Still me

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

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Eating in 

Dining, lunching or breakfasting with friends at home is increasingly uncommon these days.  We travel a block from our lovely homes to drink a cuppa with friends at a coffee shop. We spend rands and rands on restaurant cuisine instead of making use of our own kitchens. We sit in crowded malls or under umbrellas on the pavements instead of in our own gardens.

In these heady days of early retirement I have made a point of asking friends home and setting a table somewhere on the verandah or the lawn. March days are mild and pleasant in Pretoria and after the summer rains, our gardens are lush and green.  This Friday I took out an antique tablecloth that I had forgotten I possessed, the silver and pink dinner set and my aunt's ivory handled, engraved silver knives and forks. The meal was simple: French tuna quiche (a recipe for dummies - the secret is in using whole cream to beat with the eggs), a panini  from my favorite deli, a tossed salad with lots of  avocado, finished with a dessert of organic Greek yoghurt in elegant champagne glasses topped with nuts and raw honey. The friends  - Noleen and Petro (Salome missed the picture)  - and I have shared decades teaching together at the university.  The conversation never waned from  noon till 4pm. There was no waiter to hurry us, no loud music to talk over, no menu item  that disappointed and best of all, no bill to pay.

Eating out is a fun luxury but eating in is better. What do you think?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


The third Saturday of the month is the Irene Garden Club. Irene is an old established suburb in Pretoria and the garden club has been going for many years. Some silver-haired members remember the days when they took  their babies in prams to club meetings.

I discovered the club on Facebook in October 2015.  It was with some trepidation that I phoned to enquire whether the club would consider members 'outside the area'.

"Oh course", said Lucia, the vivacious, dynamic Chairlady. "I live in Faerie Glen."

Since then I have been an enthusiastic member of the club and recruited four other keen gardeners: Chris, Isobel, Ermilinda and Janis.  Last year we viewed several gorgeous gardens, listened to talks on  bulbs, vegetables and container plants, among others. A hot topic of conversation was how to garden in the drought. Pretoria had water restrictions for more than a year and the spring rains were late, sending us all into a panic.

"Should I replace my roses with succulents?" asked one anxious member.

"Just wait," I cautioned. "The rains will come."

In January 2015,  I had two rainwater tanks installed to harvest the rain that falls on the corrugated iron garage roof and the kitchen roof, two of the three sections of the house without thatch.  By October 2015 my tanks were completely dry. Happily although the summer rains were late, they came in abundance and the largest dam in Gauteng, the Vaal, rose from 63 % to 103% in just over a week in February. My tanks constantly overflowed and my water bill has been greatly reduced since their installation. When I have an overflow, I use rain water for domestic use inside the house - just not for drinking. A pale blue pottery jug in my bathroom contains the day's ration for hand washing.

On Saturday we had a talk on different kinds of gardeners right on the lawn of Lucia's Faerie Glen garden, a pretty, relaxed garden setting.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Decorating with quilts

"Not another quilt! What are you going to do with it?" a friend asks.
Quilts hang on the ladder in the study
"I have no idea," I answer, "I'll decide later."

 Why do painters paint?  To produce another painting to be stacked in the studio or for the love of creating?

The William Morris quilt in the guest room 
That's the same reason that quilters quilt - for the joy of  discovering a new pattern,  of experimenting with new colors, to pull out the jewels in the stash, purchased on the spur of the moment out of a love affair with fabrics.

Appliqued garden quilt on my bed

When I had  my injured ankle encased in a moonboot and sleeping was uncomfortable, I found comfort in napping  under a handsewn beautiful quilt covered in roses, petunias, irises, pansies, daffodils  and a basket of daisies.
This one needs is earmarked for Ruth

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.