My last grandparent passed away this weekend. Ouma Bregje died in her sleep at the ripe old age of 94. Born in 1922 in South Africa, she lived through World War 2, saw the world change from steamships and telegrams to trips to the moon and the instantaneous of the internet. Her mother, my great grandmother, Moekie, survived the British concentration camps that killed 25% of all Boer women and children during the second Boer War. They never spoke of it.
Raised on a farm called Perseverance, Ouma went to secretarial school because, as she put it to me, “I was smart enough to be a doctor, but smart enough to know that wasn’t possible.” She was grandmother to ten girls (all pictured here at my sister’s wedding in 1993 in Pretoria), no boys until the next generation. Ouma was a feminist without ever using the word, simply in her “get it done” words and deeds.
Ouma raised my sister and I while my parents were stationed in Sweden in the 80s, taking us in every other weekend from boarding school. I was ten when this began. It couldn’t have been easy to take care of two spirited developing girls. One time, I was grounded for tanning topless with some other boarders on the science lab roof during “rest”–two hours every weekend afternoon from 1:30-3:30PM when we were supposed to stay in our “cubes”–and she was so, so, so mad at me that she refused to help me with my laundry for the rest of the term. Hand washing your unmentionables for an entire term will force you to reflect on whether the whole-body caramel tan you were working on was worth it. (It was.)
Ouma was strict, but fun and playful too. She played badminton well into her Seventies. I used to join her at her club, an energetic, athletic 13 year old, and those “old ladies” smoked me on the court. Fierce and fair, that was Ouma.
After emigrating, Ouma and I exchanged letters–Aerograms, to be precise–for many years, but these started to peter out as I got busier, and she got older. Louis and I were honored to attend her 80th birthday party in South Africa. I saw her a couple of times after that, and managed through the marvel of social media to see photos of her with extended family, grandkids, great grandkids, albeit watching her slowly wither away into a shadow of her formidable self. Such is a long, long life into death.
Last year, my sister saw Ouma one last time. As it is, you have good intentions, and I had meant to send photos and a letter, but time was running out. In a mad dash, because I knew it may well be the last opportunity to connect with Ouma at all, I did the late night Staples run to print out photos of my life with Louis, my activism, our travels, and Nellie. I wrote a heartfelt card and overnighted it to my sister to take to Ouma. It got there in time. It’s a great relief to me that even though it was a year ago, I did get to say some sort of goodbye.
Random memories: Baking rusks and letting us eat the “wet ones” with butter–actually, probably margarine–as a treat before they got tea-dunking hard. Lots of “strange grains” for meals–oats, barley, buckwheat, you name it. Letting us sit in Oupa’s Lazy Boy chair to watch the late night movie on TV but getting mad when we treated it like the captain’s chair in Star Trek, shooting the chair up and down and up and down–Quit it, kids! The net over the fig tree and picking figs and divvying them up fairly between everyone who was present (we weren’t saving ANY!). Swinging in the back yard, how high can we go? Her love of gardening, and watching her with a big floppy sunhat and a water can out at daybreak and sunset. Teaching me about different plants, how to suck the honeysuckles, but check for ants first! The blooming lilac and purple “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’s” at the top gate. Her glaucoma, which meant she would never look straight at the camera for a photo, in case it flashed. Most of our photos of her are sidelong, just like this one.
To Ouma, I thank you for being a rock for me. Thank you for always emphasizing right and wrong, for providing a moral compass and an ethical basis for life. You never waivered in your religious beliefs, and even when I became agnostic, you never gave up on me. Thank you for being the most badass granny, the only person I ever knew to drink Campari and orange juice and relish in its bitterness. You chose to make life sweet. Rest in peace, Ouma… You deserve it!