100 years

Omigod I love my mother. She has always been such a character and a really good woman. She’s entertained many of our friends and family with her take on life and sense of humour. I remember a friend of mine telling her that she was getting married for the second time. “Why on earth would you want to do that?” my mother asked. “Just think of all the socks you’ll have to wash and all the meals you’ll have to cook, it’s just not worth it. Rather get yourself a wife!” (By the way, that marriage didn’t last longer than 6 months). For a woman who never finished school, she was quite capable of holding her own in any conversation, she kept up-to-date with current affairs and showed an interest in what others had to say. And she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind even if she knew it was not what you wanted to hear.

She was an amazing grandmother to Kiera and Alex and would’ve been to the other grandchildren as well, if she had been allowed to be. Unfortunately, family dynamics prevented this – it is one of her regrets. I am however eternally grateful that my children got to experience the totally unconditional love of a grandparent and as a result I think they are richer for it.

Recently however my mother became quite difficult. She gave up, turned her face to the wall and waited to die. Yet die she didn’t and quite frankly she just became a pain in the arse. I’m sure I’ve bored all my family and friends silly recently with incessant tales of difficulties with my mother, I’m pretty weary of them myself. So I’m feeling quite relieved to have finally taken the decision to move my mum into a care centre. It wasn’t so much that we were no longer able to care for her, it was more her increasing antipathy toward her caregiver, Thandi, and the resulting unpleasantness, that necessitated the move. Without Thandi’s help we would not have been able to cope but my mother was totally convinced that Thandi was stealing all her possessions despite us being able to show her that this was simply not true. As her quality of life has become more and more negligible, I have felt increasingly overwhelmed by the responsibility for her happiness, or lack thereof. In the end, I decided that I had a life to live and it should not involve being made miserable on a daily basis by my mother. As simple as that, or maybe not! There is still the guilt to contend with but I’m dealing with that. I’m lucky to have friends who have had similar experiences because talking through these issues has really helped me to come to terms with the situation.

On the day my dad died, I knelt by his bed and assured him that we would take care of my mum and I guess I believed I would be breaking that promise by putting her in the care of other people. However, I don’t think that either my dad or my mum would hold my decision to do it now against me because I’m doing it for what I believe are the right reasons. I have to acknowledge that I just don’t have it in me to be the kind of person to selflessly devote myself to my mother and I truly hope that the last few years of her life will be happier in the Amber Valley Retirement Village in Howick than they have been during the past year at Rocky Mountain. And even if they are not, I know that it is going to make a qualitative difference to our lives here.

I shall try to remember the good times with my mother, which were by far the majority, and look upon these times as an “eddy in the space-time continuum”, a blip in the grand scheme of things. And despite it being a difficult time, we have had quite a few laughs out of it and many lessons learnt. I’ve also rediscovered the incredible value of Rescue.

Believe it or not, I’m going to miss not having her next door in the wee house. We made a good team her and I. The other day, Judy and I were remembering the time I joined the university yacht club. I was not impressed by the somewhat sexist attitude of the committee which called for female students to volunteer for catering duties while the guys were asked to look after the boats. Because I objected, I became responsible for the maintenance of one of the Mirror dinghies. One of my first tasks was to sand and varnish the centre board. Needless to say, I took it home and handed it straight over to my mum, who from then on became the unofficial boat owner, and a splendid job she did too.

When I left home to move in with Peter, my father stopped my allowance. I was still a student and he continued to pay my fees but he reckoned that if I was living with Peter, he should support me instead. It wasn’t easy, so I took a couple of weekend jobs to help make ends meet – as a cashier at the OK Bazaars on a Friday night and Saturday morning and at the emergency chemist in Berea Road on Sundays. Unbeknown to my dad, once a week my mum would come to our Umbilo Road flat to do our ironing and she would always leave a R10 note for me on the ironing board. I think she knew that my dad had always given my brother preferential treatment and she tried to make up for it in her own way.

I have so much to thank her for, as a mother and as a grandmother to my children, but mostly for being my ally in life and I really don’t want to desert her now at the end of hers. So, we just have to make this work.

I must admit I was dreading the tour of the Care Centre and found the whole experience quite draining. However, as Care Centres go, Amber Valley really does seem to be a good place (pleasant staff, beautiful gardens, nice facilities) and the “inmates” looked at home and well cared for. For the first time in months I feel optimistic about my mother’s future. Here it seems pretty bleak but there, there is a chance of her getting more attention, more stimulation and, I hope, companionship. Perhaps the old Edna will come back, but even if she doesn’t, she’s bloody well done a good job.

A lot of people my age talk about not wanting to be a burden on their children. My mother has, for the most part, been more of a help than a hindrance so I don’t think we should regard taking care of our aged parents as a burden. It’s a challenge to be sure but, if we retain our sense of humour and keep the whiskey and Rescue on hand, it can be quite rewarding as it connects us to the full catastrophe that is life. I speak for my family when I say that our lives were made better for having “Enna” as part of it and I like to think that it was reciprocal.

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If I Ruled The World

There’s a particular kind of comfort that I find in places that house books. When I was a child growing up in Port Elizabeth, I looked forward with eager anticipation to trips with my mum to the library. The architecture, the reverence of books and hushed voices made me feel like I had entered a place of worship. And since we were an agnostic family, the library was, in a way, my substitute church.

Later, as a student at the University of Natal, whenever I felt lonely or confused, I would escape to the English Lit section of the library, which in those days was somewhere near the top of Memorial Tower Building (a lot more romantic than the present modern library). It was a small room with spectacular views over Durban and, surrounded by dusty old books, I always felt safe and reassured.

And later still, there was Adam’s Bookstore in Musgrave Centre. It became a ritual of mine to stop in there for a cappuccino and a browse through the bookshelves after the weekly grocery shop. This provided a much-needed respite from tedious housewifely chores.

So, it’s no surprise really that now I find myself as a volunteer librarian, hopefully exposing other children to the wonderful possibilities of a library. Every Thursday, Robyn (another volunteer) and I open the library at the Curry’s Post Primary School and provide a happy and stimulating environment for children to experience the pleasure of reading. Grade 4 – 7 learners (ages 9 to 12) come during break to exchange their books as well as to sit and read or play with puzzles. At first it was bedlam, with the children just grabbing whatever book they could lay their hands on. Now it’s so heart-warming to see them taking their time and poring over the books before finally choosing the one to take home. I just wish we had more for them to choose from, but we’ll get there. This year the Stretch Foundation very generously donated R5,000’s worth of books supplied by Biblionef as well as a lovely selection of Book Dash books. Local people have also made kind donations of second-hand books.

After break we have a half hour story time with the younger children (6 to 8 years old). Often, we sing songs, play games and do creative activities as well. Then it’s the turn of the grade 4 & 5 learners to have story-time with me while Robyn takes the older children for a more structured reading lesson.

Image result for michael morpurgo let there be half an hour of storytime

School finishes at 2 o’clock but there’s a group of about 20 children who wait for their taxi to come at 4 pm. So Robyn and I now keep the library open for them and have landed up starting an informal aftercare programme. By the end of the day we are both knackered, seriously in need of a drink (or two) but hugely fulfilled.

Neil Gaiman...on point, as always. "The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity.  And that means finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them."

Recently I found a carpenter to make me my own mini – library; it turned out rather well I think.

 

 

 

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Roll with the Punches

It’s been a while. I’ve been rather distracted by my mother’s condition, which has deteriorated quite a bit since my last post. We are now dealing with the start of dementia which unfortunately, as well as loss of memory and confusion includes paranoia concerning her caregiver, whom she is convinced is stealing from her. Oh dear, it’s not been easy but Peter has been a rock and together we seem to be coping. I just have to keep reminding myself that this too shall pass.

Since the beginning of February there’s been a noticeable shift in the early morning and evening temperatures. On cue, come the end of January in the Midlands, summer starts to fade away. It always leaves us feeling a bit short changed. “Bloody hell, did I blink and miss it?” one might ask. December is damp and overcast, January is everything summer should be, and February is summer saying goodbye. One month basically is all we get; that’s it folks, we don’t want to spoil you with too much of a good thing.

Oh, and have we had some summer storms! It seems that hail is the new rain and early this year we had not only hail but a tornado, I kid you not. In spring last year, I planted about 100 squash and pumpkin seedlings and seeds in the field. Not one has survived – first of all a late frost (on the 11th October) killed off most of the seedlings, so I planted more. Then a late, late frost (on the 17th November) killed off all but one gem squash plant, valiantly climbing up the frame I had optimistically built for the squashes. On the 27th January the tornado / hailstorm took that plant out. And now, all I have left are my tattered dreams of vegetable self-sufficiency.

The potato crop this year has also been disappointing. The plants were doing really well until the late, late frost in November caused the tops to die off, stunting the growth of the tubers. The potatoes are delicious but very small.

All is not lost though, I still have the allotment under hail guard which stood up surprisingly well to the tornado which drove the hail stones through the garden like a shredder. I put this down to the established wind breaks protecting the perimeter of the veg garden.

One thing living here has taught me is to roll with the punches that nature throws at one. When I was a newbie I would rant and rail against all the misfortunes that befell my gardening endeavours. Now, I didn’t even shed a tear for the lost gem. Instead I have started planning my next offensive against the unbeatable foe. I’m planning a more concerted wind break planting regime and come spring this year I shall leave the frost cloth on until Christmas! The hail is a worry for the veggies out in the field and I’m undecided as to how to deal with that problem.

I’ve also taken delivery of my Livingseeds garlic bulbs (I shared a variety pack with a friend) and am tucking them into bed, with a thick cover of homemade compost and mulch, in the allotment for the winter.

I always think of Charles Dudley Warner whenever nature has pulled no punches. In My Summer in a Garden (written in 1870) he writes:

The principal value of a [vegetable] garden is not understood. It is not to give the possessor vegetables and fruit (that can be better and cheaper done by the market-gardeners), but to teach him patience and philosophy, and the higher virtues, – hope deferred, and expectations blighted, leading directly to resignation, and sometimes to alienation.

Yes, well I’ve certainly learnt patience, none of that instant gratification nonsense to be found here – one always lives in hope of getting it right next time.

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Growin’ in the Wind (summer)

The garden seems to have come together rather beautifully this summer, with very little help from me. Flowers shimmer against shades of green and birds flit from branch to branch. It rained last night and in this morning’s early light, the garden sparkled.

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Broken

It’s been a difficult past few months, which is why I haven’t been posting that many blogs. I can’t seem to get my act together to sit down and write and yet all I think about is writing! Sometime in November, my mother, who lives with us and has just turned 94, suddenly became rather challenging. After always being quite undemanding and pleasant to be around, she became querulous, petulant and, dare I say it, bloody annoying. This change happened literally overnight, as if she woke up one morning and said to herself, “I can’t do this anymore.”

It caught us totally unawares. Basically, she took to her bed and turned her face to the wall. We called the doctor who said that there was nothing physically wrong with her and gave her a vitamin b12 jab, which usually perks her up – it didn’t. My brother visited her and suggested an anti-depressant, which she refused to take. Since this happened she has lost interest in everyone and everything and derives no pleasure from anything – she hasn’t set foot in her once-beloved garden, she no longer watches tv or listens to audio books or does sudokus. She has simply stopped living whilst still being alive.

Thandi, our domestic worker, had already started helping Edna with bathing and household chores a while ago but it became clear that my mom now needed more care. In a serendipitous way, we had previously been talking to Thandi about putting up another wooden cabin on the farm for her as the place she was renting was really not fit for human habitation. When my mom took to her bed, Thandi agreed to move in with her and provide her with the necessary care. We’ll still go ahead with the cabin but Thandi seems quite comfortable being Edna’s roomie, for the time being.

Even with Thandi’s incredible support, I have found this all hugely emotionally draining and exhausting. So, when Thandi was away over Christmas and New Year and I had to take over, I was a wreck. Thandi hadn’t planned to take leave over New Year but tragically her brother, who worked as a security guard in Pietermaritzburg, was shot and killed during a robbery and she returned to her home in Wartburg for the funeral. Her grieving family were further distressed by the fact that the mortuary would not release the body for burial until later the following week. He died on the 29th of December and they only got the body on the 4th of January because mortuary staff were on holiday!

The only bright light during this past festive season was Alex’s visit home for Christmas and even that was over-shadowed by the sense of gloom emanating from the Wee House.

Alex and Peter on Christmas Day 2017

Without Peter’s help I think I would’ve given up the ghost myself. In a sense, I’ve gone through, in rapid succession, all the stages of grief. At first, I denied that there was anything wrong with my mom, that she would snap out of it and return to her former self. Then I got angry with her because I believed she had given up. I tried bargaining with her, especially around food and getting up and about. The whole situation eventually wore me down and I got quite depressed. But now I’ve accepted it – I accept that there is no going back, what’s done is done and I accept that I may have made mistakes in how I’ve handled things but that is with hindsight, which Kiera tells me is always 20/20.

So here I am writing my blog and feeling like I can take something positive out of this sad state of affairs – perhaps some life lessons that I’ve learnt from my mother. It amuses me that Edna always used to say, quite disparagingly, that her mother-in-law “took to her bed and died of melancholia.” The irony may have escaped her but not me – it has made me all the more determined not to follow suit in a family tradition.

Life Lesson no.1

Firstly, the most obvious: KEEP ACTIVE, not just physically but mentally as well. Keep moving, keep doing stuff – even if it’s small stuff. Get out and about.

If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.

Martin Luther King Jr

Life Lesson no.2

Be sociable, even if you find it difficult. We all need and benefit from company. Play a game, entertain, phone a friend, keep in touch. If you are an introvert like me, read Susan Cain’s book Quiet, it transformed my life.

Life Lesson no.3

Show gratitude – just a small thank you will suffice. Carers are people too!

Life Lesson no.4

Make a contribution to the world. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture but do something that makes you feel like you have made a difference.

Life Lesson no.5

Listen to what your nearest and dearest tell you – we don’t always have all the answers and sometimes advice is hard to take, especially if it is coming from your children.

Life Lesson no. 6

Don’t expect others to read your mind. Speak out about your feelings and your needs.

Okay, so I never said that my life lessons were going to be earth shattering – they are a work in progress.

I would prefer to live forever in perfect health, but if I must at some time leave this life, I would like to do so ensconced on a chaise lounge, perfumed, wearing a velvet robe and pearl earrings, with a flute of champagne beside me and having just discovered the answer to the last problem in a British cryptic crossword.

Olivia de Havilland

94 years old

 

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If I Ruled The World

If I ruled the world:

My world would be a beautiful place
Where we would weave such wonderful dreams

And what better way to experience wonderful dreams than by reading a book?

When a sentence in a book resonates within, it is the voice of your authentic self. Listen to what she is trying to tell you. Whoever said that you can’t take it with you obviously never read a good book. For everything you’ve ever read, loved and remembered is now part of your consciousness.

Sarah Ban Breathnach

A couple of weeks ago I read the following Daily Maverick article:

The results of an international study of child literacy are in – and they spell bad news for South Africa. Of the 50 countries surveyed for reading ability among school kids, South Africa came stone last. More alarmingly, however, the study also found that eight out of 10 South African Grade 4s cannot read for meaning. The Department of Basic Education is putting a brave spin on the results, but education experts say that it’s clear South Africa’s reading crisis is deeper than previously imagined.

The report found that results were worse in schools without libraries (my highlights – well, it bloody stands to reason doesn’t it?)

[Education researcher Dr Nic] Spaull says that these results have to be a wake-up call for both government and South African society. He suggests that the situation is so dire that it requires a “master plan”, involving collaboration between the private and public sector, which has to be personally championed by somebody at the very top of government.

“From a schooling perspective, if you don’t learn to read in the first three years, you’re doomed, because reading is a fundamental skill that all the other skills build on,” Spaull told Daily Maverick.”

What the article didn’t touch on was the minefield of Education policy re: teaching in the mother tongue and teacher training. In most rural areas, learners are taught in their mother tongue for the first 4 years of schooling, thereafter the teachers, who speak English as a second language, have to shift to English as the medium of instruction. Obviously, the level of teaching competency is questionable – there is specialised training for the teaching of English as a second language which (and I’m going out on a limb here) teachers don’t seem to have been given. As a result, the English that kids learn is fairly dodgy. So, parents whose home language is not English often go to great expense and effort to send their children to “former Model C ” schools where the medium of instruction is English from the get go. How these kids cope I do not know, it must be terrifying for those first few years. However, I do believe in the long run they are getting the better bet.

Andrew Foley writes:

If, after all is said and done, parents continue to insist, as the majority currently does, that their children be educated in English rather than their mother tongue, then the onus rests on the State to ensure that this is provided as effectively as possible for everyone who wants it. And if this does indeed continue to be the will of the majority, then the State must take far more active and extensive steps to improve the teaching and learning of English in South African schools than has hitherto been the case. No language in education policy which is forced on the majority against its will can ever succeed, and will serve only to perpetuate the unequal and inefficient conditions which currently exist in South African education.

Because  I was a pre-primary school teacher in a previous life, when I first started volunteering at the Curry’s Post Primary School I thought it would be a good idea to offer my services as an assistant to the Grade R teacher. Grade R was a mixed age class so Thandi and I would spend one morning a week with the 4-year olds to enable the Grade R teacher to give her full attention to teaching the 5-year olds. We used to have a lot of fun and I really enjoyed spending time with the littlies. However, at the beginning of 2017, when only 6 children were registered for Grade R I decided to put my time and effort elsewhere. And I turned my attention to the library.

A classroom had already been designated as a library and shelves had been put up. Piles of second-hand books had been donated and were stacked in boxes in the classroom. So Thandi and I got to work arranging the furniture, decorating the room, emptying the boxes and sorting out the crap from the good stuff (it’s amazing what rubbish people donate – I never want to see another set of bloody encyclopaedias dating back to 19voetsek). The non-fiction books were catalogued, shelves labelled and finally the books went on display.

Thandi and I opened the library every Thursday. Older children were encouraged to take books home and we had half an hour story time with the younger children. Towards the end of the year I was joined by another volunteer, Robyn, who has trained as an English second-language teacher. She started a reading project with the Grade 6 & 7 kids, while I read to and sang songs and played games with the younger children. Above all, we wanted library “lessons” to be fun and I think we succeeded.

One of my fondest childhood memories of my father is when he would come from work, pour himself a whiskey on ice and settle into his big, comfortable armchair. I would run to get my book (The Wind in the Willows or A Child’s Garden of Verses or perhaps a library book) and perch on the arm of his chair and listen to the words as they tumbled out of his mouth, for me and me alone. As an adult I’ve learned that there is something so magical that happens when reading to (or with, as Robyn does) children. You lose yourself in the story; for that half hour you enter another world, the world of dreams. I hope my father enjoyed that as much as I did.

“The fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book, and the person reading. It isn’t achieved by the book alone, nor by the child alone, nor by the adult who’s reading aloud—it’s the relationship winding between all three, bringing them together in easy harmony.”

Mem Fox: Reading Magic – why reading aloud to our children will change their lives forever

I arrived at school one library day and bumped into a little girl coming out of one of the classrooms. “Oh no!” she said looking most put out when she saw me. “Aren’t you happy to see me?” I asked, a bit hurt if truth be told. “I’ve left my library book at home”, she moaned. I explained that it wasn’t a problem, she could return it the following week. But no, she was upset because she was eager to exchange it for a new book to read. Now that makes it all worthwhile.

Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean/ they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don’t get in real life – wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.”

Anne Lamott

Top left: sometimes the djembe drums provide great sound effects during story time; Bottom left: a corner of the library for internet research; Right: Peter and I meeting one of our lovely, generous donors from the N3 Toll Concession

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Growin’ in the Wind

Spring 2017

Several years ago we fenced off a section of open land (to keep buck and porcupine out) and created an orchard, as well as a patch to grow berries, potatoes, mealies and squash, which take up too much space in the veg garden. About 30 fruit and nut trees were planted in concentric circles at the top (eastern) end of the orchard, leaving room for berries and vegetables at the bottom (western) end. Once the trees and berries were planted, they were pretty much left to get on with it. This strategy didn’t work however and the orchard has never been a great success.

This year, I’ve focussed more attention on the orchard and my efforts are beginning to pay off. Thanks to the online permaculture course that I did, the first thing I did was plant a food hedge (fedge!) to stop the prevailing winds from barrelling through a gap in the existing windbreak. I transplanted indigenous trees and shrubs that had self-sown in my garden (mostly leucosidea sericea/ouhout, heteromorpha arborescens/parsley tree and buddleja salviifolia/sagewood) and interplanted them with quince, pomegranate and elderberry trees.

Then we transplanted about 200 strawberry plants into raised beds, which has made cultivating and harvesting them a lot easier. I also decided to espalier all the trees. This was not an easy task because of them being planted in circles but with Kho’s help (and YouTube) I managed to get the necessary support structure in. Fortunately, our local garden centre was selling off fruit trees at half price and I was able to add quite a few more trees to fill in the gaps.

At the same time as I was redoing the orchard, I got to know a young guy (Daniel, the plant whisperer) who came and fertilised all the trees with rock dust. I had never heard of rock dust and when I googled it I found mixed opinions about its efficacy. However, as far as I’m concerned it did the trick. Some of the trees that I thought were dead have sprung back to life with such vigour and, in the space of a couple of months, even have fruit on them. It is such a pleasure taking the dogs for their evening walk and detouring through the orchard, inspecting (and talking to) all the trees. It’s a bit like doing a walking meditation.

apple tree I thought was dead

 

fruit fly with its beady eye on the nectarines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

However, the tranquility has been somewhat marred by a malicious little murderer lurking in the trees. Our orchard has become a killing field thanks to a jacky hangman (aka fiscal shrike) who has been using a lemon tree with particularly vicious thorns as his pantry. For some years now I’ve noticed corpses of small critters pinned on spikes in the lemon tree but a couple of weeks ago, I made the most gruesome find of all – an impaled baby weaver. When I went back the next day with my camera, all that was left was the head, pierced through the eye socket.

This week, I found a tail (all that remained of a small rodent) and an unfortunate locust, impaled while still alive.

 

Read more about the macabre habits of the butcher bird here.

Still in the orchard, our potato crop is looking good. We have decided not to plant mealies again because it seems to attract monkeys and we really don’t want to encourage them.

potato patch

borage – grown as a companion to strawberries

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The veg garden, or allotment as we call it, has kept us supplied with salad greens, asparagus, artichokes, broad beans, sugar snap peas, celery, parsley and coriander. My courtyard potted herbs are doing well, with plenty of mint, lemongrass, lemon verbena, chives and thyme.

the allotment

And even the rest of the garden is looking good considering how neglected it’s been. Mind you I did get some help from Daniel with pruning and fertilising.

pomegranate flower

 

 

 

 

 

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