If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better. — Ann Lamott
My earliest memory: In daylight, a dark room with curtains drawn, filled entirely by a long heavy dining table. Several doors lead off it. I want to go through one that leads to a bedroom. They won’t let me.
It might have been when we lived in Burns Road and my father’s mother, whom I never knew, had died and her body was lying in that bedroom. I can’t be sure. But if so, I was less than one year old.
That must have been the dining table my sister was made to lie down on when they anesthetized her and removed her tonsils. Everything happened at home in those days.
What I remember clearly are 318 and 320 Victoria Road, the two larger houses we successively occupied on the main road of the then poor mixed-race neighborhood of Salt River. Nearby, my father owned a garage, Union Service Station, that had Atlantic-Petrol-branded pumps in front. It was on Salt River Road, a broad street running down from Victoria Road where we lived to Lower Main Road. My parents’ friends the Schwartz’s owned a dress shop there. Though they were close friends, Landsman perhaps from the same region of Poland, and though they went to the bioscope on Saturday nights together, my mother always addressed them in conversation as Mr or Mrs Schwartz. She told me that Mrs Schwartz had saved my life when I was a few months old. I had had bronchitis and a cough and couldn’t take her breast because my nose was blocked, and she was ready to give up. It was Mrs Schwartz who persisted in encouraging my mother and fed me with a teaspoon.
My mother worked in the garage too, pumping gas sometimes and taking money. She told us years later how some man, the father of a school acquaintance we all knew, had asked her if she would come for a ride with him in his car when she finished pumping.
When she was at home on Victoria Road she could pick up the wall phone at the front of our house, turn a sort of crank on its side that went brrr brrr brrr, and have it ring in the garage a half mile away to reach my father directly. There was no need to dial numbers for that call. One block below the garage, on the next corner, was a little shop, Miyan’s, where my father took me to buy sweets. My father’s first garage, and then the second larger one across the street, is no longer there. But I see that more seventy years later, there is still a Miyan, run, I imagine, by some descendant of the then Indian proprietor. My sister remembered my father taking her to Miyan’s every Saturday morning, long before I was born, to get her allotment of weekly sweets before taking her to the library to get her allotment of weekly books to read.
It was my father that seems to have played with me as a small child. He carried me around on the beach, carried me on his back, played games with me, told me bible stories. At bedtime I was allowed to choose the long version or the short version. I have a miniature 78 rpm record, recorded in a kiosk on the imitation English-style boardwalk in the seaside resort of Muizenberg that was a South African Jewish kind of Blackpool. He took me into the little booth and had me sing songs, mostly in Hebrew — The WWII Jewish Partisan’s Song, but in Hebrew rather than Yiddish, and Kshenamut, a song about being buried in the wine cellars of Rishon LeZion when you die — which the proprietor recorded in a long engraved spiral on the small brown vinyl-coated tin plate. You can hear me singing while my father, in his heavy foreign accent that embarrassed me in my childhood, periodically prompts me when I hesitate or stumble. Some days at the beach he took me into the camera obscura on the elevated promenade above the beach. In the dim darkness, like magic, you could see projected on the table the moving images of people you knew strolling outside.
There is a photo of my father and me on the beach in Muizenberg, around the same time, circa 1947 or 1948 I would guess. I am barefoot but there he is, incongruously dressed in a suit, replete with a V-neck short-sleeved woolen jersey beneath the jacket. I wonder who took the photo and whom I’m laughing to.
Despite owning a garage, he never learned to drive. When we got our first car, a dark navy Chevrolet in 1948, my mother became the driver and that was the way it stayed, until my sisters learned, and then me.
From my mother I got general comfort. When my parents went to bioscope on Saturday night, I sometimes woke up before they came home, and cried for her. My sister, nine years older, would comfort me. She sang a song with potentially infinite verses, recounting how my parents were leaving the cinema, getting ready to come home to me; how they were getting into the car, ready to drive home to me; how they were stopping at a shop to buy some sweets, to bring home to me; how they were driving back along the road towards our house, to come home to me … and so she continued until I fell asleep, or they came home.
Sometimes when I woke in the middle of the night I liked to go sleep in my parents’ bed, the two single beds pushed together. I liked to lie cuddled in the groove between them, but I liked to have my feet on my mother’s side.
There were a variety of men working in my father’s garage. I remember David, who stayed with us for years and drove me and my sister to kindergarden and school respectively in the late 1940s. Sometimes he drove us in my mother’s car and sometimes in a garage van, in which he helped me change gears on the stick shift while he pushed down the clutch pedal. And there was Baigley, who late one morning, to amuse me, took gunpowder-filled caps from my toy cap gun and layered a pile of them one by one into the metal screw-cap removed from the valve of a tyre, put it on the black oil-covered floor of the garage, and then hit it as hard as he could with a big sledgehammer. The IED exploded more fiercely than he had intended, providing me with not just a gigantic bang but also bits of shrapnel in my eyes, which I then kept tightly shut. They took me to a chemist nearby who looked at my eyes and put some glycerine under my lids. No one seemed to hold the whole incident against Baigley, and neither do I.
I liked the smell of petrol, and knew I would like smoking when I grew up. I liked the interference reflection patterns the oil and water made on the ground.
I must have missed my mother when she was at work. I have an image of sitting on the front steps of our house at 320 Victoria Road, looking down in the direction of the garage on Salt River Road a little to the left, and winding the reel on an imaginary fishing rod I held to bring her in.
I liked to sit on the front steps of our house, facing the street. Once an old bearded bergie leaned over the gate and spoke to me, and I ran inside. When my mother and sisters explained that he meant no harm, I felt vaguely guilty, not because of my fear but because of the effect my fear might have had on him.
I sat on the steps in the afternoons after returning from kindergarden, and sometimes held a rectangular mirror in my hands and adjusted it to aim the reflected sunlight onto the interior walls and counters of the Portuguese fish and chip shop across the road, until the lady proprietor came to complain to my mother.
I remember being scared of having my photo taken: I thought I would disappear into the camera.
I was fearful of having my hair cut, grew long curls. When I went for my first haircut I sat on my mother’s lap for safety while she sat in the barber chair.
In the living room I sat on the floor and listened to the radio. There was a show about Jesus that I found strangely persuasive and attractive but I knew I was Jewish and that it wasn’t right.
My sister used to wheel me in my pram around the block in the morning before her school. She sang:
Half a pound of tuppeny rice
Half a pound of treacle
Mix them up and make them nice
Pop goes the weasel!
On the final line she would give the pram a big jerk, a ritual of expected and longed for fear and excitement.
We had a nursemaid who took me for a walk beside the park. I’d just had my fingernails cut, and I ran my newly bare fingertips rhythmically over the sinusoidal bump bump bump of the green corrugated iron fence. It felt so strange to have the raw ends of my fingers bounce and throb over the metal and turn a little green and grey. She scolded me for getting my hands dirty.
I liked girls, unlike my coeval cousin M who the families knew would fly into a fist-fighting fury if an adult teased him by saying he liked a girl. On the walkway of our Salt River house near the gate where the bergie scared me there’s a photo of me kissing the daughter of our neighbor.Later, when I had seen some films, I liked to demonstrate a ‘film kiss’ of the 1950s that involved pressing my closed mouth for a long time against my mother’s.
I was notorious for being a bad eater. I hated the taste of milk and especially the skin that formed on it. I hated soft-boiled eggs. I would reliably eat only lamb chops and chips. I liked toasted cheese sandwiches, which you could buy only in restaurants. But my mother ingeniously figured out that she could make them by wrapping a cheese sandwich in waxed paper, covering it with a dish towel, and then pressing it repeatedly with a hot clothes iron. She bought an extra iron and kept it in my father’s office at the garage so she could make them for him at lunchtime. When I went to visit my cousin Abner whose family lived a few block away near Roodebloem Road, I asked for a toasted cheese sandwich, and then, when my aunt Chayele said she couldn’t make them, I explained how to do it.
At The Gay Adventure ice cream parlor in Lakeside I insisted on two helpings of ice cream before eating one, and then couldn’t eat the second. Thereafter I was often teased: Remember the ice cream at the Gay Adventure! And I was pointed to the print we had at home, a cautionary example of cute greediness, but greediness nevertheless.
The house we lived in until I was seven had its own adventure places. There was a decrepit “chicken hok” at the back, a wire-fenced coop where you could keep chickens. I can’t recall if we did, but perhaps: I remember my mother coming back (was it from the shochet or from the market?) with a slaughtered chicken that then had to be turned over a flame repeatedly in order to loosen and remove the quills. There was an old wooden garage filled with boxes and boxes of stuff my cousin Abner and I would explore. And a gated and fenced fruit orchard with trees, in which once, somehow, Abner and I tied my sister to a tree until she cried and we had to let her loose.
The son of our housemaid lived with us. He was older than Abner and me, and more worldly. He had a pocket knife and knew how to make a kite out of two tree branches lashed together in a cross and then covered with tissue paper. He knew you had to add a long loose tail ribbon for stability. One Saturday we wanted to make one and we got him to do the cutting, because, although we weren’t observant, we felt we shouldn’t work on Shabbat. I had first tried, accidentally on purpose but unsuccessfully, to break the branch in the right place by somehow dropping it, knowing it was still a violation.
During the war there was a shortage of imported car batteries in South Africa, and my father got permission to import the supplies necessary to manufacture batteries himself and sell them under his own brand to his customers. In a warehouse upstairs in the back of Union Service Station, he and his assistant David learned to melt lead and cast it into thin lattice-like plates with a large surface area that they then placed inside the imported black bakelite battery cases. They diluted concentrated sulphuric acid by pouring it into water and then decanted it into the battery and closed the bakelite screw top. My mother worked with him in the upstairs battery factory too, doing the books and sometimes helping with acid preparation. You have to pour acid into water when you dilute it, not water into acid, he told me; that way it’s the water that splashes back at your rather than the acid. He continued making his own batteries for years. The white cotton lab coat that he wore over his clothes in the garage always had brown acid-tinged burns. When she was old, my mother started to have neurological problems. The doctors thought it might have been the melted lead fumes she had been exposed to, but it turned out to be ALS.
Dr Prisman the pediatrician’s office was in town, reachable by bus. He promised he wouldn’t put a wooden stick in my mouth when he examined my throat. He used his fat index finger to push my tongue down.
When I was sick in bed one afternoon in my bedroom in the back I thought I heard our family doctor enter our house and say something in Yiddish to my parents. I didn’t want a doctor visit. But luckily it was Mr Jenkins the plumber who sounded similar and could speak some Yiddish too.
That’s how it was then.
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