A constant presence

2013-10-16 00:00

“I’D love to come, provided I’m still around …” came his customary reply in his usual just-above-whisper tone. We’d learnt to expect this stock response to any invitation that we’d made in recent years. So we weren’t surprised by his reply to the Grandparents’ Day invitation.

But of course he arrived. As usual, he made the trip down the highway from Bergville to Hilton a day early and spent the night with us, just to make sure he wasn’t late for the occasion. We knew he’d rumble in in his blue Datsun bakkie, proudly wearing his Driving Hat. His cellphone would be clipped to his shiny belt that would sit just under his armpits. Tucked into his neatly pressed jeans would be a brushed-cotton checked shirt, which was my dad’s once, buttoned right the way up to the neck.

The only difference I’ve recently noticed in his appearance is a chipped front tooth, which Mum packed him off to her dentist to repair a few times, but it seems lately they’ve both given up on this project. The replacement piece just won’t stick. So now his cautious smile is closed-mouthed or his hand shields his mouth as he laughs. For the rest, he has looked the same forever.

Like his appearance, his other dependable habit is the peculiar belief that he’s about to die. To us he’s immortal and less likely to miss a family gathering than anyone else in the family. Funny, seeing as he’s not family. But I suppose it’s not unreasonable for him to presume it’s his time, sooner or later, considering he’s 84.

Mum can’t remember their exact ages back then. But they were both teenagers when they first met, nearly 50 years ago. Others came and went but he’s never left us. She says he was always one of the first people there: first when her younger brother died in a car accident at 21; then her father died too young; then Mum lost Baby Bruce at a few months; then it was Gran’s turn and most recently Dad. He was a pallbearer for most of them but he carried much more than a coffin for her. He’d shoulder her sadness stoically with a peaceful wisdom that only the truly faithful know how to find on those occasions. He never plugged private family spaces with niceties, instead, he’d quietly ensure that there was tea for those who came and went with condolences.

If I were to indulge my nostalgia by leafing through the family albums of holidays in Umhlanga, where Gran lived, he’s not in any of the photos. Like the memories of those blissful beach days that stretch into one long blur, there is a happy sameness in all the faces that smile out at the photographer. Dad’s receding hairline and a slight change in height of the kids is the only way to distinguish one year from the next. And while we posed for photos, the other constant was the goings-on in the kitchen. If you ask any of my siblings about their favourite food today, we’ll each tell you something different, but each meal has its roots in those Umhlanga days. One brother describes the sharp smell of monkey-gland steak while the other recounts the pork-crackling crunch. My sister remembers pool water dripping down her nose onto the hot-buttered raisin buns always ready with afternoon tea, just as we’d had enough Marco Polo. For me, it was waking to the smell of piles of lemon and sugar pancakes neatly stacked and waiting patiently for us to emerge from sunburnt sleeps. Each meal was invisibly prepared by him with no fuss and, of course, not nearly enough thanks from us.

He had a side-line business or two. There was a steady stream of male customers who’d almost imperceptibly come up the driveway and quietly fade into the back yard, always during lunch-hour. Us kids would eavesdrop in on the clicking chatter that we could mimic but not understand. If we’d watched closely, we’d have noticed that each customer strode down the driveway a little taller with hair neatly clipped or broken shoes impeccably cobbled to almost-good-as-new. He was as good with his hands as he was at making easy conversation, so business was always brisk.

The easy conversationalist is what has turned both my sons into soccer fans. He schooled both boys in the mastery of Thierry Henry’s strike or Lee Dixon’s impenetrable defence, and if he was going to teach them what he knew about soccer, they had no choice but to become Arsenal fans. So now I have two teenage boys who talk in laudatory terms of the grand old days when Arsenal was invincible. They’re like old men and I know exactly where they heard this language.

Through the years we’ve all chatted to him about much more than soccer. He’s a political creature who is deeply sceptical of politicians. So if you detect anger, usually well-hidden, it will be in his daily ritual of paging through The Witness or the Mercury as he reads of gravy train politicians or corrupt cops. He grows a hooded frown when he discusses his worries about the future of our people. The only time you will hear this gentle man rage is when he is on his soapbox topic of the careless breeding habits of the poor and the thoughtless government-welfare policies that endorse those.

He travelled most places with my parents in their retirement years. For this shy man I can imagine no worse horror than the story of a road trip when in their late sixties. Their plan was a spontaneous stop overnight when they had grown tired of driving. Dad had underestimated the traffic on that particular day so they eventually had no choice but to accept one room with three single beds in a grotty motel. The nosy, contemptuous stares as three elderly, different-coloured people emerged from a motel room were bad enough. But worse was the reality of the three of them sharing a room. No matter how many times they’ve heard it, the grandchildren still giggle and blush as Gran regales details of that night’s events: he remained clothed in his khakis and did not look up from his Bible all night; Dad’s Merlot with supper guaranteed his habitual, relentless snoring and grunting; Mum stared rigidly at the ceiling, fearful of rolling over in case she farted.

Mum and he still make plans whenever they can to catch up and they phone each other every few weeks, just to check all is well. If Mum is driving on the N3, she’ll arrange to meet him for a cup of tea at the highway garage in Estcourt. On one such occasion their conversation drifted to relationships in old age. He talked of the difficulties of returning home in retirement to a wife who he had not lived with for decades. What a strange sight for travellers to see this odd old couple drinking tea in the Wimpy, while Mum took him on about making his marriage work. About a week later, my never-shy mum was slightly flustered as she showed me an SMS from him: “You asked me if there was another woman. No there is not. But sometimes I wonder if perhaps there might have been. Perhaps in another country, in another time, under other circumstances? No prizes for guessing.”

This story is no KZN version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover because they’re both too conservative and too old for that. I prefer to think of it as our own family’s Driving Miss Daisy story, except Mum would never agree to take up the passenger seat. Not least because she taught him to drive and she’s not one to admit that the pupil has become the master.

So after almost 50 years of service to four generations of one family, what is he, if not part of our family? There are too many family holidays, too many memorable meals, too many happy and tragic occasions and far too many funny, silly and sad stories to call it an employment relationship. It also feels as if too much detail and knowledge have passed between us all simply to call this a friendship.

My children will never have the privilege of this special man working in their homes. But I hope that one day my son will explain to his own grandchildren that his real grandparents couldn’t make it and he’ll boast that, instead, there was only one obvious substitute: a unique Zulu grandfather, Meshak Mkhonza, who came to Grandparents’ Day.

He applauded as the choir sang and the orchestra played, he proudly took photographs to show off back home, and he drank tea and ate cake and was made to feel honoured, exactly like all the other grannies and granddads. And the only thing that would have stopped him from coming was if he was no longer around.

• We will be publishing stories by the finalists in our True Stories of KZN 2013 competition in the next few months, before announcing the winners in the last week of November.

Nichola Roy dreams of eventually answering that dull what-do-you-do question with one proud word: “author”. For now, writing is her favourite hobby. She juggles life between Johannesburg and KZN. To alleviate the tedium of the too-familiar N3 drive, she spends most of that time

contemplating new stories.

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