A little girl of seven sat on the couch looking at both her parents, having to choose between them. They promised her that it was only temporary and that her father would join them again later on.
It became a very permanent arrangement however and the weekend visits from her father grew fewer and further between over the following months. Eventually, she would see him only a handful of times until she was in high school. On one occasion that she didn’t see him, she couldn’t sleep and happened to be walking around the house when she heard a sound from the front door. An envelope had been pushed through the space underneath. She picked it up and when she saw the handwriting, she knew it was his.
In complete shock, she opened the door to look for him but all she could see were the lights of a car driving off into the night. She felt like she had a gaping hole in her stomach, heart and guts on the floor. Her hero had left her behind.
Several things would appear in her world and remain to stay for a very long time. The sense that she didn’t belong, the loneliness, the woman and the complete turmoil that she brought with her.
Speak when spoken to was the rule, to the point of being screamed at if she sang to a jingle on TV. So she kept to herself, buried her nose in books and observed the world around her. The fear was so deeply rooted that she couldn’t bring herself to interrupt a dance class to ask for a bathroom break, and had an accident in front of a school hall full of girls. The earth wouldn’t even co-operate by swallowing her that day.
She was an only child, as you may have gathered by now, and thankfully so, she said. She always felt different, an outsider and a loner, but in spite of all that school was a refuge. All the other kids were so excited when school closed for the holiday, while she cried as the bell rang and it was time to leave. Even though she wasn’t popular, often teased for being too skinny, flat chested, not talking at all or otherwise having a voice “like a baby”, she was generally left alone and most of her teachers were extremely kind to her.
There were friends too, some very special ones who really did leave footprints on her heart (as cheesy as it sounds).
Life, art and people
Early on in this adventure, a woman moved in with the girl and the mother. Deeply damaged, only over a decade later would she be diagnosed as “borderline schizophrenic”. Perfectly complimenting the mother, who was an unmedicated bipolar depressive with issues going back to the womb, in all likelihood.
Both were creatives, artists of different forms and each brilliant at their own particular art form. They moved in circles of equally brilliant people, some also disturbed, some not. She noted that the mother was highly antisocial and her interaction with people was awkward at best. Social skills were something that the girl had to learn slowly throughout her life, more so from watching others who did seem to have it all together.
She did often form bonds with adults, maybe because of being used to adult company. Teachers played an enormous part in her life, there were a few special ones who she really looked up to as role models. Many times they would come to her defence, give her guidance and softly reassure her.
There was an aunt who she saw quite often, who treated the girl like one of her own children, making her the “big sister” to four little ones. Their home was always a mix of chaos and fun, loud (in a good way) and busy. The aunt became like a mother to her and they could confide in each other, so much so that the aunt confided in this little girl one evening, about her affair with a handsome man at work…
The girl’s life in one way provided so many interesting, wonderful and diverse experiences – theatre, art, literature, Hare Krishna temples to happy clappy churches… it was Johannesburg, it was the late 80’s to early 90’s and the world was an interesting place. On two occasions, she got to shake Nelson Mandela’s hand and could testify that the Madiba Magic was truly tangible.
Simultaneously, her home was a twenty-four hour ticking time bomb. She was screamed at and beaten for anything from taking too long to eat or forgetting to brush her teeth, to losing something at school or just being at the wrong place on the wrong time in someone’s bad day.
On one occasion that stood out in her mind, she was beaten with a thick wooden rod. She was eleven. She knows she was eleven because she remembered the teacher, the grade and the report card that said she experienced “emotional ups and downs”. It was a disappointment to the mother because it really spoiled the look of the A+ marks.
That same teacher was the one who took the girl to the school psychologist on a morning when she couldn’t sit down on her wooden school bench because of the raw welts on her backside, and started crying. Unable to tell the lady about the welts, she told her that she was emotional because she missed her father. When the letter was sent to her mother, suggesting that paternal contact should be encouraged, the rage that rained down on her was the stuff of legend.
Whoever it was that dealt the blows, the mother would always, without fail, come into her room twenty minutes later crying literally “snot en trane”. Apologising profusely for the severity, but justifying the punishment at the same time. After endlessly going through this same cycle, something inside her shut off to the “snot en trane” apologies. No apology would ever make it better, or would ever make it stop. This was not love, not even close, and there was nobody to protect her.
There was an almost daily occurrence of flying items. A table thrown through a window, broken plates, cups, dishes… out of control, senseless screaming. She would pretend to run away (important belongings wrapped in a kitchen towel on the end of a stick). Inside the top of her bedroom cupboard, she made a little hidey-hole to escape to. One day though, she sat on her bed and made a promise to herself that she would leave that house as soon as she was old enough and not go back.
Family and comfort
Although there was no family nearby during these years, she did often spend school holidays with her grandparents who lived in a small town.
The time would be split between her two sets of grandparents. Grandmother on one side, who was affectionate, caring and loved to treat the children. Grandfather- and grandmother on the other side who were strict churchgoing people and highly regarded in their community. This grandmother was somewhat neurotic and had a distant way about her. Not affectionate at all, they bonded by the girl reading stories to her when it was time for an afternoon nap.
The grandfather, while being strict, old school and a very orderly and responsible kind of man, was also loving, playful and someone who could be relied on without fail. He later became the rock that she would depend on in so many ways, although he never knew the extent of what went on behind closed doors.
She was thirteen and finishing primary school when he unexpectedly had a heart attack, necessitating a heart bypass and an earnest recalculation of life’s direction. His wife was so completely dependent on him that there was real concern for her situation if something had to happen to him. At the end of that year the girl, the mother and the woman moved from the big city to the small town to support (read: lean on) him.
The change would be similar to being thrown into a washing machine and spun around on a nearly endless cycle, half drowning while desperately trying to figure out which way was up.
To be continued next week… If you missed Part 1, read it here.