Wednesday, August 26, 2009


What is it about us that directs the journey we take in life? Is it something genetic? Pre-determined? Fate? Chance?
In 1982, I moved to Cape Town from Pretoria on a whim. Initially, I went for a 2-week vacation - and spent that time walking into things as I wandered the city, staring at the magnificent Table Mountain, looming like a protective guardian over the Mother City. I could not take my eyes off it, and I could not get that silly grin off my face. There is a magnetism that holds one enthralled, and yet, the city is like an enclave and one has to get over that mountain to enter and join in the beauty.
On my return to Pretoria, I resigned my job and headed back to Cape Town, to continue a life filled with strange journeys.

My boyfriend, Charles - was leaving to sail the world shortly after I arrived and we understood the relationship would then be over, since neither of us expected the other to wait or expect anything more than to simply appreciate what we had had together.
I found a job at some or other company - I remember neither the name of it nor what it really did. Like so many jobs, it was boring and I believe I was only there for a few months before being fired. It was a relief. It led to a very long period - several months, of being unemployed and a burden on my sister, but it was also a good time for I met the man who has recently come back into my life.

Of course, life did not begin in Cape Town when I was 23, even though the circle has come back to me from that point. Life began in a lovely, big old house in Moseley, a suburban environment near Pinetown. We had an enormous property - my sisters and I tried to count the trees one day and barely got halfway around before we lost count. We hadn't even reached their favorite gum trees at that point, but there were jacaranda trees, and avocado trees and everything you would find in a sub-tropical garden. It was the perfect place to grow up. The shelter of the massive jacaranda tree outside the kitchen provided parking space enough for several cars, and the driveway wound around under it to the garage - long seconded by my father. He loved to make things, loved wood and what it could become if you handled it just right. He made a bed for me that I was loathe to leave behind when I finally left home. It wasn't all that comfortable, to be honest, but it came from his hands. And for me, that was enough.

My father was a kind man who married a woman who bewitched him and lived a life regretting that decision. Mother was powerful, strong, spoiled from a life as an only child, a princess - and demanded she always be treated as such. There was only one way - her way. She ruled over her realm with an iron hand and flashing sapphire eyes that could scare the strongest person into submission. Everyone feared her. All she had to do was give you a look.

As kids, my sisters and I spent as much time as we could at the local ice rink. I loved skating, and tried my best to do figure skating. The coach was a former Olympian and seemed to enjoy teaching me. Our times on the ice would have been perfect, but for the glowering spectator sitting waiting impatiently for me to finish my class so she could get back to her own life and interests. I eventually succumbed to the unspoken pressure and gave up figure skating, leaving my fun to the times when my sisters and I could all go together, and I wouldn't inconvenience the queen.
My teenaged sisters made friends with a group of guys who spent as much time at the rink as we did, and they would come over to play table tennis - ping-pong. Or as my father preferred to call it, pong ping, since rules usually went out the window and the focus became sheer fun instead.
The guys would sneak around to the back of the house to avoid meeting Mother. I think she enjoyed the power that gave her.

My father had a wonderfully perverse sense of humor. Mother took up painting and would hold exhibitions with her friends. We were all required to attend, dressed to the nines for the opening. My sisters and I were co-opted to serve snacks and wine to the guests, and my father hated every second. To make it bearable, he would invite Uncle Sonny.

Mother had been dating Sonny when she met my father, and they had stayed lifelong friends. So, Sonny would put his best suit on and join daddy and their evening of antics would begin. Critiquing the art was the least of their interests as they sat on the sidelines, wallflowers in union, and tell stories about the legs they saw on the other side of the screens that held the paintings. It would be their challenge, when the person appeared, to see who had been more accurate in their descriptions.
The evening would inevitably end with them doing something that would enrage Mother - turning abstract paintings upside down was only one memorable finale. Why she insisted he continue to attend was beyond anyone’s guess.
Later, Sonny’s health problems prevented him from saving daddy from an evening of stupor, and he would lounge against a wall - a tall, dark-haired and handsome man, bored out of his skull, proving an irresistible target to every woman in the room, who would ply him with wine and food and flirty conversation. It was endlessly entertaining to me - I got him. I later determined I was the only person in the family who did.

When he was hurting, he would hum or whistle as he walked away. One sister said it was because he didn't care, but I knew differently. It was because he cared too much, and his sensitivity had to be veiled in the face of an unkind wife and teenage daughters who took her side. I was too young to do or say anything, and watching him walk away from the pain felt like a knife through my own heart. I cried for him, and I cried against my mother for bringing him pain. Not that crying and railing alone in my room against Her was an uncommon occurrence. My rebellion was always internal, since nobody wanted to take on the steel in her eyes. I reserved my strength for the first time I would challenge her - the first and only time I chose to disobey her orders.

It was my first real job. It was possibly the worst working experience in my life - at least initially.
As a child, I was the shyest person who walked the face of the earth. I know, hard to believe now, right? Well, my first job reformed me into someone who could actually walk into a store and do more than whisper at the store clerk. Self-service shops were easier for me to deal with, but those places where I actually had to ask for something, I would either have my sister ask on my behalf, or be forced to repeat myself a few times until the assistant could hear me and determine what I needed.
My first job was selling magazine subscriptions to people who weren't interested in buying them. I traveled the country, building character and confidence. My first sales call saw me sitting in a huge conference room, with a man who was probably too kind. I hid my pitch script in my lap and read it in a quiet, trembling voice. He patiently let me finish, told me no and showed me the door. I left to sit on the fire escape and cry for the rest of the day.
To my credit, I went back the next day, and the next, and the day after that. In three months, I was promoted to manager and had my own crew. It was a horrible job, but possibly the best thing for me at that time.
At the beginning of August 1979, the two crews - mine and the company owner’s - headed for Durban. Up until then, my mother and I had communicated by phone and letter. She consistently wanted me to return home. I consistently refused. She accused me of doing things a shy and very naive person like me had never dreamed of, and was not convinced that I was completely innocent. In every way. No, mother, I was not drinking champagne and dancing with married men. I was however, celebrating a staff member’s birthday, with my boss and his lovely wife. If I avoided her calls, she would continue to phone all night, until I showed mercy on my colleagues and answered the barrage of accusations before I could go to sleep.

So, when we all headed for Durban, I avoided telling my parents I was back in town for a week. And then I called them. They came rushing to the beachfront hotel, and we sat in the car while she demanded I return home with them. I refused. They continued to try to convince me. I say “they”, but really it was She whilst dad tried to show support for his wife. His discomfort and distaste for what was happening was obvious. By that time, I had started to discover the strong spine that would later guide me through so many events that might have crushed a weaker person. After all, by that time I was a manager, I could speak to strangers - I had become a different person. And that person was someone they had never encountered. For the first time in my life, I stood up to her, and said "No."

So, she told me that if I got out of the car and didn't come back with my belongings, I was no longer their child, no longer a part of the family, and no longer had a home.
I got out the car and walked away.

Heavy-hearted and free, I walked away from them. I had become my own person, and the ties that bound me to my mother had been cut. Never released, for that would suggest a willingness by my parents to set me free, and that certainly was not the case.

The final weekend the company was in Durban, I chose a Saturday morning to go to the house where I had been born - the only child of four to have been born at home. I knew Saturday mornings were time for shopping, so I could get into the house, collect the remainder of my clothes and belongings and leave without them knowing.

I walked around to the back door, knowing the front door would be locked but that they left the back door open for the dogs. They were both in the kitchen. The first words She said to me: "What do you think you're doing here? This isn't your home."
My father left, went to his workshop, whistling quietly, as Mother reconfirmed that I was no longer her child.
I collected what I could and left.

Back in Johannesburg a couple of weeks later, a friend told me the police were looking for me. She had reported me as a runaway, and the police were instructed to find me and take me home.
I called my father’s younger brother and he came to collect me, buying me a ticket for the train back to Durban.

For a couple of months, I lived with them, but soon enough, Jacqui and I found an apartment and I could leave - this time for good. I saw them rarely over the next year, and the final day I spent in Durban was with them, begrudgingly and in stony silence, taking me to the train station. I hugged her farewell, but, true to character, received nothing in return.

**** **** ****

No comments:

Post a Comment