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.

WHAT BLUE WAXBILLS SYMBOLISE FOR ME

Blue Waxbills were always present on our farm, Dunduff, in the De Kaap Valley that stretches out from the foothills of the Makhonjwa Mountains. They would frequently gather around the outbuildings to feed on the spilled mealie meal or congregate at the bird bath on the front lawn.

My parents were particularly fond of them and, because the colour of their feathers were akin to the beautiful blue of my mother’s eyes, my father dubbed them ‘Mummy Birds’ when we were very young.

It is probably because of this that Blue Waxbills symbolise the enduring affection my parents had for each other.

Through all the ups and downs in their lives, my parents were the perfect role models for me in terms of their loyalty towards each other; their trust in each other; the forgiveness they showed; the compassion they both had for others; and above all, the love they had both for each other and for their children. It was love that bound us together as a family.

These tiny birds are among those that led me towards an interest in birds that has blossomed over time. Blue Waxbills still remind me of my mother and the close bond we shared.

FOR MY GRANDCHILDREN

Once you cross the suspension bridge across the Storms River, you come to a very small boulder-strewn beach that boasts a variety of rocks that have been tumbled and smoothed by the action of the waves.

Over the years our four grandchildren have visited this beach and been fascinated by the size, shapes and colours of these rocks – and experienced the thrill of escaping the odd wave that is closer than they had thought.

We have listened to the magical rumble as the rocks roll over and clink together when drawn back by the sea, only to be pushed up the gentle slope by the next wave.

The magic of this beautiful place is best shared with the joy of watching my children, and in recent years, my grandchildren exploring the rocks, laughing as they too tumble over or calling out with glee when an especially beautiful rock / stick / piece of sponge is discovered. They built towers too – choosing their rocks with care. It was not the same without them this time. Instead, I sat on the warm rocks for a while and let my memories float about me, listening to the echoes of their voices and the all too distant sounds of their joy mingle with the splashes of the waves … And so it was, my dear, dear grandchildren, that I set about making a tower for all of you.

Every stone I used came with a memory of each of you – over and over. The tower will have been knocked over with the next high tide that brings waves strong enough and high enough to smooth out and level the rocks again. That does not matter for memories and love are much stronger than those natural forces. So, it was with each of you in my heart that I left this small tower behind – for all of you!

 

GROWING OLDER

Swathes of our society seem hell bent on defying the visual signs of their aging. While this has doubtless been driven by the cosmetics industry, this trend also has to do with the development of different societal norms and expectations. We frequently associate such behaviour with women, although there are any number of skincare products now aimed at men too. I read an article the other day about the increasing number of economically active ageing men resorting to nips and tucks in order to maintain a more youthful and vigorous look. Believe it or not, this is not necessarily to make themselves look attractive to women, but to retain a semblance of respect in the workplace! Seriously?

I still clearly remember the start of the year in which I would turn six. The significance of this is that I would be starting school, despite the hurdle of being the only English-speaking child there for about a year. It could well be that experience of being immersed in Afrikaans, and being tasked with teaching my fellow Grade Ones to speak English, that sparked my life-long passion for education. I could clearly identify with A.A. Milne’s Now we are Six:

When I was one,

I had just begun.

When I was two,

I was nearly new.

When I was three,

I was hardly me.

When I was four,

I was not much more.

When I was five,

I was just alive.

But now I am six,

I’m as clever as clever.

So I think I’ll be six now

For ever and ever.

I was a bit older in this photograph, yet it is typical of my childhood: long hair held back in a ponytail, clips always falling out, nearly always barefoot – and wearing dresses, which my mother used to sew for me. Dresses for a tomboy?

The next milestone we looked forward to was turning ten. Not only did this mean moving into double figures for the first time (I’m not sure why this felt so important), but it marked the year we moved into the ‘senior’ classroom (there were only two classrooms in our primary school).

Becoming a teenager, turning eighteen and then twenty-one were also important milestones – all rather low key for me as I was either in boarding school or away from home at university. It was while I was a student that I was astonished to discover how many women in particular seemed to dread growing older. When I was invited to a thirtieth birthday I couldn’t understand why the hostess wept and felt she was “getting old”! Years later a neighbour mourned her thirty-sixth birthday so much that I approached mine with a degree of trepidation.

Somehow, that taught me to embrace the age I am. Mind you, I recall being appalled at being called ‘tannie’ (an Afrikaans term – aunty – of respect towards an older person) by a young girl after I had rescued her four-year-old brother from drowning in a public swimming pool. I was only fourteen then!

I loved turning forty and invited friends to celebrate my fiftieth birthday. Some of us were still dancing in our lounge in the early hours of the morning! Becoming sixty was so liberating! It is wonderful being bolstered and emboldened by so many years of experience, a wealth of accumulated wisdom as well as being strengthened by the love of family and friends.

Some time ago, I spent a weekend in the company of an eighty-five year old woman who impressed me no end with her positive attitude towards life and the interest she showed in her surroundings. Her sense of adventure is still strong. “You must have an interest,” she declared, her eyes sparkling with delight. “You need to keep busy, to look after yourself, and you must love.”

Later she offered this sage advice: “Too many people think themselves old, even when they are in their fifties, and that makes them old!”