Memories of my Grandfather

I hear the key in the door first, then the jangle of coins in his pocket. I race down the passage, trying to get there before my two brothers so that I can lay claim to one of his feet. We scramble to hop on, wrapping our arms around his trunk-like legs. Slowly he hobbles into the house weighed down by two children, with the unlucky third dancing around in front of him.

Ma yells at us, “Stop bothering your grandfather! He is tired!” We know that he leaves home in the dark to deliver bread for the bakery. By the time his shift ends we are back from school. We jump off his giant feet and allow him to enter his bedroom but follow closely on his heels, eager for the treat that he usually has in one of his pockets.

He sits down on the bed and then he opens his dark cupboard door, releasing smells of another era. Carefully pressed suits thick with the scent of mothballs hang, ready for service, alongside stiffly starched white shirts. Two pairs of shoes, one black, one brown, gleaming with polish, sit side by side at the bottom of the cupboard. Underwear and handkerchiefs are stacked in piles on the shelves. Black and white pictures which recall happier days are tucked into the mirror at angles. 

In the second drawer from the top is a yellow money box. “UBS” it says in blue letters. From the pockets of his khaki coat he takes out the coins which announced his arrival earlier. He allows me to put them into the money box. “For your education,” he reminds me.

In the photograph of me in my paternal grandfather’s arms in the mid-1960s, I imagine that he is envisioning the different life that I would have because of the education he was determined to provide for me. As far back as I can remember, my grandfather had been telling me that my brothers would be able to take care of themselves but that I would have to study further so that I could be independent. In retrospect this was quite revolutionary on his part, considering not only that no one in the family had completed matric or attended university, but also that I was a girl. He had passed standard six (grade 8) and worked as a driver of a delivery van for Duens Bakery, leaving for work while we were still asleep and coming home soon after we returned from school in the afternoon. From the pockets of the khaki coat he wore, he would take out any loose change and hand them to me to deposit into the yellow money box which said “UBS”(United Building Society)  in blue letters that he kept in his cupboard. Every deposit was accompanied by the reminder that this was for my education. By the time I had finished school he had saved enough to pay for my first year of university.

My pride at being the first person in my family to complete matric and make it to university was tempered by the humiliation of having to apply to the Department of Coloured Affairs for permission to attend the University of Cape Town which was for ‘whites-only’. I was granted permission on the basis that the ‘coloured’ University of the Western Cape did not offer the Occupational Therapy degree I wished to pursue.

Entering university was such a cultural onslaught that I might as well have gone to study in a different country. There were social, academic and financial challenges. My grandfather had managed to save enough to cover the fees for the first year and I had to find a bursary or take out a bank loan if I was to continue. As ‘black’ students we were constantly reminded of our inferior status on campus. In our anatomy practical sessions, even the cadavers we worked on had to be ‘black’. During clinical practice in our third and fourth years of study, we were not allowed to treat ‘white’ patients, which limited the placements and experience we could be exposed to. Restricting access to education was one of the ways in which those in power could control the lives of ‘black’ people. By placing limitations on the kind of education and the level of education ‘blacks’ could attain, the government ensured that they would remain less educated than ‘whites’, therefore less qualified and unable to rise above the station in life which the government deemed fit.

My grandfather died of cancer soon after I completed my first year of study and so was not alive to see me graduate, but the learning path he set me on changed the course of my life.

 

My Grandmother’s Dream Catchers II

About a year ago, my daughter treated me to a mother-daughter clay workshop that has since become a regular feature in my calendar. Working with clay has been the perfect antidote to being immersed in writing up my thesis. A serendipitous connection between the two, though, has been my “doilie collection”. This is a series of projects that I have been working on to imprint my grandmother’s designs into clay. I have felt a deep connection to the creative heritage that she initiated with her “poor man’s lace”, the craft work that she used to supplement the family income, while creating my own interpretation of her work.

I have been surrounded by memories of her while I kneaded and shaped, respectfully joining her work and mine, layering it with oxides and glazes, patiently waiting for them to be fired in the kiln between the different processes. I have created something new by building on the past, but this heritage has flowed like a river finding its away around stones, as I was pleased to discover when I found the certificate that my father had earned for his artwork in 1954. He had won third prize for a print he had made of one of my grandmother’s designs. The certificate is the link between her work and mine, and those crocheted threads now span three generations.

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These simple objects build on the archive of the ordinary that tells the stories of where we come from, what Anthony Bogues describes as the ordinary practices of every day freedoms that the oppressed engaged in to hold on to their humanity. They disrupt the dominant narratives of apartheid that would see us as less than, as a people without history.

A People with History

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Years ago I attended a women’s workshop and, as an icebreaker, we were asked to say out loud the names of the chain of strong women in our genealogies. I remember an American woman in the group who could trace her maternal line back to someone who had crossed on the Mayflower, the ship which had transported the Pilgrims from England to the New World in 1620. That was more than 300 years of history right there. It was with a vague sense of shame that I could only name my mother and her mother. I seemed lightweight, of little consequence, without any history.

I pressed my mother for more details afterwards, unable to comprehend that she hadn’t done the same to her mother. There were things you didn’t talk about, she replied to me, whispers of mixtures that were either shameful or illegal. Her mother had arrived in Cape Town, from Malmesbury, aged 14 with three younger siblings in tow, after their parents had died. They were sent to family who lived in District Six. Soon after, my grandmother went out to work at the Cavalla Cork cigarette factory to contribute to their upkeep. She hardly ever spoke about her parents, and my mother cannot recall her ever going back to Malmesbury.

As I have delved deeper into my history and that of South Africa, I have been taken on a journey that goes back hundreds of years, through apartheid, and all the way back to slavery and colonialism. Each step of the way has been a revelation, since I knew little more of our history beyond the strictly-controlled narrative presented in our apartheid-era schools. Slavery had been a subject glossed over, presented as a more benign version of slavery elsewhere, it had receded far behind the more dominant narrative of apartheid. And yet, 200 years of slavery has fundamentally shaped who we are as people and as a country.

There have been moments of depression while exploring physical, mental and psychological trauma inflicted on our people and despair over how we will ever heal and move forward as a country with such a brutal and dehumanising history. But I have also been buoyed by the spirit of resistance which brought into being a vibrant and diverse culture of music and dance, food, and language, in spite of repression.

Along the way there have been many signposts, guiding and encouraging me – Jacob Lawrence’s exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, documenting the migration of six million black southerners in the early 20th century; Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns, dealing with the same subject matter; the opportunity to present at a conference on Racism and Social Justice in Charleston, South Carolina, the entry point of the majority of the 12 million slaves from Africa to America, and the keynote address by Dr Lonny Bunch, the director of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History in the Mother Emmanuel Church on the second anniversary of a racially-motivated shooting.

Another one of those moments occurred about a month ago when I visited the South African Sendinggestig Museum, also known as the Slave Church, in Long Street, Cape Town. It is the oldest existing mission building in South Africa and the third oldest church in the country. It’s a handsome building, with Burmese teak doors, American pine ceiling and stone from quarries on Signal Hill and Robben Island, and oak pews on which the first slaves to be baptised had sat. This led me to the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK), or Dutch Reformed Church, archives in Stellenbosch, which in turn led to an interview with Reverend David Botha, the 93 year old former curator of the Slave Church Museum. The role of the church is as fundamental to our history as slavery. A few days ago I followed that path to Genadendal, the oldest mission station in South Africa, but that’s a story for another time.

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What does this have to do with my grandmother and the women’s workshop? On a wildly optimistic whim I asked Karen Minnaar, the archivist at the NGK archives, if there might be any information on my grandmother who my mother believed had belonged to the NGK in Malmesbury, before coming to Cape Town. My grandmother had switched to the Anglican Church when she married my grandfather and became a staunch supporter of the church and its women’s fellowship. I wondered if my mother was correct about the NGK. Besides, my grandmother’s surname was Adams and I had very little hope of any success with such a common surname. Hopefully, I emailed Karen her name and date of birth (the day turned out to be incorrect). Later that day, Karen emailed photographs of the baptism entry with the names of her parents and those of her godparents, along with an official document on the NGK letterhead.

I am Nadia,

daughter of Hope Lorraine,

daughter of Ethel Jeanet Silvia,

daughter of Annie.

I somehow feel validated, more solid. And proud. So was my mother when I showed her the proof of her mother’s baptism and the names of her grandparents. That’s what having a history gives you. I feel vindicated on this journey to tell our stories.

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Images of my grandmother with me and my mother with me.

The Burden of the Bullfight

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When Rafael woke up at three that morning he was dripping with sweat. It took him a moment to realise that he was back in his childhood room. He had been dreaming about plunging the banderilla into the back of the bull’s neck. The accusation in the bull’s eyes as it lowered its head for the final blow haunted him.

They had all gone to the bar the previous night to celebrate his return. Posters were plastered on the walls outside and inside. They proclaimed that he was the grandson of el famoso, Jose Fernando Martinez, and the nephew of Luis Fernando Martinez.

It was his fate to be related to two of the most famous matadors Spain had ever seen. The nation had mourned after his grandfather had been gored to death in the bullring and a statue had been erected in Madrid at the entrance to the arena. His uncle had followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and his cousin, Jose Fernando, another great bullfighter in the making, had been carrying on the family tradition until he was killed in the car accident. He was from a family of bullfighters and he had been raised on its glory. Not for the first time, the burden of tradition weighed heavily.

He had never bought into the blood and gore, the displays of machismo. He could appreciate the beauty of the intricate dance and the skill of the matador. But was it necessary to kill the bull in such a cruel way, taunting the animal until it charged desperately to its end? The roar of the crowd reminded him of spectators at a gladiator show except here defenceless animals were slaughtered. The bullring even resembled a Roman amphitheatre.

Of course he had done the training, gone to bullfighting school for years, if only to keep the peace at home. In truth, he was happiest sitting with a book in the shade of the olive trees, breathing in the aroma released by the rows of lavender bushes, or sitting under the bougainvillea in the courtyard, the fountain creating cool sounds while he painted.

“Your mother does not want you to be a man! What is all this drawing and painting you do?”

It had been with great relief that he accepted the offer of a place at the art school in Barcelona. His father had thought it was a waste of time, and there had been a terrible fight with his mother. Getting the scholarship had made it easier to leave. Before he had left, his mother had taken him aside.

“Try to understand your father, Rafael. It has been hard for him to lose his father, then Luis and now, Jose too.”

“But I cannot be all those people for him. And why do you let him speak to you like that? Sometimes it is he who reminds me of a bull, raging around the ring!”

“Tranquilo, mi hijo. Your father has worked hard to give us a good life. I will be fine, don’t worry.”

But he had worried about leaving his mother. What was it that made his father so angry all the time? Perhaps it was tradition that weighed him down too. Everyone close to him had died and the Martinez name would no longer be heard around the arena. There had been many passionate debates around the dinner table till late into the night when everyone had had far too much red wine.

“It is not about the bull, not about the killing,” his father maintained. “It is art. Los toros needs grace and style…and bravery.”

Dios mio! In other parts of Spain the bull fight has been banned!”

“We should never have sent you to Barcelona to study. Those Catalans do not even want to be part of Spain! Now that Europe is one you will forget what it is that makes you Spanish.”

“This display is for tourists who think they are seeing the real Spain.”

“Do not speak to me of drunken tourists who run with bulls in Pamplona. They complain when someone gets hurt.  Stupid Americans, think they know it all from an old book. For hundreds of years, Spain has had bullfights. You young people want to change everything.”

“Spain has art and books, music and beautiful buildings, too. What of Picasso, Gaudi, Dali?”

He didn’t understand it. Surely Spain had moved away from all this? After the bloody civil war many people had had little appetite for the cruelty of bullfighting, even less so after Franco’s death.  Bullfighting did not make sense in this century. He and Jose had been close.  His mother had been as devastated by his death as if he were her own son. The flamboyant decorations glinting in the moonlight where the suit hung on the front of the cupboard, seemed to mock him.  It had been made for Jose. It symbolised everything that he was not.

 “Do it this one time, for Jose,” his mother had appealed. He had come home to pay tribute to Jose but he wasn’t sure that he would be able to go through with it. He’d never be able to return home again if he shamed his father in front of all those people.

Of course he was proud to be Spanish. But enough with the fighting!  He remembered seeing Picasso’s Guernica for the first time. He had gone back to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid many times to sit in front of the painting, to try to understand its message. To him, the bull in the haunting black and white painting was a symbol of hope, showing the continuity of the Spanish nation after the civil war.  The bull seemed to be protecting the mother.  That’s why he was doing this, to protect his mother from his father’s anger for the son she had raised.

This was a Creative Writing/Fiction exercise that we worked on over a few sessions with novelist, Consuelo Roland, who presented us with this picture of a bullfighter and cautioned us not to search for it on the internet before writing. I since discovered that it was not all it was made out to be. Read more here