Saturday, November 8, 2008

A confession

Written 2003-05-03, in Tsawwassen, British Columbia

ON THIS DAY, 2O YEARS AGO, MY MOTHER DIED. She died in Kimberley, South Africa, and I was in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. She - the daughter of Protestant Huguenots - died in the historic Nazareth House, a place excellently run by Roman Catholic nuns, and in a building which was a magnificent example of Kimberley architecture of a period dating back to the days of Cecil Rhodes, the Boer War, and the sieges of Kimberly and Mafeking*; to the days when the dreaded Lord Roberts was the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in South Africa. To this day, there is still one of Roberts’ daily despatches to be seen, in the original wrought iron container attached to the wall next to the front door.

I received the news in Victoria, just as I was leaving for work; took it calmly, telephoned my children and went on my way. I remember sitting in Zeller’s coffee shop - of all places - when it hit me.

As I sat there munching my sandwich, I heard a tune — no words, just a melody — and it moved me so deeply that I burst into tears, sobbing loudly and unrestrainedly, oblivious of the lunch-hour crowd around me. I still can’t hear ‘When a child is born,’ without thinking of my mother and the day she died.

Perhaps I wept from guilt, rather than sorrow. I had, after all, come away from the country of my birth, and left her — just as earlier generations of her family had done to theirs in the past. But she was in good hands. My sister and my brother-in-law, an Anglican priest, took great care of her, and it was so typical of her that she waited until they had left on a short and well-deserved vacation, to slip away, without any fuss…without a sound.

We never got along really well. She seemed to find fault with most things I did, when she wasn’t trying to stop me from doing them at all. I could not easily relate to what I saw as her Calvinistic narrow mindedness and obstinate shortsightedness. She refused to believe that South Africa was going to the dogs, insisting that God would never allow it. She was, however, not only the cleanest, most fastidious person I have known, (her neighbours said that she even dusted the hedge!) but walked, when close to ninety, with the straightest back of any of them – the nuns included. Her legacy to the world, thus far, is four generations of frenetic, hand washers, bathers, showerers, sweepers and dusters, as well as siblings whom she had raised to be the same. We believe that, if it were possible, she would keep a tin of metal polish in heaven—for polishing her harp!

Because she never got over the death of her own mother at the age of thirty-three, when she, herself, was only thirteen, we would constantly be reminded of the fact that we should “appreciate your mother while you have her. You’ll be sorry when she’s gone!”

Three years ago, I heard for the first time, from my sister, of the day when our mother was incarcerated—in the prison known as the Johannesburg Fort—together with her mother and grandmother, who were later taken to a concentration camp where the grandmother died. She was eight years old, and her brothers and sisters much younger than she. By the time they returned to their farm, after the end of the Boer War, it had been reduced to ashes at the command of Roberts, and her mother’s health had been compromised in the camp to the extent that she was dead within five years.

Less than two weeks ago, as I was putting the finishing touches to this manuscript (Storm Water), I suddenly experienced what North Americans very glibly refer to as an “epiphany”. I had spent weeks in the company of my Huguenot characters, and, all at once, I could look back down the centuries to the flight and consequent trials and tribulations of some of those persecuted people — my mother’s ancestors. I thought with great sorrow of their continual battle for peace and safety, against relentless odds and constantly changing enemies. I could finally understand my mother — more than that, appreciate her — and share her pride in the Boer general, Piet Joubert (after whom Joubert Park was named) and her grandfather, the illustrious and greatly admired Francois Joubert who, respected by friend and foe, alike, was known to the British as “Frank Hero” and to the Boers as “Frans Held.”

For her sake, I sat down to write an epilogue to my book — at the last moment — as it was ready to go to the printers; and then, also to honour her, at the eleventh hour, I impulsively introduced into this manuscript another Joubert; Pierre, her ancestor: the man who smuggled out of France and into South Africa, a Bible, concealed in a loaf of bread. I have dedicated the book to my mom and her courageous forbears.

I can see now that the one character trait in my mother, which annoyed me most of all, was that she made it impossible to run to her with criticism of anyone, or with tales about how someone had been mean to me. I see now how faithfully she stuck to the tenets of her faith and truly loved her neighbours as herself. She would have shared her last crust with someone who needed it—and she unfailingly turned the other cheek. Ironically her sister-in law married the aide-de-camp to Lord Roberts, and she made him welcome; my sister and I married into British families whom she loved as her own — and she died with a daily despatch from Roberts at her door…How very strange that seems to me now—and, strangest of all to the Canadians that I and my grandchildren have become — because no other plot could be found for her, she lies buried among young Canadians who died fighting her people during the Boer War. May they all rest in peace, together!

If one looks into details such as the fact that our ancestors arrived at the Cape on 'The Berg China',obviously a Dutch ship from Rotterdam, the very journey from Languedoc to there must have been arduous to say the least. Would the present generation be prepared to suffer such tribulations for the their faith?


Willem van Breda said...

This blog is not only magnificent, it's powerful! It moved my wife to tears, and I have to admit that I was close to weeping, myself.
What a pity today's South African youth are never privileged to learn the full details of their country's past.
I'm posting this in the guestbook o your website, as well.

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