Every family has that one person that keeps it all together – the pioneer of the family. He/she usually moves and directs behind the covers. Nobody really knows why they all gather in one place of Christmas or how much that person binds everyone together. And of course, nobody realises the importance of such a person until that person is no longer part of the family. It is then that all they have done come to light, that we suddenly realise, the cornerstone of our family has just been removed.
When I was 14, my family lost its matriarch and I lost my biggest inspiration.
Like our family, I didn’t know she was this important to my being until the day she stopped breathing. My whole world collapsed. Suddenly, my sound board was gone. My thinking resonated alone in my head – nobody to answer with better ideas or suggestions. When I was down and out, I was down and out. The emptiness caught me unaware. I had no idea life could end this suddenly or that it could have so much meaning. My childhood disappeared in a wink and was replaced by a sudden spurt of adulthood. I had no choice. And as I struggled with my own personal loss, our family collapsed in silent heaps of despair. The one binding factor was gone.
At 14h00 on the 28th May 2007 my grandmother passed away. She had a stroke three days earlier and simply had no chance. I had no idea what a stroke was but mostly I had no idea how to tell my little six year old sister that her gran just passed away and that she would have no birthday party the following Saturday. Life changed. Suddenly and unexpectedly.
Grandma (Ouma) Bettie. Today (13 March) would have been your birthday and in all the time that you have been gone, I have never had the courage to write about you. Never have anything hurt as much as your loss, your absence.
I remember so much about you that I find it difficult to put my thoughts in order. I really don’t know where to start.
You had chickens. Lots of them. It was my sister and my job to collect their eggs in the afternoons. This was sometimes fairly easy, depending on the hen in question. You also had turkeys… why, I have no idea because we never ate them. Geese… those geese scared me! They could really come for you. One of your most beautiful treasures was a cock. He was huge and colourful, but boy was he nasty. His end came way too soon after he attacked you one early morning.
As much as you loved all animals, there was something that really frightened you. Geckos. Oh what fun did the uncles have to catch these and chase you with them. You shouted and threatened – all to no avail.
There were always dogs and birds at your house. Two dogs I remember fairly well, Spokie and Blackie. Spokie died early in her life, but Blackie still lived when you passed away. He suffered greatly but granddad really made an effort to win his heart. Budgies, cockatiels and love birds, they greeted us in the afternoons when we came from school.
Talking about coming from school, there was no warmer welcome than yours. In the winter you baked in your huge coal stove and the treasures that awaited us, I’ll never forget. Rusks… in all forms and shapes. And cookies. Still warm and syrupy. Nothing could beat a Rooibos tea with Ouma’s rusks. They were the best. Lunch was always good. Somehow you managed to make vegetables edible. Everything you made, tasted different from mom’s food. I now realise it probably had to do with your coal stove and the vast amounts of salt you added to everything. Man, those days were good. You never bought jam – you made it. And yours was way better than the corner shop’s best efforts. (Back then we didn’t have any chain supermarkets).
But your pride wasn’t the chickens or your food. No, it was your garden. Watering your plants took the better part of the afternoon. You talked to your ferns and you fed them all kinds of smelly things. Some of your plants are still alive and well – now on mother’s veranda. You had a whole hoard of little bottles full of a brown variation of smelly contents to feed to the different plants. You had so many plants and you knew the names of them all and how they wanted to be watered and fed. How much they needed of everything. You were like a walking encyclopaedia. I could ask you anything – you would know the answer.
Bath time was plenty of fun. You allowed the little one and myself to play as wild and as long as we wanted in the bathtub. We built slides and we had foam; lots of it. We loved bathing in your gloriously pink bathtub.
School holidays the uncles and aunts congregated at your house from all over the country. Otjiwarongo must be the least interesting place to have a holiday, but it wasn’t about the location, it was about you. We cousins played night and day. Inside and outside the house. We were never bored. And somehow, there was always food. And snacks. And lots of love and laughter and joy. It was the best holidays any child could wish for.
You created in me a love for animals I can never describe to anyone. Once you were attacked by dogs on the street. You were not furious at the dogs; instead you were upset with the owner for training such aggressive dogs. You were so badly hurt and yet you never had anything bad to say about the dogs. You taught me to respect all life – whether it was the little fuzzy chicken that just escaped from his shell or the big white angry goose. Life was not to be taken lightly. Your love for your Creator was something I never understood. Even though people hurt you, you always blessed them. How did you do that? You read your Bible every single morning and evening. You went to church on Sundays, even if you had to walk in the heat of summer. Grandpa always had a lunchbox, even on the days you were sick and feeling under the weather. You always had time for the little one and me. No matter the time of night or day. You were always there for us. You always listened. You had tea parties with the little one and brought me Oros in the tree when I didn’t feel like facing the world.
You also taught me that it is ok to leave mom and dad and to travel without them to other places. At a young age you took me with to places. I spend a whole week with you and grandfather at the newly opened Waterberg Plateau Park. I can’t remember the detail, but I do remember all the walks and the birds. And the plants that you caressed along the way. You must have sown the first travelling seeds in me. You took me with when you went to the big city, Windhoek, and you took me with when you went to town. Every outing with you was fun and a learning curve.
I’m sure, like all humans, you had your faults. But in my mind, you will always be the most perfect person. You will always be the first person I think of when I’m in need of help, the first person I want to call when I receive good news.
Now, all these years later, I am a grownup and you would have been the proud great grandmother of two little ones – almost four. And I cannot help but pray, Lord, please tell her that we still love her, that we still want to share everything with her. Tell her our first little one is on its way and that all her children and grandchildren turned out ok.
Life will never be the same without her, it never has been. Some days are easy to get through and some days take a little more. It is when the weather builds up like today and the thunder starts rumbling and the lightning flashes around us, that I miss you the most. Your quirky responses when you got frightened…. May we never forget and may we be blessed enough to find another like you to fill the hole that you have left.
Thank you for being the most amazing grandma when I grew up. Thank you for teaching me to love life and to respect life. Thank you for being our Ouma Bettie.