Still me

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Bits and bobs about my life in my lovely home, Thatchwick Cottage, Pretoria, South Africa.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The tally


Far beyond the distant peaks of the Blesberg, solitary warriors jostle for space where the desiccated winter grass has shot sweet, succulent shoots in the wake of early rains. Pores exude secretions which arouse a silent rallying cry. Pale-green carapaces turn yellow streaked with black.  Band upon band of insatiable brigands assemble until they are a horde as terrible than Mzilikaze’s marauders. The corporate mind follows instinct. A heaving, rippling mass ascends into the cloudless sky and turns west towards the Thaba Nchu District. Behind remains a khaki-coloured dust bowl in place of greening savanna. 
When the locusts reach us, they blot out the midday sun.  
Amos, our gardener, looks up at the flickering eclipse, the peculiar dimming of noonday light.  He yells. Big Sarah, pegging linens on the washline, screams. At the kitchen window Ma’s face pales.  
“Locusts”, Dad bellows.
 He dashes out of the front door of Wolverton & Ferguson's Trading Ltd, which neighbours our house.  Odd-job-Bill and Mr Ferguson and Meneer Potgieter and the workers who have stopped loading Meneer’s truck follow him. 
“Locusts,” I whimper. 
Our weaponry is at hand. This is not the first time the curse has struck. My sister, Helen, and Boy grab the empty oil cans stored alongside the garage.  Amos and the workers seize buckets, crowbars and scrap iron.  Big Sarah and the Wednesday ironing girl run for saucepans and ladles.  Ma shoves two lids into my hands, a makeshift cymbal. She snatches up the brass dinner gong.  Dad tosses hessian feedbags piled on the store’s porch to Bill, Mr Ferguson and Meneer. They snap their gas lighters and set the corners aflame. 
A mad rag-tag army, we run towards the billowing cloud, helter-skelter, pell-mell, galvanising the dogs to a barking frenzy, astonishing Ma’s hens and frightening the doves which rise from the dovecote. Boy charges ahead. My brother is a drummer boy leading the khakis against the burghers in the open veld. He is a Barolong warrior taunting the Matabele. He is David challenging a Goliath made of a billion quivering parts.  Behind Boy, we bang and beat, bash and hammer, slam and pound. The smoking sacking poisons the air. But still the plague advances, secure in its armour, brazen in numbers, voracious in appetite. 
Locusts drop into our hair. They alight on our bare arms and spring onto our legs. They stick to aprons and overalls like burrs. On the wash-line Ma’s white sheets and best tablecloths sag under thousands of clutching insects. A locust squeezes past the collar of a dress or a shirt to rasp and squirm against the skin.  They smash against the windows of our house and of Dad’s store. Their exploding abdomens ooze yellow pus, detached wings stick to splotched glass, broken antennae twitch, serrated legs saw up and down like newly amputated limbs. 
I abandon my useless weapon into the hydrangeas that bush on either side of the wooden steps which lead to the veranda.  I surrender. I scream and shudder and dance up and down on the spot, a single, shameful, shell-shocked coward unnoticed amidst a crowd of battling heroes. 
Why has God unleashed His wrath on Thaba Nchu?  
Every Sunday we worship at the Church of England on the corner of Hoofstraat. We bow low and kneel and rise and sit and kneel again on the flagstones. We take the precious Bread with outstretched palms, criss-crossed, without a crumb falling from the silver plate. We pass the shining chalice to one another and sip the precious Wine without a drop spilling onto our fingers.  Every Sunday our Boer neighbours sit in obedient rows in the pews of the big Dutch church, whose steeple pokes the sky like the Dominee’s warning finger. On weekdays at dinner we shut our eyes tight and punctuate Dad’s grace with a firm Amen.  Most times I do what Ma asks without arguing. Helen swallows the bitter medicines Doctor Green dispenses to strengthen her heart, without even pulling a face. Boy sneaks away to play mancala with the herdboys just now and then.  Ma seldom complains about the dust and heat and the maids. Dad only drinks too much Friday nights. Surely that's enough for the Almighty? 
The locusts strip Ma’s sweet peas, the yellow and white daisy bushes, the three tea roses, the climbing vine. They turn the lawn brown. They shred row upon row of cabbage, spinach and carrot tufts. They leave bare tendrils where only minutes ago, leafy tomatoes plants trailed the tripods in the kitchen garden. I can see that the tall maize stalks around Big Sarah’s hut on the far side of the fence have already buckled and drooped. And this is but the work of the vanguard. 
The black cloud hesitates then moves on. Is it the tumult or the smoking sacks or our anguished prayers that has driven it away?  But the respite is temporary. Near Tweespruit the locusts will plunder the districts’ crops and the bereft farmers will not be able to repay Dad and Mr Ferguson the debts owed on ploughs and reapers and threshers and seed and tools. 
When everyone has gone home except for Sarah, Dad sits on the painted kitchen chair leaning his elbows on his knees and his hands cupping his chin. A stray locust crawls across his shoulders and feelers poke from the turn-ups of his trousers.  Ma stokes the Aga; her tight bun has unravelled and soot smears her cheek. I sit cross-legged on the floor in front of Helen’s stool. She picks bits of locust out of my hair and drops them onto a newspaper.  Helen is unafraid of twitching limbs, bulging compound eyes, sticky, transparent wings. Helen once stared down a cobra in Ma’s chicken run; when it turned, she broke its back with a spade. Helen scrubs burnt, blackened pots until they shine and she throws out the night’s slops without gagging, long before Big Sarah arrives for work. Rheumatic fever may have left Helen with a faltering heart but she refuses to fear any created thing on God’s earth. It does not matter how much it stinks, slithers or sticks.  
We can hear Boy whooping outside with Big Sarah’s grandchildren. Boy is  Chief Moroka leading the Barolong on a murderous rampage of vengeance.  He shouts in Tswana like a piccannin. Through the kitchen door I see him stomping on anything that moves with his boots; Big Sarah’s grandchildren stomp on anything that moves with their calloused, bare feet. 
When I take the gas lamp and go to bed. I pass Big Sarah in the hall. She is still at work. She has swept up all the locusts that slipped into the house through cracks and gaps. She holds a dustpan of corpses with a stiff arm in front of her. 
Tsies, Miss Eve, they will chew your mother’s tables and chairs. They will eat her doilies. When I was a girl, I saw tsies eat out the jelly of a baby’s eyes. The mama had her abba when they went to the fields to drive the locusts away. When she came home, the child’s eyes - gone!” 
Heish,” I shudder.  
Mother appears. She has fixed her bun and wiped her face. She has also recognised the ring of the covert exchange. 
“Sarah, hurry, woman, hurry!” 
Mother has forbidden the locals to speak Tswana in the house. But she cannot stop Dad. Dad’s quiet voice becomes loud and strident when he speaks the lingo and no-one can tell if it is Amos or Dad shouting orders at the workers. But Ma does not trust a conversation she cannot understand. After my last clandestine chat with Sarah, I suffered nightmares for nights on end. The whole family was woken by my midnight screeches until I begged Ma to put my bed on bricks so that the tokoloshe could not hide underneath it at night. 
In the bedroom I share with Helen, I open the sash window and breathe in the cool air. The evening sky is clear and innocent of any plague.  I pull back the calico coverlet embroidered with twisted French knots in the shape of rosebuds.  On the starched white under-sheet, deep inside the bed, a locust stands transfixed.  My shrieks echo. The locust is worse than a tokoloshe, worse than a baby without eyeballs, worse than a cobra in the henhouse.  
Boy appears in the doorway. His boots grate on the floorboards. A thick, sticky jam of squashed bodies encrusts the soles. He steps forward and grasps the leathery thorax between his forefinger and thumb. Delighted he waves his trophy in front of my face.
“Three thousand nine hundred and sixty-eight,” he says.    

Saturday, February 11, 2017


Lessons from Pollyanna




A friend once described this blog as 'too Pollyanna-ish' for his taste.     Blame it all on Mother Imelda, superior  of the convent school of my childhood,  who presented me with a copy of Pollyanna for First Place in Standard 3 after a hard won academic battle against my arch-rival, Gail Someone-or-other. That copy is still on my shelf, dog-eared and shabby after many a reading-aloud, chapter by chapter,  to my children, my grandchildren and several English pupils who required listening practice. The board cover is a soft, granulated blue and the paper cover, a bright sunshine yellow befitting its namesake. It sports a color photo  of Hayley Mills as Pollyanna in her sailor outfit and straw boater purchased by Aunt  Polly, not yet out of love but out of a sense of duty. The love came later.

I have never forgotten Pollyanna's recount to Nancy of the origins of the 'Glad game'.  A missionary barrel had arrived at her father's parsonage filled with hand-me-downs for the pastor and his little family. The things, Pollyanna explained to Nancy, were the charity jumble that not even the converts in Africa and other far flung places would want. Pollyanna hoped in vain for a doll; instead her father pulled out a crutch.

 "Oh," the good man said, "Here's a splendid opportunity for gratitude! You can be glad that you don't need a crutch." 

Hence the Game began. 

Imagine writing a book for children today with that harsh lesson in life's realities. Surely such a disappointment would psychologically damaging and the pious pastor an example of a stoic Christianity, quite abhorrent today? Yet the story of brave, little Pollyanna and her  Glad Game has captivated children for over a century (the first edition was published in 1913). 

This Saturday morning I ventured into my garden for a little garden work for the first time since my accident. I took my crutch just in case. I planted a tray of crimson petunias in the large round pot near the gate, inspected the lavender which are drowning under the pumpkins leaves, gave the the iceberg roses a light pruning and planted a new rosemary in a pot. I propped my crutch against the bay tree while I worked, so thankful that I need it less and less. 

When I gingerly stepped into the organic deli at Waterkloof Corner later this morning,  the blonde, pony-tailed  teenager who operates the the till, cheered me on. 

"Well done, I see you're walking without your crutch!" 
  
Pollyanna-ish? Maybe, but I am so glad and grateful.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Mnemosyne

Mnemosyne (goddess of memory and mother of the Muses)  

Memory is 
The mother of the Muse 
She beckons 
Submerged experiences 
Hidden deep in
Our cells, so they say

She nurtures them through 
The umbilical cord
Which ties to the Self
Events long forgotten 
Till they grow strong enough to 

Twitch
Wriggle
Kick
Our consciousness

Then she coaxes them from 
Comfortable obscurity
Down the birth canal 
Into the light 
Red-faced and screaming
They live again


In words                                                                                       

Monday, February 6, 2017

Monday


This Monday morning my garden beckons me with the promise of new beginnings. On the weekend I was able to walk with care over the uneven lawn, fill the bird feeders, impale two halves of a banana on the fruit tray and toss a few balls for Flash while I held onto a crutch for extra balance.  Precious small beginnings after seven weeks of immobility. 

Kaela, who was such a part of my life in previous blogs, is no longer with us. A few days after I returned home from the hospital, I acknowledged what I had been trying hard to ignore for the past six months. Kaela walked with great difficulty. Her breathing was labored due to tracheal collapse. Control over her bowels had diminished and in the early morning she looked at me shamefaced about accidents on the kitchen tiles.  I made the call to the vet who has cared for our dogs for over twenty years. She arrived, a veteran of  nearly eighty, with her sympathetic young nurse. We sat on the verandah and talked about broken bones and old age and I made the fateful decision to let Kaela go. She slipped away lying on her favorite spot above the verandah step, gazing at the red barons, the yellow weavers and the bronzed mannikins darting around the bird feeder. She had long abandoned chasing the doves. My own injury did not allow me to hold her but I managed to lean forward and scratch her ears and tell her what a special girl she was. Klaas, the gardener, assisted the nurse transport Kaela's blanketed body to the vet's little van. 

His eyes widened when he first saw Kaela.

"My friend, my friend!" he said. 
Kaela keeping guard over the oven on baking day.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Dreams deferred, dreams regained

Retirement at age 65 years is a mandatory condition of employment in South African universities.  December 31, 2016 marked the end of my career in education: three years as a high school English teacher and thirty-three years in higher education. The last thirty years of my career were spent at the University of South Africa, a large comprehensive distance learning institution, situated in Pretoria, where I served in various capacities over the decades.

Here I am in 2015 with a doctoral student from Kenya whose thesis explored home-school-community partnerships in Kenya. 

He flew to South Africa specially for the joyous occasion of his graduation and we met face to face for the very first time. Three years of effective doctoral supervision had been carried out exclusively by email. 

During 2016 I approached the date of retirement with mixed feelings. To end a busy career after so many years was a formidable prospect. At the same time I had a giddy feeling of delight.  I would be able to linger in my vegetable garden in the early morning, inspecting the development of my one cherished artichoke plant.
   
I would be able to fetch grandchildren from school without juggling a hundred pressing deadlines. I would be able to accept invitations to outings with friends without refusing, with my usual mantra, " Maybe another time? I simply have too much work to finish."

November was a round of farewells and retirement parties. December promised celebrations, family time and a holiday at the edge of the Maluti mountains. The happy dreams shattered when I had an untimely fall in my house - slipping down a flight of stairs to a loft. I fractured my ankle and underwent two operations by Pretoria's best orthopaedic surgeon, who just 'happened' to be in attendance at Casualty at the nearest hospital followed by a week in a surgical ward.  The post op recovery was estimated a minimum of six weeks, probably far longer given my age and the nature of the injury. 

I had little choice but to bow to circumstances surrounded by friends and family. I resolved not to  count days. I reached for the life lessons to be learned. I read, meditated, watched the birds feeding in my garden, listening to uplifting sermons and talks, to classical music and worship songs. I received each kind visitor with great gratitude. My tough independence had been suddenly  replaced by helpless dependence. I ate slices of 'humble pie' as I accepted assistance with basic tasks.  Joan Didion comments, 'Life as we know it changes in seconds.'  

But that is only the first half of the story. Yesterday I went for my six-week post-op X ray and consultation. I sat on the bed in the consulting room, left foot out of the moon boot, naked and looking scrawny and sad stretched out in view of  the wound sister and the young physiotherapist.  The doctor studied the images on the screen of his computer. I recognized the four black pins which held my bones in place.

"Looking great," he said, " Bone growth fantastic! No need to even fear osteoporosis-arthiritis. Now stand up!"

"Stand, but can I?" 

"Of course you can and you can walk. C'mon. I'll hold your hands. Walk towards me."

So I am back wearing my takkies (Afrikaans for running shoes), which give a good stable grip. The moonboot, the walker and one crutch have been buried deep out of sight in my walk-in cupboard. I am walking again pain-free using only one crutch for some balance. The physiotherapist, family and friends, several in the medical profession, are amazed at such rapid progress. I am overcome with gratitude. My sincere thanks to the doctors  and nurses, to the whole canon of Western medicine. But all the glory to God who has accelerated the healing of my 65 year old bones and put me back on my feet.  I still have some way to go before I jog on the field again in the early morning with Flash but this morning, I could get in to a bath and scrub the toes of  my left foot! Next stop a pedicure!


    
  I was wheeled into the consulting rooms yesterday in a wheel chair and I left walking. Obed, the doorman, looked amazed as I  approached him in the foyer of the medical centre. 

"Mam, I was waiting for them to call me to fetch you in the wheelchair."

"Obed, I am walking!"

"Oh, mam, God is great and Dr Duwayne is a very good doctor."

That about sums it up.