Driving Ma

2009-03-12 00:00

“Ma”. She officially got this name when her grandson’s friend phoned up and said: “Hello Ma”.

When she was 82, Ma* came home from hospital weak and wobbly — at least for a while. However, this was the opportunity to stop her driving and to attempt some arrangement that would soften the blow of lost independence in every possible way.

She herself thought of Joseph*. In many ways this was a strange choice, but the fact that the system is still up and running proves its success. Joseph is about 72, comes from way down the valley near Inanda Dam and used to drive for a Durban car company. He is a tallish man with pale brown skin. A striking figure with his upright bearing and grey beard.

How did this link with Joseph occur?

Although of proudly Scottish descent, Ma has always been a very generous human being. From her McKenzie ancestors she inherited a love of education and a fierce sense of justice. She was a member of the Black Sash and worked for many years in the Hillcrest Advice Office.

A woman from Joseph’s community had come to the Advice Office with a plea. She had managed to pay all school costs for her children, but now had no money for food. A brainstorming took place, then a plan began to emerge. This woman had a group of friends who could make bricks. They could do this for R1 cheaper than bricks from the Indian trader who currently supplied into their valley. The big problem was delivery. Ah! But one woman had a husband who had been a driver and Ma had a hardy truck that could be borrowed.

This was the beginning of a warm relationship between Ma and Joseph. (Although there was a notable glitch in the process when one of the brickmakers persuaded the others that they could make more money if they made bricks with more sand and less cement. Well, consequences shortly followed and they had to revisit their business ethics and try hard to recapture their market.)

Later, when Ma needed a driver, Joseph was summoned from the far reaches of the valley. A proposal was put to him. Negotiations must have been successful because the large Toyota bearing (I almost want to say regally bearing) Joseph and Ma, is a common sight in her village. This Toyota is an old one. It has bumps and dents all over, from the time before Joseph. These had been deliberately left as a warning sign in place of a big red L.

The pace at which they drive is excruciating, but Ma doesn’t notice. It gets her there. The pace at which they execute a three-point turn is terrifying because of the potential consequences. I pray as I watch.

On his driving days, Joseph has met various members of Ma’s family and friends. Further details of Ma’s life will have been filled in by Norah*, her domestic worker, during Norah’s regular wide-ranging discussions with Joseph.

Two years ago, Ma was invited to a celebration for Joseph’s daughter. She was still a bit wobbly, so I accompanied her. We were to meet with Winnie’s daughter (Winnie used to teach English to adults weekly at Ma’s house) and were to go with her, winding down the dirt roads, to the celebration.

Lying on the bottom slope of one of the valleys is Joseph’s establishment. By the time we arrived, children, youths, and elderly men and women were already there, inside the rooms, on benches outside and around the various buildings. Around the kitchen there was a vibrant buzz of activity. People were coming along the paths in all directions. Some young women and men were dressed in traditional Zulu costume for the dances. This was a rite of passage. The loose equivalent of a 21st, we were told.

Although he was a very busy host, with polite care Joseph saw to it that Ma was seated with people who would engage with her. Good hot food was brought to her, and she was given a fine spot to view the dances when the music began.

This was the first time that I had met Joseph. Courtesy and dignity are a notable part of his character. Admirable and delightfully quaint from my perspective. Ma complements this with a sort of elevated benevolence. Again, from my perspective the word “patronising” is not far away. Yet this is a rich and unique relationship. On his working days, Joseph looks after Ma as if it is a special mission. He goes beyond the call of duty. This is just what she needs as she has been known to faint on a hot day, suddenly and for no reason. The fact that she always returns unscathed after her adventures with Joseph speaks volumes. There are many others who have not been so “tuned in” — and the consequences are serious.

Joseph is prepared to take Ma where she needs to go. When they went up to Underberg, after the long journey she took a rest and he strolled into town with a hat and binoculars — as a tourist. When she goes to buy bras at Woolworths there is a dignified African man holding her arm and escorting her to her chosen destination. How reassuring when you are 85 and living in South Africa to have a man of this calibre at your elbow.

Norah and Joseph, I suspect, have both recognised and discussed that they need to take care of this generous old lady. Her children have allowed her to live alone for several years, and sometimes don’t visit for a week. From her children’s perspective the generous old lady is also stubborn, and insists on living in the spacious house that was her father’s. She said she only wants to leave horizontal and feet first.

* Surnames withheld at writer’s request.

Sarah van der Merwe

Sarah van der Merwe grew up in KwaZulu-Natal and has lived in Maritzburg for all her married life. She became a librarian several decades ago “mainly because I love books and reading”. She has a husband, son and daughter.

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