She by Gary Montague-Fryer
Crone, mother, maid and whore. The four aspects of women as portrayed throughout literature, and which are drummed into us as young boys as the boxes into which we must place the women in our lives, there to stay quietly and mostly irritatingly, until we outgrow them and achieve manhood.
Glancing perfunctorily over the resumes of these women who have interwoven their lives with mine, they do indeed fit very neatly and obediently into the four boxes….ouma, mom, lovers, domestics, sisters, daughters.
But if you shift the lens from auto to manual and fine tune the focus, those boxes start cracking – the cheap cardboard of their patriarchal construction collapsing beneath the sheer weight of life that they contain and the multiple roles that bear truth come pouring through the seams, ultimately exploding forth in an all-engulfing splash of colour and poignant memory and rich teaching, the all-powerful African Mama blacksmiths on which the anvil of my life has been forged…
…If you keep your head when all about you are losing theirs….the Kipling poem resonates as powerfully today as it did twenty years ago, perhaps even more so given the tumultuous change our country is currently undergoing. At my all boy white high school, it was used as a written punishment for misdemeanours of the non-caning variety (breathing about the only one of the latter type, if memory serves).
Many a young lad standing next to the venerable oak staircase copying out the poem fifty, a hundred times, a foundation upon which manhood was supposedly constructed. Kipling wrote it as advice to his son, extolling the virtues of fortitude, responsibility and resolution as necessary attributes of achieving the mythical and much desired state of true manhood.
My journey to this nirvanic state of ultimate achievement took a somewhat different route, ironically mapped out through the wisdom and guidance of the amazing and disparate women in my life….
My mother had been complaining about stomach pains for a while. Doctors sent her off with a myriad of prescriptions for wind, bloatedness, gastro. Given that she tended a bit toward the hypochondriacal, my twenty-one year old god-like self was contemptuous of this latest supposed illness. Eventually a specialist diagnosed her with cancer, already spreading through her like fire in summer, fanned by a black south-easter, too far advanced even for the horrors of chemo.
She was given six months.
The only child of a Jewish doctor and an Afrikaans farmer’s daughter, my mother was a fiercely proud woman; a high school English teacher by trade, she had fought hard to be where she considered her rightful station in life to be, a large house in the leafy southern suburbs. She had never smoked a day in her life, and had perhaps two glasses of wine a week.
She was angry. No – she was boiling with incandescent with fury, perhaps attempting to burn away the corruption inside of her that was devouring her body from the inside, consuming her hopes and contentment – her Life.
She wasn’t leaving her death row cell of morphine- coated pain resolved and at peace. She raged silently and furiously against the dimming of her light.
My father coped up to a point and then he dealt with his anguish by being out from the house. The task of looking after my mother in the final month fell to me. The enviable task of watching your mother wither away, like a piece of fruit long forgotten in the bowl, nature denaturing until all semblance of life has gone, a state of empty husk.
The memories play like a student film on YouTube….
…the sickly sweet smell of morphine hung about her bedroom, a constant reminder of the cloaked figure waiting on the periphery. Lifting her out of bed to carry to the bath, her – lighter than a soul, barely thirty kilograms. Only the eyes remained free of the disease and they blazed with anger and fear.
I learnt a lot about myself in those last few weeks. Who I had been, who I thought I was and who I knew I could possibly be. I crossed the threshold from carefree twenty-one year old into something else.
Older, wiser, haunted. But not manhood. Not yet.
Finally, at the Hospice, I left my sister in the sun of a balmy late January afternoon and entered her room. Cool, peaceful, quiet. A place where people come to die. I take my mother’s hand and feel an uncharacteristic grip in return. I meet her eyes, clear and lucid for a change, her grey slack lips parting in a rictus smile.
A final wheeze, her eyes betraying the massive relief of a final release from pain and fear and horror. A rustle in the background, as of an ancient cloak on bone. Then her soul, leaving the body, hovering for a second or two as if unsure of where to go, then flowing out the window, into the sun, the light.
In the year following my mother’s death, I became a man. All that she had instilled in me, striving always to be the best that you can, working hard and with focus to achieve your desires and a passion for English which led me to leave my law career and teach high school English, found a spot inside me, foundations for the structure which will ultimately house the man.
That moment of my mother dying in my arms has defined who I am now, the man I’ve become, and the journey that I took to get here.
Other extraordinary women have interjected themselves into my life, creating crossroads and junctures and speed-bumps and stop signs and turning points.
My ouma was a formidable lady, still teaching Afrikaans at a prestigious girls’ high at age seventy-five. She went up against her own family to marry my grandfather, an English Jew. Her refusal to accept anything less than the best from someone, the correct way of doing something or treating someone, was hugely significant in moulding who the boy I was and the man I became.
She died three months into my mother’s illness, the pain of watching her only child being consumed by the cancer was too much for her redoubtable, windswept Karoo koppie of a heart.
Other vignettes of memory rise seemingly unbidden….
….Lucille, my first love, who taught me about loving and desiring and needing and wanting and breaking and fumbling and hurting and loving, star-filled summer nights on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, exploring what wonderful things bodies are and the outlandishly fun things they can do, who ultimately taught me one of the great lessons in life, that having your heart ripped out hurts a hell of a lot more than bones breaking, that it seems life is over because you can never never ever never let anyone this close again, because it hurts really so very very fucking much; but then of course the first and oldest of the healers, Time, shows that it is possible to give or lend out the real, true bits of yourself to others again, that after the pain healing does come and that all wounds, literal and figurative, real or imagined, soul-wrought or flesh-ripped, all heal in time, and love comes calling again…..
….Flora, our family domestic, who cleaned our home and put up with my white boy arrogance and privilege, because you had to in a country where one group had all the economic, political and human rights, with dignity and quiet resilience, a lady who should have been home watching her grandchildren but instead was picking my underwear up off the floor, who taught me the power of
self-respect and pride in yourself, no matter the circumstances, and to never let them see what they have done or are still doing to you…..ndiyabulela kakhulu Flora….
…..and you, my love, you the jigsaws that fit perfectly into all of my irregular, broken pieces, polyfilling the numerous ravine-like cracks of my soul, making me whole or at least giving the appearance thereof, the azure abyss of your eyes soul-sustenance nourishing and keeping me alive, your breasts a favourite resting place, accepting caressing and biting in turn, alchemically melding the perfect fit of our souls into one, your hair tangled, sweat-mussed, spread out on the tiger-skin blanket like an intricately woven sunbeam…nestled in closeclose you cannot see my soul through the twin eye-portals, soaring heavenward on a golden unicorn, creating ripples through the momentary cessation of time, as the world careens unheeded round and round and round, eventually spinning off its axis and bouncing away amongst the planet, an errant shot on the pool table of the gods…..
……but of late I see something else in your eyes, you’ve been so far away and drifting further, our ships that were so true to course now seemingly being borne away on different currents, me just watching it happen, unable to summon the emotional reserves of courage needed to ask you why…
…Trace, how close am I to losing you…?
…you who taught me that passion is all and everything, the alpha to the omega and back again, passion, searing, lava white-hot life-engendering passion…..come back, I am not I without the you that makes us we, soul sister, wife, mother, lover…..
I find myself sitting on a wind-scoured dune here at the end of a day -mighty Atlantic ocean waves finishing their long journeys in a magnificent display of shock and awe, watching my daughters laugh and jump and spin on the beach before me, embracing and living a life that I have given them…
…and the realisation comes crashing home like one of the great waves before me smashing the froth-cream sand, that from them comes the simplest lesson of all, and perhaps the greatest lesson that I can learn, that despite the failing heart maybe it’s not all so blackened and dead with self-pity inside and that maybe, my girls, my strong African women, the time has come to heal, to forgive myself and my deceitful body a little, just every now and again, say every time one of my girls laughs in pure unadulterated joy, or when I scream in the purest of six year old stoke at having made the magical trip along the soul-artery of a Cape winter wave, or when the disappointment leaves her eyes for a few moments and I see how desperate she is for me to become me again….
That’s what they’ve taught me, these female colossi who have interwoven the path I travel…that by hurling little bits of light defiantly against the soulrot, little bits, then maybe one day the darkness inside will become so weak and ineffectual that I can simply rip it off and out of me, let it go, and it will float away on the cold north-westerly pre-frontal wind, dissipating….
Not holding on anymore, tourniqueting the real Me to death, to nothingness of any value or worth. Just letting go for a change.
The sun sets behind an approaching storm at the end of a Cape winter’s day, you can smell the power and beauty on the wind as it picks up, ushering in another tempest to cleanse the city of the Cape of Storms, the mother City, the place I call home, and I smile at her, and the girls and women that surround me and are me smile back and I know that it will be okay…..