The end of the beginning

On the eighteenth birthday of my youngest child.

Original Abstract Painting by Haelyn Y | Abstract Expressionism ...
Haelyn Y (after Leonardo da Vinci)

Today my youngest child turns 18.

That means (gulp) that I am the mother of 5 adults. Yikes!

But it seems like just a few short years ago that he was born. His eldest brother was half his present age then, with the others various ages in between (decently spaced I assure, you, gentle reader – I wasn’t that Catholic!)

In fact, I actually thought he might fall out in those last few days, but he was so small that my doctor wanted him to stay in until 40 weeks (Let’s just get it straight: human gestation is 10 months – do not listen to the misogynistic propaganda that it is 9 months! I think that idea was first promulgated by men centuries ago, while trying to hide the fact that there’d been some nooky before the nuptials). However generally doctors who are doing a caesarean section (yeah like disection – section) will take out the wee bairns at about 38 weeks to ensure there is no premature labour, especially if the mother and baby’s health would be affected by early labour, as in our case.)

He didn’t of course (fall out I mean) and on a dark autumn morning, my sister fetched me; and I kissed the other sprogs goodbye for a few days, leaving them with Lego that ‘the baby bought for them’ (How much we lie to our children!) and their grandparents, who supervised them until Brigid returned to spend the next few nights.

At the Milnerton Medi-clinic, it was business as usual for me – I had of course done it all four times already, but Brigid marvelled at each stage (and naturally told me from time to time to keep my voice down.) To hear her tell the story of Liam’s birth it’s hard to remember that I was there at all, because she was so wrapped up in the glory of seeing that new life emerge from his cocoon, all swamp-thing and goo, only to hear him cry lustily (as he has done everything in his entire life since) and be placed next to us all clean and sweet.

I say it all with no disrespect because I loved it that she was there to see him and while she tells it as if I were merely a part of the operating theatre machines, in reality, she was checking up on me every few seconds with regular: “are you alright?’

‘Well of course, I’m only having my innards sliced open (‘sectioned’ remember) and I can even feel all the pulling in a kind of rubbery way – just peachy, Brig!’ (I can understand why she’s blanked me out of her story.)

Liam was such a bonny baby, always smiling and so easy. His siblings all had gastro while we were in the clinic and poor Brigid was repaid for her kindness in babysitting them during this time by being vomited on and having to comb the detritus out of both her and Caitlin’s hair. Sean was the only one who didn’t catch the bug, and gleefully announced that he would be the only one able to hold their new brother. Fortunately I disappointed him by rushing the newborn to his beautiful wicker crib and closing the door on all the children, because no sooner had Brigid departed to be ill herself in blissful peace in her own apartment, than Sean became violently ill himself. So Liam’s first night home, I spent cleaning up after my little big boy, as well as feeding his baby brother.

On the Sunday, Brigid came to fetch the children for mass and left Liam and me behind. I took that opportunity to change the outside light bulb by climbing up on a chair on the patio (I was a bit of a bangbroek and didn’t want it to be creepy outside when I was alone with the children.) Of course, having climbed up on the chair, I realised that I still had to get down again – a bit tricky on a Caesar wound. I didn’t dare tell Big Sister Brigid about this when I needed to go back into hospital with Liam overnight with a bladder infection, because she’d have told me that was why and had no sympathy. At least we had a porch light when I returned 24 hours later and could finally enjoy my beloved five children. And hold them and cherish them.

And now I am amazed that it is 18 years later! I’d say it’s safe to finally stop living in dread that something would happen to them but that’s not true – it did, many times including nearly losing Liam to an attempted kidnapping two years ago. I’d like to say that I can stop worrying now that they are all grown up. But the truth is I don’t think you ever stop breathing in fear for your children with every breath you take. Or ever stop exhaling fire with every escapade they entangle themselves in.

These last eighteen years have been eventful to say the least. I do hope the next will be slightly more peaceful. I plan now to live long enough to be a real problem to them all.

 It seems that won’t be too hard. They already speak about me in troubled tones, as if I am not present in the room…. So perhaps they’ll put me in a home soon and bring me cute babies to play with on Sundays.  Either way I relish the anticipation of the next chapter of the motherhood book.

 I may have given them life, but really they gave me the reason to live mine.

The Great Atlantic Crossing: Part 1

A post 9-11 adventure about air travel, written during the COVID-19 Lockdown.

In late 2001, I crossed the Atlantic alone with four small children and a five-month-old bump. We all survived. And that is my claim to fame.

Salt Lake City Airport

On 11 September 2001, while planes were flying into the World Trade Centre, I was vomiting.  The first I heard of what would become a global travel crisis was when my sister in Cape Town, called me in Draper, Utah, exclaiming, ‘What the hell is going on over there?!’

All I could think was: ‘How the hell does she know that I think I am pregnant?! Oh $@&* I think I am pregnant! But this marriage is all but over!’

The days and weeks were a blur of mourning with the mom at the elementary school who had a fireman-brother in New York who was missing, and watching her confidence that he would be found, crumble day by day, as hope died; of being touched by the patriotism of small town Americans, who instantly lined the streets with flags and even lemonade stalls of film and cartoon legend; of praying at mass in the school hall; of being glued to the television talking heads who speculated endlessly 24-7 about stranded aeroplanes and a coming war; of visiting the grocery store, on hyperalert to the perils of anthrax-poisoned fruit; of positive pregnancy tests and a failing marriage, while trying to keep my brood of youngsters busy (They were the only ones excited about their little sibling whose flutters began to be felt beneath my heart.); of the anxiety fuelled by rumours that the upcoming Winter Olympics in Park City would be bombed; of visiting a doctor only to hear that without medical insurance, my fifth caesarean would be performed by the on-call first year GP at the clinic in downtown Salt Lake City; of fear. And loneliness in a foreign country.

And then my sister-in-law saved us. She persuaded my father-in-law to fly the children and me home so I could receive proper medical care. I grabbed the opportunity, telling myself my husband would follow us as promised and that I could forgive him for all he’d done, if I just had some distance to deal with it. So, we booked our one-way trip, via New York and Istanbul on Air Turkey to Cape Town, a trip that would take nearly 29 hours of flying time, but took over three days including layovers.

And then On November 12, 2001, American Flight 587 crashed shortly after take-off from JFK Airport. The Airbus carved out a path of devastation into the neighbourhood of Belle Harbor, in Queens, New York City. All 260 people aboard the plane (251 passengers and 9 crew members) were killed, along with 5 people on the ground. Initial reports suggested it was a further act of terror and once more, panic spread thought the country.

Crash Site of Flight 587, Queens, New York, 2001

And two days later we headed for the airport in Salt Lake City en route to JFK International Airport. I was terrified.

Packing for 5 passengers leaving a country permanently took some doing. We had to take enough that we could start a life again back home, but as little as possible so I could handle it over two layovers, as well as have enough carry-on luggage to keep four children occupied and clean, not mention the toddler’s nappies and food. We took 5 large suitcases, two on-board bags and each child had a backpack crammed with in-flight games, a favourite toy, toothbrushes and snacks.

The check-in bags were packed with the ingenuity of refugees escaping a war-torn land, with Lego stuffed into boots and every cranny filled with what I could cram in; and like migrants fleeing the country, we dressed in layers so we could take more clothes. The rest of our precious belongings, I left behind packaged and ready to be sent on by the children’s father. He never did.

The sadness overwhelmed me as we ascended the escalator at the airport, after check-in. The older children were filled with the energetic excitement that comes with travel, and had given their father a quick hug before bounding onto the moving stairs, but as I glanced back at the only man I had ever loved, after he’d whispered his  assurance that he’d follow soon, I Knew. As he receded beneath me I knew that so had our union.

It was only when he’d faded from view and as we plodded down one of those endless airport corridors, me like a pack horse, laden with the solidly-full two carry-ons and not-quite-two-year-old Shannon in my arms, that Sean plucked at my arm and asked tremulously, ‘We will see Dad again soon, hey Mommy,’ that the enormity of what we were doing struck. I reassured him and Michael who had begun to cry, while Caitlin clung tearfully to my hand.

That was when I realised it was time for the big girl panties to be pulled up and for me to take charge.

We reached the boarding gate eventually and when our flight was called we stepped forward with everyone else. Handing the flight attendant our tickets and passports, I noticed some consternation cross her face as she asked us to step aside for a ‘random’ security check. We waited behind patiently and were escorted to a cordoned off area where the ‘non-specific’ choice of passengers lined up: a dark-skinned Middle-Eastern business man and a Muslim couple, she in full purdah…and us – with our five one-way tickets, in a name that could have sounded Arabic, paid in cash from Cape Town city with a strong Muslim presence, via a Muslim country, on Air Turkey.

Random, my arse! We’d been racially profiled, a fact that was made even more obvious by the stewards’ embarrassment and grovelling apology that they ‘didn’t realise that they were children,’ as they undertook  a thorough search of every child’s backpack – poking teddy bears and even squeezing out toothpaste, before hastily returning the things to their now-dishevelled bags, as the tears brimmed over. What appalled me more was the patient stoicism of my fellow detainees – they’d expected it.

And then we took off for JFK and a future unknown.

ToysR(used)Up

File:Bucharest - abandoned toy.jpg

The best toys are like unicorns. They include enough horse to seem real, but enough horn to become magical.

Amber & Andy Ankowski, “Anatomy of the Perfect Toy”, PBS Parents, May 25, 2016

The abandoned doll in the yard next door is a forlorn sight. Lost toys take on a peculiar pathos similar to ghostly schools during lockdown. This child’s moppet has obviously been left during the lockdown after a fleeting weekend visit with the divorced father who lives there, custodial visits now being allowed during South Africa’s national quarantine.  There is something incredibly sad about discarded playthings, perhaps because they signal the absence of their owners.

The little girls who spent the weekend have gone home with their mother and the garden is quiet again, their giggling games a fond memory only. I wonder whether the girls have missed and cried over the little baby doll. I wonder whether she has a name.

Favourite toys always have names. My first doll was called Hygienic, I kid you not – well that’s what it said on the label, so that’s what I called her. She had a hard, plastic head with garish red hair (worse than mine) and a soft body, presumably so as not to hurt the toddler playing with her, so she looked a little odd without her clothes – I had enough naked dolls to run a brothel if I’d known what that was.

I also had a variety of other dolls – remember Tiny Dots? Then there were those ugly Cabbage Patch creatures. I remember playing for hours at the apartment block made out of my chest of drawers where the Barbies lived too. Now I recoil at the thought of the social grooming about body-types they were promoting, but then they were the cool people who populated a Manhattan sort of life I thought was oh so glamorous in my emptied out sock drawer. There were also those odd ones, not unlike a baldish Chucky, that looked like they were straight out of Steven Spielberg central casting, but with the hair a mere contour in the plastic. They were called Cindy and Wendy and cried out alarmingly when tipped upside down (let that be a warning to future mother tempted to do that). I think Cindy could walk too, in a sort of mechanical way – I am surprised we didn’t have nightmares about them.

But my all-time favourite was a teddy bear called Spareman (He was the only boy-doll you see so he felt ‘spare.’) My childhood logic was a little odd, but I suppose ‘Gigolo’ never occurred to my young mind, even though he dated all the other ‘ladies’ and was the groom at every large doll wedding – the ladies were all dressed for those of course – some rather sumptuously if my sister, Brigid, and her harem of coiffured belles played too, although I was never sure if she would get cross with me and take her side of the family indoors. My grandmother who was an artist, made Spareman for me: he was just large enough to fit in the crook of my five-year-old arm and sported a jaunty, painted-on face and a powder blue shirt – no pants now that I think of it, after the brown felt ones he came with disintegrated, so he was definitely a trifle loose on the morals side too.

I took him everywhere and couldn’t (wouldn’t?) sleep without him. I remember one occasion when my mother was driving us cross-country in her little blue Austin Morris to visit family in Ixopo, a small town on the Umkhomazi River in the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands. We had travelled some 200 kilometres when it was discovered that Spareman was living McCauley Calkin’s nightmare, home alone. My mother turned around and went back for him. That is love – my mother was a saint! I would never have done that for any of my youngsters.

I lost him forever in America when we moved back to South Africa. He was packed away in a box meant to be forwarded to me with all my treasured possessions; sadly never sent. I hope someone is loving him – but he probably found true love finally with a dumpsite dolly.

It’s heartening though to see how children’s toys are kept for future generations. We found Andrew’s mother’s teddy in her things and it sits on a shelf alongside Mika’s old bear and a gift bear from Sterns which came with a watch and bracelet given to me by staff when I left my last school. Stern Bear glares at Andrew and reminds him that diamonds are a girl’s best toy now. Mind you, they are perched up there like the proverbial three monkeys – cue horror music…

Liam had several toys, all called Max, which made things easy to remember: Max the Wolf, Max the Teddy Bear, Max the Monkey and Max the Lion. I think Winston the Labrador ate a few Maxes. I hope Bandile next door finds his daughter’s doll before she is ravaged by his savage Jack Russel.

I was not impressed when someone gave my girls Bratz Dolls for Christmas once, both because I hated the concept of encouraging brattishness – they needed no encouragement in that department; but mainly because of that spelling! To this day I am not sure whether Mika has been forgiven for tossing one of the three delinquent dollies into the next door neighbour’s garden, but I never moaned at him – I was glad. The girls seldom lacked for baby dolls because Liam was always happy to hop into the dolls’ pram and be petted.

Sean and his best friend Matthew apparently blew up a couple of Action Men – a fact I am glad I did not know about because I would have been furious about the danger of messing around with fireworks, but I suppose the fact that my cousin and I once used a doll as a swingball would make me a bit hypocritical about their destructive streaks.

Michael had a collection of remote controlled cars which were best put to use during nap time when they served as spies, transporting messages between bedrooms. Again, not something I knew about until they were teenagers and confessed to their wicked childhood nap avoidance.

But their best games were those adventure games that Sean (interestingly now making money from screenwriting) scripted and directed with elaborate plots and parts which evolved as the characters joined in.

And there was the ubiquitous Lego, a nightmare to clean up even with the cute Lego vacuum device, but worth hours of enjoyment. When we first moved back to South Africa and Liam was tiny, while he was asleep, I would sometimes try to grab some shut-eye quickly and still be around the children. So I would lie down on the couch while the children built cities and roads out of Lego on the floor. They remember me grumbling if they made too much noise, but certainly loved the games, even if they were frustrated that their mother needed to doze. Shannon remembers feeling for my pulse to see whether I was still alive from time to time and lifting up my eyelids to check whether the kip had become permanent. Liam played with Lego for years and was adept at building fighter spacecrafts and manipulating them dexterously in aerial battles in solitary games, complete with sound effects, when his older siblings were at school.

I did not enjoy the era of tamagotchis, those digital pets that raised the alarm annoyingly if they needed feeding or walking. Fortunately batteries die. and so did those’pets.’

They still all love games of course, mostly online for the boys and the Friends board game was a recent Christmas request, not to mention the Game of Thrones epic, but those like Beer Pong and others have taken on a more salacious turn I am sad to say.

 I miss watching their little bodies absorbed in their fantasy worlds, or building forts out of the tables. I think I have conveniently forgotten how much I had to referee things though and wondering whether Michael and Shannon might actually kill each other.

For now, I have packed things away in a cupboard, and measure the passing of time by the dust on them all…until the echo of children’s feet again sounds along the passage and the games begin again for the next generation…and I can play too.

“The simplest toy, one which even the youngest child can operate, is called a grandparent.”    

Sam Levenson

Order in The Disorder

Hairspray cliparts

There is a can of Wonder Set Hairspray on my dining room table. Of course there is also an abandoned artwork with accoutrements (Sean having realised he’d better mark his 80 First Year tuttlings’ essays.); a Lego spaceship which Liam uses to imagine his fantasy game and Andrew’s music books and car keys (The latter will be sought frantically when he wants to leave.); not to mention assorted mail, uncollected laundry (I don’t deliver), shopping lists (directed at moi) and a derelict coffee cup. The mess explains why we have recently taken to eating at the kitchen counter and not at the designated expensive Coricraft dinner table anymore.

But it is this royal blue aerosol can which captures my attention. You’d understand the anomaly it represents if you knew my children: Three of them have been gifted with the Celtic splendour of rich, curly (to die-for in the eighties) red curls, which challenge all attempts at taming. The teenage boys sport foppish New Romantic locks which must flop into their eyes or be tied up in whimsical knots which explode like sweet stringy fountains on their crowns , napes (or foreheads), depending on the length of fringe allowed by Mom or girlfriends. And Lizzy couldn’t care about what her locks look like so long as her ‘do’ is healthy. Andrew hasn’t enough to spray and I have been banned from ‘big hair’ by the Carlton Hair Police. So what is it doing, lurking on the table?

This tin of hairspray is a random misfit even in the world of sprawling eccentricity which is our home. I wonder how many other houses have toiletries so prominently displayed in their living areas. Do other folk possibly sport toothbrushes in their lounges or rolls of toilet paper at their front doors; or are we alone in our mixed grocery household? It is of course used by Artist Number 2 to protect her charcoal sketches I think or possibly to protect the Pastels Prince’s creations. And truth be told it is at times kept company by a roll of toilet paper. In some ways it is symbolic of the acceptance of weirdness in our family.

But the Neat Nut in me rebels at the sight though and screams to return all items to their rightful places. Before I can work down there, I have to sweep and mop and tidy. That’s how I survived when my 14 year old marriage began to crumble. I cleaned. Everything. I had the cleanest house in Cape Town. Seriously. I did skirting boards, window sills and light switches every day; windows inside and outside once a week. I changed bedding for 6 people every week (every day for three weeks when I saw three nits on one child’s head). All before 12 0’clock so I could feed Liam and then fetch the others from school. I was like an anorexic bringing order to my world in the only way I could control: instead of mastering my appetite, I had a perfect home.

When I met Andrew, on his inaugural visit to our house with Lizzy and Mika, the first thing he asked with surprise was ‘Where’s the mess?’ Now he falls over it (largely because he made it of course) and I remind myself that it’s ok for a place to have a lived-in appeal. I’ve never told him about the mad clean up that happened that day because the Bentleys were coming for tea. And mess has become a reminder for me that I do not need to remain in such rigid control of things anymore.

However I think I may have passed this disorder about order onto my children: Caitlin, the accountant, is a natural organiser, but the day (yesterday) Michael entered my boudoir uninvited and told me to tidy up the mess (ok so a few of my clothes were chilling with the clean linen – all right the coats had brought out the beers and it was quite a party on the chairs in the room), I knew he was as damaged as me.

Perhaps he sprayed his hair with Jane Seymour’s Firm Control?