South African Brown

It is always brown somewhere in South Africa.

During the frostbitten winter, it’s the flat Highveld that cracks and curls up in chocolate squares of parched soil. These gold- and diamond- and crop-littered plains get their rain in the summer, sometimes in abundance, sometimes not. In the winter that wetness becomes a forgotten fantasy that is swept away in howling dust storms and hearsay. The June air fills with static, the tall grasses splinter, the sky becomes a lighter blue and sunlight is thinner. Dryness envelops the meadows and fields. The earth below loses all its moisture. The land above cracks and curls and parches. In the Highveld winters, the deepest hardness of Africa is seen and felt in its brittle brown ground.

In the searing summer months, it is the fringe of land along the coast—the southern curve of Africa—that tans a deep cocoa in its endless sunshine and on its blonde beaches. These provinces lie south of the Highveld and get fed on an opposite schedule to their upcountry neighbours, when winter fronts arc up from Antarctica with rain and melancholy. In summer, sunburn makes everything tawny, thirsty. Life, previously green, shrinks and shrivels in the hot, deep, dry days of December. The navy of the distant mountains turns deep purple in the bake and the rare flora, found on them and nowehere else in the world, becomes brittle and brown in this cycle of dryness that they know very well. In the Cape summers, a paradox of Africa is felt in the joy of the arid heat and the life it sucks out of the soil.

It is February, nearing the end of summer, and the countryside outside the car’s window flashes by in fawns and siennas and the brown-red clay that is found in bushman paintings. We are driving through the Highveld. It shouldn’t be like this; it’s not the Highveld’s turn to be brown. Electric storms and thunderous rains should be raging through these parts. Crops should be showered on, converting the winter respite into summer relief and seeds into money. But the routine is broken, disrupted. A new normal, maybe. Worrying for sure. Farmers wake up daily to more wilted leaves on their mielie lands, colour bleached from them in the midday roast where cloudbursts used to be. The shift in the weather is unmistakable. But still we plough and plant and pray. Maybe we don’t know what else to do, how to change. Maybe we choose not to see the shift, sitting silently by as everything we know evaporates around us.

Then again, land is always brown somewhere in South Africa.

 

Brown bushes fly by outside; brown ground under them as a carpet. Nanna sits silently next to me. She knows why it’s just the two of us; why I’m the one driving her the two hours it takes to get back to her retirement home: I want to know more about our family, our history. So much of it is caught up in the words she doesn’t say. And the habit of not saying them. I feel the rush of my sisters’ rage flow down my chest and land in my stomach. I feel the bitten tongue of my mother, domineered into silence by the fear of her mother’s God and His earthly must dos and do withouts. My hapless dad. Then the unknowing, innocent new son-in-law. Now just the man who pays her pension.

Suddenly, words come from her creased lips, swaying the loose skin around her neck:

“Shame, poor old Jacky. She didn’t want to die, you know, Dakes. She battled hard to live. Tried everything she could. It wasn’t from lack of trying.”

She is talking about my mother.

I glance away from the steering wheel and across at Nanna’s raisined face. A veined and spotted hand is held up to her face. Her long index finger, knuckles nobbed from arthritis, is flat against her lips and her thumb pushes up into the folds under her chin. She’s not crying, or sad. She’s thinking. Thought, calculation? An atmosphere of concentration. And then she sighs deeply, speaks again, softer.

“And she suffered along the way, ja.”

I hope for more, think we’ve started something. But again, silence. She takes out a hand-made notebook and flips through the pages. I think she’s pretending to read, or to be smug in this gift from her great-granddaughter. An act of love; “I am still loved.”

I try to make conversation—“What are you paging through?”—even though I know the answer.

“Convention notes from when we were there. They made a summary for me. Not word-for-word, but what was heard as they Preached the Gospel.” She sighs and stops, pondering.

Convention is the annual gathering of the congregation of The Way of Christ, a churchless, fundamentalist religion that takes its teachings directly from the Bible and holds its “meetings” in the homes of its flock. “Temples used to be a place of sacrifice, not a place of worship,” my grandfather, Poppo, used to always say with his deep, wise voice. “When Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice, there was no longer a need for temples. ‘Your home is your temple’,” he’d love to quote.

The home was a place for purely religious pursuits. Anything “worldly” was admonished, abolished, in fiery judgmental tones and without argument. Make-up; of Satan, unnecessary. Jewellery; bragging, immodest, worldy. Dancing; pure evil that enters the body. Television; mind-control directly from the devil. Keeping alcohol in the house; too secular, hidden. Girls wearing short skirts and boys with long hair; utterly unacceptable.

Dissent; non-existent.

Until my mom awoke one Sunday morning decades ago, a young adult still living with her parents, and said to them, “Not today.” Although not the first rift between them, this was the one that would define life for all of us from that moment to this one.

“I would be very happy at that old-age home I’m at, if I could just have a dog.” Nanna brings me back to the road. “But I’m sharing and it’s not allowed. The old lady I’m sharing with, agh, I’m fond of her but, you know…”

That index finger again on her lips. A pause.

She’s bemoaning an act of desperate love by a family that’s not quite sure what to do with this her: An old woman who would rather have died years ago, when Poppa did. Not sure why she has had to live—endure—life this long.

“We’re not in the main building, inside. We’re in the outside room, the two of us. I don’t like it.” A familiar refrain.

“I’m not allowed to use my radio. I’ve got to use headphones. Your dad bought me small ones but with my hearing aid, they were bothering me. I was then given bigger ones and with them I can listen to what I need to listen to. But as soon as I put the thing on, the old man who runs the place will come to our room and tell me to switch it off. I don’t know how we’re disturbing anyone. It just got to me. So I put it off.”

Single white-gray hairs have fallen out of the tight bun that she’s worn every day of her life. It is unlike any other hair bun I’ve seen; not coiled or high, but a square of hair that sits flatly, neatly on the back of her head. A morning brushing ritual, then a ponytail and the folding of the long strands over the straight edges of her palms, through an elaborate hair clip and fastened into place with several hairpins. Even these days, the ritual continues, although not perfectly, often frayed.

“Your dad has been so good to me over the years, really. I don’t think I’d have lasted this long without him, you know. He listens. I can’t talk to my other son-in-law; I just start telling Hendy something and he’ll shout in on something else. Then I just shut up. I don’t carry on. So I can’t talk to anybody. Your dad has stopped by to visit, but I’m far away and I can’t keep worrying him all the time. He’s got his own life to live. New things to do. But if I telephone, he listens.  He always tells me not to be so negative.”

She wasn’t always so negative. I remember when Nanna was bright and brunette and had the perfect square bun. Happiest when she was surrounded by her grandchildren. Most content when she was cooking Sunday roasts for eight, then nine, then ten of us. I remember back scratches on overnight stays and macaroni-and-cheese dinners when meals at home were vegetables in forced portions. Family lore tells and retells (or, at least, used to) the story of when I was three years old and her and Poppa moved from the coastal city in the Cape that they shared with us, to the farming town in the Highveld where their daughter, Judy, had married an Afrikaner farmer-son, Hendy. I was so affected by their departure, it goes, that every time the telephone rang I’d shriek to be allowed to answer and when I picked up the receiver, without a standard hello or waiting for a reply, would launch into “Ahr woo mah Nanna? I wan’ mah Nanna.” A year later, when my parents moved us up north, to the same town and started farming too, the reunion was touching and all I wanted was to be around her.

I am now nearly forty years old. And if I’m being honest, I don’t want my Nanna anymore. Or at least, I feel a sense of conflicting loyalty; I’m alive because she bore my mom. But in a way she also killed her. Not in the physical sense, but there are many types of deaths that cut deeper than dying. This grey giant, head of our matriarchy, now reduced to hearing aids and liver spots, would whisper dissent into our young ears and sew discord with invisible hands. Fighting a religious war for the saving of our souls, proving her Way more righteous than my parents’. I will never fully understand the unspoken, unspeakable chasm that separated the two most formative females of my life. My mom, with her perm and make-up and beautiful gold jewellery on one cliff-face and my grandmother, her Bible, perfect bun and evening prayers on the other.

Again, the thin, reed-like timber of her voice brings me back to the car.

“I tell you what I have done while I’ve been at that place, alone. I can’t sleep at night sometimes and my mind goes back to the past and into the future. I’ve just discovered that I’m not a very nice person to live with, to know. So that’s something I’ve got to sort out, got to work on.” She stops. I’ve watched her play all the roles she’s needed to in the past: Mother, wife, grandmother, guilter, manipulator, comforter. I wonder what role she’s in right now. Or whether I’m finally getting her. I prod a deeper:

“What do you mean?”

“No, I’ve just gone back into the past a few times and thought about things. Perhaps others have got reason to be upset with me and not happy with me. I want to get away from the past and make a clear start.” Her voice is now at its thinnest.

“I’ve found myself now. I know what I am. And I’ve thought, well if I could just get rid of the past, forget the past, and the others could also forget it… I’ve got a lot in my past that I can remember but I don’t want to remember. You know, what’s happened with my sons-in-law. And in my family. If I could get past that somehow, but I find that some people can’t…”

I reach over to make sure that my dictaphone is on, capturing all of this.

“Are you taping me?” she asks.

Suddenly the inside of the car feels cavernous, echoey.

“Yes,” pause.

“No, no,” assertive. Her old power back. “Sorry. I don’t want to talk then.”

“Would you like me to put it off?”

“Yes.”

I reach between our two seats and pretend to switch the recording off.