Hello & Goodbye

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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.

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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)

photo credit http://www.thejacarandas.co.za/

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.

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The Wedding Question

Last Friday R and I celebrated our second wedding anniversary. Which I believe is Cotton having asked Those That Know These Things (and google). Having married a man who sees the marketing con in everything, this was met with much hilarity.

Tell you what‘ he says, ‘you get me a framed picture of Dot Cotton and we’ll call it quits‘.

And for that little quip I have sourced this little gem which I may just surprise him with after his next 3am shift.

We’ve not been terribly traditional in our approach to dating, weddings or anniversaries. We didn’t get engaged, mainly because we decided to get married spontaneously while on holiday in St Lucia, so I was only ‘engaged’ so to speak for two days. There was no diamond ring, no moonlit proposal, no fussing over table plans or choosing flowers. Just an off the cuff conversation at breakfast about what the wedding package might be at the beautiful hotel we were staying at. This resulted in a casual query at reception, to which the answer was, ‘Well, you two have been with us for over a week now, so we could arrange it for Wednesday or Thursday – would you have a preference?’. We went with Wednesday.

Having been together for over four years and co-habiting for 3 of those, it didn’t come as a surprise to our friends and family that this was on the cards. In fact, we had been talking about it seriously for about 2 years at that stage. But with the logistical challenges of having family on different sides of the planet, the huge financial consideration and the stress and planning which would be involved we couldn’t agree on a place or a time that made sense for us both. I couldn’t get my head around not doing it in South Africa. R couldn’t face not being in London. The classic tale. So we parked it. And parked it. And parked it some more.

As any therapist, coach or counsellor will tell you, compromise is key to a partnership of any kind. Even ahead of our dream holiday to St Lucia, we had both agreed we didn’t want a big white church wedding, and had we decided that if we were ever going to go ahead we’d both have to give up the family attendance element. And it was a big give, but we agreed if we both couldn’t have it all, which was impossible, we’d both go without. All or nothing.

In the end, throughout all of our discussions, our marriage was about us. Making that commitment official was a very personal and private affair. So when the opportunity to the sign those papers and make that commitment presented itself in tropical paradise, it all fell into place very quickly.

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Just the two of us – St Lucia June 13 2012

Shunning tradition can have its benefits. We got to get married the way we wanted, in the sun, having a laugh and eating cake. We did it without any pressure from family, friends or wider societal norms (although this will not stop people adding their two cents worth – there was a lot of chatter about rings, and some genuine shock that I had no ‘proper’ wedding dress or a bouquet weirdly). We avoided the needless stress and genuine drama that weddings can bring, and, although this was not the main objective, we saved a bucket load of money.

But there is a reason why certain practises have become tradition. There’s often a very good idea underlying the tried and tested conventions, and with weddings its the people. Its the community that knows you and loves you and wants to celebrate with you, to share in your joy and be part of the memory. Because these are the people you are going to need when the going gets tough, when you are raising a family, when crisis strikes. It can’t just be about you and you partner, that would be too much for any two people.  As the saying goes, It really does take a village, not just to raise a child, but to support the whole family. So we threw a few parties to mark the occasion.

As we were from two very distinct and very different ‘villages’ we threw two very different post wedding parties to celebrate. One in Jo’burg (sunshine, south african cuisine, family galore) and one in London (on the Thames, under the Millennium bridge, friends who are like family aplenty) . Essentially we upgraded our first wedding anniversary to include just about everyone, on both sides of the ocean. In a way, although we eloped on our own, in actuality it felt as though we got hitched 3 times over. So what originally felt like a compromise turned into a celebration that lasted months and spanned two continents. We just about got, the best of both worlds.

 

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My Joburg Crew: Pippa, Sekwa, Isaac and Olivia

 

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The Tate Modern presiding

Letting go of conventional expectation, trying something brave, and going with our gut instincts actually ended up being bigger and better than anything we had thought it could be. Just not in the way we had expected. Its a lesson I’m trying to take forward in other areas of our lives

Two years does not feel like a long time, and although we’re classed as newly weds (ish), we are actually approaching a far bigger milestone having been together for nearly seven. That’s longer than high school, a medical degree and the maximum term you’d serve for possession of a sawn-off shot-gun (what Omar would have got.. if he hadn’t… you know…).

That brings new challenges and the distance between London and South Africa isn’t getting any smaller. But we’ve weathered the first seven years without too many battle scars, and with a few official documents, a new place to live and exciting plans on the horizon, we’re in good shape for a few more yet.