I Am at Home Anywhere in the World When Reading or Writing

ONCE upon a time, 20-something and newlywed, I made my way north and west to begin a life atop a hill swirled in pale gray fog and clanging cable-car bells. Far, far from the early morning hadedas and hot African sun of my home, my future sparkled before me bright as the white sails that dotted the Bay, expansive as the red bridge I crossed to go to work. As strange as those hilly streets and twangy accents were to me, I was cheerily confident this too would become home.

But I was a South African in San Francisco – possibly the furthest in the world I could be from the place where I’d lived most of my life, where I had befriended Anne of Green Gables, and met Moon-Face, Silky the Fairy and Saucepan Man in The Magic Faraway Tree. Where I had fallen in love with Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, and where I took a book with me to almost every family gathering, because I am the eldest cousin and the worlds created by Judy Blume and Mary Higgins Clark were far more exciting to me than playing hide-and-go-seek in the garden.


I was far away from that place and from the parents who taught me to read, from the friends who shared their books with me, and from the aunts who passed on their favourite titles, but I clung to my literary worlds. Armistead Maupin brought the beautiful city I now called home, to life. His delicious descriptions of characters and encounters in his famous Tales of the City series were more colourful on the black and white page than they were in my real life. Those books made San Francisco home to me in a way my job and apartment and going to the gym and buying groceries didn’t.

I wanted to write like that. I wanted to create worlds that eldest cousins could escape to, write words that were cozy and comforting and settled over my own babies like their warmest, fuzziest blanket. I wanted to share my thoughts and ideas and seedlings of creativity on the page.

My adopted, faraway home has indeed become home. I am raising four loud and wonderful children who clamor over each other like wriggly puppies to be the first to read the Sunday comics. I fight against the restlessness of being a stay-at-home-mom and delight in the endless moments of kids and dog and chaos. And I continue to read, and now I write.

I watch my son trip over the dachshund because his nose is buried in his latest sci-fi journey.The words are everywhere. I write them and read them, borrow them from libraries, and share them with my children at bedtime.

The words, read and written, transform my space: my special spot on my grandmother’s couch in Pretoria, my tiny res room at Rhodes or my son’s bedroom in San Francisco, the bench I sit on outside the school library or the parking lot outside the ballet studio. All of time and space, imagined or real, are contained in those words, and no matter where or when in the world I am, when I am reading – or writing – I am home.


This post originally appeared in South Africa’s The Daily Dispatch and The Herald as part of the Nal’ibali literacy campaign. Nal’ibali – it starts with a story. #Just15Minutes



Happy Sweet Sixteen to Us!

source: footage.shutterstock.com

source: footage.shutterstock.com

Sixteen years ago today, June 9, I arrived in San Francisco with little more than a suitcase, a new husband, and the kind of anticipation that makes one shiver from excitement and pure nerves… although the shivering may have been because of the chilly fog swirling rapidly over the Golden Gate and up and down the hilly streets. I was possibly the furthest I could be in the world from my home of Pretoria, South Africa.

I would come to learn that the fog is the Bay Area’s “own natural air conditioner” and even though it means I never go anywhere without a fleece or a hoodie in summer, not even to the beach on a rare 90-degree day, it’s what makes San Francisco the magical place it is, together with the clanging cable cars, the crookedest street in the world, earthquakes, bridges, and iconic Transamerica building. Welcome to San Francisco!

During my 16-year transformation from shivering, bewildered South African to proud American, I have discovered these invaluable Sixteen Truths You Must Accept to Survive Life in the United States (besides emphasizing the “r” at the end of words like “chair, here, four” in order to be understood):

  1. It’s easy to make friends if you have an accent – not a week goes by that someone doesn’t tell me they could listen to me talk all day, and they really mean it. If my husband is around, he assures them they actually couldn’t.
  2. Unless Americans know a South African or have been to South Africa, unless they have actually heard a South African talk, they have no idea what accent this is. I am most definitely from England, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand – but very rarely from South Africa.
  3. Sushi, tacos and dim sum are as American as any kind of pie (except you will be hard-pressed to find a steak pie, curried lamb pie or Cornish pasty pretty much anywhere in the US).
  4. A boot is a trunk, a nappy is a diaper, a plaster is a Band Aid, football is soccer, and a lift is an elevator – but also in the US you do not hire a car, only people are for hire. Everything else is rented. In South Africa the only thing you rent is a property – from a letting agent not a rental agent. I know. I’m still confused.
  5. You can ship anything, anywhere in the continental United States – even raw meat. And live frogs.
  6. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” reads an inscription at the General Post Office in New York City (source: Wikipedia). And the US postal system itself is extremely efficient. Our frog arrived within two days of ordering it. But a universal truth is that post offices themselves are inefficient no matter where in the world you are. This is strangely comforting.
  7. Americans love ice. With everything.
  8. Bananas, onions, pineapples and toilet paper rolls are four times the size in the US than in any other country in the world. I’m pretty sure this is a fact.
  9. Woolworths (every ex-South African’s favorite store) is not the only place in the world to buy comfortable underwear and pajamas – it’s only taken me 16 years to figure that out. I’m not sure what to ask my mom and mom-in-law to bring me now. Oh yes, tea!
  10. Halloween and 4th of July really do happen exactly like on TV in the eighties. And there is no better way to celebrate anything than with a parade.
  11. Disneyland is “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
  12. Any establishment can be a drive-thru – even a bank.
  13. You can return almost anything you don’t want anymore, any time, even if you’ve worn it or used it. I’m not admitting to have done this… okay, maybe once.
  14. Roast turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pecan pie are delicious for everyone on Thanksgiving – even if you’re not a born American. Our goal over the next 16 years is to deep-fry the turkey like they do in Arkansas.
  15. When someone asks where you went to school, they are not expecting you to say Carmel Primary. Elementary school is not school! They want to know where you went to college, university, and did you do a post-grad. My answer to this question used to be fairly long, even though I did not do a post-grad: I went to Rhodes University (blank stare), in Grahamstown (polite smile), in the Eastern Cape (maybe some recognition), in South Africa (oooh, so that’s where you’re from. I thought you were Irish). Now when I’m asked where I went to school, I say, “South Africa.” Kills at least three questions at once.
  16. Until my sister moved to San Francisco, we had no family around – which was okay in our daily lives, but made Shabbat dinners, weekends, holidays kinda lonely for a while. My very first San Francisco friend taught me that “Friends are the family you make for yourself,” and I am grateful for this every day of the last 16 years.

Thank you to this great country for welcoming me with those open, misty arms so many years ago (almost half my life), for giving us a safe, beautiful place to raise our four Jewish American children, for lighting our lives with 4th of July fireworks and for offering all six of us daily opportunity to be the selves we want to be.

Happy Sweet Sixteen to Us!

eXcuse Moi

Please excuse me. Here’s where I take enormous artistic license. Today is X in the A to Z Writing Challenge I’m participating in. Already a difficult letter to write on: according to OxfordDictionaries.com there are only 120 words in current English that start with the letter X. And there are no OPI nail polish colors named with an X-word. None. And the very creatively named OPI colors have been my inspiration for every piece I’ve written in this challenge, since A for Are We There Yet on April 1.

So now what? I’ve been dreading today. I’ve anxiously referred to it a couple times in previous posts – the lack of a color X. Stressed about it enough that my sister researched OPI X names (she didn’t come up with anything, but did offer creative suggestions). Even tried to palm today’s post off onto another writer. So not cool.

No X-named nail polish means no inspiration. Which means no writing. Means a day skipped. Means incomplete challenge. Means No. Fucking. Way.

So, merci Artistic License, described by Wikipedia as a “colloquial term used to denote the alteration of the conventions of grammar or language…” To complete this challenge and feel like a [lame, geeky] rockstar for doing so, I am going with the phonetic spelling of X – e x – as an acceptable substitute for X. Excuse moi s’il vous plait.

source: tripadvisor.co.uk

source: tripadvisor.co.uk

My French is very limited. The few words I’ve written so far are nearing the grand total of my vocabulary à la Francaise (does that even make sense?). Which is a shame because I love Paris and French things, and I adore listening to spoken French. I did take one year of preliminary French at university. I learned enough to haltingly decode the written version, and to say, “C’est tous? Oui. Voilà!” with a flourish in both my hands and my voice. (Meaning: “That’s all? Yes. There you go!” A common exchange to elegantly close a transaction in French stores).

When my father’s parents arrived in South Africa from Lithuania, some time in the 1930s, they knew no English. Only Yiddish. Spoken mainly by the Jews of Eastern Europe, Yiddish is a uniquely expressive hybrid of Hebrew and German, and many of its wonderful words have become part of everyday language in some communities – words like oy vey, chutzpah, mensch and schlep. 

My grandparents eventually learned heavily-accented English, but to each other they still spoke only Yiddish. A marvel of the young human brain is its ability to absorb other languages, especially with regular exposure, and my father and his brothers quickly learned Yiddish too. All my memories of the interactions between my father and his mother are in that exotic, elusive language.

poem by Yiddish poet Edith Kaplan Bregman source: yiddishbookcenter.org

poem by Yiddish poet Edith Kaplan Bregman source: yiddishbookcenter.org

No doubt my grandparents took pride in their sons’ proficiency at their mother tongue, while they raised them in a land so geographically, linguistically and emotionally far away from their own. But perhaps at times they wished they had a way to communicate with each other privately, a way to discuss grown-up matters beyond their boys’ comprehension.

I imagine they felt this way, because I do.

My dismal French aside, Hebrew and Afrikaans are the two additional languages I can understand, read, write and speak with fluency. Neither are particularly useful in my daily life in California, but I have secret multi-lingual aspirations and love knowing other languages.

My children are learning Hebrew, and already understand a fair amount. They are learning it because they will all be having a bar or bat mitzvah and need to know how to read and write the language of our religion, and also because my husband and I have strong cultural and emotional ties to the land of Israel and want our children to be able to speak and understand the language of the country. If not fluently, at least the American/South African/Anglo version: crappy grammar, mixed-up tenses, and big pride at being understood in an ancient language rich in history and culture and spirituality. And fun slang.

But the language I keep secret from my children is Afrikaans. I will never teach it to them.

source: washingtonpost.com

source: washingtonpost.com

Not like the South African foods I’ve fed them since they were babies: boerewors and biltong and jelly babies and rooibos tea. Not like the songs I’ve taught them over the years: Shosholoza and Ag Pleez Deddy. Not like the Springbok rugby jerseys I dress them in, or the very South African way they say “ja ma” (yes mom) when I call them, just like I answer my own mother.

I love to impart these small, significant, South African pieces of me to them and watch how they absorb and own them, because I too am raising my children in a land very far away from the one I was born into. While the cultural, linguistic and emotional barriers in 21st century San Francisco are nothing compared to what my grandparents encountered in the 30s, I am South African. And my children are not.

But Afrikaans I keep for myself. And for my husband. And for anyone else who can understand and speak that language besides my children.

It’s essential for me to have a way to talk to Ryan in a language the kids don’t understand – comes in handy when planning birthday surprises, or discussing progress at school, or any other sensitive topic. But also because my children have too much access to me. They read my email over my shoulder until I shoo them away. When they sense a conversation is quiet, they cluster around, strain harder to hear each precious word. The car’s bluetooth broadcasts phone conversations loud and clear to the very back of the minivan.

We are not trying to hide it from them. But there are issues, problems, family and world affairs that are not necessary for them to hear. That they do not have the ability to process even if they do hear. And so I like to keep it private, when I can.

Afrikaans is not a language I grew up speaking. It’s not my language, the way English is. I learned it at school from first grade, heard it on TV, read it in magazines. I live in a town 10,500 miles away from where I learned Afrikaans: I don’t hear it anymore, I hardly ever speak it, and its fluency is slowly fading from my brain. More often a Hebrew word will surface when I’m looking for an Afrikaans one. But the longer I am away from South Africa, the tighter I hold on to it. My linguistic license.

Verskoon my kinders, this conversation is private. Excuse moi!

Excuse Moi by OPI

Excuse Moi 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.

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.


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.



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.

Quarter of a Cent-Cherry

Great conversation, loud laughter, fun stories. Inside jokes and quick-witted comments and the type of easy, comfortable banter that comes from many years together, from shared experiences and milestones, difficult times, tears, proud moments, pure elation and happiness. From close friendship.

The air is dry, and the trees are tall, and it’s rustic and gorgeous.

Tahoe, California. Spring. 2014.

South Lake Tahoe

South Lake Tahoe

Was it really twenty five years ago that I was half a world away, breathing air as dry, amongst trees as tall, hanging out in somebody’s rustic bunk, cocooned by esoteric jokes and hysterical laughter and the closest of friends?

Lapalala Wilderness, South Africa. Fall. 1989.

Fifteen years old, on a week-long wilderness program in the Limpopo Province with my tenth grade class, it was the very best of times. I loved all those school retreats to simple, woodsy places in the Highveld, where it was very, very cold in the early morning and at night, sweltering hot in between. When we were woken at the crack of dawn, and saw the mist rising with the African sun. Ate cornflakes and toast with thick peanut butter and bananas for breakfast, and then packed it all up for a long hike to learn about the Toothbrush Plant, and how to belay down a mountainside. Walking in smaller groups of twos and threes, paired off with my crush of the moment, or sharing wild hopes and dreams with my BFF while the hadedas called to each other in the broiling heat.

Lapalala Wilderness

Lapalala Wilderness

Mixed tapes played Men at Work and Phil Collins, Roxette and Milli Vanilli on portable boom boxes. We dismissed every rule late into the night, breaking curfew the very least of it. The girls snuck into the boys’ bunks (never the other way around), and we told secrets and broke promises and huddled together to keep warm.

My 25-year-old memories haunt me lately. I keep coming back to that year, 1989, when life just worked. For me. It wasn’t always like that before, and almost never again, but that year the music was right, and school was okay, and my siblings were fun and my parents understood (or they pretended to) and, most important of all at 15, my friends were perfect in every way.

Twenty five years later many of those friends are still perfect to me in every way. As I gaze out at the impossibly tall Tahoe pine trees, I ache to have them closer to me – we are scattered all over the Earth – to share inside jokes, and laugh at nothing, and sing Land Down Under out of tune at the top of our lungs.

A burst of laughter pulls me away from 1989 – I focus on the faces around me. They are warm and happy, smiling and talking. Faces I know and love. Here I am, twenty five years later, half a world up and away, with friends that are perfect to me… in every way.

Quarter of a Cent-Cherry by OPI

Quarter of a Cent-Cherry 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.