Friday, May 28, 2010


Part Two in a I don't know how many part series. As I mentioned in my May 3rd post, I'm writing a series about the life of my friend Arlene. She was born and raised in South Africa during one of the most significant periods in history of her country and possibly the global community. She also lived in the US for extended periods of time during that era which adds an even further interesting view point. Here is Arlene discussing her childhood.

I was born in 1966 in a town called Welkom which, as you might guess, means Welcome in Afrikaans. Welkom is a town in the province known as the Free State. The town basically grew up around the mines that were established after the discovery of gold on a farm in 1947.

My first memory is of playing in the driveway in the town I was born in. I must have been around four or five. I was playing with a little girl named Belinda at the end of the driveway, riding out bikes, and someone told me about the 'Pretty Belinda' song.

My dad worked in the coal mines underground and my mother was a microscopist on the mine and that's where they met.

My sister, Desiree, was born 18 months after me. Celeste, my other sister, was born two and a half years after Des. I remember when Celeste was born. My sister and I went to stay with the lady next door when my mom went into labor, and I remember when she and Celeste came home. Celeste had a bush of dark black hair and a white fluffy blanket around her. What I remember most distinctly is all the white fuzz in Celeste's dark hair. While not being named after anyone in particular, my mother, despite her Afrikaner heritage, had wanted English names for us girls.

I don't remember too much about the mining town but I do remember the houses. The houses we lived in were all identical along the street cause they were built by the mining company. Since we didn't have television and it was warm, we played outside all the time, until the sun went down. We were always together, me, Des and Celeste, we were very close. I used to feel like it was just our little family, like we were this little insulated bubble. We didn't go out much. Eating out wasn't a thing that we did, and we didn't go to the movies as a family. So the three of us entertained each other. We'd play school or some other pretend game.

We moved to a farm in the same province when I was five. The farm had chickens, roosters and a bull. I think my dad had his sights on farming livestock, but I'm pretty sure my mom wasn't happy with the situation. I remember standing on a box and washing the dishes. There was no electricity and we heated everything with coal from our big cast iron stove. I also remember doing the ironing. Our irons were made of cast iron that you put on the stove, and you would have three or four of them rotating.

In 1972, we moved to Benoni, a city in the Gauteng province, east of Johannesburg. My dad went into real estate and my mom stayed home with us girls. We moved around the different suburbs of Benoni but it was pretty much the city where I spent the rest of my youth. I went to three different primary schools in the town, Rynfield Primary, Arbor Primary and Farrarmere Primary. Public primary schools in South Africa went from age 6 to 13, and though public, were for whites only. The school you attended was based on which zone of the city you lived in and each school had its own uniform. After primary school, I spent five years in Benoni High School until I graduated at 18.

While I remember us being a tight knit family, I do remember us girls playing unsupervised a lot. My mom stayed at home for a while, but when I was eleven, she started working again. First as a secretary for our church and then for the Justine cosmetics company doing home parties like Avon does. So us kids would be outside a lot. We had a swimming pool, and we played in the pool all day, jumping off the roof into the swimming pool. Or we'd convert the living room into a night club and dance our hearts out. Crocodile Rock was a dance club favorite. We rocked out to Crocodile Rock a lot.

What I didn't realize until later was the songs we listened to were South African artists performing cover versions of other artist's songs. So we grew up listening to current music for the time, but not by the original artists. These cover songs were put on albums called Springbok 76 or Springbok 75; Springbok because that was the national animal and the number was for the year the album came out.

When we moved to Benoni, we befriended two boys across the street, Mark and Reilly. They were close in age to my sister Des. And we made friends with another set of neighbors, the Rogers, and those were the kids we played with, all day until the sun went down.


I don't remember being very happy at school despite that fact that I always did well. I just remember it being tedious, like it was too long a day and the rules bothered me a lot. I was a timid student, actually. I was terrified of getting in trouble and the few times I did were traumatic.

In primary school they had student monitors; fellow students who monitor the other kids. One day, I ran through someone's jump rope, just to be silly I suppose, and then this monitor wanted to bring me to the principal's office. Terrified, I barricaded myself on the railing, "Please don't take me! Please don't take me!" I cried, "I don't want to go!" The monitor let me off because she could see I was panic-stricken.

Maybe one reason I was so terrified was that corporal punishment was allowed in South African schools. We had big sand fields behind the school and after recess, we always had to make sure our hands were clean before we returned to class. The teachers would stand at the doors to inspect our hands, and if they weren't clean, we could be hit on the hand with a ruler.

Our nails had to be a certain length and no makeup was permitted. If you had hair, it had to be tied back with a certain kind of tie. That was what bothered me about school really, the rules. Your dress had to be a certain length, your socks had to be a certain height. We basically weren't allowed to express ourselves in any way and that's what bothered me. I didn't want to be a clone.

The education I received was known as Christian National Education. It was a very strict fundamentalist education where we prayed in school, we sang the national anthem and every Friday was Assembly, which was like a church service. And we were required to be bilingual by the time we graduated high school. Even though schooling was required to be in both languages, we had English schools and Afrikaan schools. At an English school most of the instruction was done in English and vice versa at an Afrikaans school. Though it was a requirement to learn Afrikaans, that's not to say everyone achieved such. I remember some kids really struggling, especially if they were more "recently" British. Other differences between the types of schools included the cultural activities like sports. Typically, rugby was taught at the Afrikaans school, and soccer at the English school. The music we learned was different to the Afrikaans kids. I remember most of my Afrikaans teachers were not very good at speaking English. I was one of the lucky ones who spoke both English and Afrikaans around my family and therefore it made it easier for me in school. And the Afrikaan schools were known to be worse. Very strict and very regimented. Especially for the boys. If they acted up, they got caned six times. 'Six of the best' the boys called it. It was a crazy way to grow up.


I didn't have a perception of my country being good or bad. My world was my family and my church. I mean, I was aware of the racism thing, but from a young age I was taught that black people were dangerous or communists and not to be trusted. So I kind of lived in fear. Especially of a black man. Yet we had black women living and working in our homes, as nannies or domestic servants. The maid was what we called our servants. We only ever had one maid at a time but we had a few over the years. It was weird because the maids were like surrogate mothers, they lived in our house and seldom went home. When one would leave, it was always traumatic. Our maid used to stay up with us late at night if my parents went out. She made my bed, she cooked the food, she did everything. But she definitely had a servant's status in my little mind.

I remember two maids in particular: Annie and Flora. Even though she worked for us for four years or so, I don't remember much about Annie except I knew she had children. But I couldn't tell you how many. One time I saw her being thrown into the back of a police truck. In South Africa at that time, black people were not allowed to be within the city limits without a pass. One day as Annie was walking on the street, the police drove up and stopped. They asked for her pass, and when she couldn't show it, they literally threw her into the van and drove off. She came back to us but I don't know how or why she was released. We kids knew not to ask about those kinds of things. It's one of my memories that I don't like to recall.

Flora was a maid we had when I was older. She stayed with us for quite a number of years. She had a son who was born while she was in our employ and my family helped raise him. Johnny is like a little brother now and he and Flora are still very much part of our lives today, but as family and not as servants. Flora still works as a maid today. Although now they're called domestic help and they are unionized with proper pay, pensions, and vacation time.

I never questioned if having maids was ok, but when I got older, like thirteen or fourteen, I hated it. Maybe when I was younger I couldn't think past myself but as I got older, I began to think that it was wrong that somebody in the house was working as a slave, up early making my bed, and with children that she never got to see. As weird as it sounds, I think they just became more human to me. I don't remember talking about it with any of my friends. I would go to their homes and see them just issuing orders to their maids. So I sort of kept my thoughts to myself because I didn't think that my thoughts were normal.

Ironically, I always kind of prided myself on the fact that my mom was kind to the servants because a lot of my extended family weren't. My grandmother's maids were not treated nicely. My grandparents always lived in some kind of like semi-rural or rural area, and I remember the maid coming to my grandmother's home. She would look a bit tattered and smell of burnt wood. Mostly I remember her not having any shoes. I used to look at her feet and wonder how far she had to walk on the pebble strewn dirt roads.

My grandmother would often get mad at the servants if they didn't do their job properly. She would say in Afrikaans, "Kaffirmeid!" Meid is Afrikaans for maid, but the phrase "kaffirmeid" would be like using the "N" word in America. My grandmother would frequently say for small transgressions, "Kaffirmeid! She doesn't even know what she's doing!"

The maid would have her own plate and a mug. When it was lunch time, she would have to sit outside and have a peanut butter sandwich. I remember the maid would make a big mug of coffee and put two thick pieces of bread on top of the mug and that was her lunch. Sometime she'd prepare her own porridge or something like that. The maids were paid and sometimes my grandmother would pay them with meat or eggs. But it was no where near the amount proper for the work the servants did.

I don't know why my parent's attitude towards our maids was different. Maybe because we were English and that meant we were just a little more liberal or a little more tolerant. My mom seemed to be caught between two worlds. She was raised by her Afrikaner parents so I wouldn't say she was a liberal. But I do remember her becoming more and more lenient, and kinder to our maids as we grew up. My mom would talk to our maid kindly and ask her to sit on the furniture, to sit on the couch, but she wouldn't. The maid never sat on our furniture. When she ate, she sat on the floor and ate from her own plate and cup.

Both my parents were born and raised in South Africa. My ancestors on my dad's side go back to the 1820 settlers. So I'm seriously African which I'm very glad to say. South Africa was initially settled by the Dutch in 1652, who were soon joined by Germans and French Huguenots. This group of Europeans came to be known as Afrikaners with their own language - Afrikaans, a language originating in Dutch. In 1820, English settlers arrived in South Africa to protect British interests. Unlike the Germans and French before them, the English never assimilated into the Afrikaner culture. And the Afrikaners did not want them to. This tension eventually blew up into the Boer War of the late 1800's. So even though my father's family has been in South Africa for more than 150 years, they still considered themselves to be "English" And despite being of common European descent, it was still very unusual in my parent's day for an Englishman to marry an Afrikaner girl like my mom.

My mom was from a typical Afrikaner family. They went to the Dutch Reform Church, and were extremely conservative. And extremely racist. They believed that racism was supported by God. But my mother always said that she didn't like being raised in such a strict household. She was eighteen when she met my dad, and he was a thirty year old handsome Englishman. I guess he kind of pulled her out of her old life and put her in a new one.

My sisters and I were the only English cousins in my mother's family. We could speak Afrikaans but amongst ourselves and our parents, we would speak English. We understood Afrikaans more than our cousins understood English. I think that's pretty much the case with all of South Africa. Most English people speak good Afrikaans, but a lot of Afrikaners speak little English. I think it's an accent thing. It's difficult to go the other way, from Afrikaans to English. It is interesting to consider how there could be animosity between two people groups who, honestly, if you put them in a room and they didn't speak, you could not tell the difference.

Despite having an Afrikaner mother, we considered ourselves to be an English family. At first, my mother's family was upset by her marriage but they eventually embraced my dad and I think it was because of rugby. He might have been an Englishman, but he played and loved rugby. And my mother's brothers were staunch rugby fanatics. Every Sunday we would have lunch with my mother's family. Lunch was always followed by rugby and I think that was my English father's saving grace.

Growing up, I didn't realize that the world was watching South Africa and what was going on here. I didn't realize that. The only thing I knew of the world beyond South Africa was what I learned in geography class on a map. It was only when I hit high school in the early 80's that I started to learn what was going on beyond our borders.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Ultimate Survivor

The other day I got an email which described a new episode of Survivor. The contestants are dads who would be left on an island with three kids each. The email goes on about how each dad has to do what mom does in a day and basically implies that the dads would barely survive. Now I don't mean to be a party pooper here, but suppose a man had sent an email like that to his friends?

New Episode of Survivor! Each wife is to go to her husband's office. She is to accurately assess which clients need extra hand holding and which clients don't want to be bothered. The wife is to get three projects and two proposals done in the time allowed for one while fielding constant interruptions from the office busybody. The wife also has to win that large, complicated job the company needs to make its monthly goals and sit by while a snot nosed co-worker takes the credit. Then field two panicked client calls, one impromptu staff meeting and a sales pitch all between 4:00 and 5:00 pm knowing your spouse needs you home at "five on the dot or else!" to take care of the cranky children.

I'm not saying all is love and roses here a Casa Diva. We have our moments. But really ladies, with a few exception out there, I'm pretty sure any guy who can hold down a full time job and be married to us women can to learn to do our job as well as we can. Notice I said "learn to do our job". Things run smoothly in our house (relatively, and I mean relatively) because I'm here day and day out and familiar with the tasks at hand. If, heaven forbid, I had to go to Paris for a week, there might be some comic moments as Bo stepped in and tried to do my job. But he wouldn't struggle because he's a lunkhead. It's because he's not familiar with the routine I have with the kids. If I was sent to my husband's office for the day, I would totally flounder. Would I be able to design those two sites by tomorrow? Talk to the client about SEO (like I can even guess what that means), deal with the irritated ad agency and explain to the account manager why we can't deliver a "smokin' hot" site for $299.99?

And what the heck is a pixel? Is that Finnish currency? 'Cause I know you're not designing websites with those little people with the wings and magic wands. What's Flash and why is it on it's way out before I've even gotten to know what it is? Java I can do though, I know all about coffee. I can definitely do Java.

Sorry, lost my senses there.

Anyway, the email goes on about how the dad would be hard pressed to know their kids' pediatrician, food issues or favorite whatever. I know we're flabbergasted that our men don't realize little sweetie's new friend is Dora the Explorer, but maybe it's because he's not around the kids 10 hours a day. Maybe he wants to be, but someone has got to earn money. We can't all be mommy bloggers. And maybe that's not how he's wired. It's a proven fact women talk more than men, so of course we know more 'stuff'. Try this experiment. Go call a girlfriend right now, and ask her if she knows your shoe size.

Go ahead, I'll wait.

You're back?

She knew, didn't she? If she didn't, I'll bet you still had a 20 minute conversation about all the other tiny details she knows about you. Now ask the hubby. Did he know your shoe size? He probably doesn't (you're in trouble if he says, "You wear shoes?!?").

But if you want someone to roughhouse with the boys, Dad's your man. If you want someone to cherish your little girl so she has the self worth enough to not marry the first lunkhead that walks by, Dad's your man. Bo might not know everything he should know about the kids, but I know he loves them. And I also know he's the only one who can fix things the way I want them fixed when life goes off the deep end here at Casa Diva.

Here's the bottom line ladies: let's not belittle our husbands, even in jest. The Bible says, "Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife." [Proverbs 21:9]  I guess this is serious stuff because it's repeated again in Proverbs 25:24. Seriously. In case you don't put a whole lot of faith in the Bible, scientific studies have shown that 99% of men prefer nails being dragged down a chalkboard than to listen to their wives lecture them about how they don't take care of the kids right.

In the game of Love and War,  play fair ladies. Because honestly, when the barbarians (as cute as they are) are at the gate, you can't afford to alienate your one true ally.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Mother's Day, partie deux

This is my second girl. She's a force to be reckoned with.

I think she was born 20 years old. Here she is taking part in a three way conversation with the neighbor ladies. Note the ease in which the baby is on her hip. Just like a pro.

She says what she means and she means what she says. So I'm not surprised when I find notes like this on my basement door:

Bo Hunkmeister was the one to point out the syntax to me. She doesn't say "Don't go downstairs" or "No Moms allowed"  She says, "All persons who are not mothers" And I love the stickie note that's attached to it. Is that a Freudian slip? Was there a coup d'etat that I didn't know about? I thought I was the management.

Then she writes the essay below in her Sunday School class. Every year the teachers ask the kids to write an essay about why they love their moms. Then the powers that be (rumor has it that it's Price Waterhouse) pick three to read aloud to the congregation, and the mom and child get a gift certificate to Friendly's (sweet!). This year I was told that Princess Git Er Done's essay was picked and we were to make sure we were in church this Sunday.

So here we are during the church services and Princess Git Er Done finds me in the pews, sits down and starts crying.
"What's wrong?" I ask, alarmed that she's losing it and we going to be in front of everyone in two minutes.
"I was having fun in Kid's Church and they told me I had to come sit with you!" she weeps.

Ruh Roh.

I guess they didn't let the kids in on the surprise. I tell her about the essay and gift card and when she realizes what's going on, starts furiously wiping the tears away to be ready for her close up, Mr. DeMille.

Here's what she wrote:

I love my mom 'cause she is the one who can understand my girl feelings. And if I stray from the path that Jesus wants me to follow she corrects me. She is my comfort, my soul and deep joy. And I respect her because she is the human being that God placed on this earth to take care of me and comfort me. It's not just me she takes care of, she is a great comfort to my father who also takes care of me. That's why I love my mom.

Bo had the tissues ready when I got back to the pew. I think the best gift a mother could get is the knowledge that of all our faults in child rearing, the important stuff is getting through.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Happy Mother's Day!

It's Mother's Day! That fabulous time of year when I get to say, "I want TWO foot rubs today!"

We've started a tradition here at Casa Diva. Every year on the Saturday before Mother's Day, we go to this neighborhood in East Greenwich, RI that hosts a humongo yard sale. Like, 15,000 families are involved. No really, I'm not exaggerating. Then we go get gaggers for lunch. If you're not from Rhode Island, I'm not going to explain this to you. Suffice to say gaggers are an inexpensive lunch. Please don't let anyone else know that I'm such a cheap date.

Anyway, the kids are furiously working to earn money for this yard sale so they can buy me presents (can I mow the lawn, Mom? can I clean the van? I'll be quiet for twenty minutes for 25 cents).

However, as many of you yard sale connoisseurs know, the merchandise at yard sales can be kind of hit or miss. So just in case the kids can't find what I'm looking for, I'm posting a list of suitable presents for Mother's Day.

1. Dunkin' Donuts EZ Pass
Kind of like the EZ Pass for toll roads only this one would alert the nearest Dunkin' Donuts of my impending arrival so that they could have a latte ready for me.

2. A Personal Assistant  
I know every mom could use one of these, but my need is urgent. I need someone to cook, clean and educate my kids so I can catch up on the 1,000 books that are now on my reading list.

3. Pantry-A-Nator  
Despite my best efforts to line up my cans and organize my boxes, my pantry still looks like a tornado went through and I can't get anything out of it without risk of bodily harm. A Pantry-A-Nator would organize my pantry every time I just toss something in and slammed the door shut before it fell back out.

4. Seasonal Clothing Adjuster
This is not a full time position, but the Personal Assistant listed above will have enough on her hands with the tasks I've given her. I need someone twice a year to come in and take out all the winter clothes from the boy's drawers and put in the summer clothes that are: a. still in good condition, b. fit, and c. don't look too goofy. This way my boys are not wearing stained sweaters in June and tight tank tops in October. What's that, you say? They're doing it by choice? Ok, nevermind. Maybe the SCA can just come over and rub my feet twice a year.

Well, that's it for now. As always, the Domestic Goddess reserves the right to amend this list. In the mean time, get shoppin' and a wonderful Mother's Day to all my comrades in arms!

Monday, May 03, 2010

Everyone Has a Story

I rarely read fiction. People's real life stories are far more intriguing to me than any fiction I've read. What was Elie Wiesel thinking while he in the Nazi concentration camps? What did the guy who had to babysit the hydrogen bomb think of his job? Why did those families in north eastern Kentucky start feuding? What kept those families going during the Dust Bowl?

My pastor is fond of saying that everyone has a story. But not all stories have to be the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters. Everyone's personal story is a microcosm of the larger story which try to answers the questions who am I, why am I here, and where am I going? And while your story might not be dramatic or heroic, like beauty, its appeal is in the eye of the beholder. You never know who out there has experienced something similar. My husband likes to joke that if a group of women are together long enough, they will start sharing their birth stories. Like members of a VFW post, we women will share our "war stories." I think we share them simply because we want to connect with people. We're not trying to teach someone any great moral lesson. Sometimes it is enough to know that someone shared a similar experience and you are not alone.

I met Arlene in the winter of 2003. Her accent immediately indicated that she was not from Rhode Island.  Of course the first assumption was that she was British, but she was actually from South Africa. As soon as I learned this, memories came up of the 80's and everyone being up in arms about South Africa's Apartheid policies. I remember Little Stevie van Zandt's song with the chorus "I ain't gonna play Sun City". I remember the movie "Biko" about the anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko who mysteriously died in police custody. Growing up with this did not give me a well rounded view of South Africans. I basically grew up with the notion that white South Africans were evil.

While spending my junior year of college in England, I found myself alone with a woman on the bus traveling from the airport into the city. She pulled out her passport and I could see it was South African. Here I was, sitting across from the enemy. I remember wondering if I should make conversation with her. As if, from this woman, I was going to find out just what was up with the Afrikaaner's thinking. This thought was obviously born of a less mature mind which did not take into consideration the past and present racism in the US.

When I met Arlene, I had finished Covenant by James Michener a few weeks prior (fiction, ironically enough). It began with the foundation of South Africa in 1652 and followed three families all the way to modern times. So already I was curious about the evolution of South Africa as a country. How could a country, "discovered" by Europeans roughly the same time as America, take such a divergent path?

Being familiar with the "stranger in a strange land" feeling, my husband and I made of point of befriending Arlene and her husband. I find that acclimating to a new place has a lot to do with the smaller details of living. Things like, where can I get milk at a good price? What if I need some furniture on the cheap? Where's a good place to go with the kids? So we would have them over for dinner to help with these things.

As we were talking over dinner one evening, Arlene told me that, during her first visit to the US as a young exchange student, she was ashamed to be South African. However, in her next visit as an adult, she could not have been prouder. This statement resonated with me.

I think when we're young, we have a perception of where we're living, and an assumption that what goes on in our world goes on everywhere else. Doesn't everybody live like us? And when you find out that isn't the case, how do you react?

I have been blessed to travel to other countries and, while not making a big display of it, I have always been proud to be an American. I'm not naive to the troubles the U.S. has or has caused elsewhere, but I don't think I've ever been ashamed of my country. So when Arlene shared her embarrassment with me, I wanted to know how this happened, why this happened. I asked her if we could write her story together and she graciously agreed.

Over the next year or so, I'm hoping to post a segment of Arlene's story on a monthly basis. She is truly a fascinating woman, and I am grateful to have met her. Everyone has a story and, while this might not resonate with everyone, out there is someone who needs to hear this particular story.