By Jill Ayerst
It’s funny how a simple scene can jolt a thought or idea. How, in one brief moment, you can see something that has been so enmeshed in your life and history, ingrained in your lifestyle, that it has lost its impact?
As I travelled along my normal route to work one morning, my eye fastened on a group of domestic workers gathered in the centre of one of the circles in our street. They were all on their way to work and had simply stopped, literally in the middle of the road, to communicate at the start of the day.
I wondered what they were discussing — family or community matters, politics, religion, work and employers — or were they simply sharing experiences, thoughts and beliefs. I pondered how many of them were housekeepers responsible for running the home, cleaning, cooking, washing and caring for children. I thought how dull and deprived our nation would be without them.
It seemed that, once my mind had latched onto this picture, I was filled with such gratitude and wondered how we could honour all these nannies, servants, maids, domestics, housekeepers who have fulfilled such a vital role in our nation.
My first idea was to commit to writing what was in my heart.
I found myself becoming quite emotional as I thought of how many African and coloured women in our nation have left their own families at home to care for the families of others. I wondered what had really pushed white women into the workplace sparking a reliance on others to watch over their children. Was it because the need to aspire to and have more had increased and the goals to achieve this had become out of reach financially? Or were women becoming bored with the art of housekeeping and child raising? Or is it simply indicative of the society we live in, the fast pace, soaring costs and time that eludes us all?
Today, it would seem true that the majority of women work and have entered the arena of fast business, status and stress. They will tell you, they can no longer live on one salary and that they are more fulfilled. There are many who cover both roles. Those families that have learned to live and work together in the home, each taking up responsibility and tasks to support the family, are perhaps the most balanced in today’s South African society. Women, in the UK, for example, may consider South African families “spoilt” as they do not have the luxury nor do they have the vast pool of available women to fulfil this role. They would not perhaps even consider additional help in the home – it has not been a lifestyle, it is not their way.
Americans and other nations have certainly employed “help” and we see in the South how many African Americans worked for white families over generations of children.
For many years, a number of South African families have had the privilege of a market of available “shadow” mothers to step into our homes, care for our children and cook our meals. They have been responsible for cleaning our homes, washing and ironing our clothing and simply just being there for the children. Johnny has a clean shirt and pants for school the next day; the sports clothes are packed – and sometimes lunch as well.
Not only have these “mothers” catered for the physical needs of the family, but have also created a consistent adult presence for children, love and hugs when needed and a willingness to listen to chatter and a capacity to fill the ever hungry tummies.
Now, while this is not the way all South African families have lived in the past or live now, a large percentage of our white population is able to tell stories of how they could not have done without Agnes, or Eunice, or Beauty — names they attached to themselves to help us pronounce them and connect with them. Children can relate the stories Beauty would tell them, what they had to eat, and the games they played together and wonder why sometimes, their nanny could not read or write properly.
There are many adults who will testify to being nursed and cared for through short or long term illness by their housekeepers, carers who sometimes became their friends and confidantes.
The last housekeeper I had the privilege of knowing was a most wonderful, colourful person from the Albertinia area near Mossel Bay. Not only was Marlene (also known as Baba or Marlientjie) able to cover the whole house, wash and iron and cook in a day, but she also integrated herself into the life of our family. She laughed with us, cried with us, argued with us, prayed with us, loved us and spoilt us. Our children became her “kinders”.
She and my mother-in-law, who also lived with us, formed a most interesting love and war relationship. They thoroughly enjoyed each others’ company, confiding deep truths about life, experiences and their beliefs. However, because they were both strong willed and hard headed, there were often quite intensive disagreements which left an
uncomfortable silence in the house. When I came home from work, I would hear from each one individually how irritated she was with the other person. But, tomorrow the sun would come up and the friendship was restored. It was a synergistic relationship and provided a space for communication and daily interaction for two women who may have felt the loneliness of time and age more often than we perhaps realised.
At the beginning of 2011, two of my sons and I paid a visit to Marlene in the Mossel Bay hospital. She was overjoyed to see her family and we were, once again, enriched by her cheery attitude even as she lay swollen and in pain. She did not live long after that visit, and I find myself often shedding tears and feeling the intense loss of a friend and a mother who was an integral part of our family.
We still laugh at the fact that she had a very special language to express certain situations. When she began hot flushes, she thoughtfully suggested she was experiencing “hot brushes” and was sure she was “going through a change of mind”. Considering what some women go through during this time, this might not be so far from the truth!
Marlene was totally committed to me and our family. There were a number of times, when money was tight, I would pay Marlene her salary and then in a week’s time when she realised I was struggling, she would lend most of it back to me.
As Mother’s Day approached, my thoughts lingered fondly with our shadow mothers. I felt a stirring inside of a mother’s day that embraced a far wider section of women, and wondered how I could honour them and say “thank you” for their commitment and care of many generations of our children.
This is my contribution, this is my thank you. Though words are few, they come from a full heart of gratitude. Thank you Ethel, Agnes, Beauty and Marlene — you made my life easier and more comfortable. You freed me to explore my potential and cope with my multiple roles throughout life. I honour you!
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