents brought milk from the farm after spending weekends there. The powdered pudding simply requires the addition of milk to create wonderful flavours such as caramel, strawberry or even chocolate (which we quickly dubbed ‘mud pudding’ and which was a firm favourite).

During winter, such as it is in the Lowveld, my favourite dessert was bread-and-butter pudding. Of course this was an excellent way of using up stale bread. What I liked were the plump raisins or sultanas as well as the sweet crispiness of the crust. As my father had a very sweet tooth, we were always allowed to pour a spoon of golden syrup over our serving. Although I seldom make it anymore, I still enjoy bread-and-butter pudding sans the additional sweetness.

Mom’s Christmas puddings (like her fruit cakes) were legendary, packed as they were with fruit and, in the days before decimalisation, a few tickeys and a sixpence or two! This was usually served with brandy butter or cream – if it was available.

Fresh fruit wasn’t always readily available: my father would order a box of apples every year; we picked oranges and mangoes from the farm; gorged on mulberries in season; and occasionally had bananas, lychees or fresh peaches. We had pawpaw trees growing in our garden and during the fruiting season we would either get half a pawpaw to eat (Dad always sprinkled sugar over ‘for the crunch’) or use them as the basis for a fruit salad. I made a very early vow to always have fruit available when I was ‘grown up’.

Reluctant cook or not, with four children to feed, Mom used to bake biscuits once or twice a week in sufficient quantities to fill the tins stored in the pantry off the kitchen. Favourites were ginger biscuits, fruit squares, vanilla biscuits and rock cakes (which my father, whose Afrikaans vocabulary was very limited, called Klip cookies). I took over the family baking when I was a teenager, poring over recipes and narrowing my choices according to the ingredients available. Bought biscuits were very rare in our home – I imagine they were expensive too – and we were strictly limited to having two only with our tea.

I don’t bake very often anymore and seldom make a dessert either – unless our children or grandchildren come to visit, we have invited guests, or we have something special to celebrate.