When our daughter Laura was fourteen years old she spent the first half of the year at the St Cyprians Boarding School in the leafy suburb of Gardens in Cape Town. She enjoyed the experience so much that she badgered us to send her back there for the duration of the following year. Laura generally gets her own way and it was no different on this occasion.
My wife and I travelled to South Africa in June of that year, accompanied by my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. We spent some time in the Kruger National Park before driving south to Cape Town, where we lingered for a few days.
When the other family members travelled on to England I remained behind with Laura. The two of us went to stay with my brother Charel and sister-in-law Marlien, who live near Hermanus, a picturesque coastal village on the east coast 120 kilometers from Cape Town.
At that stage Laura had not met any of my relatives in South Africa, apart from Charel and Marlien and their children, so I decided to take her to meet my uncle André Botha, a retired judge, and his wife Mara, who lived in a house named Langbaai in Hermanus. Their living room overlooked Walker Bay and during the whale watching season one could see the whales frolicking in the ocean from their porch.
My mum, known by the family as Sus—an abbreviation for the Afrikaans term for “sister”—was the eldest of five children. My uncle André was the youngest of her four brothers and was one of my favourites. In common with his other siblings he was highly intelligent. He was also a soft-spoken and gentle person, unlike one of his brothers who would be quite moody and aggressive at times, and another who was, in my view, just plain nasty.
We arrived at Langbaai on a lovely, crisp winter’s morning in time for morning coffee. André and Mara made a big fuss over their young Australian niece, whom they were meeting for the first time. Mara had baked a scrumptious cake, which we enjoyed with our coffee while we did the normal catching up and gossiping that families do when they had not seen each other for a while. It was all very pleasant.
Since I had last seen André he had developed a serious eye condition that was impairing his vision and rendered everything he looked at a vague blur.
“Could you please do me a favour and describe to me what Laura looks like?” he asked Mara.
“Well,” she replied, looking Laura up and down, “she has dark brown hair and brown eyes, and she definitely has Sus’ nose. You can clearly see that she that she is related to the Bothas.”
We chatted for a while longer before Laura and I got ready to depart. My uncle André looked in Laura’s direction and asked her, “Would you mind very much coming really close to me so that I can try and see for myself what you look like?”
“Yep, that’s fine,” she said and walked towards him.
My uncle stretched out his hands, cupped her face and gently drew her very close to himself, peering at her intently.
“Oh, yes,” he mused, “she definitely has the Bothas’ features.”
Then he turned towards Mara and said to her in a slightly accusing tone of voice, “But when you described her you didn’t tell me that Laura is so beautiful!”
Laura and I said our farewells and reversed out of the driveway to head back to my brother’s house. As we were taking off, Laura said dreamily, “I really like your uncle André, Dad. He is such a nice man.”