For Aunty Pam

December 8, 2017 § 4 Comments

Some people leave an indelible mark on you from the first time you meet them. Aunty Pam was one of those people.

Of course, she wasn’t my aunt at all – but that’s how we did things then. You’d never think of calling someone who was your parents’ age by their first name. But Aunty Pam would soon feel to me as though she really was one of my family members.

I first met her as a teenager – she was a friend of my boyfriend’s family. When I married him some years later, Aunty Pam did the flowers. When we had children, she and Uncle Peter became unofficial honorary grandparents. They faithfully remembered birthdays and Christmases, and we kept in touch with the odd phone call or lunch. When my husband and I divorced, my relationship with Aunty Pam and Uncle Peter remained unchanged.

I learnt so much from her. She was the most down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth, warm, generous soul you could ever hope to meet. She was wise and witty. She was sharp as a shard of glass, and she called a spade a damn shovel. She had the ability to cut through any bullshit and see through to the heart of things. And she had enormous compassion and a remarkable grasp of human nature – which is probably what made her such a great nursing sister.

One of my favourite memories of her was a discussion about her retirement plans and where she wanted to live. I asked about a retirement home, and she almost spat with disdain at the thought. “I’m not going to one of those places,” she said. And then she twinkled: “I wish to be a burden to my children.”

On Tuesday this week, as I silenced the alarm on my phone, a call rang through, and I heard that Aunty Pam had died. Next week Tuesday, Aunty Pam’s friends and family will gather to celebrate her life. Sadly, I can’t be there as I have family matters of my own to attend to.

I will miss her enormously. I will miss her broad accent, which she never lost despite having left the UK several decades ago. I will miss her toddling off to my kitchen to make more rooibos tea, which she drank in copious amounts after she stopped drinking red wine. I’ll miss her throaty chain smoker’s laugh – she remains the only person I ever allowed to smoke inside my house, because in later years she simply didn’t have the mobility to get up and smoke outside. I’ll miss her pragmatism and wisdom and generosity, and I’ll miss her annual Christmas cards, which arrived promptly in early December every year, including this year.

But most of all, I’ll miss her for her kindness, which she dispensed in large helpings to anyone who needed it. Kindness, I think, is the currency of love.

Rest in peace, dearest Aunty Pam. I loved you very much, and I will never forget you.

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Raising agent

December 8, 2017 § 1 Comment

This evening my elder daughter boards a plane for Europe with a sense of possibility. She’s seeing the realisation of a dream that has been partially fuelled by her own hard work.

She wanted to go on a Contiki tour to celebrate the end of more than a decade of schooling, but it cost a lot more money than we had. So I sat her down and asked her if she was willing to work for it. It might take a little while, I said, but I thought we could create a fund with the small amount I had in my savings account, and work to raise the rest of it. I would bake and sell shortbread, she could tutor and babysit, and we’d even wash cars – with all proceeds to the fund.

It would require a team effort. So she, her sister and I made a pact, and the fund was launched. I crafted a Facebook post that explained the goal, and that we didn’t expect anything for nothing. We had a rough figure in our heads, and within a week, between donations and the services and shortbread we were offering we’d raised 60% of our goal. 

She tutored and babysat at every opportunity. The three of us baked and packed and delivered more shortbread than we ever thought we’d see in our lifetimes. I even washed a car with th  gracious assistance of its lovely owner. And another week or two later, we’d reached our goal.

I am delighted that she’s going. But I’m even more delighted that she learnt a few lessons along the way.

She learnt that people who love you will support your dreams in ways big and small if you’re prepared to put in the effort. She learnt that it’s possible to pay cash for big ticket items if you’re prepared to work, be disciplined, and exercise some patience. She learnt about the power of lots of small drops adding up into an overflowing pail of water. And she learnt that the simplest of elements – butter, flour and sugar – can be transformed into dreams when they’re seasoned with resourcefulness.

The shortbread recipe was passed on to me by the mother of one of my dearest friends. I like to think she’s looking down on us from heaven in approval of what her delicious recipe has helped to bring about. Thanks, Nini – we couldn’t have done it without you.

And thank you to everyone who contributed. You’ve helped to make a young girl’s dream come true.

On guard

November 29, 2017 § 2 Comments

Earlier this year I had occasion to interview the chairman of one of South Africa’s biggest retailers, who also sits on several other boards as a non-executive director. It was a Q&A interview, with some standard questions, including this one: Who/what inspires you?

This was his answer: “Security guards. They’re always so cheerful.”

It was an interesting answer, and it got me thinking – and noticing how many times in a day I interacted with security guards. The answer, if you live in South Africa, is “a lot”.

And they are, for the most part, friendly and cheerful. In shopping centres, they will always direct you to the shop you’re looking for. At government departments, they usually know more than the information desk clerks do. But it’s at business premises, I think, that they come into their own.

Because at corporate headquarters and office parks across South Africa, the security guard is the new front desk person. They are the person you interact with long before you talk to a receptionist. They are often the person who sets the tone of an organisation before you’ve even parked your car. I’ve left packages with them. I’ve chatted with them when I’ve been training people at companies a few days in a row. And they are often far more friendly and helpful than the reception staff, many of whom double as switchboard operators and, as a result, only give you half their attention.

But I wonder how many companies value them? I wonder how many companies grumble about how much security costs – and don’t interrogate how much of that goes to the guard, and how much to the security company?

Because I suspect they aren’t very well-paid. I know that from time to time when I hire a security guard on an ad hoc basis, I’m horrified by how little it costs – because I know the guard isn’t getting all of that. They work long hours, often in uncomfortable conditions, and might be called upon to put themselves in danger to keep us all safe and sound, they’re probably poorly paid – and they’re still cheerful!

They might not be on your payroll, but they’re a vital part of your organisation – and not just because they keep you safe. They also set the tone for visitors to your company. Maybe it’s time to appreciate them just a little bit more, and see how you can improve both their working conditions and their lot in life.

Wanted: stunt double

November 22, 2017 § 4 Comments

When I think back on my teenage years, I think I could’ve done with a stunt double for watching movies. Of course, in those days, we didn’t go to the movies as often as people do now, so a few events stand out for me – and they are filled with great danger and peril.

The first time I was allowed to go to the movies by myself was uneventful. My mother dropped me off at Kine 500, Port Elizabeth’s biggest cinema at the time, to watch Christopher Reeve in Superman. The movie was released in 1978 so I must have been nine years old, and I remember how grown-up I felt to be allowed to do something like that by myself – to buy my own ticket, my own popcorn, my own fizzy drink.

But I also remember getting a good tongue-lashing for not being exactly where I was supposed to be afterwards. I think I was distracted by the bookshop a block away, and wandered off.

Fast forward to 1982 and I am off to the movies with my new boyfriend, Shane* and his best friend, Evan*. This time it’s at the Rink Street cinemas, across the road from St George’s Park and the King George VI Art Gallery. I am in my only pair of jeans: skintight Wranglers that I loved and wore at every opportunity, a fact Evan felt obliged to comment on – not so sotto voce – as I sashayed up the steep stairs into the complex. I remember wondering what he was doing there anyway. Weren’t Shane and I about to have our first date? It was all a bit odd.

Still. I was 13, my jeans looked fabulous on me, and Shane was good-looking, from another school, and two years older than me. I could almost die of the glamour – this wondrous creature had asked me to go to movies with him. We queued for tickets, and proceeded to the snacks counter. I don’t recall what we were watching: I was so besotted with Shane I didn’t think we’d be paying much attention to the movie anyway. He gave me a smouldering look (for a 15-year-old), and took my hand as we walked across the plushly patterned carpets. Had I been a Victorian woman, I would almost certainly have swooned.

Somehow, I managed to keep my cool, and we ordered our snacks. The woman behind the counter filled our drinks and plonked them down in front of us. The popcorn followed: three boxes lined up in a row. Evan took his. Shane took his. I took mine – but missed, somehow, and knocked the whole thing over. We stood in a sea of popcorn, a queue rapidly forming behind me.

I blushed. Evan laughed. Shane tried not to, and we kicked the popcorn under the counter. “Never mind,” said Shane. “You can share mine.” I almost swooned again, and forgot my blushes.

The following year, after Shane had broken up with me (and I had made him see what he was missing out on by leaving some very lovelorn song lyrics in a letter in his postbox) I was off to the movies with my best friend, Tammy*. We were inseparable – we spent almost every afternoon after school together, riding all over the place on our bikes in an effort to get thinner thighs (yes, I know). We pored over pictures of Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise, and dressed to the nines at any opportunity in an effort to lure ourselves boyfriends.

One such opportunity was the movies – you never knew who you might see there. So we were off to the Rink Street cinema again. We spent hours getting ready: we bathed, did our hair and make-up, and both dressed in khaki dresses with red accessories. (Please don’t judge – it was the eighties.) I’d made my own dress – it had a dropped waist and pockets, and Tammy’s was a much more elegant affair – it skimmed her body perfectly, and had buttons all the way down the front.

I was so well-accessorised that even my shoes were red. And despite Tammy’s pointing out that it was well-known that only prostitutes wore red shoes, I loved them and wore them as often as possible. Suitably coiffed and clothed, we clip-clopped up those same precarious stairs to the movies.

This time the popcorn buying proceeded without incident, and Tammy and I settlled in to watch the movie, having not, unfortunately, found any suitable boyfriend material. I forget what we watched, but the end credits started to roll and we hurried out as Tammy’s mother was waiting outside in the family’s pale green Anglia. The ignominy of having to leave in such an Embarrassing Car would be the subject of a mother-daughter fight all the way home afterwards.

But I digress.

We’d chosen to sit near the back. There were several steps down to the exit. I was 14 and in high heel shoes. I still don’t know exactly what happened, but before I knew it, I was somersaulting down those stairs, legs in the air, and shoes flying. One landed in front of the screen, one among the rows of seats, and I landed in the most unladylike position you could possibly imagine. I hope I had my good underwear on.

The other patrons stared in amazement; Tammy was bent over double, laughing at my indignity as only a best friend can.

So this is just a warning. There haven’t been any incidents of late, but given how clumsy I am, anything can happen. I’ve not yet been able to find a stunt double who’s up to the task.

 * Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

In praise of silliness

November 15, 2017 § 6 Comments

I’ve spent a large part of this afternoon trying to shoehorn ‘Eric Clapton’, ‘Layla’, ‘ukulele’ and ‘Hawaii’ into a bad joke. Why? Because a Facebook friend, after I’d posted a particularly bad musical pun, asked if I could please construct 10 or so more of those puns by the end of this month.

He didn’t have to ask twice. But so far, I’ve only managed three, and one was a bit of a stretch. I absolutely love puns, dad jokes, bad jokes – anything that makes you groan. One of my favourite jokes of all time is this one: What do you call a fish without an eye? Fsh…

While I’ve been wondering if ‘ukulayla’ is up to standard, Zimbabwe has been undergoing a coup-not-a-coup-maybe-sort-of-a-coup, Donald Trump has insulted Kim Jong Un on Twitter, the Middle East is still a mess, and the world continues to go to hell in a handbasket. And you might well point at me and think I’m insensitive to everything going on around me.

Quite the opposite. I’m oversensitive – and it gets to the point where I just can’t take on any more doom, gloom, or overgrown men-children in the room. And then I resort to cracking a joke, because I think we could all do with lightening up a little.

The older I get, the more I realise just how little time we have on this earth. I’d much rather spend my time laughing and making others laugh (or groan) than buy into the litany of calamity that threatens to overwhelm me some days.

Laughter, they say, is the best medicine. And it’s not just the philosophers and sages who tell us this – science says laughter can relax the whole body, boost immunity, trigger the release of endorphins, protect your heart, defuse anger and conflict, and even burn calories! It may even help you to live longer.

So I’m choosing to be silly, and to seek out the similarly silly to hang out with – I think, if anything, we need more silliness, not less.

As for my musical puns, to the unending relief of my non-punning Facebook friends, I have only managed to come up with three so far – mainly because when you post one, a whole thread of puns ensues, so it’s hard to be original after that

But I was just wondering if, when Eric Clapton performs in Hawaii, he plays a ukulayla.

 

How to survive South African bureaucracy

October 25, 2017 § 4 Comments

I’ve had the misfortune of having a lot to do with government departments of late, so I thought I’d compile a handy guide to help you to get through your next Home Affairs or Licensing Department ordeal experience.

  1. Block out an entire day. You probably won’t need it, but it’s better to manage your own expectations, and hopefully you’ll be pleasantly surprised when they spring you earlier than you expected, and you emerge like some sort of Hollywood jailbird, blinking at the bright sunlight outside.
  2. Prepare your mind. You will need a calm, zen-like demeanour to handle the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that are coming your way. They are. There’s no avoiding them. And there’s little point in getting angry or sarcastic, or throwing your toys. Forget Parliament and the Zuptas – this is where the true power lies in our country. You are at the bureaucrats’ mercy, and they know it. Keep calm and carry on: acceptance and obsequiousness are the watchwords.
  3. Get there at least an hour before it opens. I know people say the afternoon is quiet, but if you mis-time things, you could arrive after the dreaded queue cut-off time – which can be as early as 1.30pm some days. I’ve seen it happen more than once. If you get there at the crack of dawn you might queue for an hour before they even open the doors, but at least it’s by your own choice. Somehow, that helps with the acceptance.
  4. Dress appropriately. You will be standing for a long time, even if you get there early. Wear comfortable shoes and clothes. Don’t forget to wear layers for the inevitable changes in temperature.
  5. Carry an umbrella. I queued a few weeks ago in the pouring rain. I wore a raincoat, though, because I am exceedingly clumsy and I thought my queue-mates might like to keep their eyes. In rain or shine, it makes sense to take an umbrella, because it’ll keep you dry in the wet, and provide portable shade for those days where you have to queue in the blazing sun. Those days are inevitable. Pack your umbrella.
  6. Pack padkosYou’re going to need it. You are going on a journey of several hours, and you’ll be cranky if your blood sugar drops. It’s hard to be obsequious when you’re cranky. I also take a flask of coffee with me now, and there’s nothing as satisfying as the envy in your queue-mates’ eyes as you crack open the flask and the aroma of coffee fills the room. Take sandwiches, fruit, water and a chocolate biscuit or two. Life is always better when a chocolate biscuit is in it.
  7. Don’t believe the website about what you need. Most government websites were last updated during the Rinderpest, and they inevitably get things wrong. Your best bet is to do a recce the day before to find out fees and forms and other requirements. However, the same bureaucrat might give you a different story the next day, so you might require a third visit. I think they’re secretly part of a government initiative to build resilience in its citizens.
  8. Forget the enquiries desk – speak to the security guards. They always know exactly what you need and where you need to be. And they’re usually much more friendly. They are the best source of information, seriously. Even the toothless, prune-skinned car guard at one of the places I visited had a better grasp on the process than the enquiries desk.
  9. Pack the essentials. No matter what you are going to do always have at least one certified copy each of your identity document and proof of address. Two, to be safe. Just assume that if you’re dealing with government, you need those two things. And if it has anything to do with identification, take along two passport-sized photos as well.
  10. Carry any fees in cash. Some departments will take credit cards now, but the systems often go down, so cash is the safest. I work on twice whatever the designated fee is – because often there’s some or other fee or extra that you didn’t think of, like a temporary driver’s licence because you left it too late to renew the permanent one. Of course, I don’t know anyone who would be so irresponsible, (cough) but maybe you do.
  11. Take something light and mindful to do. You might as well regard it as a time to catch up on reading or knitting, or to practise Sudoku, or whatever takes your fancy. Just choose something that’s easy to pack up when you have to move along in the queue.
  12. The chairs are the prize. Just when you feel you are losing hope, and your ankles are swelling up like a child’s swimming tube, the prized rows of chairs swim into view. You’re making progress. You can do this. Reward yourself with another chocolate biscuit for strength. Perhaps it’s worth packing a whole box of them, actually.
  13. It ain’t over till it’s over. Don’t think you’ve made it just because you’re in the last chair, in the last stage of queueing. Something will be wrong, and you’ll have to go back to another queue. Don’t relax till you are walking back to your car with all the receipts in your hand. Hope is a terrible thing.
  14. Mind your manners. These places aren’t always kind to the elderly or the disabled. I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but please give up your seat if necessary. You won’t lose your place in the queue – people just accommodate and remember whose turn it is – and you can add a little credit to your karmic score. Go on. I know you were brought up well.
  15. Talk to the people next to you. It’s hard to be hopeful in South Africa sometimes, but government queues are both great levellers, and places of great camaraderie. Somehow when we’re all united in our struggle to be properly documented, we forget our differences, and relate to each other as human beings. People laugh and joke, and help each other out, and it’s a beautiful thing. Besides, if you need a bathroom break, they’ll be more inclined to keep your place if you were nice to them.

 

A kindness of compliments

October 4, 2017 Comments Off on A kindness of compliments

There’s a documentary that did the rounds on social media recently: a group of students, I think, embarked on a portrait photography project where they photographed people ‘before’, and then ‘at the precise second at which they were told they were beautiful. It was one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen. Their faces lit up, they smiled, they blushed. They were so beautifully vulnerable in that moment that their humanity shone through the mask they’d been wearing a moment before.

And it doesn’t really matter what the compliment is. I have smoothed my way through the bank, the police station, the supermarket, just because I paid someone a simple compliment about a tiny thing: “That colour really suits you. What a beautiful dress. What a fabulous tie. I love your nail polish…”

Because what that compliment does, for a brief moment, is to make the person feel that there is more to them than the labels society affixes to them. They’re not just a teller or a cashier or a constable – they’re a human being. A human seen.

And I don’t know about you, but in the world we live in today, I think we could all do with a little more of that.

 

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