Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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The Joy of Being Older

I have been spending time with a friend who has an adorable nine-month-old baby. I love this baby for her cleverness and charm, and the sweetness of watching her discover the world. Being with them has brought home to me how my childrens’ baby time is over, and, while I loved it, how grateful I am to have moved on to the next stage. I am 40 and my youngest is four. I’ve just traveled with him to South Africa and Greece, and didn’t need to pack any special equipment – no prams, no special food, no nappies. He pulled his little roll-on suitcase and walked with his sisters the length and breadth of many airports.

I have spent the last ten years in dedicated service to small children. I adore my kids, and now I especially love their growing independence from me. I am no longer essential to their physical survival – any other kind adult could do my job. As they grow and shed their extreme neediness, I feel as if I have also emerged from a chrysalis. Their independence is perfectly matched to mine.

I spent all of last year in preparation for turning 40 in December, and then spent the next six months celebrating that birthday. It was a huge psychological turning point. I turned my mind to fitness, healthy eating and writing – doing things for me, my body and my psyche. At the risk of sounding smug, I feel as if I have arrived. I am not becoming, but being. And the best thing is, I have got at least 40 more years ahead of me to feel this way.

Today’s Observer has a brilliant focus on old age. The people they report on are extraordinary – a 98-year-old marathon runner, a 71-year-old yoga teacher, an 85-year-old sculptor – and what comes across is the fun they have in living. Of course, what  they share is the luck of good health, the fortune of living in the privileged West, but even so they have survived world wars, epidemics and economic disasters.

Here are some quotes:

For Mary, aspects of growing old are met with relief, even joy. “In a way, emotionally, you change back. I am freer now to feel intense excitement like I used to as an adolescent – being out of doors, for example, or listening to music. I somehow didn’t have time for that when I was bringing up my children and working full-time. I have been able to spend much more time with my youngest grandchild than with the older ones, and that’s been wonderful, too.” Jean Crossley, grandmother, 100

“Yoga can have a tremendous effect on you, whatever age you start,” she says, “but I find I don’t need to do much practice to keep supple, as my awareness of my body posture has become second nature over the years.” She reveals that yoga has a more meaningful message, too. “I’m aware of the fragility of health and that it can change without warning. So I always retain a sense of detachment – I’m not pleased with myself if I do a complicated yoga pose, I’m pleased for myself. You’ve never got life cracked. Yoga teaches you that.” Pam Horton, yoga teacher, 71

The key to a healthy old age, he says, is continuing to work and “doing something you like doing. You’re so much more likely to go on living if you’re happy, and making art makes us both happy.” London, where he has lived since he married Sheila 60 years ago, has been another important factor. “Old people are really a pain in the neck and one of the joys of living in London is that you see young people. You could isolate yourself and be less stressed, but one of the pleasures is seeing what’s going on.” Sir Anthony Caro, sculptor, 85

And for Fauja age isn’t even a consideration: “I do not consider myself to be old. From the moment I do that, I would lose everything, because age is a state of mind – as long as you’re positive you can do anything.” Fauja Singh, runner, 98

Apart from luck, the common denominator amongst these amazing people is joy. I’d risk saying that their wisdom, joy and pleasure in life has been partially responsible for their health and longevity. Their stories increase my belief that I have every chance of being a joyful 85-year-old yoga-practising writer.


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This is How Old I Am

My parents bought our first television when I was seven. There was one channel, alternating daily between English and Afrikaans for two hours a day.

I owned and wore leg warmers in a non-ironic way.

I peroxided my fringe.

Ultimate romance used to be The Blue Lagoon:

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I had a passionate relationship with Duran Duran.

I wrote letters to boys on writing-paper decorated with sunsets and palm trees.

The first album I bought was Madness. Up till then, I danced to my parents’ Abba and Fleetwood Mac records.

I taped the Top 40 with David “Reach for the Stars” Gresham every week on my cassette recorder.

When I was 11, I wanted to be Olivia Newton-John. Major entertainment was going to the roller-rink.

When I went shopping with my friends, we would share a plate of chips. Drinks were individual. Mine was a double-thick Horlicks milkshake.

The first dancing-party I went to I wore Deely-Boppers.

I remember the advent of drinking yogurt.

My first boyfriend wore brown jerseys and drove a 50cc motorbike.

I thought it was sexist that girls watched boys playing rugby, but no-one came to watch the girls play hockey.

I remember a time when black and white people could be jailed for sleeping together, and when black people were not allowed to buy property in the suburb where I lived.

I watched PW Botha’s Rubicon speech on TV in 1985 and Mandela’s release in 1990, and remember the brutal years in between.

I wrote all my undergraduate essays longhand. For reference, I used books and articles, which I found in a place called the library.

I wrote my first essay on computer at the age of 22.

I wore a meringue for my wedding-dress and we were the first to leave the party.

I went on honeymoon to Zimbabwe, when it was so peaceful and harmonious that I wanted to move there.

In 1995, I wrote an article for a magazine on the strange phenomenon known as the “World Wide Web” or the “Information Superhighway”.

I first used email at the age of 27.

With thanks to the lovely Ms Waffle for the inspiration. How old are you?


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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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Things Left Unsaid

I’m shamelessly lifting this idea from Ms Bleeding Espresso (she lives in Italy and bleeds coffee!). It is a list of 15 things I haven’t said over the years to various people, for fear of hurting them or making them angry, but also out of embarrassment, shame or shyness.

Here is my list of things – thus far – left unsaid:

1. You were a shining light of talent and beauty; it still breaks my heart that drugs took you.

2. Of all the people I know in the world, no-one deserves a loving relationship more than you.

3. I wish you would stop yo-yo dieting – accept your beautiful body and get on with it.

4. You were a lovely, funny, delightful friend and I wish you weren’t lost to us. Oh, and I still have your book.

5. I am sorry for the situation you are in, but it is of your own making: if you try to control people, they run away.

6. You are a boring narcissist – go away and come back only when you are prepared to show genuine interest in other people.

7. Being infantile is not attractive in an adult: grow up. Also, you are not as wise as you like to think you are.

8. You need to show love in your actions – mild protestations are not enough. Right now, I’m not sure I believe you.

9. Taking anti-depressants will never remove your pain completely – you need to ask my forgiveness for the hurt you caused and then you might start to feel a little better.

10. Thanks for giving me the experience of loving a jerk early in life – it helped me learn what to avoid.

11. I think you have forgiven me, but I am still sorry for that bad thing I did to you long, long ago – it was cruel, under-hand and selfish of me.

12. Living with you is the great joy of my life.

13. Stop living in fear! Have the courage to be your authentic self, and make the demands that you require.

14. Please stop babbling at me in dialect. I don’t understand you and I don’t want to.

15. Being engaged is not the same as being married. Get married already.

That was cathartic! I can recommend it. If you decide to lighten your own emotional load, please let me know in the comments.


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A Response to Susie

The lovely Susie tagged me to respond to her post Is Preschool killing children?, where she discusses the fact that in the USA preschool (which is what we in Germany call kindergarten and in the UK is nursery school) is becoming ever more academic. In her words,

I avoid this topic like the plague. Kids need to play, explore, and build their imaginations, and preschools that put an emphasis on reading, math and handwriting steal those opportunities from kids. My statement usually incites anger and probably fear, in parents who’ve already justified the decision that their child needs to build elementary skills while in preschool, and have already spent a few happy months in a preschool that is doing just that. Plus, they are already financially and emotionally invested in the school and its teachers, and even though the child is only three, the family thinks its too late to turn back now. And besides, they believe, I am wrong.

We are extremely lucky in Germany that childhood is protected by late school-entry. Our second daughter will start school this year at six and ten months. By the time she is seven, she will be able to do only the most basic of reading. But I can safely predict that by the time she is eight, she will be a sophisticated reader in two languages, completely on a par with any US or UK eight-year-old. I’ve seen it happen. I strongly believe that early learning does not create academic advantage. By the time these six- and seven-year-olds reach school they are dying to learn, practically hyperventilating with the excitement of it all, and they catch up fast.

Having said that, kindergartens in Germany are under pressure from parents to be more than places where little Franka and Finn go to do finger-painting, jump around to music and hang out with their pals. I have been at PTA meetings where their teachers are harangued because the children are not being “challenged enough”. Our kindergarten has introduced optional English, after the exercise of parental pressure. I would not be surprised if, in the next few years, kindergartens will start to be compelled to introduce basic writing and numeracy skills. If that happened, I would be sad.

I have loved having the privilege of raising my kids in a society where childhood is still protected and nurtured. My kids are comparatively innocent: they have never been to MacDonalds, they don’t know that Bratz exist, they haven’t watched High School Musical and, while they like clothes, they don’t wear any horrible scary approximations of adult attire. It’s such a relief to live in society that facilitates these parenting decisions, and helps me to keep them innocent for as long as possible. My kids like to ride bikes, swim, play complicated games of their own making, to craft and to dance. I love the richness of their play, and I would hate academic pressure and the social pressure that comes with that to intrude.

Why is it happening, though, even in Germany? Why are parents putting pressure on kindergarten to challenge their kids? I think it’s the increasingly middle-class-ization of society (speaking as a paid-up member): kids need academic skills to survive junior school, so that they can get into Gymnasium (the academic stream), hence into university and from there into good jobs. And every middle-class parent has the unspoken anxiety that if their child doesn’t start learning to read and write at four, then there’s no chance of her getting a good job at 24. Which is of course, rubbish.

So to respond to Susie, I can’t say that kindergarten is killing childhood, but I see the potential for it happening here. I remain remain intensely grateful it has not happened yet and that German society is still wise enough to protect and cherish childhood.

For more on the US perspective, see the also-lovely Yogamum’s response to Susie’s question.


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Let Them Have Time

A friend visited me from England this summer with her three children. Since there were eight of us and our car fits seven at a push, we were forced to spend all week just hanging out with our kids at the various places of joy and thrillification that The Burg has to offer for the under-thirteens. We did the pool, the mini-golf, the walks along the river, the ferry trip, the skate-park, the multiple playground visits and the all-you-can-eat buffet at the local Chinese restaurant. We also held some in-house events: the High Tea with face-painting, the Abba discos and a lot of Tearing Round The Garden While Screaming at the Top of Your Voice (a favourite with the neighbours). Anyway, after a week of observation, she noted that Germans actually play with their children. “In England,” she said, “people take their children to the playground, but then they spend the entire time on their mobile phones or chatting to the other parents. They ignore their kids.”

Another friend visited, this time from South Africa, and she observed with astonishment how much time German men devote to their children (German mamas do too, but she was particularly taken with the hands-on papas). Here, weekends are designated as family time and parents take their children for bikes rides, go swimming with them or head down to the river to fly a kite or knock a football about. Most of the South African men I know and love spend their weekends watching TV or indulging their own sporting interests, with nary a thought for what their kids would like them to do (and here I am speaking as a child who grew up spending alternative weekends at the edge of a golf course or watching the distant speck of my father casting a fly into a river). Here, all the fathers (and mothers) I know give their kids their time. And, best of all, they enjoy it.

With those two comments in mind, it was interesting to read this excellent article in this week’s Observer. The writer attributes the fact that Britain has the unhappiest children in the Western world (from a Unicef report) not to failure of government or the gap between rich and poor, but to failure of their parents to provide them with a basic need: their time.

I am very suspicious of “busyness”, to which people of my generation love to subscribe. Sure if you’re a fulltime working mother or father of three children, then you’re busy. Sure if you’re a single parent, then you’re busy. Sure if you’ve got multiple looming deadlines, three small kids and a messy house, then you’re busy. Are you busy if you go to the gym more than three times a week? Are you busy if you have frequent coffee mornings? Are you busy if you’re on Facebook or Twittering rather than actually working on that laptop?

I’m not saying we all have to be perfect parents, and neither am I saying that a little recreational Web use is a bad thing, but I am saying to those parents who sit in the playground glued to their mobiles that you ignore your children at your peril. I am saying to parents who chase their children out of the kitchen so that they “can get on with things” (and I am guilty here), you will regret it one day when you try to get your teenagers to help you cook. I am saying to parents who won’t let a little person “help” with bed-making, the chances are in ten years’ time you’ll be begging him to pull up his duvet and he just won’t. I am saying to parents who text during family mealtimes that you won’t have a leg to stand on when your teenagers start doing the same. I am saying to fathers who work all week long that if you don’t put the time in with your children now, while they are young and unable to craft a sentence on the outcome of today’s football match, they won’t be interested in talking to you once you decide you’re ready to talk to them.

Small children can be bothersome. They won’t leave you alone. They want you to play Lego with them when you’d really rather check your blog stats. They want you to have illogical conversations with them about the existence of fairies when you’d rather talk to a girlfriend on the phone. They want to tell you in Three Different Ways how wonderful school was today when you want to zone out with a cup of coffee. They can be repetitive. They can be a little dull. But apart from ensuring that they get regular food and sleep, the most important need we can fulfil is to show them that we enjoy spending our precious time with them. That’s how they are going to grow up as well-adjusted, confident adults who believe they have something valuable to share with the world – themselves.


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A Few Good Rules

I’ve just finished reading Nineteen Minutes – Jodi Picoult’s version of the American school shooting phenomenon, in which she attributes the shooter’s act of vengeance to years of systematic bullying. Picoult spins a good tale, broad, encompassing, but never deep. Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, deals with the same subject matter – what makes a teenage murderer, how a community responds, how parents of a murderer feel – but far more provocatively and urgently. Her tale of a mother who fails, despite every good intention, to love her unlovable child, is chilling. If I had to choose between the two, I would recommend the latter. I admire Shriver’s brutal honesty and her determination to tackle deeply unpleasant topics.

Shriver’s story posits that Kevin, the teenage murderer, arrives on the planet evil. This alone, without the story’s horrific denouement, is hard to digest. We want to believe that babies are innocent, until we slowly imprint our weaknesses on them. We want to believe that the parents of an amoral child did their best to teach him. And we certainly want to believe that such a child might take revenge his schoolmates but never on his own family.

The murderer in Picoult’s tale starts out as an ordinary child, perhaps one who is more sensitive than most. On his first day of kindergarten, the bullying begins and it never stops. Each day at school is one of humiliation, shame and beatings. One part of the story I found hard to accept is that the adults around him, his parents and his teachers, are never aware of the extent of the bullying. His parents try to make him more acceptable to his peers by forcing him to play soccer, but continually compare him to his brother Josh who is socially competent, academic and sporty. Josh also teases his brother at school, calling him a “freak”, and how this fails to pan out in the family is never addressed.

In comparison to Shriver’s meaty broth, Picoult’s novel is a thin gruel, competent but never entirely satisfying. However, it did make me think a little more about bullying and how children loathe difference. When Lily arrived in her little German school class last year, she was swiftly dumped by the one child from her own kindergarten (they have since reconciled) and was left to face the hordes on her own. After two weeks of hearing that no-one wanted to play with her at break-time, I went on a playdate offensive, inviting children round, baking welcoming muffins and letting them see that while Lily may be a little different from the German norm in that she comes from an English/South African background, she is loved and cherished just like they are. Now she has lovely little friends, from whom she remains slightly independent, as is her way. Had I left it, perhaps she would have managed on her own, but perhaps she would not have. I’m just glad I acted swiftly.

However, with bullying on my mind, it was interesting that she came home today with list of rules for good behaviour at school. The children have cut them out and stuck them in their work books, and they are discussing them in class with their teacher. The rules are:

We listen to each other, and to the teacher

We don’t laugh at anyone when they make a mistake

We don’t blame each other

We help each other

We don’t run in the classroom, only in the playground

We speak politely to each other

We let each other finish our sentences

We keep our desks tidy

We work quietly, so as not to disturb each other

We solve our conflicts without violence

We wait our turn quietly

We put up our hands when we want to speak

I don’t know if this is school policy, or just the policy of Lily’s teacher, but I think they are a great set of principles, ones according to which I’d be happy to raise my children.


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The Mouse That Roared

When Lily was born, seven and a half years ago, she was a tiny little scrap of a person. Less than three kilograms, she struggled to learn how to latch, had furious colic and could only sleep with her nose pressed against my side. Since she was so small, white and squeaky, we started calling her Lily Mouse. That name has stuck, even though she is now tall, leggy and brown.

The name Mouse, while affectionate and sweet, doesn’t actually fit her well. She is a quiet and calm person, but is by no means timid. Her sense of self is strong and over the years, she has shown herself to be very brave. At three, we thrust her into German Kindergarten, having told her that we speak English at home (“inside”) and that out in the world (“outside”) all she would hear was German. She came back from her first day in an all-German environment and told my mother on the phone that she was “a bit disappointed because they were all Derman inside”. That let-down apart, she went back the next day with a smile on her face and was speaking Derman within six weeks. She has also acquitted herself brilliantly in her first year at Big School, getting a great report, and reading and writing Derman far better than most of her Derman classmates. She taught herself to read in English in May, and is already reading her third Harry Potter.

Lily is cerebral and artistic, but this summer has shown that she also has amazing physical courage. During one visit to a theme park, she went on scary rides – rollercoasters and demon drops – that are far too terrifying for me. She swam in the deep end of the pool at our Italian campsite without anyone watching. And then this week at our local pool, and with the encouragement of some big friends visiting from Dubai, she jumped off the small diving-board into the pool. Not content with that, she went and jumped off the medium diving-board. And then, summoning every ounce of courage in her seven-year-old body, chest heaving with adrenaline and fists clenched, she joined the teenagers and leapt off the high board. And then she did that ten more times.

We can’t call her Lily Mouse anymore. I think she’s a tiger. Tiger Lily.


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Remembering The Hermitage

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.


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Asking for Help

I grew up with the twisted notion that being a grown-up meant not asking for help. To me, being an adult signalled independence and the ability to cope with whatever life threw at you. I don’t know where this came from, because my mother always seemed to have loads of friends who fluttered around her helpfully when crises arose, and nobody ever said me, “You’re going to have to go it alone”. But somehow I acquired the idea that you’re on your own and that’s the way it is.

After my recent dose of the blues, a few people said a few things to me that made me think. One friend said, “When you get depressed, you disappear into your house and you don’t tell anyone. We think you don’t want to see us.” Another friend said, “It makes people feel loved when you ask them for help.” My husband said, “How can I tell you’re feeling depressed if you don’t tell me?”

I’m starting to realise that asking for help is part of being a grown-up. Admitting that things are hideous and you feel terrible and you want some comfort is actually quite a mature thing to do. On that note, dear bloggers, here is me asking for help. The problem is: housework. I don’t want you to come round and do my housework for me, but I need some advice.

Apparently, French women enjoy doing housework. Are they mad? I am crap at housework, and have mixed feelings about that. Why I am not a deliciously bustling French woman, keeping my home spotless and my man firmly under control? Part of me takes a stupid pride in the fact that I don’t have the housework gene and thus far have not tried to acquire it, while part of me is faintly ashamed that we don’t have a perfect home. My lovely husband appears to suffer from none of these kinds of self-doubt, so maybe I should take a leaf from his book.

When we made the decision years ago that I would stay home and look after our kids when they were little, I had no idea how many hours of housework that would entail. I’ve always had a cleaner once a week, so am lucky that I don’t have to do the really hideous tasks, but three children do make a lot of cooking/laundry/dish-washing/planning/preparation/tidying. My motto has always been “people before objects” and that is the haphazard way my kids are being brought up. I’d rather spend time with them than polish the silver, or organise the toys into logical groups, or swab the floor (it was done two days ago – that’s enough, surely?). But I do try to aim for order of a sort.

In South Africa, having a housekeeper who turns up for work on a daily basis, or even lives in, is the norm. This means that the horrible tasks are delegated to someone else, which is fine in terms of job creation in a land with 40% unemployment, but has meant three things for me:

1) I have no idea how to do housework well. Anything I have learnt I have done so by trial and error. I am unlike the French women in that I have no idea what is the “right way”, if such a thing exists. And the same goes for my husband.

2) I don’t know how to teach my children to participate in housework, because no-one ever taught me. And unless I go back to South Africa, or somewhere else where low-paid houseworkers/nannies relieve parents of their duties, I am going to have to teach them how to help. I don’t want to turn them into little household slaves but I also don’t want them to become brats, so I need them to learn some skills in order to become useful adults one day. I would also like my son to grow up as housework-savvy as his sisters so that he can be a good partner in the future, and not a man-child in his home. (See Rachel Johnson’s article on the very same topic.)

3) I am used to a clean house, that is kept so by someone else, so my standards and my ability don’t match. That gap is the place where I beat myself up, usually in my mother-in-law’s voice or in that of one of my exceedingly clean neighbours. An hour or so of that kind of internal criticism is enough to bring on a bout of depression.

So for those of you who grew up in countries where people looked after their own homes, and where children were expected to help, here are my questions:

1) At what age were you expected to start doing household chores? What were considered age-appropriate chores?

2) Were you ever paid for doing chores? Did you receive rewards in any way, or was it expected?

3) How did your parents regulate your chores? For example, if you didn’t do them, was your pocket-money docked?

4) Were the chores in your home sexist? Or did boys and girls do the same work?

Any ideas or comments are welome.

(Feeling very grown-up now. May have to go and put on some lipstick.)