My 80-year-old mother-in-law is visiting us from Denmark. In her softly-spoken, white-haired five-foot-nothingness this small, unassuming woman is the unmitigated matriarch and warm, beating heart of the large Rehn family. And spending long periods of time with her as we have been doing has reminded me of how much my daughters need to know these people who’ve been around for a long time and have lived in different worlds from the one we do now – worlds where things were scarce and times were tough and the fact that life was a series of hardships was nothing anyone bothered commenting on; it’s just the way it was.
On her first evening with us I went downstairs to hang up the clothes of hers that needed hanging, and as I carefully arranged the handful of outfits she’d packed to wear on her visit to Africa – each item having been washed a lot of times and smelling faintly of meadows but still good as new because, while frugality is second nature to her, everything she buys is of the best quality and made to last (nothing like my wardrobe which is full of things I wore once and lost interest in because it was too ‘fashion’/cheap/impractical) – I thought how different our disposable world must feel to her compared to her day where, if you wanted something, you worked and saved and waited and then, when you finally got it, understood its value and took care of it accordingly.
She tells a story about her own mother who fell in love with a set of candlesticks which she couldn’t afford so she made a deal with the owner of the shop that she would pay them off over 12 months. Knowing her family and their reputation, he urged her to take them right away, but she refused until she had paid off every last cent. People were different back then. And I was especially reminded of this fact when I found myself alone in Sweden with a toddler and a newborn and, despite our comfortable apartment and every convenience a new mother could want, flailing and struggling to cope in this challenging new role which was much, much harder than any job I’d ever performed and expecting, as I did, that life would always be fun. And my mind boggled at how this tiny woman managed to have five children in six years in a two-roomed flat with no help and no convenience anything, and cloth nappies which you washed by boiling them in a pot on the stove. I still don’t know how she did it.
Since my mom-in-law’s visit coincided with the start of the school holidays, we decided to go away for a few days, and – after much deliberation – opted for a cabin in the mountains on a farm outside of Montagu because we’ve been there before and know it’s nice. And it’s a bit special for us because it’s where we went on our first weekend away together when we barely knew one another but were starting to like what we saw. Driving up the steep, winding Burger Pass I remembered doing that drive 15 years back, tragically hungover from the previous night’s wild shenanigans in some hotel in Joburg with a mad music journalist and the members of a local band, trying to disguise the fact that I was dry-heaving all the way, having neither slept nor eaten since I got on the plane two days before.
And that weekend (once I got some sleep and had a proper meal) we went for walks and looked up at the stars, but we ourselves were the brightest stars of all – young, educated, ambitious, and the future was as endless as the vistas of that valley. And while this time around the valley was every bit as beautiful as it was when we first visited it, the spaces of ourselves have narrowed to become what we need to be for the people we love. We are no longer a young couple holding hands and gazing out onto a landscape of opportunity and wonderfulness, we are two very important pillars holding up the sanctified structure of our family. Its ability to protect our children from life’s earthquakes depends on our ability to protect one another, and there is more invested in that seemingly casual brushing of a hand against a shoulder in passing than meets the eye. Being the pillars is about having the mettle to hold the inevitable frustrations which are part of married life – and life, generally – and the maturity to be kind and forgiving in the face of disappointment. Because we are now the people whose job it is to keep it all together.
And it’s not not fun and wonderful, it’s big fun, and a different kind of wonderful. It’s not escaping a function to run around a mad city in the middle of the night with interesting strangers, it’s making a chicken potjie with dried peaches and muscadel and slicing the burnt bottom off the pot bread and bumping into each other on the way out of the door with one of you holding a salad and stopping and taking a moment to exchange a look while the kids run around underfoot and then lying in bed too early because you’re so full you can’t speak and watching the firelight flicker on the ceiling and smiling because you might be high on a mountain-top miles away from where you live, but you’ve never been so at home in all of your life.
The ancientness of the Great Karoo was a good place to remember these things and think these thoughts – its tiny, forgotten train stations with names like ‘Rietfontein’ and ‘Draai’; signs against the koppies assuring us that we were ‘Karoo Befok’; dusty tea shops decorated with plastic flowers where the butter is hand-churned and cooled into the shape of hearts. And I wonder, sometimes, what people belong to when they don’t make the kind of choices I did; or when they made the choice and then stuff happened that made them unmake it. If they miss that sense of place, or just find other ways of being. My world is so that, so full of children and family and busyness it’s hard to imagine a different way.
Even though she still cycles to the market, keeps her large garden perfectly manicured and single-handedly hosts three-course dinner parties for her entire extended family, I’m not sure Kirsten Rehn will make it back to South Africa. We’ve been lucky to have her with us.