Memory Lane Chronicles
My grandfather had a little shop in a small town called Delareyville in South Africa, named after Boer general De La Rey. It was about the size of a typical small Crazy store today, which included the front part of the shop, a store room in the middle and a small bathroom at the back. The bathroom and store room served as the living quarters for the storekeeper as was the custom in the early 1900s, but my grandparents chose to live somewhere else later on.
In the front part of the main shopping area, my grandfather had a stationery counter at the entrance with a cash register. In the middle of the shop was another counter dividing the gifts, greeting cards and toys sections. This was his way to neatly sidestep the apartheid laws of having separate ‘white’ and a ‘non-white’ counters. In the end anyone who came in to buy stationery (not only non-whites) used the ‘stationary’ counter and those buying gifts (mostly whites) used the ‘gift’ counter to pay. The black headmasters though, who came in to buy a year’s stationery for their schools were offered a high chair, next to my grandfather’s at the ‘gift’ counter. There they would have rooibos tea and chat while my step grandmother scuffled around to make up the order. I remembered watching them talking, but I didn’t know about what. I could just see on the faces of the various men that came in and my grandfather’s that they enjoyed themselves.
Once new stock arrive, which included a toy doll that could ‘walk’ if you held her by her one stiff arm. I absolutely loved that doll. So, for my birthday at the end of that year, imagine my ecstasy when she became mine! I named her Lizanne. Two decades later I handed her down to my brother’s daughter.
My grandparents were Oupa Willie and Ouma Ralie. Oupa and ouma are the Afrikaans words for grandfather and grandmother. I ‘worked’ in their shop at the age of five, since my mother started working only two shops from there at the Boerewinkel (farmer’s shop). The Boerewinkel was a sort of supermarket and sold almost anything – from clothes to food to toys to appliances. It even had its own hair salon, which I think at a stage was the only one in town. It was a wonderful arrangement. I was close to my mother, but I could have fun with my grandfather the whole day!
Oupa Willie taught me to read and write numbers and let me help Ouma Ralie mark new stock. In those days the prices were written on a small sticker and attached to the back or front of a product – depending on what it was. Gifts were marked with those dainty little tags with a piece of string through a hole in the tag. Oupa Willie bragged with me regularly.
“She’s such a clever little one,” he used to say to a customer, although when he told me about all the things my little cousin, Rindie, living far away in Randfontein, could do, I didn’t feel so clever anymore. But I liked Rindie very much anyway. She looked like a little angel with her golden curly head of hair and when we saw each other – which weren’t often – I loved playing with her. I often wished that we lived closer together so that we could play all the time.
When I wasn’t ‘working’, I built puzzles. I didn’t have many puzzles, so to keep it challenging and to impress my oupa, I believe, I learned to build them with my eyes closed. Oupa Willie’s pride didn’t know its end! I would also ‘write’ stories in one of the ‘exercise’ books Ouma Ralie would give me from the stationery shelf. I loved stories. Sometimes she read me stories from the books in the shop. I even tried to read myself, but was frustrated because I couldn’t, so I kept asking everyone around me to read from a particular little story book and in doing so learnt the words by heart. I would then take the book and ‘read’ it to anyone who wanted to listen – concentrating very hard to turn the pages at the right places… The little book still sits between my Bibles on my bedside table today.
Ouma Ralie was my mother’s stepmom and things weren’t always going so well between them, but to me she was a great grandmother. She was also the only one near us, because Ouma Grietjie, my father’s mom (and my favourite grandmother) was living in the same town that my cousin Rindie lived. I was always jealous of Rindie living so close to Ouma Grietjie – although she wasn’t even Rindie’s grandmother and they probably didn’t even know each other! I loved Ouma Ralie though. She read me stories and gave me rooibos tea and Rice Crispies in a Tupper bowl for breakfast. To me that equalled love. (Rooibos tea is a very tasteful herbal tea original to South Africa and is mostly grown in in the northern parts of the country.)
The few years in Oupa Willie’s shop is of the best early childhood memories I have had. Before my parents moved into town, we lived on a farm closer to our neighbouring town and we had to wait for our grandparents to visit us once a week to see them. On one of his annual visits, my big brother, Pieter – sixteen years older than me – and our youngest brother, Willa, who is nine years older than me, built us a tree house and Willa and I would go sit in it on the evenings we knew they would come to visit. Then we would shoot Oupa Willie’s car wheels with arrows from our little self-made bows, before we made our way down the rope ladder to receive sweets which he always magically retrieved from the pocket of his large pants. Heart problems made my father seek another job and we moved to the town Oupa Willie lived in. By that time it was already only me living with my parents, as Ouboet Piet was far away in Pietersburg (now Polokwane) and Willa and my sister, Marieta – twelve years older than me – stayed in the school hostel in our neighbouring town, Sannieshof, during the week.
The store room in the shop stockpiled fireworks, something which could be sold at almost any outlet in those days. Oupa Willie also rigged up his camera equipment in a corner of the store room, where he took identity document photographs and other portraits on request.
In my oupa’s shop I experience two things that I would love for the rest of my life – photography and writing.
I loved watching Oupa Willie fidgeting with the buttons on the boxy camera and then throw the black cloth over his head before he took a picture. And when he did, it was as if the world around him froze. Myself included, as the person whose picture was taken, had to remain motionless. And for several moments before and after Oupa Willie pressed the button, he also remained motionless. So, in honour of this almost holy process – or maybe it was just to participate in the action – I froze too. I didn’t breathe until he removed the cloth covering his head, with Oupa Willie sweating and sometimes breathing with difficulty as he had damaged lungs, injured through years of working in a mine. Then I couldn’t wait to see the picture. Unfortunately, I have absolutely no memory of the development process. I guess the technical detail of the mysterious process of developing photographs didn’t interest me enough back then. Perhaps I just thought that my Oupa Willie performed a miracle every time he pressed the button of his black picture-taking box and that was enough for me at that stage.
Oupa Willie also sold Helen Steiner Rice greeting cards in his shop. These cards fascinated and frustrated me at the same time. Unlike the other greeting cards these didn’t have big, colourful pictures on the front, but had a printed message, with lots of words. Somehow, they were just more beautiful to me than the other colourful cards. The only thing was – I couldn’t read them. So, sometimes when no one was in hearing distance, I would go to the greeting card stand, take one of the cards and concentrate very, very hard. I thought maybe, if I tried hard, the letters would reveal themselves to me and I would be able to recognise them, like I did with the numbers and I’ll be able to read the words and the sentences. But to no avail. I even tried to write them and filled Ouma Ralie’s exercise book with scribbles – trying to write real letters. But alas, I couldn’t read my scribbles and I’m absolutely, positively sure that no one else would either.
Unfortunately, in those days nobody cared to teach a pre-schooler the basics of the alphabet. My parents were too busy and as a late arrival in the family, my siblings weren’t home most of the time. And there wasn’t a crèche to go to. Or maybe there was already, but it wasn’t the norm. Most of us pre-schoolers hung out with our mothers or grandparents. (Thanks for that, because otherwise I would have missed all the adventures in Oupa Willie’s shop!) So, my frustration only ended when I went to school and learned to read and write more than just numbers.
The frustration didn’t go away entirely, because I had an appetite for words and stories and in school one didn’t get much opportunity to feed the always-hungry Word Monster. I did, however, decide then that I would one day find a way to write for a living – in spite of being told that it was such a difficult career to follow – especially in South Africa. But that didn’t stop me and although I can’t make a living on what I earn from writing today, I still write. But watch this space… And something great came out of this desire, because our Father in heaven gave me the idea of The Writing Club, a club I founded to help children get the willing and unwilling words in their heads onto paper. So, today I work very, very hard and earn very little money from it, but I’m doing it anyway, because I love writing and I love to help other people write. And to think that it all started in my grandfather’s tiny shop in a little South African town.
Thank you, Oupa Willie. I still think of you very often. And I miss you so very much – even after all these years. And now that I am older and not as clever as that five year old anymore, I sometimes wish that I could just spend one single day more with you in this life – to ask you many, many questions for which I’m sure you would have at least some answers for.
© 2013 Riëtte de Kock
I am trying hard to be a Proverbs 31-woman – excellent wife, finest mom, greatest lover and successful entrepreneur and freelance writer all at the same time! I share a living space in Pretoria, South Africa with my husband, son, mother, four dogs and sometimes the neighbours’ cats – and my head with way too many ideas and multitudes of story characters.
Visit my website at www.thewritingclub.co.za and buy my children’s ebook, Yeovangya, on Amazon Kindle at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Yeovangya-ebook/dp/B008CP2RQ0
My Afrikaans blog is available on my website – or just click on this link: http://www.thewritingclub.co.za/writingclub/index.php?option=com_lyftenbloggie&view=lyftenbloggie&category=bloggies&Itemid=66