Hiking

Apart from enjoying wine, other interests Vaughn and I shared were hiking and classical music. We were able to attend monthly concerts by the Johannesburg Symphony orchestra, and we also joined a hiking club.

Our first hike took us through a hidden paradise. The land was privately owned, and was unknown to the general public. We climbed up a rocky koppie to find a crystal clear pool deep enough for swimming and a cool off. A waterfall cascaded from rocks above and each level we climbed provided another rock pool. There were small fish in the water that nibbled my toes. From the highest point where the water gurgled out of the rocks we could look down and see six or seven blue pools stepped down the mountain. From that moment I was hooked on hiking.

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We went to the next meeting of the Hiking club, which involved slides and refreshments. However, on the table with the tea or coffee were several cakes and a sign saying ‘Only one piece of cake per person please’. We thought perhaps we would look for a different hiking group that drank wine and didn’t watch how much you ate.

So we found another group but we didn’t get that quite right the first time either. We booked a weekend hike, and very conscious of the weight we would be carrying, we packed two-minute noodles, some biltong and tea bags. Fortunately we did take some port, which we had decanted into a plastic bottle. When all the hikers completed the first day of the walk, out came wine and beers from their backpacks, followed by steak, chops, salads and all the makings of a pretty good meal. We felt very miserable breathing in the appetising aroma of their meat grilling as we slurped our little noodle stew. But it was a lesson learnt!

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A New Relationship

Working in Sales seemed to involve a fair amount of friendly banter. However, once I was divorced, I found it much harder to joke in in case anything I said was  taken as a come-on.  Divorcee was not a hat I wore comfortably. If I dressed in anything short or tight I felt as if people, women actually, would think I was a slut and deserved to be divorced. If I tried to look ‘sensible’, I ended up looking frumpy, and I felt as if people, men actually, thought I was a dowdy freak and it was no wonder my husband left me.

One day one of my customers invited me to get a team together for a game of beach volleyball.  I put a notice on the board, and the first person to sign up was a project manager named Vaughn. He worked in a different department so we seldom bumped into each other in the office. He was really enthusiastic about sport, and encouraged many employees to join the volleyball team. As the sport became more popular, we decided to approach the General Manager for some sponsorship. He agreed, but only if we created a Sports and Social Club with a constitution and committee. We co-opted someone from the accounts department and wrote a lengthy constitution.

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At the first official general meeting, Vaughn was elected chairman and I was secretary. Thus we found ourselves thrown together several times a week as we planned a variety of functions and produced a simple newsletter.

Vaughn had been divorced slightly longer than me and helped me feel less of a failure in the relationship business. The first time he asked me out for lunch we were both nervous. We were so inhibited all we could manage to eat were the olives from the Greek salad. Strange how a different slant on a relationship changed our behaviour. Suddenly on our own, we regressed to adolescent self-consciousness.

But we went out again, and it all became easier. We discovered common interests. We both liked wine. Volleyball had been a ‘beer out of the can’ affair. Winter came, and it was good to sit and relax over a fine bottle of red. As we peeled away the outer layers of each other’s personalities we discovered new depths within ourselves.

Around this time Edward and I experienced a role reversal. One night I came home around ten thirty, to find him sitting up, hair standing on end from running his fingers through it.

‘Where on earth have you been?’ he asked. ‘Do you realise it’s half past ten?’

I found the whole situation quite hilarious, bearing in mind the number of nights I’d lain awake worrying about him. But in the sober light of day, I did realise I needed to set a better example and keep our lines of communication open.

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Darkness and Light

There followed a rather dark time between Michael and I culminating in a mutual decision to apply for a divorce. But into that darkness came an unexpected ray of brightness.

Although Nikki had not planned to become a mother at the tender age of nineteen, she found herself blessed by pregnancy, and as the baby grew inside her, so her sparkle and joe de vivre returned. When baby Megan arrived, perfect and beautiful, it was the answer to another prayer.

Telling the children about the divorce was painful, as we felt we had let them down, but both Michael and I believed we would be better parents individually.

I selfishly assumed that both Edward and Nikki plus baby Megan would come and live with me, and was quite taken aback when they decided between themselves that Edward should come with me, as I would need a man about the house, and Nikki would stay with her father, to keep him company. It was logical, as we could only afford a two-bedroomed flat for me. Michael would retain the large family home we had lived in for the past five years.

The day the truck arrived to load up the things Eddie and I were taking, Nikki and I stood in the driveway hugging and crying. It was the end of an era. I felt an immediate change in status. I had swapped the comfortable position of ‘married with children’ to ‘divorcee’. I hated it. I felt a failure. I felt ashamed. I felt too embarrassed to go to church.  I was even embarrassed to go to the shops in case I met friends from my previous life, people I thought would judge me and then have to decide between Michael and me. As many of our friends had been made through either Michael’s work or his cricket, I didn’t expect many of them would be rushing round to visit me in my little flat.

There was also the feeling that I might pose a threat. Women are reluctant to invite a recently divorced female to their parties. You might cry and be an embarrassment. Or you might try to flirt with their husbands. Or their husbands might assume you would be sexually frustrated and they could help out….Anyway, it makes the number uneven around the table.

Having Eddie with me was the best thing for both of us. It forced me to cook a decent meal every night. He did all the male things like putting up curtain rails and hanging pictures and I proudly watched his self-confidence grow. We painted walls together, and watched videos, and I realised that I hadn’t lost the thing I treasured most of all. I was still a mother.

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The first Christmas was painful. We had agreed that the whole family including Michael would spend Christmas Day at my place. On Christmas Eve, Eddie and I sat down together and tucked into our roast turkey dinner, after which we flopped, exhausted from overindulgence, and watched a movie. The next day Michael and the girls arrived for cold meats and salads. Then they all went off to various friends’ places, leaving baby Megan with me. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening holding her and crying into her little blanket. But she seemed to understand, and gave me great comfort.

A Nightmare Phone Call

Our three girls finished school and Catherine and Abi moved out of the house to enjoy their first taste of independence. Catherine went off to look for herself in England. Abi moved into a flat walking distance away from our family home, and Nikki was taking a gap year working as a waitress and saving in anticipation of travelling.

One night at quarter to twelve, we got the phone call that every parent dreads. ‘Your daughter has been involved in a car accident.’

Michael and I threw our clothes on and raced to the hospital, straight through red traffic lights, hazards flashing, horn beeping. We screeched into the Casualty at the same time as an ambulance was drawing up. We looked, as they wheeled a bloodied apparition on the trolley.

‘That’s not Nikki,’ I said, relieved. Then I noticed the patient was wearing one of my jumpers.

‘It is Nikki,’ I screamed, racing after the paramedics. They tried to move me out of the way, but I managed to find my daughter’s injured hand. She couldn’t speak, but she was moaning, so we knew she was alive. But that was about all. Her face was full of glass and swelling rapidly. Her teeth had gone through her lip, and one ear was badly severed. There was blood everywhere.

‘We’re here, Nix,’ I tried to comfort her. ‘Try to relax while the doctor examines you. We’ll be waiting.’

We waited a long half hour, me in and out of the toilet, and Michael alternately pacing the floor wringing his hands, or sitting hunched over with his head in his hands.

Finally the doctor came out and said they were taking her to X-ray and from there she would go into the ICU.

Our other concern was her boyfriend, who had been driving the car. Apparently he had been unconscious when the ambulances arrived, and had been taken to a different hospital, because they didn’t know if he had Medical Insurance.

The diagnosis on Nikki was initially two fractured vertebrae, a ruptured kidney, a broken right ankle and a mutilated left knee, plus extensive cuts and bruising. While I remained with her, Michael drove through to the other hospital to find out how her boyfriend was doing. He returned later to say he had regained consciousness and had escaped with just a swollen hand. He was being kept in for observation after suffering from concussion.

For the next three days I stayed at Nikki’s bedside, rushing home late at night to sort out food and clean clothing for the family. I was very concerned that she was complaining of pains that did not seem to relate to any of her injuries. After five days with her back in a brace and both legs in plaster, they discovered she had developed a thrombosis in her thigh.

At that t Catherine was staying with my parents, so when I made the call to England to give them all the news, I was relieved that Catherine had family around to reassure her. Nevertheless, she caught the earliest plane back to be with her sister.

The accident affected Michael badly, and he would wait till we were in bed at night and ask questions like ‘What if she dies?’, questions I could not allow myself to even consider. Maybe it was easier for me, because I thoroughly believed in the power of prayer, and I knew Nikki would get better.

When she was moved into High-care, her friends came to visit her. Some stood in the doorway with utter shock and disbelief on their faces. Others burst into tears.

Just before the accident, Nikki had done a stint of modelling, so I had some current photos to show the plastic surgeon.

‘This is what she looked like last week, and this is what she must look like when you’ve finished with her’, I told the specialist. He managed to do an excellent job and as the scars healed, we saw Nikki’s beautiful face re-emerging.

It was the sudden change from being an active girl to almost complete immobility that had brought on the deep vein thrombosis in Nikki’s leg. But with her back in a brace and both legs in plaster, she came home after a couple of weeks, and I reluctantly returned to work.

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Weekends and Political Change

For a few years from September to March, our weekends were taken up with regattas as Edward had joined the school rowing team. There were very few suitably large dams in Johannesburg, so most of the regattas were held at Roodeplaat Dam, just north of Pretoria. As Michael had a good towing vehicle, we usually pulled the trailer of eights. It really worried me, driving at highway speeds with such expensive boats on the back but fortunately we managed to avoid any mishap.

The rowing fraternity became our social life as we cheered on our lads. Picnics were in traditional South African style, with the aroma of boerewors mingling with wood smoke. Beers were passed round to soothe throats that were hoarse from cheering. All the parents made a point of congratulating the parents of the boys who had done well, and smiled indulgently at the Mums proudly wearing their son’s medals. Our moment of glory came during the SA championships when Edward won his under fifteen individual skulls race.

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The girls didn’t come to every regatta, but when they did, it scored points for Edward among the other boys. He suddenly had many friends among the older rowers as they came to check out the three hot chicks tanning themselves on our blanket.

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On the tenth of May, 1994 everything in South Africa changed. Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress was elected the first black President of South Africa. Since his release from prison four years earlier, his policy of reconciliation had won the hearts of the world. That a man treated so badly could speak of peace not revenge, encouragement rather than recriminations, showed what a truly great man he was.

A huge burden of guilt was lifted from white shoulders. Optimism was rife. We celebrated being a rainbow nation. Black and white greeted each other on the street. Mostly. Our part was painless. It was much easier to lose the guilt than to forgive. Suffering cannot just be wiped away with a casual ‘sorry’ and many people still carry their hatred.

Children were bussed in to our local schools from the townships and there was fear that the standard of education would drop. Things did change, though not necessarily for the worse.

Nikki became friendly with Patience, a girl from the ‘black’ township of Soweto. Patience often came to our house, and I worried that she would invite Nikki back to her house. Wonderful though that may have been as a cultural experience, I was too afraid for my child’s safety. I had been fed a diet of media propaganda, and at that stage whites still believed they would risk their lives if they went into a ‘black’ area. Fortunately Patience never did ask Nikki to go home with her.

My hopes were that this generation of children, growing up together, would be able to have empathy with people of different cultures, and would compete equally for academic and sporting achievements. Reward would be on merit, not colour. But sadly, we do not live in an ideal world.

A trip to Hospital

One weekend I happened to be browsing through a magazine, enjoying a moment of unaccustomed idleness when I came across an article on cervical cancer and the need to have regular pap smears. It occurred to me that I’d managed to avoid those issues, any urges I might have felt to book an appointment with a gynaecologist being firmly squashed.

After Nikki was born, my doctor had cauterised some errant cells on the cervix and advised me not to have any more babies. It was not the sort of experience you wish to hold in your memory as it contained an associated smell of burnt flesh. So I filed it away, far away. After Edward was born I don’t think I had time to go back to the doctor for a postnatal check, so when I read the magazine article, I thought it was probably about time I made the appointment.

After having a baby it takes a long while to regain a measure of dignity and feel that your body belongs to you once again. One trip to the gynaecologist takes it all away in a matter of seconds. Anyway, I did it, and I thought that would be it for at least two years.

However, a day or so later I was shocked to have a phone call from the doctor himself. Not even his nurse. Him. He guardedly told me there were some ‘unusual’ cells in the smear, and he would like me to come in for a biopsy straight away.

I had an unpleasant feeling that the biopsy might not be fun and I was right. Say the word stirrups to any woman out of the context of horse riding, and she will immediately cringe and cross her legs.

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The second time he phoned I recognised his voice and the tone of someone trying to deliver bad news gently. He booked me in for a hysterectomy that same week, so there was little time to panic. In fact, I was mourning the loss of my uterus more than worrying about anything more sinister. Illogical really, because immediately after Edward was born my fallopian tubes had been tied by a doctor who believed my contribution to the human race had been excessive. But I always harboured a little hope that they might accidentally come untied, and every month I felt a small wave of disappointment that I wasn’t pregnant. The thought of losing that part of my anatomy did seem awfully final.

However, I was so busy making arrangements for the family while I would be in hospital that I didn’t think too much about myself. I was pretty healthy, so a few days in bed being waited on, might be quite pleasant.

I have a bad reaction to anaesthetics, so after the surgery I felt pretty sick. The day before I was due to go home, the doctor came into the ward beaming and said they’d got it all. I looked blankly at him.

‘There was no further malignancy,’ he explained. But I had already made that assumption, so I went home and moved all those articles of feminine hygiene into the girls’ bathroom, because I would never need them again. What joy!

 

Career Moves

For a couple of years my job was really pleasant, with very little hard selling. I was able to finish most days in time to watch the children’s sports, do the orthodontist appointments and bake for ‘cake and candy’.

But nothing lasts for ever, and the business was struggling. They decided to drop the retail range and concentrate on commercial and industrial, so after an intensive crash-course from the director, I was re-directed into the heating and air-conditioning department. At first it was a challenge, but as time wore on and business became more and more competitive, I dreaded getting up in the morning. I avoided difficult calls and visited the customers that had time for a coffee and a chat. Then I felt guilty because I wasn’t bringing enough new business into the company.

Guilt, I believe, is a girl-burden. Like a shadow, it is always with us. I felt constantly guilty that I had taken the children so far away from their grandparents. When I was working, I felt guilty that I wasn’t at home checking the homework and monitoring afternoon TV.  When I wasn’t working, I felt guilty that I couldn’t contribute to the family budget. I felt guilty when I bought myself a new outfit, and ended up buying more for the children so they wouldn’t feel left out. Then I felt guilty because I had spent so much money. I felt guilty when I drank too much, guilty when I ate that extra slice of chocolate cake, guilty when I was too tired or lazy to write to my parents, and guilty when I didn’t go to gym.

So I didn’t need work guilt and it was with great relief that I was able to accept a job offer with one of our air-conditioning suppliers. For the first week I did nothing except sit in the office and read chiller manuals. I was no engineer, and the information was so far over my head, I was bored to tears, and thought I had made a terrible mistake. But eventually they allowed me out on the road to meet the customers, and life wasn’t so bad.

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I was organised, methodical and persistent, and soon got results. Our sales were improving, and I was earning a good salary. But once again, business didn’t stand still. The company was bought out and we were sold like slaves to the Americans. Our new general manager would glide through the offices like a shark navigating the depths, looking for prey.

It was good to be out of the office because when I was there I got The Look, which said ‘You should be out on the road selling our product’. However, when I was out on the road, there was always the feeling of suspicion that I was wasting time, meeting friends for coffee. In the days before mobile phones there had to be a lot more trust. And we like sheep, all wanted a cell phone when they became available, but all it did was to increase stress levels. The first questions from the office were always ‘Where are you? What are you doing?’

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