Sunday, November 30, 2008

Lunar landscape

El Torcal looked like a lunar landscape. The jagged edges of the rocks soared against the grey sky, my Spanish cousins moved among the rocks, well wrapped-up in ponchos and thick jackets. They were used to coming here; they had visited the mountains all their lives.

In the distance a family friend filmed us clambering over the strange hard rock formations; we waved and feigned conversations with each other for the camera. I snapped photographs: blurred and time-stained images show my family going up and down the rocks, the landscape denuded, steel-coloured; the sky a pastel grey. It was a landscape as strange and unexpected as my time in Spain had been.

The El Torcal mountains are just a few hours outside of Málaga. The name was familiar to me: my South African mother had often spoken of them and the time she and my Spanish father and a group of their friends had got lost on the cold rocks. By the time they stumbled back it was night. Waiting for my parents to return from this trip is one of my earliest memories. I was staying with my Spanish grandparents that day, but I remember the worry, the waiting; my own grandparents’ anxiety as the night grew longer and still my parents had not come home.

We left Spain when I was three: my mother, my father and myself. We arrived in Israel, ostensibly for my parents to begin a new life. My mother hoped that without the smothering influence of his parents, my father would get a life. He might begin working, take responsibility for his family, and make something of himself. It didn’t happen. He still refused to work. The kibbutz they had settled on threw them out when my father left job after job.

They moved to Tel Aviv and were put on the waiting list for another kibbutz. In the meantime they married. They had been unable to marry in Franco’s fascist Spain because my mother was Jewish and my father was Catholic. Civil weddings weren’t permitted there; nor in Israel. So they married on Cyprus, and I came along. I remember being on a big ship, the water rushing at the portholes. I remember walking along the streets at night and drinking a fanta as my mother and father exchanged vows in Greek, a language neither understood.

We left my father when I was a month short of turning five. My mother now realised he would never keep a job or become responsible. Once she caught him boiling her diaphragm in the hope that she would conceive again, but he couldn’t even support one child. It was my mother who worked doing menial jobs in Tel Aviv. We lived on my mother’s money and the money my South African grandparents sent over. Coins lined the shelves above my father’s bed at the hostel in Tel Aviv where we lived, and I thought we were rich. ‘They’re not worth that much,’ he said. Illusions were shattered.

His violent temper meant that he beat my mother. One week we moved to another room in the kibbutz. ‘I’ll kill you if you ever leave me,’ he said. Then, ‘When she’s twelve,’ he said, referring to me, ‘I’ll rape her and make you watch.’

So my mother schemed and asked her parents for tickets back to South Africa. There were arguments, recriminations. She had, after all, married a non-Jew; she had directly disobeyed them, she should live with the consequences.

Something my mother wrote must have changed their minds, because they did send tickets. My father went to Eilat for a holiday, encouraged by my mother. We stayed in Jerusalem, my mother’s fear infecting me. She was terrified my father would come storming back and discover we were planning to leave, and would let her go, but would have a claim over me and would be able to keep me.

The few days in Jerusalem passed in darkness. They seem now like scenes from a thriller, subterfuge, hiding, fear you can taste and remember decades later. But we caught the plane without my father returning early and discovering our absence. We sat on the airplane, in seats over the wing. My mother relaxed for the first time in years.

We came back to a South Africa in the aftermath of the 1976 riots. All this passed me by, but years later I found myself in a job interview being questioned as to why my mother had returned to South Africa at this time. Whites were fleeing the country, not returning. My South African uncle, his wife and children left a few months before we arrived. My other uncle was studying photography overseas, and also wouldn’t return to live in this country. So why return? The African-American interviewer asked and I had to explain, defend my mother’s position, the lack of money, the desperation, the fear, the need to gain complete custody of me.

Two years after returning, my South African grandfather offered to pay off all my father’s debts in return for an easy divorce and my mother gaining full custody. My father agreed, relinquishing any claims to me. He faded even further into the past. I had my memories, of course, but they were largely violent, negative ones. I didn’t miss a father growing up, strangely I never thought it was unnatural that I didn’t have one. I suppose the alternative –a violent, scary father – pushed out any hopes of a loving man called Dad.

I grew up. My mother never remarried or found other loves. There were dates, even a proposal, but not love, and never acceptance from me for any of the men my mother dated. In the end the dates stopped.

I grew to adolescence in a country torn apart by violence, a violence that never directly touched me, however. The black schoolchildren were burning down their schools: we all knew that in our white schools. I tried to defend their actions, but was never convincing enough. My teenage years were spent in a white government school where we were forced to sing the national anthem in Afrikaans. I refused, Afrikaans wasn’t my language and the Nationalists weren’t the government I would have voted for. A small teenage protest against the system! Early on I had absorbed my mother’s values: her open spiritual values, her nonconformism, and her disgust with apartheid. But the only black people I ever dealt with were the tellers and packers at supermarkets, the maid we employed and the gardener who was her husband.

It was around this time that I started itching to contact my father and Spanish family. It wasn’t easy. My mother still had a lot of fear and hate towards my father, and would have preferred I kept the door firmly shut on the Salafrancas. But I couldn’t. I needed to know who they were, who my father was, I needed to know about the name I was carrying, about the Spanish part of me that manifested in the name and the looks. I may not have been able to speak a word of Spanish, despite being privileged to carry a passport of that country, but I could no longer be satisfied with only knowing my mother’s side of the family: the Migdales.

So we began a correspondence. My Spanish family was warm and overjoyed to hear from me. We exchanged pictures and news. My father, now living in Sweden, wrote to me too. He was divorced from a Swedish woman; he’d had a son with her and was now involved with another. He was to have two more with her, writing me that she asked for help with the baby, ‘but I don’t have nipples filled with milk’. My mother was vindicated to learn that he hadn’t changed, hadn’t taken responsibility for any of the other children he had now sired. I was seventeen and he was writing to me about his sex life. It was inappropriate, as the adults around me said, but he couldn’t see that. Our letters became infrequent, but I maintained contact with my Spanish family back in Málaga.

I had grown up without cousins or family except for my mother and her parents who remained in Johannesburg. We were a closed, tight circle, never close emotionally but close physically. ‘Why can’t Dad accept Arie?’ my mother asked my grandmother one day. ‘Because she’s not Jewish,’ was the response. I was unaware of this lack of acceptance. In my teenager years, though, my relationship with my grandfather grew closer. He’d pinch my cheek affectionately when he came to visit, and eat the doughnuts I had made. When I was fourteen he had a heart bypass but I didn’t visit him. He asked after me, missed me. I was the only grandchild in South Africa, and despite my non-Jewish father, I believe he must have accepted me.

We all had a more fraught relationship with my grandmother. Perhaps madness ran in her genes, but her mental illness was never diagnosed. Instead it manifested in outrageous threats and tantrums throughout my mother’s childhood. My grandmother would walk around their house with hate and venom in her words. ‘You ruined my figure,’ she would scream at my mother, referring to the long vertical scar that cut her stomach in two. But the hate extended to the world. She was a woman incapable of having friends. She had cut up her sister’s dress before a dance one evening because no one had asked her to the dance. By the time I knew her she was on tranquillisers. They calmed her and stopped the rages, but no doubt that the madness still lay coiled beneath. The hate came from somewhere, the causes perhaps an unstable balance of chemicals in her brain. Therapy may have helped; other drugs too. But she wasn’t going to benefit from all that. Instead she poisoned the lives of people around her, inspiring the hate she felt within herself. Her two sons left the country and never returned. Her husband considered divorce and rejected it when he thought of the children. I absorbed these feelings, and, as I grew up, I too turned away from her, even as she phoned to sing me Happy Birthday in an old woman’s voice over the telephone.

My grandfather died alone. I was sixteen. My mother and I were out when he suffered a heart attack in the hospital he had been admitted to two days before.

When my grandmother died two years later she was in an old-age home. She had been overdosing on sleeping pills and one day entered my mother’s car with rouge dotted on her forehead, lipstick that had missed her lips and promptly fell asleep in the back seat. By the time she died, I think senility had set in, with coherence floating past her occasionally.

Now we were alone, my mother and I. Her brothers still lived overseas and there were only distant relatives left in the country. We were close, as only single mothers and only children could be. I sometimes think it’s too close, the relationship forged in the absence of fathers or siblings, but there wasn’t any choice in the matter.

I left school and started studying at the University of the Witwatersrand. I was still interested in politics and chose that subject as one of my majors. I was going to be the country’s first woman prime minister. That’s the sort of thing you dream about at eighteen. But I dropped politics a year later and majored in psychology and African literature instead. I was a writer at heart, and had been writing since I was nine.

But I had no friends when I was at university. Friendship had been an area of difficulty in my life from the time I was in nursery school in Tel Aviv. I couldn’t mix. My mother’s letters home to South Africa reveal her frustration with a child too afraid to reach out to others. And that fear continued. It meant I had perhaps one friend per school year. It meant loneliness and heartache when that friendship broke up and I had to make another. Sometimes this took months.

Whatever the reasons, they persisted throughout my childhood and into my teens. When I entered university fear had gripped me like an unknowable manacle. I longed to have friends, a boyfriend, to go rowing on the Zoo Lake as I heard others doing, to be out at night at movies or parties or restaurants. But I just couldn’t reach out and for the first time in my life I had no friends at all. Not even one. My school friends, tenuous connections, dissolved with the differences of our lives. One had to start working immediately and we could not connect. Another had a baby and had to deal with exhaustion and being a single mother. I just didn’t understand what she was experiencing.

So there I was, in first year at university, supposed to be having the time of my life and sinking further and further into myself, becoming more and more afraid and seeing rejection in every vague offer of friendship. When two people from African literature befriended me and spoke of going for coffee, I scuttled home. I simply could not believe that they were including me, though they clearly had. I felt like a freak, like something was wrong with me.

By the age of nineteen I was desperate, and overweight, drowning my sorrows in bars of chocolate that only added to the weight I was carrying. I thought of suicide. I could see no other way out. I could not go through life like this: friendless, desperately alone, aching to connect to others and yet unable to as a result of fear and a plummeting sense of self. I wondered how I could do the deed. I was always paralysed by fear and couldn’t talk to my mother about it; I was ashamed. I had no one else to confide in. And then my Spanish grandmother wrote saying she wanted to see me and would pay for my airfare.

At twenty I went to Europe alone. I was determined that this trip was going to make or break me. I was going to see my Spanish family but I was also going to see if I was likeable. If not, then I could come back and commit suicide.

I stayed with a friend of my mother’s in London. She had known my parents in Tel Aviv. She had since married, and I was absorbed into her family for the two weeks I was there. By day I saw the city, by night I ate with an English family, watched TV with them. One evening as I walked across a bridge over the Thames, watching the sun setting over the river, I had the thought that I would one day live there. At night I sometimes woke up with the fear crashing through my dreams. ‘You have no friends,’ the voice taunted me. ‘You get on with everyone here, but back home, no one likes you ...’

In Spain I was met by my grandmother, and a cousin who was staying with her. My grandmother didn’t speak English, and I knew no Spanish. My cousins translated for the older members of the family who could not speak English. They embraced me at Málaga airport that first night. It was one in the morning after a delayed flight, and the taxi raced through deserted streets. There was food, chatter in Spanish and my first glimpse of the flat I had known as a young child.

My grandparents had not moved. My Spanish grandfather had since died of cancer, and his room had been cleared of his bed, but otherwise all remained as it had been nearly twenty years earlier. I had no memories of the flat of course, nor of the city I had been born into. Driving one night my uncle pointed out ‘La Cruz Rosa’, the Red Cross Hospital where I had been born, the white building looked nondescript, but it located me.

I met the rest of my Spanish family the next day: my uncle Jésus; his wife Sole; their children, my cousins Alejandro and Déborah, all of us within the same age group. I was introduced to the Spanish custom of two kisses on greeting, of a love and warmth I felt even though the Spanish careened around the table at whiplash speed, leaving me alone with my thoughts, my cousins battling to translate. It was another world, and I alternated between feeling alienated and feeling welcomed and accepted.

As the weeks went by they took me to other Spanish towns and cities:I saw Cordoba, Seville, Ronda, Marbella, Torremillinos. My aunt Alicia arrived for a holiday and stayed with us. She took me to Pedraleja, and pointed out the seaside cottages where my parents had stayed in winter. It had been cheap then. We ate calamari by the sea shore. My grandmother pocketed the uneaten rolls in the basket on the table, the unused packets of sugar. ‘When you’ve been in a war you can never leave food behind,’ my aunt explained, referring to the deprivations my grandparents had suffered during the Second World War. My grandmother was unashamed, she had paid for the rolls and sugar and she was going to take them home with her.

We celebrated Christmas at a relative’s house outside of Málaga. A white meringue of a house, it signalled her rich status. The women served the food while I stood by until an aunt said pointedly in English that help was needed in serving the food. Then men sat and waited. It was my first taste of the male hierarchy that reigns in families, and not just in Spain. I got up to help.
My uncle Jésus tried desperately to communicate with me. We overcame our lack of common languages by writing words and drawing pictures. He’d draw a picture of a fork and write the Spanish name next to it. I tried to teach him English this way, but he wasn’t interested; clearly my duty was to learn Spanish, the language of my family. But he succeeded in teaching me words, phrases, and in his determination, demonstrating a love and acceptance. I had never been welcomed by a group as I was welcomed by the Salafrancas. Each meal, each journey shared, each hug and kiss, each snack unwrapped, brought us closer. I felt warm and loved. Some of my strangeness was beginning to melt away, some of the feelings that I was a freak, incapable of being accepted by society, were eased away.

I spent five weeks in Spain, at the end of which I could speak a few simple sentences. Jésus and I managed to argue about whether Spanish or English would be the dominant language in the decades to come; and I spoke to my aunt Sole about bullfighting. She saw it as a beautiful tradition; I saw it as an unspeakable cruelty to animals. Whether I impressed my point on her, I don’t know.

And then my grandmother, normally quiet and reserved, led me into the kitchen. She was going to teach me how to make a Spanish omelette. As I dice potatoes today into thicker matchstick-like pieces and lightly fry them, I remember her insistent voice, her slow, quiet explanations of how to make the omelette. I remember the dark dingy kitchen, the gas stove crackling, the washing hanging on the line outside the window, the table on which we sliced potatoes and cracked open the eggs.

I left Spain a few days later, hugging the Salafrancas, armed with addresses, promises to write and send photos. At six that morning my grandmother pressed homemade sandwiches into my hands. I wondered why. I would breakfast on the plane; I had a hotel room booked for later. She was insistent. I took them and said goodbye to her forever.

That night, as Paris grew dark, I sat in my hotel room trying to phone to my mother in South Africa. The malicious desk clerk wouldn’t help me, and I went around in circles trying to find the operator’s number. Too shy or too scared to go wandering around the streets to look for supper, I ate my grandmother’s sandwiches. Grilled meat with cheese on toasted bread filled my stomach, a last reminder of acceptance and love.

A few nights later, hungry to hear English spoken after over a month of Spanish, I followed the
signs in the metro and arrived at the incredibly broad avenue of Champs Elysees. It was Saturday night and it seemed the whole of Paris was out. I bought a ticket to see Thelma and Louise in the original, with French subtitles, and sat in a movie theatre in one of the greatest cities in the world, watching a movie in English. I was alone, separated from the couples and friends out for a night. But I was here. In Paris, a city I had long looked forward to visiting, alone, yet different. Capable of going to a movie by myself in a strange city while at home I hadn’t even been able to walk into a shop to buy a watch battery. Days later, watching yet another English movie, I knew my life would change, I knew it would take time, and effort, but I knew that it was going to change.

It was enough to get me on that plane to Johannesburg, to be prepared again to hear and enjoy the accents of South Africans, to be offered Appletiser again for the first time in two months, to count the hours away, to know that somehow I was going toward something.

I’d like to watch the videos made of us that day in El Torcal, but much as the future selves remain silent, I suspect the past selves are equally reticent about passing on their secrets. The past remains trapped in our memories, distorted and time-stained, denuded.

(Published in Green Dragon 3)

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