Monday, February 3, 2020

Our old neighborhood, part 2

Disclaimer:  Being autobiographical, these entries depend on my memory of events around half a century ago.  I didn’t take any notes or keep a diary (either then or now).  Being a time before digital cameras (and because I was very camera-shy), I don’t even have photos to serve as reminders.  Why write a disclaimer for this particular episode?  I mention more names of living people than in most previous episodes.  I am happy to correct any facts or add extra details that those who are mentioned point out.  Opinions are my own and others may have different perspectives.  I would also be happy to include differing perspectives of those who are willing to share them.

First, a somewhat related public health message.  Make sure you get all recommended immunizations.  The polio vaccine, for instance, has now eliminated the threat of that often-serious disease from much of the world, including Europe and the Americas. 

How is this somewhat-related to the topic of our old neighborhood?  Stewart and Shirley McCurdie were friends of my parents who weren’t quite in our neighborhood.  They and their children (the oldest, Ron, being a little older than me, if I remember correctly) at one stage lived a couple of blocks away from us, on the other side of Cape Road, a major arterial which at that point has Fen Glen on one side and Cotswold on the other.  At some point in the ’60s Shirley McCurdie contracted polio.  I think she was even in an iron lung at one stage.  Although she mostly recovered, after that she always walked with a limp.  I recently managed to re-establish contact with Ron on Facebook.  He now lives in Limoges, France.

Cape Road is labelled near the top of the image, towards the right.  Even back then I think there were two lanes in each direction, with a center island (and in this stretch, a service road running parallel to the main road). 

Back to our side of Cape Road. 

The Swarts

In the previous episode there was an open lot where the house marked 2 below now stands.  I don’t know exactly when that house was built but from a date mentioned below it must have been completed before 1962.  The couple who lived there from the time the house was built and for as long as my parents were in Port Elizabeth were Oscar and Ruth Swart.  Oscar was an Afrikaner who worked for the Post Office.  Ruth was a nurse.  She was a German Jew and with her sister Inge were the only members of their family who survived the Holocaust.  Although I knew that at the time, it wasn’t until recently that I found out how they had managed to get out of Nazi Germany – on the Kindertransport to Britain (Glasgow in their case) when Ruth was 13 and Inge 8.  More on that below.  I also hadn’t known until then how Ruth and Oscar had met.  They met when they were both on vacation in Switzerland.  Oscar was touring Europe for 6 months with some friends.  Ruth eventually decided to emigrate to South Africa (from Britain).

Ruth and Oscar had a son, Anthony, born in 1958, so about a year younger than my brother Mick.  They had a second son, Jonathan, who was born in 1962.  Jonathan has Down syndrome (trisomy 21).  Children with Down syndrome often have congenital heart disease and other health problems.  Life expectancy used to be quite short (25 years in the 1980s according to Wikipedia) though is now 50-60 years in the developed world.  Apart from Down syndrome itself, Jonathan was healthy and is now in his late 50s. 

One day Ruth came over to our house, absolutely devastated, to tell my parents that Inge had died in an airplane crash.  I must have been just 7 year old, though I remember having met Inge a few times.  (I think Anthony used to refer to Inge as “Aunty Gaga”.)  I hadn’t known when or where the crash occurred until I managed to make contact with Anthony a few years ago.  From information he gave me I was able to find accounts of the accident, which happened soon after taking off from Douala Airport in Cameroon on March 4, 1962, with the loss of all 111 passengers and crew.

My father sometimes referred to Oscar as the ancient mariner, because when Oscar started talking to my father it was hard to get him to stop.  Oscar became interested in horticulture and constructed large hothouses in their back yard.  He eventually had at least two, maybe three.  They aren’t visible in the Google Maps image, so I presume they were demolished at some stage in the past 40 years.

Oscar passed away in about 1982, quite soon after my parents left Port Elizabeth, and Ruth in 2014 aged 89.  Considering that Ruth left Germany at the age of 13, it is surprising that she still had a strong German accent more than 50 years later.  Despite all she went through, I never heard her express any bitterness and she spent her whole working life caring for other people.  She was a good person.  While that is true of most people I have known, few of them have had to cope with what she went through.

Anthony is now a realtor (what South Africans refer to as a “real estate agent”).  When I first re-established contact with him about 4 years ago he mentioned that he is married to Karel and that they’d been together for 30 years.  Although our families lived next door to one another for 20 years, I hadn’t realized back then that he was gay.  Maybe that’s partly because the old South Africa was a rather homophobic society, so he didn’t come out.  In late 2006 South Africa became the fifth country in the world to legalize marriages between same-sex couples!  Anthony also wrote “You know I’ve got a German passport and have at times thought about leaving here, but our lifestyle is still too good to even really consider a major move?!!”

Photo of Anthony Swart from his realtor web page.

The Parrys

In the previous episode I mentioned that the people in the house marked 8 had two sons, one of whom had Down syndrome and died young.  (South Africa doesn’t have a particularly high incidence of Down syndrome.  It is just a coincidence that neighbors on either side of us had a son with Down syndrome.) 

I don’t recall if there was another family that lived there after that but before Errol and Margaret Parry moved in with their three children – Neville, who is my age, Gail, who is a couple of years younger, and Kim, who is several more years younger.  Their address was 366 Cape Road and to help people remember the number Margaret Parry used to refer to it as Leap Year Cape Road.  I think they occasionally even had mail addressed to them like that.  Margaret also sometimes used to use the expression “what doesn’t kill, fattens”.  Although I was a chubby youngster, I didn’t associate “fattens” with being bad and thought she was contrasting a bad versus a good outcome!

Margaret and Errol Parry are on the right in this photo taken after my father’s funeral.

Neville and I quickly became good friends.  We played a lot of backyard cricket together, usually just the two of us.  Backyard cricket is part of the folklore of Australia in particular, but also most of the other main cricket-playing countries.  We usually played at the Parrys’ house, in which case it was sideyard cricket rather than backyard, with the wicket running north to south parallel with the words “Malvern Ave” in the image from Google Maps.  We pretended to be the great players of that and earlier eras, including those who played for the then-mighty West Indies – fearsome fast bowlers Wesley (later Sir Wes) Hall and Charlie Griffith, wonderful batsmen such as Rohan Kanhai and Clive (now Sir Clive) Lloyd, and Garfield (now Sir Garry) Sobers, still regarded as the greatest al-rounder ever to have played the game.  Apart from a few of the South African stars, we didn’t ever get to see any of these players in action, either live or on TV.  At that stage of the Apartheid era the government would not allow black players, such as the West Indians, to play against.  Also, the country didn’t get TV until the mid 1970s, when the government woke up to the fact that state-controlled television is a powerful propaganda weapon.


White South African cricket administrators later began throwing money around, paying players from other countries to participate in “rebel” tours.  They even managed to pay a group of West Indian players to tour.  The latter were probably poorly advised.  Although they were mostly near the end of their careers and may have thought it was an opportunity to cash in before retiring, they may not have been fully aware that not only would they subsequently be banned from playing cricket in their own countries again, but also that many would actually become outcasts back home. 

This article is about a “rebel” team from the West Indies:  

This one describes the lead-up to a tour by a team from England:

In this one it is clear from the Australian players themselves that they were generally past their primes.

My opinion at the time was that the “rebel” tours were misguided.  Even putting aside political issues, they weren’t going to provide a true reflection of the strength of (white) South African cricket.  If a touring team beat the South African team, then we would realize that we were no longer world beaters.  But if the South African team won (which it did in most instances), that wouldn’t tell us much – that we had beaten a team of mercenaries from another country, rather than the best team that that country had to offer.


Neville and I were very evenly matched in backyard cricket.  In the real thing?  It wasn’t even close.  He was much better and played at a high level through high school and beyond and he also excelled at rugby.  I had minimal athletic talent.  I played several sports with much enthusiasm but little ability.  In cricket I didn’t progress beyond intermural level at high school, and even in those inter-class games I was more of a liability than an asset.  (As I probably mentioned in an earlier episode, participation in sport was compulsory at our high school.  Intramural cricket was the default option in the warmer months for those of us who weren’t good enough to make one of the school’s many teams for cricket or any other sport.)

When the Parrys lived there in the ’60s, there was a structure, rather like an open carport, in front of a one-car garage, where I have drawn a red circle below.  There were brick/concrete pillars, with beams along the tops of the pillars and going across the driveway.  The beams across the driveway were probably spaced about 3 feet apart.  At one stage Neville and I built a “tree” house on top of these beams.  (What does one call a tree house if it isn’t in a tree??)  We even stayed in it overnight on at least one occasion, partly because my mother promised to bake us a chocolate cake if we spent the night up there.

The red circle indicates where Neville and I built a “tree” house.

My father used to keep some money in various drawers in their bedroom.  I found some of these places and, presuming he wouldn’t notice, took some of the money from time to time.  Well, he did notice and confronted me.  I confessed.  He was very angry – the only time I can recall him being really angry with me.  One of the things he said was “What would Neville think if he heard about this?”  Well, honor among thieves and all that, plus I didn’t want to rile my father up even further, so I didn’t mention where I had got the idea.  (Even later in my life I never said to my father “You remember when you caught me stealing money from your drawer and asked what Neville would think ….?”)

Soccer trading cards were big at one stage back then.  The cards came in “lucky packets” which had a couple of cards plus some candy.  A few players’ cards were rare and there were rumors about how many lucky packets one had to buy to have a good chance of getting these rare cards.  One of the things we did with the money I purloined was to buy a box containing a gross of lucky packets.  I/we reasoned that each box would include at least one card for every player.  (I obviously didn’t know much about probability theory back then.)  We bought the box and opened all of the lucky packets.  Although we found a few cards that we didn’t yet have in our collection, we didn’t get all the ones we had hoped for (and did end up with many, many, of the more common cards).  When we started to lose interest in collecting those cards Neville’s mother donated our collection to some organization.

Neville and I were in different primary schools.  Then we were at the same high school for what I think was just one year.  After that he went to boarding school at Graeme College, which his father had attended, for a couple of years.  In 1970 the Parrys moved to the Johannesburg area and he completed high school there.  After that I occasionally heard news of him through my parents, but didn’t have any direct contact with him until connecting with him on Facebook a while back.  He is now also part of the South African diaspora, living in Prague.  According to Linkedin he is Chairman of the “Woodcote Group a.s”, a company in Czech Republic, with head office in Prague and which operates in the Administrative Management and General Management Consulting Services industry.  Neville’s sister Gail lives in Germany and his other sister, Kim, is still in South Africa, though I haven’t tried to make contact with either of them.  Their father, Errol, was (and presumably still is) a great character.  He turned 90 in 2019.

Neville Parry – profile photo “borrowed” from Facebook

The Ashbys

In the previous episode I mentioned that the people in the house marked 9 had a boogie man who lived in a shed at the bottom of the garden.  Later the Ashbys lived there – Ken, Tania and their children Kevin and Clifford.  I think Kevin is two years younger than me and Clifford another year or two younger, so they are closer in age to my brother Mick than to me.

A while back I found Kevin on Facebook.  He is in Brisbane (Australia).  He trained as a chemical engineer and is now a patent attorney.  Clifford doesn’t appear to be on Facebook but is on Linkedin, though he hasn’t uploaded a profile photo.  He is CEO of “Coleambally Irrigation Co-operative” in New South Wales, Australia, having previously been CEO of various other companies.

Kevin Ashby – profile photo “borrowed” from Facebook

The Toppers

At some point after the woman who enticed Marmalade the cat to move from our house to the one marked 5, the Toppers moved in.  I don’t recall the names of the parents, but there was a son, Desmond, who is my age.  Initially we were good friends.  We often used to play the strategy board game Risk.  It was his copy and he taught me/us the rules.  When we were later given our own copy, I read the rules carefully and found that they differed quite substantially from what Desmond had said.  (His version didn’t give anyone an unfair advantage, so it wasn’t that he was trying to cheat.)  Desmond and I both had Scalextric slot-car racing sets and we often combined our sets to make longer tracks.  (A new slot car is one of the things I bought with money purloined from my father.)

I said above that “initially” we were good friends.  Later Desmond formed a “gang” consisting of the younger boys in the neighborhood – my brothers, Anthony Swart and the Ashbys.  Neville and I were supposedly their rival gang.  We didn’t consider ourselves a gang and mostly just avoided the younger kids.  I think they used to “spy” on us, though we didn’t ever do anything worth spying on.  Recently I asked my brother Mick what he remembered of this “gang”.  He claimed not to recall who Desmond Topper was.  Maybe he didn’t want to be reminded of someone who in hindsight might have been a little like a cult leader.

It looks like Desmond is on Facebook.  I have sent him a message but haven’t had a response yet.  If it is the same Desmond Topper, he retired a couple of years ago, most recently having run IGCS (Industrial Gas Consultancy Services).  The web site for that doesn’t appear to exist now and even the Wayback Machine didn’t turn up anything, so maybe he was a solo consultant and shut down the web site when he retired.  Previously he was Regional Manager at the local branch of Air Liquide.

The Stirks

After the Parrys moved to Johannesburg, our new neighbors in the house marked 8 were Bill and Joan Stirk and their lovely your daughters, Sandra and Marilyn.  Sandy is about a year younger than me and Marilyn a further two years younger, making her the same age as my brother Mick.  They moved in some time in 1970.

Sandy and I hit it off for a short while.  Then the Stirks went away for two weeks on summer vacation.  I counted down the days (maybe even the minutes J) until their return.  But on their vacation Sandy found someone else.  My fragile sixteen-year-old heart was broken.  For a long while after that I hoped we could get back together, but it was not to be.  She occasionally agreed to go to a movie with me and even to the South African equivalent of my high school prom, but just as a friend.  I still often visited her after school and pestered her.  I don’t know why my parents (or hers) didn’t have a little word in my ear. 

I recall watching Wimbledon tennis matches on TV at the Stirks’ house.  That must have been several years later though, during winter break from college, because Port Elizabeth didn’t get TV until early 1976.  (Test transmissions in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban had started several months before that.)  My parents didn’t get a TV while we lived in Port Elizabeth, not because they couldn’t afford it but because they thought it was a waste of time.  Later my father became quite fond of some programs, particularly The Golden Girls.  While on the subject of early South African TV … for the 1976 Olympics all that was broadcast was a 30-minute highlights package each evening.  I remember nothing of what was shown, partly because it was hard to see anything through the throng of students crowded around the one set in our college dorm.  (After 1960 South Africa was barred from taking part in the Olympics until 1992.)

Somewhat surprisingly in hindsight, although I was unhappy about being dumped, I didn’t feel any resentment or jealousy towards Sandy’s new or subsequent boyfriends.  They were nice guys and better than me – certainly more dynamic.

Mick and Marilyn later started dating and I think that continued for at least two years.  I don’t know what caused them to break up, though going to colleges in different cities may have played a role.

After my parents sold their house in Port Elizabeth and moved to Pretoria I lost contact with Sandy and Marilyn for three decades!  Then in 2010, using the no-longer so new-fangled Internet that you may have read about, and remembering Marilyn’s married name, I found her email address on the web site for the Nelson Mandela University (previously called the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, and prior to that the University of Port Elizabeth), where she was lecturing in Physical Science education.  (I think she has since become the victim of a peculiar South African disease called “compulsory retirement”.  I understand the thinking behind that, creating more opportunities for younger people to advance, but it seems counter-productive for a country that has a shortage of highly qualified people in STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – fields.)  Marilyn replied to my email and also gave me Sandy’s email address.  Sandy is an elementary school teacher in Cape Town.  In my first message to her I apologized for having been such a pest when we were young.  It was great to catch up on news.  I later became Facebook friends with both of them and with Sandy’s husband, Julian.  When we were in South Africa in March 2019 we had a chance to meet up with Sandy and Julian.  Unfortunately we didn’t get to see Marilyn and her husband, Keith, when we were in Port Elizabeth.  Maybe if I go to my high school class’s 50-year reunion in a couple of years … 

Cape Town, March 2019, my “little” brother Ian, some old guy, Riëtta, Sandy and Julian.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Our old neighborhood, part 1

n an earlier episode I mentioned that my parents bought their first house in Fern Glen, Port Elizabeth.  We moved in when I was about 3 years old, in 1957.  At that stage there weren’t any houses south of the red line in the image below, just open veld.  The highway, William Moffet Expressway, at the right hand end of the red line, hadn’t been constructed and there was no road of any description through the Baakens River valley at that point. 

Most of the roads in Fern Glen, including the one past our house, were still unpaved.  A grader used to come by occasionally to smooth out the gravel surface.  It wasn’t until several years later that the roads were paved.  In contrast, for the development below the red line paved roads were put in and stood idle for a few years before any houses were built.  

The fancy-pants label “Fernglen Forest” is recent – it definitely wasn’t called that when we lived there.  (And none of those businesses that Google shows were there even by the time my parents sold the house in 1979.)

Google Maps image of Fern Glen.  The superimposed red 1 indicates our old house.

At about the point marked with a red 2 was the open end of a large concrete storm-water pipe.  My friends and I sometimes crawled a short distance into that, or looked for small fish and crabs in the water.  We didn’t go very far into the pipe.  I have since heard from some of my contemporaries that they explored extensively inside such pipes in other parts of the city.

Not only were there no houses (or roads) south of the red line, but the vegetation in the veld was mostly scrub, whereas now it is more substantial.  The first of the photos below was taken when we visited the area in March 2019.  It shows the view looking west from from the point marked with a red star on the Google Maps image.  The photo shows much more substantial vegetation than existed back in the day.  The second image is from Google Street View, at the same point and in the same direction.  That’s somewhat more like the veld used to look.  The third photo was also taken in March 2019, aiming south from the same point.  The name “Upper Guineafowl Trail” is recent.  Not only was it not called that back then, I don’t even remember seeing guineafowl there, though I often walked my dog or ran through that area.  Part of the reason there was less vegetation in the ’60s and ’70s may be that back then there were occasional veld-fires that burned back most of the scrub.  The fires sometimes came worryingly close to the houses. 

Photo taken in March 2019

 Image in the same direction from Google Street View

Photo taken in March 2019

A few trails are visible in the Google Maps image.  There used to be many more, crisscrossing the veld, made by people walking to and from the ‘coloured’ township of Fairview, which was on the other side of the Baakens River valley, south of the part shown in the Google Maps image.  I knew that most of these people were forced to move out of Fairview at some point but I didn’t know when until I searched the Internet for information.  I found the following Master of Arts dissertation “More than an Apartheid loss: Recovering and Remembering Fairview, a ‘lost’ Group Areas history” by Inge Salo, from my alma mater (the University of Cape Town).  The quotes below are from the dissertation:

Fairview was declared a “white” area in terms of the Group Areas Act in 1968.  Removals of the people who had been living there took place between 1969 and 1973.  (There were other parts of Port Elizabeth and Cape Town where local residents were moved to make way for “whites”, District Six in Cape Town being the most famous.  In many instances these communities had been living harmoniously adjacent to “white” areas.  The forced removals obviously caused much resentment, fracturing the communities and moving people much further from employment and other opportunities.) 

“For all former residents who had to leave Fairview described the removals as a traumatic experience. If not personally, because they were too young to grasp what was happening, then certainly for their parents.”

A quote from a former resident:

“It was hard, it was hard, as I said my husband didn't want to move, he didn't want to move…You know....the day when we moved people from ‘Joburg’ [Johannesburg], English people, ‘nie Boere nie’ [not Afrikaners] … they bought the house, while we were in the house they bought the house, and they were waiting for us, sitting in the car outside wait[ing] for us to get out”

Although the ruling National Party government had overwhelming support from (white) Afrikaners, there were also plenty of English-speaking whites who supported Apartheid.  Essentially all white South Africans of that era benefitted to at least some extend from Apartheid, even those who opposed the system.

From the dates given above, the removals must have been taking place while I was in high school.  I probably didn’t read newspapers back then and wasn’t really aware of the removals.  After I went off to university in Cape Town and later to compulsory military service, I do remember on trips back home during breaks seeing that buildings in Fairview had been razed and that no new development occurred while my parents were still in Port Elizabeth.

“After the majority of its residents were forcibly removed, Fairview stood scarred and under-populated for almost a decade before development finally began (Evening Post, 14 March 1989). This is depicted best in the 1980 aerial photograph of Fairview (Figure 6) in which there are visibly a lot less buildings and houses and more trees that fill the empty spaces.”

In contrast, District Six remained mostly undeveloped from the time the old buildings were razed until the end of the Apartheid era.

Back to more pleasant memories …

Below is a closer view of the area around our house.  (In a later episode there are even closer views.  I have kept the numbering the same across the image below and those in the later episode.  For instance, the red 1 always indicates our house.)  In 1957 when we moved in, it wasn’t just the area below the red line in the image near the top of this episode, some of the houses marked below hadn’t been built yet.  What were then still initially vacant lots include where there are now houses indicated with a 2 and a 6.  Most of the other houses were already there, including 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, and 9.  Even many of the ones that were there have been modified substantially in the past 40+ years.  There were no swimming pools in the area in 1960 either.

The house marked 6 was a vacant lot for many years.  A few days ago I remembered something about it that I hadn’t thought of for more than 50 years.  While the lot was still vacant some of the older kids in the neighborhood cleared much of the vegetation and made a cricket pitch in the middle of the lot.  I have no recollection of the names of the other kids who played cricket on that makeshift field.

The house marked 2 was built just a few years after we moved in.  One day while the lot was still vacant, one of my mother’s friends, Betty van Tonder came for a brief visit.  Betty had two daughters, Annette and Frances.  The visit was intended to be so brief that Betty left her daughters in the car, which was parked out in the street (with the engine off).  We were standing the front yard when one of the girls managed to release the handbrake and the car started rolling down the rather steep hill.  (Either the car had been left in neutral or one of the girls had managed to get it into neutral.  As is still the case today, most South African cars have a manual gearbox – what Americans refer to as a stick shift – rather than an automatic one.)  Fortunately they managed to steer into the vacant lot rather than going straight down the hill.  Betty ran to try to stop the car and fell (or was hit) breaking a leg.  The bushes in the lot eventually stopped the car.

All I remember about when the house marked 2 was being built was that one of the workers was rather overweight and we kids rather nastily referred to him as “Fatty Boom Boom”.  More on the people who moved into house 2 in the next episode.

The people who were in the house marked 3 were the Drennans.  They moved out after a few years.  About all I remember is that they had a son, Evan, who was several years older than me.  I managed to find Evan on yesterday Facebook.  He remembered our family and noted that my father was master of ceremonies at his wedding in 1973!  Evan said they moved away in 1964 when his father was appointed to a position at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, about 80 miles from Port Elizabeth.  (Grahamstown is now called Makhanda but, somewhat surprisingly, Rhodes University hasn’t changed its name, at least not ).  In searching for information I came across this article mentioning Evan and others being savaged by a dog:

The Heines lived in the house marked 4 for several years.  They had 4 sons, the second of whom, Bryan, was at school with me from pre-school through 12th grade.  He is the only high school classmate whose wedding I attended.  The Heines moved about a mile away, probably when we were still in elementary school.  The father was an owner of Heine and Strydom, a company that operated breakdown trucks (tow trucks) and currently sells car parts, though I don’t know if it did the latter back then.  The father died tragically in a boating accident at some time in the ’70s.

At one stage we had a marmalade cat called Marmalade.  The cat later disappeared.  According to my mother a woman living in the house marked 5 enticed the cat to move there.  More on a subsequent resident of that house in the next episode.

The Doubells lived in the house marked 7.  My father had what seemed to be a running battle with Mr. Doubell.  Not a physical battle, I should note.  The Doubells sometimes hosted noisy parties, which disturbed my father’s sleep.  I suspect that on some occasions he called the police to complain about the noise.  Mr. Doubell had a racing car – like a Formula 1 car (what Americans refer to as an open-wheel car) that he sometimes drove up and down our street.  It was probably not licensed for use on public roads and my father complained about that too (maybe even to the police).  Evan Drennan reminded me that the Du Preez family, who lived next to the Doubells, had a baboon that sometimes used to escape.  In recent years I have seen some of my Facebook friends from Port Elizabeth mention attending wild parties at the Doubells’ house!

The first residents I recall the house marked 8 had two sons.  I don’t recall the name of the family or of the sons.  One son was about my age and we used to play together.  The other son was younger and had Down syndrome.  That son died while the family was still living next to us.  More on subsequent residents of that house in the next episode.

In our early years in the neighborhood there were two older boys living in the house marked 9.  I sometimes climbed over the fence between our houses to play with them (the fences of 4 of the houses met at that point).  There used to be a shed at the bottom of their yard.  A boogie man (bogeyman) lived in the shed.  At least that’s what the kids who lived there told me.  Who was I to doubt them, especially as I even saw the boogie man on a few occasions!  It probably wasn’t until after that family had moved that I realized what was supposedly the boogie man was one of the older kids wearing a deep sea diving suit similar to the one in the photo below.  When one is very young it is quite scary when a creature like that comes lumbering towards one.  More on the subsequent residents of that house in the next episode.

A diving suit, similar to the one that the people in the house marked 9 had in their shed.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Parents, part 5, through to my father's death

At the end of the previous episode we had moved to Seattle and my Dad was searching for a new wife.

My father had long been interested in the history of his profession and over the years collected related information and artefacts.  He eventually enrolled for a Ph.D. in Medical History through MEDUNSA and in 1991 was awarded that degree for his thesis “The Introduction of Ether Anaesthesia into South Africa”.  He was very proud of this achievement.  He sent me (and presumably also my brothers) a signed copy of his thesis and a large hard-copy of the photo below.  In contrast, he didn’t seem particularly interested in my Ph.D. and didn’t ever ask to see a copy of my dissertation.  I presume he showed a similar lack of interest in Mick’s Ph.D.  (That’s not to say he wasn’t proud of our achievements, probably just not interested in details.)  I couldn’t have sent him a photo of me receiving my Ph.D. or photos from any of my other graduations, because I didn’t ever attend one (partly because I was never in the same city at the time of the ceremony).

Image: My father being awarded his Ph.D.  In case it is not obvious, he is the one on the right.

I don’t recall from my father’s letters to us when he met Margie Sandilands, a divorced mother of two girls.  (Sometimes she writes her name as Margi, other times as Margie.)  The divorced part is relevant because, although Anglican rather than Catholic, my father and Margie attended a rather conservative Anglican church and they apparently had to get the church to annul Margie’s first marriage before she and my father could wed.  They were married in 1992 and on their honeymoon visited us in Seattle.  Unlike the other women my father had dated, we felt that Margie was very suitable and we had no qualms about welcoming her into the family.  If I remember correctly, at the time one of her daughters was finishing high school and the other was in college.  So in my late thirties I acquired a step-mother and two step-sisters.  I still find it hard to think of them as step-sisters though because we have never lived under the same roof.  (I am Facebook friends with my step-sisters and with my sisters-in-law, though not with my brothers as they are not on Facebook.)

Image:  Dad and Margie’s wedding, with my brother Ian on the left and Margie’s daughters, Janet and Lyndall, on the right.

Riëtta was pregnant with Lisa when Dad and Margie married and they were hoping to see the new grandchild when they visited us in Seattle.  But Lisa inherited a stubborn streak from both sides of the family (on my side it bypassed me J) and she waited until after they had left before making her appearance.

Shortly after Dad and Margie arrived back in South Africa my father suffered a stroke.  He was scrubbing up to go into the operating theater when it happened.  He apparently hadn’t been aware that his blood pressure was very high.  He survived the stroke, but his speech and ability to read were somewhat compromised.  He eventually recovered sufficiently to be able to return to work, though from being in quite robust good health that was the beginning of a downward spiral.  It was a cruel blow for Margie, after a few short weeks of marriage she had to take on what became more and more of a caregiver role.

We moved back to Pretoria in June 1993 and for a little over 6 months rented a house a couple of blocks away from Dad and Margie.  That provided an opportunity for my father to be reacquainted with Steven and to get to know his only grand-daughter.

Image:  Christmas dinner at my father’s house, 1993.  In the foreground is our daughter Lisa, who was then about 20 months old.  Others round the table, clockwise from the left, are Margie’s daughter Lyndall, my Dad, Margie, my brother Ian, Ian’s wife Jacqui, their son Tim (whose wedding we attended in March 2019), and our son Steven.  I don’t recall what Steven was looking at.  If this had bene a recent photo, I would have suspected a smartphone, but 1993 was well before smartphones and most other small hand-held electronics.

In February 1994 we left South Africa again, this time for Hobart, Australia.  Despite his declining health, my father was still interested in travelling internationally.  In 1995 he and Margie (and my brother Ian) visited us in Hobart.  Dad was clearly struggling mentally and physically but was still trying to make plans for further trips.  If I remember correctly, he was wanting to visit Russia again.  He had last been there when it was still part of the USSR.

Image:  Dad and Margie in March 1996

Image:  Dad and my brother Mick, visiting from the US, on the same trip in March 1996

My father had long had a keen interest in photography.  He mostly took slides, rather than making prints.  One of my brothers has all the slides and the other has the cine film he took on some occasions.  Both those formats make it difficult to sort through and share images and movies, so they haven’t had a chance to pass on much to me yet.  I have older prints from an earlier time, including many of relatives I don’t recognize.  The slides my father took – and he took thousands – included many of family gatherings and of his travels, both within South Africa and internationally.  But even by the time he and Margie visited us in Hobart he was struggling to operate his fancy camera.  I’m not sure how aware he was of his difficulties.

Although he hadn’t been in a hurry to retire, and probably would have continued working for several more years had he been able to, he had plans for doing a lot of reading, writing and photography once he eventually retired.  Unfortunately the series of strokes affected his reading and writing so badly that he was unable to do any of what he had planned.  (Moral of the story – don’t put off things you’d like to do for some vague time in the future.  That time might not happen for you and even if it does you may not be capable of doing what you had planned.)

We were still living in Hobart when my father passed away in January 1997.  When he was on his deathbed I was asked whether he should be kept alive on machines so I could see him one last time before he passed away.  I didn’t see any point in that, particularly because he wouldn’t even have known I was there.  I did fly back for the funeral though.  I was somewhat surprised when I saw his death certificate in that it had the underlying cause of death as infection – from the leg wound he had suffered more than 45 years previously (mentioned in part 1 of the sequence of posts about my parents).

After the funeral there was a reception at my father’s old house.  It was great to see family and some of my parents’ friends who I hadn’t seen in many years.  Some photos from the reception:

From the left:  My brother Ian’s good friend Rowan Duval, my mother’s cousin Jenni Law, my brother Mick, our cousin Paul and his wife Bronwen, my parents’ friends Margaret and Errol Parry, who lived next door to us in Port Elizabeth for several years before they moved to Johannesburg about 10 years before my parents left Port Elizabeth.  Errol celebrated his 90th birthday a few months ago. 

Family photo:  My Dad’s sister Ruth, my brother Ian with his son Tim, Yours Truly, my other brother Mick with Ian’s son Mike, my Dad’s brother Derrick.

My Dad’s brother Derrick, Hank Doeg, a long-time friend of my parents who moved to Pretoria several years before my parents.  For the first 6 months after my father moved to Pretoria he boarded with Hank and Jerice Doeg.  Hank passed away last August, aged 85.  Jerice survives him after 61 years of marriage!  I don’t recognize the guy on the right in the photo, though the belt and tie are both in my possession. 

The Three Stooges.

In one version of the photo above this one, we were holding a photo take when we were young.  When we were in South Africa last March someone hauled out a copy of that photo and made us pose again, holding that photo containing the earlier photo.

While I was in Pretoria, Margie and my brothers and I went through the house marking the artworks and other objects we each wanted when Margie eventually wanted to move to a smaller place.  We managed to divide things up without any wrangling.  Several years later Margie shipped to the US everything that I had marked as wanting, including the painting below (because I had been the one who remembered when my father won it in a raffle – see an earlier episode).

 We are very grateful that Margie came into my father’s life (and into ours).  We saw her most recently in March 2019 when we were in South Africa for the wedding of Ian’s son Tim.  Margie, her daughter Janet, and Janet’s son Matthew, represented their side of the family at the wedding.

Image:  Mick’s wife, Mary Beth, Margie, Matthew, Janet.

Neither of my parents had a visitation/wake/viewing or an open casket funeral as these are not parts of our tradition.  Also, both were cremated.  I have no idea what happened to their ashes and don’t care.  I don’t need a gravestone, ashes or other physical reminder.  It is enough to know that they provided a good home environment and opportunities for their kids that many others have not been fortunate enough to receive.  What does, however, make me very sad is that they didn’t live long enough to see how well their grandchildren (not just our kids but those of Ian and Jacqui too) have turned out.

That's the end of the series about my parents.  Now perhaps I’ll write more about myself again.  Nah, I think I’ll first write something about our old neighborhood in Port Elizabeth and some of my parents’ friends.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Parents, part 4, through to my mother's death

The previous episode ended with the parents having a few drinks with some “very relaxed” guests.

Religion:  My father had been brought up as a Presbyterian (Church of Scotland) and my mother as Anglican (Church of England or, in South Africa, Church of the Province of South Afrca).  When we were young my parents went to church once a year – they took us to the family service on Christmas Day at St. Columba’s Presbyterian Church (now Greenacres Presbyterian Church).  For the Christmas service the church had an angel that at one point in the service flew up (or down) on a rope/pulley system.  A few years later we started attending Sunday School at St. Hugh’s Anglican Church, which was about a mile from our house.  Our parents used to drop us off just before 9 AM and then picked us up again at around 10 AM.  Later I began cycling there and back, even when my brothers were still driven each way. 

Image:  St. Hugh's Church

At some point I started “singing” in the church choir and continued doing that through high school.  Towards the end of that period I was losing my religion  Paradoxically, as I was losing mine my father was finding, or maybe re-discovering, his.  He started attending St. Hugh’s Church regularly and became very involved in church business, including being on various committees in the diocese.  In later years he used to “credit” me for his “conversion” though I had never made any attempt to get him to go to church.  He remained involved in religious activities for the rest of his life.  My mother used to go to church with my father, though I didn’t ever get the sense she was a true believer.  Through his involvement in church affairs, my father became friendly with Phillip Russell, who was bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Port Elizabeth from 1970 to 1974 (later Archbishop of Cape Town from 1981-1986, where his successor was Desmond Tutu).  One winter Bishop Russell came to dinner at my parents’ house.  He had come from a meeting near the top of Ford House, which was one of the taller buildings in the city and may have been where his office was located.  He said he had seen snow falling past the window.  If it had been anyone other than a bishop telling the story no-one would have believed it.  (Snow is unheard of in Port Elizabeth, and this snow must have melted before it reached ground level.)

R.E.M. -- Losing My Religion

Another visitor at around that time was a “Coloured” minister and his two young sons, who were just a little older than toddler age.  I think one boy was Ben, but I don’t recall the name of the father or the other son.  They had come from a walk along the sidewalk near the beachfront.  The boys had wanted to go and play on the sand where they saw other kids.  As that was still deep in the Apartheid era, the father had to explain to them that that was not allowed because of their race.  How does one explain something like that to young kids?  (How does one explain something like that to anyone!)

My parents seemed to like being in charge of things and to organize events (traits that I very definitely did not inherit).  I think that as undergrads both chaired the “House Committees” of their respective residence halls.  In 1976 my father headed the organizing committee for the annual conference of the South African Society of Anaesthetists (SASA) in Port Elizabeth.  In a rather Trumpian manner he used to claim that people said it was the most successful SASA conference ever.  He was also in charge of two subsequent SASA conferences, in Sun City (about 100 miles from Johannesburg) in 1983 and at MEDUNSA in 1988 (more on MEDUNSA below).  As I mentioned in a previous post, he represented South Africa on the World Federation of Societies of Anaesthesiologists (WFSA) and attended WFSA assemblies between 1976 and 1988.  Until reading his obituary I hadn’t been aware that he served on the WFSA Membership Committee and later the Education and Scientific Committee, was President of SASA in 1978 and 1987 and chaired the Association of University Anaesthetists from 1987 to 1989.  He was also active in committees in his church and in the local Anglican diocese more broadly.

Image:  My father's obituary

My mother served on the committee of the Medical Wives Association in Port Elizabeth (back when almost all doctors in South Africa were male), including being President in 1977.  Towards the end of their time in Port Elizabeth my mother was Principal and chaired the Board of Directors of the small private school where she had taught for many years.  As I mentioned in the previous episode, my mother and some of the other teachers had bought out ownership of the school from its founder.

In 1979 my father was appointed as professor and Head of the Department of Anaesthesiology at the Medical University of South Africa (MEDUNSA), now the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, outside Pretoria.  This was still deep in the Apartheid era and MEDUNSA was exclusively for black students.  Several years later, as racial restrictions were easing, two young white men who had not managed to get accepted into any “white” medical schools sued to be admitted to MEDUNSA, partly on the grounds that their academic records were good enough for acceptance into MEDUNSA.  They eventually lost their case, probably at least in part because of pressure from black students who hadn’t had the same academic opportunities.

Taking up the position at MEDUNSA meant that my parents had to move from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria.  My father started his new job in the middle of 1979 and for the rest of that year boarded with friends who had moved from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria several years previously.  My mother stayed in Port Elizabeth until late in the year so that my brother Ian could finish high school without having to move to a new school for one semester.  Pretoria is a predominantly Afrikaner city and my parents wanted to live in a part of the city with a larger English-speaking community, so they ended up buying a house on the far side of the city from MEDUNSA, even though that meant about a 25-mile / 40km commute each way for my father.

One of the accomplishments at MEDUNSA about which my father seemed to take much pride was his mentoring of Dr. “Bommie” Bomela.  (My father always called him “Bommie” so I don’t know what his actual name is.  The Internet has not been helpful in this regard.)  I believe that Dr. Bomela became the first black professor of Anaesthetics in South Africa.  I think he later went on to senior academic management positions, though from what little information I can find on the web it seems he is now in private practice as an anaesthetist in Port Elizabeth.

An aside about me rather than my parents:  After I finished my two years of conscription in the Navy, I was appointed as a lecturer in what was then the Department of Statistics and Operations Research at the University of South Africa (UNISA) in Pretoria.  I moved back in with my parents, in their new home, staying with them for more than two years, until some time after Riëtta and I were married.  So I was ahead of my time, foreshadowing the boomerang kids of today.  Part of the reason that we stayed there those extra few months is that Riëtta and I were about to move to Cape Town and so it didn’t make sense for us to rent a place for a very short period while she completed the semester at the school where she was teaching.  Riëtta actually lived with my parents for a few months after I moved, even though her parents also lived in Pretoria (though on the opposite side of the city and much further from her school).

Several years before moving to Pretoria my mother had begun studying further, while continuing to teach high school.  She first took French classes through the Alliance Française and then more French plus several linguistics classes through UNISA.  (UNISA is, or at least was at that stage, the largest distance learning tertiary institution in the world.)  She continued with linguistics classes after moving to Pretoria and within about a year she was appointed as a Junior Lecturer in the Department of Linguistics. 

Early in 1980 my brother Ian began his undergraduate studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.  The rest of the family – both parents, my other brother, Mick, and I had all attended the University of Cape Town.  Ian started out studying languages, for which he seems to have a flair, or maybe it is just that he is less self-conscious than I am.  I have no talent for languages.  I struggle enough to speak or write coherently in English.  Ian completed a BA in languages although he had switched to studying medicine part way through.

After Riëtta and I had lived in Cape Town for a few years, we moved back to Pretoria at the end of 1985 when I returned to UNISA, in the Department of Statistics, the Operations Research part having split off in the interim.  Subsequent events made us particularly grateful that we had moved back then.  In 1986 my mother began having strange pains in her back and elsewhere.  The symptoms were unusual for what later turned out to be advanced colon cancer.  At some point it was decided to cut my mother open to try to find the reason for her symptoms.  That’s when they found the extent of the colon cancer and immediately performed a colostomy.

Despite being a doctor, my father didn’t want to face reality.  He seemed to cling to some hope that my mother would recover.  He didn’t ever talk to my brothers or me about her real prognosis.  I think he believed (or at least had persuaded my mother) that if/when she recovered the colostomy could be reversed.  My mother had chemotherapy and my father also persuaded her to take some other substances that I believe were not yet approved for human use but were recommended by one of my father’s colleagues.  My mother was a model patient and put up with all of this with minimal complaining.  She had also been a model patient when she had had a stomach ulcer about a decade earlier, sticking to the bland diet that was then thought to be necessary to allow the ulcer to heal.  (This was before it was found that many such ulcers are caused by an infection with H. pylori bacteria and can be treated effectively with antibiotics.)

Ian, partly because a medical student and partly because he is more out-going, called one of the doctors to try to get some information about our mother’s prognosis.  The doctor said she probably had a year to live (from the time of her surgery).  That estimate turned out to be almost spot on.

Mom just missed seeing her first grandchild.  She went downhill very quickly towards the end.  We hadn’t realized quite how bad things were until she was admitted to the Little Company of Mary Hospice.  The last time we saw her was three weeks before Steven was born.  Earlier that day Riëtta had been held up at gunpoint while walking home from a nearby supermarket.  Riëtta refused to hand over her purse, because it was one that my mother had given her and, given my mother’s condition, had particularly sentimental value.  Fortunately the gunman gave up on this crazy very pregnant woman.  Riëtta was still in shock when we went to see my mother.  Mom was barely conscious, but the moment she saw Riëtta she asked her what was wrong.  My father claimed later that my mother had not been conscious enough to be aware of anything, but Riëtta knows that right up to the end Mom was thinking of other people, not just her own dire situation.  Mom died two days later.

That was the third death in the family in little over a year.  First, my paternal grandfather had passed away in June 1986 at the age of 99.  Then, in November of that year, it was the turn of my maternal grandmother (Mom’s mother), who was born in 1906 and so was 79 or 80.

Towards the end, realizing she didn’t have much longer, my mother wrote letters to my father, my brothers and me, to be opened after her death.  My father may have known about the letters but my brothers and I weren’t aware of them until after she had died.  The most heart-breaking part of my letter was: “You’re not an outwardly emotional person but there has been many a day when I have wanted to ask you just to put your arms around me & hold me tight when I have felt really lost and alone.  Maybe I’ll still pluck up the courage to do it.”  (Our family had never been big huggers, or even little huggers.)  It was painful to read that, particularly because I would have loved to have hugged her if I’d known that was what she wanted.  Even re-reading it now, this not outwardly emotional person has tears rolling down his cheeks.  More positive was her writing “Don’t have any regrets about my life.  I’ve seen & done much more than most women my age have”.

The letter to me also had one for Riëtta.  That one included:  “I have come to love you as a real daughter.  I feel closer to you as a mother than as a mother-in-law.”  Writing about the future grandchild (we didn’t try to find out ahead of time whether it would be a boy or a girl):  “You have no idea how much I long to hold it just once in my arms.  Then I’ll die happy.”  Unfortunately that was not to be.

Image:  My mother's obituary

My father was devastated by my mother’s death.  But after a period of mourning he was desperate to marry again.  He started dating a series of entirely unsuitable women.  This is not a criticism of the women, just that they were not appropriate for my father, generally being much younger than he was and some had very young children.  I think he even proposed to a few of them, though they must have realized they weren’t a good match for my father and turned him down.  In my mother’s letter to me she had written “If he wishes to marry again vet his choice.”  Although I had my concerns, I didn’t actually say anything to my father and, as explained below, I didn’t have an opportunity to vet the one he ended up marrying. 

My mother also wrote “please go ahead with your Ph.D. & try to get overseas.  Don’t let yourself be stifled in S.A.”  Taking heed of that advice I applied to PhD programs in the US, and was accepted into the one in biostatistics at the University of Washington.  They had had a smaller entering class than usual for the 1989-1990 academic year and because I already had a masters degree in statistics, invited me to start in the middle of the academic year.  So we left Pretoria for Seattle in March 1990.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Parents, part 3

In the previous entry we left off with our family just having moved to Fern Glen, Port Elizabeth.

The move to Port Elizabeth was because my father took a new job, at Livingstone Hospital which, during the Apartheid era, was reserved for non-white patients (not just blacks, but anyone not classified as white).  However, many of the doctors plus some of the nursing staff and administrators were white.  There were relatively few black doctors, but larger numbers of Indians, some of whom had trained in India and others in South Africa. 

My father sometimes hosted parties at our house for his colleagues.  Because of Apartheid they couldn’t have parties in restaurants or other public places.  According to the laws at the time, a white person was not allowed to give a black person alcohol.  So any black guests were supposed to bring their own alcohol, though my father always ignored this.  (The law was specific to blacks, rather than all non-whites, so it was legal to give alcohol to Indians and other races.  This law did at least have a somewhat reasonable background, supposedly to stop black workers being paid in alcohol rather than proper wages.)  My father sometimes joked that the secret service used to spy on his parties. 

Through my father’s work, my parents made many good friends of other races.  It also meant that from a relatively early age I was exposed to educated people of other races whereas most of my contemporaries would have met almost exclusively poorly educated working-class blacks.  Of the friends they made through my father’s work, probably the closest were Nagin and Ramola Parbhoo.  The Parbhoos later moved to Cape Town (and my parents to Pretoria).  I managed to make contact with Ramola through Facebook a few years ago.  She and Nagin had divorced many years previously and he passed away about a decade ago.  Ramola wrote in a message to me: “I remember you Mom and Dad with such fondness.  Your mother was one lady who took it on her to empower me as a young medical wife and nominated me as President of the Medical Wives Association in Port Elizabeth.  We even travelled to Mexico and South America whilst I was expecting my second baby.  Never forget the fun parties we had at you home when you were still quite young.”

Ramola has written a few books on Indian cooking in South Africa, such as the one in the image.

I don’t know whether my father became an anesthetist (what Americans refer to as an anesthesiologist) when he started at Livingstone Hospital or moved into that field some time later.  I do recall that in order to become a specialist anesthetist he had to spend a year training at an academic hospital and had to pass various exams.  To this end he spent 1965 in Cape Town.  The rest of the family stayed in our house in Fern Glen for the first half of 1965 and then for the second half of the year we went to live with my maternal grandmother in Knysna.  I don’t know why we went for just half of the year rather than either the whole year or not at all.  Maybe it was for financial reasons.  I do know our house was rented out while we were in Knysna.  The renters were still in the house when we returned to Port Elizabeth for the start of the school year in January 1966, so we spent a few weeks in Humewood Mansions, a residential hotel opposite Humewood beach.  (It is now called the Humewood Hotel, with the photo below being from its web site.)  That was great because it meant I could swim in the ocean after school each day.

My father and Nagin Parbhoo were both very interested in the history of their profession.  The official South African Society of Anaesthesiology (SASA) Museum, housed in the University of Cape Town (UCT) Department of Anaesthesia, is called the Nagin Parbhoo History of Anaesthesia Museum.  My father eventually obtained a PhD on the history of anesthesia in South Africa (see a later entry).

While in Cape Town one of the people my father apparently worked with was Chris Barnard, the cardiac surgeon who performed the world’s first heart transplant a few years later.  My father had a very poor opinion of surgeons in general and Chris Barnard in particular, sometimes saying that a monkey could be taught to perform surgery but that it is the anesthetist who keeps the patient alive.  I didn’t ever try to argue the point with him.  If I had, I would have mentioned that may be all very well, but putting someone to sleep, keeping them alive during an operation and then waking them up again doesn’t actually fix anything – the surgery is the only reason for putting the patient to sleep in the first place.  I suspect there was at least a little bit of envy tainting my father’s dislike of Chris Barnard.

My father had been a heavy smoker, of cigarettes and pipes.  I remember his pipe rack and him using pipe-cleaners similar to the ones in the photo below.  At some stage while my father was in Cape Town he decided to stop smoking.  He said he smoked all the cigarettes he had on hand one after the other (or maybe multiple at once) and then stopped cold turkey.  I don’t think my mother ever smoked.  If she did, she must have stopped long before my earliest memories.

Both my parents were rather heavy drinkers.  My father could probably have been classified as a high-functioning alcoholic.  He never drank during working hours, but over the weekends drank at lunchtime and in the evening.  Maybe from when I was young, but at least later in his life, he had several drinks most weeknights too.  From an early age my brothers and I were allowed to have wine when we ate in a restaurant or, on special occasions, at home.  The earliest such occurrence that I can pinpoint to an exact date (thanks to the Internet) was September 29, 1969, soon after I had turned 15.

We were heading to Cape Town on vacation and spent the night of September 29 in a hotel in the town of Ladismith in the Karoo.  (At least I think that’s where we stayed.)  We had dinner in the hotel.  Some time after I had gone to bed, it felt as if the bed was moving up and down.  I assumed that I must have had too much wine with dinner and was a bit tipsy.  At breakfast the next morning my grandmother mentioned she must have had too much wine because she’d felt as if her bed had moved up and down.  (How my parents, my maternal grandmother and three kids all fitted in one car is a mystery.  That was way before the days of minivans or SUVs.  I presume we had a station-wagon – I know we had one at various stages, but don’t recall when.) 

Later that day we heard on the news that there had been a magnitude 6.3 earthquake near Tulbagh, another town about 125 miles / 200 km away at 10:04 PM the previous evening.  So it hadn’t been the wine – the beds had actually moved up and down.  Earthquakes are rare in South Africa and that was apparently the most destructive one in South African history.  Earthquake shakes Tulbagh  Tulbagh

Although my parents drank quite substantially, I never saw them visibly drunk – certainly not to the point of staggering around.  About the only sign that they had been drinking was that they sometimes became quite argumentative, though never abusive (either verbally or physically).

They also weren’t strict disciplinarians.  I can count the number of times I recall my brothers and me being punished on the fingers of one hand, maybe even on my thumbs.  Quiz question for you:  Was the lack of punishment because we were reasonably well-behaved or were we reasonably well-behaved because we didn’t have a need to rebel against stern discipline?  My father sometimes used to say “pull up [or straighten] your socks; you look like a cheap prostitute” when we were still too young to know what a prostitute was, cheap or otherwise.  (In that regard, a year or two ago I came across a few surprising entries in the diary my father kept when he was serving in North Africa and Italy during the closing stages of the Second World War.  For weirdness nothing beats what I mentioned in the “Parents, part 1” episode when in the entry in which wrote that victory in Japan had just been declared and followed that statement with “Have been very depressed today.  Everything seems to have gone wrong since I’ve joined up.”  I’m still having trouble processing those comments.)

Along with not being very strict, they didn’t put pressure on us to do well academically.  They didn’t offer incentives/rewards for good grades nor were there consequences for poorer grades, even though teachers frequently commented in my school report cards that I could (or should) do better.  Maybe my parents realized that motivation needs to come from within.  I adopted a similar attitude with our kids, helping them when asked and praising but not otherwise rewarding good performances.  Another quiz:  Did they do well because of this benign attitude or did I get away with being benign because we were fortunate to have kids who were reasonably strong academically.

Below are two examples of my report cards.  The first is from grade 7 (what in South Africa was called Standard 5 back then) with comment “David does not work to the peak of his capabilities.  The second is from grade 9 with a warning that I should care about more subjects than just math and science lest I become “an absent-minded Chemistry professor.”  Did I do better or worse than that by becoming an absent-minded biostatistics professor?

Although I could pinpoint the earthquake episode above to a specific date, there are other instances I will mention in this and subsequent entries that I can’t place to within even a couple of years.  The following is one such.  From the dates I give, it must have been at some time between 1959 and 1965.

My father entered what I presume was a raffle and won first prize, the choice of a painting by the artist Stewart Titcombe.  Titcombe (1898-1965) was British.  In 1948 he was offered work at an advertising agency in Port Elizabeth, so moved there with his family.  I remember going to the artist’s studio with my father.  In later years my father sometimes mentioned that the painting he chose was hidden away behind other works, implying Titcombe didn’t want my father to find it.  The undated newspaper clipping below documents that my father won a painting.  (An Internet search didn’t provide any information about the “Dorlaine Benefit Fund”.)

The painting now hangs in our bedroom.  The date next to the artist’s signature in the bottom right corner looks like ’59, though it might be ’54.  The latter seems unlikely since we didn’t move to Port Elizabeth until 1957.  I have always liked this painting, probably because I love being near the ocean and find it very soothing.  (The South African coastline is a wonderful mix of very rocky sections and magnificent sandy beaches.) 

I think this was the first piece of original artwork that my parents acquired.  Over the years their collection expanded substantially and included not only paintings but also sculptures and other items.  When our father passed away, my brothers and I and our stepmother went through the house marking the items each of us wanted if/when our stepmother eventually sold the house.  (We managed to complete the distribution without any blows being struck.  Actually the whole process was entirely amicable.)  We have a few other items from my parents’ collection, but this one is my favorite.

Here are two more of the art works I inherited.  I don’t know where this road in this one is, but the colors are typical of parts of South Africa.

 The Campanile is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Port Elizabeth.  It was completed in 1923 and commemorates the first British settlers in South Africa, known as the 1820 Settlers.  There is now a freeway just this side of the Campanile and the interesting-looking building to the right has disappeared.  (Sorry about the reflection in the glass.  This is hanging high up on a wall and I wasn’t going to risk life and limb to get it down just to take a photo in better lighting.)

In terms of the arts, my parents also liked going to plays and musicals.  Apart from local productions, they also went to some when traveling internationally, such as seeing the London version of Hair.  I have the LP recording of Hair that they bought in London (photo of album sleeve below).  They also saw various Tim Rice / Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, including Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and probably also Evita and Cats.  The latter would have appealed particularly to my mother who, as an English teacher, appreciated T.S. Elliot (“There’s a whisper down the line at 11:39 …).  I’m not sure whether they saw the London version of Joseph, but I went with them to see the South African version.  As far as I know, they weren’t into opera or classical music though.  I don’t recall them ever going to an opera or a symphony concert. 

There were (and continue to be) performances in Port Elizabeth of several of Shakespeare’s plays.  My parents typically attended these as my mother was a Shakespeare buff.  When we studied some of his plays in high school I also went to these productions, either with my parents or with a school group.  I still have copies of some of the plays we studied in high school – see the image below (spot the odd one out).

Some of the Shakespeare productions were staged in the Port Elizabeth Opera House.  Others were in a theatre-in-the-park setting in what is now known as the Mannville Open Air Theatre, named after a couple who were responsible for many of the productions.

On Sunday afternoons my father often needed to see his patients for the next day.  He usually took the whole family with him.  We waited in the car while he saw the patients and then we went on a Sunday drive, often going past the Campanile to drive around the harbor and then along the beachfront, occasionally going further out along Marine Drive to feed peanuts (in their shells) to monkeys that lived in the bushes along that road.  I remember a couple of billboards we often passed.  One for the Salvation Army had images of people bouncing on (and falling off) springs with wording “You may think alcohol puts springs under you, but it always lets you down”.  The other was an ad for a Toyota dealership, but because we usually saw it from the rear it looked like “ATOYOT” rather than “TOYOTA”.

As I mentioned in an earlier episode, my mother had been a high school teacher (English and history).  For a while when I was young she was a stay-at-home mother.  My brother Mick was born about three years after me and Ian came along another four years or so later.  It was only decades later, maybe even after my mother had passed away, that I learned that she had suffered a few pregnancy losses (miscarriages and/or spontaneous abortions) between my birth and Ian’s arrival.  I don’t know when these occurred or even how many there were, but it seems that I could have ended up with a very different set of siblings.

Eventually my mother went back to teaching, though I don’t recall when..  As noted in an earlier episode, in that era and even well into the 1980s, in South Africa a married woman couldn’t be appointed to a permanent teaching position in a public school.  So my mother taught at a small private school, The Hill School.  The Hill was a “cram” school, catering for kids who had failed one of the last two years of high school and wanted to earn a school-leaving certificate.  The school “crammed” the material of the last two years of high school into a single year, by focusing just on academics, with no sport or other activities offered.  The original owner/principal of the school, Nigel Baughan (sp?) was apparently a very good teacher but not as good a businessman and the school eventually had financial problems.  My mother and a few other teachers then bought and took over the school, with my mother nominally being the principal.

When my mother was young her father had the Ford dealership in Knysna.  Through his position, my grandfather apparently was on good terms with the local traffic police.  So when my mother was old enough to get her driver’s license her father took her to the local licensing office.  She told us later that she was asked to drive around the block and was then given her license.  But she really didn’t know how to drive and didn’t try to do so for a number of years.  But with young children she felt a need to be able to drive at least occasionally.  So she took lessons.  After that my parents bought a second car, a used Mini Cooper.  I hoped my mother would keep that long enough that I could eventually take it over but after a few years she sold it and bought a (new) first generation Ford Escort (that I did eventually take over).

The Mini Cooper looked similar to this one, but the color was cream.

The first generation Ford Escort was this shape.  My mother’s (later mine) was a 4-door version though and was white.  (Photo from

Because of my grandfather’s Ford dealership, which was taken over by my Uncle David when his father died, all the cars that my parents bought new were Fords.  (The Mini Cooper was the last used car they bought.)  I almost felt like a traitor to the family when I bought a new Volkswagen Golf in 1980.  Cars that my father had that I can recall are Ford 17M and 20M (one of which was a station wagon), Ford Cortina (wagon), second generation Ford Escort (my mother had one of those too) and Ford Grenada.  I seem to recall my father having some model of Humber when I was very young but I have no memory of what it looked like.

In 1969 or 1970 my parents went on a package tour of Europe.  This was their first international trip, but they caught the travel bug and travelled very extensively through the rest of their lives.  Some of these trips were when my father was the official South African representative to a World Congress of the World Federation of Societies of Anaesthesiologists.  Being an official representative of one of the member societies enabled him (and my mother) to get to a few places South Africans were generally not able to visit during the Apartheid era, such as the (then) Soviet Union.  Other places I recall them visiting included several South American countries, Mexico, India and Japan.

When my parents went on that first trip to Europe I was about 15 and my brothers about 12 and 8.  We were too young to be left to fend for ourselves for 6 weeks.  So my parents’ friends Ron and Ann Whitehead moved in with us for 6 weeks to take care of us.  Ann was one of my mother’s teacher colleagues, which is how I presume the two couples met.  Ron was a prominent architect and also president of the Summerstrand Surf Lifesaving Club.  From Wikipedia: “Surf lifesaving is a multifaceted movement that comprises key aspects of voluntary lifeguard services and competitive surf sport. Originating in early 20th century Australia, the movement has expanded globally to other countries including New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, the United Kingdom.”  It was probably also a fairly open secret that Ron was gay, though I didn’t know it at the time.  Ron’s mother apparently didn’t like Ann and was nasty to her.  When Ron eventually “came out” to his mother, her attitude to Ann changed substantially for the better.  At the time the Whiteheads stayed with us Ron drove an MGB GT much like the one in the photo below (it was also white).  Someone had assembled the logo on the back of Ron’s car incorrectly and instead of MGB it read MBG.

The only “international” trip we took as a family was in 1971 or 1972, to what was then Rhodesia.  I don’t remember very much about the trip.  We went to Victoria Falls and at various places had some of the most succulent meat I have ever tasted.  We also visited one of my father’s sisters and her family in what was then Salisbury.  One evening when we were there I went to a rock concert with my cousin Rory, who was about my age.  Another evening I was in a bad car accident with Lesley, who was a year or two older than Rory.  I accompanied Lesley when she drove her brother back to his boarding school an hour or two away.  On the return journey it was dark and we were going at about 70 miles per hour, which I think was the speed limit on that two-lane road, when Lesley leaned forward to adjust the radio.  She must have gone off the road and then over-corrected because the next thing I remember was being churned around much like when caught by a big wave while body-surfing.  Considering the era, I am sure we weren’t wearing seatbelts – if the car even had them.  I crawled out of the car unscathed, other than probably being in a state of shock.  The driver of a car that had been ahead of us said he saw the headlights doing cartwheels and turned back to investigate.  Lesley was hurt – it turned out later that she had broken some vertebrae.  The other driver helped get Lesley out of the car and then drove us back to my uncle and aunt’s house.  Lesley was in pain and lying down on the back seat, unable to help navigate.  Somehow I managed to guide the driver back to the house, despite it being dark and with me having been just a back-seat passenger on the couple of occasions we had been there.

Above I wrote “was” rather than “is” in “was about my age” because I haven’t heard anything about these cousins since the 1970s and have no idea whether they are even still alive.  We have just one other cousin on my father’s side of the family.  I don’t recall ever meeting Blair.  I did meet his father on a couple of occasions.  He may have divorced Blair’s mother and re-married by then, which may be why Blair was not with him.  (I believe he was married three times.)  I did manage to make contact with Blair through Facebook a while back, so at least I know he is still alive.  We have two cousins on my mother’s side of the family.  We have had relatively frequent contact (including on Facebook) with Paul, but none with his brother, Patrick.  In fact, when my brother Ian sent a message last December saying Patrick’s wife had died of breast cancer I hadn’t even known he was married and had two sons.

My parents took my brothers on a later trip, in 1975 to England where they rented a barge and traversed various canals and waterways.  I could have gone too but at the age of 20 the idea of being cooped up on a barge with my parents and younger brothers was not very appealing, so I declined.  I presume the barge they were on is similar to one of those in this photo.  (Photo found in a web search, but with no information about who owns the copyright.)

My parents liked to entertain guests, whether just one couple for a game of contract bridge or fairly large parties.  Regardless of the size of the gathering, alcohol usually flowed freely.  On several occasions, when my mother told us ahead of time about some guests she described them as being “very relaxed”.  When she said this the “very relaxed” couple usually turned out to be quite the opposite.  I don’t think my mother was intentionally misleading, though maybe she used this description only when she felt a subconscious need to justify hosting the particular couple.  Whether intentional or not, it didn’t take long for me to decipher this “code”.  I like most of my parents’ friends, except those who were “very relaxed”.