From Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter
As a child, I’m to be my mother’s “sister” because she wants one so. My part is to be there if she’s ill. At four years old, it’s a privilege to have this responsibility instead of trotting off to nursery school like other children. My mother looks back to the wide-open dawns of her childhood because these days she has to be drugged as soon as she wakes. The “powders” dull her, she explains, a temptation not to take them, and no one knows if she does or not. Morning is the darkest time of her day.
Suddenly she calls in her danger-voice, “Help, oh-h, help me. Quickly!”
It’s a test she might fail, and if she does she might go mad, or something worse might happen. I fly to her side and find her on her knees or crouched on all fours. I grab the glass jug on her bedside table and toss water in her face. It doesn’t matter if it splashes the bed or spills over the floor. If she doesn’t revive I must dig in her handbag for a large, blue Mason Pearson hairbrush and push its bristles into her wrists. I never do this hard enough. Is this because I don’t have the strength or can’t bear to hurt her? She wrenches the brush from my hand and drives the bristles back and forth across her wrists—until she comes round. Sooner or later she does come round. Then she pulls herself up from the floor and lies on her bed moaning. Lenie, the cook, hears the commotion and comes pitter-patter on small feet. I’m relieved to see her and ashamed too for Lenie to see “Madam” so. Lenie sucks her tongue in dismay and brings a cup of sweet, milky tea. Lenie never says a word but has her share in our helplessness. None of us say a word. It happens, and we go on till the next time.
My mother is slow to get up, slow to dress. She turns the tap and splashes her face on and on to the measure of slap, slap, drip, slap, slap, drip to counteract the miasma of the powders, then draws seamed stockings over her feet and hooks them to the four straps dangling from a belt around her waist. All her underwear, including the silky petticoat, is purest white. Her “smalls” are washed separately every day; nothing unclean touches her skin. I’m waiting for her to finish, and her dreamy slowness makes me restless. I go off to the nursery to dig into the toy cupboard behind the ruched green curtain patterned with a thin, red thread. Across the passage, I hear her dialling, her finger in the hole, a whirr to the number, then the varied slide of the returning dial, and then her housewife voice, wearily dutiful as she gives Mr. Romm the grocer or Mr. Bass the fishmonger an order to be delivered to Lenie (since my mother rarely visits the kitchen). Mrs. Bass, leaning over her counter with her gap-toothed smile, has the ready-to-please manner of South African service. She spares the time to answer my mother’s many questions as to quality and freshness.
In the forties and fifties, husbands of housewives have a right to complain. My father, Harry, is easygoing and enjoys (as my mother puts it) “fullness of life,” but he does grumble if breakfast does not appear as he ties his shoelaces, putting one foot and then the other on the riempies [leather thongs] of his dining-room chair. The grumble isn’t made directly to Lenie but to his wife, who has nothing to do but take charge of the servants and yet, at this moment, is reading Wordsworth and reaching out to a girl who “dwelt among the untrodden ways.”
Harry’s grumble is routine, for he’s looking forward to a lawyer’s day, ready for his next case, as in youth he’d stood ready, swinging his arms in his one-piece racing costume: the first whistle took him to the brink of the pool, toes curled around the edge; at the second blast of the whistle, his arms swung back, knees bent, as he tensed his shoulders for the dive; and then—GO. Other whistles blew him about the pool in games of water polo. The secret of water polo, he explains, is to tackle an opponent under the water where the referee can’t see.
In childhood, as Rhoda Press, my mother has lived in a different world, a barely populated place called Klaver [more commonly called Klawer, meaning clover], on the border of Namaqualand, which stretches along the Weskus [Afrikaans for West Coast], the harsh west coast of the southern tip of Africa. It has low rainfall, and at that time, before irrigation schemes, looked like the parched landscapes of the Bible. She recalls how “I opened my eyes on a shepherd’s world with flocks of bushes stretching to the curve of the veld.”
The horizons of Namaqualand are often so cloudless you can see line upon blue line of mountains and, looking up at night, “a river of stars.” In 1917, when Rhoda was born, Klaver was little more than far-flung farms at the end of the railway, running inland more or less parallel to the west coast. By the time I’m born, in the forties, the railway has been extended some way beyond Klaver, but it never reaches what is now Namibia to the north.
I am to be a channel for my mother’s life and writings. It’s impossible to remember at what age this emerges into consciousness. All that can be said with certainty is that a sisterhood as child-carer changes during my schooldays into a sisterhood of poems and stories. She reads Emily Dickinson to me over and over. There seems no divide between the “Colossal substance of Immortality” in the visionary poets she loves—Dickinson and Emily Brontë—and her own “desk-drawer poems.” These she reads aloud with modest disclaimers.
Let me be clear: my role as her channel has less to do with love than reliance. I am not lovely; I am heavily freckled, not a light spray, but splotched all over despite the floppy-brimmed hat on my head. When the sun is at its zenith each December, impeccable Aunt Berjulie, who was brought up by her own impeccable aunts in Northern Rhodesia, comes down to the Cape. In well-matched outfits from John Orr’s in Johannesburg, Aunt Berjulie never fails to alert my mother to my uneven teeth and ruined face. My mother, whose darker skin is unmarked by sun, never thinks much about looks. This makes it comfortable to be with her. I’m a conscientious child, not winning, not brainy but exercising an earnest intelligence—not the most attractive of qualities, yet it includes attention to phrases like “the river of stars” and “the curve of the veld” that fountain from my mother. And I am there; she feels close to those who have shared what she calls her “attacks.” There are others she loves more: my brother Pip belting out “Great Balls of Fire”; her Pooh-Bear brother, Basil, with a healthy appetite and inclined, his sister teases, to think it “time for a little something”; and then there are her school friends, maternal Auntie Monica and practical Auntie Lilian. All charm her as different, while I am like, and in that sense an extension of herself.
A channel, then. My mother never explains how this channel is to be constructed between her shut-off invalid existence in the nineteen forties and some far-off future when her voice will emerge.
Nor, given our reversal of roles, does she foresee a divide. It never occurs to her that eventual separation from a mother will be necessary. In fact it’s part of her appeal for me that the common course of existence plays no part in her dreams.
Mothering may be the strongest bond most creatures experience, and the acts of separation from that bond shape our lives. For me, a daughter caught up in the crises of illness, this divide must be deferred.
My name is an embarrassment. If only my mother had called me Linda or any other common name.
“Stand up and spell it,” teachers in the forties and fifties will say on the first day of the school year.
They never recognise the name of the singular woman in Olive Schreiner’s novel The Story of an African Farm. Nor can any teacher know that this name marks me as my mother’s creature. Mothers who name their daughters strangely often reflect who they feel themselves to be. My name comes from Rhoda’s other life, called up more fully in the memory-dream she inhabits. For the Lyndall of the novel is a curiosity of the veld: a woman shaped by unstoried spaces where the curve of the earth is visible on the encircling horizon. Once, I pull the book from the shelf and glance at its opening line: “The full African moon poured down its light from the blue sky into the wide, lonely plain.” Vaguely I take in an embrace of nature and solitude. Rhoda is not particularly drawn to the politics of the heroine’s turn to the feminist cause. What matters is her authentic nature: a woman without a mask, rising from a bedrock of stone and bush.
Later, when I do read the novel, I recognise my mother in the perceptive girl, a rarity amongst the farming people about her, and echo my mother’s empathy for the solitary shepherd boy, Waldo—with his philosopher’s name—a dreamer too innocent for this world.
Rhoda’s secret self is partly open to detection through not-so-buried signals like my name. A poem she reads aloud remembers “children’s voices chipped out of silence” when her brothers, Basil and Sydney, dared her to tread the single track of the railway bridge above the Olifants [Elephants] River. There are only three trains a week, night trains due at dawn, but the children work up their dread of an engine, its dark face looming around a curve on the approach to the bridge. They imagine far-off, then near, the puff and clank of a piston. Rescue, she tells me, is possible in the form of three, square bays at intervals along the bridge, each just big enough for a person to stand back from a train thundering along the track, and Rhoda makes her staring advance from one to the next, then leans over the rail to gaze at the drop to the river below.
This scene I’ve not seen fills out Rhoda’s courage to go on in the face of oncoming “attacks.” That’s her word for what happens. Her fear is my fear for her precariousness. Yet, as a dreamer, she can dissolve fear and, in a poem she writes, can hear “in the hollows of space / where the wind scoops bliss / the eternal ocean of the universe.”
A timeless landscape, pulsating with import, means more to her than the present in which she performs as she must from day to day. It’s as though she’s protected from what her beloved Wordsworth called “the prison house” of grown-ups. He too believed the soul must be sustained by memory’s allegiance to the child who comes trailing memories of pre-life.
“One morning in school,” she says in her story-voice, “I saw a crowd of children round the tin lavatory whose door stood open. As I approached there was laughter. On the high wooden seat sat a little girl with her legs dangling and her drawers round her ankles halfway from the ground. Her eyes were helpless before the mocking crowd. This was my first acquaintance with cruelty, and though it remained with me, I did nothing about it.”
My mother bathes such scenes in reminiscent tolerance—children, after all, do often bully a child-victim—but now and then memory does throw up brutal scenes, which she does not hesitate to reveal to me. If we listeners were not colluding in the dream of Klaver we’d say this: it was a place of violence. Violence against the weak. Mr. Biebek, who called his wife “Girlie,” beat her—but, people said, that was a husband’s right. At one of the gangers’ cottages along the line, a railway worker chased his son round and round the house with a whip—the boy’s thin neck-bones straining as he ran. This boy died young, and that is all people recalled in after years: the fact that his father whipped him, and that he died before he grew up. It was, they said, a father’s right. “What can you do?”
But cruelty can’t explain why this woman says “Klaver . . . Klaver . . . Klaver” all her life. She hadn’t seen a bald dorp [a village] under the glare of the sun; she had seen a place that was the source of all life. Once, there was mystery here. The wind in the gum tree, the snake in the lucerne patch, the twofold mielie [corn] shoot in the saffron earth, the swallows’ mud-nests under the corrugated roof of the stoep [veranda], the air of winter mornings (so cold and pure, it burns the nostrils), the nursery by candlelight, their father’s tales and Yiddish lullabies, will hold for Rhoda—and also for her more worldly brothers—the source of some power that propels their lives, as though the God of the Hebrew Bible walked with them in that wilderness when they were young.
“An impress of the everlasting” came to her first when she was six. She repeats the story to me in her memory-voice, throbbing with import when she’s not reading or jotting down a poem, and wants a listener, and I’m standing there next to her bed, looking down at her to check if she’s alright. She won’t simplify her words, as other mothers might. A poet expects her listener to catch on, so phrases like “impress of the everlasting” come my way. Her memory-voice sounds so inward, she’s almost murmuring to herself.
Six years old, in Namaqualand, she was sweeping “the silky brown sand” off the stoep in the early morning. “I looked across flocks of bushes to where, in the far distance, sun-shafts, like pillars of gold-smoke, moved on the face of the veld. The light and its smoky breath flooded my being.”
For all Rhoda’s readiness to share these memories, she shuts the door on others.
“I can’t tell you . . . ,” she stops short at the onset of illness or what she understands about its nature. And she never follows on from hints of a sad love affair before she married my father.
Why can’t she tell, I wonder. Are there things in her past too bad for a child to hear? Am I lucky to be spared a fuller sisterhood? Like a sponge I sop up these hints of suffering then turn away to do a puzzle on the round nursery table or open a jokey picture in Winnie-the-Pooh: the motherly Kanga inflicting a bath on Piglet who has dared to take the place of Baby Roo in her pouch. It’s a relief not to read my mother’s downcast face.
My brother Pip recalls “our lying-down mother.” She leaves hands-on care to servants, harassed by her own mother who, as Rhoda protests, “interferes,” disrupting the household when she tidies the pantry till one in the morning. Annie Press, our grandmother, is on the watch as the housemaid turns out the rooms every morning, with the edges of the carpets folded inwards. Has the maid swept every particle of dust blowing into the open windows from the mountain above us, Lion’s Head? Has the washerwoman not fetched the sheets from the top room? The washerwoman’s lips are pressed together as she kneels over the tub and pegs sheets out in white swathes, flapping in the wind with gunshot sounds, until they stiffen in the sun.
Granny knows that you can’t leave running a home to “the maids,” as she tells Harry, her son-in-law, whom the servants call “Master” (as all South African servants call the man of the house). Our father, too breezy to notice what anyone can see, that Rhoda’s respect for servants is more effective, backs Granny’s reign. There’s audible bustle when guests arrive and tea is not served at once. The cook, Lenie, mutters “gits” quietly over the oven, as she takes out her “Lenie-cake,” to be iced with deft pats and strokes into delectable peaks. Lenie is a churchgoing, single woman in a starched white cap and apron, whose modesty is not lost on my mother. She has read the New Testament as well as the Hebrew Bible and sides with Christ’s defiance of worldly might: the meek shall inherit the earth.
“Lenie is a saint,” my mother declares.
For all their differences of faith and occupation, as well as the colour bar, Lenie and my mother are suited as moral beings. So Lenie puts up with Granny “for Madam’s sake,” and one or other servant agrees out of the corner of her mouth.
Granny whips the cups off the tray Lenie has prepared so that she can replace the tray-cloth with one she’s embroidered in green stem-stitch with lazy-daisy loops for the pink petals. I trace the petals with my forefinger and ask Granny, “Will you show me how?” I want to finger her skeins of silky embroidery thread, confident that Granny will let me choose the loveliest colours.
Granny’s interference seems to me mere fuss, a bit of a joke. Less so to her daughter.
“You see her as she is now,” Rhoda confides behind her closed door. “You don’t know how powerful she was when my father was alive. He never called her anything but ‘darling,’ and let her have her way.”
Rhoda idolises her father, a “sensitive man, a Press.” His character as a Press is another clue to who she is. She is decidedly not a creature of her mother but wholly an issue of her father, a reading, thinking man with an intelligent capacity for suffering. He came from Lithuania, like almost all the hundred thousand Jews who migrated to South Africa. At thirty-six, after twenty years in the back veld, he visited Cape Town and fell in love with auburn-haired Annie, aged twenty-two, who kept house for her widowed Papa (pronounced “Pupper”) and in her fondly insensitive way bossed four younger brothers and sisters.
When Rhoda tells the story of her parents’ courtship, she defends her father’s superiority, even though, as an immigrant, he’d driven about the veld in a mule-cart.
“There are no class distinctions amongst Jews. We are equals in the sight of God.”
She speaks to a child as to an adult, yet I’m aware of things elided from her stories of the past. When I’m older this unease can surface into words that I keep to myself, knowing by then how deftly she translates her preference for her father into myth and principle.
Annie and Philip Press married in December 1914, and for some time, Annie continued to preside in Papa’s comfortable, Maynard Street house, while her husband continued up-country. It was only after the births of a son, Basil, in 1915, and a daughter, Rhoda, in 1917, that Annie joined her husband at the end of the railway line.
This was the setting for Rhoda’s romance with her father—dubbed “Sir Philip” by farmers in the region, so she asserts too insistently to be convincing. So, as “our lying-down mother,” she fills out the memory-dream into which she wanders away from household routine. On the edge of Namaqualand, her father sings by candlelight to four children. Her mother holds dances in the cleared dining room; she hangs cheeses from the ceiling of her separate, kosher kitchen and receives a gift of homegrown tomatoes from “the Giantess” who farms in the kloof [a passage between two peaks] in the Matzikamma Mountains behind Klaver. Rhoda remembers the gloaming light on the oranges deep in the kloof, a waterfall, and the stinkwood furniture: a long, black table, so polished that it reflects three bowls of violets.
But Annie damped this down with calls to the nanny to smarten up her daughter and brush her hair. Annie’s crassness knew no bounds. Rhoda likes to repeat her mother’s put-down of the Parthenon during a tour of Europe: “I’m sure to crich [toil] up there to see a Goi-ish-ke cathedral.” I know that Granny’s Yiddish is limited to a few dismissive words and distorted by the vehemence of a South African accent.
“You’re only a pfefferil [peppercorn],” her emphatic f’s blow me away if I offer an unwelcome opinion.
Granny has no idea what others think or feel, and this makes her a very happy person. A child can nest in this easy insensitivity. There are no undercurrents of need. Her chat has the confidence of a woman at home in her life.
When Annie reaches her eighties, her daughter asks her, “What was the best time in your life?”
“Now, of course,” is her answer.
This absence of reflection comes to me as comfort. I associate it with the plumped-up pillows and puffy eiderdown of my grandmother’s high double bed, which I share during her long stays with us. She’s soft when she unsnaps her corset, warm and round with long breasts from feeding children. I lie at rest, released from the tension of my mother’s face, her fear of that unknown beast lurking in the corners of her room, the blue brush with its strong bristles, the jug of water waiting at her elbow, the glass and pills that she may or may not take.
Granny’s domain is the large front bedroom, which for some reason we call the top room, though there’s no upstairs. The top room is furnished in Rhoda’s feminine style. A white muslin spread with gathers at the side over a pale pink under-slip covers what was Granny’s marriage bed, and where she gave birth four times, tugging (she will tell me when I’m old enough to hear) on a sheet tied to a post at the foot of the bed. A rose carpet covers the floor, and above hangs a curly chandelier painted a faint white.
For a brief spell, this had been our parents’ room before an attack happened there. It was prompted, Rhoda hints, by an unwilling move from Rhodean, her family home since they left Namaqualand. In 1945 she was taken from shady, old-fashioned Oranjezicht and stuck in the glare of Sea Point, with coloured lights strung up on a sea-front hotel and cocktail parties in its palm-filled garden. It suits Harry to be close to the beaches where bodies stretch out under the sun, turning from back to front or front to back, as on a spit. Displaced amidst housewives who invite her to morning cards, Rhoda withdraws into Wordsworth’s “bliss of solitude,” fortified by The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature.
Harry is cock-a-hoop because he’s acquired a house for £5,000. It doesn’t occur to him that it’s not such a scoop if his wife dislikes it. Too ill to view the house in time, she’s dismayed to find herself planted in a thirties box with little natural light, darkened further by a hideous red curtain at the end of a passage. 11 Avenue Normandie is in an area of Sea Point called Fresnaye. The avenues (named in the seventeenth century by Huguenot refugees from religious persecution in France) rise perpendicularly up the increasingly steep slope of Lion’s Head. My mother confides that her secret name for our house is “Upwards.” Secret it has to be because a way station on an allegorical climb would be out of place in a suburb where houses and streets have European names like Bellevue and King’s Road.
After the top-room attack, our parents move to a back room opposite the nursery. One night in the nursery, I wake to sounds never heard before. Not, this time, a call for help, but almost inhuman cries coming from my mother. I know at once this is the thing she’s feared: the full-on, unstoppable thing. Between the cries, there’s our father’s courtroom voice. This time I don’t run to her but lie petrified. Am I a coward to leave it to our father who can’t console her? No one can. No doctor is called; Harry is handling this on his own, trying to quiet her. The cries die down, and the next day my mother is sunk in a half-daze. She can barely speak, and escapes from time to time into sleep. I tiptoe to see if she’s alright. If I don’t open the door softly, she will stir and cry, “Oh, NO-O-O.” The feminine touches to her room, the white moonflowers in a dainty vase, the rose lampshade and the pale pink bed-jacket knitted in a lacy pattern, are futile against the “attack” of the beast.
After our parents vacate the top room, Granny installs her glass-topped dressing table with an oval, swinging mirror, and her massive, three-door wardrobe packed with hats, sunshades and a fox-fur with paws, bead-eyes and snout. It has a strange, chemical smell when I put my nose to it to feel its softness.
On summer nights, with windows open to the murmur of the sea and the salt smell of seaweed, moths and brown, hard-winged Christmas beetles fly towards the lamp. When I hear the click, as one knocks blindly against the wall or wardrobe, or see the flutter of a moth, I cry and duck.
“It can’t hurt you,” I’m told, but I flee all the same.
“Wait, I’ll catch it,” Rhoda says, cupping her hands. Gently, she carries the fluttering creature to the window, opens her palms and frees it into the night.
She takes seriously the Commandment: Thou shalt not kill. Her respect for creatures is in keeping with a creative spirit that rolls through all things. She draws out what she expects to find in all small children: a moral sense, untrammelled as yet by the “prison house.”
Her absolutes are as striking as the poems and psalms she reads aloud, and I puzzle over certain contradictions: the sticky flypapers, for instance, dangling from the kitchen ceiling, stuck about with the black spots of dead flies. Though the kitchen is not my mother’s scene, she must have seen them. Or does she block from her line of vision what she doesn’t care to see? And although we are by no means rich, and my mother, cherishing books and memorabilia, scorns “shop-bought”—mass-produced—goods, she does buy “the best” when it comes to quality of clothing or linen or food. Money, I slowly realise, can’t be as irrelevant as it appears in a house filled with women—grandmother, wife, daughter, female servants—where the man of the house leaves for the office. Rhoda’s three brothers are “in business”: they have a growing chain of stores called Edgars, yet Rhoda exempts them from her abhorrence of “getting and spending.” For she loves them, and more: she’s proud of their enterprise and overrides her contempt for commerce with praise for her brothers’ probity.
As a girl of my generation, from whom little is expected, I’m imbued with my mother’s liberating counter-commerce ideals, reinforced by her younger brothers’ veneration of books. For many active men in our provincial society, books mean little: snippets in the Reader’s Digest for white males like my father or, for black youths in the townships, the skiet en donder [shoot and rough up] routines in high-rise cities across the ocean. Aspiring men choose to be doctors or lawyers or accountants, hardly ever scholars or editors or writers.
My father is the son of a dairyman. His school, the South African College School (known as SACS), is lucky enough to have its own Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. Sport is a condition of this scholarship, and since the top boy in his class plays no sport, Harry, who comes second, is in line to win it. He has no regrets for surrendering this opportunity. Bright enough, confident, articulate, yet with no taste for superfluous learning, he shares the view of his mother that Oxford is a luxury he can’t afford. For Thekla, his mother, a British university is off the map. She comes from Latvia. Small, pretty, her white hair neatly combed away from her face and secured with hairpins, she admires three grandsons, Peter, Gerald and Neville, who greet her with smiles and good-natured ease.
“Good boys, well brought up,” Thekla nods over their heads to their mothers who are her twin daughters.
I’m a little dashed not to be included in Thekla’s favour, and have no hope of a share in the neat features of my father’s family. To my uneasy feelers, Thekla appears on the lookout for lapses when it comes to Ps and Qs.
Gerald, Peter and Neville are the handsomest boys I’ve ever seen. My father has that same kind of masculinity, born of the beach, sun, jokes, normality. Gerald is two years older than I. At his house, 21 Avenue Protea, higher up on Lion’s Head, he asks, “Shall we play rude doctor-doctor?” and introduces a twist of plasticine to my bottom. My mother is appalled and reproachful when she discovers it at bath-time. All the same I’m ready to play again. One summer afternoon we cool off in the sprinkler on Gerald’s back lawn. I haven’t brought a bather and wear one of his. He invites neighbouring boys to inspect a naked girl. I’m game to show off in a hollow of the hedge where no one else can see.
Gerald is with my mother and me when we go on a ten-day holiday in the spring to Monica’s vineyard. It’s on a hill in the wine region of Stellenbosch. We play in the long, sun-stroked grass on the summit of the hill, but one morning wake to find an infestation of moths all over the farmhouse.
“Would you rather die or have fifty moths on you?” Gerald asks. It’s hard to choose. “I want to go home,” I beg my mother. She gets up and encloses a moth in her palms then slowly opens them to show how “beautiful” the creature is with its folded wings. When it’s still, I concede its beauty, but when it grows frightened and flutters, I scream and run.
Back home I hear on the wireless a different tale from the domestic or orphan’s stories my mother tells. “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” by Conan Doyle is my first horror tale, enhanced by sinister sound effects. They tune up my fears of insects with a new fear of poisonous snakes. Might a snake, like the one in the tale, slide through the high-up ventilator leading into the top room from the stoep where, in summer, lizards cling like scaly hyphens to the walls? This becomes my pet fear. Lenie has to check under the bed to make sure no snake lurks there, and a nightmare sends me rushing to my parents’ room. It’s dangerous for my mother to be jolted awake, so I am told to wake my father very quietly, to say “It’s me” and to get into his bed. After a while his arm feels like iron under my head, and I slide out and return to the top room. The worst that can happen is to hear my mother groan, “Oh NO!” It means I’d woken her to an actual nightmare: fear of an attack. Her terror is lodged in me.
There’s a different dread on Sundays when I’m taken “down the road” for a stroll with my father along the bustling seafront. Here I’m exposed to comment on my face when my cheery father turns away, every so often, to greet people who “listen in” to his radio broadcast on “Sports Roundup” on Saturday (when he leaves off being a lawyer and becomes a sporting “personality”). As soon as I’m idling on my own, children, from a safe distance, yell “freckle face.” Is that me? It has to be, for who else—certainly no one in sight—is so splotched with brown marks. These children assure me of a disfigurement others pretend not to notice.
Afterwards, we visit my father’s mother Thekla in her flat in Gloucester Court on the beachfront at Three Anchor Bay. I sit on the edge of a stuffed chair, wary of touching the white crocheted covers protecting the headrests and arms of Thekla’s lounge suite. Chopped herring is offered. It gives off a sour smell. I can’t put fishy mush in my mouth, so a wish to please compels me to accept one of Thekla’s taiglach, though it looks like poo: a sticky brown kind of doughnut cooked so hard that milk teeth can only scratch at the surface. I lick it tentatively. Sugar. Unmelted crystals rasp my tongue. It’s like licking a sugared rock.
Thekla has an air of no nonsense, a kind of not listening—different from my mother who may be dreamy but can be relied on to take note of real trouble. Some years before, Thekla’s daughter had a row with her husband when they were new to marriage. I picture the blazing red face of Gerald’s father as he shoves Aunt Lena out of the house and locks the door. No answer when she rings the bell and calls to be let in.
“What could I do?” Aunt Lena relays this scene to my mother, who feels for the wrongs of women. “I ran home to my parents. My mother didn’t want to hear. ‘Go straight back,’ she said. ‘That’s your home now.’ That taught me a lesson.”
To manage on a modest income from the dairy, Thekla had trained her five children to switch off unnecessary lights and limit hot water in baths. Harry calls Rhoda’s attention to waste. She listens patiently to Thekla’s grumbles and explains to me afterwards that surviving, for Thekla and her like, has been too hard to take a wider view. She means a wider view of all she herself cares for: the arts, nature, horizons to be crossed—the travel now closed to her.
Lying in bed with her windows wide open, and whenever she ventures outside the house, she opens my senses to what is timeless: the roll of the sea; the rocky crag of Lion’s Head rearing above the avenues bumping up its lower slope. Rhoda is awake to the stir of thoughts and feelings in the smallest child. It isn’t instinctual or textbook or imitative mothering, nor is it the busy nurture of mothers today. Mothers of her generation aren’t busy, and Rhoda’s invalidism allows her to be less busy than most, reading and resting in her room. Contact is not a matter of “quality time”; there’s quiet, a readiness on hold so that a spark can fire spontaneously. Then Rhoda’s blue eyes glow, she sits up, looks intently at a child and stills the child’s attention as she switches into narrative mode. Family stories pour out. This telling is a ritual: it’s not the biographical search for authenticity that I learn to do later; it’s a re-telling, shoring up family myths that declare where we come from and who she is.
Rhoda mythologises the past of her father’s family, helped by its distance from the Old Country. “My father sometimes lamented that his children lived in a different world from his.” Philip Press (in Lithuania the name was Pres) came from a town called Plunge or, in the form he used, Plungian. “Plum Jam,” his children would joke. Rhoda pictures the inhabitants of Plum Jam as rare and gentle beings singing Yiddish lullabies. She sings her father’s lullaby about raisins and almonds—rozenkies mit mandelen—in such plaintive strains that we indulge in rather pleasurable sadness.
The facts, discovered later, are that in 1941 the Nazis rounded them up with the help of Lithuanian neighbours, shut the entire community of 1,800 Jews in their wooden synagogue for two weeks, without air, food and water, and then shot the stinking survivors into three great pits they’d had to dig for themselves in Kauseinai forest. It’s only one of numerous killing fields. Three generations later, my journalist daughter, Olivia, sent by a magazine to trace her family, will visit the pits surrounded by silver birches. Olivia, weeping, will light candles there and keep the matches to this day.
In the absence of facts, Rhoda retells her father’s memories. Even Press poverty is romantic in her eyes: her father’s mother, dropping her hands in her lap when she’s unable to afford more thread to sew caps for country fairs. As a boy, when he was ill, his father brought him one grape.
“One?” I ask, thinking of a mound of golden hanepoot grapes on the autumn table. Amongst the vineyards of the Cape such deprivation is strange.
“In that cold, northern world one grape was luxury,” Rhoda says gravely. I see the scene but can’t get inside it. She believes the intensity of her otherness comes from those faraway people with expansive souls.
Her mother’s family, the Hoffmans (or “Hoffies”), is decidedly not soulful. They sing together at the piano, “ta-ra-ra-boom-de-jay”; they rollick through songs of the Anglo-Boer War (“We are marching to Pretoria”). As children, they and their parents took off in the reverse direction: they caught what they claim to have been the last civilian train out of Johannesburg bound for Cape Town, a thousand miles to the south where British troops were landing. Their father, Jacob Hoffman, imported British woollens, suitable for the rainy winters and windy nights at the Cape. His jolliest daughter is the youngest, Auntie Betsie, whose fingers perform extra trills on the keys; her bracelets tinkle as she bounces up from the final chord. Rhoda loves her aunts but thinks their eldest sister, her mother Annie, small-minded.
“Why are you reading?” her mother asks. “You’re not in school.”
As a child I’m filled with my mother’s barely veiled boredom when men jabber about business, the same boredom that deadens the air around my father when he and swimming cronies put heads together over stopwatches. I will never settle for such a man, I promise myself. And then I glance in the mirror and see that I may have even less choice in the matter than my mother did.
I watch her put on makeup, as she stands shortsightedly peering at her serious blue eyes and high nose in the mirror of the three-corner cupboard in the bathroom. There’s rouge in a small round pot and a tube of red lipstick. Too red. It’s like putting on a mask before she can be seen by a visitor, who might at any moment “pop in,” or even by the gardener or the women who come to the door seeking work.
“Are you reliable?” she asks. “Do you have a reference?”
And then the woman fumbles in her bag and holds out a battered bit of paper. If it’s a man, it’s shaming to see the excessive humility of his hunched shoulders as he cups both hands to receive the ten shilling note my mother offers. Before the bell starts ringing, my mother parts her hair on the side and puts a finger along the unruly bits to make them wavy not wiry. She pats down and scrunches her brown curls and, if not in a hurry, rolls up a lock in a bendy brown curler to make it behave.
If favoured friends arrive, my mother exerts herself. She gets up and rather tiredly slips on a dress. Her thinness looks frail but passes for feminine delicacy in the turquoise muslins or shades of tea-rose she likes to wear. I trail along as she carefully clicks open the side door of my grandmother’s Edwardian tea trolley with its brass trim and rounded glass, which stands in our dining-room. And gently, one by one, she lifts out a set of fragile teacups, thin porcelain with pink and mauve sweet peas on a faintly blushing background. My mother prizes this design for dispensing with the vulgarity of gold rims. Her word for over-decoration is something like “berahtig”—sounding the “g” with friction at the back of the throat, as in the Afrikaans of her early schoolroom. I think she’s inventing her version of a Yiddish word, without knowing Yiddish. Once she’d make a word her own, I and other listeners must lend our ears as best we can.
She relishes words that are expressive, pausing over them, rolling them around her tongue, including the humorously rude or pithy words in the tales of Chaucer’s fourteenth-century pilgrims—“likerous,” more expressive than “wanton,” in the portrait of the eighteen-year-old wife in the Miller’s Tale, who has a “likerous” eye. It charms me when my mother, telling a story, takes on a character unlike her own: the lasciviousness of the Miller’s wife or the punitive hatred of Jane Eyre’s guardian, Mrs. Reed.
No one outside the house would know that she’s “ill.” I watch a brave performance: her role as wife and mother and what goes with it—household, nursery, guests, servants. Concealed in this casing, along with illness, is a many-shaded freakishness that coexists with her visions.
I partake of the freakish aspect, am shaped by it, though have no access, as yet, to its secrets. Meanwhile, I lean on the insensibility of Granny Annie and my sporting father, who provide a cast-iron armour of normality. The daily marvel of their oblivion is the ease with which they don’t see what they don’t have to see. I’m less adept at concealment than my mother. The deception of normality—barely convincing as I know it to be—makes me ill at ease with Granny Thekla and other members of my father’s family.
My mother broods darkly in a way that can provoke an attack. Although it’s not possible to press her with questions, the extremes of her self-portrait leave a gap between the other-world illumination of her childhood and what she terms, in her cryptic way, “suffering” and “illness.” Each word comes freighted with explosive: the danger of what actually took place. It’s her way to hint—a nightmare journey to Europe; misguided doctors; a young man who died—so that I glance ineffectually through a fog of unfocused feeling made up of pity with a pinch of alarm. If only I could calm her, give her pleasure. In a small way it contents her that I fall in love with A Child’s Garden of Verses: I know by heart “how do you like to go up in a swing,” and “on goes the river,” bearing the child’s paper boats to “other little children” who’ll “bring my boats ashore,” and the invalid child who lives in his imaginary “Land of Counterpane.” My mother is drawn to writers like Robert Louis Stevenson who contend with illness.
All she will say about the onset of her own illness was that it “befell” her at the age of seventeen, and that it was bound up with a “bereavement.” Who was it she had lost? There is an air of things that happened before I was born, an air that her real life is over—as though her lips are kissing her hand to a person I can’t see.
The Silent Past
It would be untrue to say that, back then, I had no ideas about my mother’s illness.
As I grew up, the fog around it did block questions in a way that must have become habitual: the absence of words closed off thoughts, and that would have been all too easy in a house where talk flowed about public issues: racial oppression and legal cases and the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948. A closed-off channel pre-empted questions, even to myself, and I realise now how convenient it became to ease the discomfort of awareness by closing the valves of my attention.
Pip has no recollection of threatened attacks going on when we were small. Where I have the “sister” role to stay at her side, Pip’s role is to delight. She’s charmed and amused by the swelling maleness of his chest, his readiness to sing and even his glee when, bored by our obligatory after-lunch rests, he stands up in the cage of his cot in order to smear poo on our nursery wall. Unlike me, he trots off to nursery school. Our father drives away to his law office in town, so he too is not a witness, or not by day; nor is he told on his return. Nor is my grandmother present in my memory of these times. I’m alone with my mother as she falls on her knees next to her bed or on a rug in the dining-room.
Curious to me, looking back, is that my father and grandmother must have known that these emergencies would occur from time to time. Why did they say nothing? Might they have hoped she’d exert more control in the presence of a child? More likely, I think, was their reluctance to imagine what might happen when they weren’t there—what George Eliot meant when she says that most of us go about well-wadded with oblivion. George Eliot actually says “stupidity,” but that’s too dismissive, and her link of herself with “us” doesn’t ring true. It tells us more about the frustrations of George Eliot herself as an intellectual in a provincial society. Harry and Annie were certainly not stupid. Their extrovert high spirits simply overrode the intrusion of troubling thoughts. Their wadding may even have been of benefit. It ensured a cover for anything out of the ordinary.
It will happen quite casually when I’m fourteen that my eye falls on words my mother has set down at the age of thirty-eight. Mid-afternoon, the house is quiet. The servants, having cleared up after lunch, have gone to their rooms off the yard at the back. Wearing a uniform, a white Panama hat and a green cotton dress that looks creased and rumpled by the end of the school day, I’m returning home, through the gate, across the stoep festooned with heavy boughs of vine, and quietly pushing open the front door. To the left of the hall is a black, stinkwood bench with three riempie seats, which came from one of the farmhouses in the kloof behind Klaver. In the corner next to it is a round, pedestal table, and on it is Love and the Soul: a long body enfolded by a winged angel, by a Cape Town sculptor, Lippy Lipshitz, born in Plungian. Next to it are three lavishly illustrated books between carved wooden bookends: The Happy Prince and Other Tales by Oscar Wilde, The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe, and the plays of Shakespeare. I often stop at that table to look at Millais’ 1852 painting of Ophelia singing as she drowns with “clothes spread wide, / And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up.” This time, I notice that my mother, in her absent-minded way, has left a half-finished poem there, before she closed her door for her afternoon rest. It’s usual for her to be sleeping, or trying to and easily disturbed, when I tiptoe back from school.
As I glance at the poem, a word leaps out. The word is “epilepsy.” Instantly, it hits me: “That’s what it is.”
Until that moment the problems besetting my mother seemed various: tension, fatigue, anxiety, falling, jerking awake, sleeplessness and “dry-sickness” (the last a made-up word that she associated with The Waste Land, and familiar long before I read that poem). It has never before occurred to me that one symptom could take precedence. My next thought is surprise that there might be a word for it after all. Something definite, something by then made known to my mother.
I never mention this discovery to her, but it will linger at the back of my mind as a possibility not to be communicated or explored. Why not look up the word in a dictionary? I can’t explain my incuriosity.
Branded in memory, the scene will present itself, two years on, in another scene that will open up the rest of my life. A student invites me to see a French film. I have just turned seventeen, and the student’s name is Siamon Gordon. Afterwards he walks me home and asks about my family. His directness—more than I’m used to—invites direct answers, and impulsively, because medicine is his subject, I blurt out—swinging back and forth on the gate—the secret in our family, and what I suspect might explain it. To utter that word aloud is, for me, more intimate than touch, an exposure of fears for my mother going back to the age of two and a half.
“It’s probably correct,” he says. “There’s an irritable focus in the brain. It can spread from one area to another.”
As facts dispel uncertainty, I feel grateful. Jokey though he is most of the time, he takes this seriously.
“Have you witnessed a seizure?”
“No. Only threatened attacks.”
“If a full attack happens,” he warns, “it could look like your mother is dying, but that won’t happen. Sit tight. However desperate she looks, she will eventually come round.” I lock this promise away, to be called forth in time to come. “Hold her hand,” he advises, “and comfort her when she comes round, because there is often an aftereffect, a miasma.”
Long after, I will find assorted statements amongst my mother’s papers.
Through epilepsy I was stripped down to the foundation-rock from which I was able to strike new sparks. For on the edge of that precipice, any weakness in thought, word, or deed could plunge one into the bottomless pit, there where all vanities and falsities are expunged.
Where does the history of an illness begin? A history told to a doctor would begin with a symptom in the sense of malfunction. It’s well known that visions may be associated with epilepsy, yet for Rhoda visions were not a sign of disease. No medical term, no ordinary words, only poetic language could reach towards this inexpressible thing, like Wordsworth’s “sense sublime” or the wandering airs that closed in on Emily Brontë when, she said, “visions rise and change that kill me with desire.” Dostoyevsky, himself epileptic, records the exhilaration of this visionary state in his portrait of the epileptic Myshkin in his novel The Idiot: a breakthrough into “a higher existence” when “there shall be time no longer.” To take this in is to see how far any medical explanation of visions as symptoms must fall short of leaps in highly developed minds.
The diary, written when Rhoda was seventeen, eighteen and nineteen, from 1934 to 1936, was found after her death. Pip, who practises as a psychologist near where we grew up, did the first sifting of her papers: poems, autobiographical fragments, copies of Oranjia, stories, letters, notes on the Bible, scribbles on the thin, almost transparent blue paper—you could write only on one side—which our father used to bring home from the office. Pip sorted the identifiable batches into large brown envelopes, which he handed over when I came from England, to be kept in my Cape Town flat perched over the ocean at Saunders Rocks.
A separate, small room on the floor below goes with the flat. It’s dark there, cave-like, behind the blinds that close it off from a walkway. Here, I unpacked Rhoda’s papers and books. In the envelope containing the diary is Rhoda’s list of books she was reading during the first two years after she left school. In a separate envelope is an exchange of letters with a young man, starting in the same period, 1935, and extending to the end of 1937. I took the diary and letters upstairs, and lay on the window-seat to read them, with the waves pounding on the rocks below. Here was my mother as a girl whose life gets rocked by two successive blows.
A stranger appeared at her birthday dance when she turned fifteen. A new neighbour, befriended by Rhoda’s eldest brother, Basil. His name was Lou Freedberg, a tall youth, blowing moodily on the short end of a cigarette as he let fall contrary remarks in the manner of an atheist. His eyes crinkled and he folded his arms, not a twist but one hand clasping an elbow as he withered an optimistic view of progress. “Human nature is what it was five thousand years ago.” Rhoda was struck by the sound of cynicism, unheard amongst the men around her: Basil, as benign as Pooh Bear; his chums, the Bradlow twins from Johannesburg, mildly humorous; while her father, as an immigrant, could not afford futility. Lou was an intellectual, impressive to a reading girl.
As a corrective to her taste for Romantic poets, Lou gave her one of the books on her reading list: The Mysterious Universe by an astrophysicist, Sir James Jeans. Predictably, what she took away from it were philosophical questions where physics touched infinities. For these were not incompatible with the focus on “infinity” in the poems of her favourite, Emily Brontë.
She respected Lou as a reader and twice was drawn to him physically, both times at night when she was caught up in the pulse of sea or wind: once while playing a ball game with a group of friends on a beach, and the other time when she was pressed against him in the “dicky” [unroofed back seat] of a car, whilst the wind “blew the stars about the sky.”
It was unprecedented for Rhoda to acknowledge physical attraction. I remembered how she brought up the Virgin Queen in one of what she calls our “lying-on-beds” conversations in her room. She imagined that Elizabeth’s withdrawals when it came to marriage were not primarily a matter of caution or sexual coldness. Nor was Elizabeth exercising her power, rather her desire for expressiveness, which, Rhoda said, would be terminated by an act as conclusive as marriage. Her idea of Elizabeth’s desire came from her understanding of a fuller kind of desire prompted by emotional intimacy, drama and the play of character, which, she implied, the blocked-off husbands of her milieu (their reading confined largely to law reports, finance, sport, war and politics) did not entertain.
Rhoda would have discussed this only with a trusting daughter untouched as yet by the social agendas that accompany reproduction. What my mother never discussed was her attraction to Lou and her weeping conviction that he preferred another.
One Wednesday, 7 March 1935, a week before Rhoda turned eighteen, she woke to hear Basil start the engine of his car, “the Ashcan,” to rattle off to medical school. She sat up in bed and told her school friend, Monica, who had stayed the night, to throw open the shutters so that they could call goodbye. And then, suddenly, with no warning, she fell back in a faint.
“Fainting” took her over all that day. Knowing this and also the fact that she was due to sail for Italy the following day, it is to me bizarre that on Wednesday a girl is fainting all day and on Thursday, her mother waves her away at Cape Town docks. My grandmother’s oblivion wouldn’t have extended to a physical ill. But if she thought a love-crisis had brought her daughter to the point of breakdown, then it would have been reasonable to consider it best for Rhoda to go away. In that case, the voyage would not have been conceived as a jaunt, rather as a cure. As this idea came to me, another fact I’ve always known seemed to confirm it: Rhoda’s traveling companion was not a girl of her own age or someone close to her; it was middle-aged Aunt Tilly from Rhodesia, who was a hospital nurse.
Why was it not seen to be epilepsy, I wondered, turning the pages of the journey? Could it be that the jerking of arms and legs accompanying the worst form of the condition did not manifest initially? “Faint,” the word she uses in her diary, means that she lost consciousness, but there may have been no readily identifiable symptoms when she had that first seizure in 1935, as in the well-documented case of Karen Armstrong in the 1960s: doctors believed that her sudden collapse on the floor of her nunnery was self-induced, a suspect way of gaining attention. It’s easy to blame a victim, and Rhoda would became complicit with a view of herself—implied if not stated—as “failing.”
Two days out to sea, she remained dazed.
“10 March 1935: All the strangeness of a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, all the loneliness of a solitary gull skimming the waves, all the terror of eternity grips me as I look upon this watery waste . . . grey sea and grey sky and a grey dawn breaking . . . utter desolation.”
Was this one form of the Waste Land experience she’d often lamented to me as a child? Or does desolation often follow an attack? She went in fear of another, and this did happen on deck.
Wrapped in a rug as the ship ploughed through the Bay of Biscay, she was reading keenly, dismissing ephemeral publications of the moment. Noel Coward was “disappointing”; A. A. Milne’s Two People “too nonsensical.” The emotional nourishment Rhoda craved after her blow came from Othello. The Moor’s suffering and downfall and his self-punishing death left her “greatly moved.” Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth offered a more resilient answer to the cruelty of existence when a woman loses the man she’s loved and finds the courage to make service to others—Brittain’s work as battlefield nurse—a way to go on. “Slowly absorbed every page from first to last—vivid account of woman’s side of wartime.”
At eighteen, Rhoda was away for nearly a year. In July, she moved to London. There, responsibility for her care fell on her mother’s closest sister, Minnie Ross, at 3 Alvanley Gardens, a pleasant house off the Finchley Road in NW6.
This is where Rhoda stayed all through the second half of 1935. Her aunt welcomed Rhoda like a daughter. They looked alike with dark hair and narrow, dignified faces. “Solicitous” as her aunt was, Rhoda’s condition—the attack on deck had been followed by another in Jerusalem and then one in London—was beyond her.
She took Rhoda to three doctors. The fact that they went from one to another suggests that either no satisfactory diagnosis was made or treatments proved ineffective.
First was a seasoned, somewhat old-fashioned neurologist of sixty-six, Wilfred Harris, of Wimpole Street. He was prominent in the field of epilepsy. Included in the history Rhoda gave to Dr. Harris was her infection from the love-germ.
“Never mind, Chicken,” he told her kindly, “we all get that disease.”
In late September, Rhoda accompanied her aunt, uncle and their younger daughter, Phillis, to Het Zoute, near the town of Knokke. It was a chic resort on the north Belgian coast, close to the Dutch border, boasting blond sands, golf, luxury cars, a casino and appearances by Maurice Chevalier and Marlene Dietrich. What happened during that fortnight in Zoute was silenced until Phillis, now in her mid-nineties, told me. Phillis, aged fourteen, shared a room with Rhoda in a separate wing of the hotel, far from her parents. She had been told nothing of her cousin’s illness. One night she witnessed a seizure—the worst yet. Thinking Rhoda was dying, Phillis rang desperately for help. No one came for what seemed ages, and when a waiter did eventually appear, he spoke only Flemish.
This instance of failed translation lights up the nightmare Europe would remain in Rhoda’s memory: the strains of traveling in her condition, the constant fear of public exposure and the blight of helplessness reinforced by the self-blame induced by doctors’ talk of “hysteria”—that lingering nineteenth-century diagnosis reserved for women like Alice James trained to suppress what they thought and felt.
A final try, in November, was to consult a Dr. Leaky who treated Rhoda through hypnosis. He meant to prove to his patient that she could train her subconscious to control her faints, and he provided a notice to this effect. Rhoda was to put it above her bed. The implied diagnosis was self-induced hysteria, a womanish excess, which she must resolve to control. The onus of a potential cure therefore fell on her. She was persuaded to believe that if she did not manage to control her attacks, she could go mad.
Two months later, Rhoda, supposedly cured, left for Cape Town. As she drove for the last time through London to catch the boat train at Waterloo, she was terrified at the prospect of traveling alone, with no one to help if she went under.
January 9, 1936: . . . These months have seemed dreams; dreams that followed close, one upon another . . . dreams filled with an hysterical horror passing that of hell—nightmares of insanity . . .
We passed Westminster, and I saw Wordsworth leaning over the bridge.. . . silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
The Thames flowed quietly by.
Waterloo Station . . . Farewell London . . . I am going home.
When she went to her cabin after dinner, panic and melancholia crept upon her “like a Thug.” During the night she woke sharply, wanting to scream yet knowing no one would come. She felt herself ascending “a pinnacle of insanity,” her body shaking violently with repressed fear. She prayed and recited poetry, and the panic gradually subsided.
Leaky. Wilfred Harris. Here are names I could look up. Could “Leaky” be Dr. J. E. A. Leakey who advocated a “ketogenic” diet for epileptics in the thirties? Until these names surfaced in the diary, I’d believed that doctors had been in the dark. This is what my mother told me, and probably also what she’d told herself because she, certainly, remained in the dark. But these doctors’ associations with epilepsy, coming up on the computer screen, suggest that the nature of Rhoda’s illness was not wholly a mystery. If Auntie Minnie took her to these respected physicians, then the possibility of some form of epilepsy was aired. There must have been a decision amongst the older generation to conceal it from anyone outside the family, and from Rhoda herself. The secrecy makes it clear that the illness continued to carry a stigma, particularly for a young woman. It could have spoilt her chances of marriage. And since the illness carries a genetic element, there could have been a question as to whether she should have children. All this would have been mulled over, I imagine, behind closed doors.
Fourteen days out of Southampton, Rhoda woke at six to find the ship gliding past Robben Island wrapped in morning mist. As they docked in Cape Town harbour, her parents and her dear school friend, Lilian, were waiting on the quay. Then she saw Monica, the other member of their schoolgirl trio, getting out of a car and knew all at once, “I love her.” It was as though some fount of feeling, sealed for ten months by the artifice of normality, were suddenly unstopped.
Monica was astonished by Rhoda’s grown-up look in a green Tyrolean hat and fox (as though she were still in wintry London). “You’ve changed,” Monica told her. Rhoda thought how surprised they would be to know that the change was due to illness.
It was high summer, hot, dusty. Her distanced ear picked up “uncouth accents.” These sounds, she knew, would grow dear and familiar again. Her father took her and her mother for tea at Markham’s. There was a family quarrel, and for a moment Rhoda felt about to faint, but managed to control herself. Then they drove fifteen miles to a house on the dunes at Muizenberg, which her parents had taken for the six weeks of beach life known as the season. As they neared the ocean, the air grew cooler. There were gold coins of sunlight on the grey-brown carpet, and the sea, she thought, sounded for twenty miles along the shore like the roll of eternity.
After lunch, her brother, Basil, large, trusty, sprawled across her bed, and she told him about how she loved Lou, and all she’d had to endure with her illness. Basil was “shocked and upset” and wished she had confided in him before. His presence was balm. She could lean on Basil from now on, and he would help her get well.
In her nightie, before she went to sleep, she leant out of her bedroom window, listening to “the rhythmic purr” of the sea across the dunes. And looking up “at the arch of the stars,” she felt the wind blow the constraints of London away. Here, at home, she would be free to say what she thought. She would heal the strained ties with her parents, though as far as dependence went, Basil had replaced them as a father-brother.
Basil now brought about the next drama in Rhoda’s young life. First, he relayed Lou’s identity to their father, who duly invited Rhoda for a walk to St. James. There, over tea, he reassured her that her parents would favour a future attachment. He even suggested that Lou might have been in love with her all along. Then, on the first Saturday night after her return, Lou—whom she still believed to be the prime cause of her breakdown—drove out from town to see her.
Rhoda heard a car come to a stop at the dunes across the road. Entering the house, Lou’s eyes behind his glasses creased at the corners as he smiled on a girl to all appearance metamorphosed at nearly nineteen: slim and delicately beautiful in her well-cut London dress, shorn of ringlets, her bubbly hair smoothed and short. He fell in love at that moment.
Rhoda decided that she liked him, but was “not in love.” He had the watchful half-smile of someone who’s not entirely well. Lou was thin and carried a shadow of paleness under the usual layer of sunburn. Though land-surveying took him out of doors, his shoulders were a little hunched and his chest a little concave, rather like those of immigrants from Lithuania, raised on a poor diet, whose frames had not spread and hardened in sufficient sunlight.
Returning at last to Rhodean and her little room with the shutters, which she’d left as in a dream the year before, Rhoda felt “like a ghost revisiting some vaguely familiar place.”
She and Monica visited Good Hope School to see Miss Krige (their literature teacher, related to the Afrikaans poet Uys Krige) and Miss Stevenson (“Stevie”), who taught Latin. Stevie had birdlike bright eyes and a face like a wrinkled apple. Their teachers kissed them, and the girls’ “untainted lips” were “besmirched” with lipstick. Miss Krige almost wept when she told Rhoda that their literature class had been the happiest she’d ever had. Teachers at that time (and into my time at the school in the fifties) were not models for their pupils. They were single women whose professional lives seemed unenviable—unthinkable. Although some found fulfilment in work, motherhood tethered to home was still a pervasive norm. In my mother’s time, a girl might earn a bit or she might travel and go out with well-conducted men (it was considered “fast” to flirt or kiss on a first date) before she settled down to homemaking in her early twenties.
So it was that Rhoda’s parents could think of nothing better than to start her on a course of shorthand and typing at Underwoods in town. It was a dusty, crowded place full of “silly” girls with little to offer in the way of friendship.
Later, my mother will say how she’d longed for higher education at a time when her father, post-Crash, could not afford it. Her parents, though, had managed to send her overseas for almost a year. Illness would have been a priority, not a daughter’s education, and in this they were not unusual. None of Rhoda’s set went to university.
Why, Rhoda asked herself, did she not find with Lou Freedberg the intimacy that she had with Monica and Lilian?
His absolute worship seemed strange. I was unaccustomed to being loved, and not a little worried because I believed . . . I was not being quite honest—and yet I could not force myself to break.
Rhoda’s father, mindful of her breakdown and unaware of the doubts she confided to her diary, invited Lou to accompany the family on their winter holiday, in July, to Graafwater, in the rough terrain of the Weskus, en route to Klaver.
On Lou’s birthday, she gave him an illustrated copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince and Other Tales “to begin your education in the importance of unimportant things. They prove that cynics write the loveliest fairy stories.” The title tale is about a statue of a “Happy Prince” who in life never experienced happiness. Viewing misery from his plinth, he asks a swallow to strip the gold leaf covering his body, to give it to the poor. The statue is then torn down, but the Prince’s lead heart, all that’s left when he’s melted down, is taken to heaven.
Rhoda and Lou took long walks, not entirely agreeable to Rhoda because they found “so few points of contact mentally.” Lou’s ominous perspective on human history, reinforced by a film they’d seen, Things to Come by H. G. Wells, alerted her to Europe’s rearmament. To acknowledge what was to come changed her inner landscape.
The buoyancy of mind I had been building up since my return to Africa sunk as he talked . . . The inexorableness of the distant blue hills which had cleansed me, the beautiful silences of the veld which had uplifted me, now overpowered me with a terrible sense of futility.
In September 1937, a streptococcal infection found its way into the weak left ventricle of Lou’s heart. He was admitted for observation to Somerset Hospital, near Cape Town docks. And then, ominously, he was moved to the main hospital for serious disease, Groote Schuur. Lilian recalled holding his hand in the ambulance rocking around the mountain curves of De Waal Drive. Later she stood with Rhoda in the corridor outside his ward and heard him scream in pain. His heart condition, curable with the discovery of antibiotics, was invariably fatal at the time.
Each day during visiting hours, Rhoda watched Campbell, the night nurse, as she bent over temperature charts under the lamp at the centre of the ward. It was she to whom Lou turned. “I will never marry,” he told her while Rhoda was there. To Rhoda, he spoke harshly.
Nurse Campbell cared so much for “dear old Freedie” that Matron, Miss Pike, had to tick her off for favouritism. Miss Pike then moved Campbell to another ward and forbade her to see Freedie. Campbell had to glean news of Freedie from other nurses and resort to smuggled letters.
On 15 March 1938 Rhoda turned twenty-one. A birthday letter from her brother, Sydney, invited her to join him in Jo’burg, promising to look after her. The invitation may have been prompted by awareness of what was coming. On 31 March, Lou died, aged twenty-three.
On the day of the funeral, Rhoda sat with Lilian in her father’s car. Her mother had forgotten her hatpin and held up the party because a well-dressed mother couldn’t set out for the cemetery without it. When Lilian is old, she will remember how the two girls, in fits of mirth, rolled together on the back seat.
During the burial, Rhoda blamed herself for failing Lou. Listening to the strong whistle of a bird, she felt “deeply ashamed,” but apart from this, no emotion.
I knew positively that Lou was not in the box covered with a black cloth. I felt no emotion whatever. Why should I? I knew this was an unreal conventional ceremony & Lou would have hated it if he had been there and yet I deliberately squeezed out a tear. Inside I felt quite dead & yet I did this because I felt it was expected of me! I am afraid I am full of what K[atherine] M[ansfield] calls “sediment.” Examined in the clear light of what has happened I know I was tinkling & vain and grasping at shadows. That is why I failed him so terribly. And yet for the rare moments when I “broke through” and was “real” he loved me.
Only a Housewife
They meet, of course, on Muizenberg beach. In 1939 Harry, at thirty, is an attorney, handling traffic accidents and divorce. Traffic is the last thing Rhoda cares to notice. As for divorce, it’s off the map for Orthodox Jewish women. Orthodox women are observant, attentive to the community, and they look on marriage less as a private story than a ritual of communal perpetuation. If a bride has a poetic bent, it’s nice enough as a pastime, but irrelevant to what’s expected of a wife. And if marriage makes a Jewish wife unhappy, she learns to put up with it.
As Harry breezes about the beach in his swimming trunks and the cream and blue striped blazer of the SASU, divorcées, hair in clenched blonde ridges, wave to him with toothy smiles. He raises a hand and winks back. Winking is almost a reflex as his light green eyes scan the crowd for his numerous acquaintance. Now and then, exuding health, muscles shifting in his shoulders, he bends down or crouches to shake hands with one-time rivals. He has firm views on “sporting” behaviour. Swimmers sprout up around him. His passion is sport: swimming, water polo, soccer and baseball. In the past he’d raced in pools around the country, intervarsity contests like the annual Currie Cup, and now he manages teams, sorts out disputes and does “running commentaries” on the wireless.
He first spots Rhoda sitting on the sand under a sea-coloured sunshade, which matches a blue-green sundress spread over slim legs tucked to one side. Her dark skin doesn’t have the sultry, olive tint of the Mediterranean; it’s a serious darkness; her large blue eyes and a high-bridged nose lend her face its thoughtful cast. Though she holds a poor opinion of her appearance, it has dignity, the kind of face that gains distinction with age. Her poor opinion probably has its origin in her mother’s pride in Sydney, the favourite and the only one of the four to look like her. He has her fair skin and what my mother calls, a little enviously, “a chiselled nose.”
Harry is good-looking in the sunburnt, South African way, with hair parted off-centre. His legal office displays photos of Western Province teams, rows of solemn swimmers with arms folded over their one-piece racing costumes and at their feet the Currie Cup.
Men like Harry play around with “floozies,” as a matter of course, and marry virgins—manliness demands no less. In the meantime they slip in and out of divorcées and, satisfied, go their way. In male company, they joke about needing the know-how as though they’re boy scouts obedient to the motto “Be Prepared,” and in training for their next badge. “Marie Stopes showed us the ropes” is the jingle of those prepared enough to pack condoms when a team sets off.
Born in 1909, Harry is eight years older than Rhoda, and by the time they meet, a veteran in the Sheikh role. At fancy-dress parties he appeared in Arab robes—layers of exotic stripes topped with a flowing head dress. In addition, he sports a prickly brown moustache, the current badge of masculinity, and hard knots of muscle bulge in his calves and arms from long-distance swims in rough seas. In his youth, girls hummed an old hit in his vicinity: “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”
None of this, of course, impresses a high-minded girl like Rhoda Press. Harry, who knows loads of pretty women, has never encountered any as serious as Rhoda. He doesn’t quite know what to make of her. Though Rhoda needs a man to protect her, she’s unsure if she wants to marry someone so on the go, calling to her to “shake a leg” if she isn’t ready—and she’s never ready—when he comes to take her out.
When Rhoda stalls over his proposal, Harry picks up the phone and dictates an ultimatum to her old school friend, Lilian, a legal secretary at the time, who is to pass this on. Either Rhoda says yes, or the offer is off.
This is Lilian’s story, and it rings true, yet Rhoda has a different story.
It can happen that some trivial pressure drives a life-changing decision, as in the case of a friend of mine who didn’t want to go through with her wedding. She went to my Aunt Berjulie for advice, and my aunt, an arbiter of rectitude, told her it was too late.
“You can’t do that to the caterers.”
Since then, “the caterers” has been our family code for an absurd obligation. What really drove Rhoda to accept the proposal, she told me, was an invitation from Harry’s sister, Lena, who had given birth to Gerald. Lena, always friendly to my mother, asked her to be Gerald’s godmother. It was not easy to refuse. Yet, since Harry was to be godfather, to agree was to appear a couple. So it happens that Rhoda, unwilling to cross Lena’s overture, finds herself engaged.
As a bachelor, Harry has been an habitué of cocktail parties, and so at ease, waving, winking, engaged in confabs on the latest scores, that no one noticed he didn’t drink. He actually had no taste for alcohol, and I will inherit this—though coming to Oxford in the seventies will compel me to touch a glass of sherry to my lips from time to time. The result of Harry’s visibility at cocktails means that my parents receive no fewer than eight cocktail sets as wedding presents. Rhoda will consign them to a cabinet in the dining room from which they never emerge.
The night before the wedding, the family tells the bridegroom—something. It remains confidential, and my guess is that they didn’t say too much. Certainly, whatever they told him came too late for a bridegroom to retreat. So then, the intermittently visible illness and the invisible shadow of Lou behind this union.
How much did Harry know? As their first child, I both know and don’t know, and the weight of suffering, unspoken but present, makes it nicer not to know as I grow up. I think it’s nicer for my father not to know, or not fully, what it’s like to live as what Katherine Mansfield calls “an exile from health,” and naturally, it’s easier not to know whether his wife did or did not continue to grieve for her lost love. And I see now how readily I took on my father’s unknowing.
So it is that, for years, I turn away to write my books and put off the task to be her channel. Was it cowardice? Does emotional cowardice block me even now? “Winter kept us warm,” Eliot says. It’s tempting to wrap ourselves in a blanket of unknowing, for life-writing demands that we come to know ourselves through our subject.
The two are married on 9 April 1940. Rhoda looks dreamy in white satin embossed with hearts. The dress has a plain round neck and girly puffed sleeves. Lilian and another school friend, Marjorie, are bridesmaids, both engaged to marry in June. Monica is not present because her new husband, Bill, an accountant, is going “up north,” and Monica has gone to Johannesburg to be near him while he trains in the army. Harry’s senior law partner, Bertie Stern, went up north in 1939. They agreed that Harry should remain to man the office.
After the wedding, Rhoda decides not to go on honeymoon. She stands in her shuttered room at Rhodean, her wedding dress on the bed, as Lilian helps her into her going-away suit and watches as she bends to the mirror to put on a little pointed hat with a veil dipping over one eye. She says to Lilian that she’s gone through with the wedding, and that’s as far as she’s prepared to go.
Lilian, another virgin told nothing by her mother, looks forward to marriage with keener anticipation and assures Rhoda that marriage will do her good. Lil will be waiting when Rho gets back, and they will love each other dearly as before. Rhoda allows Lilian to persuade her to go away.
They go off to The Wilderness, a five-hour drive up the east coast to a honeymoon place on the Indian Ocean. There’s a wide white beach, steadily rolling waves and the thatched rooms strung out along the shore. Granny had prepared her daughter with a satin nightie and matching gown, and when Rhoda, suitably arrayed, attempts an entrance, she trips over the flowing gown. She often, regretfully, called herself “excitable,” meaning nervy.
In my teens, my mother will relay something of her wedding night as one of her arguments in favour of virginity. She said that her purity so moved her bridegroom that he, a man not given to tears, shed a few when she gave herself to him. She looks on the body as a temple, not to be cheapened by casual use. She never utters the word “sex,” always “lovemaking,” because, I take it, she includes what she herself may not experience, delicacy of feeling.
My grandmother’s own story is calmer and sweeter. Her honeymoon took place in Caledon, an inland spa with hot springs that was fashionable in 1914—Granny was always fashionable. After the wedding, she likes to recall, “my husband said to me, ‘Now we’ll enjoy the fruits of our love.’”
He wasn’t a native English speaker yet found the perfect words. Annie is not attentive to language, but these words remain with her all her life. The feeling is active, as she repeats it to me lolling in her room at the Balmoral Hotel in the centre of Muizenberg. In her eighties she’s still vigorous enough to cross the Beach Road to dip in the sea before breakfast, bending over first to splash her freckled arms.
Her husband was “a good man,” she wants me to know. He was so good that when he heard that Annie’s sister, Minnie, was pining for their mother (who had recently died), he insisted that Minnie should join them on honeymoon. Granny was teased when it came out that the sisters had shared the bed (as they’d shared a bed at home), and my grandfather had slept on his own behind a screen. Now in her eighties, Granny sees fit to confide that she was observing the Jewish law that forbids a couple to share a bed during menstruation.
It’s impossible to be accurate about the past. Reports conflict. In a photograph, Rhoda dances along the sand in a bathing costume, arms flung wide. There is also the “amazing” fact she reports to Basil “that after rigorous daily tuition from a determined husband I got my Driver’s Licence on Honeymoon!” She rarely succumbs to the vulgarity of an exclamation mark, a measure of her surprise. On her return she looks radiant in the expected bridal way, to the noticing eye of a teenage cousin (Auntie Betsie’s youngest daughter, Garda). She thinks that Rhoda was happy on honeymoon.
The family’s precaution in not divulging Rhoda’s history until the last moment before her marriage does Harry an injustice: he never loves Rhoda any less on account of her illness; he may, in fact, love her more, though it isn’t in him to know her as a reflective man might. A reflective and more sensitive man, on the other hand, might cope less well than Harry, with his ready optimism. If Rhoda is unwell, he’s content to leave her in bed with a book—he rarely requires her company. Her invalidism and his unquestioning acceptance of a condition that neither he nor anyone fully understands frees her to read and write. In no time he’s on to the next case, the next match. Leaving the house, he calls in his happy going-away voice, “I’m off like a dirty shirt.”
Rhoda develops no interest whatever in sport though she does like to plunge into the breakers. The sea is “pristine” while swimming pools are decidedly not her scene. I watch her after her bath, parting each of her toes carefully, one by one, and patting the crevices with her fluffy white towel in her battle against a flaking condition called athlete’s foot, which Harry, she complains, picks up in public pools.
Like many outdoorsy South Africans, he likes to walk barefoot. Pip and I patter barefoot at his side, careful to step over the lines of pavement slabs. In our heads is the singsong of a superior English boy, Christopher Robin, who warns not to step on the lines because, if we do, BEARS will emerge: burly, shaggy bears hungry for the flesh of little children. Although there are no bears in Africa—no bears in the zoo with its monkeys and lions on the hump of Devil’s Peak above De Waal Drive—we’ve stared in willing suspension of disbelief at these grim, other-world bears in Shepard’s illustration for When We Were Very Young, before our mother turns the page to the poem we like best because it makes us see ourselves in a humorous light: “What is the matter with Mary Jane? / She’s crying with all her might and main, / And she won’t eat her dinner—rice pudding again— . . .”
Pip and I side with Mary Jane; we detest pudding second only to stringy rhubarb and marvel at the steady spooning-up on the part of our visiting cousins out from London, the well-behaved grandchildren of Auntie Minnie. Their no-nonsense English nanny (called locally “a white nurse,” in our mother’s mock-awed tones) sets out wobbling gobs of pudding on the nursery table at the flat they have taken in Arlington Court on the Beach Road.
If the cream slabs of Muizenberg pavement get too hot, you can cool your soles by balancing along the stone edging or, better still, walk in the invitingly cool stone gutter, dry in summer. At noon, the tar of the road sears a child’s tender feet: to cross the road, we reluctantly put on brown leather sandals with difficult buckles. Our father good-naturedly crouches down in shorts over his dampish swimming trunks (catching cold doesn’t concern him as it does our mother) to do them up.
His Sheik costume, meanwhile, is relegated to the top of a cupboard in our nursery. I climb on a chair to fetch it down and try it on, the layers of thin, striped garments, this outfit being the offshoot of a torrid novel and silent movie of 1921, in which a girl is carried off into the desert by Rudolph Valentino in clean-living designer robes. I will dip into this novel, later, in adolescence—a few pages are enough to explain why my mother dismissed it, along with other sex-hungry fiction of the twenties, which she sees as a response to the lost generation of men killed in the First World War.
Rhoda’s letters to Basil during the forties challenge my memory of a suffering semi-invalid who lives through books and poems. With Basil she continues to be the outgoing girl she’d been before her illness. In May 1940, after her return from honeymoon, she hastens to assure Basil that she’s “well and happy” in the marriage, “since you played such a big part in engineering it.” I picture her bored by Harry’s sporting chums, yet it’s through him that she meets the dancer, Ren, who invites her to watch Monday classes—this then is Rhoda’s introduction to the Orphanage [Cape Jewish Orphanage, where Rhoda beomes a part-time volunteer librarian]—and she also meets an advocate, Gerald Gordon, a left-wing intellectual with whom she shares books. They take long, heads-together walks. He’s active against racist oppression, and after the Nationalist Party comes to power in the late forties, he brings out a novel, Let the Day Perish, about two brothers, one dark, the other light, who live apart on separate sides of the colour bar. The cover has two Henry Moore-like figures, side by side with hands touching but divided by a line down the centre.
When we’re alone, my mother calls this, somewhat disparagingly, “a social-service novel.” This is her phrase for a novel written primarily to protest a wrong, as distinct from literature, even though she shares the author’s political views. Later, when I gave tutorials on the poetry of the First World War, I asked students whether propaganda—in that case, against war and war-makers—can be literature? Oxford undergraduates invariably argued that most great writing contains propaganda of one sort or another: a famous instance would be Levin’s philosophy in Anna Karenina; another would be George Eliot’s humanism. All the same, my mother had a point, I think, in her distinction between the primacy of a current issue and lasting art.
My parents stay, at first, in the Mimosa Hotel. The attraction for Harry is that it’s opposite the Sea Point Pavilion spread out between the rocks. He swims there every day after work. It’s a complex of open-air, seawater pools of differing depths—including a sixteen-foot pool with diving boards mounting to a perilous height.
The plan has been to look for a place of their own, but war defers this. In May 1940, Rhoda sees seven giant British ships move “silently and mysteriously” into Table Bay, escorted by the South African Air Force. Twenty to fifty thousand soldiers from Australia and New Zealand wake up Cape Town. This is their “last fling.” The future to Rhoda looks “nebulous,” and to act for herself alone seems wrong. For the duration of the war she prefers to stay in her old home in Oranjezicht.
Her high-minded reasons often take precedence over mundane ones, and I suspect that my father’s frugality played some part in this decision. They rent a flat near Saunders Rocks for a while, but Rhoda is “ill” and takes against the setting where it happened. She becomes averse to the sight and smell of the sea and finds herself happier back on Table Mountain amidst the pines and oaks.
Beloved Monica is there too, staying in her father’s house (around the corner from Forest Road) while her husband is up north. Each morning at 8:15 the two friends take a walk along the Avenue through the Gardens and into town. Rhoda’s state of health veers according to her company. Mood plays so large a part, it’s a little disheartening, when I come on the scene, to find that I can’t cheer her—not in the way of Basil or Monica. They don’t have to do more than walk into her room. She loves them so intensely, her spirits soar.
Reading between the lines of my mother’s letters, I see a return to Monica as the prime reason for settling back at Rhodean after her marriage. The death of her father in 1941, and my birth later that year, may be further reasons to return to her family home. Her practical mother is there to help, assisted by jolly Auntie Betsie who comes to town from Namaqualand. In those days, a live-in Sister accompanied a newborn home in order to establish its routines and allow a new mother to lie down for the protracted period then thought necessary. With the prospect of three women to nurse her, as well as the support of Basil on leave from Pretoria Hospital, Rhoda appears content. She remains so for the next two years, despite my “feeding problems.”
At the time, mothers are still tyrannised by the childcare guru Truby King, who rules against demand feeding, as practised by African women. My mother would have seen those African babies long at the breast, but like other mothers of her ilk, obediently mashes together five vegetables for every meal, to be given on the dot, and denied if a baby is so ill-regulated as to cry at the wrong hour. I don’t take to this regimen or to the stuffing, and my mother pictures herself rather comically circling my cot with a spoon while I edge around it, holding onto the rails. My mother has more success with a blue dog, who meets another blue dog in the mirror, and when my mouth opens in wonder, she pops in the spoon.
The other tyrant is the paediatrician. The nervous voices of young mothers echo his rulings to one another: “Dr. Rabkin said . . .” and “Dr. Rabkin thinks . . .,” and one day, when I’m about two, my weary mother is forcing herself to take me to him. There are called-out instructions to Lenie, as my hair is brushed into a sausage curl on top and I’m put into my tucked dress. I can remember Dr. Rabkin’s pallor and long-faced solemnity, my mother’s deferential intentness.
When both my grandmother and father are away, she’s content to be alone with me at Rhodean. There’s “conversation,” and we go for walks. She’s safe at night because John, the gardener, sleeps on the stoep, outside her room. (Like many Xhosas he’s taken a “white” name as his working identity, a common habit to this day—the assumption being that employers can’t get their tongues around a variety of clicks made by the tongue against the teeth or palate.)
It’s not until early in 1944 that Rhoda’s morale appears to crack. The hormonal run-up to my brother’s birth is inextricable from “illness.” During the summer of 1943–4 Basil was on holiday in Muizenberg and stayed with his sister. The letter Rhoda writes to Basil on 19 March 1944 attempts to cover up signs of illness that Basil has seen. “I must ask you to believe that those nervous explosions you witnessed are by no means normal to me and have completely disappeared . . .” She takes the onus on herself: the explosions will be under control if she’s sufficiently occupied.
“I feel very distressed that I should have allowed you to acquire such a very distorted version of our married life, and especially of Harry,” she goes on. “I can assure you we have never been so out of harmony before or since . . . I am happy to say that Harry does much good in his own way through little personal acts in which he takes pleasure.”
Basil must have noticed Harry’s frugality, for Rhoda defends this: “As for money, luxurious living is particularly abhorrent to me in Wartime, and . . . I have never personally suffered a single want since my marriage.”
Marriage, as the ideal arrangement for life, is unquestioned. Basil and his friend, Frank Bradlow (both in the army and out of contact with women, except for leaves), have told Rhoda that they feel their married friends are one-up on them. In warning Basil against his easygoing propensity to fall for any girl who is amiable, Rhoda envies a man’s freedom. “Unlike our sex you have the advantage . . . of being able to Wait and Choose.” Despite all she’s said to contradict Basil’s impression that her husband has proved ill-suited, that sentence might seem to confirm it.
Housewives like my mother are assumed to be at home, and other wives “pop in” on impulse. The front door bell can ring at any moment, and Lenie brings tea, “a cool drink” (a granadilla cordial called Passion Fruit) and homemade iced cake. Wives speak detachedly, though not disloyally, of men as needy pets whose antics amuse them. Lilian’s husband, Bertie Henry, it’s said, has never worn pyjama bottoms. Twin beds (evident in the film The Red Shoes) are currently in fashion for couples. Monica, it’s said, marks the deliberation with which her husband has to cross from his bed to hers.
Listening to them, I wonder at their accommodation of such husbands as they have chosen: dependable men respected in the community. Is this what the future will hold? Do they expect less than I will want, for I’m under the spell of books with dreaming girls? They too had been under that spell and lived in those books. What had happened to make them accepting? My mother tells me that she married to have children. That’s what wives of the forties say. The romances and desires of their teenage years seem to be left behind in favour of home, family and community. At best they take the position articulated perfectly by Jane Austen when she relates how a mother “had humoured, or softened, or concealed [her husband’s] failings, and promoted his real respectability for seventeen years; and though not the very happiest being in the world herself, she had found enough in her duties, her friends, and her children, to attach her to life.”
It may seem strange that, until the age of thirty-one, Rhoda doesn’t ask what her illness is. In the winter of 1948, while Harry is away at the Olympic Games in London, she has “a bad attack,” her phrase for a full-on seizure. Afterwards she again consults doctors who continue to prescribe powders she tries not to take, because these doctors, like the doctors she’d seen in London, treat her as an hysteric who brings illness on herself. But this time, she resolves to articulate her suspicion that there’s something more to know. She puts this to her brother, the only doctor she can trust.
My Dear Basil,
I’m writing to ask you to come down [from Johannesburg] during the next long weekend. Besides the pleasure of seeing you again, I urgently wish to discuss with you matters concerning my health.
While you are away I always determine to speak to you when next you come down & always fail to do so while you are here. Recently I had another of my attacks. For many years now I’ve striven for health of spirit by trying to strengthen my character, to purify my thoughts, to perfect my life. I have forged precious weapons wherewith I continually fight off attacks[,] which are especially valuable in conquering the ensuing depression & fears after an attack. But I am beginning to fear that I cannot under all circumstances prevent an attack. I seem to have wasted months, even years fighting this illness. I long to be a free normal human being at last.
As I’ve imagined & expected the worst for long periods of my life, nothing you know or fear can terrify me & I think as an intelligent person & at my time of life, I’ve a right to know all that is within your power to tell me of my illness. Only the truth can help me . . .Much love from
Basil does come, and he breaks it to her that she has the severe kind of epilepsy known as grand mal. How he puts it I don’t know, yet at last she understands that her illness is physiological. It’s a huge relief. For Basil’s words release her from the obligation to control her illness through acts of will. From then on she accepts the necessity for daily and nightly doses of anticonvulsant pills, Epanutin and barbiturate, even though they dull her imagination. At last she can get up and go out with a degree of confidence.
Four years later, freed from attacks, she makes up her mind to leave her refuge.
On 10 June 1952 Rhoda leaves home, bound for Finland. Why Finland? If anything were simple in her intentions, the answer should be the Olympic Games, where her husband will officiate in the swimming. But Rhoda has no eye to any competitive event. For her, the tug of Finland is its proximity to Lithuania. Guided by her dream life, her imagination calls up “Chagallian villages,” her father’s memories and the luftmensch [dreamer] aloft in northern skies. To go to Finland is to reconnect with her “father-root.” Her dream is not only fantastical; it’s allegoric in the way she assigns people to moral compartments: a poetic father-root to be claimed; a mundane South African mother at home where they are yet, to her daughter, alien.
Rhoda is thirty-five years old, with two children, aged ten and eight. We will remain with our grandmother, Annie, who’s happily down-to-earth. We three visit the well-appointed cabin on board the Holland-Afrika liner, the Klipfontein. When my father travels alone, he cuts corners, but first-class comfort is considered necessary for Rhoda’s better health, and her brothers would expect no less. The cabin is full of farewell bouquets from friends, and the Orphanage has sent a basket of fruit for the long voyage. The siren blasts a warning of departure, and we tread carefully down the ridges of the gangplank, turning to wave to our parents on deck.
I’m relieved to see our mother elated and ease into Granny’s hands. Unstoppably, she surges forward in the main thoroughfare of Adderley Street, holding up the traffic with the point of her sunshade. She loves to shop, and we spend hours matching a ribbon to furbish her newest hat. In the shoe department at Stuttafords we choose warm winter slippers in preparation for a holiday up-country. Schools shut for three weeks in July, and Granny is taking us to Vredendal, four stations to the north of Klaver. Throughout the night, the train stops at sidings, lanterns swing, maak gou, Meneer drifts by the windows, footsteps quicken and milk cans clank. At dawn, an arid landscape of bush unrolls ahead in shafts of sunlight, and a rather sleepy engine puffs and subsides as the train’s long tail winds across the veld.
Granny has no time to look at the veld because she’s rummaging in suitcases. Her fuss leaves me free to dream my way into books; rolled in her puffy pink eiderdown, I join faraway Canadian children in Rainbow Valley.It’s one of my mother’s childhood favourites, an old hardback with the inviting smell of thick, rough-edged pages and printer’s ink, acquired for the Orphanage. Strictly speaking, I have no right to that library, but no one objects. Part of its appeal is its smallness; the books are selected to mend a child’s heart and invigorate courage. In the gravel outside Eisenberg’s Hotel on the corner of the wide main street of Vredendal, I play hopscotch with a girl called Hereen van Zyl. Her English vocabulary is small, my Afrikaans likewise, but the game is all, and we understand each other better by the day.
Then Granny spoils it. She sends something from her stylish wardrobe to Hereen’s mother. When I go with Hereen to her house, I find Mevrou van Zyl furious.
“Tell your grandmother I’m not in need of cast-offs!” she says and shuts the door against my open mouth.
I see now what my mother means about her mother’s shaming ways.
Meanwhile, the Klipfontein is sailing on into the northern hemisphere. Rhoda’s deck chair companion turns out to be the travel writer, Laurens van der Post, with whom she can share her feeling for the vlaktes, the untrammelled spaces of her early childhood. En route to Stockholm, a poem, “Midnight at Malmö,” rises as her train streaks through the night. This hurtling speed is strange, like taking off into a fairy tale.
Swedes appear “glassy,” unlike the “simple friendliness” aboard a Finnish boat plying between Stockholm and Helsinki. Her impression is coloured by Sweden’s neutrality during the Holocaust, in contrast to Finland’s protection of its minute Jewish population. For Marshal Mannerheim refused to hand Jews over to the Nazis, even though, in 1941, Finland entered the war on the German side—a consequence of Finland’s struggles with Russia. It was an unprecedented situation in which Germans found themselves encamped, one Saturday, near Jewish soldiers in a field synagogue.
Rhoda’s letters home invite us to travel with a semi-invalid, as she wakes to a new life out in the great world. The decks are packed with comers from every country. They huddle in sleeping bags, exposing children’s “carved eyebrows and lids like pointed buds.” A man lies with “a water-lily hand in his gloved one.”
“I can’t go to bed,” Rhoda thinks. She moves from group to group, talking, a little touch of nearness in the night, and crossing paths with children “sleepwalking” in red woollen caps. Above this knot of peace hangs “a single fringed star.” Throbbing, the boat slides past dark islands “asleep on the ocean.” Rhoda’s knees are beginning to freeze.
They stay in a white, wooden manor on a lake. On the opposite side lives the composer Sibelius. The building itself is a bit decrepit, but it’s well run by staff in national dress. There’s an interpreter, an elderly Russian-French intellectual, who is half-Jewish and calls Rhoda “dearest,” and whom Rhoda suspects is deeply corrupt. She wears grand, ancient clothes and is fond of the bottle, like the madam of a brothel, and in fact there are “goings on” in the manor.
Rhoda steps out in navy organza and a silver-grey stole to a party in a semi-circular restaurant on a more distant lake. She’s animated between Harry and a tanned South African swimmer, Solly Yach. Both have participated in the Maccabi Games and know almost everyone at this largely Israeli party. Rhoda ventures to stumble through a few Hebrew phrases. Her gameness is welcome; an American judge kisses her hands. She and Harry drive back, “as dawn was almost breaking into silvern lakes in the dark foliage of the sky,” and walk up an avenue “of honey-scented lime trees” towards the manor.
During the swimming finals, my father is broadcasting for the BBC and other Anglophone stations when, suddenly, he spots that the grandstand opposite is swaying. It’s overloaded with about four hundred visitors and might collapse at any moment. Stopping his running commentary in mid-flow, he addresses the crowd through the microphone. “The stand is unstable. Please follow instructions. Sit still. Stay calm. Top row, come down.” He talks them down, one row at a time. This is Harry in his element with a quick eye and ready to act.
One night at 10:30, Rhoda and Harry go down a long white jetty to a sauna. They stand in the steam and beat each other with birch twigs as an extra “tonic.” Three times, as instructed, they sweat up their bodies and then, each time, dive into the lake.
“You feel as good as after a bathe at Muizenberg,” Rhoda decides, “only much cleaner.”
It’s scarcely dark. Rimming this scene of silver air and water are dark clumps of “porcupine earth.” On closer inspection these turn out to be “tree-dark islands like children’s heads asleep.” As she looks out over the lake, there rises in her mind a half-formed prayer to share Finland with someone.
While others go daily to the Games, she goes to the Ateneum, the national art museum, in a square with linden trees in the centre of Helsinki. One Wednesday in late July, the guide is an art critic, Sirkka Antilla. Her long black hair is drawn back in a casual bun, baring high cheek bones, and her slanting black eyes snap and flash as she points to soulful paintings, punctuated by “Hey . . . hey . . .” when she draws back from a conclusion. Rhoda warms to Finland’s best-known woman painter, Helene Schjerfbeck, an invalid who withdrew into seclusion in the provinces. Her self-portrait of 1915 bares a face pared down to intense inwardness. She has the unwavering gaze of an observer, similar to the gaze of Katherine Mansfield when she’s fine-drawn and alone, arms folded over her tubercular chest, in a photograph my mother has on her desk.
A viewer amongst the visiting party asks why a sculptor has made a woman’s legs absurdly thick. Sirkka hears behind her “a small, small voice” explaining—“so marvellous, intelligent,” she records that night in her diary—the deliberate disproportions of Modernist art.
Slowly, she turns a hundred and eighty degrees to see who this is. It’s a woman of her own age, mid-thirties, with dark hair, in thick glasses with pale-blue rims around attentive blue eyes. After the viewing, Rhoda asks for Sirkka’s address at the very moment that Sirkka asks for hers. Sirkka lives in one room, teaching art in a high school, reviewing exhibitions and editing art books.
She feels, she remarks to Rhoda, “rich each flash of time when there is a moment to glance up from work.” Flash. She knows. Their eyes lock.
When they meet for lunch the next day, Sirkka plunges into the kind of inward utterance Rhoda has ventured to utter only in poems.
Rhoda shows Sirkka two poems on Finland that she’s written. Sirkka seizes them to translate into Finnish. I think Rhoda wrote “Sallinen–Finland” overnight because the first of its two stanzas responds to one of the museum’s paintings by Tyko Sallinen, April Evening. It’s the rough-hewn landscape of the north:
Patient under the wind lies land
Stripped to the rocks.
One bony tree spreads a jointed hand.
Since Creation this sky knows this land,
This land this sky.
Loose clouds above, knit rocks below,
Only the blizzard between.
This prehuman land takes the observer close to Creation, and the second stanza re-explores this proximity through a seascape where sky, rocks and sea give and receive “Familiarly / No human voice divides them.”
Two days later, on 26 July, Sirkka writes the following letter to Rhoda:
My dear, dear Near-One,
I began to translate your poem . . . I’m out of wits being touched so deeply by the pure strength, perfectly the stern . . . Dear You, it is after all a surprising present to get you thus, although from the first flash of the intuitive contact with you I know what you are. It is amazing in you the silent ascetic strength, clear & pure—spontaneously sure as ever a archaic soil. Impossible to express myself in English. I hope I do it better in Finnish—in my article.
Sirkka will include “Sallinen—Finland” in an article on foreigners at the gallery, which Finlandia is to publish, illustrated by the painting. She singles out “Rhoda Stella Press from Cape Town” as a visitor whose feeling for Finnish art and nature “gave birth to a group of sensitive poems. In their rhythm and words she has captured the mystic spirit of the desolate backwoods of the north.”
Sirkka’s family, Rhoda hears, comes from Karelia, a setting of white birch trees on the fought-over border with the USSR. This is a region of folk craft and the oral tales collected in the national epic, the Kalevala. In 1939–40, the Red Army had invaded Karelia: the brief Winter War. Sirkka, then an art student aged twenty, had swum by night across a lake, behind the Russian lines, to retrieve—of all things—three painted spindles as objects of Finnish folk art. She went to “steal” is the way she puts it, laughing triumphantly.
Rhoda’s part is to talk of the apartheid regime, and she dashes out to find Sirkka a copy of Cry, the Beloved Country.
Sirkka tells Rhoda that her real destination is the far north—her poem has already marked it out for her own. Lapland will meet her need; it will transform her being; it’s her destiny to go.
She hands Rhoda her boots.
“Be clear, be open my Rhoda,” she urges. “My strength is yours, Rhoda, you, who have the transparent and human eyes.”
So Rhoda postpones her departure. “A tremendous power of urgency to go to Lapland” seems to be taking her there. To do this in the past, to travel to a far-off place on her own, would have seemed “insuperable” to the semi-invalid she’s been. Now, she tells herself, “If one wishes to be an observer, one must be alone.”
She boards an overnight train to Rovaniemi, seven hundred kilometres north of Helsinki, and then a bus takes her to the outpost of an arctic wilderness two hundred miles farther north. The terminus is Muonio on Finland’s western border with arctic Sweden. From there she must enter the lonely fells of Pallastunturi, thirty kilometres into the Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park. On 8 August she looks back on this journey.
Lapland freed me from the last of my prisons. The 10 hours with Finns and Lapps in the bus going to Muonio . . . ended in a burst of laughter . . . At a kiosk on the roadside I am deciding with a Swiss girl whether to take a taxi to Pallastunturi—Suddenly I hear a rumble—our bus has started off. But my luggage! It’s on the bus careering down the road—back to Rovaniemi. “My luggage!” I run, shouting. There is a man on a motorcycle outside the kiosk. A Finnish woman mutters swiftly to him. She tells me to get on the pillion behind him. “But what of my coat?” She takes it, a tall American my hat, and a British girl my book of Scandinavian Poetry. Away I fly. Hair streaming, clutching the shoulders of an unknown man. I have never even seen his face. I don’t know where my legs are, and I don’t seem to care about them. I am fine, loving it—and laughing, but laughing!
When we reached the bus & got my luggage I . . . emptied my purse of small coins into the reluctant palm of the “motorcycle man.” He phoned for a taxi but before mine could arrive, another turned up—& inside I am astonished to see—my coat, my hat, and my book of poems! The Finnish woman had sent this taxi . . . Back at the kiosk they laughed at my “Charlie Chaplin technique.” I waited with them for the bus to Pallastunturi. At a quarter to eleven we climbed among the bare blue hills—never, except in pre-human vision, have I known a blue like that. In summer there is no night over those glowing coal-blue fells but now the horizon was ringed with pink fires.
Early next morning she climbs Pallas fell at the back of the Rest House. After about two and a half hours she reaches the wooden tower at the summit, from where she looks out on “blue hills streaked with silver lakes.” It’s like “the round top of the world,” a place close enough to Creation to see “God’s shadow.”
Harry follows her. He arrives that evening and climbs Pallas fell until three in the morning. Up there, more than a month past midsummer, he sees the sun set on one side and rise on the other within an hour. So it is that this gregarious sport joins, for a space, Rhoda’s lone pilgrimage. He finds her alight with a resolve to remain in Europe, and here, at Pallastunturi, Harry is persuaded to agree. For Rhoda invites him to lend himself to what she sees now as her future. It’s a proposal of sorts, a passionate sequel to the legal business of getting married. What she offers her husband at this moment is the chance to bond with her real self.
For the rest, I don’t know exactly, but can guess. She’s been imprisoned since the age of seventeen, she would have said, and now Lapland is conferring on her the blessing of recovery. She must carry recovery through with a further lease of life. To do this, she must go to London and nourish her mind and poetry with a year of higher education. This is the basis of a “pact” with her husband: the Pact of Pallastunturi, we might say.
Needless perhaps to say is that in 1952 a pact of this sort is unheard of for an obscure housewife and mother with no profession, no visible talent.
Sirkka’s farewell gift is a book called Voices of Finland; opening it, Sirkka intones lines from the Kalevala, and its pulsing rhythm takes over their bus to the docks. Finns listen with grave attention.
Thirty years later, Rhoda will affirm: “Finland was my soul’s window through which there fell on me exquisite blessings.”
Free in London
As her train passes through Germany, Rhoda averts her eyes. In 1952, Germany is still “the poisoned stomach” of a Europe that degenerated into the Holocaust. Happiness returns when her eyes open to works of art. In Florence, Giotto and Filippo Lippi, she finds, “lift me out of the decay that is Europe into the purity of their vision.”
She drafts a letter to Sirkka who will understand that though she has to cope on her own, “loneliness is what I have chosen.”
Sirkka commends her breakout. “You are a lonely one too, so different & so perfectly like me.”
How miraculously “our two souls leapt together,” Rhoda replies. It was “one of those strange things that happen once or twice in a lifetime.”
Harry, who has been in Spain, joins her for a day in Rome, and then, on 30 August, flies home to us. Pip and I are leaping about at the gate to welcome him.
Rhoda is now really alone. Her stagnation for so many years has not accustomed her to plan ahead in practical ways. What exactly will she do in London? Until she gets there it’s a dream: in part the colonial dream of a great civilisation across the sea, in part the dream of lone writers who long for guidance.
Uneasy about money, dependent on a husband whose optimistic investments often prove shaky, she roughs it in Rome and Paris, where she sleeps one night in a bathroom. She lingers too long in Paris, entranced by art, and reaches London “dog-tired” at six in the evening of 9 September.
That night, at 250 Elgin Avenue in Maida Vale, she finds herself in one of those unwanted rooms that reception can foist on a woman traveling on her own. It’s at the back on the third floor: small, with dirty bits of carpet, stained walls and mice at night.
There are two letters from home: one from her husband and the other from her friend, Monica. Her friend’s advice is to stay no more than two months and return for the school holidays in December.
There’s no need for a mother to organise school holidays, nor is Rhoda one to do it. Her illness meant that we’d never depended on her physical attendance. Yet it’s clear from Monica’s letter that within three days of our father’s return to Cape Town, he is talking over his children’s deprivations with Rhoda’s most influential friend, more than ready to concur.
Rhoda has shut the door on her husband’s concerns. More than anyone knows, she has lived unhusbanded, not letting go the landscape of childhood. Her husband can rely on her attentions to his family, to servants and to the household, as well as the occasional favour of an appearance at a swimming gala to present the cups, but beyond this, she does not pretend to enter into Harry’s life, and of course illness has excused her. All along, though, she has made the divergence of their minds and purposes abundantly plain, and he knows that however confident he feels on radio or when he blows his whistle at the poolside, he cannot engage the wife he looks up to and loves in his exuberant way.
As a father, he likes to squeeze: “oochy-coochy-coo,” he says, clasping me to him with three breathless hugs. He runs his rough cheek over mine and sometimes over my back, and though it scrapes on tender skin, that’s his way of showing affection.
How far my mother yields something of herself, I can’t say. They never quarrel. I assume that they are too far apart to strike that sort of spark. Yet until September 1952, she’s been there, not fully present, but physically in place. Suddenly she’s not, and it occurs to him that she may have left in some more permanent way neither has foreseen. A whole year on his own stretches out, and he wonders if she will meet another man more fitted to her tastes. This is what his family and others hint. What might Rhoda’s friends think of her disappearance from the scene?
It’s uncommon for him to feel at a loss, and being a man of action, he doesn’t waste time brooding. He’s here at Bayhead to talk over his abandonment with his wife’s closest friend, and not to put too fine a point on it, he’s here to co-opt her influence. Monica, if anyone, can reel Rhoda in. As biddable wife, as gentle-voiced mother, Monica speaks for the womanhood of 1952 with the appeal of maternal intelligence.
So it is that Monica posted her letter on 3 September to await Rhoda’s arrival in London. Don’t overrate a university education, she counsels. Neither Nadine Gordimer nor Doris Lessing has a degree. It’s irrelevant for a writer. What Rhoda needs is not to study overseas, but rather to exercise the discipline to work regularly at what she does.
“Your family is so thrilled by your new zest, they are prepared to indulge you to the utmost,” Monica says, “even to a long stay away from Cape Town.”
But what does a long stay mean? Monica concurs with Rhoda’s husband that December must be the limit. “I have a feeling that by then you will want to be with the children.”
When I look at these letters from Rhoda’s maternal friends, particularly Monica and Ren (who agrees with Monica), a question of jealousy occurs to me. These are reading women; they are very intelligent; and yet they disapprove of a woman who puts her head outside the home, except to perform what their society sees as acts of charity like the Orphanage library or Ren’s dance lessons for motherless girls. In a provincial town in the fifties, it’s peculiar for a mother to stay away for the sake of a “great opportunity.” As it happens, I feel no need of their protection. I was a child enjoying a more carefree life with father and grandmother, relieved that my troubled mother was finding a way to be happy.
Alongside Monica’s letter is Harry’s, listing problems at home. His mother-in-law, shaking her head over her daughter’s hands-off domestic management, is empowered by Rhoda’s absence. Lenie is put out by Granny’s interference in the kitchen, while Granny herself is put out by children who ha-ha at her raised forefinger.
“It’s true Mom does not understand children at all,” Rhoda replies, projecting her uneasiness with her mother onto me. “I know how she must be reacting.” In truth, I’m the cause of the trouble, for I take advantage of my mother’s absence to tease Granny.
“You’re giving me aggravation,” Granny protests, but so calmly that I annoy her all the more.
One day while I’m bent over the bathroom basin, holding a facecloth over my eyes while she washes my hair, she tells me about menstruation. Gleefully, I follow at Granny’s heels, muttering “drip, drip, drip,” until she’s cross.
My father duly reports this “bathroom incident,” and my mother bats it back as a matter of no great moment. A spell of “grannydom,” she asserts, won’t do the children any harm.
Harry’s letters don’t survive, but her replies register a barrage of household complaints: Granny’s friction with Pip over piano practice and reverberations of the “bathroom incident.” Nothing appears to deflect Rhoda’s intention to stay in London; she deals with complaints, one by one. Her mother should stop supervising Pip’s practice because he might lose his love of music. Then, too, her mother should stop exhausting herself furbishing up the house and bothering about the children’s clothes. A happy atmosphere is all that children need. Patiently, she explains that if the children were ill, she would return at once, but kitchen and piano squabbles are not going to rush her back across thousands of miles. It’s expensive to cross the sea, and an effort to establish herself in London—not to be thrown up lightly.
“Naturally today & tomorrow will be difficult days,” she goes on, “—not knowing what will happen or if I shall be able to choose the correct path to follow.” She reminds her husband of his agreement. “It’s good of you to fulfil the pact we made at Pallastunturi. I know how difficult the next few months will be for you but I feel what I am doing is Right however difficult it proves. Even if this time does not bear fruit, it is still Right for me to do this. It is not easy for me either. I think I shall need some food parcels and warm pyjamas. It is very cold already.”
That day she trundles in buses across London to visit five universities. Wherever she goes, it’s too late. Courses are already full.
A different sort of difficulty arises from her decision not to stay with Auntie Minnie or near other members of her family in Hampstead. This, she finds, has been misreported as a wish to have nothing to do with them. She does what she can to correct the mistake. Her aunt is, as ever, a hospitable darling, and there are three dinners at Auntie Minnie’s during her first week in London and a visit to her cousin, Rita, who gardens in the country in Fulmer, Buckinghamshire.
There’s a worse misreading of her intentions. At lunch with Harry’s cousins, Greta Brown from Manchester and her Cape Town brother, Benny, Rhoda fizzes with her burgeoning sense of freedom. Benny, a physician whom she’s consulted from time to time, declares that he’s never seen her looking better, yet he’s strangely cool. Afterwards, Rhoda hears that Mrs. Brown’s schoolgirl daughter, Laura, does not want Rhoda to visit, “because she’s not a nice person, and won’t go back to her family.”
“I thought I was amongst friends,” Rhoda reflects, astonished that Harry’s cousin can have spoken in such a way to her daughter. However unworldly Rhoda may be, and entirely lacking in malice, she does recognise the danger of gossip.
“Please Harry,” she asks, “don’t discuss me with everybody & be very reserved . . . about my absence because in a small place all sorts of false ideas start circulating in no time. Merely tell people the simple facts: after 10 years at Home with the children I’m taking advantage of being overseas and having a little extra holiday.”
It’s politic, she finds, to call it “a holiday.” A decade or more earlier, Auntie Betsie had planned to leave her children with Granny, her eldest sister, for as long as five months while Betsie toured Europe with her husband. Their youngest daughter, Garda, was in fact miserable to be left alone in the dark when Granny shut the door on little Garda’s night fears. To this day, Garda remembers lying on the floor next to a crack of light coming from under that door. A letter she wrote to her parents to come back was intercepted. No one asked Auntie Betsie to cut the tour short on account of a child because holidays abroad were highly prized.
While Rhoda is in London, Ren takes a holiday in Madeira, where she performs with “unRen-ish” abandon before an all-male crowd. Her account of this scene to Rhoda presents another face of fifties womanhood. In an outdoor bar, her husband, Sonny, squat, beaming, takes out his ukulele and belts out a song. Once the drinkers join in, he orchestrates a rollicking scene like a Hollywood musical, like Monroe, strumming a ukulele, as she advances her hips down the aisle of the train. Ren, lifted onto a table, does an African dance, then an improvised Spanish one with swaying hips and alluring glances over her shoulder. What makes this virtuous is that her glance turns repeatedly to her “adoring husband,” who’s masterminding the sway of her body.
Swaying on a tabletop, holidaying, mothering: all are approved in 1952. But for a mother to stay abroad with a serious purpose of her own, for her to speak earnestly of poetry and long-term study, is quite another thing: it puts my mother in a suspect position.
Reading these letters as a daughter and a writer, and a mother myself, knowing full well how much she gave of herself as a mother and how much she needed to write, I feel for her situation in 1952. She conducted herself with admirable rationality when people back home forced on her a conflict between aspiration and children, opportunity and marital duty, London and Cape Town. On the one side there was Sirkka, calling her out as “my sister in fate,” emboldening her to unbury herself. “My strength is yours, Rhoda.” On the other side: Monica, who would draw a mother back to the fold. And behind Monica stands our father the lawyer who relies on Monica to make a better case than he can devise.
The Rhoda of the past would have acted on Monica’s advice, but this is a different Rhoda, whose hunger is such that she must feast now—not vicariously, like colonials, like Monica re-warming John O’London’s Weekly at a distance of six thousand miles—but here, at first hand, bathed in the abundance of London: “an oasis in the middle of my life.”
The oasis turns out to be lectures on contemporary poetry, philosophy, and Shakespeare at the City Literary Institute in Goldsmith’s Street (now Stukely Street) in the theatre district of Drury Lane. Its purpose is to offer a second chance to pupils in their thirties and forties, and the fee charged by the London County Council for a whole term is all of one pound, seventeen shillings and sixpence.
After failing to convince Rhoda how badly she’s needed at home, my father simply demands her return. It comes as a “bombshell.” On 24 September, after only two weeks in London, Rhoda gives way. She books a passage on the Jagersfontein, due to sail on 19 December and reach Cape Town by 2 or 3 January. She has just three months to be in London.
“Harry,” she pleads, “please bear my absence patiently. After all I had to be father & mother on all your trips away from home including England and Israel, during one of which the children and myself were continuously ill.”
For a mother to claim a creative right for herself in 1952 is unheard of. It’s twenty years too early. Rhoda tries to assure her husband that she’s not taking on anything too demanding, and yet her enthusiasm breaks out—together with what is bound to gall him, her separate tastes, compounded by minimising the household issues he’s put forward.
I have only been to one lecture and found it most stimulating—unlike anything I could find in South Africa. I am not doing any courses. Only four evenings a week I go to these discussion-lectures at which I have an opportunity to meet people with the same interests as my own . . . Now that I am here I must not waste time. This is my opportunity . . . It would be silly to drop everything & rush home unless of course there is a serious reason to do so. I have been ill and stay-at-home for so many years that I would not like to have to cancel my plans unless it is necessary.
At this point, the publication of her poem, “Finland,” in the Cape Times plays into her hands. Here would seem some proof that her sense of herself as a poet may be justified. But Harry has been taken aback to find “Rhoda Press” at the bottom of the poem.
Why not her married name, he asks?
“Whatever poetry is in me comes from the Press side,” she insists.
Monica is “thrilled” to see “Finland” in print. She perceives an improvement on Rhoda’s earlier poems, some of which might be publishable if she can bring herself to revise them. If she resolves to shut her door to visitors (it’s usual for people to “drop in”), she might clear three hours for herself each morning.
Monica offers an idea that might console her friend for leaving London: why doesn’t Rhoda approach one of John O’London’s poets and reviewers, Richard Church, for a one-off consultation—“on a business basis of course”—on how to improve her poems?
Instead, Rhoda joins a Craft of Verse class at the City Lit. The first assignment is a poem on Charlie Chaplin, and she discovers that she can, if required, turn her hand to humour:
Crazy cooing eyes, a mimouthed smirk,
Nidnodding missus, coquettish shoulder jerk
before the little tramp vagabonds over the last hill.
The Craft of Verse class goes on from year to year. Its members are all aspiring practitioners, discussing one another’s poems. Rhoda makes friends with Edith Roseveare—“Roseveare,” as she calls her—who has listened “with pointed ears” to Edith Sitwell’s “quixotic eloquence” in a performance of William Walton’s Façade at the Festival Hall. She describes how Sitwell, in a flowing white mantle lined with black, strode boldly about the stage, taking a “long breath” to deliver each of her lines. To Roseveare, seated far above “with the five-shilling intellectual crowd,” Sitwell’s face had been a blur, but her voice, riding the music, reached them. This is the iconic woman poet of the day. Though Roseveare applauds this “splendid old trout,” she herself cultivates a cooler voice: “Distrust the clouds. Turn your back on the view / From the ornamental tower of your hopes . . .” Roseveare’s distrust of the blue haze of dreamscapes is bracing for Rhoda. Keep your eyes on the rut and the traffic signals, Roseveare warns. “Will nothing break you of sucking your dreams / Like sweets?” There are other things to observe, like “the loud hard street” outside the City Lit. Stop, she orders in her no-flummery, English voice. Stop scanning the great horizons and unattainable peaks.
There’s a reservation on Rhoda’s part. Roseveare, she discovers, has German “antecedents,” and she repeats this to me after her return, as though she’s entered into a surprising, almost forbidden relationship. Roseveare, she gives me to understand, is more contained and ironic, alien in a way Sirkka, the “sister” of the lit-up soul, is not—and, by extension, Finland is not. It escapes her notice—or she allows it to do so—that in the second phase of the war, Finland did not join the Allies. In that post-war decade, there are many, like Rhoda, who refuse contact with Germans as well as German goods, feeling that anything German is tainted with the stench of the gas ovens. At the same time as Rhoda nurses a prejudice against Roseveare, the two will correspond for years to come.
A male classmate observes Rhoda’s “almost biblical charm” as she tiptoes into the room ten minutes late. What “fascinates” him (as he teases in a set of couplets, written out for her in an educated hand) is “something in her face / Of ancient, Semitic grace / What centuries of suffering lie / Covered by that velvet eye!” In her, a woman of the Bible lives once more, coming through the door with “an invisible amphora on her head”—ten minutes late.
I recognise the lateness. It’s hard to organise herself. The pills she has to take fog her in trivial ways: she’ll forget where she’s left her handkerchief or put down her glasses. Before leaving, she will rummage distractedly through her bag, muttering “I’m impossible.”
Discussions go on after class in the café at the Institute. One of the lecturers is Mr. Heath-Stubbs whose verse is in a book she owns. News is passed around about the Poetry Fellowship, run by another lecturer, Mr. J. W. Reynolds, a small man with a “sickle smile” and a “big, resolute mind.” His aim is to “bring together in the spirit of fellowship all students at the Institute who are interested in poetry.” Happily, fellowship is what Rhoda finds at meetings and talks. “Is there a new poetic drama?” is the topic on 18 October. On 28 October she attends a reading of poems on poets and poetry, including Richard Church on “Wordsworth,” Siegfried Sassoon’s “To an 18th Century Poet” and Hopkins’ “To RB.” The only poem by a woman is “Poetry” by Marianne Moore.
After much searching, Rhoda settles at 78 Lauderdale Mansions, in Lauderdale Road, at the back of where she’s stayed in Elgin Avenue. It’s a relief to be in a clean room overlooking a stretch of garden with trees and lawn behind this ground-floor flat. Her room has a Persian rug over a fitted carpet, reading lamp, desk, armchair, eiderdown and even flowers. There is an ample shelf for her books, a shelf in the kitchen cupboard and the bottom half of the fridge. All this for three guineas a week (the same as she’d paid for the squalid room nearby) in a flat belonging to a resident journalist, Mrs. Mannerheim, a refugee from Germany whose interests are art, music and literature.
“I don’t see how you will survive going out to restaurants in all weathers,” Mrs. Mannerheim says, eyeing this lodger who looks in need of nourishment. Might cooked lunches (for four-and-six or five shillings, considerably less than a restaurant) be welcome, as well as breakfasts? Yes, they would. Rhoda feels no need to own that she’s never cooked a meal in her life.
For her breakfast, Mrs. Mannerheim orders “special milk” that is a quarter cream. Arriving back late from the City Lit, Rhoda finds her landlady ironing the undies Rhoda has washed in the bathroom they share. Rhoda decides that the way this woman has taken to her and goes on “spoiling” her is “of the same strange calibre of the magical things that happened to me in Finland and Lapland. I was ‘led’ here.”
Afterwards, when she’s back at home, my mother will act out a comic scene in which her “nudist” landlady opens the door to receive a basket with gefilte fish from Auntie Minnie’s driver, the “respectable” Edward, startled into an eyes-front, glassy stare. How can I not believe in this nudist? I see her through the haze of a South African summer, little knowing how relentlessly damp England is, how people can’t wait to put on their woollies. The point, though, gets through: how my mother’s bohemian drama, playing off Maida Vale against Hampstead propriety, underpins the pleasure she took in independence.
In fact, Lauderdale Road is, and ever was, comfortably middle class: a row of dignified, red-brick blocks of flats completed in 1897 in a tree-lined street. Back then it was a largely Jewish area, next to the Portuguese and Spanish synagogue, built in 1896, the headquarters of the Sephardi community in Britain.
Since rationing is still in place, tighter in fact than during the war (one egg a week, one and a half ounces of cheese, meat limited to about 1/9d), Granny posts off parcels of food supplements: tins of Silver Leaf peas, stewing steak, baked beans, soup, peaches, pineapple and, somehow, butter and eggs. In the fifties, flats are unheated, but kind Mrs. Mannerheim moves her own heater into Rhoda’s room when she’s due back.
This is a make-do but culturally vibrant London. On Sunday evening, 16 November, Edith Sitwell recites “The Shadow of Cain” together with Dylan Thomas, a cataclysmic atom-bomb poem, to a musical setting by Humphrey Searle described by The Times as “shattering noise, dead silence and instrumental monotone or held chords,” played by the London Symphony Orchestra. Emlyn Williams performs as Dickens; Claire Bloom, with her black hair and pointed chin, is an “exquisite” Juliet; and Alec Guinness (born in Lauderdale Road) has the lead in a comedy, Under the Sycamore. Mrs. Mannerheim takes Rhoda to a press preview of an Jacob Epstein exhibition at the Tate; Rhoda returns next day to a greater delight in Blake; she sits in the café with members of the poetry class and is quickened when they applaud a poem she submits anonymously and trembling to a workshop.
It must be “Sing Heart,” for that poem (as well as “Charlie Chaplin”) is included in a City Lit anthology for 1951–53. Like many of Rhoda’s poems, it’s about utterance: the struggle to articulate the dark night of the soul. This big subject, central to the lives of Jeremiah and Jesus, makes utterance daunting, particularly for a woman in an Orthodox tradition that reserved the higher reaches of the devotional life for men.
“Sing Heart” takes us into the terror of “a dark pit,” the biblical scene of spiritual trial. A parallel trial from her own life is to cross an abyss, based on the childhood scene in which her brothers dared her to cross the one-track railway bridge above the Olifants River. In “Sing Heart” the crossing is made on an untried, spider-like thread “spun from the entrails.” But unlike the unending ordeal in other of her poems, and unlike her female avatar of Jacob wrestling to no good with the angel, here, in the finale to “Sing Heart,” comes an exulting release, couched in the seascape of the Cape:
of the Sea
that bursts from sunrise
with a rush of foam vision white,
(O silverflitting bees
Sunmantling the seas)
Sing joy-shot heart
Catching the wind in my throat
I wave the veil of the sky.
After years of writing surreptitiously and alone, it’s heady to be in this great city where others care for poetry as she does. What she used to term “attacks” are now no more than “flaps.” They happen, but she can “manage ’em.” Not for years has she been so well as in this chilly, rainy autumn. In the parks, skeleton trees wade in evening mist, “serene silk of sky and water.” In the noisy Strand she sits “dream-lidded” among packed and grubby tables in a crowded café. A band plays and, in a poem, “Café Music,” music “spreads a space.” This space is Europe, she tells herself—a Europe distilled as architecture of a grandeur inconceivable in Africa—and she muses “how far I’ve come / from tunnelling underground / to this world’s peak alone . . .”
Throughout the autumn of 1952, Rhoda feels nourished by all the arts, with poetry at the centre of her life, as it was meant to be. The real issue is about what is central to a woman’s life. Her poetry group is “a great opportunity,” she repeats. Though Monica hears these words, she can’t hear their import. Why do you keep saying this, Monica asks? You can go overseas again in a few years.
However plainly Rhoda makes her case, she’s unable to penetrate the mindset of time and place. She cannot communicate the urgency to her husband and mother and the like-minded people behind them, including Ren, who signal a simple message: think of your children. She’s closer to arguing with Monica than she’s ever come, diverting her protest through the ready-dug channel of exasperation with her mother. “May I point out that it is not my absence, it is what I am doing she disapproves of.”
Rhoda blames her mother for her husband’s opposition. She can hear her mother’s voice all through his letters. “You must realise,” she warns him, “Mom understands me and my purposes even less than she does the children. She simply has no idea whatsoever what my life’s about.”
Since Rhoda is easily moved to anxiety over obligations to others and any signal of displeasure, I imagine my father’s surprise to find her so resolute. I suspect he’s more alarmed by this composed character—this changed wife—than he can admit, even to himself. She’s detached from the perspective of Cape Town, not rebelliously but with a courteous dutifulness that is actually more challenging.
“When I return I shall devote myself to the rest of the children’s holiday,” she promises. “As for ourselves, we have fitted our lives together for the past twelve years in the face of illness and disparity of interests, and will, I hope, with the help of God, and the exercise of our best qualities, adjust ourselves in the Future.”
It’s one thing to look up to the wife you possess as a superior being, quite another to find that wife exercising her superiority in this distant way. Since he’s “woebegone,” Rhoda hastens to say that all she wants is to prove she’s “no longer a cripple” and “to water the seed that has lain for so many years in drought-stricken earth.” As always, her train of thought turns back to her own drama. The comedy of the woebegone husband—in line with her friends’ humorous accommodation to oppositeness of “the opposite sex”—does not look into a possibility of something more disturbing: a widening of the divide already in place between them.
Each letter reminds her husband to send £10 to an American artist in Amsterdam, Mike Pedulke, from whom she’s acquired an etching called The Prophet. He’s yet another stranger for whom she felt affinity. Back in July, when she and Harry were traveling together, he had wanted to give her this work for her birthday, but in the end she has to pay the artist herself. Is the non-appearance of the £10 mere carelessness on Harry’s part? Is it tightfistedness? Can it be that the artist reciprocated the warmth which Rhoda had felt for his work, and a husband had felt left out? Or may it be a signal of his displeasure? It’s common enough to be displeased with those we block. Harry feels uneasy, if not guilty, at going back on the pact of Pallastunturi; all the more reason then to take a tough line. He stops writing.
Fourteen days before Rhoda’s ship is due to sail, she makes a last plea that her London life should not be “thrown away.”
78, Lauderdale Mansions,
December 5th, 1952
My dear Harry,
. . . As in Finland my pangs grow greater as the time draws near for me to leave the rich full life I have made here. This time however there is an equal urge towards you and the children. At times I fiercely regret feebly relinquishing (during the first trying two weeks in London) our original plans forged at Pallustunturi that you should bring the children over for a year. But as soon as you slipped back into Cape Town’s conforming garment you were aided and abetted in your desire to have me back by parochial hands raised in horror at such a “new” idea . . .
My Verse Class cannot believe that I am leaving just at this critical juncture when someone is undertaking to publish a poetry magazine which will be fed by our class. We all met in a Pub the other evening to discuss this new and thrilling development. And both my lecturers have expressed extreme regret at losing me and my poetry. One said: “We just won’t let you go.” And another—“I’d like to sabotage your ship!” Quite another lecturer has invited our class to spend Christmas at his house where he has arranged (between parties) some Poetry Lectures by famous people. In January I am also missing a University Residential Weekend on Poetry held at a lovely old Manor House on the Downs.
It is not easy to throw away the Cup towards which I have been fumbling in the dark from earliest childhood. Because I am so happy I know at last that this is my life-blood. Is there perhaps still a chance of your flying over here with the children? Please answer at once.
Eddie [my father’s feckless youngest brother who depended on him, and perhaps others, for handouts] was here for tea (and to fetch his groceries) yesterday. He was surprised to find how frugally I live. I live on less than half of what he does per week . . . My landlady took me to “Claridges” for lunch the other day for a treat and I sat right next to the Duchess of Kent’s daughter who was with her governess, dressed in a shabby school jersey. We had a fine time and then I went on to a French film which made me laugh and weep together, then to the British Museum and on to my Lectures in the evening. I also saw the opera “Figaro” and was charmed, charmed . . . On Saturday afternoon I am going with my Theatre Club to “Porgy and Bess,” and then on to our Poetry Society in the evening . . . If I must return on the 19th there is scarcely time. I have a sort of suffocated feeling at the moment.
As it happens, at this very moment, millions of Londoners are feeling suffocated physically, by the yellow-brown smog spreading across the city. Coal is rationed, but the government has given a go-ahead to small lumps of inferior, peculiarly filthy coal. Chimneys pour polluted smoke into the air, thickening the smog. A performance of La Traviata is halted because the figures on stage are barely visible. Spectral figures, heads down, cover their mouths with scarves as they struggle home through the murk. The environmental disaster lasts five days, from 5 to 9 December, with deaths rising to 4,000, a number comparable to the cholera epidemic of 1866 and the flu epidemic of 1918.
Is my mother too absorbed in her private drama to notice? Pressure and silence are tugging her away at the moment when her “life-blood” has started to flow. As I read her plea to my father, I can’t help thinking how like her it was to ignore what’s happening. And yet, all the while she’s speaking, I remember my mother’s excitement over poetry, art, and theatre. Was there, I wonder, a heightening of the arts that was concurrent with the physical gloom, in some sense called out by it?
Sirkka comforts her friend. “I am not too sad that you must leave your valuable loneliness in London so soon.” Fertilisation, she says, will suffice, for Rhoda to “develop and create” by herself.
Once more, Sirkka sends Rhoda on her way. “My boots (lent her for walking in Lapland) are always there for you, Rhoda. Know that I am smiling with secret triumphant happiness all the time you are trotting around in them.”
I’ve turned eleven by the time my mother comes back. During her six-month absence, the mental space she’d occupied has been filled with try-outs of normality. It has been easy to lay down the freight of my mother’s alertness. Courtesy of Granny and my father, daily doings have filled out, untrammelled by insights: the automatism of long division in Standard Four (sixth grade), games of Snap and Monopoly, and the commotions Granny sets up—starched napkins, polished cake forks, a spread of triangular cucumber sandwiches, soft cheesecake and sticky meringues—when her friends came for tea. Her friends, these brides of 1914, have sweet-pet names like Girlie and Toffee, and they are sweet in the way they say “shame,” the South African endearment for babies, little girls, puppies and kittens; or “ag, shame” in commiseration when Granny fusses over a missing teaspoon. Little is required as I hang around the edges of Granny’s teas; it’s enough to be her granddaughter in a freshly ironed dress, hair neatly parted on the side and combed around Granny’s finger into sausage-curls—as though I were as sweet as they.
My mother deplored the way aspiring parents loaded children with extra lessons. For some schoolmates, afternoons are so packed with music, ballet and elocution that little time is left to read and dream. As a child, my mother had not enjoyed her piano lessons; she resolved to spare her children if they aren’t talented. My brother is; I’m not. All the same, while my mother was away, I was alight when Granny, seated on the piano stool one autumn evening, taught me to read music so that I can look at the sheet and finger the opening notes of “The Blue Danube.”
On weekends my father took me to the Union Swimming Club at the Long Street Baths. You were given a pink card, folded over, and when you opened the two cardboard sides, there were the names of the worthies of the club, including my father. As a favour to him, patient old Mr. Mitchell taught me to breathe out bubbles in the water. At King’s Road School, the ten- and eleven- year-olds exchanged brown lace-ups for white tackies [trainers] before we ran onto the netball court. Blonde Miss Eales, feet apart and bouncing lightly on her toes, coached us for a match against Ellerton, the junior school in the neighbouring suburb of Green Point.
“When I blow my whistle, I want you to run as fast as you can towards the circle,” she said, as though this were of the utmost importance.
I loved this instruction, as I turned with the ball at my shoulder in the centre of the court. It wasn’t only sport; it was the first efflorescence of a lifelong love affair with normality. And so, it’s a routinely occupied daughter, less dreamy, less watchful, who awaits, quite matter-of-factly, her mother’s return.
*Editor’s note: Deletions from the larger work are indicated by an asterisk.
Lyndall Gordon’s Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter, excerpted in this issue, will be published by Virago in June.
 “She dwelt among the untrodden ways” is one of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems (1799). Both this poem and “Strange fits of passion” are about a dead woman, who was true to her untrammelled nature, like the poet’s beloved sister Dorothy.
 In his Neuritis and Neuralgia (Oxford University Press, 1926) he prescribes a strong drug, luminal, a derivative of veronal, for epilepsy in cases in which bromide treatment fails. In 1913 Virginia Woolf had been given veronal during a mental breakdown.