New Wife and I were chatting the other day about men and women — and specifically, how in the “old days” (in our case, the 1950s and -60s) men went out to work, and women stayed at home, managed the household and raised the children. The roles were clearly defined, and because of that, there seemed to be little angst, the way there is today, about “women’s roles” and all that. Most especially, the traditional role of the “stay-at-home mom” has been belittled, and worse still, seen as some kind of oppression. Even uglier is the attitude which said that women, having got the kids off to school in the morning, sat around and ate bonbons all day, maybe (and reluctantly) doing housework and preparing the evening meal, in the Donna Reed manner.
That was not the case for our mothers, and I’m going to talk about mine (because I don’t know that much about New Wife’s mother — who, it should be said, disliked me for obvious reasons).
My Mom was always working. Far from being lazy and lounging about on the couch, she was so busy that, in retrospect, I have no idea how she got through the day without passing out exhausted at the end. Here are some of the things she did.
She went to England with my father on one of his business trips, but he was going all over the place — to Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester and Newcastle — and she, stuck in London, got bored on Day Two, with another two weeks to go. So she found a beautician school somewhere in Soho, enrolled, and was able to get a certificate in those two weeks which took other students over a month. When she came back, she started a cottage job, giving facials and nail treatments at first to her friends, and then to a much larger clientele.
But that wasn’t enough. She took up yoga for exercise, and got so good that she was invited by her teacher to become a teacher herself. So for over a decade, she taught yoga to women, two lessons a day each workday week. (It started off as a single class for the neighborhood women, and by the end, she had a waiting list of over a hundred. My father had to build her a studio on our property because she outgrew our living room in a couple of months.)
Like in Britain, South Africa had branches of the Women’s Institute all over the place. My mom joined the local branch, and after a couple of years she became the chairlady, a position she held for nearly twenty years. (For more about the WI, here’s the story.) Under her leadership, that branch went from a recipe-swapping club to an institution which created sub-branches that taught traditional (but forgotten) household skills such as gardening, flower-arranging, household decoration and, outside the house, public speaking and bookkeeping. Also under her auspices, her WI provided caregivers for a daycare center for severely-handicapped children under age 5, and she was in charge of its annual fundraising drive — which after two years enabled the center to move from someone’s house into their own building (incidentally built by my father’s engineering company, gratis ).
Mom was also an indefatigable rose-gardener. While we had a live-in gardener to take care of the main (two-acre) garden, the forty-odd rose bush garden was her own fiercely-guarded domain, and she watered, pruned, dug out and weeded the beds daily. (The ever-present smell of fresh roses in our house stays with me to this day.)
In addition, she was in charge of family entertainment. As a senior business executive (and later owner of his own engineering company), my father hosted formal dinners at least twice a month; and when there wasn’t a business dinner, it was a dinner party for their huge circle of friends — dinners which invariably ended up with everyone dancing in my mother’s yoga studio. (My job was to take out the yoga mats and clean the place, and to restore it to its proper function after the party.)
And the meals. Good grief, the meals. Dinner was a sit-down affair every night, and Sunday lunch was a State occasion. Mom designed and planned out every single meal — needless to say, she also did the supermarket shopping once a month. She was also a peerless baker, to the point where my sister Teresa and I, spoiled brats that we were, could not only identify a store-bought cake, but would refuse to eat it. The only variation to this was confectioneries — Napoleons (custard slices), petit-fours and donuts — which were bought from Gallagher’s Bakery in the city (the only one which met Mom’s exacting standards), where she would take us every Saturday morning, as a treat.
Granted, we also had a live-in maid to help with the cleaning and laundry work — my Black mommy Mary Madipe, who carried me around on her back as a baby in the African manner, and who alone could discipline me with a single word — but all the time that Mom saved from those chores was not spent in idleness and indolence, as can be seen above.
Of course, there were the kids to look after. Fortunately (for her), at age 11 I went off to boarding school, but before that, while waiting for my lift to primary school, I remember that each Monday Mom would give me a manicure before going to school. (I’ve looked after my nails in similar fashion ever since: emery boards, cuticle clippers, the lot.) From Mom, I learned about being a gentleman: table manners, etiquette, proper dressing, the lot — all rigorously drilled into me for as long as I can remember. (I recall, at age eight, holding the door open for one of my mother’s friends, and her astonishment at what was, for me, everyday behavior.)
So yeah, those were the days of the stay-at-home mom that I remember. This was not a life as portrayed in the sneering manner of today: it was a time when “housewife” carried all the responsibilities of home management — and in those days, microwave ovens, TV dinners (and in South Africa, TV at all) were as yet unknown. Everything was made from scratch, and an “out” meal was perhaps a monthly trip to the roadhouse or fish ‘n chip shop, all treated with the greatest excitement by us kids.
It was work, I think, which would absolutely devastate the Modern Ms. of today.
If you’re not bored by all this, I invite you to read further. It’s personal.
For those who are interested, here are the words said over my mother’s coffin at her funeral in South Africa, which I was unable to attend. It is as much about me as about her.
When I moved to America, I knew that I was leaving family and friends behind. Part of the decision to leave included the very real possibility that I’d never see Mom again.
But I did see Mom again, after I emigrated. Three times she was able to visit me in my new life, in my new country. I know it gave her some comfort, knowing where I lived and getting to spend time with her grandson, Jack. I know that I enjoyed every visit and she did too. When she went home the last time, although there was always the possibility with Mom’s health that it could be the last, I hoped there would be a next time, but finally, that “next time” never came. The telephone would be the only way we could visit.
I’d also had to make peace with the fact that I might not be able to be there when Mom died — and this, tragically, has come to pass.
Let me tell you about my life with Mom. We had a family tradition which went back years. My Dad once bought himself a horribly-ugly purple towel. When we asked him why, he said, “Anyone who manages to live with your mother for twenty years, gets a purple towel.”
So he had one, I got one, Teresa got one, and Ronnie got one. The only other contenders for a purple towel were old Mary, our maid, and Scamp, my first dog.
You might think that Mom would have been insulted by this little custom, but she wasn’t. When I reminded her that Ronnie was due his “purple towel” she laughed and giggled, which is the way she responded to my twisted sense of humor. She knew she was sometimes difficult to live with, but she always thought that she was worth it. And she was.
If I were standing with you all now, I’d be quiet about all of this. I’d stand, politely, greeting each of you, accepting your condolences and your wonderful stories about Mom, and I wouldn’t have to say much. I could nod and thank you, and get away without having to express much emotion.
But today, I can’t have the luxury of keeping my feelings hidden because I am not there. Today, as you are hearing my jumbled words, I am ten thousand miles away, thinking about all of you, and part of my penance for leaving is that I have to tell you a bit about my feelings today, and about my feelings about Mom.
I did have a wonderful relationship with Mom, and a gentle family life. Mom put up with me. She put up with me as a headstrong, spoiled and self-willed boy and as an adult (with those same flaws): she’d put up with my forgetting to phone her on Mother’s Day or her birthday, not remembering when it was daytime in South Africa and always getting to her late. She’d call me sometimes, worried, because I hadn’t called her. That was Mom. She’d worry about me even if I was behaving like a horrible son. In that sense, I knew she always thought the best of me. She was always glad to hear from me, however late I might be in calling her when she was due a call.
“Boy” she would begin each question, “Boy… how’s Jack doing in school?”, “Boy… how’s Connie?”, “Boy… how’s your job going?” and I’d fill in the responses for each question. She’d make me laugh with the way she’d relay the details of her life. I’d say something outrageous (as I am wont to do) and she would laugh, in that slightly embarrassed giggle she would give when I’d catch her off guard.
In one of our last conversations though, she caught me off guard, and it was me who guffawed at her story. I’ve been dining out on the story for weeks. She had been telling me about the relatives, about Ronnie, about Teresa, about Auntie Gwen and about Uncle Locky, keeping me up to date, as she always did. Then I asked, “How are Dad’s relatives, Mom”? She responded dryly, “Oh, they’re all dead.” I thought I’d broken a rib, I laughed so hard.
It was Mom’s way. I often describe her as having no filter: a thought became speech, with no filter in between. It was her lack of filter that made her interesting and entertaining, and where she’d have me in helpless laughter.
Mom always cared about our happiness more than her own. She cared about our independence, of speaking our minds.
She always seemed gentle, but there was some kind of inner toughness which no-one can understand. After she’d had her first heart attack, Dad died. Somehow, she survived all that, went back to work (after a break of 25 years from the workplace), looked after me and Teresa, coped with sudden poverty and managed to put all that behind her.
Then she found a new life with Ronnie, the proud holder of the last purple towel. Ronnie is my stepfather, but he has been a rock for her, a tower of strength, and on this sad day, I want to thank Ronnie from the bottom of my heart for looking after her all this time. Without Ronnie, I would not have been able to make a new life for myself in America. Without Ronnie, I don’t know what would have become of us all. It is a debt I can never repay. So thank you, Ronnie, and you have our deepest, most profound sympathy on this sad day.
Finally, let me just add a few last memories of Mom, because I will remember her, always. I’ll think of her standing on her head for her Yoga classes, of having her tiny sliver of cake or a biscuit with her tea. I can still see her delighted smile when, as a boy, I would give her a bunch of wildflowers taken from the side of the road. I can see her sewing thousands of name tags in my school uniforms. I can see her and Mary canning hundreds and hundreds of peaches from our orchard. I can the taste her Victoria Jam Cake, which was always (and still is) my favorite, and I see her with her constant companion of her knitting needles and wool, and her three Toy Pomeranian dogs sitting at her feet.
I will always hear her constant conversation opener, “Boy…?”
Thank you for allowing me to be with you today, if only in words. My thoughts are with you all, as well as my thanks for all your years of kindness to my mother.
And so, for the last time, I’ll end this with the way I ended all my phone calls to her:
“Bye bye, Mommy. I love you.”
From your beloved son, Kim.
And yes, Mom, I have a hanky.