When I was seventeen, in my final year of high school, I was sitting in a cold exam hall. We were waiting to write an Afrikaans Creative writing exam. It was one of those exams where you had to write a short essay with a certain amount of words, with 20 topics to choose from. Normally during exams like those I would choose a topic, plan my thoughts, write notes in pencil and then start to piece everything together, editing as I went along. But this time was different: this time I chose my topic, picked up my pen and wrote the whole essay from start to finish in one go. On that crisp autumn morning every word I wrote just oozed from my heart.
The topic: “To have a grandma…” My reason for choosing that topic: The loss of mine…
On the eve of 6 May 1997, a few days prior to my exam, my 86 year old beloved grandma passed away.
I remember that I cried while reading that essay at her funeral. It was the last time I cried…
We had two Grandma’s named Hester, so my father’s mom was known as Ouma Cloete (her surname from her second marriage) and my mom’s mom Ouma Potch, as she lived in Potchefstroom.
Ouma Potch and I had a special bond. She made me feel cherished and loved. She actually had a gift of making most people feel extra special and loved. My sister Louise wrote an incredible post about exactly that. Read “Through Heaven’s eyes” to get another account of my Gran’s unconditional love and amazing spirit.
It was the greatest excitement when Ouma Potch came to visit. I remember climbing on our farm house rooftop with binoculars in hand, waiting to see a glimpse of her white Ford Cortina on the horizon. I would then run up the road to greet her. I loved carrying her luggage inside as soon as she arrived. She normally gave me her olive green vanity case to carry. To this day the smell of cutex remover and hairspray transports me back to that time.
Her visits were filled with baskets containing delicious goods to eat and drink (she made the most delicious spiced biscuits), hours of stories before bedtime, silliness during dinner time (she used to throw us with napkins while my Dad was saying grace), heart-to-heart afternoon chats on the sunny porch (me laying on her soft lap) and lots of jokes. She had a repertoire of personal stories and jokes to tell. I loved listening to all her adventures. The family would always joke around at how many times she had told a story, but Ouma would just pull a face and continue.
During those sunny afternoon moments we would dream about my future. What I would be doing when I was all grown up? What would my home look like? And my husband? We had a big rock in the garden and I vividly remember my Ouma saying that my future husband “moet eers ‘n gat deur daardie klip piepie voor ek hom goedkeur my kind” (had to pee a hole through that rock before she would give her approval).
As Ouma grew older she moved from Potchefstroom to an old age home in Parys, Free State and eventually the frail-care unit of the old age home in our town, Standerton in the then Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga).
I remember visiting Ouma at least once a week after school, choir or hockey practice. She shared her room with another old lady and would always “brag” at her grandchildren’s achievements. She also came to spend weekends at our home and although her body was growing weaker, her endearing spirit kept her going.
But in the beautiful words of my sister Louise: “In the end her heart could not keep up with her spirit. She gradually became weaker and weaker… The day they inserted a catheter and took her dignity, Ouma Potch decided to die.”
To me it was the weirdest thing. The one day she was still joking around, telling stories about her friends at the home and the next day she was completely silent, refusing to eat, drink or speak to anyone. I remember thinking she was pulling a bad trick on us and that she would greet us with a naughty smile during our next visit explaining and apologising for her weird behaviour. But she didn’t. Ouma continued growing weaker and through all this my amazing mom tried everything in her power to make her eat and speak to us. Ouma even clenched her teeth when my mom tried to feed her nutritional shakes. After eight weeks I just couldn’t take her stubbornness, silence and wilted look in her eyes anymore.
I stopped visiting her.
I was so incredibly angry at my Gran. She was one of the strongest and most independent people I knew. I just couldn’t grasp how this formidable woman I looked up to my whole life, the woman who taught me to keep going, could just give up… on life…on us.
She passed away a month after my last visit.
Overwhelmed with regret, the bitterness I felt in my heart created a numbness in my soul.
I remember experiencing emotions in the following three years after her death, but I don’t remember crying…
My emotional dam wall broke in October 2000. I was watching “Pay it Forward” and in a very touching scene the beautiful song “Calling all Angels” was playing. For the first time in three years I shed a tear, and in fact couldn’t stop crying…
In that moment I realised that I hadn’t forgiven my Gran and that my bitterness and regret hindered me from remembering all the love and goodness that was my beloved Ouma Potch. In a place where you would least expect it, I had my catharsis moment and cracked. I regretted not holding her hand and singing our favourite songs together, I regretted not reading stories to her, I regretted not being there in her last days and I regretted not saying goodbye… I still believe God used something as silly as a song in a movie to restore my soul. In that cinema I not only forgave my Gran, but it started a process of forgiving myself as well.
Now, years later I often imagine what Ouma Potch would say about my life, my husband and our boys. I definitely know she would approve and if she was here; I know she would take our eldest on her lap, read him a story and while winking, smuggle one of her spiced biscuits into his hand without me seeing…
Below is the essay I wrote: (Read the original Afrikaans essay here)
To have a grandma…
By Pauli Havemann, age 17
It was a long road, I remember. Every tree, telephone pole and farm house was known to me. It was the longest road, but the most rewarding, because I knew Grandma was waiting in her little old-age home flat. Alone.
Memories. The flower on my pillow, Smarties on the bedside table, all of it was Grandma’s handiwork. To me, having a grandma meant: a bedtime story, a cup of warm custard, a comfort when mom was a bit strict and….. a smile filled with love.
“Time determines everything my child” she used to say. I couldn’t understand it, why does time determine everything? I know now, a few years later: Time means aging.
The long road to Grandma later changed to a quickly-jump-in-the-car-trip to the old age home in our town. Passed were the days of Smarties, flowers, stories and cups of warm custard. The warm, inviting flat was no more. In its place a dull hospital bed in the frail care section of the old age home. If you searched for the love-filled smile, you only got a sad look through half-mast, wilted, pale blue eyes. I realised with a shock that Gran’s words: “Be courageous and endure” were no longer part of her vocabulary. Her will was gone. Her will to live. I think back to the time that Gran told me that family is the most important thing in life. I don’t understand. We were still there for her. I suddenly realised that to have a Gran is to know the meaning of time. All the dictionaries and encyclopaedias can say what they want, time is to love, to live, to grow, to be happy, sad and also, time is…… to grow old.
Dear Gran, thank you for everything. No more is she sitting lifeless in her hospital bed. The sparkle in her eyes are back. She is singing and dancing. Her love-filled smile is wider than ever.
I know now that she lived, happily, she loved, but I also know…. time passed.
1994: Me, Ouma Potch and my brother Heinrich
Photos by: Personal and Pixabay