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.

A Lack of Compassion Can Be as Vulgar as an Excess of Tears

source: zap2it.com

source: zap2it.com 

So says the Dowager on one of my favorite shows, “Downton Abbey.” Lady Violet delivered this line to her apparently unfeeling granddaughter, Lady Mary, just this week here in the U.S, with her usual dry nonchalance. She does that, Lady Violet: her sharp blue eyes and nothing-fazes-me demeanor belie her soft heart, kindness and universal knowledge of the inner workings of the world.

On “Downton,” Lady Violet’s off-the-cuff gems are almost a character unto themselves, and are as much a draw for me as the plot itself, but this line struck me more than her others.

At this point, Lady Mary, the cold granddaughter had displayed such selfish, unsympathetic behavior toward her sister, complete with eye rolls and nose in the air. “Ohmygd what a bitch!” I exclaimed in disbelief. Apparently Granny felt the same way, for it was then that she proffered the line of the night and shut Lady Mary, and me, up.

Her delivery was impeccable, of course, but it was her words themselves that echoed in my veins for the rest of the evening and week:

“My dear. A lack of compassion can be as vulgar as an excess of tears.”

I don’t agree that an excess of tears can be vulgar (I’ve come to appreciate how wonderfully fulfilling a good cry can be), but Lady Mary’s absence of kindness, sympathy, concern, empathy at the very least, was most definitely offensive to me.

As I go about my daily life, I don’t usually think about what compassion means, but Mary’s unappealing, indifferent manner and her grandmother’s not-so-gentle admonishment have been on my mind.

***

All this week, I have received texts from my mother updating me about her friend’s heart transplant. My mother lives in South Africa. Her friend is in Atlanta. They are almost 10,000 miles away from each other, but the distance means nothing to my mom whose texts from Monday to Wednesday read as if she is sitting next to him in ICU, watching him recover:

The heart is on its way. He is prepped and ready and they’ll begin when the heart arrives. Keep praying.

Procedure just started now. They said 7 hours.

The new heart was in at 1.22am my time. [He] came out of OR and went into ICU.

He’s awake. Doing well. Miracle. I’m so relieved but it’s the waiting to see if heart is accepted.

He’s eating softs foods! Able to get up for a bit. Amazing. Love and hugs to you all.

And finally, this one just a few minutes ago, today, Friday:

just waiting for today’s news 🙂

It is no wonder that my mother, who has spent weeks recovering from painful back and heart surgeries herself over the years, is so worried about her friend undergoing this enormous procedure. If they were in the same country, I have no doubt that she would be at his bedside all day, watching, caring, helping in person.

What is amazing to me is that even with the tremendous distance between them, her care and concern is so deep and so present it is palpable even to me, removed by more degrees of distance and separation. I know, with each beat of his new heart her dear friend feels every wave of compassion across the vast Atlantic, from her kitchen in Pretoria to his hospital bed in Atlanta.

***

As I received these texts from my mom this week, I thought what a shining example of warmth and kindness she would be to that cold, sleek, fish-like Lady Mary with her ramrod straight back and newly-coiffed bob.

I know it’s a TV show, but her apathy and unkindness stem from reality. That she can’t even muster an “Oh shame” (the ultimate South African expression of sympathy and empathy) is abhorrent but not uncommon in a world where too many people feel alone, uncared for and forgotten.

Lady Violet uses her carefully chosen words to teach her granddaughter. And I learn from my own mother’s heartfelt words and her sincerest, deepest compassion.

I think the Dowager would agree with my mom: We are never too far away to care about each other.

This post is part of 1000Speak. Today, in honor of United Nations World Day of Social Justice (February 20), more than 1,000 bloggers all over the world are writing about compassion. 1000Speak started with an understanding that all creatures, at every stage of life, need the kindness and compassion of others. The movement has taken on its own life, and is spreading  a whole lot of love and connection. Join us – together we’re stronger!

Spread the love using the hashtag #1000Speak

Join the 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion group on Facebook.

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Vintage Violet

Granny Nancy & Yisrael

Granny Nancy & Yisrael

Granny Nancy died nine days before I was born. She was my mother’s maternal granny, my great-granny, but she has always been Granny Nancy to all of us.

My mother was very close with her grandmother, and I imagine that must have been a terribly difficult and confusing time – to lose her beloved grandmother, while waiting for her first child to be born. My own Granny, my mother’s mother, died six weeks after my fourth child arrived. We had a close relationship too, and she had only ever seen my baby boy on Skype. So I have some sense of those very mixed-up feelings: pure joy at beholding this new life of love and potential, and impossible grief and mourning for the loss of a precious life ended.

Obviously my birthday is close to my Granny Nancy’s yahrzeit (the anniversary of the death of a loved one is commemorated in the Jewish tradition by lighting a special 24-hour candle and reciting a prayer. This day in our Gregorian calendar is not consistent from year to year, because it is observed according to the Hebrew calendar). In the 40 years since she died, her yahrzeit has not yet fallen on my birthday. This year it is two days before.

Granny Nancy did not meet her first great-grandchild. But I am named for her.

My own relationship to Granny Nancy is unique, special, fragile and very beautiful for me. She is both real and imaginary, created from photographs, mementos, stories and memories and alive in the sayings, mannerisms and hand gestures I absorbed from both my grandmother and my mother. The way we laugh. Or mutter something under our breath. The way we use our hands when telling a story.

My mother has Granny Nancy’s chair in her living room, and I have a tablecloth that belonged to her. I wore her beautiful heart pendant at my bat mitzvah and I am keeping it safe for Sage to wear at hers.

Granny Nancy’s yahrzeit is almost upon us and I know my mother is thinking about the decades that have passed without her special grandmother, and that her “baby” is turning 40 soon. I have been thinking about Granny Nancy too, but more about my own grandmother. The hours I spent with her, watching her sew, drinking tea from a saucer, helping her bake, trying to knit because she was knitting. We would laugh and laugh, do the crossword puzzle in the Fair Lady together, gossip about her friends and mine. She was always frying fish, and often had a fine dusting of flour on her cheek or down her pajamas. Before I left South Africa I bought her a red cardigan from Woolworths and she wore it all the time.

In an attempt to put technicolor pictures to my mind’s slightly fuzzy and jumbled memories, I went through old photographs. I adore this one of my Granny, my mother and me. I was her first grandchild and I am transfixed by the way she and my mom are looking at me with so much love.

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Granny Mary, me, and my mom – circa 1975

And of course I noticed the old-fashioned furnishings, clothes, colors – Granny’s fabulous hot pink and white sheer shirt, the pearls, my mom’s straight dark hair. That pale pink petticoat lamp and the heavy ashtray on the nightstand. And I vividly remember the pale violet bedspread I am sitting on in my parents’ bedroom. Vintage treasures. Like my memories. And my connections to my grandmothers.

nicki

 

Vintage Violet by OPI

Vintage Violet by OPI

This post was written as part of the April A to Z Challenge. To read more of my A to Z posts click here.