A childhood memory that arrived unexpectedly and didn’t leave

In the 90s:

Winter. Cape Town. It is dark, very early in the morning. School holidays have begun. Rain slashes the windscreen of our old, rusted Datsun, the one with the hole in the floor that we could stick our fingers through or peer in to watch the tarred road whizz by beneath. The daily pre-dawn journey, in the dark and the traffic and the anxiety, is transformed in this moment, for one reason: there is no school today. Winter holiday. No stress, no arguments. Three sisters bundled up in duvets pulled right from their beds, wearing unkempt ponytails and faded nighties, sometimes asleep, sometimes lying contentedly watching the street lights flash by through the wet window glass. If any arguments might start, with our parents in the front, we can pretend to sleep, nestle deeper into the folds of the fabric, and know that when the car ride is over, even more comfort awaits…

Ma. Bustling, small, fussing over us as we wipe our sleepy eyes. As we trip in our cocoons into the golden glimmer of her doorway that pulls us from the icy dark. In her packed, tiny living room, she feeds us warm Jungle Oats with a little blob of melting margarine, or a bowl of boiled milk with two Wheat-Bix cakes that quickly absorb the hot liquid. I breathe in, deep, the steam from the sweet porridge, and I know I smell home.

Photo by Charles Chen on Unsplash

We watch TV, it doesn’t matter what is on. News, soap operas, a morning talk show, if we are lucky a children’s programme. My sisters are less content to meld with the sofas, and so the moment our parents leave, back into the resentful shadows of the city, the little girls activate like motorised monkeys, chattering, playing, fighting, tumbling. I don’t notice them at all. I am enveloped and happy.

Ma might put us to work later, pretend-work really, polishing furniture, sweeping already-clean floors, wiping the brass taps with Brasso. Important jobs. For important girls. Ma mutters constantly, and if you didn’t know her you wouldn’t know that this is her natural way, a low, rumbling engine that powers her constant movement, expressing out loud the steady run of thoughts through her busy mind. She shuffles her feet from room to room, endlessly doing, doing, doing. Here she is forgetting things, there she remembers them again, and now she talks to visitors at the door, or answering the frequently-ringing telephone that hangs on the wall. All this while, I am in another world, either in the television or a book, for the house has so many books tucked away that I will ferret out and disappear into. Ma loves to read. And she reads to me often. But while she is busy with her day, and my sisters are on adventures all over the house and outside, I am immersed in a world she left the door ajar to, and I feel safe to explore freely because I know, that just on the other side, by the sound of her muttering and shuffling, she is there should I need her. The thin, silver thread we have attached to her is impossible to break, she has cast some sort of spell on it, and so wherever we go, we can hear her, muttering, shuffling, fussing, joking, feeding, caring, doting.

I would spend every day I could in that little house, drinking sweet black tea, complaining about having to wash and snip green beans, and being safely lost within sight of my grandmother.

I think all my best memories have her somewhere in them, even when I think she is not. There, just behind a door, or on the telephone, or in a WhatsApp chat bubble that she took so long to type out.

These moments before dawn are heaven, captured in a glistening crystal bubble, clear and magnified, but unable to be shattered or popped, there for me to peer at and smile, and bring close to my chest and feel its warmth.

I wish everyone had these kinds of memories to hold on to, that warm and lift you, and I truly hope you do. And if one appears, unexpectedly, hold on to it, tight, write it down, use it, keep it close, close your eyes and breathe it in like the steam from a hot bowl of cinnamon-dusted oat porridge on a cold winter’s day.

I mean, getting doted on by my grandmother was like 80% of my identity 🙂


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