9 GOUSBLOM STREET
When we – my sister, my cousins and I – were small
we often used to eat in Lea’s kitchen.
She’d tell us stories about goblins
that she made up on the spot.
I understand those hours of childhood
by the English word ‘spellbound’.
Lea is the brown woman who worked for my granny Max
for more than forty years.
She called us “the kids” in the same way that my granny
talked about her grandchildren and our parents.
Every birthday and Christmas there’d be
a card and some money and “Love
Lea never had a husband or children herself.
My mother says there was once a man who
showed her a good time
for a while. I never heard Lea
talking about it herself, but she
did say sometimes in her decisive way
that she’d never had much time for men
or any other “lazy, wicked creatures”.
My grandad Dirk was a pastor with the Mission Church in the Cape.
When he got Alzheimers and was bedridden,
Lea saw it as a God-given task
to take care of ‘Mister’, a chance
to serve Him.
She and ‘Missy’ bathed grandad Dirk and fed
and helped him with unswerving faith,
just as when they cooked a leg of lamb and roast potatoes
or made some grape jelly.
After years of his grinding, terminal presence, Grandad Dirk
passed away at last.
Lea and Granny Max stayed on at 23 Leipoldt Street
to sit together at the kitchen table,
to pray and drink tea,
watch TV and mourn,
to read Family and the Bible and to wonder
about “the kids”.
Granny and Lea could never sit together at the dining room table,
but they stuck together in Parow North
to care for the roses, the tortoises and the rock garden,
the neighbourhood and each other
until they couldn’t anymore,
until Granny Max had to go to the old age home.
But the home, called Panorama, was too much like an away match.
It would never be more than a waiting room for Granny.
Not that she just gave up.
She’d often tell us how beautiful the moon was, seen from the roof
where the “old people” couldn’t go anymore
because of the steep stairs.
But the moon and the roof couldn’t bring
water to granny or feed her,
she couldn’t care or worry about things like that.
She would never feel anything other than useless there.
Lea started again, at 80.
She had some money saved and had a one-room dwelling built
on the property of family in Malmesbury,
among fences kicked flat, dope smokers,
chickens, poverty, ducks and ‘Muddy Jack’ –
that raw wine from Westbank –
Lea began making a garden
as if all the rest was nonsense.
When we turned into Gousblom Street for the first time
it was easy to guess where Lea now lived.
In her garden Lea said to me:
“Master Daan, a little bit of beauty around you is beauty
for everyone around you.”
And then she thought a moment and added:
“That is, if you’re a person who cares.”
Lea turned 90 today.
I wasn’t there,
and neither was Granny.
After Granny died,
Lea told my cousin Jean that for the first time in her life
she did feel like bothering
to get up in the morning.
There did not seem to be a reason anymore.
But she’s going about again, acting in plays
with a church group
and turning the soil over in her garden.
Today I remember the last time
I saw Granny and Lea together.
I had fetched Granny from the old age home.
We drove to Malmesbury
with a milk tart and an old cellphone for Lea.
Granny asked twice if I had eaten enough,
but she didn’t talk as much as she used to.
The only thing that got her excited
was the new jail they’d built
for ‘the bad people’. Too close to the road.
When we arrived at Lea’s,
Granny walked around in Lea’s garden
as if it were her garden.
Lea was worried about my cousin Jean’s car and wanted to know
if it was a car that “screamed when you touched it”.
I laughed and said:
“No, Jean’s old car isn’t so fancy,
don’t worry about it.”
Granny was still ‘Missy’ and Lea still Lea,
but Granny’s mildly condescending advice
barely disguised her jealousy.
She would much rather have worked in the garden with Lea
than sit in the sun with the old people,
but Granny was on the way out.
After her critical inspection of the garden
Ouma and I sat at Lea’s only table –
Lea, as always, a step away on her kitchen chair,
half turned to the corner;
Little Ear, her stiff-haired pooch, at her feet.
Lea had learned “her place” in another time,
and just could not sit with us at table -
any more than there was a place for her at Granny’s old age home.
For both, this would have been unthinkable.
But we ate milk tart together and drank tea.
I showed Lea how to use her cellphone.
She listened closely, but she looked
with some mistrust at the device.
Granny said that her head “couldn’t take things in anymore.”
She was convinced it was the pills – the pills
the doctor had given her for dizziness.
“Missy isn’t like that,” she said,
“Oh, Missy, an old person is like a balloon –
one little puncture and it’s gone.”
Granny and Lea didn’t have much to say,
but the quietness between them
Forty years of trust and benevolence
lay between them
like a shared memory.
After a second cup of tea we had to go.
It was the first time I’d ever seen
Granny embrace Lea.
Lea couldn’t pull back.
She was confused.
Lea didn’t cry,
but her eyes were knee-deep
in clear water.
Granny turned with great difficulty in her seat
to look at Lea one last time and wave.
I pulled off
and the metallic blue BMW
floated away with us in it
and Lea in the rear window,
to a place without words,
a place without signal