The first decade – childhood

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February 23, 2013 by talkaboutyork

I apologise for the length of this blog post. I have tried to cut it down and have left out a bunch – but this is a gift to me. It’s a reminder of my life to date. I’m sharing it with you, but it’s hard to condense ten years into a blog post. Some of it is also very personal and I wonder whether I should share it at all, but I have. So forgive me.

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I don’t remember much before I was about five (who does?). But my memories seem to come from sepia tinged photographs showing a pudding bowl haircut framing a round, serious face; and the oft repeated family stories that seem to grow and shrink and reshape as the years pass.

Stories like the countless nights my father spent marching up and down trying to get me to stop crying as a baby. Or how difficult I was. Or how I had my own language for many years (Gong gong ama in de ufu = the horse swims in the water).

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Or that I insisted on being called Princess Lulubelle, Queen of the Fairies, and that I wouldn’t respond to anything but that. Which is why my family still calls me Loo. Meanwhile, family friends called me Smell. Just to wind me up. They never knew just how much that crushed me. I’ve never liked being laughed at.

I grew up in a small village in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. You don’t get many places in the world like it. I’ve described it here once before. Our first house was opposite the railway station. It was a single story building, like most houses in the village are. It had  a big back garden with a huge fig tree. There was a garage at the bottom of the garden, which featured a little brass plaque on the door that said: ‘Do not alight while the train is moving.’ For years I thought that the entire train door had been stolen, rather than just the plaque.

I had a pink panther called Pinky. I used to swing him around by his long tail, until my father got hold of him one day, swung him around and the tail came off. Pinky ended up on the top of a high hedge. I ended up in hysterics. Happy days.

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There were other memorable moments that stand out in a young child’s mind – like the time a huge snake came into the house (the snake didn’t survive, we did), the time there was a thunderstorm (a rarity) and we were allowed to sit on the stoop outside in our pyjamas watching the lightening display, clutching teddies; and the many hours I sat alone at the dining table, staring at a plate of vegetables which I would never, ever eat.

My granny and grandpa’s house as it is today with the ‘kaffirbooms’ outside it

Life stayed exactly the same, until my granny died and we moved in with my grandpa, who lived on the river side of the village. I don’t remember much about my granny, other than that she could be quite fierce, made lumpy porridge (which to this day I prefer) and would give us butter and sugar mixed together if we had a cough. She also complained if we used more than one square of toilet paper a time, which I found challenging.

My grandpa had emphysema. He was thin, frail, carried an oxygen canister around with him and was a bit scary to a small girl. My only memory of him doing anything with us was when he packed digestive biscuits for the poor. We were allowed to help, by eating the broken biscuits. We might have broken a few more than were originally in the broken pile….the poor didn’t stand a chance really.

I remember listening to Abba records in that house, dancing around a circular table with my sisters and cousins, picking mulberries from the huge mulberry tree, collecting lucky beans from the ‘kaffirboom’ tree (politically incorrect name but there you go) and having my baby brother arrive so that we had a real living doll to play with.

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My older sister sporting the smart uniform of the ‘town’ school, me in the village school uniform and my younger sister off to playschool.

It gets hazy with the timing, but at some point we left the village and moved into ‘town’ so that we could be close to school. School. That was a big change too. Going from a tiny village school that had just three classrooms and a headmaster who would regularly shoot rabid meerkats that strayed into the classroom, while we stood on our desks; to a properly refined all girl school with what seemed like hundreds of children. We had to wear hats and everything! I never felt fully at home in my new school. I was always the new girl. It was too big. I was the country bumpkin who preferred not to wear shoes. 

My sisters and I would walk what must have been about a mile there and a mile back, without a parent accompanying us, carrying very heavy suitcases and crossing roads on our own. Kids today would not be allowed to do that.

That house in town had a swimming pool and an upstairs (a novelty). I even got my own bedroom with new ballerina bedding and curtains. But we all hated living there. It wasn’t home. So we returned to the village.

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This time we moved to the house next door to my grandparents old house. And for a short time, life seemed normal. I started sailing (as shown above). I fell in love with a boy  (I know 8 is young to fall in love, but who are we to question matters of the heart). He didn’t love me back, but that didn’t stop me from following him everywhere. And when I wasn’t at school or sailing, we lived a free life, full of secret spy camps, adventures and playing out for hours and hours.

And then one sunny August day in 1983, while playing hockey on the towpath, my parents called us into their bedroom, which featured the world’s biggest bed, capable of fitting all six of us in at one time.

They told us they were getting divorced (or as I wrote in my diary: Deforced). This was less dramatic than it sounds. Mainly because we didn’t fully understand what it meant. We were all sad and confused. My diary entry for that day is evidence of that (a lot of P.S and P.P.S footnotes saying things like ‘this is the worst day of my life’ and rather theatrically ‘Why must my life be so full of misery?’).

But my parents did a good job of making it seem like it wouldn’t be that bad. I was appeased with the promise of my own puppy. The puppy didn’t last long. I hated it within minutes of getting it. To this day I’m not a dog person. I’m sure some psychoanalyst could have a field day with that one.

My first decade ended with us living back in the house I first lived in. My dad wasn’t far away, it was almost as though they weren’t divorced.  Life just continued. In ten years I’d lived in 4 different houses (one of them twice). I’d had some jolts – the death of two grandparents, a change in schools, the arrival of a sibling eight years younger than me, my parents divorcing.

Although I had immense freedom in these early years, looking back on it and really trying hard to remember what I felt back then, the overwhelming feeling of my childhood was one of anxiety and tension. Right until typing it this moment, I’ve never viewed my childhood that way. I’ve always thought of it as carefree and happy. And it was. But perhaps, starting with me being labelled (quite justifiably) by most of the village as ‘the naughty child’, and then the series of incidents that happened thereafter, I feel as though I was constantly waiting for the next bad thing to happen.

That said, I’ve often wished my own children could have a childhood like mine. It was so simple. We had no need for fancy toys. We had the entire village to play in. We’d just knock on a friend’s door and say: ‘do you want to play?’ And that was it. No play dates. No ‘let’s schedule something for the half term’. It was just us and our imaginations against the world.

Treats were a rarity and something to be savoured, not taken for granted. Like going to Wimpy for a Benjamin Bender or to the Dolphinarium tearooms for a coke float; watching the switching on of the Christmas lights; going to Happy Valley and Playland; getting 20c pocket money on sweetie day to go buy Chappies bubblegum and Wilson’s toffees from the Braude Bros shop; having tea and cake after sailing. Simple pleasures.

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So after that whistlestop tour through the first ten years of my life, what things did my childhood give me that makes me the almost 40 year old I am today?

I like to believe it’s an ability to adjust and adapt. A love of spontaneity and freedom. A pretty vivid imagination. Being a dreamer. Being independent. A love of sailing. An unorthodox, yet strong, family bond. A desire to give my children the same happy memories. A yearning for big skies and the freedom to roam. A desire to be liked.

Thank you to my mom and dad for my childhood. It wasn’t perfect. But it was pretty darn brilliant given the circumstances life throws at parents. And it laid the foundations of who I am today. Even if, looking back, I was tense and anxious, is this the face of an unhappy child? Nope, didn’t think so.

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4 thoughts on “The first decade – childhood

  1. Lovely post and very well written. And very interesting. It’s funny how we tend to think of our childhoods as idyllic but when you pick apart the pieces, you find that there was a lot that wasn’t fun.
    I think I’m going to try to write something similar when I turn 40, if you don’t mind the copying.

  2. Lucy Inskip says:

    lovely Melissa, it’s funny how when we meet as adults we don’t often talk about childhoods at all – beautifully written. Lucyx

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