On Memory and Mothers

Jack Klaff revisits his hometown and remembers Rose, his mother.

For my Daughter Nina, Granddaughter of Rose, who is an editor of this magazine.

When I was 12 our headmaster was kicked in the guts by a zebra.

And I can’t remember it.

I have Memory on my mind.

I’m in South Africa, in Johannesburg, my hometown.

I’m visiting my mother, who is 98.

My mother has no memory to speak of.

But I can speak of Memory and Memories and my Mother. 

My Mother’s name is Rose. Rosebud. Granny Rose. Rosa.

Rose is in a Home that is not really a home, in South Africa. There the Black carers care for old White people knowing that these old White people never cared for them.

Rose told me not that long ago that her husband, my Dad, an expert watchmaker, had fixed Nelson Mandela’s watch. It was on that watch that Mandela counted out his years on Robben Island.

I take time off from being with my mother and visit the University of the Witwatersrand, Wits, where I read Law. Even then we knew that some witnesses are more reliable than others. 

I walk past the Great Hall, which is also the examinations hall. The story goes that in there a student once during an exam climbed a chair and a table and reached out her arms because she had taken drugs to cram and was getting up high and leaning and stretching to get at those precious facts which were floating away from her memory.

On sale in the Varsity Bookshop is an old edition of Proust’s great novel about Time and Memory.

At regular intervals, Rose, the horologist’s wife, passes her feathery right hand backwards above and over her hair.

Like a healer.

Soothing her head. Exploring. Willing it all, inside there, to work again, better.

‘Here I am.’ That is mainly what she says. ‘Here I am’. ‘Here we are’.

‘Here I am’. ‘Here we are’. A liturgy. A confirmation.

So say writers. So say artists. And so say all of us.

One day I’m on a break from being with my mother. I’m with ten classmates. It’s a sort-of-kind-of-reunion. I haven’t seen these people for half a century. One old friend, Ian, spits out a grudge against me. He says I won the History Prize and he didn’t. I say, ironical as it may seem, I can’t remember that.

However crappy our History and Apartheid and Religious lessons might have been, we all learned well about The African Bush. In our South African province, 12-year-old White school pupils used to be taken on week-long field trips to the Kruger National Park, to see animals and plants in the wild.

Now, decades later, Lynne recalls our trip and that time the game ranger warned Mr Basson, our head teacher, not to touch the zebra. 

Mr. Basson kept on stroking the zebra and, thwack, got a hoof in his tummy.

You’d think I’d remember the zebra lashing out at our headmaster.  Nobody else talks about the zebra. Is Lynne on her own with this recollection? Did she dream it? Was she in a separate group? I’m sure I wasn’t there. I simply can’t recall that zebra kick nor anyone ever telling me about it.

I do recall that during that trip Lynne sent a message saying she liked me. We never even kissed. Now she’s an elegant, pretty granny.

One of our old classmates leaves our sort-of-kind-of-reunion and drives away from the diner. This ex-classmate was one of the girls; now she’s a sprightly, pleasant woman. And not one of the remaining men at the table knows who she was. We have to ask our female friends about her without revealing the fact that we don’t recognise her. Her name is withheld for obvious reasons.

Because I live in England, each present sight here in Johannesburg shimmers and resonates with images of the past. There are arty terms for this.

My mother’s face is like wrinkled parchment. She has sores on her face and body. Ever since that bout of ‘yellow jaundice’ she had when I was 11, she has scratched herself. She has a canker on her nose which varies in size but never really goes away.

Around her, other women sit or lie, millennia of anguish and astonishment on their faces. 

You don’t see many visitors here. The families of these women have left the country or can’t cope with seeing loved ones like this.

Benji is different. He’s the son of my mother’s friend. And he visits regularly. His Mom and my Ma can’t communicate as they once did, but there’s warmth in their nearness.

The idea of Now is a spurious one. Now lasts twelve seconds. Benji’s Mom and my Ma are living in the Now. It’s a Zen existence.

Benji celebrates the little moments of pleasure and awareness that we can see our mothers enjoying. Each happy Now. We play music, classical music, for our Moms and they perk up. My mother’s hands dance with mine and then from time to time she turns her palms downwards feeling the feeling of all the pianos she has played.

My mother has always shuddered at cemeteries. Her own mother died when she was a teenager. Her husband, my Dad, died when she was in her fifties.

At least I know that my mother Rose is anesthetized. In this state she need not be afraid of death.

And everyone who knows her has always marvelled at the fact that Rose, Rosebud, never complains. She Never Complains.

At one moment Benji says something mid-sentence which startles me in the best way imaginable. He uses the words: ‘your beautiful mother’.

My beautiful mother eats quickly these days.

I bring the spoon to her mouth. When she unclenches her jaw you can see her three remaining teeth. If she purses her lips again I say, Here comes a big big train or Here comes an aeroplane. Like she did to me when I was little. Then I tease her saying what a good girl she is she ate it all up she can leave the table now.

‘Yes please,’ Rose says, when we offer her ice cream. 

One of Rose’s happiest memories involves having fruit salad and ice cream with her Daddy in the tearoom of a smart department store. They’d left the tea-room and the building and were about to cross the street when her father clicked his fingers and said Rosebud do you want to repeat that entire experience and she said ‘Yes ‘and they went upstairs and had fruit salad and ice cream all over again. ‘Yes please,’ says Rose, now aged 98, ‘yes please,’ to me and the nurse and her voice is eager, yes please, more ice cream please.

Every Sunday my mother and my Auntie Anne would take us to Florida Lake or to Zoo Lake and my brother, my boy cousins and I would swim and row the boats and avoid the reeds and play and laugh and get stung by hornets and we’d always, always have ice cream cones. And then my Dad would pick us up in the Volvo station-wagon which he’d converted so it could carry us all. Dad worked so hard all week but every second Sunday he’d visit his brother-in-law who was in prison for his opposition to Apartheid and on the other Sundays he would be with his big brother who was a poet and was in a mental institution because the pain of the world was too much for him. And we had ice cream.

In the Varsity bookshop’s cluttered box, near Proust, is a South African bestseller: I Remember King Kong (The Boxer) by Denis Hirson published in 2005. It’s a prose poem, an ode to memory itself, by a man who’s about my age.

Each of the book’s sentences begins with the phrase ‘I remember’.

I remember Chappies bubble-gum with ‘Did You Know?’ questions on the wrapper.

And sentences about first love and racist killings and Jeremy Taylor singing: ‘Ag pleez Daddy’.

Hirson’s book pays homage to a French book, Je me souviens by Georges Perec published in 1978:

Je me souviens « d’un petit pas pour l’homme, mais un grand pas pour l’Humanité ».

On her eightieth birthday, my mother Rose said to me:

‘I remember the dust roads and horses not cars and how you could get 100 peaches for a shilling.’

She taught me to read before I was four and when I was four-and-a-half she actually let me use her office typewriter.

And I have a picture of Rose already in her nineties and her tiny tiny great-granddaughter is learning to read and Great-Granny Rose, by just sitting and approving, is encouraging the girl.

My mother is a great encourager, a great cheerleader, You’re a parking meter, You’re a fire hydrant, You’re a table mat, how kind and caring and courageous.

When I grew up and became a writer and she saw my play about a tumultuous time in South Africa during my childhood, she said she was amazed by what I could remember and added after the tiniest pause:

‘Quite frightening’.

And before I was born my big brother asked her where does that other bus go and even though it was going in completely the wrong direction she so revered a child’s curiosity that she took him on the other bus.

And when my daughter was little and was aiming the bathroom’s shower out of the window to water the plants outside and I said ‘OK it’s suppertime,’ Granny Rose elbowed me and said ‘Don’t be such a spoilsport. Let her play.’

So she wasn’t fussed when I was locked in the garage as a hostage after my brother had seen Ivanhoe or I got that fire cracker in my eye or broke so many bones playing cricket and rugby or my brother’s friend shot an arrow into my elbow and even when her grandson did double backflips over the sofa.

She used to check her bag for keys and money and tickets, check and check and check again.

In Johannesburg she saw Liberace, Marlene Dietrich, Margot Fontaine and Marcel Marceau, live, as well as Danny Kaye going from singing and clowning to sitting on the edge of the stage and just talking.

Her father, my grandfather, became senile as we used to call it and every evening strangers or policemen would bring Grandpa home because my Ma had put a note in his pocket with our address on it so he was always home in time for supper.

And one night my cousin Steve – who was 12 before me so went to the Game Reserve before me – came to stay with us and during supper his eyes were red – everyone’s eyes were red then – and Steve had seen lions and hyenas and elephants and baboons and zebras and my mother sat on the wash basket and said Steve’s parents, my aunt and uncle, were in jail for opposing apartheid and in the bathroom I also had to think I must hide my nakedness from Ma because Mr Basson had caned me for nothing really and I had blue and red horizontal stripes on my bum.

And decades later my mother said that it wasn’t all that bad, looking after kids whose parents were in jail, except when there were four wild boys with whooping cough in one room who wouldn’t lie down. We naughty boys. Pillow fights. Ungovernable.

She helped me to memorise poems and formulae and Latin verbs and when I became an actor she even helped me with my lines for the part of a man who had lost his memory, the most naked, sore, raw role I’ve ever played.

In the same cluttered box as Proust and the memory book is a History textbook, the one we all used, the one by Van Jaarsveld, full of lies and falsified memories and Van Jaarsveld wasn’t the worst.

There are other books in the box, including eye-witness accounts of atrocities around the world. Many of the women now living in and around my mother Rose I’m sure lived through and experienced cruelty and incarceration and, yes, experienced concentration camps – wearing striped outfits, treated worse than zebras, worse than other beasts and their memories are quietened now. And were in any case passed over and minimised and even denied.

It’s a contagious disease, amnesia.

 My mother lived through the War and the Apartheid years and the Depression from which her father protected her so that she didn’t feel poor and I’m glad she had that early interlude when she was ‘spoiled’.

In a more lucid time I reminded her on her birthday that she was 96 and she said ‘No wonder I feel so top heavy’.

And once I squeezed her arm and she said ‘Ja, that got through’.

And my son brought his new bride to meet her and Rosebud was especially animated and responsive he told her about the trip to the Game Reserve and all the animals they saw, lions and leopards and a rare rhino and I like to think he also mentioned zebras.

And my daughter, Nina, made sure she got a late chance a couple of years ago to be with my mother Rosebud and to hear her stories. She firmly said to me, ‘Daddy, I can get another job, but I can’t get another Granny’.

Children came to our front door or kitchen door for many neighbourly reasons but mostly they would ask my mother Rose if she could help them with a Shakespeare quotation and she never let them down. She relished Shakespeare’s images like the poring dark and key-cold bodies and the womb of night and maid-pale peace.

Rose is a woman who has been ignored and put down and neglected as much as she has been loved.

So what is the biggest feeling I fight – my feeling and maybe hers?  

That she has allowed her memory to fade because she is forgotten.

No, Granny Rose,

No, Ma, no, my mother no.

Not forgotten, no.

As long as sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren live,

So long as tales are told to those unborn and unbegot

As long as we can read and eyes can see

So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

I’ll call you again tomorrow morning, Rosebud, and sing to you.

Jack Klaff (London) 


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