My father’s father passed away when I was five.
If it wasn’t for his death, maybe none of this would ever have happened.
All I can remember about him is that he was a joker. There was a particular incident in the middle of a very chaotic morning in De Aar…
It was a few days before Christmas and hundreds of people were milling in and out of shops trying to get the last bit of shopping done. There were cars everywhere, the ones that couldn’t get into a parking space were double-parked in front of shop doors, making it nearly impossible for anyone to move. It was hot, noisy, bustling with excitement and frustration and my mom and I were sitting in the car, waiting for my grandparents to buy veggies. When they exited the green grocer, their predicament was obvious on my oupa’s face; he knew that they would struggle terribly to get out across the road, with traffic as mad as it was. Suddenly he pulled his face and contorted his body like that of a severely disfigured man and started hobbling off the pavement, one arm rounded to accommodate a huge watermelon.
My ouma followed close by and cars stopped all around them – out of pity or sympathy or something else I was too young to grasp – as they made their way across the street. He really put it on and people stared at him as he even twitched randomly every so often. As soon as they were both seated in the car, my ouma blushed a deep red and scolded him for abusing the privileges of the disabled like that. I was doubled up with laughter.
The only other incident I clearly remember involving him was when he wasn’t alive any more and my mom, grief-stricken and hysterical, told me the sad news. He died of a kind of cancer; I really don’t know which one. My younger sister was born around the same time.
I’m also not sure if the tradition of having every single Christmas with my ouma and ouma-grootjie in De Aar only started then, but I know it stuck for about eight or so years following his death. My parents moved around a lot and no matter where we lived at the time the drive to De Aar was always terribly long and I wasn’t a pleasant passenger; I’m still not. I get bored and hot and claustrophobic and irritable.
Our arrival was always the same: I would get out to open the gate to the driveway that ran along the side of the house to the back yard; my dad would often leave me at the gate to close it and run to the back door on my own. My two oumas, one very large and heavy, her mother thin and miserable – we never liked one another – and Johan, my youngest uncle and my ouma’s laatlammetjie, would come down the three steps from the kitchen to the yard and hug and kiss us; even the poodle was overjoyed.
The swinging back door was covered in gauze to keep the hundreds of flies outside and had a square at the bottom for the dog to get in and out through. I’ll never be able to forget the sound of that damn door swinging open and slamming shut so many, many times over the course of the few days on either side of Christmas, as more and more family members arrived and left again.
There were people everywhere: in all the bedrooms, on all the mattresses dragged into the rooms, on all the couches and carpets in the lounge. My little spot was on the second single bed of two in Johan’s room.
Maybe I was still five when it happened the first time, but maybe I had already turned six; maybe I just can’t recall the other times it happened, if there were any. I don’t remember exactly how it started, but suddenly my mom turned the bedroom light back on after having declared it to be bedtime a few minutes earlier. She caught me in Johan’s bed. I doubt she actually saw me in his bed – I jumped out like a flash and was standing with my back to her, panicky and breathless, fidgeting to straighten out the elastic of my pajama pants that had twisted all wrong when I pulled them up too fast.
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My mom grabbed me by the arm and made me follow her into the bathroom, where I burst into tears, trying to convince her that nothing had happened. I was sent back to bed, after promising to stay in my own bed and sleeping with the light on.
Lights never made any difference though. As time passed and my body changed from little girl to prepubescent to teenager the things that were done to it and with it and inside it ranged from soft careful little touches in the dark to full penetration in broad daylight in a filthy public toilet on a sports field.
Family tradition to me meant having to try and keep religion and sexual abuse separate in my mind although they seemed entangled forever, the one being used as a cover-up for the other. The tradition that was upheld all those years seemingly for my ouma’s sake, ended with her becoming very ill when I was about fourteen. If it wasn’t for her death, maybe none of this would ever have ended.
My mom knew about all of this all those years. She walked in on it the first time and told my dad, but she was also Bipolar and it was just another crazy idea of a very disturbed woman.
Why would they have believed her?