Lion luck and letting go

Some places instantly evoke a powerful feeling, one that never goes away. One of those is the view from the east of the Strijdom Tunnel on the R36 in Limpopo. On one side are the rusty cliffs of the Eastern Drakensberg; on the other is the broad, flat expanse of the Lowveld as it stretches all the way to Mozambique.


It’s a view I got to know and love when I was very young. For most of my life, I have been very privileged to visit my favourite part of the world regularly. It’s a world of screeching francolins and chuckling hornbills, of zebras and giraffes and, if we were lucky, lions and rhinos – and if we were very, very lucky, leopards too. Lion luck, I called it. Sometimes we had it. Sometimes we didn’t, and we only ever saw impala and steenbok and duiker. Still, no matter what, there was always the possibility that around the very next bush might be something amazing.


At night, the fire would flicker in the dark as sparks rose into a sky full of stars. The lions would call and we would try to guess how close they are, and whether they would let us catch a glimpse of their tawny selves.


I miss this place so much. After more than two years, I had made plans to go again, and this morning they fell apart. My mother reminded me, as I should have known she would, that RaRa is under two and it isn’t safe for her to visit an area where malaria is endemic, even in winter. It would be utterly irresponsible of me to take her, and because she is still breastfed and refuses a bottle, being apart for more than a day is unthinkable.


I had invested a lot in these plans. I had allowed myself to get excited about them. They were something I was looking forward to, and that mattered because I’d forgotten how to look forward to anything.


I was frustrated for a moment or two. Angry, even. That I’ve shrugged and let go and moved on so easily surprises me. It’s a good thing. It means that the depression is not as bad as it was, and that I don’t need to hold on to a stake in some future ground as I try to pull myself out of the current morass.


Now, all I can think about is how utterly impractical it would have been to take RaRa there. A more toddler-unfriendly place is hard to imagine: the unfenced pool, the monkey and baboon shit, lurking predators like leopards, an open fire, raised decks where a child could fall. She would have needed constant supervision. There would have been no quiet sitting, listening to the birds or gazing speculatively through binoculars.


The malaria is never not going to be a problem, even in winter. The camp is never going to be suitable for children. Maybe it’s time to accept that I will never go back. This place and my love for it is in my past, and it was nice while it lasted, but it’s over now. The memories will have to be enough.


Happily Never After

I’m standing in the garden of remembrance on the grounds of St Michaels, the church where my parents were married, where I was christened and confirmed, where I sang in the choir and pronounced “womb” to rhyme with “bomb” instead of “tomb”, where I was married (first time around) and my grandparents were consigned to the afterlife. The winter afternoon is fresh but pleasant. The white-eyes are chirping in the trees and the roses nod in the hint of a breeze.

My parents are here. So are my aunt and uncle and the younger of my two brothers, and my aunt from Pietermaritzburg. The priest, a woman with a Canadian accent, has handed us print out of the service for the interment of ashes. My grandmother is in a small wooden box with a brass plaque. On top of it rests a spectacular cerise rose. She would have approved. She always did love roses.

The priest reads the prayers. We say Alleluia Amen where the copy is in bold. I read from the New Testament, the same reading at the funeral. John 14:2. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe in Me as well.”  I enunciate the words clearly and read with carefully considered expression, like the well-spoken schoolgirl with colours for public speaking that I used to be.

I don’t believe in God, I think to myself.

The priest tells us that my grandmother has joined the Lord in the afterlife, that she and my grandfather are reunited, and I think: what nonsense this all is. Once upon a time, I believed all of this, and now I don’t. There is no afterlife. There is nothing: just us, standing in this small garden, preparing to bury what, symbolically, is left of my grandmother.

The priest places the box in the ground and invites us all to take a handful of earth to scatter on top of it. The soil is cool and dry in my hand. The priest’s robes get in the way, so my uncle takes over the task of covering the box with earth. “There’s an earthworm,” he says.

Prayers and more prayers. We can come and visit the spot at any time, the priest says. There is 24/7 security, so even though the church is surrounded by walls and electric fencing, we can commune with the dead before dawn if we so wish. She suggests that we have a new plaque made with both my grandparents’ names. I think back to them, how I loved them like a second set of parents, but that I was never under any illusion that they particularly liked one another. Would they have wanted to be reunited in the afterlife? I can’t imagine it.

After the service is over, I glance over some of the other plaques. Each has a name and a set of dates. Some are parentheses to many decades. Others are shockingly short. A young man who died at the age of 23, a woman whose life came to an end shortly before her 22nd birthday more than three decades before.

Sometimes, I miss believing in God.


Now I am in my grandmother’s lounge. The parquet clicks quietly under my feet. In the display cases are the Royal Doulton figurines my grandmother collected. As a child, I used to look at them and try to decide which one I thought was prettiest. They never interested me much, though. Nobody in the family wants them, so they will be sold. Is there a market for them? Who knows. Across this city, there were probably many women who collected them and displayed them in cabinets, where they now perplex the heirs who must decide what the hell to do with them.

This is how life ends: a trail of things, of stuff, left at the high tide mark of time. Silver, crystal, tea sets, antiques, jewels. I feel no attachment to any of this, which is surprising. I’ve known this house and the things in it my entire life, and yet there’s no single object in which I’ve invested my feelings about my grandmother. I wish there were.

Life comes to an end, and nothing means anything.


I am at home now, sitting on a mat I’ve brought from my grandmother’s, trying to feed RaRa yoghurt while she plays with a new ball. I think about all the things I have collected over the years. Some are stored here. Others are at my parents’, and there are still lots of books and papers in the house with the Royal Doulton ladies and the parquet floors. I can’t imagine that anyone would want them. They are only meaningful to me: signposts to older storylines. I have far too much stuff, and the thought of what to do with it all makes me anxious.

I cast a thought to Twitter, and what people there might think. (I always think of Twitter – Woke Twitter, most especially – which has become my conscience and my inner voice.) And of course, to have stuff, to have too much stuff, is a luxury. So many people in this country have nothing, or next to nothing. The accumulation of crap is largely a privilege of the middle classes.

I take another sip of wine and regard my daughter. She has been bathed and dressed and fed, and now she is happy. “Fetch the ball,” I suggest, and off she goes like a baby turtle or a wind up toy, slap slap slap softly on the laminate floor. She brings the ball to me and I praise her for her cleverness and lose myself for a moment in her smile.

This is purpose. This is meaning. There is no God, and there is too much stuff, but there is this delightful, unexpected child and tonight – just tonight – this is all and she is everything.

Things I did on my day off work

Three days of bonus leave are nothing to be sniffed at. They expire at the end of June, so it’s now or never. When I saw that June 13 had no – no! – meetings scheduled, I knew this was a very special opportunity.

What do you do with a day (almost) all to yourself? You do something you haven’t done in a long time. You do something that used to matter to you, a lot. So, today, the plan was to watch a movie in a cinema for the first time since December 2015 when I watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Once upon a time, I was something of a movie buff, watching at least two movies a week. I studied film at university and wrote movie reviews for SA City Life in the 1990s, when I got to see everything long before everything else, and with great catering. That was how I met Barry Ronge and why, during one conversation about an ex-boyfriend, he called me “Hitler with tits”.

Once I had a RaRa, movies became most definitely a thing of the past. Until today. Today, I was going to watch Wonder Woman and write later about the experience of being in a dark theatre with nothing to think about or focus on but what was on the screen in front of me.

It was never going to happen, of course. This morning, I needed to write a resumé and send it to a potential client, and give a quick overview on the job at hand. By the time I dropped RaRa off at my mother’s, I knew there was no way I would ever get to Rosebank on time.

So this is what I did instead.

First, I dropped off two paintings at the framers I use to mount my work in lipstick. (They’re next to Herbert Evans, and very good. I can recommend them.) One painting is for Gaynor Young, and the other is for a fellow fan of the Frankel, the unbeaten superstar British racehorse.

On the way to The Zone, I’d noticed several outside broadcast vans next to Oxford Road. Twitter informed me that it was the DA press conference, so I snooped around the Rosebank Holiday Inn and scored a coffee while eavesdropping on the comments of the journalists gathered there. It’s possible that I photobombed a TV reporter. If I’d run into either Mmusi or Helen – neither of whom I’ve met, but both of whom know my husband – I’m not sure what I’d have said.

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Then I ducked into the Clicks in search of a photo frame for Father’s Day. There I encountered assistant store manager Lesego Phihlela, who gave me a discount on two photo frames and happily chatted to me when I asked her about some of my clients. (Yes, I know it was a day off, but I’m never not working.)

I tweeted a pic of Thula Sindi’s Rosebank store and titled it the headquarters of Avo Haters South Africa. (The avo wars are a perennial feature of Black Twitter in South Africa.)

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After that, I went hunting for Africology. My husband had received a spa voucher as part of a corporate gift, and six months later, there was finally an opportunity to use it. I walked in, chose my treatment and enjoyed 45 minutes of bliss thanks to Aletta Khwinana. The treatment got to all the knots and I feel so much better now, which is more than I can say for many massages. Highly recommended.

After the massage, I rushed back to my mom’s place to feed RaRa and go through my mails. I typed up a quick biography for the executive creative director who needed them for a pitch, then headed to the office to chat to the MD about some proactive social media ideas. (Life hack: showing up at the office when you are officially on leave is a way to win friends and influence people.)

Then I did a spot of shopping at the centre across the road before picking up RaRa, heading home and writing about my day.

There’s something quite wonderful about being officially on leave when everyone else is at work. There’s none of the guilt, no worrying about time sheets, and always the possibility that something interesting might happen.

Oh yes – I did mention that there were three bonus leave days. I still have two more bonus days to take. I’m thinking about using those to travel to the Garden Route, which needs the business after the horrific fires of the past week. If I don’t travel, I’ll try to watch a movie in a cinema again. Perhaps I’ll use my two Sorbet vouchers, one of which dates from August 2015. I haven’t bothered to get my nails done in all that time, but bonus leave means there’s no excuse.



Passport to home

This afternoon, my husband called me from Hong Kong. Yesterday and the day before, it was Beijing, where he attended a conference. I’m looking forward to having him back home, but I’m glad he’s had another opportunity to travel, because he loves it and it matters so much to him. He might be off again to India soon for his 40th high school reunion, and he has a good friend in Vienna he visits regularly, so I am sure there will be more WhatsApp video calls in the months ahead.

I have travelled with him to Hong Kong and Vienna and India before, but next time he goes, it will be on his own. This is how it will be from now on.

Which reminds of where I keep my passport, in my cupboard wedged between my socks and my underwear. It’s next to RaRa’s vaccination records, which is apt. One document has become far more important than the other, and I don’t imagine I will use the other again except to explain to British Airways why my name on the ticket is Sarah Britten-Steyn and not Sarah Britten. (It’s a long story, which I won’t go into here.)

Travel – the kind that requires a passport – was once one of the most important things in my life. It was impossibly extravagant when I was growing up, and I vowed to change that once I had a job and money of my own. I felt ashamed that I had seen so little of the world, and envious of those who had.

When I was a child during the 80s, overseas travel was something that only amazingly rich people did. Bear in mind that these were the apartheid years, and it was less common for (white) South Africans – the perennial polecats of the world – to venture abroad.   My father traveled regularly, but that was on Eskom-related business, usually heading off to Paris to talk about high voltage power lines. My mother stayed home with us. I knew that there were photos of her visiting Europe when she was much younger, but I never saw them and as far as I was concerned, the rest of the world existed only on TV and, therefore, only in theory.

Now, history is set to repeat itself. RaRa and I will stay home. As long as there are school fees to be saved for and debts to clear, travel is the least of my priorities. Having blown so much money on a quixotic trip to exhibit my art in Japan before I fell pregnant in 2015, I’m loathe to make the same mistake again – and quite frankly, the thought of traveling overseas with RaRa does not appeal to me at all. We have no reason to go, and maybe we never will.

This is what it means to have a child, for me: to stamp out the desire for things that are no longer practical. Travel is the first to be struck off the list. Clothing is up there too, as are other things that aren’t strictly necessary: shoes, hair, dinners, entertainment. I cant justify any of it. Not now, not ever.


Things I would save from a fire

Today, Twitter and Facebook are filled with pictures of boiling sheets of flame and a post-apocalyptic world that used to be a town I’ve known my entire life: Knysna. It’s hard to believe that so much of this lovely place of lagoons and forests (and, yes, nightmarish crowds and traffic over December) has been reduced to ashes and soot.

To see this happen in Knysna of all places is especially hard because of my personal connection to the town. Some of my earliest childhood memories involve shopping with my grandfather along the main road. It was in December 2013 that Kanthan invited me to lunch with friends at Thesen Island when I happened to be staying at Hope Villa with my friend Laura. It was there that I returned in January this year to introduce RaRa to Tessa and Friedel, our hosts there.

Hope Villa still stands, but many homes have been destroyed. Not just holiday homes occupied in high season, but spaces where lives have been built up over time, where the years have laid down layers of meaning like sediment. Places of furniture and photographs, books and paintings and memories.

Looking at videos of blackened remnants of walls and windows like eye sockets in skulls, I found myself wondering today what I would do if my home was about to be lost and I had to leave. What would I try to save?

And it struck me that apart from the obvious  – family members, RaRa and her car seat, the animals, my glasses (so I could see to drive), my phone and a charger, my wallet and perhaps my medication – I’d leave all my things to burn. No paintings, no clothing, no photographs, no books. Not even my laptop. Everything can be replaced, and if that weren’t possible, it would have to live on in my memory.

If I had time, I’d rush back to grab RaRa’s vaccination card and my passport, because I keep them together, and my Flip File filled with the kind of documents that would involve a lot of queuing and sighing and cursing to replace.

It’s a liberating thought, in a way, not being so attached to things that their loss would cause me anguish. I remember a time when I would have found leaving my stuff behind very hard. Now, it’s easier, because all of the things that really matter are in my memories, in my arms and in my heart.


On Mother’s Day, here’s to the grandmothers

There are 90 years, 2 months and 13 days between the two people in the photograph below. This is my daughter with my grandmother on the very first day that they finally got to meet. I don’t know for sure if, by then, my grandmother knew exactly who I was and who had brought her a baby, but I like to think that she did.

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On Friday, I gave one of two eulogies at Granny Molly’s funeral. She died on Thursday, May 4, at the age of 91, which means I was fortunate enough to have her in my life for more than 42 years. (42: the answer to life, the universe and everything.)

I was very close to her for much of my life. As I reflected on Friday, “everyone should have a Granny Molly in their lives”. That tribute to her was very much on behalf of her eight grandchildren, of which I am the eldest.

Some of my earliest memories involve Granny Molly: walking up the hill from my parents’ home to hers, lying on her bed while she tickled my back and told me stories about a little boy called Seedy Weedy, who lived in Plettenberg Bay and who loved to “pee in the seagull’s eye”. I lived with her before I got married and after my divorce; she was a constant fixture in my life, the family matriarch around whom the rest of us revolved.

I am so very fortunate to have had a grandmother who loved me – and spoiled me – and was there for me when it mattered most. RaRa is lucky enough to be very close to her grandmother too. Long before my daughter was born so far ahead of schedule, my mother told me that she would not let me put my child into daycare. So it is that every work day, I take her to my parents’ home, where my mother, my aunt Janet and my mother’s helper Joyce all help to feed, change and entertain my baby while I am in meetings and hunched behind my laptop drawing PowerPoint slides.

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On Friday, RaRa attended Granny Molly’s funeral. She didn’t know what was going on, of course. For most of the requiem mass, she prattled happily, speaking – in baby talk – on behalf of all the great grandchildren. Her innocent cheeriness brought smiles to an otherwise solemn occasion, and I like to think that my grandmother would have been charmed.

Later, in the church hall, we had tea and coffee and sandwiches, and chatted to relatives we last spoke to at the last funeral. RaRa got tired and hungry, so my aunt Janet fetched a bag with food and a bib from her car, and my mother and I sat at one of the tables and fed the baby before a familiar aroma signalled that it was time to change her nappy. Life goes on, and the baton passes from mother to daughter, grandmother to granddaughter. I look forward to seeing the relationship between my daughter and my mother grow, and flourish in all sorts of interesting ways.

Here’s to the grandmothers who add so much to our lives, and to whom we owe so much.

Breastfeeding ruined my skin

The maternity shoot. The newborn shoot. Both of these are very fashionable. I see them posted on Facebook all the time, and a small part of me feels envious, even resentful. Every time.

I didn’t do either of these. I have hundreds of photos of RaRa, but I feature in almost none of them. I don’t have a single nice photo of myself with my baby.

I had a very good reason for not wanting to do a maternity or a newborn shoot. My skin is a disaster, and I don’t want anyone to see.

This is nothing new. I got my first pimples at the freakishly young age of seven, and it went downhill from there. I was 12 when I was put onto my first course of Roaccutane, and I’ve been on countless courses since. Before I came off the Pill, I was on a chronic low dose of a Roaccutane generic. Nothing else worked.

The first zits soon appeared after I stopped taking contraception, and it only got worse when I fell pregnant. Now my epidermis is faced with a double whammy: not only can I not take Roaccutane (its safety while breastfeeding has not been established), but contraception I’m taking – the mini-pill, which prevents pregnancy while not impacting negatively on breastmilk production – is an acne bomb.


I hate the way I look most days. I feel ugly, and because I’m now in a category where it’s permissible to look like shit, I’ve let myself go. Before I go to the office, I put on the barest minimum of makeup. I live in leggings.  I keep cover sticks in my car to plaster over the zits, though I know it probably makes them even more obvious. I am pretty sure that people talk behind my back. It’s not normal for a woman in her 40s to have skin like a 16 year old – for all the wrong reasons. (“You should pamper yourself,” my mother-in-law told me when I last visited. I know what this is code for.)

RaRa has almost certainly inherited this particularly shitty problem. I hope that by the time she gets her first pimple, there will be a treatment other than a drug that causes long-term liver damage.

In the mean time, I can have decent skin, or I can breastfeed my baby. But I can’t have both.