A week ago today I was booking flights, manically comparing car rental prices and juggling whatsapp, email and facebook to organise the logistics of attending our beloved Granny’s funeral in Johannesburg. Her passing was not unexpected, but as with any loss, it was a huge shock. Surrounding yourself with endless admin is actually a welcome distraction.
When my Grandpa died 3 years ago, her husband of over 60 years, we thought she may be close behind, they were each other’s everything, they came as a pair. But in fact we had another few years to enjoy her company, and although the last time I saw her she was beginning to get a little confused, she could still reel off the names of all of her great-great nieces and nephews at an alarming rate.
For her tribute at the funeral, we all remembered how much our Gran loved children and luckily for her (and for us) our Granny Hazel was blessed with thirteen grandchildren (and six great-grandkids), a fantastic motley crew of sorts. We’re split over 3 continents (Africa, Europe and SE Asia) and there’s twenty years between the eldest to the youngest so we are all at very different stages in our lives – becoming parents, building careers, organising weddings or planning university, high school exams or world travel. But we all shared memories of a very happy childhood populated by Gran’s knitted jumpers, lots of hiking and boggle.
I remember one of the first signs of summer was Granny unveiling the annual ‘Betty’s Bay’ haircut that meant business. The silver perm was replaced with a very short almost pixie like cut. No fussing, short and sweet and ready for swimming, hiking and summer. She taught me to stop being self-conscious, to be daring and brave and just jump in feet first. That life would scuff you up, that was the point. And insisting that it wasn’t a proper hike unless you come back a bit bloodied and bruised.
Going back to Johannesburg last week, being surrounded by family, some of whom we haven’t seen for years was like going back in time. Spring had arrived with the full force of summer, 30 degree heat and spectacular high veld sunsets amplified by the dust left behind from winter. Catching up with cousins, swapping stories, remembering forgotten jokes and going through my Gran’s endless photo albums that documented almost every year of each of our lives, my life in London felt very far away.
My accent softens, my casual South African slang creeps back in, (I’m taking a right at the robots, ya?) and I’m repeating words for impact (are you sure sure?) but it’s like pulling on a long lost favourite pair of jeans. Comfortable, easy. It feels like home, because it is. From the way the water from the taps smells like fresh earth, and not loaded with lime and chemicals to the weaver nests hanging in the tree branches to the smell of cobra polish on the wooden floors. Its driving a little too fast down wide roads with the Coca-Cola sign blinking behind you from Ponte.
Its the landscape of my childhood. I can drive past the places where I learned to swim, ride a bike, skinned my knees, fell out of trees. Its the backdrop to my teen years, although all of the old clubs have moved or been turned into expensive housing complexes, the high schools are still there. The hole in the wall we could climb through, the shops that would sell us sweets and single B&H cigarettes and the pool halls that wouldn’t ask us for ID. University steps, lilac jacaranda trees in full bloom warning of impending exams (if the city had turned purple and you hadn’t started studying, that was cue that you had left it too late)
Ultimately though its the people. The family and friends and shared decades of experiences with the same cultural references and probably the same name. Having been away for coming up on twelve years, I can note the contrast between what has changed, but that often isn’t as astonishing as what has stayed the same. And this week, where we said goodbye to our very beloved Gran, it was amazing to see how much we’re still so connected, even as the new generations spring up and the age gaps between us all widen – it seems to bring us all closer together.