Of Marmite and men

November 20, 2013 § 10 Comments

When I was little – just three or four – we still talked to our neighbours in suburban South Africa. You could still see over the wall into the garden next door and lean on the fence for a natter, while the neighbour watered their garden in the cool of the late afternoon.

Our neighbours, for a time, were the Weyers family. I don’t remember everyone in the family, but I remember at least two sons – Werner was the youngest, there was one called Hillie (presumably short for Hillebrand or something similar) and I think one more. They were typical Afrikaans boys – barefoot, slightly grubby, and knobbly-kneed in the way of young boys, with rhinoceros-hide feet that could withstand even the burn of the notorious, three-thorned dubbeltjie.

There was also one daughter – Neevra – who I thought was the mostly glamorous  girl I had ever encountered, and who scandalised my mother by using red as the theme colour for her wedding. Apparently it’s very unlucky. And then, to add insult to injury, she married someone my mother felt was unsuitable in some way.

But most of all, I remember their mother, Ma Weyers. I honestly thought that was her name for the longest time. After all, that’s what her children called her, so I followed suit. And to this day, that’s how I think of her – as Ma. It strikes me that I don’t actually know what her first name is.

Ma had salt-and-pepper wavy hair that formed a cloud around her head, and the softest, kindest voice you ever heard. I remember the slight wobble of her upper arms, the warmth of her smile, and the faded flowery apron she wore around her waist. I couldn’t say what colour her eyes were behind the silver rimmed glasses, but they were permanently crinkled in a smile.

What I remember most was how much I loved to visit Ma. In the mornings, when her children were at school, I would be hoisted over the wall into her garden. We would go into her cool, pleasantly dark kitchen at the back of the house, and sit down at the formica table with its chrome trim, and then Ma would make tea and “roof sandwiches” for me.

Roof sandwiches were a special thrill. They were simple Marmite sandwiches, but they felt like pure decadence, made as they were on white bread – a definite no-no in our household. She would cut the crusts off for me – again, unheard of at home – and then she would cut them into tiny triangles and arrange them pointing upwards, like tiny storybook roofs, just the way I liked them. Ma and I would drink our tea, and eat our roof sandwiches, and all was well in my world.

I lost contact with Ma, although I did cycle around to her new house once or twice to visit in later years. Tea and roof sandwiches were always served, even when I was 12 and 16 and 19. And I wonder sometimes if she’s still alive, if she would remember the little girl who sat in her kitchen all those years ago feeling as spoilt as if she were the Queen of England. If she would allow me, now, to make tea and roof sandwiches for her.

Because what Ma taught me was that it really is the little things that make an impression. That it’s the small acts of kindness that can make someone feel like they’re the most important girl in the world. Not caviar or champagne or chocolate – although those things can be wonderful too. Just Marmite sandwiches, on white bread, with the crusts cut off. Roof sandwiches for a little girl whose feet swung between the legs of the chair, and who truly felt that she was seen and heard for those few minutes on a weekday morning.

So sometimes, when I’m feeling a little sad, I make roof sandwiches for myself – just the way she made them – even if my feet have touched the floor for many a year now. I remember Ma and her kindness to me, and instantly, the world is a more welcoming place.


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§ 10 Responses to Of Marmite and men

  • This made me cry. Which I hope is a reflection on your powerful writing and not my weak mental health . . .


  • Alan Mills says:

    Mmmm…marmite, my favourite


  • kerryhaggard says:

    Beautiful! Thank you 🙂


  • Kit says:

    Aaah, such lovely memories! Funny but marmite sandwiches on bought white bread with the crusts cut off used to be one of the children’s birthday party staples. Usually they had to make do with home-made bread, often wholemeal, crusts and all. I never thought to turn them into roof sandwiches, though now I wish I had!


  • You have a knack of putting the picture most evocatively. I can taste your thoughts.


  • Di Brown says:

    aaahh, you just transported me back to the good old days. That little girl lives inside so many of us still. Roof sandwiches- perfect description of happiness and a reminder of the Ma’s in our childhood streets. Thanks for a lovely memory jolt.


  • Trishpp says:

    Roof sarmies. What a great description of a childhood favourite.


  • Cindy Erasmus says:

    My darling sister. You are an incredible person and an incredible writer and I hope that by now you know this. There are days that I wish I could sit and you could tell me stories about our dear mother. The memories are fading for me and I cant remember the small details the way you do. I am so proud to be your sister even the days that I feel intimidated by your enormous talents. Never change and dont ever stop writing. I love you


  • I am there. Right there having roof sandwiches. Marmite sandwiches played a huge role in my childhood! What a lovely piece. Ma sounds like a wonderful lady. 🙂


  • Joslyn Walker says:

    Isn’t it wonderful how we can remember these small kind gestures. I love how my memory somehow fades out the trivial hurts and keeps these happy memories intact. Thank you for sharing your roof sandwich memories and reminding me that every little kindness counts.


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