The First Time I Wanted to Love Differently From My Mother

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I know a dangerous kind of love. A crazy kind of love that causes some people to empty out their own souls for those they love, a Jesus kind of love. Mama’s love.

Like all mother-daughter relationships, my mother and I have a tense relationship as though we are both walking on a tightrope. The tension is framed by my fear of becoming like my mother and her fear of me becoming myself and unrecognisable to her. In her eyes, it makes sense that I should be in her image because that’s safe and know-able for her. Somehow we are both aware of this tension even though we do not speak about it directly, it always emerges in the stories she tells me about her childhood.

Every time I came home from school with an award or an extra badge or scroll on my blazer she would reminisce about her school days and the awards she received. Once she came home from school with an award recognising her diligence at school and her sister responded with a jest that I battle translating into English “Le ithi uyazigqatsa” (This certificate means that you are forward). She still tells this story repeatedly—almost without fail whenever I come home with good news about my progress at university. The look in her eyes tells me that she internalised these words as a message that being her best self means trying too hard, being forward, being too much. However she always makes an effort to encourage me as that is what she never received in her younger life.

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Another of her favourite stories that makes her eyes gleam with satisfaction recalls a selection to present flowers to Mrs Baden-Powell upon her visit in South Africa[1] in the 1960s. She always adds that she did not view herself as a remarkable child, but adults trusted her and enjoyed her presence even as a young child.

Her childhood stories reveal her own tensions with her own mother who had little time to show affection to her children. A single (never married) mother of six children, independently raising her children on a seamstresses salary during the height of apartheid in the 1960s. When we (I have two older sisters) sit at home with her and bake, sew, draw, dance or do anything a mother does with her daughters (sometimes she watches us while we read and asks us to tell her the stories afterwards), she recalls how her mother never made time to indulge her with time spent at home enjoying each other’s company.

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When Mama was barely 10 she had the responsibility of looking after her siblings while her mother was at work. She was expected to do well at school and cook and clean and mind her younger siblings—she never had time to play outside with other children. Once my grandmother, Bhele[2], came home and her son who was a few months old  was crying uncontrollably. Upon enquiry little Mama explained that she had tried her best in feeding him and trying to get him to sleep but to no avail. Bhele investigated every nook and cranny on her son and stripped him to his nappies. She discovered that his penis had been caught in the safety pin where the cotton nappy was pulled together. There was no sympathy for Mama; her carelessness was rewarded with a forceful slap that sent her flying across the room. At times she remembers how she endured a cut on her head because Bhele threw a saucer at her after she had not cooked “istif’papa” correctly. She discovered the wound days later when she fainted at school.

Bhele’s mother died when she was very young and her father, a Baptist minister, felt compelled to marry in order to have a helpmate raise his 6 children. Memory reveals two accounts of this woman, Ivy. Bhele interpreted her authoritarian discipline with colonial influence as cruelty; and her bouts in bed because of her sickness is interpreted as laziness. According to Mama, she was a frail woman who was constantly in bed with asthma or diabetes related sickness, but when she recovered she was a studious housekeeper who had strict rules about decorum in her house. Mama was raised by Ivy and my great-grandfather, uTata (father in isiXhosa)[3]. When she talks of Ivy, she uses the title mama (mother in isiXhosa) and calls Bhele, Bhele—Ivy is her mother even more than 40 years after her death.

Generations later and mother love in my family is fraught with tension. Mama showers us with the love she never received from Bhele. She believes that being raised by Ivy and uTata allowed her to know what love is. In her short life with them, she found a safe space and was allowed to be herself. They passed away within a month of each other and Mama’s safe space was buried when they were buried. Her grief is evident in her tears every time she tells the story about the experience of losing her Ivy and uTata. She never cried until they were at the cemetery and the service was over.

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The tension is aggravated as my sisters and I grow older and we see the world through our own eyes. None of us want to be like Mama. Her love is dangerous to the point where her entire existence revolves around her three daughters (evidence of a good God because for once she got what she prayed for). She raised us “esibambe ngamazinyo” (holding us by her teeth)[4] which means that as much as her love was and still is translated through her sacrifices, it is still mediated by her precarious space in the world that was marred when Ivy and uTata passed away. She loves deeply from fear of losing us and her fear is translated into a view of the world no-one understands. Sometimes the tensions paralyse me because for most of my life my mother has been superhuman and all that I could never be (raising children without a salary; a divorce that left her wounded after she had lived her life for what she thought was a good marriage). But that doesn’t diminish the crazy love that allows us to live despite the imperfections and tensions passed down the generations.

[1] She recalls that Mrs Baden-Powell was one of the people who was involved in establishing the Girl Scouts in South Africa, a recreational tool used by missionaries to inculcate Christian and Western values to Africans who became Christians

[2] Bhele is my grandmother’s clan name. However this form of the title is reserved for the male, the female version of the name is Bhelekazi, but we all call her Bhele to this day

[3] Because Bhele never married, her first child was raised by her parents, “umntwana wasekhaya” (a child belonging to the home). Traditionally, an unmarried woman is “intombi” (a girl) until she is married. Her parents will raise her children born out of wedlock in order to give the child a sense of identity by giving the child the maternal family name

[4] This proverb alludes to how feline animals carry their young using their teeth but do not hurt them. This symbolises how a mother raises children despite the difficult circumstances she endures

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