Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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E is for Ellie

My beloved grandmother. Someone with a huge heart in a tiny body. Although she died in 1997, I feel a spiritual connection with her that is so strong, I can barely separate myself from it in order to write about her. We have no distance. I have to pull at the ties that bind us in order to write her story. It is physically uncomfortable to do so.

Ellie was born Elsie Margaret Hinds. She was the third child in a family of six, following a brilliant older sister and a brother who was reputedly not the brightest light in the bushel. In their wisdom, Elsie’s parents kept her back at school every time her brother failed a year, causing her to resent both him and them. She was not sent to university as her older sister was, and quickly escaped the suffocating country life of Kingswilliamstown in South Africa’s Eastern Cape by marrying the glamorous Englishman David Cooper.

Their marriage lasted not more than eight years, six of which encompassed World War Two, and after their swift divorce, she found herself unqualified, jobless and with two small children to look after. My mother always says she went to ten schools before she was ten, and I think this indicates a period of huge chaos as Ellie tried and failed to find work that suited her and a place in which to settle her family. Eventually she followed her sister, then a journalist, to Pietermaritzburg, got a job at the university library and began her course of study in librarianship. She changed her name from Elsie to Elise – an act of selfhood that said “I have arrived”.

A vivacious woman, she quickly became the centre of a group of mature students, all of whom were deeply against South Africa’s increasingly racist governmental policies. They became founder members of the Liberal Party, of which the novelist Alan Paton was vice-president. While she was passionately against the Nationalists or “Boets”, as she called them, Ellie’s heart was taken up by a new course of study which was to inform the rest of her life: the esoteric writings of Alice A Bailey. Ellie became a New Age adherent long before the term came into current use. She meditated daily, was vegetarian, attended Full Moon meetings and developed friendships with like-minded people. She was in her forties, and had found her path.

What a glorious grandmother she was! Her ability to be in the moment meant she was able to share our child-like pleasures and never rise to grown-up distance. She taught us to dream, to believe in fairies, to shape clouds, to paint, to relish an egg and parsley sandwich. She would lie in the grass with us, tell stories and encourage our wildest dreams. When I was 12, she gave me the 1982 copy of the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook and encouraged me to write. She taught my brother to garden: something he does to this day, for a living. She loved us unconditionally, which is the best possible thing a parent or grandparent can do.

Ellie was never completely stable. She had two nervous breakdowns that I know of, and today would be medicated to the gills. Despite finding her base in Pietermaritzburg, she moved frequently, and we were often visiting her in new homes. Every time she moved, she gave more of her possessions away, shuffling off those objects that were binding her to this physical dimension. I think she ached for heaven.

In her last years, she had Alzheimer’s, which she bore lightly, with none of the aggression that sometimes accompanies the disease, and there were always funny stories to tell. Her younger brother – also under attack from Alzheimer’s though no-one knew at the time – and his wife were detailed to drive Ellie to my wedding, a good half an hour’s journey into the Midlands, but not a journey that was unfamiliar to them. Dear Uncle Ross got horribly lost and they missed the service, but were perfectly cheerful, having forgotten why they needed to be there. She also forgot that she was vegetarian and used to tuck in when there was meat on the table, causing us children vast hilarity.

I visited her in her old-age home two weeks before she died. We sat outside in the garden, holding hands and enjoying the sunshine. Our conversation was mostly nonsensical, but it was amicable. Three hours later, we heard that she had fallen and was in hospital. My mother and I hurried to her bed-side. I held her hand. She looked at me, smiled exquisitely, and said, “Hello my darling”. She never recognised anyone again.

Ellie always said, “When I die, don’t bury me, burn me. And please don’t make a big fuss about my ashes. Just put them in the bin.” We didn’t put her ashes in the bin. We scattered them on the hills of the Midlands, the blue hills that she loved with her painterly eye, the same hills that Alan Peyton writes of in Cry, the Beloved Country.

Here are the words of Alice A Bailey, which Ellie meditated on daily:

From the point of Light within the Mind of God

Let Light stream forth into the minds of men.

Let Light descend on Earth.

From the point of Love within the Heart of God

Let love stream forth into the heart of men.

May Christ return to Earth.

From the centre where the Will of God is known

Let purpose guide the little wills of men –

The purpose which the Masters know and serve.

From the centre which we call the race of men

Let the Plan of Love and Light work out

And may it seal the door where evil dwells.

Let Light and Love and Power restore the Plan on Earth.

(Alice A Bailey and Djwhal Khul, 1945)


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B is for Bridget James

Bridget James was my paternal grandmother, an elegant, opinionated, talented craftswoman who could sew a dress, needlepoint a cushion, knit doll’s clothes, bake a fine cake, throw a dinner-party for twenty or rustle up a hat for the races in an afternoon. We grandchildren knew her as “Gorgor” which was my family’s bastardization of the Zulu word Gogo, meaning old lady, her children called her “Mum” and her contemporaries and siblings called her “Bridge” or “Bridgie”.

Bridget met my South African grandfather Neville James in London a short couple of years before World War Two. She was a milliner, crafting exquisite hats for fine London ladies, including, family rumour has it, the Queen. He was a young lawyer, en route to the bar. He fell for the tall, slender, fashionable Bridgie, married her and brought her home to Pietermaritzburg, where they quickly had their first baby, my aunt and godmother Belinda. He then joined the Natal Carbineers, had six months’ training and went north to fight in the desert. It takes no feat of imagination to consider her position – stuck in a humid colonial town with a baby, far from her family and cosmopolitan London life, her brand-new husband at war with no guarantee of return. There are intimations that she suffered, but Bridget was stoical and got on with things. The war never left her though; she abhorred waste and while my grandfather gave out much-coveted twenty rand notes hidden in anonymous envelopes on our birthdays, she was well-known for being parsimonious.

In 1948, Bridget and Neville moved into The Hermitage with their four children, the second oldest of whom was my father Oliver. It was a lovely turn-of-the-century villa, built of solid red brick, with a green tin roof and deep verandahs that gave respite from the heat. She swiftly made her mark on the home, sewing curtains and decorating rooms, and it became a welcoming and gracious place to visit. Bridget and Neville were great party-goers and givers, and the house lent itself to entertaining. As a small child I remember weaving through the legs of partying adults, my grandmother the glamorous centre of it all with her cigarettes and her pink gins. She loved to dress up, to laugh and be amused, and while she became a colonial housewife and mother of four, there was a part of her that remained that London party girl.

There is a family story that epitomises her glamour and zest. She and my grandfather were leaving home for a party, dressed to the nines and ready for a good evening out. As Bridget passed the jasmine bush that tumbled over their kitchen fence, she saw a tiny jewel-like chameleon. She plucked it off the bush, placed it on her dress and wore it for the night as a living brooch. Knowing her love for animals, I like to believe that she would have replaced it at the end of the evening.

Bridgie adored her dogs and for a while the Hermitage was taken over by a family of basset hounds that she raised. They were all named after English counties and our favourite was Rutland, a handome fellow who fathered many babies. As she grew older and dementia threatened, her children joked that while she forgot their names, she never forgot those of her dogs.

She and Neville were enthusiastic travellers, and visited England every year so that Bridgie could see her beloved twin brother Billy, and her younger sister Naomi. They often went to Italy, which Neville had fallen in love with during the war. His favourite places were Florence and Bellagio and, in 1997, I went to both with my aunt Belinda. We remembered Neville and Bridget as we walked the plazas and river-fronts of Florence and sat sipping coffee under the trees at Bellagio.

When I was small, Bridget used to love brushing my hair. I’d arrive at her house and be sent immediately to fetch the brush, which she kept in her dressing-table in the top right-hand drawer. All the way to her room I’d be clutching my right hand in a fist so as not to forget. Opening the drawer was like finding a trove of jewellery, make-up and scents, and I would finger a necklace or try on a bracelet, but I knew not to linger too long amongst the tempting treasures. I’d find the brush and bring it to her on the verandah where she’d be sitting surrounded by dogs, with a tray of tea to one side and some kind of craft project – a cushion, knitting – on her lap. She’d put the knitting aside and then brush my hair, while I listened to the hadedahs shrieking and stabbing the grass.

“There, that’s better,” she’d say. “Now let’s have some tea.”

Life was built around rituals – breakfast, with the invariable half-orange, around the dining-room table, morning and afternoon tea on the verandah with Marie biscuits or her delicious home-made crunchies, drinks at 5pm. Bridget always liked the pink gins I poured her when I was a little older, probably because I was heavy on the gin. Family were required to turn up for Sunday lunch every week and my father created dense atmosphere by regularly arriving late from golf, probably as his form of rebellion. Later when my parents’ marriage fell apart, it took my mother a couple of years to get up the courage to say, “No Bridget, I am not coming to Sunday lunch. Oliver can fetch the children on his way back from golf.”

While Bridget was a wonderful Gorgor, whipping up clothes for my dollies or outfits for me, she could be scary. Woe betide any grandchild who didn’t clear her plate, eat her  peas, or express grateful thanks for the roasts. She was often impatient with her domestic workers, believing that whatever task they were doing from washing the car to washing the dogs, she could do better, and she loved to remind me, in huge inverted commas, that my lifelong best friend was “Jewish”. When I became a cub reporter on the local newspaper, I was friends with an “Indian man”, which caused some disquiet.

After Neville died, Bridget declined slowly. She remained at the Hermitage, visited daily by Belinda and regularly by the rest of the family. We would find her sitting in her study, watching sport on TV, reading the paper, or writing a letter to Naomi. Once she became convinced that the family had taken her to an old-age home, where she was receiving substandard treatment. Finally, after two weeks of complaints, my father hit on a plan. He put her in his car, promising that she was now going home. They drove for fifteen minutes, and then returned to the Hermitage, where he had asked her housekeepers to give her a good welcome. They drove up to the house she had just left, she gracefully received the friendly ululations and settled into the chair she had recently vacated. “Oh, it’s so nice to be back,” she said.

The London party girl had come home.


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Catching a Feeling

Eve has asked her readers to write about their childhood. I thought I would give it a try, because I can’t resist a challenge that is as well-written as this:

If you read here regularly, I wonder if you’d indulge me by thinking about your own childhoods, going back to the flow of days during which nothing much happened, but when the passing of time nurtured and fed you. You’ll know which days I mean by finding strings of days, days on end, whose memory causes a wave of nostalgia to overcome you. Days that now fill you with longing, or a pang of loss, deep joy, or deep gratitude. Sometimes you may think of them and feel great sorrow over something you’ve lost. Maybe it was days you spent with your grandparents, or days you spent at home doing nothing; a day with your brother or sister, a family vacation. Think back to the hours or days when life felt like an afternoon in a hammock, or time on a quilt under a tree with your very best friend.

Think about it, or feel your way back to it, and write it out for yourself. I don’t mean you have to write about it here, as a comment, or even on your own blog; but I do want you to write about it. Get it down somehow when your level of feeling or emotion (affect) rises up and squeezes you in the middle of your chest, right around your heart, and you begin to feel a little weepy or giddy. Right . . . there. That’s the part we want. Catch it like a firefly in a jar, and get very close to that feeling, and then write about it. Write it all out, the memories surrounding it: where you were, who you were with, what you were doing, what it smelled, tasted, and sounded like there; how long did it last?

The Angel in the Garden

When my father left in a storm of self-justification and golf clubs, my grandmother moved into the cottage at the bottom of our garden. It was like having an angel of our own living there. My brother and I would wake in the morning and race our beaten path to her front door, where she would open up, catch us in her arms and breathe, “Hello my darlings!” as if she hadn’t seen us for a month. While my mother was dealing with her own pain and sorrow, and gradually finding her way back to herself, my grandmother gathered us into a gentle place of wonder that offered us refuge from our pain. She had a naivete that spoke to my child’s heart, and taught us how to be silent and listen to the self within, how to shape clouds, how to appreciate an egg sandwich, to believe in fairies. Under her guidance, I developed an interest in other realms and soon our garden became, for me, a magical fairyland that was bustling with activity and solace from the pain of my parent’s separation.

This fairyland was closely tied with the plant life in the garden, starting with the enormous camphor tree that towered over us like a gentle giant. I climbed into his arms, and found comfort there, staring at the leaf patterns and imagining myself on a ship sailing across oceans, or in a palace, or in village of busy elves. I lost time there as I watched ants trace paths across the tree’s rippled bark, or listened to the doves high above, or felt the wind sough mournfully in the branches. The tree reflected my mood: he was sad if I was sad, content if I was so, but his depth of feeling was so great that after a while I could bear his compassion no longer and had to seek more light-hearted magic elsewhere.

Ivy covered the camphor tree’s earthbound roots – the perfect place for fairies to cavort. I imagined them climbing the roots and chasing each other under the green pointed umbrellas of ivy leaves. The Japanese anenomes planted nearby were special since they flowered around my mother’s birthday, and their ivory petals and fluffy yellow centres brought to mind elegant fairy princesses, wafting through my fairyland in white gowns with golden crowns. They were beautiful, and slightly removed, rather like my mother, and I couldn’t spend too much time with them without the sadness edging in.

Following the path of the anenomes, I would arrive at a bed of flowers planted by my mother that curved out into the garden like a headland or peninsula. This buttress was seldom shadowed by the tree, so it was a sunny place for both children and fairies. Roses encouraged the arrival of pink and white fairies, bold and laughing. They were enticed by the dripping tap that stood in the flower-bed, and would recline underneath the tiny waterfall and catch drips directly into their mouths. The tap also attracted an old fat frog, who croaked grumpily as dusk fell. Here in this sunny bed, I created fairy gardens, small flat patches of earth, surrounded by stone walls and decorated with flower furniture. I knew that when the moon rose and I was in bed, the fairies would be sleeping on an azalea or camellia petal and thanking me for their comfort.

Following the bed, I came up against a wooden fence, behind which lived our mad and muttering neighbour and her barking dog. If I came too close to the fence, the dog would unleash its volley of angry remarks and I would have to retreat to underneath the lemon tree for safety. It was fragrant and citrussy there, but the ground beneath was littered with rotting lemons which were revolting if I stood on them with bare feet.

Behind the lemon tree was a green wire fence covered with jasmine, and behind that a lowered area where our maid washed and hung the washing to dry. I would climb the fence, sit on the hot and crumbling stairs and watch in a dream as the washing swirled on the windy drier. The maid lived there too, in a room that smelled of soap, sweat and putu – the porridge that she liked to eat and sometimes shared with me, if I was lucky. There weren’t fairies here – it was somehow too jagged a place – but her bed was on bricks in case of the tokoloshe. There was mystery in the bamboo fence below her khaya that separated our house from those neighbours. I could walk between the tall bamboo and the fence, and be transported to a world where plants were huge and people tiny.

Following this fence, I would come upon a green patch of lawn where our jungle gym had once stood, before it grew rickety and dangerous and had to be taken away. There was my grandmother’s cottage, with the door always open. She would be reading, or painting, or gently napping, but was always welcoming to her small visitors and would find us a piece of hazelnut chocolate from her secret stash. In front of the cottage stood a bank of strelitzias, flowers which my mother dismissed as ugly and African, but which were fascinatingly bird-like. I could crawl under the bushes and hide there, enjoying the feeling of separate nearness to my family. Usually the corgi, Muffin, would snuffle me out or my little brother would crash in, demanding that I play a game with him.

Sometimes my grandmother would get a blanket and we would lie on the sunny grass, looking up at the clouds. She would show us how to shape clouds, and we would get lost in the mystery of the sky. I think both my brother and I learnt early, and from her, to take responsibility for the shape of our lives. We were taught not to feel buffetted by fate, but that our thoughts could shape our lives and that every event, no matter how sad or sick inside it made us feel, happened for a reason. Then our mother would bring out a tray of a tea and biscuits, I would put the tea cosy on my head to make everyone laugh and my brother would run off to hit a tennis ball against the wall, all life’s lessons forgotten.


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2008: Where Hedonism and Ascetism Meet

I’ve been pondering my word for 2008. My word for 2006 was travel, and for 2007, it was beauty. However, this year I realised I needed a more spiritual word, a word that would encapsulate the things I want to achieve in my fortieth year, my goals both public and personal, and a word that would inspire me whenever I returned to it. My word – with such a lot of baggage wanting to attach to it – was eluding me, but I am glad to say I have found it. My word for 2008 is:

self-discipline

I am good at luxuriousness and at rewarding myself. I don’t stint when it comes to food, books or long, hot baths. I love a delicious glass of red wine and a langourous chat with a friend. I can wallow. When allowed, I can lose a day on the sofa. I am not afraid of fun, laughter or pleasure. Living in the moment, relishing the now, is not a challenge for me. I am a big fan of the here and now.

That said, I feel my inner ascetic call. Healthier eating, regular daily writing, more frequent exercise are all required to nourish my soul. Self-discipline means organizing my work better, being more up-to-date with my taxes and getting my invoices in on time, but it also means soul work. I want to be the disciple of me – allowing my self to grow and develop through more regular disciplines of daily writing, exercise and cleansing eating.

This is not just a response to the excesses of Christmas, birthday and New Year in 14 short days, but also a genuine need to tame my tendency to lavishness with a more streamlined personal approach. I want to shop less, acquire less, need less and with that spare time I want to think, write and meditate more. Also, I feel very strongly as I approach 40 that I need to include in my daily life things that are good for my soul. It is a discipline for me to remember and perform them.

Having come to this decision, it was fascinating to have read parts of a book that once belonged to my grandmother and that is now being lent to me by my mother. Joel S Goldsmith’s Infinite Way Letters 1955 is a series of meditations on leading a spiritual life. As I flicked through it before starting to read, I came across a passage noted in my grandmother’s beautiful curlicue handwriting. “V. important”, she notes. It reads:

For all the glorious Gifts of God, the great price is self-discipline. Each of us has the right to accept these Gifts in proportion to the degree to which we develop our ability to discipline ourselves. This is the price of truth!

I will probably have to meditate for some time to understand exactly what this means for me, but how apposite that my darling grandmother had this passage already marked for me, that my mother decided to send it with my brother and that in the last few days I’ve had the time to pick up the book and browse through it. Always my spiritual teacher, she has sent me a message through the years and in the pages of an old and crumbling book.

Along with this more serious bent, comes some different goals for my blog. It’s nearly two years old now, which makes it a grown-up in blog years. I gave myself serious blog fatigue in November posting every day, and now I want to swing away from that towards fewer posts of higher quality. I need to take some time away from blogging for my own writing because this is the year that I am committing to writing and submitting work. Blogging has opened my eyes and my mind to a new and fascinating world but it can also be a vortex into which I am sucked. I will be trying to discipline both my blogging and my reading of blogs into smaller and more manageable chunks of time, leaving time for creative writing, reading and thinking. However it is more than likely that I will break down, take part in memes and tease the Germans.

I have had fun reading everyone’s resolutions and goals for 2008, and I wish you all a wonderful, creative and happy year. I hope your dreams come true.


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Domestic BPO

I am outsourcing my business processes to an external provider, who is enabling me to focus on my core capabilities, thus impacting favourably on my profit margins and allowing more scope for my work/life balance and output targets. My KPIs are on track.

Granny Toni has arrived to look after her grandchildren. Hooray!

Can I just mention that I am tucked up in bed while she entertains, feeds, hugs, wipes the noses and stimulates the imaginations of my three children? We are clearly leveraging our synergies.

I am working (writing a white paper on business process outsourcing), but From My Bed In The Daylight Hours While All is Happiness and Light Downstairs. Someone Else Has Tidied the Art Table, Folded the Laundry and Even Ironed Some. We have substantially offset the risk of people not having clean clothes to wear.

Tomorrow, despite its being school holidays, I may achieve a key goal of Going Grocery Shopping Alone. There is every chance that I will fulfill this week’s target of Having My Teeth Cleaned, Going for my Bi-Annual Hairdresser Visit and possibly even Visiting Ikea.

The thrills, folks, are too innumerable to contemplate. I may just explode with excitement.

I do love a grandmother. Everyone should have one.