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.

Where The Streets Have A Name

Where is home when you’re away from it?IMG_4751

In my hometown of Pretoria, South Africa the streets all have new names. It’s been 21 years. New government. New era. New names. Charles Street is now Justice Mohamed. Duncan is Jan Shoba. Queen Wilhelmina has changed to Florence Ribiero but it’s still long and familiar. You cannot get from there to here without crossing it… no matter what it’s called. I don’t know why it was ever Queen Wilhelmina in the first place.

The hadedas call good morning before 7am. The African sun glows gently. It lights the whole sky from the inside. A car honks outside. Irreverent in the early quiet. For a few moments the hadedas wage a shrill war with the car. The sun climbs higher. The sky is brighter. The car moves on. The hadedas settle down.

The meat thaws on the counter. Somebody’s been up before me. Chops and steak gleam purply-red through the tight saran sheath. A faint smudge of frost clings to the plastic. Drops of water pool on the counter, as the meat softens in the warm kitchen. Coils of boerewors – literally “farmer’s sausage” – slowly defrost. So much wrapped up in those faintly spicy spirals.

There will be hot, crusty rolls. A crisp, green salad. Cabbage finely shredded and doused with sweet, tangy vinegar. Potato salad for sure. Homemade pickles. Cold beer and all kinds of soda. The meat is at the heart of it.

We will eat with towels wrapped around our swimsuit-clad bodies, water dripping from our hair onto our plates. We won’t care what the grown-ups are talking about and we won’t remember to say please or thank you. Not even when we ask for seconds. The meat will sizzle on the braai (barbecue) and everywhere will smell like smoke (the good kind) and chlorine. We will shoo away the lazy flies and pesky bees, and the grass will tickle my bum and make it itch.

Charles Street is still Charles and you always make a right at Duncan. This is the way from here to there.

We will swim some more and make up dances and tell our parents they have to watch us perform on the patio. Why wouldn’t they? We are their stars, shining with promise and bellies full of smoky boerewors and potato salad. There’s nowhere like home and even though their conversation is full of apartheid and Israel and Houston and Sydney, home is where we are and we are here.

We will have bright yellow mangoes and granadillas for dessert, meringues and something custardy. “Maybe there’s a bag of kosher marshmallows in the pantry…” someone will wonder.

Tea with milk and sugar. Plain “minute” cake. Or a rich, dark chocolate decorated with cherries and chocolate sprinkles. We will lie on the bedroom floor and play rummikub. So happy and easy together. As if we’ve been doing this forever and we have.

Years later, separated by vast oceans and complicated time zones, we will find our way back to each other time and again. Forever will come with us and the decades before and after will always be gently smudged with yesterday’s memories and tomorrow’s desires. But for now there is now. So happy and easy together. We will do this forever.

The sun will start to sink and the light will change. Woodsmoke, charred meat and jasmine will fill the air and wherever in the world my home becomes, the smell of fire outside will always make me ache with homesickness.

One day I will leave. Home will be where the foghorns are much louder than the hadedas, where the streets roll up and down the hilly city. They are long and will become just as familiar. The weekends will smell like smoky meat on the braai because my children love boerewors as much as I do. But we won’t have granadillas.

Charles Street is no longer Charles. But even after 17 years, you still turn right to get from there to here.

This post was inspired by the prompt “Food & Comfort”  from the online Winter Joy Writing Retreat I’m currently enjoying. Hosted by Jena Schwartz and Cigdem Kobu of The Inky Path, the theme of the retreat is Edible Memories. It’s astounding, enriching and a little scary to discover where our food memories take us!

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 is, “What I’m really trying to say is…” Hosted by Kristi of Finding Ninee, and co-hosted by Mardra of Mardra Sikora and Vidya of Vidya Sury. What I’m really trying to say is, so many things make home home. Even if they’re not there anymore.

Remembering Madiba

I couldn’t take my eyes off the blonde woman in the pink sweater, as she swayed to and fro with a tender smile on her face, singing to the cute little black girl she held in her arms. In the midst of a huge crowd, she was oblivious to the cameras as she sang, “Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela” in tribute to one of the greatest human beings our world has ever seen.

This was CNN’s coverage, live from Johannesburg, South Africa on Thursday, December 5, minutes after the announcement that the beloved leader had passed. At 1am South Africa time, while my father-in-law drove to Mandela’s home and joined the crowds gathered to celebrate this exceptional man, I was watching from the floor of my bedroom, thousands of miles away in California.

And as I continued to watch CNN over the next few days, and read the tweets from media in the US, South Africa, Israel, as I refreshed my Facebook feed and liked friends’ status updates when they changed their profile pictures to smiling faces of Madiba, paid him their respects, shared their favorite Mandela quotes and tribute videos, I realized how far away from South Africa, from Mandela’s South Africa, I really was.

I think of myself as a small-town girl, from Pretoria. In truth, Pretoria is a big city. Thirty miles north of Johannesburg, it’s the national capital, home to the Union Buildings where presidents, including Mandela, are inaugurated and where most government business is conducted. A couple million people live in Pretoria. It has its own university – the University of Pretoria – and its own rugby team – the Blue Bulls. Theaters, schools, shopping centers, restaurants, green leafy suburbs, a bustling central business district, hospitals. There is nothing small-town about it.

Except in the way I grew up – white, Jewish, privileged, sheltered.

My world – and the world of most of the Jewish families living in Pretoria in the eighties – was limited both physically and socially to the suburbs surrounding our Jewish day school and synagogue, with weekend drives to nearby Johannesburg and the Vaal River. Pretty small-town.

Pretoria’s Jewish community was, and still is, largely comprised of anti-apartheid Jews, many of whom were the children and grandchildren of Holocaust and World War 2 survivors – if not survivors themselves – who had emigrated to South Africa from Lithuania, Russia, Germany, Poland. Well-versed in what it means to be discriminated against, oppressed, hated. They were not supportive of a government that perpetuated the same abhorrent schisms.

Fewer Jews settled in Pretoria than in Jo’burg, and the community I grew up in was tight-knit and protective. Seen through my young eyes, it was idyllic despite the apartheid happening around me.

Most white kids growing up in South Africa in the eighties understood apartheid – perhaps not in detail, but we all had a strong sense of the segregation, discrimination and oppression happening around us. It was a part of our lives: our housekeepers were mandated to carry identity passbooks with them wherever they went – if they were questioned by police and didn’t have their passbook they were arrested. There were green buses for white people and red buses for black people. Park benches and public toilets had signs bolted on: “Net Blanke – Only Whites” (in Afrikaans and English, not in any other language). The economic and social divide between blacks and whites was enormous, gaping, seemingly unbridgeable.

Some of us knew better than others who Nelson Mandela was, and why he had been in prison on Robben Island for over two decades. For me, a fifth grader in a small Jewish day school in Pretoria, Mandela represented all those millions of people who didn’t have what I had, who couldn’t do what I could. But to my sheltered, young self he was elusive, a name and a face standing for the struggle of the oppressed.

As I moved through high school, the more mature me began to properly understand the tension of the country we were living in. While I’d never known anything other than apartheid, I started to long for the injustice to end. F.W. De Klerk was now president and with the dawn of a new decade, Nelson Mandela was released.

My sheltered world opened up a little. Our high school drama club staged an award-winning play written by our English teacher called The Non-Musical Human Rights Take it or Leave it Children-of-the-Rainbow Part 2. It poignantly tackled themes of censorship, oppression, human rights and ultimately the creation of a “Rainbow Nation.” I was 15-years-old – I had never really thought about any of this before, even though it was what I grew up with.

The arts in South Africa vibrantly exploded when Mandela walked free. The Rainbow Nation he was creating found true expression in living color on stage, in writings, TV, paintings, comedy shows, music – all reflecting the euphoria we could feel in the land. It was a time of hope and possibility. Mandela’s smiling face was everywhere – he amazingly harbored no grudge, no blame, he was committed to moving forward, to replacing the hate and segregation with love and reconciliation. That gaping divide was already smaller.

I was in my final year of university when I voted in South Africa’s first democratic election. I stood in line with my sister outside the Great Hall at Rhodes University, together with all the men and women that cleaned and maintained those beautiful old buildings, that cooked for us and joked with us when they served our food, or swept out the lecture halls after class. I can’t even begin to imagine what they thought and felt about finally having basic human rights returned to them, but I was overwhelmed with gratitude that it was happening, and that I was there.


My most vivid memory of a unified, free South Africa is watching the Springboks win the rugby world cup in 1995. Nothing short of spectacular! For me, that victory epitomized what Madiba had achieved for the country – using a national sport historically played by white Afrikaners, loved by the very people who tried to keep him silent and locked away, to build a bridge across a gaping divide. Mandela wearing the Springbok colors of green and gold with that smile that lights up the world is a powerful reminder of his belief that if people can learn to hate “they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

I never really lived in Mandela’s South Africa. I left four years after that election. I was barely a part of the rainbow nation. I sit in my car outside the supermarket in Oakland, watching the Soweto Choir in Woolworths sing the sweetest, most moving tribute to their Tata Madiba, on YouTube, with tears in my eyes and a smile on my face, and I feel very, very far away.

My daughter takes the photograph of her father shaking Mandela’s hand up to her room, just to look at it for a little while. And even though I am far away, I am South African, and I am humbled by the magnitude of the legacy of this tremendous human being, and so grateful for his tireless struggle for a better, equal life for all South Africans and for humankind.

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” -Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk to Freedom