Anna's gift

2008-10-20 00:00

Forty years ago, in the sixties, my grandparents managed an African trading store, located on a dusty road in the rural area of Keate’s Drift. As children we were sent from the city each year to spend the long Christmas holidays there.

The country at the time was of course governed by the laws of apartheid, which actually meant a whole lot of different things to different people, but the overriding result of this “apartness” meant, as we all know, that black people were seriously discriminated against in every sphere of life, and these laws caused the different races ultimately to learn to distrust, fear, and sometimes even to hate each other.

From my perspective as the child that I was then, everyone seemed to understand their place within those laws, and people generally abided by them, so that was the status quo, and this story is not meant to delve deeply into the ramifications of the politics, but to give context to the story of Anna’s gift.

In my grandparent’s house, Anna, the Zulu woman employed as a housemaid, reigned supreme, particularly in the kitchen. I remember the mealie-meal porridge bubbling in a pot on the big old coal stove and Anna, her deep brown face shining, smiling as she stirred the pot, all the while humming and singing.

It was a special day for me, my ninth birthday, and the only thing I wanted to know was what gift I would receive from my grandparents. As we sat at the breakfast table, beside my place was the long-awaited, gaily wrapped gift, which after breakfast I was to be allowed to open. Birthdays are magical days for children and, although I was not to know it then, this particular birthday would be my most memorable ever.

Breakfast over, I headed off to my room and I had no sooner plopped myself down on my bed when Anna appeared, holding out a small newspaper-wrapped parcel to me. It was a moment frozen in time, like some magical camera in the sky was taking pictures of Anna and me, pictures that would last for all eternity. I very shyly took the little parcel, click; her warm brown eyes and smiling lips, click; a brief hug, click, click; Anna retreating, click.

I was a child of nine that day, but I suddenly felt like I was a hundred, because through my mind the thoughts flowed like quicksilver as I connected up the realisation of how poor Anna was, what a sacrifice she must have made to purchase whatever was in the parcel, knowing that she knew that I was a fatherless child being raised in an orphanage, and she had willingly, consciously, set out to make my day better — for me, a barefoot poor white child about whom very few people in the world truly cared.

She had made me see her in a way that I never had before, and in truly seeing her, it was as if I suddenly saw everything. I saw the great big racial and social divide, and I saw the unfairness of it all.

Still sitting on my bed, I slowly unwrapped Anna’s gift, two layers of newspaper, and found there a little folded floral handkerchief and bar of pink soap. It was a humble gift, even for those days, but I sat on my bed for ages, raising the soap to my nose over and over, as if catching the power of the gift in its scent, and folding and refolding the hanky, and marvelling at the heart that had purchased it and the hands that had wrapped it.

I knew instinctively that what Anna had given me was a rare and extraordinary gift, although being so young, I could not at that time grasp the true magnificence of it.

I came to better understand in time that Anna’s gift was nothing that could be caught between the pages of wrapping paper, for from that day as a nine-year-old white child in apartheid South Africa, I saw my whole world with new eyes. In causing me to see her, truly see her, Anna had caused me to see all black people with new eyes, and to explore my growing questions about the “apartness” that was the status quo.

I know that in our country today, the why does not matter anymore. What matters is that those things have all changed, as they changed for me with Anna’s gift, which had created a tiny doorway through which I could view our world differently.

The gift I received from my grandparents on my ninth birthday? I have no idea now what it was, but I have lived with Anna’s gift ever since that day. Thank you Anna. I see you.

* Not her real name.

Mary F describes herself as “a slightly eccentric mother and grandmother who writes the occasional article which occasionally gets published. I write to find the ridiculous in the ordinary, the spectacular in the mundane. I’m a great believer in true stories, in their power to teach.

“I think every person has at least one phenomenal true story from their life.

“I am very interested in genealogy and history, on both a personal and collective level. I work from my home office as a professional transcriber, which is work that covers a huge range of subjects, so that keeps me interested in lots of different things.”

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