Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A tribute to a mother


Savuti sunrise, a present I gave
to my mother many years ago.
© Shafiq Morton
AS a journalist, I’ve often had to deal with the sad detritus of human life. It’s those small – but moving – details discovered in the wreckage of war, famine, tsunami or earthquake that hint at more.

It could be a shoe, a toy, or a table laid for an unfinished meal – ghostly symbols of what was and what could have been. I first became aware of this when covering the “Witdoek” clashes in Cape Town’s squatter camps in the late 1980’s.

What I recall of the deadly township war between the young United Democratic Front comrades and the state supported white-scarved elders is not the panga-wielding mobs, but rather, a school exercise-book.

One morning I can remember being called out to Crossroads where “Tambo Square” had been razed to the ground. The comrades had disappeared, and I could see a group of Witdoeke in the distance.

I spotted a school exercise-book lying in the dirt and picked it up. Its curled pages revealed the script of a young learner.  It made me think: who exactly was this child?  It changed my perspective on reporting. Cliché, maybe, but for me that exercise-book was the real story of what had happened.

It taught me that there’s much to be observed in the small things, and that with their subtle coding, one could learn a lot. Those little details were what informed your greater experience.

In 2006 in Beirut I had a similar encounter. Scrambling through the rubble of the bombed-out Dahiye neighbourhood, I found a partly melted doll in the ruins of a ten-story building. It had been flattened by a “smart bomb” dropped from 30, 000 feet.

Seven years (and several more conflicts later) I found myself looking for meaning via the pieces of yet another life. Except that this time, it was personal: 24 hours previously my mother had closed her eyes for the last time and gracefully gone to meet her Creator.

We have to go through her things. Executors and debtors are waiting, and her affairs have to be sorted out. It’s hard, because her presence is everywhere. Her smells still linger – the soap, the linen and the potpourri. But she’s not sitting in her favourite chair by the window. Her absence reminds me of the exercise-book and the doll.

It’s really difficult; her things have to be boxed, papers sorted, furniture moved and curtains taken down. As I pack things away, fragments of my own life start to emerge. It’s strange. I’m looking for my mother, yet the more I look for her, the more I keep on discovering bits of myself.

In a dusty file I find all my school reports, from kindergarten to high school. They tell a tale of a somewhat dreamy lad who was useless at Maths, better at English and History, and un-cooperative in Bible studies.

My Maths appears to have caused many a headache, one teacher complaining about my stubbornness. Then it comes back. I remember suggesting to him that formulas were a waste of time in geometry – wouldn’t it be far easier if we just measured things, sir?

I come across an exasperated headmaster, warning in matric that I would become a “dilettante”, he adding that I was an “exceptional boy” who needed to focus. His comment, I suspect, was simply hinting at old-fashioned laziness.

As I sift through the file, photographs tumble out. I used to send my mother prints of my favourites, and she’d kept them all: my wedding and the children as they grew up; my daughter’s birth and matric dance, my son bathing in the kitchen sink and his guitar, the Botswana sunrise and the reed church in the Namib Desert.

The doorbell sounds and people from the village come to offer condolences. My mother was active to the end, and having worked at a public hospital for 30 years, she had touched many. Hers was the shoulder they cried on.

Cupboards are opened and a pile of tiny jerseys and beanies tumble out. My mother always knitted, sewed or made things, and I remember her knitting for AIDs orphans.

Clearing bookshelves I still can’t escape traces of myself.  I find a copy of John Barrie’s Peter Pan. It takes me back to my first book experiences. It’s illustrated with delicate pencil drawings, drawings that had fired my young imagination long before the opiate of television.

It’s then that I realise the consistent finding of my identity in the little things around me is because as her eldest son, I am part of her. She was herself through my brother and sister and me and her grandchildren, and we were ourselves through her.

Yes, we all miss her very, very much: her caring, her tinkling laughter, her home-made ice-cream and her intrepid, energetic, loving, generous and creative spirit. I am consoled by the fact that it was time for her to go, and time for us to let her go. For as the poet George Barker once wrote, let the mourning pass into morning.