Tag Archives: being South African

Also goats and cows

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If you follow Rarasaur (and you really should) you will find that sometimes she takes hold of your brain and turns it upside down like a pocket in a washing machine, and extraordinary things fall out. This is what fell out of my brain this evening.

I have never milked a cow. A friend, then a neighbor, tried to teach me to milk a goat, and she gave me goats milk that was delicious to drink and made wonderful soft cheese. The Hubbit and I were just just a few years into farming. All things seemed possible. So I decided I needed goats of my own.

Then one day the Hubbit saw two nannies on Craigslist who had been pets for a few years and were being given away for free. They had never been bred, or milked, and we found out after we brought them home that they weren’t really that accustomed to being pets either. I liked them, though, and I named the Saanen-cross Mary, and the La Mancha became Dulcinea.

This is a working farm, and everything is supposed to earn its keep. That is The Rule, as laid down by the Hubbit. (It doesn’t apply to my old horse or any of the dogs, all of whom are more cuddly than useful, but he is adamant that the exceptions stop there. More-or-less. Sometimes The Rule doesn’t really apply to me either … but I’m also always up for a cuddle.) My point is, there is no room for virgin goats on a working farm. Our next door neighbors had a billy goat, so we invited him over for a visit.

Billy goats have a bad reputation for reeking and raunchiness, and it’s entirely justified. This billy, and apparently he wasn’t unusual, would make himself irresistible by sticking his head between his front legs and peeing on his face. I think he peed pure acid, because his face was covered with raw bald patches. If we went out into the pasture he would rush up and try to rub it on us – behavior we appreciated about as much as the ladies did. In the end, however, he did what he was there to do and went home, and in the fullness of time Dulcinea and Mary produced kids.

Dulcinea & Kids (1)

Dulcinea and three brand new babies

There is nothing in the world as enchanting as a baby kid … except a whole lot of baby kids . I wish I had photographs, but this was before I had a phone with a camera on it, and anyway I’ve always been more interested in just looking than in recording. With baby kids in the pasture it’s about impossible to get anything done, they’re just so much fun. I set them up with logs and tires and random other odds and ends, and they spent their days leaping on, off and over. It’s the best part of having a farmlet!

Then, when they’re six months old, if you live on a working farm, your husband puts treats in a bucket and leads them around the side of the barn while you sit in a stall on a hay bale with your hands over your ears, and their mamas cry and cry, and you cry with them, and for days afterwards they glare at you with their yellow slotted eyes. Young goat is delicious, but it’s hard to eat; you feel like a cannibal.

This post started out being about milking, so, to get back to my point… The reason the nannies had to have kids was to bring in their milk. These were specifically milking breeds. You have to milk them and it’s better not to let them feed their babies; their udders get huge, and when kids nurse they slam their hard little heads into those udders and cause damage. But my two ladies would have nothing to do with my rude, clumsy fingers, and in the end they developed lumps of scar tissue from the relentless head-butting, which made it milking them properly impossible.

We tried keeping milk goats for two years, during which my neighbor continued to supply me with milk for cheese (so delicious! Such a frustrating reminder of my farmwife failings!) The first year my first Malinois, Destra, killed one of the babies, which was hugely traumatic. The second year she murdered two of them and I’d had enough. Kill day was just a couple weeks away and I couldn’t face inflicting more pain on my girls. (The cows really don’t care. They’ll stand and watch the kill guy do his work, and then mosey off with their latest calves to find another patch of sweet grass to munch on, and by the next day they’re not even calling the missing members of their herd. But goats are different. They know.)

I feel a bit weird writing about this, having sort of dedicated this post to Ra, who I think is vegetarian. But … well, this is what fell out of the pocket in my head, so I’ll just run with it, I guess.

Anyway, I found a goat rescue and we loaded up Mary, Dulcinea and their three remaining kids (the rescue later named them Wynken, Blynken and Nod and found them a job together as lawnmowers) and we drove in the truck for seven hours, across the Cascades and then up the I-5 almost as far as the Canadian border, and then five-and-a-half hours back home again. (We didn’t get lost on the way home.) The Hubbit has never quite forgiven me for this, and I will likely never get to have goats again, but that’s probably just as well. I have arthritis in my thumbs now, so milking is no longer possible.

Our cows don’t need to be milked. Their udders get large, but their calves can drink all the milk they produce and the head-butting doesn’t seem to bother them.

Rugen - Granny and Grandpa farm's house

Rugen, my grandparents’ farmhouse in the Northern Transvaal. I look at this picture and I can smell the Cobra wax polish that made her floors and furniture gleam. I can taste the pawpaws, blessed with the last coolness of the early morning. My grandmother kept peacocks and I loved to collect their tail feathers, but she would never have them in her house; she said they were unlucky.

When  I was a child my grandparents had a cattle farm in the Northern Transvaal in South Africa. They raised mainly beef cattle, but they had a few cows for milk. When we visited I went every morning to the milking shed, and then I followed the buckets of milk to the room with the cream separator. I had my little tin mug and I was allowed to hold it under the spout where the warm milk foamed out, and whenever no one was looking I’d stick it under the spout to steal the thick yellow cream.

Then my grandfather would take me out into the orchard and we’d pick a few pawpaws for breakfast. My grandmother would slice them and clean out the shiny black wet bitter-tasting seeds, and after we’d eaten our pawpaw she’d dish up big bowls of hot oatmeal or mieliemeal porridge and sprinkle on a thick crust of sugar, and I was allowed to pour on as much cream as I wanted.

Let’s talk. Have you ever milked anything? Or drunk fresh cream? What would fall out of the pockets in your head if I turned you upside down?

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That time I ran for political office

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Once upon a time, long, long ago, when I was a student at Rhodes (a university in Grahamstown, South Africa, which was named for good old Cecil the Terrible –

Zuma dick pick

“Umshini Wam” [“Weapon of Mass Destruction”] by Ayanda Mabulu, is a portrait South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma. Note his big hands.

– although white South African schoolkids during the apartheid era knew Cecil John Rhodes as a man who transformed Africa (which was true, actually) and became very rich and powerful (also true) and was a hero (not so much). Sometimes I wonder how teachers think about the stuff they cram into their students heads. Did the teachers of my generation believe what they taught – that pink-skinned adventurers were heroes, that trekkers and pioneers tamed unclaimed territory, and that the stories of Blood River and Thanksgiving had happy endings? Do teachers of any generation know when they’re lying, or care? Or are they the Sean Spicers of the classroom, expressing the opinions of their master without being in any way responsible for them? Do educators collude willingly in the production of  lemmings, or are they just doing their job? And when the job is done … how do they feel when they see ignorance elevated to power?)

To get back to the point of this piece – which I started to share a memory, not rant about social engineering – I just read a recent post by one of my favorite bloggers, Victo Dolore, who likes to ponder while she poops. During her sitting time this morning she remembered a day ruined by a misplaced button, and that got me thinking about the time a button very nearly did for me.

It was toward the end of my first year at Rhodes, when I ran for a seat on the Students Representative Council. It’s not usual for first year students to run for the SRC, but I was compelled to do so by my urgent yearning for Freedom.

Rhodes was a little more old-fashioned than most universities in those days, and women’s residences were locked at 8.00PM on week nights. You could stay out later, but you had to sign out and leave through the front door, and there was a curfew. There were always two students on duty to ensure compliance … unless you were one of their friends … which I never was, because I wasn’t cool enough … which is why I had to go into politics. (Maybe that’s how it all started for Ted Cruz.)

However SRC members were presumed to be Highly Responsible People, and also Leaders Of Tomorrow, so they got a back door key and could come and go as they pleased without signing in.

So I ran for office, which entailed attending dinners at various student residences, where I made stirring speeches about my fundamental amazingness and overall fitness for office, which I did about as well as you’d expect of an introverted fat girl with no clue about style. (Well, Abe Lincoln was also odd-looking and unfashionable, so I was in good company, although I didn’t know it, American presidents not being of great significance within the South African educational establishment.)

By the time I addressed the largest of the men’s residences I was feeling pretty confident, almost smooth, and I’d learned how to look directly at people in my audience without actually seeing them (seeing can be disturbing), and I’d practiced enough that I could talk without quavering. Also, I was wearing a new outfit; my mother had made it and mailed it to me especially. It was a chocolate brown skirt that reached just past the fattest part of my calves (in other words, it hid my knees!) and a nylon cream blouse spattered with dime-sized chocolate brown polka dots that was only a little tight across my ever-expanding bazoom.

My speech can only be described as enthralling. Every eye in the dining hall was fixed upon me. I had one friend in the audience who kept sort of flapping his hand in front of his chest, which was a teeny bit distracting, but when glaring didn’t make him stop I ignored him. When I was done, my listeners didn’t merely applaud me – they roared! They stamped their feet! They even whistled! It … was … amazing!

Then I turned back to the high table (where I was seated with various senior types and authority figures) and one of them leaned forward and softly informed me that the blouse button over my bra had popped open.

My mother always was unreliable in sizing buttonholes.

Anyway, it was worth it because I did, in fact, get elected. There were five open seats, and five people running, so my victory was pretty much inevitable. I was put in charge of publicity, which mainly involved getting high  on the smell of marker pens while creating posters advertising university events. I did the words – puns, rhymes and wordplay, all hilarious, of course. My friends provided the artistic touch, under the leadership of the only artist among us, who specialized in inserting genitalia into everything she drew – but very subtle, of course. We had to make a lot of posters; apparently they were popular wall art in the dorms.

The SRC meetings were cool. They took place at night and ran well after bedtime, and featured lots of impassioned debate, voting, questions by the student media, demands by student activists, and donuts.

And when there weren’t meetings, I was free to let myself out through the back door and roam around the campus and the town, in the magical dark, alone.

Rhodes-University-Drostdy-Arch-resized1

The Drostdy Arch stands where Grahamstown’s main street runs up against the campus. It’s also the scene of my sole attempt at student political activism. After Steve Biko’s murder, my girlfriends help me hang a huge poster that asked, “Who’s Next?” (It was also supposed to list the names of other victims of police brutality. I don’t remember why it didn’t … We may have run out of time, or maybe we simply didn’t know who they were – this was before Google, remember.) The hottest guy on campus, who was also editor of the student newspaper, was impressed (!!!!!) enough to invite me to cram myself into his VW bug with a half dozen or so real student activists, and we parked a short way away and waited for the police to come tear it down, so that he could photograph their heinous attack on free speech, and sell it to a real newspaper. When they didn’t come, I suggested popping around the corner to call the police from a public phone and complain. This didn’t go down well. They didn’t go so far as to eject me from the car, but I was definitely shunned for lacking ethics. Funny thing, though … the guy with the camera is now rich and successful and hangs out with plutocrats, while scruples and ideals have come to encrust me like barnacles.

 

 

What’s in a name?

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Over the past year, reading the news carried me all the way from disbelief to despair before I ran out of angst. I keep abreast of major news events (the ones the online mainstream media, as funneled through my personal algorithm, tells me about, anyway. I’ve canceled my subscriptions to alternative sources like The Intercept).

Often I listen to National Public Radio when I drive, and if I’m not interested in what they’re offering I switch to the conservative talk show hosts on the AM channels – Savage, Limbaugh, Hannity. Sometimes they repeat themselves on an endless loop as they troll for callers, but the people who call in can be interesting. These are the folk who, for now, are driving our national bus. I’d rather know what they think than not.

Superman stopping a bus

Apparently Wonder Woman didn’t ever stop a bus from plunging to its doom while someone was around with a camera, so here’s Superman instead. She’d have done the same, except with one hand. And without a cloak to obscure the view. And afterwards she’d have parked the bus alongside the curb. (Source)

I have friends, mainly on Facebook, who share articles and rants. Sometimes I join the conversation, but more and more I just hit like/love/ha-ha/sad face/angry face and move on. More and more, I’m an observer rather than a participant. I feel as though I’ve been thrown from the bus and am lying, stunned but (as far as I know) intact, watching it spin toward the cliff edge. And while I’d like to care – or, better, release my Inner Wonder Woman to stop the bus from going over – what I really feel most of the time is curiosity. I wonder what’s going to happen next. I wonder what you think about it, and why your thoughts are not the same as mine.

We’ve ditched the Paris Agreement? Oh well, at least now corporations and communities are taking direct responsibility for limiting climate change, and maybe we’ll all be okay, and even if we aren’t I can’t change anything, although I’m thinking of setting up a beehive, so that’s something. We need bees.

Jeff Sessions is all set to enforce heavier penalties for drug use and cancel states’ rights to legalize marijuana, provided he doesn’t resign or get fired first, and also he thinks America is light on crime and he wants to change that? Wow … I wonder how it’s possible for someone to look so cute and be so horrible. Maybe he was teased and bullied in the schoolyard for looking like an elf, and now he’s compensating by behaving like a gremlin. Bullying has consequences.

A whole bunch of people are suing Trump for violating the emoluments clause in the Constitution? And James Comey’s testimony to Congress destroyed / vindicated Trump? And Trump may (or may not) fire Robert Mueller, as he may (or may not) have the power to do? And if he does he will definitely (not?) be impeached? Huh. Well, at least between all that and Twitter he’s being kept busy. Maybe this is good. If Mike Pence moves into the White House, everything will calm down and shit will get done.

To stay grounded I watch a lot of late night talk shows on YouTube. Trevor Noah is my favorite (just to give a fellow South African a shout-out), but I enjoy Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers too. Between them they almost make the news palatable.

Lately I’ve been watching Bill Maher. He’s arrogant, but I like the way his bullshit meter swings left as well as right. Like me, he believes in free speech for everyone, not just the people who think as he does; and he’s impatient with snowflakes and political correctness, as am I. So it’s been interesting to watch him navigate the turbulence following his use of a “racial slur” during an interview on his show.

He’s invited quite a few people, mainly black celebrities, to come onto his show and berate him. And while he squirms and occasionally protests, he takes what they dish up and he eats it.

This has been unexpected. I’ve been waiting for him to say, “Oh come on – it’s a word, that’s all. I haven’t enslaved anyone. Get over it!” I’m pretty sure that’s what I would have said. I’d have apologized, and then if they continued to fuss at me I’d have rolled my eyes and left them to flap their mouths at my departing back.

It’s not that I don’t know words, the names we call people, can hurt. I’m a woman, I’m a foreigner living in Smalltown America, I’m fat; I know how it feels to be smacked with a slur. But I believe – that is, I have believed – that someone who uses racist, sexist or otherwise denigrating language is really saying more about themselves than about the subject of their attack. So what’s the big deal? Let’s move on – right?

And mealy-mouthed euphemisms – ugh, I hate them! You don’t “drop the F-bomb” – you say fuck. You don’t call someone the B-word – you call her a bitch, and then – depending on whether she’s a ball-breaking bitch or a frigid bitch – she either rips your head off or says, “Really? You say that as though it’s a bad thing.”

So this word that Maher used … ehh. It’s icky, but it’s just a word. It’s just a noun people used to use. At least he was honest – he didn’t say it by using a euphemism to pretend he wasn’t saying it. And slavery was terrible, no joking matter, so that was a mistake – but it’s over, right? Both slavery and Maher’s joke – they’re over. Past and done.

Except … I remember the pure searing rage I felt, years ago when I was sick with longing for home, when the Hubbit and I were guests at a Thanksgiving dinner. The conversation shifted to reparation and how idiotic it was all these years after slavery was over, and somebody commented, “Weelll they oughta be grateful we enslaved ’em – otherwise they’d still be stuck in Aaaafricaaa.” These people, these buffoons who knew nothing about my beautiful home, so much richer and deeper and more alive than this flimsy America with all its flags and silly nationalistic rituals – how dared they say her name with such contempt?

And I remember the anger I still feel when I’m editing a report for a South African client, and I have to refer to black people as “Africans” as though I, being white, am not African, even though my ancestors have lived there since 1665. As though my grandparents and great-grandparents, and now I and my daughter, were ghosts, our lives without substance or meaning. As though we are illegitimate and homeless.

Thinking about it, I begin to understand that anger and hurt aren’t always subject to common logic, but that doesn’t make them any less real.

This morning I was lying in bed, yawning and flicking through the news on my phone, when I noticed my feed contained something new from Bill Maher – an interview with Ice Cube.

Full disclosure: I cannot stand rap, and I think Ice Cube is a stupid name for an adult; I don’t care how cool he thinks he is. Also, I was about bored with watching rich, successful “African” Americans (light brown people who have never lived in Africa) huff and puff over a two-word slip of the tongue. But I didn’t feel like getting up and I’d already watched the other late night shows I follow, so I clicked on it. You should too.

Seriously … If you let your eyes flick over the video without stopping to watch it, go back. (If you can’t see it, just check YouTube for “Bill Maher and Ice Cube”.) It’s part of this post and I need you to hear it, otherwise what I’m trying to communicate here will fall like a pebble down a well.

You done? Good. Thank you.

Okay … so, I still don’t understand why, if I don’t agree with the politically correct (as defined by black people) narrative, I’m accused of white privilege as though it’s something I’ve done. I don’t understand why blacks cling so tightly to past injustice instead of putting it behind them, living in the present and focusing on the future.

I don’t understand what it’s like to be dark-skinned in America today. It seems to me that when you read the news or watch late night talk show hosts, you don’t get the same message I do, and I don’t understand why. I can’t grasp how it feels to know your grandmother used to be someone’s property. I cannot comprehend your anger, your fear, your hurt.

But I understand this: I don’t have to use euphemisms if I don’t want to. If I want to speak about something, I can call it by its full name. But there is one word – the one that stabs like a knife – that I have never needed, and to which I relinquish all claim.

I understand now. That word is not mine to use.

 

Talk to me. I’d like to know what you think.

 

Going postal

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USPS-Exam-3D-Cover-with-text (2)So it looks as though the US Postal Service has a clever new scheme going: tell people you’re hiring, then when they go to your website to apply, don’t let them do so unless they fork over $29.95, in return for which some helpful people will send you a “well written Guide with NO MEMORIZATION required”, including test-taking strategies and tips from “subject matter experts”.

What’s particularly cool about these people is that they don’t expect you to waste time waiting for snail mail – because, as it’s important to understand if you’re going to apply for a job at the post office, actually physically posting anything is pretty old hat. No one who has a clue does that any more. So they will provide a link to a 98-page PDF document that you can download within three seconds of making payment, and print out using your very own personal printer ink and paper.

Alternatively, for only $10 more you can get essentially the same thing from another source, only what they promise to send is a “Postal Exam Package” containing exam registration materials, “eCareer Profile Creation Tutorials”, a bunch of practice tests, and a “Postal Interview Recommendation”.

It’s not entirely clear how they send this, but to me the word “package” denotes physical substance – something with heft. I imagine brown paper and string, the knots liberally coated with sealing wax … Dang, those were the days! I remember helping my mother make up parcels like that! Sometimes she’d let me hold the stick of sealing wax. I remember the smell of burning string and hot wax, and how quickly the drops of wax hardened, and how satisfying it was to scratch the hard accidental drips off the paper, and how important it was not to put my face so close to the flame that I burned off my eyebrows.

Hand made leather man wallet and  package on wooden background

Searching for this illustration made me feel so old! Everything I found was essentially an artistically staged picture. Take this one – what’s the relevance of the man wallet? I also found a still life in shades of brown, featuring a stamped seal, a watch on a chain and a cigar, arranged like relics of a forgotten era. Also, there are lots of pictures of scrolls, apparently made of papyrus, tied with hemp, and sealed with a perfect dab of red wax. Seriously, Adobe, WTF? Real people living today actually used this stuff, you know – and it had a purpose. It wasn’t just bloody decorative, okay? It was messy and it dripped and blobbed, and if you let your kid do it they probably illustrated the package with artistic extra drips and blobs, but – and this was important – YOU DRIPPED THE WAX ONTO THE KNOT IN THE STRING, okay? It was there to discourage postal workers from opening your parcel, because that was back in the day when it was reasonable to expect the South African Post Office to deliver parcels rather than dumping them in a ditch, losing them, or selling them to the highest bidder. Because, of course, back then we hadn’t invented scissors yet, so sealed and unbroken string was impenetrable.

Well, I digress … A modern parcel would have tape, not string, and it would likely come in one of those standard red, white and blue USPS boxes. Unless they sent it UPS or Fedex, those being the faster and more reliable options since the Pony Express closed down. But either way, there wouldn’t be string.

Sorry, that was another digression, because in fact I resisted the temptation to order a Postal Exam Success Guide. The only reason I was googling post office jobs was a sudden panic over money, for crying out loud! If I was going to spend $39.95 on something, it wouldn’t be on an unartistically presented package, which I wouldn’t receive because we don’t get mail delivery at our house due to an argument over post box location with our local post office about eight years ago, which culminated in the Hubbit declaring his independence from delivery services by renting a PO box (from USPS) instead. (That’s a whole blog post in its own right, but not one I feel like writing today.) Anyway, the $39.95 option didn’t include space for a PO box address, so I couldn’t choose it. As for the other option, the convenience of receiving a PDF document is offset by the fact that I still haven’t figured out how to get our wireless printer to connect to my computer, and I am fundamentally fed up with having to forward every bloody thing to the Hubbit for printing. In any case, if I had random bits of money to be scattering to the four winds I wouldn’t be contemplating a job at the post office, now would I?

Sometimes I feel as though my life is spiraling out of control. There are too many damn buttons to push, and you have to push them in the right order, and … GAH! It’s just too  complicated.

I couldn’t help wondering what my $29.95 would get me – I mean, in the sense of what career opportunities would open up if I accepted their Success Guide. So I went back and took another look at what popped up when I googled USPS jobs, and I realized that the sites I’d found the first time I tried this weren’t actually part of the official US Postal Service. They’re very cleverly dressed up to look that way, complete with bald eagles and flags, but if you click on the actual USPS website you can go straight to the online job application, easy-peasy.

USPS stamps

Turns out they have a new stamp design, called “summer harvest”. Click on the picture on the USPS website, and it’ll take you to a fantastic array of gorgeous stamps. Some of them are so pretty I just want to rush out and … I don’t know … start mailing letters again? Probably not – back in the day (before email) I was notorious for writing long, wonderful, newsy letters, putting them in an envelope, sticking on the prettiest stamps I could find … and then forgetting to put them in the mailbox. Actually physically going to a post office to post a letter was one of those things I invariably put off, so letters would go onto the pile of un-dealt-with paperwork I have kept on every desk I’ve ever owned, and there they would slowly sift to the bottom, to be found years later when I packed up to move house.

So anyway … I looked, and apparently the main post office in our area is looking for rural mail carriers. Only to get hired you have to pass a test, which takes about two hours to complete. I don’t have two hours right now, having already invested a substantial portion of today in writing this post. Also, I really hate writing tests, because failure, rejection, feelings of inferiority – AAHHHHH! I mean, how would I feel if I failed a test that was directed specifically at school leavers and other people with no prior experience, skills or training? Plus, apparently the test includes a section called “Summary of Accomplishments”, and the advice to applicants is  to “write about how your skill set, education and training matches the posting”. Seriously, should someone who can’t mail letters be responsible for delivering same?

Still, I have to admit I’m tempted. The thought of working in a post office, dealing with the Great Unwashed every day, fills me with dismay. Yes, I know, you don’t actually have to be nice to anyone – that’s one of the perks of working for the post office. But … ugh … you’re perpetually at the end of a queue, and every single day is just one piece of mail after another. Could that get monotonous, do you think?

Driving around delivering letters, on the other hand … now that could be fun. Lots of time to think, and – thanks to the invention of GPS – I wouldn’t get lost. Probably wouldn’t. Not very lost, anyway, and probably not permanently. It would be different if they were still using ponies – I like ponies way too much to sit on one – but these days you get to ride around in one of those cute little vans with the driver on the sidewalk side. You know, I can see myself doing that, while simultaneously dictating a Great Work (or, at least, a blog post) into a little hand-held recorder thingummy. I already have one of those. I just need to figure out how it works.

So what’s your dream job? What do you do when you suddenly realize you’re down to your last $50 and there’s still a week to go to the end of the month?

 

 

The envelope

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I don’t know why I wanted – no, didn’t want, absolutely did not want, but needed – to see my mother’s body. It’s not as though her death was a surprise. Although it happened sooner than expected, I was not in denial, I didn’t need proof … and I had a gut-deep dread at the thought of looking at her, facing the oozing reality of death doing its work inside her. I couldn’t shake the fear that she might be swollen, or discolored, or just fundamentally dead-looking. Forgive me for saying this … I imagined she might smell.

I knew these fears were irrational and silly – we of the first world are shielded from the obnoxious aspects of death. It has become sad but pretty. We have a supermarket-sized range of choices as to how we hide the evidence of our mortality, from worm-defying embalming, to composting (my preferred option. Marmeee would have chosen it too, but we’d already cremated her by the time I learned it was possible – and I still don’t know whether it’s done in South Africa).

HOYA (2).JPG

Things Marmeee loved: Gardens and gardening and South African native plants. She and her brothers sponsored a bench in Kirstenbosch Garden, in Cape Town, in memory of my grandmother, who used to work there. We – my siblings and I – will put one at Walter Sisulu Nature Reserve, outside Johannesburg, for sitting on while remembering her and the Olde Buzzard. This picture is of the Hoya vine that her mother started from a cutting, and that Marmeee cherished for 50 years.

And yet, despite all logic, the thought of looking at my mother’s dead body filled me with cringing dismay. My resistance was just a little less powerful than the compulsion I felt to see it. I remembered all the stories I’d read or heard of near-death or out-of-body experiences, and imagined her disincorporated self hanging around, waiting for me to come and … what? I don’t know. Pay my final respects?

As I write this I can almost hear the derisive hoot of laughter with which she’d have greeted such an idea. “Your respects?” she’d have exclaimed. “You’ve never been respectful in your life. You call me fubsy!” Which is only partly true. I may have been quite good at concealing my respect for her, but she knew very well it was there. As for fubsy … well, she was, and so am I. It’s a Tookish trait!

Well, I digress. I’d have preferred to get The Viewing over and done with right away, but thanks to a missed flight and then a 12-hour delay in Heathrow I didn’t reach Johannesburg until Sunday evening, when the undertaker was closed.

The next day, Monday, I met my father and my sisters, the Egg and the Kat, at the Kat-House, to go through Marmeee’s clothes and choose something pretty for her to wear. The Kat chose a white blouse with embroidered giraffes that she had given her. We added a pair of cotton capris and some underwear. I vetoed shoes – who wears shoes when you’re lying down? – but insisted on socks to keep her toes warm. The Old Buzzard chose her most beautiful shawl – a big, soft, fringed square in her signature shades of grey, blue and lilac.

On Tuesday the Egg, the Kat and I took the clothes to the undertaker. We asked for a simple pine box and a cremation, definitely no embalming, no fuss. No, we didn’t wish to attend the cremation. But … I took a deep breath. “I would like to see her,” I said. They said they would have her ready for me the following day.

On Wednesday morning my bestie, Twiglet, picked me up. I made her promise to come in with me. “I’m scared,” I told her.

“Don’t be. It’ll be okay – you’ll see,” she replied gently.

“I’ve never seen a human dead body before,” I explained. “And this is my mother!”

“My Mom was my first too,” she said.

At the mortuary, the receptionist called a man in a black suit to lead us to the viewing room. His expression was somber, and it bothered me that he seemed sadder than I was. I was too anxious to be sad. I had absolutely no idea what I would do, how I would react. Would I sob hysterically? Fling myself on her coffin? Laugh – as I so hideously did when I was 12 years old and told my classmates my little dog had died, run over by a car, and they all thought I was an awful person because the only expression my face remembered for days after it happened was a ghastly rictal grin? Our escort opened the door to the viewing room, then stepped back to wait in the hallway, head bowed and hands quietly folded.

The room was bright and spacious, with curved rows of empty seats and large windows. Near the front, resting on a dais, was the coffin – pale, unvarnished pine, with rope handles. Although plain it was nicely made – sturdy, with rounded edges and a few simple carved details. Viewed from the doorway you couldn’t see the coffin shape, and it looked like something my mother might have chosen to keep on her back stoep – an attractive box for storing gardening tools that was also a good height for sitting upon with a cup of tea.

I walked about halfway down the aisle between the chairs, then sat down. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked Twiglet. “I don’t even know how I’m supposed to feel.” She just hugged me and waited for me to figure it out. “Okay,” I said at last. “Let’s do this.”

Things she loved - OB

Things Marmeee loved: Book stores. Coffee shops. The Olde Buzzard. Earrings, like the ones he gave her just before we took this picture.

I marched up to the coffin and looked down into it.

The woman inside was lying with her head tilted back, so that her chin jutted sharply toward the ceiling. She didn’t look entirely comfortable. I wanted to lift her head, tuck a pillow under it … but I didn’t have a pillow. Also, I was worried that if I lifted her head her whole body might rise, rigid as a plank. I don’t know how long rigor mortis lasts, and it didn’t seem appropriate to google it just then.

Her eyes were closed, and her lips were thin and stern. I wondered whether the mortician had used glue to fix them shut.

I touched her cheek. She was icy. I realized that she had been packed in bags of ice, and yanked my mind away from the reason this was necessary. I stroked her hand. It was cold… cold.

Her beautiful shawl had been tucked around her shoulders, but was a little bunched up. I patted it smooth, snugged it around her. I wondered whether I should kiss her, but I really didn’t want to.

I went back to where Twiglet was sitting and plunked down into a seat. “I don’t feel anything,” I said. “She’s not here. That over there -” I gestured toward the coffin. “It’s just an empty envelope.” Twiglet nodded, and hugged me again.

“So … okay. Let’s go,” I said. I stood to leave, but found myself wandering back to the coffin. I felt restless, vaguely ashamed that I didn’t want to cry or wail, angry that something so momentous could happen and leave me bereft of words or feelings.The shawl still didn’t look quite right. I rearranged it again, positioning it so that one of the embroidered giraffes on her blouse was visible.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” I said. “She’d be royally pissed at us for burning this shawl.”

Twiglet gave me the side-eye. “I’m sure they’d give it back if you asked them to.”

“No, I don’t want it – it’s not mine to take. But I hope someone steals it before they cremate her. She’d like that – knowing it was making another woman feel pretty.”

“Well,” Twiglet said. “Who knows? This is Africa. Maybe that’s one of the perks of the job.”

We were chuckling as we walked through the door, down the corridor, and out into the sunlit parking lot. Behind us, I knew, machinery had hummed to life and the dais, the coffin and its chilly, empty contents had sunk to the basement, out of sight. But the thought of it no longer scared me. I felt a sense of release. I was glad I had seen her body. It had served her well for many years, and so had earned our gratitude and respect, but she was no longer in it. She had written the letter of her life, signed it “With love”, and had quite clearly moved on.

valerie1

Things Marmeee loved: Me