Out the blue of all of our heavens - Mom and I and the 1994 elections
18 years ago, April 27 1994, two of my best friends, Johan and Pierre and I took turns to push my Mom Mary in her wheelchair up 4th Avenue, Westdene inJohannesburg to the polling booth to vote in the first South African democratic elections.
We had left it to the last minute to go and vote so as to give the crowds a chance to subside. It was a crisp April evening and through the twilight and as the sun set, the evening stars had begun to twinkle.
We laughed and cracked jokes as we pushed Mary along the road and up the gravel path. Mom had suffered two strokes by then. Luckily they had not affected her too much but she was starting to struggle a bit with walking any distance. None of us had any idea that two weeks later, on May 10th, the day that President Mandela would be being installed as the first President of a democratic South Africa, that Pierre and I would be getting the sad phone call that Mom had passed away that morning.
Dad had passed away 5 years earlier in 1989. My older sisters were both overseas so my Mom and I were blessed that Pierre and his family had arrived in our lives. He was a real home maker and he and his family had with typical Afrikaans hospitality, down to earth practical love and humour, enveloped us into their lives. Pierre had helped me to create a place in our home for Mom.
Not a task that just anyone could have taken on. Mom had been diagnosed since her early 30's as either paranoid schizophrenic or severely bi-polar. The Doctors were never too sure.
I grew to so admire the fact that he had stuck it out and looked after my mother, in spite of the emotional roller-coaster it had been when she would have nervous breakdowns.
I remember as a child all of us getting into the car with Mom in a bit of a daze as Dad drove her to Bodmin in the UK or Komani Psychiatric Hospital in Queenstown in South Africa to be admitted so as to right her emotional ship for a few months at a time.
I had grown up with the dichotomy of Mom's differing views of the world. One being that the clouds were made of pink and white vanilla ice-cream and the other being that my Dad and my older sisters were trying to 'put her away!' They were not, but that’s how Mom saw it on days that were not so good for her.
I was still presenting at that stage on TV and we would often have braais and parties and I was also so thankful for the way in which all my work colleagues and friends encompassed her.
We managed, in spite of it all, to show her a real good time in 'Little Hollywood' which is what we used to call Melville and Westdene due to the preponderance of TV personalities living there at the time.
I arrived back that afternoon and immediately rushed through to see her. She was with a psychiatrist being assessed and when I was allowed to walk into his office, the Doctor smiled and I saw him crossing out a note on his pad as I came in. He explained that when Mary had told him that she ‘sees her son on TV’, he had thought it was a symptom of a delusion. Now that he recognized me, he realized Mom was not as far gone as he had initially thought. As you can imagine that really tickled Mom and I and we spent the rest of the session trying to keep it straight, but kept bursting out giggling like naughty school kids for the rest of the session.
She would put on excessive amounts of red lipstick untidily on her lips. But we would just laugh about it. Somewhere, somehow along the way, Dad in an argument told Mom that she had thin lips and that had stayed with her. So the lipstick was an attempt to compensate for this unnecessarily perceived flaw.
Boy we would laugh a lot, but on other days, the worries would over-come her and we would find her staring into the mirror, a bit catatonic. On those days we could see the stormy seas of worries in her clear blue Irish eyes.
The meds they prescribed were strong and I think she spent a lot of type fighting off the dullness and detachment they induced.
But she could also be really tricky too. Pierre taught me to act like a Doctor in my head so I as to not take on board the emotional games that were sometimes inadvertently played out by her.
Evalena Luvalo, who was from Mount Frere, became her live-in assistant and she was joined by her common law husband, Gideon - a man of giant proportions who worked as a security guard. They lived in the house’s cottage. And there was Velly and his wife Bongi and the kids in the other outside room, and we all cooked around our kitchen stove and became one big family - supporting and helping each other to get through the turbulent times leading up to 1994.
It was a little shelter from all the storms. I always feel good that we did good by my Mom in making sure she was as happy as we could make her, but I could not have done it without Pierre and the rest of my extended South African Westdene family.
Family legend told of how my great grandfather's family had given refuge to a group of Pondos in a barn so they could hide from a warring tribe and in return the Chief had given the family rights to farms. One was eventually known as Riverside and there were some other adjacent ones on the banks of this amazing African river.
I was taken to the UK as an infant in 1960, so I missed out on the summer holidays that my older sisters had spent down there. But all these stories were imprinted on my young imagination and I would spend a lot of my time singing 'Izika Zumba' and other South African folk songs my Mom had taught me, and drawing pictures of scenes of hills with huts that I imagined the Transkei looked like with my crayons as I lay on the grass of the Dorset countryside.
Mom, Dad and I returned to South Africa in 1970 on the Pendennis Castle liner. I can remember as a young boy of 10, running up from the C-class cabins to be on deck at 6 o'clock in the morning to get my first glimpse of Table Mountain as it came into view on the horizon. I loved it then and have ever since.
'Oh Lawrence, just give me another of the blue tablets and tomorrow I will make breakfast for us all'
It became a running joke as she never was able to get that together.
Some mornings it was ‘Oh Lawrence, could I have another disprin then I want to work at a feeding station and hold sick babies.'
Mom drank lots of coke and popped disprins. I think she was trying to shake off the feelings of lethargy the stelazines caused and and the other side- effects of the prescribed tranquilizers.
Although not religious in a standard way, Mary would spend the days saying that she was 'posting angels' around all of us to protect my friends and I as we went off on our parties and adventures.
She would pray a lot to herself while lying on the bed in her room and on rough days would ask Evalena and I to 'Say god bless me' and if she might just have another of those blue tablets and then 'then I will be off to do the dishes and help Evalena with the housework.'
'Sure Mom!' I would say and we would all roll our eyes at each other and laugh.
And as we move forward I know my Mom and Aunts and Uncles and Grandparents and Great Grandparents would agree with this - and this has been coming to me and has before - that we must never let anyone ever bully us again, nor make any of us think we are any less South African based on the colour of our skin, our religious beliefs, sexuality or for that matter - anything - the past or any other reasons that any bullies may try to come up with.
Two weeks after Mom, Pierre, Johan and I had gone into the polling booth that early evening to make our mark for a new SA, Pierre and I were in Durban to shoot a travel documentary called En Route for the Kwazulu Natal tourist board. We were all staying at the Beverly Hills hotel in Umlanga, a resort town just north of Durbs. Just after 7am I got the call from the home where Mary stayed when we were away, that sadly that she had just passed away.
And I think now sometimes of the two of us sitting in the lounge on the Quigney in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, when I was in high school watching the end of an evening's broadcast on TV as the anthem played and how much she would have loved the additional anthem of Nkosi Sikeleli; and how she would have been still wanting us to bless her and each other, and posting angels to protect and of course wishing us all to say 'God bless Africa.'
And how she would have loved the jets over the State building that afternoon in Pretoria, near where she had been born, as they streamed smoke in the colours of the new South Africa flag and as they came right out of the blue of all of our heavens.
by Lawrence (work in progress) Below you can hear some draft recordings and pilot videos from the work in progress. Best listened to on headphones for now.
I am an African (draft recording)
Should've been a surfer!Lift up the Transkei (draft recording)
Round the sun - a dedication (draft recording)
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