The other day I was driving home when our neighbor’s wife called to say her husband had died. We didn’t know them well. I’d only ever spoken to the wife over the telephone, though I knew him to say hello or wave. He and the Hubbit were friendly; they’d call on each other for help as needed – to borrow tools or equipment, or work together on some or other repair. For a while we took care of their pasture in return for grazing our cattle there. More than once he zipped over in his golf cart to help us chase down a runaway steer.
Somehow I never got around to inviting them over to barbecue, and we had no idea that he’d been diagnosed with throat cancer in February. When I got home I told the Hubbit the news and he was dismayed. “Well, dang!” he said. “I’ve been thinking I should go over and visit, but…”
A few weeks ago I learned that my Aunt Marietjie had died. She was in her nineties and I knew she’d become frail, but the last time I saw her – just a few years ago at Marmeee’s memorial service – she was as I’d always known her: calm, unfalteringly kind, resolute. We weren’t close; I didn’t see her that often and in the 23 years since I moved to the US we’ve never corresponded … but when I named this blog it was with her in mind, because she was someone I kinda wanted to be like – strong, unflappable, salt-of-the-earth, a woman of strong faith and stronger Scrabble skills, a quiet source of wisdom and comfort food.
My father, the Olde Buzzard, used to refer to her as a soustannie, and it was only after I named this blog that I learned that the word didn’t mean an intelligent, powerful woman with excellent culinary skills. It’s not a compliment. It means someone who is female, fat and bossy. Well, some might say that makes it a fine name for my blog …. Oh well. [Insert shrug emoji here.]
Moment of truth: the Olde Buzzard was intimidated by strong women, and that made him mean. He had uncomplimentary nicknames for me too. He died a few years ago, and … well, all I want to say is, I’m grateful that in the end I was able to do my duty, to treat him with love and kindness, and that everything needing to be said and done between us was indeed said and done.
Getting back to Marietjie … I thought of changing the name of this blog, but decided instead to stay with the image I’d originally had in mind – an image largely inspired by this aunt, whom I am not at all like, yet who was extraordinarily kind to me at random intervals throughout my life. She was the one person I could trust to love my Girl Child when she needed it and wouldn’t accept it from me. I always meant to write to her care of my cousin, but…
Some years ago I wrote a post that won a response from a different cousin, from the other side of the family. I replied, but he never commented again. But from then on, every time I wrote about dogs, a small part of me wrote for him, because I grew up hearing stories about his extraordinary ability to connect with animals.
I grew up loving him.
I have many cousins and I’ve had crushes on several of them, but Michael was special. He was so handsome, tan and blue-eyed and blonde, with ruggedly regular features and a smile that reached out and pulled you in. When he invited me up onto his lap and taught me how to tell the time on his big wristwatch, he made my four-year-old heart flutter. I was convinced I would marry him, and I was devastated when he married someone else.
The Old Buzzard had adored my cousin – they were close in age – and he disliked the wife, and now I realize that she’s probably strong and intelligent as well as being “a damn liberal who thinks we aren’t good enough”. Back then, viewing her through the distorted lens of his resentment, I couldn’t warm to her. But I spent a month with them, while I was a university student with a vacation job in their city, and I remember she was kind, and their home was beautiful, and they seemed happy. (Who wouldn’t be happy with Michael?) I remember that she collected silver, so at the end of the visit I spent almost everything I’d earned on some too large and probably tacky addition to her collection because I needed to prove that I’d been raised right. I remember I fell and sprained my ankle getting off the bus, and Michael – who was a successful vet by then – bound it up. When I complained that he hurt me, he laughed at me for making more fuss than a dog with far worse injuries. But I forgave him because he still made my teenage heart flutter.
After I got that message from him on my long-ago blog post, whenever I wrote about dogs and hoped for another message I thought about making contact. I imagined going to see him on my next trip to South Africa. And then a couple months ago I heard that he’d died. Hoping for more detail I looked at his sister Midge’s Facebook page – and that’s when I learned that her daughter had just died – a beautiful, bright, happy woman that I’d never met, barely knew existed, just gone. There are wedding photos on Midge’s Facebook page, and she shines. I wept over them for several days – I don’t know why the loss felt so agonizing; I didn’t know her! And then I tried to write to Midge, but…
Then I got a message on my last post, from Michael’s wife, reaching out, and that’s when I learned that he’d actually died long before I heard about it – last January, of covid – such a horrible, horrible way to go! And I wanted to write to her, but what to say? Where to send it? We’re not even connected through Facebook – which I rarely visit anyway. It’s not that I can’t figure this out – and I will – but…
But I want a do-over. I want a neighborhood barbecue, and after that maybe conversations and coffee with a few new friends.
I want to talk to Michael and his wife, and see her with my own clear eyes. I don’t know what we’d talk about … dogs, probably, but what else? I want to know!
I want another game of Scrabble with Marietjie, with a plate of koeksisters and big mugs of rooibos tea. And I want to walk on the beach and then loll about comfortably and talk about cats with my cousin, her daughter, who is still this side of the dirt but on the far side of the planet.
I want to hug Midge, and meet her daughter, and maybe be invited to the wedding, or at least send a gift. And I want to meet her niece, my goddaughter, whose parents thought it would be cute to make 12-year-old me a godmother, since they didn’t take such things seriously, only I wish I had. And actually I’d like to see her parents again too.
And then there’s the other cousin who used to look so hot in his SA Airforce uniform, and his brother who was in a quite popular band and then became a DJ. They used to tease me, and one time I played in their mother’s cactus garden and ended up sprawled over my mother’s lap, butt exposed to the sunshine and their gleeful mockery, while I shrieked my outrage and she picked out tiny needles with a pair of tweezers. Those cousins are still alive, as far as I know, round the other side of the planet, and one day it’ll be too late for a do-over, but right now I have no idea what to do about that. We had a friendship – the DJ cousin and I did, anyway – and then it fizzled and we drifted and … truth be told, there’s probably no way back. None on my map, anyway.
I have cousins scattered all over the world, and others – nieces and a nephew, second cousins – so many people that I love or have loved or wish I’d loved. And although I know I don’t have the capacity to reconnect deeply with all of them – or even with more than a very few – being strangers just feels wrong.
And then there are friends. Like Deej. I want to sit with Deej and lay out all my questions about God and ask him how he, one of the finest and fiercest champions of Christ I ever knew, could possibly think well of Donald Trump. I actually tried to ask him that, via WhatsApp, but he didn’t answer, and over time he ghosted me. That stung, because he was my pastor more than anyone else ever was or will be, and I want to look him in the eye and ask why he wounded me. But I can’t, because he’s gone, and there are no do-overs. He died last December, a week shy of his eightieth birthday, leaving me still burdened with so many questions and no one else I’d entrust them to.
I ache every day to go on a road trip with Twiglet, the sister my heart gave me. Talking on WhatsApp doesn’t cut it, especially as her connection is so bad that usually I just listen to her voice; it’s impossible really to follow what she’s saying. I want a cream tea with Luscious. I want to talk about God and poetry with Fair Bianca. I am homesick for the friends of my young womanhood!
I want to kick back and laugh with the Kat, and talk deep talks with the Egg and Homeboy, and argue face-to-face with the Girl Child instead of getting mad and frustrated over WhatsApp. I want to laugh and talk and eat with my foster kids, and watch the granddaughters they gave me grow up, and be there to love them through it when their mothers make them angry, and go to their weddings and cuddle their babies – or not, if they choose a different road. But they’re all, all on the wrong side of the planet.
I want to find a way back to the Stranger, but I don’t think there is one, and the meeting place where I’d hope to find him might not even exist.
I remember my blessings. Here I have friends, a few anyway, some quite elderly, and a Hubbit ditto, that I love as best I can – although never enough. I have neighbors that I may invite to barbecue next summer.
I’ve been thinking that the people we touch are like fenceposts. They enclose the fields where we grow our lives.
I look at my fence, and there are gaps in it. It’s been standing a while and has reached that stage in the life of a fence that gaps form more and more frequently. Some of the timbers are broken, others are weathered and warped and working loose, and many are out of my reach. Beyond the fence I see the wilderness pressing in.
I’m not afraid of the wilderness. Often I’m drawn to it … I stand next to the fence and imagine what it would be like to push through and see what’s out there. Then I remember that I have work still to do on this side and I turn back.
But it troubles me sometimes to think that one day the gate in the fence may open, and it won’t matter because the fence itself will be down. I’ll walk through, as one must, but I wonder who will know.
Photos by Denise Karis and Foto Maak on Unsplash