FROM TWELVE YEARS OLD

ESSAYS I

BY HERMIEN ZWIERS

Hermien at Stoneshill Grahamstown, South Africa

Continued from my blog. Previously “UP TO AGE 8”. THE EARLY DAYS…. The 1950s–1970s, THE BEDFORD-GRAHAMSTOWN YEARS. Written by me from age 11 in Afrikaans and later translated by me.

1969 

All that mattered now was academic prestige. That would assure me of love and admiration and keep quiet the gossiping kids and their parents.  And I did achieve 83.2% in the first term, 82.6% in the 2nd term, 88% in the 3rd term- an A with distinction. 

In April the grade 8’s and grade 9’s went on a school tour to Cape Town. It was a good time and we saw many places.   I only did tennis as a sport during this year. I couldn’t do athletics anymore because I had hurt my ankle the previous year, but believe me, I was thankful to be relieved of the stresses and superficialities of athletics. During our three-week holiday my mum, Margien, Boetie (my brother Anton) and I went on tour to the Orange Free State as it was then called before the days of Nelson Mandela. We went down 5300 feet into a gold mine and had a look at the Hendrik Verwoerd dam.  This dam’s name has by now changed.

L to R: Mammie, Hermien, Margien, Mum’s friend at Goldmines

We visited Uncle Theuns and Aunt Martie.  All adult friends of our parents were Aunties and Uncles.  We did not have any other family in South Africa, such as grandparents or real uncles and cousins. They all lived in either Holland or Australia. As a child of Dutch parents, I felt like an outsider too, apart from my self-imposed exile due to sexual abuse. Home was really actually in Holland, not there in Africa.  My heart could never find roots there in Africa and my esteem suffered. 

Back at school my favourite subjects were Art and History. Then came the summer holidays. Anton and I initially spent it at the house of an English family as cultural exchange students. Up the east seacoast, near East London, Eastern Cape. We were to learn English better, and they were to learn Afrikaans better. Their surname was Wuim, and we spent 5 days at Kid’s Beach with them and then a few days feeling out of place in their posh home in East London on the east coast. Anton and I swam the dangerous waves and canoed, all unsupervised Huckleberry Finn feelings.

Dog Tasha, Hermien and brother Anton at Stoneshill, Grahamstown

Then we prepared for Christmas.  On Christmas Eve we opened the gifts. I received a diary that I used well in months to come.  We lit candles and sat listening to the radio. Television was only to come to our country six years later, in 1975. I had difficulty falling asleep as usual and wrote a long Christmas letter to my friend E.V. in the Cape, where she was holidaying. On New Year’s Eve, Hettie and her new family came to us and spent the night there. That night I made my New Year’s resolutions as usual:  I would be more patient and friendly in the coming year, but I had my doubts about it, being 13 turning 14.  This year I had seen the movies Romeo and Juliet and cried, and The Battle for Anzio as well as Far from the Madding Crowd

1971 

The year in which I turned fifteen. The year of my first and second crush- on a man and a boy. 

My sister Margien flew to Johannesburg, eighteen and off on an overseas trip.  We drove from Grahamstown to Port Elizabeth to see her off and spent the day at the beach.  Jean Eckard, a former near-boyfriend of my 26-year-old sister was there too.  What was it he said again? “If you were grown-up, I would marry you or…. when you grow up I’m going to marry you”. I mean, my God, fifteen-year-olds take this stuff pretty seriously.  Don’t men know any other way to get attention except to make impossible compliments and promises?  Anyway, it was a fantastic day.  I felt SO-0 good. 

Hermien, older sister Margien and brother Anton seeing Margie off at Port Elizabeth airport, South Africa

Maybe I felt even more guilt though when E. V.’s father continued his sexual abuse. I was becoming very sexually aware.  My upbringing said to obey adults, thus my only way out was to become pretty good at avoiding the man. There were times, however, when I had no escape. He took us to swim in a pool in the evening and would swim to me when I was on the dark side and stick his finger up me not too far from his own daughter! I did not know how to tell her that I did not want to go swimming. I was going to have to end this friendship without shaming myself and without telling her the truth. I could not tell my best friend what her father was doing to me.  I don’t think she ever understood why I was so cruel. I had to face the pain of the near-hatred and disillusionment in her eyes. It was to affect all my future efforts at making friends with other women. I felt distressed at my inability to tell the truth. Telling the truth met with near-disaster in our family all those years and I was scared stiff of encountering it with my friend and her family too. It set a pattern of avoiding conflict at all costs.  The man took E.V. and me for a driving lesson on a dirt road. When I told my mum, she was extremely angry. How could I even begin to tell about my suffering?  Not long after the break-up in my long friendship with E.V., I visited the doctor with my mother. She reckoned my problem of destroying my face and acting awful to her could be fixed.  The doctor put it all down to nervousness and sent us on our way. With anti-depressants.  It left us in the middle of nowhere. I wished so badly that I could talk to my mum. By July I made a total break with my friend. By then she had made friends with someone else too, a girl called Elvira. I soon had a painful argument with this red-haired vibrant person and felt as if a major disaster was about to strike. Some drastic change HAD to take place.

***

First I had a crush on Jean, a man, and then I developed a crush on a boy a year younger than I, a certain Stefaans. It made my day when a schoolmate, Ilse, said that he had told her that he “kind of liked me and that I was cute”.  I felt flutterings every time I walked past this guy at school. 

My birthday was kind of nice. I laughed and was a bit sad at the same time because I felt that I had failed myself.  My goal of having my face spotless had not been reached and it was hard to have my parents’ friends, the Timpers, over. My parents liked to ‘show off their kids’ and I especially hated to be on display that evening with my face full of spots.  I got a nice alarm clock from my mum for my birthday and I had another bit of excitement: I received a record (LP) because I had won the Tienertempo, a record guessing game on the radio. Was I thrilled!  And thrilled to be congratulated at school the next day too.  On the 17th of July 1971, I received my first cosmetics. Another thrill.

And let’s lighten the load even further. These are the movies I saw that year: 

Heidi; Yours, mine and ours; Love Story; Live a little, love a little; Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang; The Gentle Bear; The mind of Mr Soames; David Copperfield; Sien Jou More; Beneath the planet of the apes; The restless ones; The out-of-towners; Ryan’s daughter; Song of Norway; My dog, the thief; Two a penny; Anne of a thousand days; A new life; and Airport.  I also went to a theatre production of Alice in Wonderland and a musical called The golden Dixies. 

I went to my friend E.V.’s house for the first time in months by the middle of October. We went to choir practice together that evening. But I did not go back there much.

In the last week of October, I made a few decisions: I would go to boarding school the next year; everything had been organised. My mum and dad were planning to attend the Munich Olympic Games. In 1974 I wanted to go overseas to Germany, Holland and France. In the three years after that, I wanted to study Languages, Sociology and Psychology at the university and in 1978 I would like to become a Flight Attendant (an air hostess as we called it then).  Neatly planned for sure-never works that way though, as most of us know.

On the 29th of October, I experienced a twinge of jealousy as E.V. was chosen as the school prefect above me. I gave her the expected kiss but it was a bitter one. Somehow, though, I was also relieved. I did not really want to be in that position with its expectations of keeping kids quiet and getting them to all walk neatly in a row.  That evening some of my self-esteem received a boost back as I won 4 prizes for academic achievement, the books We Speak No Treason, All the Best People, ‘n Man en Sy Hond and the Archimedes prize for excelling in Science.   On the 30th we prepared for a big party. It had been my dad’s birthday the day before.  All the members of the Zwiers, De Klerk and Timper families would be present.  All of us ‘foreign’ lot feeling comfortable with each other and sharing some cultural ties, therefore. (except for Andre who was too much Boer and myself; mainly because I did not like the empty shallowness and being on display). 

My brother Anton and I on the dam my dad made, at Stoneshill Grahamstown

In November I stayed home from school one day. The doctor paid us a visit- said it was nerves. He gave me tranquillisers. I certainly calmed down! What do they expect? And felt on a high and decided, naturally, that I could certainly tackle life again and would certainly take care of my face and not muck it up any longer. I had a serious case of dermatillomania, although I did not know the name for this self-harm at that stage. Life seemed rosy after all – briefly. 

So the end of the year came with its New Year’s eve resolutions: I would do exercises every evening; I would brush my teeth every evening; I would not pick my face if it was not necessary; I would not chew the skin around my nails; I would not hit our maid Angelina; I would try to not lose my temper, to always be friendly, even at exam time, because I then write better. I would not moan  and finally, I would keep my distance emotionally from E.V. and Elvira and not tell them much, not trust them  , especially with private matters from  home.  Now I had even less of an outlet for my emotions – and my face truly suffered the consequences as my rage was turned inwards trying to be so damn nice and not having anybody to really turn to. 

Author: Hermien Zwiers

Aspiring Novelist, Constant Mother, Eternal Student, Vagabond, Activist, Linguist...

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: