When I turned on my phone on Monday morning the first email to come through was from an old friend of my mother’s. She had recently signed up to my blog, and had emailed to introduce herself.
Reading over her words evoked memories full of the powerful emotions of childhood. I was four when we moved to Lesotho, a land-locked mountain kingdom where she worked with my parents, and five and a half when I went off to boarding school in South Africa.
Now memory, as we all know, is an unpredictable thing. As my father wrote to me last August, ‘Without a doubt we elaborate and embroider the stories as we recall and retell them, and they evolve over time. Yet we are so good at clinging to our belief in their veracity: “I remember it clearly, you said.. / did…/ wore…./ etc.”, and will go to such lengths to defend our versions of that history. Unfortunately the parts that we cling to most strongly are often the closest to our sense of self, our identity, our feelings of being loved (or its opposites, rejection, hatred, etc.), our sense of justice, and so on, and these are the things that we will defend with vigour, even if it means going to war literally or figuratively. And in the meantime all of the gorgeous background slips, sights, sounds, sensations and conversations become forgotten and what remains most strongly is probably feelings and the oft-repeated “facts” (which might as well be fictions). .. History, herstory, what are we to make of it all?’
There are always moments we imagine we will remember forever, yet fade quickly and absolutely. I have often been surprised when reminiscing with friends and family that they sometimes cannot recall formative events I thought burnt into our collective memory, yet vividly remember things that to me are vague or forgotten. Narrative and photographs seem to be two key memory re-enforcing devices for me, and I can often clearly recall childhood events around photographs in our family albums.
My mother’s friend wrote, ‘Remember the abandoned fawn we cared for and Tessa’s dog Jackie herded that thing day and night. One of Tessa and my great adventures was when we rode 2 Basutho ponies and lead 2 more over the mountains into Transkei to fetch Tabs and Jason from school. It was 3 days of fantastic adventure and I’m sure your mom recounted it at some point.’
I am puzzled that I can recall neither of these events, although I am sure my older siblings will recall the pony trip home from school. How could I forget a fawn, that would certainly have delighted and fascinated me? Yet other memories from that time are crystal clear. Scents are the most evocative: the smell of the May bushes, snowy-white with thousands of delicate flowers; the invasive wattle trees in heady yellow blossom in the canyon on the drive back from Maseru, with puff-balls growing beneath them; the crispness of the air in winter. I remember making skirts, wreaths and bracelets from the pliable boughs of the weeping willow trees that hung into inviting pools along the river before the floods changed the river’s nature completely, and deep pools were replaced with shallow rapids, which we used to bounce down. I remember Halloween tricks and the freshly-polished floors of rondavels. I remember the few films we had, which we watched over and over again – my favourites were Time Bandits and The Last Unicorn (which I still love dearly). I remember long-drop toilets, having Chicken-pox, my father teaching me how invigorating cold showers can be, volley-ball, Basotho blankets, and the sauna near the river. I remember my favourite toys – Teddy Robinson, who famously had his stomach cut open during border security checks, and my Mary Doll who I used to tie to my back as African women tie their babies while they work. I remember the smell of Jackie’s puppies, and their silky short fur. I remember the excitement of digging up potatoes with my mom – such bounty hidden beneath the earth, it felt like digging for treasure – and when she got bitten trying to rescue some moles stranded on a rock during the floods. And I remember people, though many of their names are long forgotten or I have no idea how to spell.
The final line of her email was, ‘Tessa’s youngest child is all grown up and I know she is very proud.’ Tears prickle my eyes as I smile, missing my mother achingly today but deeply grateful for the life she lived so fully, all the memories she left me with, and the many people she had adventures with along the way.