Cold Little Heart

8 years ago I swopped half a century of city life for a new start in the country. I had grown disenchanted with the life I was living and when Alex left home to go to university in the Cape, I decided it was time for me to make a move too. I was fortunate to have the smallholding near Nottingham Road as a place to escape to as I began the process of “finding myself” again.

What I had not seen coming was how much the empty nest syndrome would affect me and the year that followed my move to the farm (as we somewhat pretentiously call our smallholding) was a rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows. I started writing about my experiences as a means to make sense of it all and eventually this turned into my blog.

When I first started my blog, a long and close friendship had just ended. I felt manipulated and hurt by this person and was tempted to give vent to my feelings via my blog. Not a good idea – not long after voicing these feelings I deleted some of what I had written because it had been written while I was still reeling from the betrayal and wasn’t yet able to be objective. I resolved then to rather stick to the Thumperian principle of “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” But, as we all know, life is messy and people are not always nice. I would like to write about such things but I’ve discovered that it’s not so easy to do without coming across all bitter and twisted, especially when it involves someone close to you. Emotions get in the way and it’s hard to remain detached. It’s a lot easier to keep quiet and pretend that life is all hurrah and jolly hockey sticks.

I’ve always enjoyed reading a well-written memoir; we can learn so much from other people’s lives. I’ve just read actor Alan Cumming’s memoir Not My Fathers Son in which he exposes his fraught relationship with his father. I think he writes about it beautifully, no sense of anger or vindictiveness, just a need to make sense of it. As A Peek at Life has evolved, it has become a kind of serialised memoir of my own. But I’m aware that I’ve left out huge chunks of my life, the messy bits that I’m not ready to go public with and that includes family dynamics.

I’ve mentioned before that writing is my breathing space. “I write to understand as much as to be understood” (Elie Wiesel).  So recently, when I felt utterly let down by someone, I decided to write about it, not for publishing but for my own edification. And as I wrote a wonderful thing happened, I had an epiphany. I realised that it’s not about what other people do to you, it’s about how you respond and the choices you make. In fact, what caused the problem in the first place is that someone got hurt, blamed someone else for it and let the resentment fester. The resulting bitterness has clouded judgement, destroyed family relationships and broken hearts, irretrievably. And who benefits in the end? No-one. Bitterness can make a heart cold and small, leaving no warmth for any one but yourself.

People let us down, we let others down; sometimes intentionally but mostly through miscommunication. Sometimes our expectations are unrealistic and we just want people to be something they are not. So I’ve come to believe that best course of action in cases like these is to let it go. If there is nothing left holding you together, if you know beyond doubt that you are better off without this person in your life, take a deep breath and let it go.

let it go – the
smashed word broken
open vow or
the oath cracked length
wise – let it go it
was sworn to
go

let them go – the
truthful liars and
the false fair friends
and the boths and
neithers – you must let them go they
were born
to go

let all go – the
big small middling
tall bigger really
the biggest and all
things – let all go
dear

so comes love

~ e. e. cummings ~

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Jaya shiva shankara*

What a crazy month April was. It started with us moving my mum out of her wee house and into the Amber Valley care centre in nearby Howick. It was a distressing experience for all of us, which was hardly surprising given that she had lived with us, in Durban and on the farm, for close on 30 years. However, she managed to rally and the transition went better than expected – the hardest part really was getting her out of the cottage and into the car. After much fannying about, Kho, bless him, just picked her up and plonked her on the car seat, much to everyone’s astonishment! As we made our way up the driveway and onto the farm road, she said her goodbyes to her wee house and the farm and acknowledged that she was not likely to come this way again. It was, as you can imagine, quite an emotional moment.

Since moving, the transformation of Edna’s state of mind has been nothing short of amazing. She no longer spends all her time in bed and even enjoys being taken in a wheelchair for walks around the grounds. Gone is the agoraphobia and incessant complaining. It has once again become a pleasure visiting her; during the past 6 months I dreaded seeing her so much that I used to dose myself on Rescue before I did! But now I can finally relax and enjoy this time with her. Occasionally she’s still a bit delusional but we think this is more a case of how she, as a reclusive person, handles being around others and having them invade her space. The last time we visited, she regaled us with stories about how the carers and other residents all speak German and are plotting the rise of Nazism in Howick. Although she does believe this, she did have a twinkle in her eye as she confided her conspiracy theories to us. What a relief to see the sparkle come back, albeit a bit wackier than usual!

And what a weight off our shoulders; it’s definitely improved our quality of life – we have so much more freedom to come and go as we please without the constant niggle of worry about whether my mum was being cared for. This was hugely apparent and much appreciated during Kiera and James’ recent 3-week visit to South Africa. I haven’t felt so at ease in a long time.

April provided us with the most glorious autumnal weather as we spent time relaxing at the farm as well as travelling about KwaZulu- Natal. The first thing we did was to make a beeline for one of our favourite places, Nambiti, a private game reserve near Ladysmith. This time we stayed in unbridled luxury at Umzolozolo Lodge which is built on the highest point in Nambiti, giving us the most spectacular views from our chalets.

Umzolozolo lodge on the hill and sunrise from our balcony

Our game guide, Raymond, made the game drives an absolute pleasure and for the first time I didn’t freak out when we got close to lion and elephant. For years I’ve been terrified of close encounters with these animals but this time I felt quite comfortable and found the whole experience very enlightening. I also felt rejuvenated; months of worrying about my mum and all the guilt about the negative feelings I was having towards her simply fell away. If ever your soul needs replenishing, the African bush is a good place to head for.

Nambiti sunrises, game drive with Raymond and vultures on the pylons

Another place to head for is the hills and since we have the mighty Drakensberg on our doorstep, that’s where we went, staying in a timeshare resort in Champagne Valley. Some of us felt the need to walk in the mountains, while others felt quite content simply looking at them. A short hike in the Monks Cowl reserve reminded me that I’m not very good on uphills! On our last day in the ‘Berg, our friends, Ann and Bill, who are fortunate enough to live in this beautiful valley, took us for lunch at one of their favourite restaurants, Champagne Bistro. We shared a platter of tasty treats, which I can well recommend, as well as the very nice red ale from the brewery next door. We all loved being in the mountains, enjoying the great outdoors and the special energy generated by these magnificent peaks.

the Drakensberg and Mount Champagne resort

And on the subject of energy, Kiera and I spent her last weekend in SA attending a yoga retreat at the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo, while Peter and James went off to Southbroom on the KZN south coast to enjoy the wonderful hospitality of Peter’s younger brother, Richard, and his wife, Debbie. This was an incredibly precious time for me – Kiera and I have not spent any length of time alone since my trip to China nearly 10 years ago when the two of us spent a happy few days in Xiamen together. So this was very special. And the lovely couple running the retreat were our teachers when we first started yoga in Durban all those years ago when Kiera was still at school and later at uni, stirring up many fond memories of the times we spent at the Jivananda Centre in Durban North. The yoga, chi kung, meditation, as well as the healthy, wholesome food and serenity of the place was just what we both needed and we left with mind, body and soul suitably retuned.

Autumn at the BRC

Kiera and I joined Peter and James briefly in the lovely seaside hamlet of Southbroom, in time to enjoy Richard’s legendary calamari and prawn braai, catch up with Peter’s older brother, Billy, and his wife, Sharon, and to dip toes in the sea before heading home for the last few days of Kiera and James’ visit.

A week has passed since the painful goodbyes and everything feels slightly different; the house is quieter without our visitors, my mother’s house stands empty – her garden neglected and overgrown, even the dogs are subdued. But as the leaves gather under the Liquidambars and I reflect on April’s comings and goings, I am reminded of the need to keep moving forward. Autumn into winter, slowing down the pace but preparing all the time for spring. Must get those broad beans in, prepare the beds with compost and mulch, cut tracers for firebreaks ……. and plan my next trip to America.

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)

* I love a good sing-along and one evening at the BRC, Kiera and I joined in a Sanskrit sing-along, otherwise known as a kirtan. It was great fun and Jaya Shiva Shankara was one of the chants we learnt.

 

 

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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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