When I was a kid, my grandparents lived at 22 Sawkins Road in Mowbray (Cape Town, South Africa). It was one of those sort of major roads that led to Pinelands and Rondebosch, was close to Rondebosch Common, and all sorts of other interesting places. But I was little at the time and had no clue.
We lived in Malawi and visited South Africa, specifically Cape Town (sometimes Durban to see my Dad’s family) every so often. Mostly we would drive, through Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe into South Africa. Only on odd occasions would we fly.
But always the destination in Cape Town was 22 Sawkins Road – the place where our gran and gramps lived. Mom’s parents.
Close to their house, less than a block away, was a park. How we loved that park. There were swings, one of those horsey jiggedy things that rocked and could take three or four people, a see-saw with great bouncy tires and there was one of those witchy-hat type roundabout things that rotated and oscillated. And of course there was the real roundabout.
The park smelled of exhaust fumes, grass and pine needles. The swings were the best. One would kick off and swing as high as you could. Then preferably, when you were at optimum height, you would launch yourself from the swing and juuuummmmp.
Mostly it worked. We never broke anything. But sometimes your heart pounded a little more than you expected until you landed with a thump.
As soon as politely possible after we had arrived at 22 Sawkins Road, and we’d been thoroughly hugged and kissed, we’d skive off to the park.
Once, a strange man came into the park. He was very friendly toward my sister and me and tried to engage us in conversation.
“Oh no”, said Deb-Jane. “My mother said we must never speak to strangers.”
The stranger went off looking rather perplexed and came back a few minutes later with our mother. Turned out it was her brother, our uncle Billy, but we had not recognised him.
(Uncle Billy – next to Gran. My mom is the lady at the back – my sister the cutie one on the right – obviously I was taking the picture and we were a lot older by then.)
It wasn’t a big house either – only two rooms. Our family of four would camp in the one room. Upon reflection, we probably disrupted their orderly lives something terrible.
Other cousins with parents living in Zimbabwe (it was still Rhodesia then) also lived with gran and gramps whilst going to varsity. Somehow the room was always available when we came to visit though.
When we got older, 22 Sawkins Road was a sanctuary. A haven where we could escape to from boarding school in Worcester (my folks still lived in Malawi). Can remember my gran telling me, when I once bought her plums with hard earned cash, that I was silly because there were plums growing in the plot next door. Was a tad gobsmacked. Never noticed that there was an empty plot next door and certainly had no clue that it belonged to gran and gramps. She gave me the key and I went to check it out. A wild and overgrown secret garden! There were indeed plenty of plums. (We didn’t get plums in Malawi – so they were a treat!) Much later the plot was sold and a double story house reared up, changing the atmosphere of the back yard completely.
Gran was an old school, stay at home housewife. She was always pottering around the kitchen. She would make the most divine roast potatoes (know she made a million other things but cannot remember them). There was always Ribena and Nestle Drinking Chocolate in the cupboard. And chocolate digestive biscuits…
She would fall asleep at the drop of a hat, most elegantly (at any time of the day) with a cup of tea in her hand. Fast asleep. Never, not once, did she ever drop that cup of tea – or even slop tea into the saucer.
Another clear memory is my gran gathering up snails from the plants down the ally and popping them into boiling water. Always thought that was a tad cruel and gross, but she loved her garden and hated the fact that the little slimies decimated her flowers.
She made fudge. Copious amounts of fudge. I remember having to bag those frigging little sticky blocks for many different campaigns. The bowling club was having a do. (They were both expert bowlers.) The fish and chip shop on the main road was raising funds. The Sons of England were having a fete…. There was always some needy organisation and Gran was always making fudge. 6 pieces in a packet, fold and staple… or was it 8? Can’t remember now. But before one could go off and have fun – that wretched fudge had to be bagged.
Upon reflection… it was totally divine fudge – but I was too swamped by the quantity to realize it. It was a legacy that gran passed down – because my mother made fudge too – for school fetes, church bazaars and the Lions annual fair. We had to bag those too! I have never made fudge in my life and don’t plan to.
Their house had a special smell… nothing that I can lay a finger on… but special. Probably Gramps pipe tobacco and polished wood. Gramps was a master craftsman when it came to woodworking and was well known in Cape Town for the excellent products that came out of his woodworking company in Observatory – W.E. Key and Co.
There were two ginormous cats – Hokus and Pokus – pitch black witchy cats – that strolled around the place and demanded attention.
The lounge had Gramps’ special squishy chair in it and a lot of Louis L’Amour westerns on the bookshelf, along with those fancy china beer mugs with little lids that you flipped open with your thumb. One even played music. There was a round window – like a porthole – that always fascinated me. It was used, but not all that often. Mostly we seemed to hang out in the dining room or the kitchen.
Can remember when we were older – Gramps would get a tad pissed off with us. We used to arrive from Worcester or Helderberg for our off weekends (often with a variety of friends), and once or twice gave them heart attacks when we did not come home at night at the designated hour. Often we’d secretly hitchhike to Mowbray to save money. But Gramps would always drop us off at the station on a Sunday afternoon and watch us catch the bus back. I suppose we were often typical selfish teenagers – upsetting their calm existence. He’d quietly yell at us for messing coffee in the kitchen, or sneak-smoking in the bedroom (we’d hang out of the window). Once he told my older cousin to “Fuck off on a slow boat to China”. My sister and I were terribly impressed that our darling old aged grandpapa had used such bad language!
You will get cold – you must wear a spencer (vest), Gran would insist, when I was off to the disco wearing a skimpy top in the middle of winter. I’d begrudgingly comply – only to ditch it behind the toilet tank in the disco a few hours later. Then I’d have to lie… Oh Gran – that vest was so cozy, please can I keep it? Meanwhile – said cozy garment was gone forever.
We’d walk down to the local cafes and marvel at all the cool stuff. There were no cafes in Malawi. Nor was there liquorice, sherbet, pink sweeties, lucky packets or neat little coloured cool drinks that came in molded plastic bottles. As for those 3-D postcards that moved when you tilted them – they were treasured beyond belief. We’d upset the cafe owner by laughing uproariously at his “queen pines” that were nothing compared to the size of pineapples that we were used to in Malawi.
We’d walk up to the station and catch a train to Claremont, or into the City, or maybe to the beach. Trains were relatively safe to catch in those days – during the day of course.
The bathroom was black and white. You could have played checkers on the floor. The bath was a huge old ball and claw tub and it was a draughty cold place where you definitely did not linger.
Gramps had this very orderly garage, full of stuff and machinery. His car barely fitted inside. When he wasn’t sitting reading, smoking his pipe in his chair, he was tinkering around in his garage. Everything was very orderly, stored in little jars and labelled. He had bolts, nuts, nails and screws of every imaginable sort and size. He knew where everything was.
The house was on a main road and there were no fences. There were always loads of needy people who’d long since figured out that gran was a sucker and was always good for a mug of coffee or tea and a sandwich. Don’t think she ever gave money. They made gramps furious and if he caught them near the house both they and my gran were in trouble. But for as long as she lived in that house, she sneakily fed them. You’d find a mug neatly washed and hidden next to the carport – from where she’d passed it through the kitchen window.
Gran and Gramps hailed from England originally and gran never managed to learn Afrikaans. Nor did she ever learn to drive. But those days it really was possible to get around on buses and trains. And be taxied by gramps to and fro of course.
(Gramps and my gran’s sister – in England.)
Our favourite – very cool – cousin Richard (the one who was told to eff off to China) was only a few months older than my sister, and would cycle over from Pinelands. We’d hang out in the park. It was just as much fun when we were older. Or we’d walk back along the highway to his house. Sometimes we’d have to babysit the younger cousins.
There was a total sense of family and belonging.
(The younger cousins – when they’d grown up a bit – Sam and Greg)
Eventually they both got too old to live alone, and moved in with their younger son and his family. 22 Sawkins Road was sold and became unrecognizable.
Gramps had a stroke and gran got emphysema (probably from breathing in gramps second-hand pipe and cigar smoke for a million years). We were there with her in hospital when she breathed her last, just a few days before my own daughter’s 13th birthday. Up until then she had still been dispensing wise advice to us all and ruling the roost from her bed in Rob and Fleur’s house.
We still had (and have) family gatherings after gran passed away in her 90’s, but somehow the family is now even more scattered around the world and things have never quite been the same.
Gran was the glue that kept everybody together.