1993, Chiffon Blouse
Her yellow chiffon blouse catches wind, deflating, for a moment, her shoulder pad hoisted arms. Her arrival coincides with the daily tornado of leaves and dust on the corner of Sixth avenue and kwaNojoli street. Irked, she has forgotten the grey autumns of Somerset East.
Excited, I run back into the house before she sees me to call uLeza, uLutsha, noKhangelani. My cousins. They are always the last to bathe. In the kitchen, Aunt Mabel takes out a loaf of freshly baked rooster brood from the oven. Even she got dressed special for today. “Wipe that dust off your feet and put on shoes,” she shouts when she catches me standing at the kitchen door. “Now, Mandisa!” Yesterday she took me to the salon to get my hair relaxed. On our way there and back, she stopped to tell every friend she saw about Sindi’s arrival today. She would push me forward to greet them, patting my shoulder as she affirmed, “yes, she looks just like her mother,” and prompting me to smile. I know from the stories aunt Mabel has told me that Sindi is beautiful like Lady Di, only she is not rich and a black South African.
We all run to the front door on her second knock. Aunt Mabel silences our excitement with her familiar authoritative look. She quickly discards her pinafore behind the couch. Leza pushes me to the front, to stand right behind aunt Mabel. I know their mothers. Leza’s mother works in Port-Elizabeth at the Cadbury factory, she visits every month. Lutsha and Khangelani are brothers; their mom is a maid for a white family in Cape Town. She comes home once a year on the day after Christmas but must always return to work by the 2nd of the new year because the children of her madam need her. They tell me my mom is a teacher in Pietermaritzburg. She knocks a third time, a more ferocious knock. Aunt Mabel opens the door. We pile up against her as if she were a magnet. Finally, up close, I see that some of the dust clung to her chiffon blouse, and her white pants had browned at the ankles. As she and aunt Mabel hug, I wonder if she thinks I look like her too.
Aunt Mabel fills her in on the street gossip: “Thobeka is pregnant with child number three. Xoliswa now lives in Kimberly with her boyfriend, Nondu's ex, remember him?” She loudly sips her tea, her mouth full of Romany Cream biscuit. Sindi is intently staring at the picture of Makhulu and Tamkhulu, my great-grandparents, on their wedding day. I don’t think she is listening to much of what Aunt Mabel is saying. Yet she nods as Aunt Mabel continues to speak. “Zoli died last year, there was no money to bury him so everyone had to contribute. Remember how mean he was because he thought he was better than all of us?" she sneered, “look at him now, huh, six feet under!” Perhaps she knows how to both listen and be lost in what seems a portal of memories only she can piece together. The three of us children are seated on the couch across from them, eating bread with apricot jam and wondering when she will give us sweets and presents from the big city. Sindi gets up. I notice the mascara and eyeliner framing her big eyes, casting a shadow over her entire face. “You should've waited”. Her voice is hoarse. “She is my father's mother. Who are you to bury her without me there, heh?!”. Her eyes turn to water. They exchange shouting and crying, blame, accusation, shaming, a lot, a lot, a lot of shaming. My mother was seventeen years old when she fell pregnant. The first teenager in Sixth avenue in the waning years of apartheid. She became the primary reason for the family’s increasing poverty and her younger cousins’ pregnancies. Another mouth to feed. “She went off to who knows where” the whispers go, “at least the others stayed to face their mistakes”. Aunt Mabel is enraged, “don't march in here with your madam tendencies when you don't even know who wiped Mandisa's arse, nxa! Where were you when the bloody police called to tell us they found uKhokho on the street right outside Mandisa’s school?!”. Aunt Mabel screams, “Izapha Mandisa”. I am afraid to move. I usually rush when she calls for me, to avoid punishment. Five to ten lashes with the belt. “Mandisa!” I still hesitate. She yanks me off the couch by the wrist and plonks me in front of Sindi. “Tell your mother, Mandisa. Tell her how the car hit uKhokho right in front of your eyes”. I imagined this moment differently. There were no tears, no snot. In my dreams, she, Sindiswa Haarhoff, calls me by my name. She kisses my forehead. And we walk hand in hand, telling each other better stories than the ones I grew up hearing from my great-grandfather. Sindi slaps me, startling me to reality, “aren’t you too old to be walked to school?”. I remember the rage in her eyes, the slight quiver of her nose, her underarms wetting the chiffon blouse. And I turn to look at Aunt Mabel, who told me my mother can’t wait to see how I’ve grown. She had lied.
Translation of isiXhosa words:
Nxa, and heh: expressions
Izapha: come here
Makhulu and Tamkhulu: grandmother and grandfather