Reflections on a childhood

2008-01-04 00:00

It’s after Christmas and the shop shelves have been emptied of glitter and toys, packed away for another year, replaced by A4 books and writing paraphernalia ... ready for another year of academia.

Toni, my eldest grandchild, is going into Grade 2. I gaze at her petite frame, the delicate outline of her features and her slender hands. I observe her intensity. At the Christmas dinner table she said grace and added, “And dear God please see that the poor children get food today and a happy birthday to baby Jesus”.

I attempt to equate my own seven-year-old experiences with her naïvety. As a Free State farm girl, I was sent to boarding school in the nearby dorp. My twin and I would be driven to town on Monday mornings, our oversized suitcases in the boot of our dad’s old blue Chevy.

Vague memories have become patched together with faded photo images, so that it feels as though it’s someone else’s life that I’m piecing together. Bells rang to wake us up. Bells rang for roll call, for meals, prep and bedtime.

The kindergarten classroom seemed spacious — little people at little desks. I remember a poor railway child who ate white lumpy margarine on his stale bread. His toes, it was rumoured, had been amputated by a train. I shared my apricot jam hostel-made sarmie with him one day in exchange for his removing his shoe to reveal his “funny foot”.

It’s the bizarre things one remembers, not the ordinary, everyday minutiae which become intertwined and lost with the fading of time.

After school we would walk from the kindergarten across the senior school’s courtyard, flanked by stately red brick buildings renowned for their Pierneef murals, of which I was then sweetly oblivious. We’d have to traverse a vast playing field and then cross a road to arrive at the hostel.

The playing field seemed an endless, flat, desolate place where boys flicked marbles around in the dust and girls jumped over skipping ropes, tripping on sashes tied over black-pleated pinafores. The toilets were at the far side, quite a distance to walk to on a winter’s morning with frost embedded in dead clumps of grass. The mimosa trees on that verge were smothered in yellow blossom in the summer. Today I still find their odour repugnant.

The hostel consisted of six-bedded dormitories, the beds separated by small cupboards. Weekly dormitory inspection was a terrifying ordeal. Our beds and the interior of our cupboards had to pass muster to what seemed like army specifications. A placard with a big black dot hanging on the door denoted detention, a red dot meant “okay” and a silver dot meant a reward. Our dorm — for the minority English group — aimed for silver for fear of hell and brimstone.

I shudder now about those days, because I realise how oblivious I was to any other type of childhood. As I witness the lives of my cherished grandchildren, I realise what my childhood lacked. Maybe with my own children I was too busy rearing them to make such a clear distinction.

I watch my grandchildren splashing happily in the bath. At boarding school this was a regimented affair, children lined up on a wet concrete floor. I watch my grandchildren sharing tasty meals with their parents. Our meals were reduced to scoffing down colourless, runny food, a housemother’s eyes scorching the back of my neck.

My grandchildren relish their bedtime stories and are tucked in, kissed goodnight and reassured. My nights would echo with the snivelling of homesickness reverberating from the surrounding beds.

I find that those years of collective living mean that I treasure my space and welcome solitude. I’m discerning about who I spend time with and I still crave parental affirmation, although they’re long gone.

My childhood was marked by the peculiar polarity of my treasured freedom on the farm compressed against my cloistered boarding school life. I sometimes wonder how a different childhood would have altered me. But one thing’s for sure — it’s meant that I’m a survivor. And it’s made me endlessly loving and tolerant towards my own children and grandchildren.

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