The Otherness of Being

Our family moved around a lot when I was a child. Every new place we went to, I had to adjust to a new school and make new friends. My parents did the rest. I learnt quickly to adjust, to settle in and to feel like I belonged. It’s not so easy when you’re older.

Some years ago, I worked for a non-government organisation in Cape Town. I worked there from 1993 to 2000, straddling the regime change in the South African government to a welcome democracy. Apart from the work that the organisation did, it focused keenly on organisation development; ensuring that the work it did, as well as they way it did the work, transformed appropriately in line with bigger changes in the country. Change was something we could always depend on.

We did loads of workshops and bosberade (literally “bush councils” – meetings in isolated venues to focus on a particular topic), learnt massively about ourselves as an organisation and as individuals, and laughed and cried as we grew in so many different ways. It was an incredible time in my life, and I learnt much that I loved and hated about myself.

Accordingly I changed in ways I hadn’t recognised even needed changing. It was about shining the mirror clean to get a clearer reflection of myself. I will always be a work in progress, but having the opportunity to develop a consciousness of that is something for which I am eternally grateful.

One workshop we did was presented by a daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. An amazing speaker and awesome personality, she gripped our attention for the entire day. I don’t remember what the workshop was called but she delved into loads of different awarenesses of self.

The strongest learning point for me was in identifying my own primary identity. I am totally oversimplifying this, but she told us that once we understood our own primary identity, we could understand how we view the rest of the world. And we tend to view the rest of the world in relation to that identity. So if I see myself primarily as a woman, I see everyone else as the “same” or “other”. Equally, if I see myself primarily as white, I see everyone else as the “same” or “other”.

It’s something that I have regularly been challenged to look at afresh in my own life. As a Christian, I am secure in my identity as a child of God. It’s finding my identity in my humanness that is my biggest struggle right now.

It’s no secret how much I miss my sons who are both back in Cape Town. Being a mother is a huge part of my identity, as is being part of a loving and close-knit nuclear family. We speak often, our love for each other is unquestioned, but we’re far apart. A month or two ago, a young couple in our church had their baby son dedicated. Both of their extended families filled our church for the service. I looked at them all together and I wept like a child with longing for my own family.

It is a conscious battle for me to choose not to find my identity in my work. Having worked constantly since I graduated from university (apart from a few years when my sons were born), I find it difficult to reconcile my identity as an unemployed person in London. Because of my job hunting nightmare here, I tend to view others from that perspective, and I find I see everyone around me as employed or with an income or livelihood of some description.

Finding my identity as a friend extends me too. I have wonderful, close friends back home – ones I hang out with regularly, talk with deeply, laugh with incessantly. They know who I am; I share a history with them. I have lovely friends here too, but I’m only just beginning a journey with them. That’s not a bad thing; I’m just trying to find where it all fits.

Starting a blog has been an amazing and positive experience for me. I love to write, to tell stories and share experiences and adventures with a growing community of wonderful writers, many of whom have also become friends. I haven’t quite found my identity through this yet; sometimes I see myself as a writer until I read the work of real writers, and I realise I am just a blogger. That’s okay too, and it keeps me reading and learning and growing and honing.

As you well know, life is not all bad in London! It continues to be an amazing adventure for my husband and me; we explore the city; we walk and we talk and we laugh; we grow memories and share a life here that we could never have imagined for ourselves. I know there is a deeper purpose in all of this for me and only with hindsight will I recognise what it is.

I don’t really know where I belong right now; I’m an absent Saffa and a visitor in London. Mostly I’m okay with that, but this topic has toiled through my mind for the whole weekend, circling and circling like a dog in a basket. I think it has now found its comfortable space and is ready to surrender to welcome sleep. As for me, I couldn’t have found rest until I wrote this.

Sunshine signing off for today.

For Auld Lang Syne

I wrote about Scotsman, Andy Murray, yesterday and then I went to do a Pilates class with the most enthusiastic, chatty Scotsman since William Wallace. Today I thought I would introduce to you some more of my husband’s Scottish family: meet Mac and Lily*.

*I have given them false names, as you probably wouldn’t believe the names by which we knew them. I thought about calling them Mac and Cheese. Nah.

I can’t tell you what a blessing it is to have married into a Scottish family. Mac was my late mother-in-law’s brother. He would have been about 87 now, and Lily would have been about 84. They both passed away in Scotland within the past eight years. They had no children of their own, and adored their nephews (my husband and his brother) as if they were their own. My husband is named after Mac.

Let me tell you what I know about Scottish names. My husband has three first names and is known by his third name. He likes his first name, and when he asked his parents why they didn’t call him by his first name, they said it was because they didn’t like it. Right. They had named him after his uncle, and clearly his parents hadn’t liked his first name either, because he was always known by his second name. We knew him by an entirely different nickname all together. And to add further confusion into the mix, the name my husband is known by is the same as his father’s. And his father was known by the first of his three names, even though he was given an entirely different name at birth (see Not Just Another Winter’s Tale).  And his brother is known by his second – of three – names. You’re confused?

So back to Mac and Lily: I first met Mac when he flew out to Zimbabwe for our wedding in 1984. He arrived unannounced and threw the entire family into frenzied excitement, leaving my garrulous mother-in-law speechless. He was a true Scotsman: he’d insult you then hug you, he’d laugh at you and with you, and tears and laughter gurgled in equal measure. Love of family, humour, generosity, love and kindness ever lurked behind his thinly brittle exterior. I loved him immediately.

I first met Lily when my husband and I travelled to the UK in 1986 and we stayed with Mac and Lily in their wee croft in Perthshire. Lily was about knee-high to a grasshopper and was teased mercilessly by Mac for being so wee. She was a hairdresser and her stories of colleagues and clients and running a salon in Zimbabwe (as she had done for a number of years) are stuff of my husband’s family legend.

Returning to Scotland, she worked at the old folks’ homes, doing the hair of the “old biddies”, as she called them. She never fussed too much about whether her work was good or not, as she chose to live by her belief that the difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut was about three weeks. Possibly longer for the old biddies. She was gentle, kind, quick to laugh, generous and loving: I loved her immediately too.

We saw them every couple of years after that; when they travelled to Zimbabwe and then South Africa for holidays, and when we visited the UK on holiday. Just as they had taken my husband and his brother as sons, they took our boys into their hearts as grandsons. Mac taught them stories and language that, shall we say, broadened their education.

Our boys were little when Mac and Lily first came to Cape Town. We’d told the boys how funny Uncle Mac was and they couldn’t wait to meet them. Our older son, who was about four at the time, laughed loudly and unconvincingly the first time Mac said something, and then looked at us and asked,

“When’s he going to be funny?”

I think he’d imagined a clown.

Our younger son, aged about two, sat on my husband’s lap and watched Mac with interest. After a while, my son grabbed his dad’s face between his hands, pulled his face towards him and, gesturing towards Mac, said,

“Him’s got a big nose. Hey, Daddy?”

One day my older son had a friend coming over to play, when Mac and Lily were with us in Cape Town a few years later. I heard my son say to his friend,

“My uncle and aunt will be there. I’m really sorry but my uncle swears a lot.”

His friend, ever the gracious trooper, said,

“Ooh, that’s okay. I think that will be rather fun.”

Mac was fun. He’d run and play soccer with the boys in the garden, until his smoke-ridden lungs would cause him to gasp and return to the sidelines. As he lit a cigarette, he’d say,

Bleep bleep! Those bleep bleep kids sure take the bleep bleep bleep out of you! I’m not as young as I bleeping-well used to be.”

He’d wrestle with the boys and then send them on their way. He’d watch them play sport and boast about them to his friends. He laughed at their jokes and regaled them with stories.

We had a wonderful time staying with them in Scotland in 2000. They took us all over their native Perthshire, showing us the beautiful countryside and introducing the four of us – with enormous familial pride – to everyone they met. They took us to the Highland Games in Pitlochry and Mac went to tell the organisers that “B’s son” was there (my mother-in-law grew up and went to school in Pitlochry). Family was everything to Mac and Lily, and we knew we meant the world to them.

Lily would cook wonderful meals for us all, and our best times were when we sat and chatted over coffee and chocolate biscuits in their lounge in the weak mid-morning sun. She and Mac were always interested in our lives and what we had to say, and asked us questions constantly.

One evening, we sat in their little lounge, next to the ever- glowing fire, as Mac relaxed into his favourite pastime: reminiscing. He told us of a Hogmanay party at their house a few years before, where Mac pretended he was a soldier. He put a bucket on his head, and with a broom as a rifle he marched back and forth through their small lounge. It wasn’t long before he smashed the light fitting with the broom and caused the party guests to collapse into hysterical laughter.

He then went further back, to recount tales of his inordinately naughty childhood. He told us of all he and his brother and friends got up to at school, including putting one teacher’s car up on to bricks and waiting to watch as the teacher tried to drive off at the end of the day. Mac and his mates lurked in the bushes, and as they watched the teacher they rolled over and laughed like drains.

He was constantly in trouble. That naughty streak glinted in his eyes through his whole life. Not even the unspoken-of horrors of his wartime service could quench that spirit.

His school-day nostalgia then reminded him of his favourite poet: Robbie Burns. He told us he had once recited Burns at a formal occasion. He ran upstairs to haul out his notes and proceeded to recite the elaborately un-understandable words of Burns to an audience of us. To our African ears, it sounded like,

“Heenel honnel, heenel honnel, heenel honnel, aft the glen.”

His sudden move into serious poetry was at odds with the evening’s levity. The absurdness of the poetry, the absurdness of this sudden turn of events and then, spotting their mother fixing to burst with laughter, caused my sons – and then all four of us – to explode into childish laughter till we cried. Mac was taken aback:

“What the bleeping-bleep you lot laughin’ at? This is Rabbie Burns! Don’t ye like him?”

We tried, we really tried to pull ourselves together but the words of Robbie Burns will forever be etched in our memories in the schoolboy style of Mac’s recital and our childish inability to stop giggling.

I miss Mac and Lily. All of our family does. And I understand why Mac loved to reminisce. It keeps the memories alive.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Is All the World a Stage?

So if it’s Thursday, I must be writing about Zumba, right? We had a wonderful class again last night, and, in the midst of our stomping and twirling, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. You know what? I look stupid doing jazz hands. Seriously stupid.

I wrote last week about how amazing it is to dance like no-one’s watching. It truly is. I guess that’s the important part: I need to make sure no-one’s watching, and I don’t want to watch myself either. How embarrassing!

I’m not much of a performer, I guess. I love nothing better than to tell a story or share a joke and make people laugh – my heart leaps when I am able to do that. I’m not shy. And I have done loads of public speaking. But to perform in front of an audience, like to dance or sing or act, would cause me to cower into a shivering heap. Or to go and hide under the nearest bed. An audience of one, in the mirror last night, was enough to cause my cheeks to burn crimson.

I did plenty of amateur dramatics as a little girl. I am the youngest of four, and my performances usually took the form of hands-on-hips tantrums at my older siblings to take me seriously. If they tried to applaud any one of those performances, they would have instantly regretted it.

My sister was always something of a thespian. Her favourite activity of a weekend was to write, produce, direct, narrate and star in a play for my parents. I remember one of our family homes had sliding glass doors that separated the lounge from the dining room: the dining room became our stage, the sliding doors our scarlet, velvet curtains. The audience, usually of two, relaxed in the royal box that was our lounge.

I was always a useful prop. I remember having to put on my school tracksuit – it was olive green – and stand with my arms in the air for the duration of one play.  In the closing credits, I was allowed – as the tree – to take a bough bow.

Occasionally, when the demands of writing, producing, directing and narrating were too great for my sister, I was given the title role. I remember being cast as Rapunzel and having to sit on a chair on top of the dining room table and let down my “golden hair”.

Let me digress here to tell you a bit about my hair. My parents believed in common-sense economy and their approach to life was typically post-war: no nonsense, no frills and definitely no long hair. Every time my sister and I went for a haircut, I’d long to have a word in private with the hairdresser, so I could ask her for “a trim”. It never happened. My mom would always insist on a “good haircut”, which meant that – yet again – I would walk out of the hairdressing salon looking like a boy.

So, golden locks were not in abundance in our home. I am blonde, but short hair that did not quite reach my collar would not do for Rapunzel. We twisted a yellow and white striped towel that tumbled from my head like a really heavy plait, and my handsome prince duly climbed that to reach me in the tower that was the top of the dining room table. I think we might have used a chair or some other hidden device, but it all ended happily.

Another time, I was cast in the role of Queen Victoria. Gordon, a painfully shy and obnoxious little boy who was the son of my parents’ friends who were visiting that Sunday, was cast as Prince Albert. He did not want to be in the play. His older sister threatened him with something, so he duly obliged. We sat on chairs next to each other, as husband and wife usually do: I had a doily on my head, and he was biting his foot.  I banged on about how much I wished we had a baby, and he nodded and chewed his foot and closed his eyes. The curtain went up.

“Three weeks later!” announced the narrator, my sister. The curtain opened to reveal a scene in the home of Victoria and Albert. With doily-decorated head, I lovingly cradled a baby doll in my arms. Albert continued to bite his foot. An immaculate scene indeed.

At high school I had the excruciating experience – as house captain – of having to direct and act in a house play. I had no intention of appearing on stage, but as the date of our performance neared, several cast members got ill, broke their legs or lost their voices. The play was called “Ants” and I had to play the part of an army ant, dressed in camouflage fatigues. I wouldn’t let my parents come and watch the play, and my time on the stage features among my worst, most sweaty-palmed and agonising moments of my life. I was certainly not born for a career in theatre.

So, my stupid jazz hands are not going to hinder me from going to Zumba classes. I’ll continue to shimmy and twirl and stomp my feet to those crazy Latin beats, but I’ll sure as heck step away from the mirror. Well away.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Boys and Girls Come Out to Play

Relationships are always important to me. Never more so than now, having been through such a dark time, where I’ve so needed the support of my friends and family. And I have never leaned so heavily on my husband as I do now. He is a rock and such strength. What on earth did I do to deserve one such as him?

I’ve been reflecting on my history of relationships, and the journey that brought me to my husband. We have been married for nearly 27 years, and we’ve always enjoyed interesting, challenging and hugely fun times together. We laugh and we cry together, and we love each other’s company. 

Our giddy newly-wed years soon morphed into reality, as they always do. Suddenly there was bad breath, the five o’clock shadow, mussy hair, grumpy moods and dramatic sulks and door-slamming. And that’s only me. But we came through all of that and began, as M Scott Peck describes it in The Road Less Travelled, “the real work of love”.

When I was about 10, at home in Zambia on holiday from boarding school in Zimbabwe, we went to a friend’s birthday party. I can still imitate my friend’s mother’s laugh – ask me, and I’ll show you! We played games and we swam and it was loads of fun. However, a boy kept following me around and commenting on everything I did. 

I dived into the swimming pool and he said, “Wow, what style!” I hope his chat-up lines have improved since then. (At least he didn’t ask me if my dad was a thief. Why? “Because he must have stolen the stars and put them in your eyes.”) 

Anyway, he just didn’t leave me alone. He hung on my every word – which wouldn’t have been many in those days – and he watched me and commented on everything I did. I’d never had such attention from anyone before.  I quite liked it and I quite hated it. I was 10.

I don’t remember giving him my phone number, but he called me a few days later and asked if I could meet him in “town”. Dusty Mufulira didn’t have a hectically vibey CBD, so I wasn’t quite sure what he had in mind. And I was painfully shy. I said no.

He called back and asked if he and his friend could come and visit me at my house. I said yes and went into panic mode. Half an hour later, the two boys arrived at our gate, on their bicycles. I did what any 10-year old girl would do: I ran and hid under my bed.

My sister welcomed them at the gate and did what any older sister would do in such a situation: she told them I was hiding under my bed.

Not only did she tell them that, but she brought them into the bedroom, pretending not to notice me cowering under my bed. They spoke as if I wasn’t there, and my suitor told my sister – in a stage whisper – that it was a pity I wasn’t there, as he had some biltong* for me. They then left the room.

I loved biltong. And I was 10. So I ran out from my hiding place and went to find them in the lounge. I was so. disappointed to discover I had fallen for his decoy: he had no biltong.

Tempted as I was, I didn’t retreat to the safety of the floor under my bed, but stayed with them and began, kind of, to enjoy the overwhelming attention of a boy. And we did what youngsters of that age always did: we drew pictures and played Monopoly.

I think I saw him a few times more those holidays, and we maintained a short relationship-by-correspondence for a while when we went back to our respective boarding schools. After while there were months of silence, and I discovered he had moved his attentions elsewhere. I was unphased. His friend, however, continued to write to me and send me drawings for some time thereafter.

I was at an all-girls boarding school. When it came the time for our leavers’ dance at the end of my junior school career, the boys from our brother school (an all-boys boarding school nearby) were bussed in to keep us company. I can remember standing against the wall, all knock-kneed and awkward in my first long dress, waiting for – yet dreading –  some boy to come and ask me to dance. Ballroom Blitz, Tie a Yellow Ribbon, You’re So Vain, Cum on Feel the Noize, Crocodile Rock and Shambala all blasted from the DJ’s turntable. I danced with a pimply-faced adolescent boy in Oxford bags, but I’ve no doubt our teachers watched and laughed at the gangly and self-conscious antics in the school hall that night.

And then I began my high school years. I have memories of cameo moments with boys: my first kiss (YUCK!); many school dances with boys I was glad to be there with, other boys I wasn’t so glad to be with but they had cool friends; leaving a school dance with a boy whose VW beetle wouldn’t start and I had to push start it in my long dress and everything; a partner at another school dance opening a bottle of champagne in my general direction and soaking the front of my dress.

I had boyfriends who hooted for me at my front gate, boys who drove past my house at midnight and hooted (prompting my Dad to ban them from our house) and boys who would call me from the security fence phone at their boarding school and speak to me for hours.

All of those brief, embarrassing and heart-breaking relationships have prepared me, I guess, for the best. I am married to the kindest, most wonderful man in the world and I’m blessed out of my socks.

Sunshine signing off for today.

*Biltong is dried, spiced meat. Kind of like beef jerky, but South African. And better 🙂

It’s Only Words

The pen is mightier than the sword, so we’re told. But the pen would be pretty ineffective without words. Words and language. We use them to encourage, to destroy, to belittle, to praise, to teach, to instruct, to entertain, to sing, to praise, to mobilise, to raise awareness. Sometimes we use them wrongly and miss the mark. Other times they just make us laugh. Let’s laugh today.

Firstly, I make myself laugh with words I use wrongly. I think of words past and present that I have got quite wrong:

  1. When I was little and living in Zambia, I used to run outside when I heard my Dad’s car rolling into our driveway at home. I was always excited to see him and tell him what I’d been doing and show him new things I’d learnt. Like how to put a record on the gramophone player, all by myself. Or how I’d learnt to read my new school book. My Dad would come inside, greet everyone and take his seat in the lounge and exhale. He’d ask me to use my new-found skill and switch on the radio. He’d tell me to look for the ivory button with SW1 written over it, and then I had to push the button down and wait for the dulcet tones of newsreaders sharing information worldwide. I remember hearing their words booming through the fabric-lined speakers on our gramophone player. Topical in those days were issues in what I thought was the Serviette Union. I always imagined a nation filled with napkins, and I couldn’t work out what they could possibly be squabbling about. Who’s laying the table?
  2. My sister and I were bathing together one night, when we were very little. My Dad came to tell us to hurry up because we were going to the pantomime that night. I don’t remember which one of us said this, but my Dad overheard one of us saying, “We have to hurry because we’re going to the pant-of-Daddy’s.”
  3. When I’d pour myself a glass of orange and water (we weren’t allowed fizzy drinks), my Mom would always caution me, as I thought, not to fill the glass “to the broom”. I used to wonder what the broom had to do with the glass and the juice, until I discovered brim was probably the correct word.
  4. My enthusiasm was sometimes tempered by my Mom’s saying, “Don’t go at it like a bulletagate.” I never knew what a bulletagate was, until I heard the expression “bull at a gate”.
  5. One of my husband’s favourite albums, when we were students, was Cher’s “I Paralyse”. The first time I heard him mention it, I thought he said it was called “Five Barrel Eyes”. He’s never allowed me to forget that!
  6. More recently, we’ve discovered a fabulous singer/songwriter here in London, called Rumer. One of her recent hits is a song called “Aretha”. Do yourself a favour and check her out here – she’s really quite special. I had heard this song on the radio for months, and I thought the opening line was, “I’ve got a reason, in the morning.” I didn’t really think beyond that. When we saw her live, I realised the line was in fact, “I’ve got Aretha, in the morning. High on my headphones and walking to school.” Go figure.

And, of course, there are things other people say that make me laugh. Here’s a smidgen of these:

  1. My husband and I travelled on the bus the other day. We sat upstairs, alongside a lone other commuter, who was engrossed in a mobile phone conversation. That meant there were just three of us upstairs. My husband and I eavesdropped her conversation so unbelievably, we were discussing it when we got off the bus. I said a few words to my husband every now and then, to stop myself from asking the woman what she had just said, or what she meant. I guess we need to get a life, yeah? This is what we overheard:  “I fort I would call ‘er and conversate wif ‘er, yeah? She’s bear shy, yeah? So I AKSED what she meant when she said that, yeah? And I don’t know much, but I know, yeah? And if the cap fits on my big head, if it’s not too big or cockeyed on my head, then I’m gonna wear it, yeah?”
  2. I spilled some salad dressing on my cardigan last night. Not being much of a domestic goddess, and not having any stain remover at hand, I Googled possible solutions and, quite honestly, I am none the wiser and my cardigan still bears a stain.  “Many people prefer things stain removal alone is not engaged in, and use the services of dry cleaners. Other mistresses, by contrast, prefer to do everything yourself, believing that it accurately to your stuff no one will treat. Whatever it was, useful tips to remove fat and oil stains may be the way, if you suddenly spot a need to withdraw immediately.”
  3. Before my husband and I were married, we were gathered together at my family home with all of my siblings. We decided to play Trivial Pursuit, which, in our family, is as much about asking the questions correctly as it is about getting the answers right. And all the chirps and banter in between. My family is merciless. (No comments, I know what you’re thinking!) It came to my husband to read out a question: “For which feature film was Duelling Banjos the theme tune?” My family, to a man, collapsed in a hysterically laughing heap. You know when you look at a word and it looks well forrin? Well, my husband had looked at the song title and pronounced it: “Dew-elling Ban-Joss”. Needless to say, he has never been allowed to forget that slip of the tongue. He needed the movie title in more ways than one: Deliverance.

I’d love to hear about your funny words, misheard and mis-pronounced. Words keep us connected in so many ways, but they also tear us apart and crack us up. I’d love to hear your examples of the latter.

“Talk in everlasting words, and dedicate them all to me. And I will give you all my life, I’m here if you should call to me. You think that I don’t even mean a single word I say, It’s only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away.”    (Words, The Bee Gees)

Sunshine signing off for today!

Not just another winter’s tale

He was born on the winter solstice in Edinburgh in 1926. He died on Christmas Day in 1992, on the warm tip of Africa. A lovely, gentle, talented, troubled, kind soul he was. He was my father-in-law and this is his story.

As life and breath poured into his infant body on that cold and wintry December night in Edinburgh, so life and breath drained from his mother’s. She breathed her last and died that day. Life and loss. His young father was stricken with an overwhelming grief that veiled his joy at this brand new life.

My father-in-law was adopted by a family whose name we now bear. They lived on the island of North Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. This new family ran a hotel and my father-in-law spent his days living the life of a young, country lad: fishing and hunting and finding the best that the beautiful, bleak, cold island could offer. His days were underlined with sadness and a constant wondering about his father on the mainland. He knew who he was, he knew where he lived and he so longed to meet him.

As a young man he met and fell in love with a beautiful young woman from the mainland. They married and lived on the island, going over to the mainland for the birth of their first son. With the hope and promise of seeking their fortune in Africa, the three of them chose to join her brothers in Zimbabwe (southern Rhodesia as it was known then). He travelled ahead of his wife and son and, before he left, went to Edinburgh to meet his real father. He wondered nervously whether or not his father would welcome him. His fear of rejection turned him round again and off he went to begin a new life in Africa.

Son number two (my husband) was born in Zimbabwe, and the family enjoyed living in the warm, friendly heart of southern Africa. My father-in-law was a talented musician – a self-taught pianist and accordion player – and he played in a Scottish band. He would lose himself in his music, and played the piano with a gentleness of touch that kept me riveted. I often wondered where the music took him as I watched him play. When he died, I inherited his piano. Such a gift it was; such a gift.

He loved his sons and watched, with pride, as they grew into young men and created lives of their own. His daughters-in-law became part of his family, and he loved us with a gentle passion that I will never forget. His heart beamed as his grandchildren started to appear, and each of them loved their “Pops”, with his ready laughter and unconditional love and pride.

One day, when he was almost 60, he received a letter out of the blue. It opened with, “You don’t know me, but we’ve known about you all our lives…”

The writer of the letter told him his father – who was also her father – had been 23 years old when he was widowed. He had married again and had had some children, but she didn’t elaborate. She wrote of her father’s longing to meet him, but how, for fear of rejection, that had never happened. She told him his father had died in 1976. Oh the sorrow that both men had felt the same way, and their perceived fears had kept them from meeting each other.

The writer concluded her letter by saying she’d send him more detail of the family if he so wished. She added, however, that if the communication had made him uncomfortable, she would not continue and would, with respect, leave it at that.

He was amazed. My father-in-law wrote back immediately and asked to know more. He soon got a letter with details of his family tree. It turned out that at the time of his birth, and his mother’s death, he had an older sister. She was three years older than he was, and was raised in Edinburgh by a grandmother (we have yet to discover which grandmother this was). His father then remarried and had seven daughters and two sons. She shared some detail of the siblings, their names and where they lived.

The correspondence continued for a while. It wasn’t long before my father-in-law decided to travel back to Edinburgh to meet his new family. A brother travelled across from Canada to meet him. Most of the other siblings lived in or around Edinburgh. Great excitement, anticipation and a huge nervousness accompanied him on his journey.

He spent a number of days with his new-found family of half-siblings, and met his full sister too. This is the part that always gives me goose bumps: the siblings he met all said, without exception, that having him around was like having their dad back in the house. He had the same mannerisms as his father’s, he coughed like he did, he walked like he walked and he talked like he did. If that isn’t one for nature versus nurture, then I don’t know what is.

He returned to Zimbabwe with tales of his new-found family. A man of few words, he had plenty to say about his family and father and the joy of blood ties. It seemed to fill something of a hole in his heart.

Not long after that, he became ill with emphysema and struggled with ill-health for the rest of his life. He and my mother-in-law moved to Cape Town soon after we did, and enjoyed their retirement in the city nestling beneath the beauty of Table Mountain. Our boys have vague memories of their Pops, as they were both very small when he died. My older son, who was three when Pops died, told me Pops had gone to heaven and had been given a brand new body. I loved that thought.

So there it was that we celebrated Christmas in the warm sunshine of a Cape Town day in 1992. And as we celebrated the birth of the Saviour who breathed his first on that day so many many years ago, my father-in-law took his last, painful breath and we mourned. Joy and grief. So much joy and grief.

Sunshine signing off for today.

My African Christmas

Today is both the shortest and the longest day of the year, depending on which side of the equator you call home. While I am falling in love with the snow and the wintry charm of short days in London, I try to imagine South African sunshine lasting into long, balmy evenings. Please take up your gingerbread latte or chilled white wine, and join me on a journey through our Saffa Christmas.

My husband and I were both born in Zimbabwe; he to Scottish parents and me to South African parents. His family’s Celtic Christmas in Africa was always festive and loud, with lashings of alcohol, sword-dancing and tearful renditions of “My Ain Folk”. Ours usually involved a journey from Zambia or Zimbabwe to my parents’ home town of Cape Town, and loads of cousins and relatives and beaches and food. Together, we developed a Christmas tradition that merged the best of what we both knew and loved: booze and beaches. Not exclusively. Walk with me…

In our early married years, we would use every free moment, every spare dollar, to go and see a movie. Christmas Eve was the perfect opportunity to do just that, so that is something that we have done almost every year since we got married: a Christmas Eve movie. We took a break when our boys were small but roped them in as soon as they were old enough to sit through and enjoy a movie. It doesn’t have to be a Christmas movie, a feel-good movie will do, so “Love, Actually”, “The Holiday” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” have featured in our ritual on the night before Christmas.

Our drive home from the movie would always include a drive along Adderley Street – the high street through the centre of Cape Town – to see the Christmas lights (illuminations). These always incorporated nativity scenes alongside scenes of Africa. We would go home and sit by the decorated Christmas tree and, sometimes, sing Christmas carols together. We would all retire to bed, and – one by one – each of us would sneak back to the lounge to put Christmas gifts under the tree.

When our boys were small, we would put empty pillowcases at the ends of their beds, and Father Christmas would fill them during the night. Then he would have a mince pie and a cold drink (or a beer) that had been left for him next to the Christmas tree. He would usually leave a lovely letter for the boys too.

On Christmas morning, we would wake with the sparrows and launch into the excitement of wishing each other Merry Christmas and giving each other gifts. With paper and boxes all around, we would have coffee and mince pies for breakfast before either going to church, or preparing for the day ahead.

We always gathered together as family, and would alternate hosting the festivities at our various homes, although we always shared the catering. At our home, we made one long table that extended from one end of our dining room/lounge area to the wide-open French doors on to the swimming pool area on the other. The table would be set for around 20 people or more, depending on which brothers and sisters were in town. We would decorate the table with Christmas crackers and tinsel and bowls of nuts and chocolates along the length of the table. My sister-in-law made beautiful decorative little Christmas trees that would add creative charm to the table.

Everyone would arrive at around noon and share gifts with each other.  Some would have a cup of tea or coffee; others preferred cold drinks, wine or beer. Each person would add their contribution to the meal on to the sideboard, where the bowls of salads would line up under cover from the summer-time flies. Lunch would begin at around 2.30pm with the turkey and ham having been carved, and everyone helping themselves to the meat and salads. Yes, salads – the best thing for mid-summer!

With each person seated at the table, we would put on our paper hats from the Christmas crackers and open the bottles of champagne. With bubbles flowing freely, we would toast Christmas, each other and absent friends before beginning the meal. It was always loud, loads of laughter, the telling of lame Christmas-cracker jokes, the sharing of memories of Christmases gone by, more champagne and more and more and more food. Christmas pudding would make an appearance at the right time – usually flaming and filled with silver coins. I’m the only person in my family who likes Christmas pudding, but my boys always had some just for the coins!

After totally over-indulging at the table, we would all get up, find a comfy seat in which to settle and snooze, go out and laze on the lawn or a garden chair next to the pool, or go and find a bed to sleep off the meal for an hour or so. The afternoon usually flowed into an evening spent outdoors in the creeping, cooling darkness of the setting sun, splashes in the pool, cold drinks a-plenty and an endless supply of food if anyone had room for more.

Sometimes the teenagers of the family would head off to the beach for a while for a refreshing dip in the ocean. The beaches were always busy but always worth it to splash in the crashing, cooling waves of the beautiful Cape Town coastline.

At some stage, a number of us would gather in the kitchen to wash the dishes and put the food away, always accompanied by laughter and hilarity. The food would be shared out to go home again, although someone invariably ended up with lashings of turkey that would appear in various guises in meals for the next week or so! Noisy, laughter-filled farewells would take place in our driveway, as cars pulled away at the end of a perfect day.

Replete with food, love, family, laughter and sunshine, we would retire to our beds and snore before our heads hit the pillow. Although Christmas in Africa is slightly different from the northern hemisphere experience, the love, unique traditions, shared memories and joy at the significance of the celebration, transcend time and geography.

So on this winter solstice, my heart and my thoughts bask in the long day of Cape Town sun and my body shivers and freezes in the bitter cold short day of London. Technology keeps the two hemispheres together, the shrinking world makes contact with my precious family so easy, and I realise that straddling two worlds can be both tender and heartening. And I’m okay with that.

Sunshine signing off for today!