On the 3rd of May, 2003, I noted in my “Daily Light”, a little book which, unless I was unconscious or having a baby, I have read day and night since I was 13: “Today, 20 years ago my mother, a descendant of French Protestant Huguenots, died in South Africa, in the historic Nazareth House – a place excellently run by Roman Catholic nun, and in a building which is a magnificent example of Kimberley architecture of a period dating back to the days of Cecil Rhodes, the Boer War, and the sieges of Kimberly and Mafeking. To the days when the dreaded Lord Roberts was the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in South Africa, and where, to this day, there is still one of Roberts’ daily despatches to be seen, in the original wrought iron container attached to the wall next to the front door.”
I received the message in Victoria, British Columbia, just as I was leaving for work; took the news calmly, telephoned my children, and went on my way. I remember sitting in Zeller’s coffee shop, of all places, when it hit me.
As I sat there munching my sandwich, I heard a tune – no words, just a melody – and it moved me so deeply that I burst into tears and sobbed uncontrollably, oblivious of the lunch-hour crowd around me. I still can’t hear “When a Child Is Born” without thinking of my mother and the day she died.
Perhaps I Wept From Guilt
Perhaps I wept from guilt, rather than sorrow. I had, after all, come away from the country of my birth, and had left her – just as earlier generations of her family had done to theirs in the past. But she was in good hands. My sister and my brother-in-law, an Anglican priest, took great care of her, and it was so typical of her that she waited until they had left on a short and well-deserved vacation, to slip away without any fuss – without a sound.
We never got along really well, my mom and I. She seemed to find fault with most things I did, when she wasn’t trying to stop me from doing them at all. I could not easily relate to what I saw as her Calvinistic narrow-mindedness and obstinate shortsightedness. She refused to believe that South Africa was going to the dogs, insisting that God would never allow it. She was, however, not only the cleanest, most fastidious person I have known (her neighbors said that she even dusted the hedge!), but she walked, when close to 90, with the straightest back of any of them – the nuns included. Her legacy to the world, thus far, is four generations of frenetic hand-washers, bathers, showerers, sweepers and dusters, as well as siblings whom she had raised to be the same. We believe that, if it were possible, she would keep a tin of metal polish in heaven – for polishing her harp!
“You’ll Be Sorry When She’s Gone!”
Because she never got over the death of her own mother at the age of 33, when she, herself, was only 13, we would constantly be reminded of the fact that we should “appreciate your mother while you have her. You’ll be sorry when she’s gone!”
Six years ago, I heard for the first time, from my sister, of the day when our mother was incarcerated – in the prison known as the Johannesburg Fort – together with her mother and grandmother, who were later taken to a concentration camp where the grandmother died. My mother was eight years old, and her brothers and sisters much younger than she. By the time they returned to their farm, after the end of the Boer War, it had been reduced to ashes at the command of Lord Roberts, and her mother’s health had been compromised in the camp to the extent that she was dead within five years.
Some time later, as I was putting the finishing touches to the manuscript of my novel, Storm Water, I suddenly experienced what North Americans very glibly refer to as an epiphany. I had spent weeks in the company of my Huguenot characters, and, all at once, I could look back down the centuries to the flight and consequent trials and tribulations of some of those persecuted people – my mother’s ancestors. I thought with great sorrow of their continual battle for peace and safety, against relentless odds and constantly changing enemies. I could finally understand her – more than that, appreciate her – and share her pride in the Boer general, Piet Joubert (after whom Joubert Park in Johannesburg was named) and her grandfather, the illustrious and greatly admired Francois Joubert who, respected by friend and foe alike, was known to the British as “Frank Hero” and to the Boers as “Frans Held.”
For her sake, I sat down to write an epilogue to my book – at the last moment – as it was ready to go to the printer’s; and then, also to honor her, at the eleventh hour, I impulsively introduced into this manuscript another Joubert: Pierre, her ancestor, the man who smuggled out of France and into South Africa a Bible concealed in a loaf of bread. I dedicated the book to my mom and her courageous forbears.