There’s a haze over Cape Town like a 25% white soft light photoshop fill as I’m headed out of town (unbeknownst to me, a volcano in Chile has coughed up part of it’s lungs into the universe like a butterfly flapping it’s wings…). I’m on my way to Franschhoek for a funeral and I’m not sure how I feel.
The car I’m driving is borrowed from my very first boyfriend. I like to say I chose well. We’re in relationships with other people, but eons later we still love each other and always will have each other’s backs. I remember my grandmother’s funeral shortly after we met, when he, effete German, braved the unknown of a Cape Flats/Franschhoek family and tramped through grave-yard mud with me as I cried hysterically for the woman who used to be the person I loved most in this world. I can’t help but take a trip down many miles of memories as I drive towards another goodbye, even if merely symbolic.
Lining the roads, the trees wear their best brocade. Russets and reds and ambers. Rich, varied textures in which to pay their respects. The wine farms of the valley race toward, then fall away one by one: Graham beck, La Motte, La Provence. The latter two are beacons from my long-ago childhood. The basin of blue mountains curve familiar, yet strange.
Pic by Andy Shader
Against the slopes the Franschhoek sign is barely visible and in need of a good coat of white-wash. How ironic that when I walked barefoot down these icy gutters (my choice – I didn’t want to stand out against everyone else who didn’t have that choice) I never imagined I would one day live in another city on the other side of the world, also famous for it’s white letters against a hill.
When I arrive I find my mom (who has a fractured wrist she conveniently forgot to mention!) scurrying between my aunt and my uncle’s neighboring houses, making last minute arrangements. When I see my aunt I’m scared by how frail and shrunken and ancient she looks. I’m scared i might be booking more funeral flights in the not too distant future.
I’m overwhelmed by all the people, extended, distant family whose faces I recognize, but whose names eternally escape me. The house is buzzing with the busyness of funeral prep, food, flowers. Mundane yet crucial questions like, “Is there enough toilet paper ?”
One of my cousins is looking for her lipstick. She says she needs to write on her lips, which doesn’t sound quite as descriptive as her actual words and tone of voice in Afrikaans, “Ek moet op my lippe skryf!” I’m reminded of the inimitable sense of humor that runs through the inevitable tragedies of my family.
Silence descends on the house as everyone leaves for the service next door. I take a deep breath and jot down some thoughts before I join them.
Last time I saw my uncle we sat around a Xmas dinner and he talked about the family history. How our clan is made up of a mix of Mozambicans and people from Malabar, off the coast of India, various European explorers, with a huge dollop of Khoi San and Xhosa and whoever else was to be found wandering these rich hills and southern shores. I meant to get a video-camera and get an oral history record of what he remembers. Remembered. Now it’s too late. Time steamrollers everything with not a shred of sentimentality under its steel wheels.
At the church I’m once more overwhelmed by memories. It looks almost exactly the same as when I practiced my piano lessons in here as a 9 yr old (a concession made because we did not own a piano). I wish now that I’d continued those piano lessons. I have a life-long regret that I gave up music because of the dirty-old-man-piano-teacher who tried to feel me up (one of the countless predators I’ve had to deal with in my life). Another thing which I now realize I allowed to be taken from me.
The service goes on and on. I realize that just about everyone in the packed church is somehow related. Cousins, second-cousins, nephews, second-second cousins twice removed… Everyone seems to be made from 1 of 3 or 4 basic templates and you can see that so and so is related to auntie so and so and that one looks like uncle whatsisname… There’s a singer with a lovely voice, accompanied by a man on a concertina. It’s bizarre. I’ve been asked to read the thanks and can barely get through it. I who was never able to cry, now seem to be capable of deluges.
We push the coffin in which my uncle’s body lies cold, a mere avatar for someone no longer here, out of the church. The white hearse lurches out of the churchyard and with it, that empty shell, too, is gone. Off to the crematorium. An obvious choice for someone like me, I’m surprised that it was his…
At the hall where people have been invited for refreshments, the (mostly enormous) women of the family are bustling, feeding everyone, amazingly nimble with their amazonian breasts and thighs and hips. There are probably 5 generations present, toddlers, to great-grandmothers. Cups of soup on trays fly out of the kitchen, followed by the ubiquitous chicken curry and rice and plates of samoosas and savories. People eat and then just as fast, the hall empties and in the kitchen it’s a mess of dirty dishes and sorting of which empty pot belongs to whom. A typical “colored” funeral.
When I’m done with my stint in the kitchen, out in the street I join the cousins from far off places who have been pulled back together by the gravitational force of this death. We congregate on the open tailgate of a car and I smile to see my teenaged niece nestled in the crook of my mountainous brother’s arm. It’s nice to see them both smiling.
It’s nice to see my brother – we have probably spent no more than 1 day together over the last 15 yrs, if you add up the hours. Not my choice.
My brother is basking in the testosterone of “hanging with the boys. I love seeing him this relaxed.
I see the empty beer-bottles in the trunk and say, “Organize vir my…” and the boys scurry off and find me a cider. Slowly everyone disperses. The older crowd washes up at my aunt’s house and before the younger guys float off with an ice chest to go and hold an old-fashioned post-funeral wake, we stand around in the street and shoot the sh*t and laugh at each other’s stories. It’s good to see everyone together. Uncle Willie would have approved.
Long before I even thought of becoming an actress, my uncle was the rockstar of the family. He even went by a single moniker. Uncle. That was it. He was the “crown prince” of the family and he was a rapscallion. The 6 children he sired are proof of the fact that women loved him! He always seemed to have an impish smile on his face that said, “I know something that you’re dying to find out!”. As a family member read in the eulogy, he was not a perfect man… In fact, in many ways he was deeply flawed, but swaggering in his 10-gallon hats like an outlaw from the westerns he loved, he lived! And he lived most of all, for fishing at his favorite Hentie’s bay. I have fond memories of trips to Namibia to spend salty holidays by the sea. He was gruff, rough and funny and educated, lived to educate in his role as teacher and was one of those people who was always the focus of any crowd. He always had an enthralled audience and a great story and I guess it’s a good gauge of his life that he had so many of them to tell.
For all his flaws, I guess love, the fact that he loved and was loved, is what made him perfect..
I’m sure he’s regaling everyone with a fabulously fishy tale wherever he is right about now.
Willem Johannes Davids 1935 - 2011