To this day I become angry when I think about my mum’s treatment by her parents when she was a young woman.
She was the eldest of five children and the only female child. Her father should have known better, I tell myself. After all, he was someone who was passionate about the value of education, a professor of literature at the University of Cape Town and later the Superintendent-General of Education for South Africa. His four sons were all sent to university to pursue their areas of interest. Boet (Dr M C Botha) studied medicine and was the immunologist on Dr Chris Barnard’s team who performed the world’s first heart transplant. Paul became a corporate accountant, Jan a journalist and André a lawyer and eventually an appeals court judge. Sus, however, was not given a choice of what she could study. Her parents simply enrolled her in a Domestic Science degree course, an area of study in which she had no interest.
This occurred at a time when women were generally not afforded opportunities to pursue a tertiary education at all and I am sure that her parents meant well in sending their daughter to university. It nevertheless angers me that her parents had been so constrained by society’s cloistered view of women’s roles at that time that they had shackled a highly intelligent woman, who would no doubt have excelled in any course of study of her own choice. Her interests were in subjects like astronomy, botany, art and literature, rather than in the Domestic Science studies into which she had been corralled.
These shackles dragged her back for the remainder of her life. She only lasted at university for a few months before dropping out and, at the age of 21, married a school teacher fifteen years her senior. I know that she had married for love because I have read a couple of the love letters that she had written to my dad at the time. I suspect, though, that she must also have realised that marriage was the only ‘career option’ that had remained open to her.
Sus at the time of her engagement in 1941
My mum had an enquiring mind. She was an avid reader of books on a great variety of subjects and she enjoyed doing the newspaper crosswords, which she generally completed with little trouble. Although she was a good cook, she lacked enthusiasm for cooking. Fortunately my dad, having been a bachelor for many years, was adept in the kitchen and he willingly shared the responsibility for preparing meals.
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On completion of my final year at high school I was conscripted for military service. As I said goodbye to my parents on the morning that my brother was driving me to the Cape Town railway station, where I had to catch the train to the army training camp in Oudtshoorn, my mum suddenly started weeping. I had not expected this and I told her not to be silly, because I was only going to be away for a year.
“You don’t have any children of your own”, she said. “You have no idea what it’s like for a mother. You were inside my tummy for nine long months and during all that time I was so excited that I could barely wait to see you. Now I won’t see you again for a whole year.”
Eleven years afterwards I said farewell to her once more. This time I was leaving South Africa permanently to emigrate to Australia. My mum knew about my opposition to the government of the time, with its abhorrent Apartheid policies and its merciless treatment of anyone who dared to criticise or to oppose them. I realise now that it was a measure of her concern for my safety and of her love for me that she never said a single word to discourage me from leaving.
My parents, who had never travelled overseas during their years of marriage, visited us regularly in Australia and also in Papua New Guinea, when my wife and I worked there in the early 1980s. Because I only saw my mum intermittently, the times we spent together were always special to both of us.
There was little to do in Port Moresby, so I took my parents to a coral beach to go snorkelling. As my mum and I swam over the coral towards the edge of the reef she became agitated and told me that she needed to get back to the shore. Back on the beach she told me that she had become exhausted. “I’m an old lady, you know,” she reminded me. “I’m 62.”
A few days afterwards she sheepishly confessed that she had not really been tired, but that she had lost her nerve. I was having none of that, so I took her back to the coral beach, where we took our time moving away from the shore. I got her to stand on a submerged rock every now and again, where she could look around for a while. We eventually made it to the edge of the reef, where the coral dropped away sharply and large tropical fish cruised through the deep water. She stood on a submerged rock and looked around in amazement at this colourful wonderland of coral and fish.
After a while I said, “Let’s go back to the beach. I’m getting cold.”
“You go along,” she said. “Don’t wait for me. I’ll just stay here for a bit longer.”
A year after my parents’ visit to Papua New Guinea my dad rang me with the news that my mum had developed a cancerous lump in her thigh muscle, which had been surgically removed. I was horrified, but the surgeon appeared to have removed the lump all in one piece and we were optimistic that it would be the end of the matter. However, the virulent cancer reappeared a few months later, spreading rapidly to her lungs and other organs.
In August 1984 my mum and dad visited me in Australia so that we could say our final farewells to her. At that time I was unable to travel to South Africa due to my anti-Apartheid activities in Australia. When time is running out, one values every minute spent with a loved one. I clearly remember the small slivers of happiness, like how she had beamed with joy whenever Pavarotti, our friendly magpie, had come to warble on our balcony and how she fed him by hand every day.
Tim’s last photo of his mum, August 1984
My mum died a mere four months later, shortly before Christmas Day. She was 64. Even though I was well aware that her illness was terminal, the actual news of her death ripped my heart open.
In time I got over the pain of losing my mum. Our kids were born, my job kept me very busy and life went on. More than a decade later I had a very vivid dream one night in which my mum suddenly appeared. She looked as real as if she were standing there in the flesh.
“I thought you had died!” I exclaimed.
“No, I’m still here,” she replied.
“But why do you never come to see me anymore?” I asked.
She just stood there, smiling at me kindly.
“You’re not real, are you?” I asked.
She instantly disappeared.
I woke up. My pillow was wet with tears.
I miss my mum.