Letters Home Take One: Anna & Elsie


Elsie & Anna

Elsie & Anna

This first letter home is about meeting up today with Anna and Elsie at the St. John’s Waterfront Lodge, where each year they take great care of our students, and me. Letters Home is what I imagine might be a way to share with folks from WPI the news from Cape Town – what’s up with the people, places and projects they grew a part of but only partially apart from upon leaving Cape Town. Beyond the news, I hope the letters will also reveal to me and others something that makes the news worth reading and writing about. I expect to let the people I write about have a chance to read or hear what I’ve written and to weigh in, whether with me individually (and I might change stuff to correct the record or keep the peace) or even better with you, dear readers, by leaving a reply. But maybe not always.

Having landed in CT late last night, I drove over today to Green Point to see what was happening with Elsie, Anna and Veronica and the lodge since the change in ownership a few months ago, which had the ladies worried about their jobs (and residence). Fortunately, the headline news is good – “Ladies not just retained, but very happy with new owners” – and so we could take most time to chat more about broader contours of life (on nicely repaired couch cushions).

How’s your family? Anna’s younger son Brenden’s doing very well at school grade 10, while Marshell is living in Kimberly with grandma, stalled 3 courses short of college graduation, no job. Why after six years knowing them do I get the guys’ names mixed up and forget basic facts of their lives? Mostly I guess because I’ve never known them well and what I remember from people seems to be the emotions and sensibilities of our meeting – how it feels – more than even the most basic, even essential information (“Your mother died 3 years ago? Shit, yeah I remember that now. Sorry!”).

Elsie’s husband from Belgium has been best left behind in Europe, she says, laughing behind clenched fist-to-mouth. Sisi Veronica’s on 2 week leave to help her mom who’s not feeling well up in the Eastern Cape. My sons are doing fine, thanks, while my wife’s feeling better after a hard month following a fall that broke her hand and left her struggling – hard sometimes to walk without your hands when you’ve got Parkinson’s disease (his name, your pain).

The rain is tapping down lightly in the cold of Cape Town, Anna makes us coffee and we settle into conversation that somehow we’ve never gotten to. Anna agrees with me that it was fun to have her, Elsie and Veronica at the students’ final presentations and celebration in December, but, “That food was terrible!” “What do you mean?” “It was curry or something, wasn’t it? You know us black people, we like our pap and chicken, simple foods.” “Well, how do you think about your ethnicity? ‘Cape coloured’ or something else?” (I ask as Anna and Elsie are both dark skinned Afrikaans speakers, while Veronica is Xhosa). “I’m Xhosa-Coloured” “We grew up an hour outside Kimberly in the Northern Cape,” says Elsie.

Their abbreviated story followed – hard childhoods (“no childhood”), long walks to school for Anna, passed along the same way by Elsie running, a few years older and so fast that Anna was amazed and deeply admired her, sought to be in her shadow, one of the many children in Elsie’s orbit, not least her 7 younger siblings. Anna’s parents had left her with an aunt, lonely. Both girls worked on the farm, white-owned, hard work picking grapes, often without shoes, for wages that Anna says on Monday bought 5 kilos each of mealie meal, bread flour, sugar, a couple tins of fish (I imagine sardines), rooibos tea, and maybe something else, but by end of Wednesday it was gone, “so Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, we’re hungry. No presents on Christmas. Can you imagine?”

At 18, Anna leaves for Joburg, where she gathers in a crowd at a TV store show window to see Nelson Mandela giving his speech as SA’s first democratically-elected president, and she wonders, what’s going on? Who is this guy? She’s never heard of the political foment that for her entire life has sought to undermine and overthrow a system of racial oppression that for her was both terrible and just the way things are. She soon leaves for Cape Town, takes a job in a factory and a year later learns from a friend of an opening at the lodge and she gets the job cleaning, and not too long later she hears from Elsie who is in town, who also gets hired on, and since then they have been inseparable, a deep, enduring, loving friendship.

They and Veronica all work hard, steady days, but not as hard as the farm. We feel mostly how friendly, caring, concerned they are for all of us (and they do amazing laundry — machine-washed, sun-dried, hand-folded, ironed, pressed, almost sinful to accept, but we do). Anna learned from former owner, Iris, and manager, Selinah, and through observation how to manage the office and handle phone calls and guests, an impressive achievement for Anna that she shares with Elsie and Veronica, even as they want nothing to do with these responsibilities. After initial anxiety – “Will we need to find new jobs, new places to stay?” – they are very pleased with the new owners, “so kind,” and hopeful for the future.

But earlier, apropos other experiences, “Why do white people run everything?” and more, “Why are they like that?” – meaning too often unconcerned, uncaring, unfair and angry. “I don’t know, though it’s not only a white thing, it seems to me, given the heartache visited by black people on blacks in many places. It seems to be a human power thing – too often those who can, will, and white Europeans got the technological, industrial and militaristic jump a few centuries ago and their descendants have exploited that advantage since. And the mystery is also how unhappy so many of us are – including too often me.” (This after Anna asked me “How was your growing up?” “Pretty happy, an older sister and two younger brothers, mom and dad, house, yard, all the food and stuff I could want, yet also selfish (My brother’s a pain!), and I remember how at about 9 years old the idea that my country had built enough nuclear weapons to blow up the world, repeatedly, and that scientists and schools and politicians had worked to make all this possible – looming – and the fact that most people seemed to think this was anything but insane (necessary, unremarkable, smart, profitable, just the way it is, not-to-worry…) had lodged in my head and never left (although it’s grown as much dust apparently as those almost forgotten behemoths in snoozing silos). Do you know what nuclear or atomic bombs are?” “No” “Well, just one or two could blow up all of Cape Town, and we have thousands of them still, and we actually dropped a couple on Japan long ago when they were brand new.” “Wow.”

So – a pretty wide-ranging conversation, a nice jump in knowing more about one another (and maybe people kind of like us), a sounding of both the very different worlds we can walk out of or fly in from and the ease with which our imaginations can be guided by someone we trust and care about to places we’ve never been, that may not exist any longer. Tomorrow I’m looking forward to the first of many long days ahead with Sizwe, trying to understand if and how our imaginations might connect with others to create in the going forward places we’ve not been, places that don’t yet exist, but seem worth trying to get to.



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