Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Going back (North) West

A short note to share my trepidation: tomorrow I will be heading back to the province and town I grew up in. We are attending a music and arts festival in the North West province of SA. The town is called Potchefstroom, the festival is Aardklop. Potchefstroom is near Stilfontein, the town I spent most of my puberty in.

Growing up in a small town has its advantages - you tend to find creative ways of keeping busy (no movie theatres or malls), and you do not get shot at when acquiring fruit from neighbours' trees... Ringing the church bell in the wee hours of the morning is fun when you have exhausted the video collection at the local video shop during school holidays. Children could roam the streets in safety and the ice-cream at Keurboom Motors was divine.

There is only one high school - where the entire grade 11 group refused to take part in singsongs by shouting an empathic "NO" to the teacher when asked for their participation in'92... and paid for that with resultant laps around the field for disobedience. There we played hockey in winter, coached by a man affectionately called "Jan Bom" (meaning John Bomb), whose philosophies on injuries included "if there's no blood it doesn't hurt". The school housed the usual group of teachers with weird and sometimes wonderful quirks - the accounting one who called the pupils "papkoppe" (cereal heads); the English subject head (Mad Mam) who listened to children's radio shows during class time; and the sexy biology teacher who had all the boys in hormone-ridden suspense.

I remember the incredibly cold winter mornings on the hockey fields - your hands so icy you could hardly feel the vibrations of the stick when you hit the ball. And the exam hall in winter... The cold seeped into your legs - we ended up bringing blankets to school to wrap around our legs like old people. Summers were long and hot, the yellow school shirts with blue tunics almost unbearable; and the sunburn at the local athletics hurt even more than losing to the other schools.

The town holds many many memories. That's where I got my first kiss (wasn't nice); learnt to drive (dangerous!) in the old unused drive-in area; where we rode our pasolas past the Afrikaans teacher's house after someone burnt unmentionable words into her grass using petrol... In Stilfontein I laughed and cried and played and grew. Although I will never regret growing up there, I detested the narrow-minded "box" mentality of small-towners that expected you to act in a certain way. I wanted out of the smallness and therefore spread my wings in the city of Pretoria after school. I never went back there except to visit my mom while she was still there. She was the only reason to go back. That is why I cannot think of the town separate from my memories of my mother.

I think that is where my trepidation lies: I haven't been back to that place since we moved my mom's house (September 06) after her passing away in December 05. My mom was an icon there: the English and drama teacher of the only High School, she left no-one untouched. She was one of those teachers that you either adored or couldn't stand. She lived out loud: she laughed loudly, she cried loudly, she sang loudly (and beautifully) and would support you through anything. And that is not just as our mom - it was the kind of person she was. She could be difficult as hell and sweeter than honey. She was tough and fragile and mean and caring all at the same time.

I realised people's perceptions of her when we held her memorial service in town. So many people attended, most we didn't know. We held many men and women who cried on our shoulders - sobbing "she was like a mother to me". I felt like screaming: "she was MY mother!!!!" They wrote poignant notes in a "memory journal" for her; they shared stories and memories.

Yes, my mom made an impression on the town and on its people. Now I'm going back - back to the memories and the house I grew up in. I'm scared because I heard the town is run-down now... I also heard the later owners of my mom's house had all the trees cut down, including the big shady one in the front yard, the fruit trees in the back yard and the huge apricot tree. I'm not sure I want to see that.

I'm not sure I want to face the tiny ghosts of my uneventful past - but I will. In a way, it will be a rite of passage, a last good bye. Not just to my childhood, but to the raw part of the sorrow I still bear for my mom. Because in the gold dust of the town lies my mom's footprints. And my own.


Eugene said...

Tan, that was beautiful and poignant and all too familiar. I grew up in a small town just like that and even though my memories are different they are of the same flavour. I never went back after burying my dad. I left that very night and never looked back. Your words here really make me wonder how I would feel going back to my former home. Somehow I just don't feel like I have it in me. This is a brave thing you are doing, and a necessary one. Maybe I will try it for myself one day.

Hopper said...

Gibran says, "The deeper that sorrow has carved into your being the more joy you can contain."

Hope these words find you well and that you've found some peace from your ghosts...

Tania said...

Thanks Hopper - those words do indeed ring true. And yes, I have.

Honour said...

Tania, I'm at a conference for writers right now, and one of our keynote speaker talked about "writing the story you are meant to write". Not what sells, not what is popular but what derives from your personal experience. For, that's what's real - that's what readers will identify to - a true emotion and will be good for you as a writer to write, even if it never gets published.

What you've shared with us here is touching and moving in a way I don't often see on blogs. I see lots of sentiment - love lost, sweet memories, blah, blah, blah - but this, my dear. This is real. Thanks for sharing it. And honey - do something with whatever is in you that needs to be written. It's beautiful.

Anna Leanda said...

Hi Tania...I knew your mother well. She was my teacher, sorry to hear of her passing!

I thankfully moved from Stilfonten in 1990 but would have matriculated in 92. I think your sister was with my brother...Dorneo van Niekerk.

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Anna Leanda Thackray...my name then was Leanda van Niekerk