When I was little, I dreamt that I could fly and also that I was rolled up in a carpet filled with spiders, one dream of exhilaration, the other of sheer panic. I ate sand. I walked in my sleep…………
At the age of two and a half I had to have an operation on my neck glands. My parents took me to a hospital in a big city and left me there for a week with total strangers. They were very sad to do this, but knew of no other way to deal with this, especially having my one year old brother too. Even my older siblings protested. My mother came to see me once during that week, but never showed her face for fear of triggering off great sadness. How I wish she had actually come in to hug me!
I played with my brother Willem in the sandpit our dad had made for us and at other times absolutely hated him when we fought and my mum mostly considered me the guilty party. I was too little to attend my sister Henrika’s sixteenth birthday party, a big affair with beautiful clothes, but I peeped in at the door of the big lounge. I climbed over the tall backyard gate and nearly got run over by a big truck and then received an enormous hiding for having terrified my mother. She bought me a little lamb at the farmer’s market, little knowing the South African town rules did not allow this, so we had to sadly say goodbye to this lamb by the time it became a sheep. The neighbors had put in a complaint by the council. One morning my brother and I asked her to put tea in our baby bottles from long ago and we walked away, sucking happily. I was four years old.
I frightened my parents more when my brother and I sneaked past our big brother Evert one night and went to sleep in a tent on the lawn and had a candle burning all night. At age five I could have had an accident with that candle. At the time I resented my mother’s lack of trust in me. I swam in the cement dam one evening with my sister Greta, with my Sunday shoes on and gave them more grey hair. They came up the driveway, lights shining on us and discovered us after their evening out. I had crooked teeth and had to have braces in later years. I learned to ride my bicycle all by myself in our driveway and had plenty of falls since we had no side wheels in those days.
When I turned five I received a doll with long brown hair that I named Elmarie, after my brother’ Evert’s girlfriend. I took it for a walk to the neighbors and I still remember their son hiccupping. I played shop in my dad’s huge garage, with the boards that he used as a builder and I really enjoyed that. We also built a post office and had stamps and pretend money. My tonsils were taken out when I was 5 and I enjoyed the attention from the hospital staff. We had a spare room attached to the kitchen, a sort of a playroom with a big blackboard in it. We were left to “carry on” with our lives, so to speak and much of our creativity and intelligence springs from those years of non-interference from our parents. I remember the pain in that playroom too, a terrible migraine and sobbing, and learning to knit with the help of our maid in the little garden in front of that room. I remember my dad swinging me high up into the air when I was little and running to my brother Evert with gusto and doing the same.
There was a game of Gymkhana on the big rugby field and we went to watch. Our early holidays were spent at Brenton Lake near Knysna. Father Christmas brought me a Big bear one time and after that, I found out that Santa was not for real anyway.
At the age of 5 and a half I had been trying to follow my sister to school so many times out of a desire to attend school myself that my mum approached the sisters at the convent to see whether I could also start. I was not really supposed to but they let me anyway. I had much freedom during those six months, doing “my own thing” often and never expected to actually come and sit down to do my lessons. I could go outside and play whilst the others continued with their reading, etc. and then come back in to continue with mine when I wanted to. Then, at age six I started at the Afrikaans school on the hill and walked each morning up the dirt road with my little suitcase. I was already trying to win my parents’ love by being the best and came first in class with my schoolwork. I was also appointed class captain and my job was to help keep the class quiet when the teacher went out. I failed at this task and for that or some other reason, lost my “position” and felt disgraced.
I loved going to the town library and the independence of walking up the street to go there and take out my own books and walking quite a bit further with a sister to have a milkshake at an ice cream parlor. All this took place in our one and only L-shaped Main Street. I bicycled through the town, through areas of which I had the vague feeling that they were forbidden territories, such as the black township, where the blacks and coloureds had to live separately from us whites and the scary, dreadful places such as the abattoir, toiling with danger in my little mind, daring it. I also went for a swim in the BIG pool, without informing anybody, just borrowing a blow-up tube from another little friend. The excitement of doing forbidden things was there from an early age, the start of a rebellious mind. Down a short flight of steps, in the “ironing” room, I used to swing around in a mad wonderful twirl and I hit my eye against the corner of the table. Nobody hugged me. It was my fault, and I felt lonely and sore and abandoned. I still enjoyed feeling pampered and getting full attention at other times though, such as when I had to have my appendix out and my sisters brought me heaps of coloring books. I was so thirsty after the operation but was not allowed any water, so I painfully snuck out of bed and got myself some water in the hospital bathroom. I was caught in the passage by a nurse.
I had still spent my 7th birthday night in my mother’s bed because my dad was away because of his job. Andreas, my sister’s fiancé, had left a doll from him next to the bed. Now the family was all gone. They had gone to the lagoon at Port Alfred for their holiday and Henrika and I had to wait to be collected. I remember walking in the garden. I tried out a small red hot pepper and burned my mouth terribly on the side of the house where the sewerage lorry put its pipes into the appropriate holes to empty the week’s contents. When we were holidaying I dug deep holes and became annoyed when others mucked it up during my absence, such as when we were called in for the evening meal. I wanted to be an air hostess (flight attendant) in those days. I swam and went where the current was the strongest near the bridge. There was also some wire that was supposed to protect us from going further into the river. I took out Sarie and Trompie books at the library in our holiday town, stories about mischievous boys and girls. I won a sand sculpting competition. Back home I wrote long letters to my sister Henrika, often about stories I listened to on the radio. We had no television in South Africa before I turned 19. The government was afraid that it might corrupt the people, and that they might become too rebellious if they knew too much.
We had photo day at school and the elastic of my underpants had broken so I had to use my tie to keep my underpants up. One day I arrived at school with long pants on. I think that it was OK with my mother. It certainly was not OK with the rest of the school. I was ridiculed. I went to the music room to practise tedious music notes and was reprimanded severely for daring to make a noise whilst the grades 12’s were busy with their final exams. I felt as if I couldn’t do much right. We played wolf-wolf at the big dam, as well as other games. Ecstatic feelings still surface when I remember my first participation in a musical (cheerful “lyric” opera). I was a little dwarf and had to wear a paper nose and beautiful shiny clothes and I sang with such energy and joy. On the first day of spring, our school celebrated it with floats riding through the town, trucks decorated with white crinkle paper and white flowers. We wore white dresses and had blossoms that we had picked from the fruit trees and we were allowed to bring our little siblings to school. As always there is a fall from grace. At home I let the budgerigars fly away by accident and played innocent. I felt horribly guilty and worried about the moment that my mother would discover it; the moment when people would discover the real me.
And then I turned 8. It was 1964.
To be continued…
The above was continued from my blog. Previously “. THE EARLY DAYS…. The 1950s–1970s, THE BEDFORD-GRAHAMSTOWN YEARS. Written by me when I was young, in Afrikaans and later translated by me. Almost all original names have been changed to protect people.