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”.

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