A strange thing is happening in my family – my mother and stepfather are moving in with my brother. My stepfather is retiring after twenty-seven years of teaching at an elite boys’ school, and while he and my mother wait to sell their house in the nearby village and downsize to something easier to maintain, they are moving in with my brother. But that’s not the odd part; what’s odd is that the house where they are going to live is where my father grew up. The Hermitage is where, as a teenager, my mother first went to meet his family, where she went to parties, where she planned to have her wedding reception (rain meant that it was hurriedly moved to a church hall) and where she took her first baby straight from hospital to a hot and humid Christmas party. Now she’s moving in there with her second husband.
My best memories of my grandparents’ house are all at child-level: the smell of jasmine as you walk in the gate, the smell of dog in the scullery where my grandmother washed and brushed her pets, the cool black and white tiles of the hallway, the gnarled trunk of the magnolia tree where we swung on a rope swing, the shady sandpit under the tree where we occasionally discovered a present left there for us by the neighbourhood cats. The garden was a treasure trove where we collected jewel-red lucky beans, ate wild strawberries and devoured citrussy naartjies from the trees near the washing-line. It was full of hills and dales where we lost ourselves on hot afternoons.
My grandparents’ home also featured animals – troupes of dogs, first bassets and later Yorkshire terriers; goldfish in a small pond; vervet monkeys that swarmed through the trees, clattered over the tin roof and sometimes taunted us through the skylight in the hallway. There is the story of my grandmother leaving the house for a party, seeing a tiny chameleon on a bush and placing it gently on her black dress where it stayed in place as a brooch for the rest of the evening. Another story tells of my wild uncle attaching a home-made parachute to one of the family cats and throwing it off the roof to see if it would fly (it didn’t fly, but neither did it die). By the time I was born, my grandfather had sold the land below the house, but I grew up hearing stories about my aunt’s pony that had lived in the field.
My grandmother was British, so every Sunday we went to her house for a roast lunch. Apparently my mother and my aunt railed against this, but they never rebelled. They dressed their four children in their Sunday best, brushed heads of hair, gave final lectures about table manners and set off hoping for a pleasant time. While I was still down at dog and cat level, all grown-up stresses went over my head. I had no idea that the fact that my father always arrived late off the golf course was the start of an unravelling of his marriage and my life as I knew it. I just knew that to preserve my corner of peace, I had to eat my peas and if that meant swallowing them down with water or visiting the toilet a couple of times during the meal to spit them out, then that was what I would do. I had to remember my pleases and thank yous, have a second helping if possible, smile and look neat. Then I would be free to rush outside again to the garden, leaving the adults behind to continue their mysterious dance of never-saying.
Later, when the predicted unravelling began, the Hermitage became a retreat for my brother and I. It was the place where we were still part of a family, where all the significant connections kept us welded to a world that had become unstable. It was the core, while all around us was the chaos. At the time, we were having identical dreams: of terrorists stealing us from our parents, of wolves in the garden, of being locked in the house with a volcano underneath. The Hermitage was place of safety, of calm, where my grandmother washed and brushed her dogs, tying red bows in their fringes, and where my grandfather sat in his armchair reading his books and nodding along to his records.
However, it was also a place to be acutely sad. Being in a place of family made it abundantly clear that we had never had a family of our own. The unravelling of our parents’ marriage had begun so long ago, long long before the events that severed that final cord, so we had always lived in a ghost family. We were often a threesome, but very seldom a foursome. When that foursome was finally spliced we had already been mourning it for some years.
The Hermitage had once stood alone on a hill overlooking town, which is possibly how it received its name, but by the time I was born and introduced to my family on that hot Christmas Eve, other houses had joined it and subsumed it into suburbia. It had a view, but not a particularly scenic one, being as it was of the wrong end of town, with its factories and low-cost housing. However, at night, the sparkling lights were magical. Later the trees in the valley grew tall and obscured much of the view, both the daily ordinary one and the nightly spectacle.
Later as a student at a far-off campus, I visited the Hermitage to remember who I was. The tinkling of ice in my grandmother’s pink gins, the spindly handwriting on letters from her sister in England, the ever-present dog reminded me that while I was wildly testing my limits in Cape Town, I was also the grand-daughter of the house. I tamed the worst of my hair and clothes and was seemly, just for an hour or two.
After my grandparents died, there was debate amongst my father’s siblings what to do with the house. My father and his older sister both wanted to sell it, my wild uncle and pony aunt wanted to keep it. Finally, the two older ones sold their share to the two younger ones. At the time, my Pony Aunt lived in Zimbabwe and my Wild Uncle was running a law practice in northern KwaZulu-Natal, so they needed a tenant. My brother moved in and started his tree nursery under the magnolia tree where we had played as children.
Once again, the Hermitage became a place of solace. He had recovered from his “accident”, grown his bones back as best as possible, and was ready to try out his life for size. Doing so in a place redolent of family, and where he felt safe, was the perfect gentle experiment. As he walked the natural forests of our province, he collected seeds off the forest floor, which he took home and lovingly nurtured into small trees. He watched and loved other growing things, and quietly did some growing of his own.
Now my mother is in need of a refuge and the Hermitage is there. After years as a commune for students and young professionals not quite ready to buy their own houses, it has lost its gloss. It no longer contains antiques, paintings and family photos. The white and black hallway tiles are cracked and curling, the skylight where the monkeys peered through is flecked with age, the verandah from where we breathed in the hilltop breezes is unswept, but the walls contain us in safety. My mother will make it sparkle, she will fill the kitchen with smells and the walls with colour. She will pick magnolias and put them in a vase, she will pour glasses of wine on the verandah and toast the evening breezes. She will remember the sheen of my grandparents’ glamour as they walked out to a party and plucked a chameleon from a bush. The house will contain her and she will remember.