The Mulberry Tree

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The mulberry tree stood at the top of our garden, right next to the driveway. The leafy branches cascaded down to the ground on all sides, creating a lush dappled escape from the hot and bothered afternoons of netball practice and math homework. The mulberries were plump and sweet, dark purple fruit smeared like a bruise against the bright green leaves. We spent hours sheltered in the bosom of that tree. When we crept out the sun was about to descend in the vast African sky. Streaks of mulberry juice were visible on our blue school uniforms, and the tops of our fingers and even our bare toes were stained violet. Mulberry stains linger for a while.

We languished in a warm frothy bubble bath until our fingers and toes were wrinkled and only the slightest trace of violet remained. We sang silly songs and added more bubbles, and even though we had spent all afternoon devouring mulberries, suddenly we were starving. We sat at the big table in the dining room, our long hair dangerously close to the deliciously greasy lamb chops and homemade French fries. The sun streaked the African sky red and orange, and the mulberry tree was a dark, friendly silhouette at the top of the garden. By now the crickets were singing their loud nighttime song, and soon we would go to bed, happy and full of mulberries, lamb chops and the simple childhood joy of early summer.

Those were the best of times. For me.

And the worst of times. For others.

My childhood memories are bright and vivid, photographs saturated with color and smiles: family barbecues, dance parties, sports events on the big fields at school, afternoons in the pool or in the mulberry tree at the top of the garden. There are cousins and friends, Granny’s ginger cake, and our fluffy Maltese poodle. Magnum. It was the 80s and he was a handsome fellow.

It was South Africa, in the 80s. A complicated, uneasy time and place of separation and oppression, of deep and offensive division, of struggle and survival. A time and place where the same African sun rose and set on people of every size and every color, but with different degrees of warmth and comfort.

A time and place of apartheid. The only time and place I knew.

Our house was big and comfortable, with a pool in the front yard and a swing set in the back. Sometimes, during school vacations, our housekeeper’s daughter, Avril, would come stay with her mother in her rooms downstairs for a few days. The rooms were separate from our house, sparsely furnished, comfortable and reassuring. A brightly woven rug warmed the concrete floor and the bed was raised on bricks to keep away the evil tokoloshe sprite, a common practice in South African cultures.

Avril and I were the same age and we played on the swings in the backyard and ate mulberries together. Her home language was Sotho and she called me “Nee-gee” in heavily accented English. English was the only language we spoke to each other, and it didn’t occur to me that perhaps she wouldn’t know how to speak it. My Sotho never progressed beyond Dumela, o kae? Ke teng, wena o kae? (Hello, how are you? I’m fine, how are you?)

She would stay with her mother for just a few days, before going back to the township where she lived with her father or grandmother or aunt, or all three. How difficult to grow up anywhere, but especially in a time and place like that, without your mother in your daily life? My mother called me inside to get ready for ballet class, and I did not think about Avril until the next time she came to visit her mother.

Such was my life in apartheid South Africa.

I like to visit my childhood. I like to remember my grandmother’s cakes, and those hot, simple days in the mulberry tree. My heart aches with longing when I smell woodsmoke at twilight, such a distinctly African smell, and the sight and scent of fragrant jasmine in early spring always makes me homesick. For my childhood. In apartheid South Africa.

The memories are happy ones, of a young, growing girl with fingers stained purple, living a full and joyful life. As young, growing girls should do. But there is guilt and real pain in those memories, for all the girls, all the children, that didn’t grow up the way I did: in the leafy shade of a very special mulberry tree.

Inspired by the prompt “Hiraeth” from Linda Schreyer.

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather together to share their versions of a completed sentence. This week’s prompt was, “How I grew up to the be the one I am now…” Hosted by the wonderful Kristi of Finding Ninee and co-hosted by this week’s sentence-thinker-upper Upasna Sethi of Life Through My Bioscope.

33 thoughts on “The Mulberry Tree

  1. Oh Nicki – mulberries ! That takes me back long ,long before you were dreamed of. Stomping stains into carpets and feeding silkworms. I believe no-one can quite grasp the cocoon we lived in thanks to brain-washing, conditioning and separate lives. It is certainly something I often reflect upon and we share that almost surreal memory although in a very different way I guess. Lovely evocative writing yet again. Love your South Aftican memories

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  2. I was lucky enough to live near a mulberry tree, and though it was sited hanging over the fence of someone else’s back garden and across the pavement, in the cool drizzliness of Southern England, the purple juice and melting berries sound the same as you describe. I prefer your background, though.

    I recently read Bryce Courtenay’s ‘The Power of One’, which is set rather before your 80’s childhood, but which nonetheless corroborates the some of the difficulties you and others faced in terms of cultural and social divides and discomfort.

    Thank you for sharing the beauty and challenge of your childhood in such a glorious way. And hiraeth…such a gorgeous word.

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  3. Nicki—-that was a wonderful piece of writing. you described so well the full breadth of where you grew up. we cannot choose the culture we grow up in or the economic condition, and rarely can do much to change it. this can be very sad (and frustrating).
    I have a wonderful memory of my mother (who was very self-centered and offered me little attention or anything) returning in the summer as she did with me (an only child) to St. Paul, MN, where she grew up, from Los Angeles. once she drove me when I was maybe 8 or so, to a cousin of hers in a small town to the west to spend the weekend. this kind woman was so loving. she had a mulberry tree and sent me outside with a tin baking pan and told me to fill it up with mulberries and she’d make me a delicious pie. I did and she did and I can still remember my delight. after I came in, as the pie was baking, she gave me a great bubble bath and I was in seventh heaven. I so valued these happy moments in a not so happy childhood. sometimes it just seems like we need to write to remember where we’ve been and who we are.

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  4. Even though I only lived in S.A. for a short time, this piece was achingly familiar to me from the lamb chops to the bed on the raised bricks to the maid’s daughter coming for a short, monitored visit. Beautiful descriptions overlaying the truth of what was happening all around you that, as a child, isn’t accessible or known in the moment. Great way in.

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  5. Your writing leaves me speechless. I can taste those mulberries. Nostalgic for my beautiful, brilliant, perfect childhood. THANK YOU with all my heart for these magnificent memories and moments that I never want to forget.
    Just beautiful and inspiring as always.

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  6. Oh my, this is goooood. I can feel and taste and see and hear every detail inside this profound childhood memory and glimpse of world history. This is the line that truly took my breath away, though, for its stark, piercing truth: “A time and place where the same African sun rose and set on people of every size and every color, but with different degrees of warmth and comfort.” That line has been rippling in me for a couple days now when I first read it–there are layers and layers of humanity wrapped up in those few words. You are so gifted Nicki.

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    • Thank you dear friend! Your thoughtful comments always mean so much (I think I’ve said it before, but I am struck by this each time). Much love to you xo

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  7. What a beautiful, lilting piece, Nicki. I loved reading this and did so slowly, relishing every word. I wonder where Avril is now- do you know? And is that mulberry tree still there? xo

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    • Oh Em thank you! I was wondering where Avril is too, while I was writing this. I don’t know where she is now. Her mother stopped working for us – I don’t remember why – and I never saw her again. I drove by that house when I was last in SA… no more mulberry tree :(.
      xo

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  8. I loved this, and in particular the way you showed the juxtaposition between what were the best days for you, and the worst for others. Until then, it was a beautiful story and suddenly all the menace of apartheid was there in full force. For me this feeling of menace came both in the story you told of the maid’s daughter and in memories from the 80s – learning about Steve Biko through the movie Cry Freedom, seeing Live Aid on Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday, campaigning against apartheid. (I’m a good bit older than you so like many people I boycotted South African fruit on sale in the UK.)
    Powerful writing does that I think, – it evokes memories and associations. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Yvonne! I did not know there was a boycott on South African fruit in other countries. I always appreciate and enjoy these perspectives, that are so different to my own.
      Love your work with #1000Speak – thank you for that!

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  9. Growing up in the 80s here in the states, I vaguely knew what apartheid was, but I was so distanced from it. Your words recreate the sweetness of childhood with the adult knowledge of how so many children don’t fully share that sweetness. Beautiful, Nix.

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  10. Where have the mulberry trees gone? We had one in our backyard in the 1970s. It was actually in the alley, but hung over the fence into our yard. Birds like to eat the berries and poop on my shiny metal slide on my swingset. 🙂 But I ate plenty of those sweet berries myself!

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