I’ve read many, many novels and seen countless films wherein the living space of a character, occurring in the dingiest neighbourhood, is portrayed very romantically. Loft conversions reached from street level via roll-up on-street steel doors, industrial spaces converted to sumptuous apartments are revealed after an arduous trek up a steep staircase, handsome men brush their teeth at kitchen sinks … These scenes are, admittedly, usually set in London or New York where, apparently, the dictum of “worst property in the best location” does not apply as importantly as it does here in Johannesburg; a dictum which I ignored when I bought my flat.
In defence of my bad judgement, I was numb at the time: my circumstances were so inconceivable to me that I didn’t even bother to shop around; I bought the second flat I viewed. It didn’t matter to me that my friends would be too afraid to visit me; my daughter had cut me out of her life, what did I want friends for?
When, three days after moving in, the building’s hot water supply was cut off by the city council due to misappropriation of funds by the body corporate management company, I accepted the inconvenience with dumb stoicism and an unhealthy dose of self-pitying martyrdom: surely I deserved as much hardship as was thrown my way?
And then the delightfully unexpected happened and my daughter slowly came back into my life. She was careful not to let her distaste show when she visited me but, once she came to live with me, it soon became apparent that she was deeply embarrassed by our address. Weekend after weekend she chose to stay with friends after a night out, rather than be dropped outside our building by her friends’ parents, lest they be hijacked or harassed by the junkies camping out in the park across the road.
I’d more or less made up my mind that we would have to move, when South Africa awoke one morning to a wave of xenophobia. The news reports were nauseating beyond belief. My neighbours in the building were made up mainly of North Africans; they stayed off work, too frightened to venture out into the threatened violence against them. I myself felt fearful as I drove home every day.
As is often the case, a final sign came to me in the form of a routine bi-annual courtesy call from the estate agent who had sold the flat to me! Yes, I decided, it was time to get out of there.
The flat went on the market on Saturday, hopefully it will sell quickly. It has been a holding space for me during my darkest hour, but that hour has passed and it’s time to go out into the sunlight again. Louise Hay says to release your space to the new owner with love and that love will, in turn, await you in your new space.
And, as my wise friend Charlie always says, so it goes …
Three random reflections on the concepts of time and gratitude … But first, because those in the know advise that nobody reads a blog without photographs, here is a picture of my cat:
Reflections on the lost years
I am a recovering alcoholic. It did not happen overnight, but the progression from ‘normal’ consumption into active alcoholism was swift. It happened at the worst possible time for my child; just at the onset of adolescence. She coped by cutting me out of her life and I floated about the house like a wraith; an awful spectre to make her usher her friends quickly past my bedroom door. She is a girl of strong, strong character; she didn’t allow me to accompany her father when he took her to her first day of high school. She didn’t turn to me when she started her period. I learned second-hand of her first love and her first heartbreak. I wrote to her all the time; letters in vino veritas, letters from rehab, letters at each milestone: her birthday, Christmas, Mothers’ Day, the day my divorce from her father finally happened, and countless days of no particular significance. During my years in recovery, she began – with caution and an ill-disguised mistrust – to meet with me. Slowly, slowly, we drew close again until the most miraculous thing happened and she asked to come and live with me. And so it is with us now; we have a life together again. And it’s sweeter and stronger for the things we lost in those unhappy years. And so it happened that I began to believe in God. I know that I will be in recovery for the rest of my life and that I am only granted a daily reprieve. I understand that it will take much time before my daughter stops watching what I unpack after a trip to the grocery store; I understand and I accept it, with infinite gratitude.
Reflections on the short-lived romance
When I was 50-and-three-quarters-years-old; an age that, in my youth, I had regarded as middle-age; my brother died and I found romance with his best friend. It was, in hindsight, the whiplash of shared grief that we misconstrued as passion. It lasted three months and I was as dizzy as a teenager throughout. I’d not been kissed (the mwah-mwah air kisses from my gay brigade at social events aside) by a man for over a decade. A big, strong and sensitive man; he held me together and has remained a source of support and will be my friend for the rest of my life. And he made me feel desirable; for that I am grateful beyond words. Perhaps, one day, romance will sneak up on me again; for now it is enough to know that I am worthy of love. And I will, always, buy myself flowers …
And, if you’re still reading, here is an old picture I took of some potted roses on my balcony:
Reflections on being deemed too old and too pale
Shortly before we came back to work after the Christmas break, my boss took me to lunch and gently, as is her way, told me that it was time for me to ‘move on’. I’d come to work for her as her personal assistant at the beginning of 2014, when she moved her psychology practice to her home. It was a time when I was brittle in the aftermath of my divorce and we both agreed that it would be a temporary arrangement. She feels that it is now time for me to move back into ‘the real world’ and find a job which will utilise my experience and renew my sense of self now that I am so much stronger. I flew into an immediate panic and made an appointment with a personnel consultant who brutally informed me that I was on the wrong side of 50 and later sent me an article giving me news of the Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) Amendment Bill, which eliminates all white people including the disabled. (Read more about it here if you don’t believe me.) I fell into a stunned funk, from which I am just emerging. I will not accept this as the death knell for my future. I have too much to offer. For now I am safe where I am, working for someone who has become a stalwart friend, irrespective of where my future journey may lead. And, for the part she has played in my journey over the past year, I have boundless gratitude.
If you’ve read this far, thank you; here is a picture of some poached pears I cooked ever so long ago:
I thought I’d better post something before WordPress deletes my blog due to inactivity, and to let my friends know that I am alive and well.
Sometimes we only see how life balances out when we look back on it. It’s been six months since I lost my brother and – within a fortnight of his death – six months since I got my daughter back. And so my grief was tempered by having this whirlwind of joy move permanently into my everyday life and turn my silent apartment into a home.
She’s a force of nature, this beautiful child of mine; funny, smart and with a will of steel. It’s a daily blessing to see her happy, healthy and simply soaring in her new school.
My gratitude knows no bounds, truly.
And now that I have a life again, I am cooking and baking again and – hopefully – will be back to blogging regularly again.
Grief is a pervasive thing. It is a relentless companion, sometimes falling into shallow slumber, only to wake when least expected – at mundane times, like when one is making a cup of tea or eating a sandwich. It comes awake ruthlessly, hacking with icy fingers at the chambers of the heart and bringing one to one’s knees.
My brother died two weeks ago. It was a brutal death. He was in a coma for seven days and, at first, I prayed for his recovery, and then I prayed for his death and a merciful release for the tortured body that was being kept alive by machines. I held his hand, kissed his forehead and told him it was OK to let go. The end of his life was senseless, hope of recovery from the grotesque dance that his alcoholism had trod with him came, but it was too late.
RIP SHAWN CHRISTOPHER PHILLIPS
6 MARCH 1968 – 9 SEPTEMBER 2014
I LOVE YOU. ALWAYS AND FOREVER.
(Photo credit: Peter Gerber)
And a repost of something I wrote long ago, about the day he came into my life:
GETTING A BROTHER
There were no children my age to play with; it was a brand new suburb; all red earth and building rubble. Both parties of most couples went out to work, walking together to catch busses. My mom and dad each had a car, which was quite unusual at the time. They misguidedly thought nursery school was a cruel business, an enclave for neglected children; only marginally less horrible than the orphanage they threatened to send me to if I didn’t eat my spinach.
There was, apart from the lovely, fat and funny Willemienah who cleaned and cooked; a nanny who’s sole purpose was to feed me, clean me and make sure that I didn’t engage in any activities that would lead to my needing stitches or the services of the Police Force. Her name was Martha and to this day I remember what it felt like when she wiped my face with a warm facecloth, sprinkled with 4711 cologne, after I cried because of a fall. I ate my meals with them, sitting on the concrete courtyard floor; tomato and onion gravy with stiff maize porridge. I’d have it for lunch any day, still. Only much later did it dawn that Sotho was not the only language on daytime radio.
I begged and pleaded for a brother and my parents kept telling me it was not the right time. I was six before I realised that I was lonely.
From time to time my paternal grandparents would come to take me to their farms, early on to Excelsior and later to Tweespruit. My Ganny Sue taught my to sew a neat stitch and my Gampy let me walk out with him after supper, ostensibly to make sure the cows were tucked in, but really to smoke his secret cigarettes. They allowed all the rules to be broken; I didn’t have to bath every day, especially not if I’d swum in the reservoir. We sometimes had stewed peaches and custard as our supper!
On returning from a long visit, I walked into our bathroom, where my mother was drying herself after a shower. She had become fat, something I hadn’t noticed during everyday contact and I told her so. My dad overheard and joined us in the bathroom, sitting on the edge of the tub and pulling me onto his lap. He told me that my mom was growing a surprise for me in her tummy and could I guess what it was? I said ‘a bike?’, but they laughed and said I’d have to wait and see.
Perhaps a fortnight or so later, I’d taken my skipping rope and gone up the road to visit with an old lady whom I’d befriended and who allowed me to pretend that we were grand ladies taking high tea on a cruise ship. Her kettle had just boiled when Martha puffed in and said I should come home at once. She hoiked me onto her back and trotted down the block.
My parents were sitting in the lounge, my mom holding a soft parcel. They beckoned me to join them and my mom opened the parcel so that I could see the scrunched up little person they were giving me.
His name is Shawn and he is one of the best friends I have ever had; my little brother who grew to be bigger than me in every way conceivable.
I’m really quite fond of you, grumpy old codger. And so very proud.
I was quite surprised – reading some comments on my last post – to learn that the quince is not widely known. I’ve always loved this fruit, with its quality of romantic history. When I was a child the trees were everywhere and the fruit abundant. Nowadays, it seems the tree has become unfashionable and the fruit is rarely available and – when it can be found – is obscenely pricey.
From Wikipedia: The quince /ˈkwɪns/ (Cydonia oblonga) is the sole member of the genus Cydonia in the family Rosaceae (which also contains apples and pears, among other fruits). It is a small deciduous tree that bears a pome fruit, similar in appearance to a pear, and bright golden-yellow when mature. Throughout history the cooked fruit has been used as food, but the tree is also grown for its attractive pale pink blossom and other ornamental qualities.
Most varieties of quince are too hard, astringent and sour to eat raw unless ‘bletted’ (softened by frost and subsequent decay). High in pectin, they are used to make jam, jelly and quince pudding, or they may be peeled, then roasted, baked or stewed.
The flesh of the fruit turns red after a long cooking time. The very strong perfume means they can be added in small quantities to apple pies and jam to enhance the flavour. Adding a diced quince to apple sauce will enhance the taste of the apple sauce with the chunks of relatively firm, tart quince. The term “marmalade”, originally meaning a quince jam, derives from “marmelo,” the Portuguese word for this fruit.
In Turkey, the expression ayvayı yemek (literally “to eat the quince”) is used as a derogatory term indicating any unpleasant situation or a malevolent incident to avoid. This usage is likened to the rather bitter aftertaste of a quince fruit inside the mouth.
When a baby is born in Slavonia (Croatia), a quince tree is planted as a symbol of fertility, love and life.
Ancient Greek poets (Ibycus, Aristophanes, e.g.) used quinces (kydonia) as a mildly ribald term for teenage breasts.
Although the book of Genesis does not name the specific type of the fruit that Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden, some ancient texts suggest Eve’s fruit of temptation might have been a quince.
In Plutarch’s Lives, Solon is said to have decreed that “bride and bridegroom shall be shut into a chamber, and eat a quince together.”
I was interested to find, in my research, that the quince is used in Argentinian cuisine. As my daughter is currently there for six weeks on a cultural exchange programme, living with a host family in Cordoba, I’m very keen to try and replicate what she could be eating while she’s there.
It’s rather fascinating to discover that our food culture so closely mirrors theirs. Beef barbeque is as popular there as it is here. In Argentina the membrillo, as the quince is called in Spanish, is cooked into a reddish, jelly-like block or firm, reddish paste known as dulce de membrillo, very good with a nice slab of steak.
Quince cheese, also known as dulce de membrillo, is a sweet, thick, jelly made of the pulp of the quince fruit. Quince cheese is a common confection in several countries, where it goes by various names, such as carne de membrillo or ate de membrillo in Spanish, marmelada in Portuguese, codonyat in Catalan, cotognata in Italian and membrilyo in Tagalog.
Pic credit: Wikipedia
Recipe adapted from here: http://www.cottagesmallholder.com/easy-quince-cheese-recipe-membrillo-467/
I added two chopped chillies to the mixture.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to eat my lunch … and daydream that I’m right there with my daughter, sharing in this wonderful adventure she’s on …
“I was dreaming of food. Crisp baguettes, the flesh of the bread a virginal white, still steaming from the oven, and ripe cheese, its borders creeping towards the edge of the plate. Grapes and plums, stacked high in bowls, dusky and fragrant, their scent filling the air.” The Girl You Left Behind – Jojo Moyes.
Almost exactly to the date of the anniversary of my move into my apartment, I had a week-long leave from work. Restless and feeling that niggling Calvinist guilt at the prospect of a period of sloth, I was nonetheless determined to have a bit of a holiday – I had a new novel that – unexpectedly – had food reference throughout, and a stash of sweets. So, as one does, I also stocked up on what has been my staple diet for the past year: pot noodles and sardines. My kitchen has been neglected for the better part of the past year, with hindsight I now understand that neglect to be part of my grieving process. In any event, the pot noodles had to be laid aside when my microwave oven and my kettle died within two days of one another. I was forced to engage with my gas hob and oven.
Removing the microwave to the rubbish collectors, I cleaned the counter top, rather pleased with the rearranged space and hauled my coffee machine out of its retired status and – very peculiar – the desire to cook again came over me. I had to bake immediately and did so, muffins first, then a tomato and onion tart tatin.
A lamb tagine followed; enough for two days’ lunch. I was mortified by the layer of dust that coated the tagine when I took it down from the shelf.
I went shopping and rediscovered that unfortunate-looking fruit of my childhood: the quince. Ah! Bought a little pork fillet and pan-seared it with cumin and ginger, then wrapped it in peppered smoked Black Forest ham and roasted it with the poached quince …
“As lamb is often suited to flavours redolent of its habitat – grassy, herbal, maquis – so pork is complimented by the earthy flavour of cumin. Sprinkle ground cumin on pork tenderloin or chops before cooking …” The Flavour Thesaurus, Niki Segnit.
And so it goes, as if the advent of the end of our winter has swept spring back into my kitchen, I am filled with resolve to cook, if not every day yet, more frequently. And my healing heart can only grow stronger; one day at a time …
“I just need something to look forward to, she wants to say. I just want to smile without having to think about which muscles to use.” The Girl You Left Behind, Jojo Moyes.