As a child I was always impatient with spring, preferring to fast forward to summer and skip the slow pace of what felt like an endless waiting for summer. September 1st is spring day in South Africa and the only day of the school year we were allowed to wear casual clothes in place of our school uniforms. Spring was tick season and the long grasses paradise to virtually every tick species on the planet. We would be checked rigorously, along with the dogs, behind ears, knees and other crevices for signs of little brown bugs. If was one lurking, Dad would drop hot candle wax on it, testing his theory of the tick “letting go” without sinking its poison. One spring I skipped a week of school because of tick bite fever.
The first rains announced the wet season. The dust would be washed away and the first signs of relief from the dry brown winter landscape would begin to show. The magical transformation of the pale blonde veld into a carpet of greens and the sweet smell after the first rain are embedded deep within my senses.
The first migrants from the north would return as the bright yellow weavers and crimson-breasted bishops would emerge from their winter browns and arrive home. The mulberry trees all over the neighborhood, would cascade like fountains of green on all sides, their dark violet berries would be ripe and ready to stain our fingers crimson. Guavas would fill the house with their distinctive earthy fragrance. Large bowls of pawpaw (papaya) fruit salad would make an appearance for dessert and it would finally be time for mom to make gooseberry pie.
In the living room of my childhood home hung a painting that has left a permanent imprint. A soft muted watercolor, of a little house in the distance, a lone thorn tree, an expanse of bleached blue-sky, with looming purple mountains in the background. Quiet, dead still and quite lifeless. A gift from my father, it was my mother’s favorite painting because it reminded her of where she came from, a small town called Craddock in the Great Karoo. It is October and spring when my mom suggests a road trip through the Karoo to visit my sister in Cape Town.
Inspired in part for her to see the places of her childhood long cast to memory and in large part to get me out of Johannesburg to still my restlessness fuelled by a chronically unstable country and unease of my place in it. Although I had heard about my mom’s youth through stories she and my aunt had told us over the years, usually late at night and after several glasses of wine, I knew little of what her life was like growing up in the Karoo town of Craddock.
Southeast of Johannesburg, along the N1 Highway, past the gold mine heaps, through endless stretches of farmlands and tall, white sunlit grass we entered the stillness of the Great Karoo. Interrupted only by the soundtrack of that trip – Sixto Rodriquez’s Cold Fact. American musician, Sixto Rodriquez “the greatest rock icon that never was,” Cold Fact formed the background for a generation of South Africans that have since become part of the country’s history. Songs like Sugarman, Crucify Your Mind and the banned and scandalous, I Wonder were played over and over again.
The Karoo is a vast semi arid stretch of landmass that spans almost 15,000 sq/miles, that the Khoikhoi people named, which means “land of thirst.” A stark and haunting place, but in my twenty something mind a backwater, known only for its sheep farms, ostriches and ultra conservatives. Somewhere you sped through, as quickly as you could to get to Cape Town.
As a wannabe photographer, I imagined at the very least, I would capture some great photographs and get to listen to 14 hours of music. We drove some 1200 miles, just an endless expanse of flatness, where we did not see a single human or even a car drive past for hours on end. Only a handful of lonely homesteads, much like in the painting, a smattering of Karoo sheep, but for the most part miles and miles of nothing.
Meandering through small towns, little hamlets and stopping in dreamlike places, the likes of which I had never seen before, my mother’s life unfolded in small stories. An unplanned detour along a red dust road below the Compassberg Mountains led us to Nieu Bethesda. A speck of a place, Nieu Bethesda was once the home of Helen Martins, an eccentric artist who spent a lifetime creating sculptures from concrete and decorating her tiny house with shards of colored glass. Inspired by a dream to create the sculptures, she spent her life dedicated to her art, bringing color and light to a place she viewed devoid of color. Back on the road we stopped at a small roadside farm stall where we sat and ate sweet butternut soup with kraaing on top (deep fried lamb fat) and home-baked mossbolletjies (a South African version of brioche), discussing the Karoo and its affect on people’s lives.
Perhaps it was the teacher or the timing or the splendor of the wide-open space, but I figured out that day that this land possesses all who love it and it was my birthright for better and worse.
My grandmother must have known something, when she named my mother Beryl Joy. Quickly dropping Beryl, she was always known as Joy and she embodied the name completely. Born in the town of Cradock in the Karoo, she had for the most part a strict German upbringing, where traditions in food and culture remained with her always. She married into an Afrikaans family, whose connections to heritage and traditions, especially around the dinner table, were equally strong. She chose to raise her children English, sending us to English schools and insisting that all three of us attend elocution lessons with Mrs. Blade, to make sure we had no trace of an Afrikaans accent.
She instilled in me a sense of adventure and seeking out things that were authentic, even if it meant travelling a little further beyond my white suburban comfort zone. Our lives were shrouded in an apartheid existence, but she understood the vibrancy and the magic that encapsulated the dynamic and diverse side of South African culture. It was important to her, for me to understand the complexities and she was intent on exposing me to them, making sure I grew up open minded and unafraid of exploring the city in which I lived.
All of my life she took me with her me with her on small, everyday adventures to explore new sights, sounds and tastes. We would go to Vrededorp – a thriving, neighborhood of Indian and Malay traders. It was a lively community of shopkeepers with small, dimly lit stores, selling fabrics, spices and incense. We would buy samosas – small triangles of fire, stuffed with curried vegetables between layers of delicate pastry – to eat while we shopped for fabric. Jammed with a jostling throng of buyers that covered the entire South African racial spectrum, before the government bulldozed it flat and separated communities based on color.
I knew of all the German delis in Johannesburg and we would sneak off after school for thinly sliced schinken (ham) on chocolate colored pumpernickel bread, squishy spicy sausage and Black Forest cake.
She loved flowers and perfume, German beer, red lipstick and fancy jewelry. She was always the best cook I knew and she loved to entertain. Dressing the dinning room table lavishly in beautiful flowers, candles and fine crockery, it was easy to see why people loved to be around her.
When we finally reached my sister in Cape Town, she wrote out all of her favorite recipes for my sister and I on unlined white cards, in her familiar cursive script. A few years later we discovered that she had a meningioma that dramatically affected her memory and her ability to cook. Now since I live in a different country and don’t get to sit across the table from either of them nearly often enough, when I read these recipe cards, I know I am cooking and remembering for all of us.