The Wilderness Survival Guide to Childhood

My life was like a river in which debris of different kinds were caught up.

Like dust melted in the water, my ink blot eyes, my river bore witness to my bullish mother, easygoing school life and my still-as-a-coma, unhealthy depression.

All these things influenced my life in varied, advanced, vivid ways; grew me up in years, couriered words that found self-awareness and translation in my writing.

I learnt to cope and live with them in a very special, bold kind of way.

However, it was never easy and I wasn’t always so keen to be completely in control of my feelings.

My father was a fat man with florid cheeks. He seemed to be a cheerful, jolly, happy-go-lucky fat man who never found fault with anyone. At least that is how I imagined him to be when I came across a very old photograph of him with his parents. He was wearing a t-shirt and jeans. Of course he was all grown up in the picture; the last vestiges of boyhood out grown, faded away like sea mist. I never told my mother about my discovery. She wouldn’t have stood for it. He was the one subject that she never disclosed anything about. In this respect she was discreet.

Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Fat man. Little boy. I can never remember which nickname fits which city. I used to be in the Quiz team at school. Bright, clever, smart alec that was me. But I remember everything about a man who was not my transitional boyfriend, my lover – even at 22 I cannot say that word without blushing, a mentor or a teacher. A man who was my boss for six months, who I looked up to, who in retrospect I fell in love with. It was of course not reciprocated. He was married and had a small child. Glassy faces peered at me from their photograph on his desk.

I have come across women who delight in telling of their short-lived office romances; their dalliances, flirting at Christmas parties, seductions, pub-crawls, bars and nightclubs but I was quiet and shy and did not make friends easily amongst the women I worked with.

Single, footloose and fancy-free that was who I always aspired to be but always failed to accomplish naturally without any affected humour or flirting. I was always a hard worker, diligent and efficient. Since it was the first time I was gainfully employed I wanted to make a wonderful impression. I was a temp at a television and film production company. To save my money I stayed at the Salvation Army.

My mother wrote me letters from Port Elizabeth and sent me pictures of her and her pintsized white-haired dog. She never discussed why I left or inferred to it in her letters to me. She said she was praying for me, that I had to remain in good, positive spirits and that I should always hope my dire circumstances would change for the better.

Every morning I was bursting at the seams with good humour, smiling at my defeats, accepting my victories quietly and without any fanfare. I brought sandwiches for lunch. I was docile and thoughtful. Offered to make tea when executives, writers and producers were harried and working to deadline, to run errands, anything which in the long run would help in my favour. I never kicked up a fuss even when I was in position to ‘Cry wolf’ when someone tried to make advances.

I longed for the memory of love that I had when I was a child. Don’t ask me why. I just felt inclined to feel that way when I felt at my lowest.

Talking about love always embarrasses me but not when I think about my first love – my mother. She shattered all my illusions about love. It was a forceful, gagging, inhibitory, blinding love that came with lies and grief.

It usually left me crying my eyes out when I was a child and didn’t know any better. Tears did not bode well with my mother. She ignored it and I laid the blame solely for that with my absent father.

The burning imprint of my mother’s love; like my depression was toxic, and left my brain in a fog. It was like an open sore or blister I picked at. Each impetus gave rise to flight, a furious scribbling in a private diary. I don’t think her intent was to harm me or spoil me. It was just her way even if her way was sometimes unpredictable and impudent. Our relationship was always difficult.

She wasn’t an inane mother; she never smothered me with adoration, attention. She wasn’t full of fun, always laughing, singing at the top of her voice always although she did do that sometimes.

She instructed me to believe that all love comes with indescribable pain, inescapable devastation, sometimes humiliation and the aftermath ends with hurt.

Yet she reeled me deftly in with what can only be described as a mother’s love when my sadness was formidable; left me fragile, comforted me when I was left dazzled by mania, waited patiently for those episodes of my depression to pass and because of her I escaped undamaged, whole and with the least amount of heartache and brokenness. Although my childhood had sometimes when it had been needed been absent with her tender loving care and touch the bond we had was not lacking.

The city that I lived in when I was grown up represented the highs and the lows, the slumps of my life and the advent that impulsive risk taking that comes with infrangible emotional maturity. The skyscrapers, tall high-rises, flats in the city of Johannesburg indulged me, gave me new pictures, newfound images like the grave disposition of a welcomed newcomer. I didn’t feel like an orphaned newcomer anymore.

It gave me a new sense of freedom and life as I knew it was turned perfectly on its head. Lunchtime I frequented delicatessens for sandwiches, ate fruit that seemed exotic to me like grapefruit, gooseberries and bananas. I did make new friends and met exciting and glamourous people. Very important people who did important work and made a lot of money while doing it.

It became formulaic of the city life I wanted to live. It felt like I was caught up by a river. I was no longer self-conscious. I just surrendered and gave in to big city life.

Still I wanted love not the political church. I wanted love not darkness where my heart should be. I wanted love not a sentimental melody filled with schmaltz and nostalgia for all things haunted and past; that became my declaration of independence.

I wanted love to come alive inside of me; to leave me open-minded not jaded.

This, this is what I longed for.

I was a girl when I met the world in Johannesburg – prickly because of the relationship I had with my mother, jaded because I did not grow up with a father.

The world saw someone who was tense, small, fearful; even-tempered but I knew that there was something greater behind the eye of the storm. I knew there was something I was connected to that was somehow greater than me.

But the world I soon found myself in was also a cruel world. It was a world where men who had all the advantages took advantage of naïve and simpleminded young girls who didn’t know any better. I was a very naïve and simpleminded girl from a small town.

To my mind there was nothing good in the life I found myself in except examples of good men that had by default become bad men and did nothing to make up for their reckless behaviour.

This world threw darkness on my strengths, illuminated my vanities and shone a light on my innocence that scratched through all my sensibilities and cracked the veneer of my surface. Of course I decided to free my mind of all the inhibitions I had once I had reached the city and once I had found a suitable boyfriend – a suitable candidate.

Talent will always persist; that is a given, that is the remarkable beauty of giftedness but not youth and beauty and I was eager to lose my virginity – I was eager to become a woman.

Wanted, accepted, cherished I decided was asking for too much. Instead I was loathed, gossiped about, humiliated, hated and I worked out I had to ingratiate myself with the older male in the office and leave the women be. They had immaculate nails and neatly coiffed hair. My hair was always limp, my smile pasted on like a band aid.

They would neither befriend nor mentor me but I was the wiser for it in the long run. I vowed I would never let any man intimidate me, fluster me or frustrate me. But old-fashioned values got the better of me in the end. I wanted to be respected, remembered, not for love affairs best left forgotten and taken seriously. But I am still a romantic at heart.

I close my eyes now. I have so many wonderful memories; positive ones as well as those that are negative which I try to shut out as much as I can. I blur the features of the men I had come to know, the motions, the handsome faces, the leering faces, the screaming mouths, the chanting lips. I remember what the sun was like when I lived there. I remember that the sunshine melted like powder against my cheek.

It is soft and ticklish like fingers reaching for the crook of your arm. It was hard in the beginning keeping track of all the people that I met. Now it is unimportant. I don’t remember them. I doubt if they remember me.

My manic depression is like a big, terrible shadow over me – long and strong. It’s like elastic. It shuts out the light but keeps the darkness within – the enemy within. This invasion has instructed my writing. It informs me of my every move and half the time I live in fear of it. I live in fear of the day when it will no longer sustain me and then what will I do? I would be left vulnerable; naked, my thoughts creepy, perhaps I will be filled with a quickening pulse and my eyes are liquid pools of emptiness once again considering suicide.

Today I have a thousand things going through my mind. You dream that something is going to happen to you. Life is not made of multiple choices; instead it is made up infinite choices that we have to risk common sense and a cure for life for.

I am no longer married to searching for a cure for the unexpected penalties of life and the wretched failure of missed opportunities.

When you can surrender that sickening feeling that morphs you into a battalion; when you place restraint and caution above the impulse to be adventurous, to defy the conventional then that gives me some sought of peace of mind.

I watched them all my life at the schools I went to. Sophisticated grown ups who had the power to destroy any fantasies I had of rising above my station in life. The fantasies I had of being beautiful and powerful. Intelligence was nothing to them, meaningless if you did not have money.

I inherited common sense, decency, morals and deep-seated, grounded values. At home I was a good girl, at school a brainiac; I never had a hair out of place and always performed well.

My mother was a teacher. My childhood was happy even though I had an absent father. It was a childhood relatively free of bullies.

I wanted to live like the rich did, without transparency, to live without regret and a diminished capacity to forget. I read books to educate myself on every single subject that I was ignorant on. I tried to make sense of the madness in tabloids, television, politics, current affairs and the daily newspapers.

At twelve years old my mother’s old, greasy lipstick is wet. It stains my teeth and seeps into my lips. It makes my face look separated from the rest of my body – hard, successful at something which I have yet to define. I was quick to adjust with slow, feeling movements, the weight of my hands, the smooth curls that framed my delicate forehead. So I decide never to wear lipstick again. It makes me feel foolish, not like a model in a fast red sports car going to the beach, hair windswept in an advertisement on television.

I learned about the internal power of being alone from a very early age. I was always a loner, an alien outsider, inseparable except from one or two friends. I wandered the aisles of the local libraries in my town reading the poems of Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, wanting to die a painless death. I grabbed hold of all the ancient retrospectives of women writers I could get my hands on.

I learnt about women’s wisdom, philosophy about the female gender and women’s bodies.

Once or twice growing up I veered towards the idea of suicide then finding it off-putting, arrogant and wondering who would deliver the running commentary at my funeral. I was aloof and serious as a child, depressive as an adult. A manic panic would always give rise when I had to meet new people and when I couldn’t fidget in a meeting when my ideas were called for.

I found melancholy put me at ease in the company of strangers. I was left reaching for self-confidence and a sense of sobriety and self-worth. I could eat up their words, frown at their demeanour, their thick, heavy accents and purse my lips at their chosen clothes, their winter coat’s woody smells, their perfumed hair, their red lips. I was not one of them that I knew. I was different but not in a special way.

I used to write poems about my ongoing battle with manic depression. I used to take first lines from other poems and then claim them, own them and make them my own. Depression or mania comes in degrees; as a deluge or a flood.

It is an unforgiving, ruthless, unrelenting, unstoppable force in which everything emotionally stable, calm and fruitful gives way. It is a pumped up enemy, a loose canon leaving you adrift; leaving you a fool, always on the run, looking for an escape in the treacherous waters of turmoil and despair.

Sometimes you have to learn the hard way to let go, to surrender to the lesson, the curves and shadows of the ring of the darkness visible of the depression. You have to learn that sometimes hope comes with endearing warmth, homely comfort, positive motivation and feedback whether it comes from your family, loved ones or a support group. There are always lessons to be learnt that comes with the love that you sorely crave, need and are given.

My deeply personal feelings gave rise to seeds that sowed bitterness, blame and resentment.

I sowed those seeds wanting to die, wanting to face death and yet at the same time realised that although both are very significant they are separate entities.

They were like satellites in orbit, their reality was there but it was out of reach, they seduced me like futility, humility, battalions in battle study, jet black words stuck like Teflon on a page. They were tidal, communicated grievances and left me longing for a Bollywood romance, an English countryside mansion. I was left with the limbs and parts of a doll and the nutty; taste of almonds in my mouth that the tablets left behind.

I am much matured and richer for the interruptions that came into my life with my bouts of mania and depression. I have also learnt how to handle people. I am kinder. My life experiences have still made me feel positive, motivated and hopeful. My mother and I are both growing older and more and more set in our ways. She still grills me. We row. The only way the river changes is when it bends and shapes and surrenders itself, pours itself into the sea. When it is cast adrift and exiled to the ocean; still in the air, feels closure is finally calling it to this exit.

The strained fatigue of my depression still alternates with the unnerving imbalance of the manic state of mind; my hair and eyes are like those of a doll’s yet my body is still warm, my mind has a life of its own.

Sometimes we will watch television together. She will sit like a crouched tiger ready to spring like a mousetrap, her frame hidden by a thick blanket, her legs resting on a stool, the dog next to her where she cuddles him and feeds him titbits off her supper plate affectionately. He doesn’t have to fight for her affections like I do. He transforms her into a maternal archetype of St. Francis. When she shouts, screams, she draws blood. I experience a rush of blood to the head. I see red. A furious beast spurned on by hate and a low, awful feeling of being rejected. She eats dates the color of blackstrap molasses.

I sweat. I levitate like the crescent of a half-moon, glowing resplendently in the night sky. I glow. I shine. I try sometimes half-heartedly not to give in to her insults. How else can I defend myself? My mouth is shut obstinately as if I have just tasted something unpleasant and foul. It is curled at the edges. My lips in a moue.

Is she happy? Is she sad? Is she despondent? Is she glowing? What is her ransom that she holds for my happiness? Money. She spends her pay cheque all in one go. She lives beyond her means. She buys extraordinary beautiful things that are expensive and breakable. My father always admonishes her when she spends too much but she never heeds his warnings.

It is my turn to cook supper. It is always a lavish affair. I always try my level best not to recreate the chaos and mayhem in the kitchen that I have always been known for. I leave everything from the vegetable scrapings, pots, pans, cooking utensils in disarray but the table must always be set beautifully. My mother is still hauntingly beautiful and elegant in her pyjamas although she is sullen, serious and quiet. The monster. I feel lost as I eat supper with my father. I feel like an orphan. I am consumed by food. Food becomes a feast. Of any food I demand that it immediately sates my anxiety, my lack of self-love and my mother’s great insensitivity. It is like poison seeping into my veins. I demand that it shifts and morphs my mother’s own depression, her dark spells and black moods into something which is as intelligent as the red, burning sun. Burning for eternity.

I desire her to be my mother most of all and that her demeanour would imply that she is soft, gentle and has a sweet manner. She wouldn’t be irrational, her behaviour erratic, eccentric and emotionally unstable.

When I eat, it is here that I hide the pieces of my broken heart. I get a temporary high from the portions, from the fragrant smell of roast chicken, the preparation and the extra servings.

Gulp, gulp, gulp. Every time she takes a swipe at me, one gulp, two helpings, two desserts and junk food. I feel a great sense peace at first like any addiction. Then I am filled with disgust, sickened and filled with self-hate. I also feel physical pain because I ate so much.

My attraction to food teaches me to forget the emotional pain. It calms me. It wants me. There are so many ways an addict validates what they are doing. It drives me to distraction what I am going to eat for breakfast, lunch and supper and what I’ll snack on in-between.

It feeds me. It feeds my heart and my soul. I feel it is the only entity that accepts me for who I am and doesn’t reject me.

Who gave her permission to do this to me? I hear a voice from far, far away in the dark say, “I did. I did.” My lips are moving but my mouth emits no sound. My soul has been found. The light flickers. I wish she would stay and watch the late movie on television with me but she is getting ready for bed.

“The movie is starting.” I say. I sound as if I am eight years old again. As if I am six. I am dancing round the room and I am growing younger singing, “Mummy, look at me, look at me, look at me. Watch me, I’m going to dive. See how far I can swim under the water holding my breath.

Inside I know she’s not looking and when I come up out of the water she’ll chastise me and say, “Abigail, stop showing off. Nobody likes a show off.” Then I would compliment her.

“Mummy, you’re so extraordinary. When I grow up I want to be just like you.” When I was little I lived for the attention she would give me. She would shine a spotlight on my face with the words of encouragement she would give me, or her eyes would meet mine and we would smile alone in our special, secret world like best friends or sisters.

I wait for her to say something. I wait for her to acknowledge me. She gets up and lets the dog out for his last run for the evening and checks that all the doors are locked. “Please stay.” But I am alone. She has already left the room. There is an air of displeasure. The dishes are dirty and have been piling up the whole day in the sink. My study where I write is in disarray and she has asked me repeatedly to tidy it. Her silent treatment is a steaming reproach.

I am fatally flawed and she is again horribly disappointed in me. Perhaps I haven’t fulfilled all her dreams after I ran away from home the first time. My growing years could be described as the cancer years. I had a disease to please everyone except myself. Through resistance I crumbled like a paper napkin in a world that was bedazzled by light and sophistication. It illuminated every rich man’s disease I had. The agony of being born with money, of never being needy, arrogance, of having a wilful, reckless nature, a chip on both shoulders and a perfectionist streak.

If daughters feel they have to be emancipated from their fathers what happens to their relationship with their mother as they grow older? I have often tried to suss the diagnosis of the relationship that I have with my mother.

As I sat at my grandmother’s funeral I felt sad that my mother and I weren’t talking to each other.

Mark is the shortest gospel. It serves as a plea, a benediction. Who art in heaven: place is leaning towards something which is arbitrary, trivial. There is always method, purpose and most of all divine meaning in prayer. I am trying my hardest to concentrate on the words. Questionable. Flagrant are words that are ringing in my ears. Behaviour. Niche. Hallowed be thy name. May the name of our Lord Jesus Christ always be praised and honoured with reverence and respect.

There is no scent of roses of here or of fragrant flowers with blossoms making curlicues and loop de loops. There are only wilting daisies. They didn’t ask my mother to make a bouquet for my Ouma’s funeral. The hypocrisy of small town family values makes me grind my teeth. It makes it impossible for me to love them, least of all like them or care for them all.

In this regard the female of the species is infinitely more deadly than the male. The outsiders quietly surrender to their fate. The wife of the black sheep. The daughter of the uncle who was hospitalised for depression.

A fate worth than the kiss of death. Mental illness. Next they will be saying that the daughter is worse than the father. She can’t control her tongue. Her serpent’s tongue.

Somebody let slip that my mother was working in a nursery. Somebody let slip that my brother had done well in his university exams. Somebody let slip that neither my brother nor my sister could make it to the funeral. Disclose. Disclose. Disclose. God, there are no secrets here. Why won’t they just let us be, my mother and me. Let them talk amongst themselves. I am trying hard not to focus on the determination that the brethren, the in-laws, the cousins and the world at large have wanting me to convert.

Off the mulberry tree came in the middle of the garden. This tall grand tree, magnificent and stately and all traces of sentimental childhood memory with it. I have often thought about what the history of the tree represented. It had been planted at my birth. My parents had taken a fancy to ceremony.

At my grandmother’s last birthday I make up stories of make-believe, fairytales and princesses locked in towers by ogres for my nieces and nephews. “Where are you going bag-man? What’s in a name Girly-Girl?” Luke can hardly hold his laughter in. He is five. I tickle Berniel. The adults look on, Bernice, Berniel’s mother somewhat perplexed and perhaps I am making a spectacle of myself but I feel as if I am beyond reproach. I have so little faith in myself.

My mother hired a painter one day. She knew best, about these matters, she said. He painted the whole daylong and made a right mess of it too and all. All the while I was longing to say to her, it serves you right for thinking that a man who wasn’t a professional could get the job done right. At the end of the day they paid him a day’s work and sent him on his way. My mother’s character is defined by how she treats the hired help. Criminal behaviour. She is eccentric. Is she growing more so as she grows older or has she always been different from other mothers, more open-minded and liberal?

We were not meant to be so absorbed in each other to the point of curbing the unlimited freewheeling freedom we had to obscure other people’s judgement and vision when it came to our own work or pleasure. What we both needed was breathing space and in the beginning, it was the last thing that either of us granted each other. We became fixated on one-upping each other at every opportunity in my father’s presence.

But nothing can take the place of her. The fantasy I have of her turning over a new leaf no matter what grievance she has against me is strong and pure like the flow of water when it is mixed with oil.

I must forgive her. How can I let go? She is my mother. I love her unconditionally. How can I make her love me? She likes me more when I say nothing at all. When I pursue nothing. When I do not attempt to do anything about my circumstances. When I am driven invisible. I have become the woman I feared the most. The mad woman who is a recluse, eccentric, driven invisible by society. Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre.

Family started to forget to call. Send invitations to weddings and family functions. There were no more birthday wishes. Anne Frank said all people were good at heart. I want to know what exactly goes on inside their exceptional pretty little heads. In June I am reminded of how leaves change, driftwood I come across on the beach, carrion and the blue triumph of the oblivion of the sky. There remain histories to be written. I must never lose sight of that. Although theorists and intellectuals are meant to be as obscure as the background of writers and their creative impulse and as full of black holes as the application of the subjunctive theory of metaphysics, a quantum measurement, that isn’t wholly true.

I am writing love letters to the writers who have come before me and the writers who will come after me. I am writing to reach the spirits of Susan Sontag, Rupert Brooke, Pablo Neruda, J. M. Coetzee, and Arthur Nortje. Writing, depression, abuse all lead to spiritual deaths. Memories are our love letters that we write to ourselves. It is to remember and rediscover the best of us. Writers are not the only people who have worthy voices, civilian women and children and men are each deserving – not more, not less deserving than the next. I want the ink on the page to be like the rivers of time. Its energy must keep on flowing. And on discovering the genius, the madness of Jean Rhys I discovered the genius in the madness of my father.

Now there will be no more curries and stir-fries, turmeric stained fingertips, a kitchen smelling of onions. Funerals can do this. They can make you feel the stigmata. They can make you see the scars of childhood, of your relatives. Mental illness can do this. It can isolate you, lick your weirdly-bent-out-of-shape spirit.

It can make people forget who you are, your name and your address.

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