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Anne Townsend

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

My mother’s birthday

24 August. It’s my mother’s birthday today. Once I started this letter, and I glanced at the date, I remembered. The last time I visited my mother’s grave, in a beautiful, overgrown cemetery in Plumstead, I froze in disbelief next to the ugly, sterile slab of marble  that had been installed, against my wishes, by two of my siblings. They felt the grave needed to be made more respectable and posh, perhaps. My mother was an avid gardener, and stipulated in her will that she wanted to be buried in a simple, plain wooden coffin. She would have hated that green marble. My mother was many things. But she had good taste.

Now she’s dead.

Should we respect the wishes of the deceased or the wishes of the living?

I wanted the grave covered with moss so that I could, at my leisure, cultivate a garden above the graves of my father (buried in 1964) and my mother (buried in 1999). I don’t know the exact date of my mother’s death. Intentionally, I have blanked out so much surrounding the whirl of activity, unleashed emotion and disbelief regarding that event, that all I can remember is that it was some time close to Easter, April 1999. I got the news while on holiday in Bali, from my sister in London, and I immediately filed the information in a mental box labeled ‘Don’t think about this. Keep tightly sealed.’

Denial has long been my speciality. It flourishes in my family like rats in sewers.

As I wandered around the cemetery where I, too, most likely will be buried, I felt reassured by the established trees, the flurry of guinea fowls, the soaring Egyptian geese hovering over the burial plots, and the deep blue skies. When I attended the funeral of a student in Hong Kong, who had drowned in a hotel pool in Bali, I remember standing in the church in Stanley, surrounded by the beautiful people of Hong Kong. A fleet of Rolls Royces and black BMW’s were parked outside by uniformed chauffeurs, the mother of the deceased was clutching a mobile phone, and the pews were packed. A choir sang a haunting French hymn. The children wept. I had ice in my heart.

Fervently I hoped I would never be buried in Hong Kong. Who would attend my funeral? How would my relatives get on with my students and colleagues? Would the slimy Hong Kong pollution be a guest at my grave? I want to be buried in Africa, I decided that day.

After much torrential rain, this morning the sun caressed my new garden. At 4:00am, during the heavy rains, I often wake up and find myself thinking (mostly with reluctance) of the flooded townships and the homeless down the road in Derry Street. More recently, I find myself deliberating whether to go downstairs with an umbrella with which to protect the seedlings.

As of today, my garden looks as follows: Withered, dry bougainvillea. (Will it survive the winter?) Parsley flourishing in soft, green clumps. Butter lettuces, voluptuous and juicy. Baby spinaches, holey, half-eaten, clearly delectable to caterpillars. Fennel sprouting like a green fountain, and my favourites, for their shameless exhibitionism, the bright, yellow vygies that open their hearts to the African sun.

Leonard Wolf, father of writer Naomi Wolf, says to pay attention to the symbols we attract into our lives. Boundaries. That is my practice for now. Having had my boundaries violated, obliterated, shamelessly intruded upon as a child, I have had porous, undefined boundaries for way too long. I let people in.

Two stained glass doors have recently been installed in my home. They symbolize the beauty of transparency, and the need for healthy boundaries. And then the fledgling garden. As I write about, and wrestle with, the notion of home, roots, belonging, transience, impermanence, belonging, tribes (and more, the list continues) I find myself with a balcony containing a rake, a hoe, two spades, shears, a watering can and potting soil.

Last night an acquaintance mentioned that she, her husband and two children are emigrating to New Zealand in December. My heart sank. I have dismissed her already. ‘How? Why? Are you kidding?’ The negatively-laden questions that used to incense me so, every time I set off for Anywhere but Here, came tumbling out. ‘Have you been to NZ? Isn’t it dead boring? But why…..?’ I make a mental note to withdraw from her, slowly. I don’t need this, now that I am putting down roots. Or I guess I could interview her for my book, I think. Nowhere am I really looking at what may be best for her. It’s about me, and my needs. Does her decision support my need to feel that this is the place for me?

In ‘True Perception’, Chogyam Trungpa writes:

“However, in the back of our minds, there may be some kind of problem: we may come along and actually want to find something out. And we may not find what we want, absolutely not. Our questions may not be answered one by one. But something else is taking place. Maybe the question mark itself is beginning to rot, become disheveled, and turn into a period, full stop. And maybe that seems to be the process of the whole journey: dissolving the question mark into a full stop. The question mark becomes a statement or an exclamation, rather than a hollow line longing to be filled by answers.”

Photo Credit Anne Townsend @ Vredehoek, Cape Town



Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    August 26th, 2012 @17:40 #

    Lovely bricolage, Anne. Esp like the gardening notes. I started building a path through my fynbos flower garden yesterday, edging it with fragrant shrubs. And noted that the Mafia snails have already claimed two cauliflowers. Gardening is so immediate and muddy and metaphorical all at the same time.


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