Thursday, 10 March 2011

You go, Grandad! (and a short partial family history)

I remember my then-teenaged cousin David’s gobsmacked horror at happening upon, in the 1980s, at his local hangout Father’s Moustache in Durban (since closed), our grandfather, who was then well into his 60s.

My maternal grandfather, Jack, is one of the only real male nurses I’ve ever come across - the other one, unreal, being the unspeakably annoying Ben Stiller character in the movie Meet the Parents. He and my grandmother – a feisty woman who, my mother told us when we were kids, as a cautionary tale against smoking (or maybe against powdered eggs), often swapped the family’s powdered-egg rations for cigarettes during The War – were Scots immigrants to what was then Rhodesia. They had already lost two children to the rigours of the Scots winter and their youngest, their only son, was a frail creature, so it was south to warmer climes with them. My mother and her father, Jack, came out as the family vanguard on one of the Union Castle liners (my mother, then all of 18, had the menu, signed by the crew, for years), then travelled by train across the vast wild hinterland of South Africa before crossing the border and arriving, finally, in what was then Salisbury. Pic: Jack with me at my wedding in 1986. I love how beautifully he's dressed, and his shades. He died not long after this pic was taken.

Jack had secured a job as a male nurse (he was not a porter – we kids were often reminded of that) at the government hospital there, and he was given a tiny house in the hospital grounds. We often travelled there from Johannesburg for Christmas holidays when we were kids – my mom and dad and three of us kids (and, some time later, four) in the Studebaker station wagon on those paired cement strips that passed for roads, with extra fuel in the boot and warm apples and stinky hardboiled eggs in a picnic basket at my mom’s feet. And sucking sweets called Sparklers – endless Sparklers, for when the heat began to overcome us and, three kids crowded together in the back seat, we began to kick each other. (I still can’t suck a Sparkler and not feel hot air, prickly thirst and an itching irritation that can only be relieved if I pull someone’s hair.)

Jack’s house in Salisbury was tiny – even as a littlie I knew that. It had only two bedrooms, one leading into the other, and, when they finally all arrived in the new, death-free promised land (back in the 1950s), my mother and her two sisters slept together in one, and Jack and my grandmother Elizabeth and their frail son Robert in the other. I can’t remember how they accommodated all of us – five extra people – when we visited over Christmas holidays, but I don’t remember any discomfort so I suppose, in the way of children, we just curled up like puppies and were happy to sleep anywhere as long as our tummies were full and there were people around who loved us. Pic: My grandmother Elizabeth with me and my mom and my little sister Beverley, probably taken in what was then Rhodesia in about 1966/7.

Later, our Rhodesian family was caught in the vortex of the Bush War there, and some members were lost and/or badly damaged. Others moved as the situation worsened, and Jack and Elizabeth ended up living over the docks in Durban harbour. It wasn’t ideal but at a time when my dad was helping other members of my mom’s family relocate, and trying to raise a family of his own when journalists weren’t exactly the flavour of the month in South Africa, it was the best they could do.

Later still, my dad built a house in Salt Rock, on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast, which we would go to for holidays – by then, two cars were required to ferry a family of six plus two dogs and often several hangers-on. And, of course, provisions for a three-week shift from our shambly Jozi home.

It was during one of those holidays, when Jack and Elizabeth came up from their Durban-harbour flat to spend some time with us, that we realised that Elizabeth – a child of the First World War and a slum start; having weathered the deaths of two children, a continent’s move and a civil conflict; and now into a dotage rubbing shoulders with Durban’s port prostitutes – was starting to lose her grip. They missed their flight up to Joburg (to see other members of the family) because the air tickets had been unaccountably lost – they were there just minutes before! – and after my dad, in his no-shit way, had conducted a search worthy of a forensic detective’s, he found them in Elizabeth’s luggage. She said she had no memory of putting them there. I believe she didn’t. Poor Elizabeth.

Anyway! Elizabeth died, finally, of undetected and untreated cancer that had metastasised madly – she was of a generation that didn’t like to have their ‘privates’ examined, so bore up for years with intense pain; I remember her often sitting sideways, so as not to stress her sore bottom bits.

And Jack, freed from long years of responsibility and perhaps having to deal with severe weirdness (because Elizabeth did prove herself, ultimately, to be a gifted kleptomaniac – stealing her own air tickets was very much the cream on top of a deep, rich dessert), became a Grandad Gone Wild. He kept unsociable hours in the company of unsuitable people, and that’s why my cousin David bumped into him at Father’s Moustache – he was there dancing.

And I come, now, finally, to the point of this post.

My own father – grandfather to my own grown-up children – is 76 years old. And this last weekend, he got his wallet lifted.

Was he queueing to get his pension? No.

Was he in a crowded place where tea and biscuits were being served? No.

Was he in a doctor’s waiting room, perhaps? No.

Okay, then – was he milling about at a Feed the Elders outing at a chi-chi wine farm? Uh-uh.

A crowded dinner for captains of industry? Nyet.

He was at The Bronx.

Pic: My dad and me in 1980. He was cool then, he's cool now.

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Johann said...

70 is the new 30, for Peter anyway! Which other granddad parties the night away at gay clubs, with his glamorous Dutch celebrity girlfriend by his side? Peter, you ROCK!

Claudine said...

Your dad rocks!!! That part of Town rocks!!! You have a really cool dad. :D I wonder if Angels is still there...probably not. If he likes Bronx he would have loved Angels.

Dean said...

Thats funny, brilliant and inspiring.

tonypark said...

The Bronx!

He would have been a hit there in the 80s with that Tom Selleck moustache and safari shirt.

Say hi from me.

And sorry for the long absence - work and drinking commitments. You know how it is.