Dump the old and laugh in the new

It was a humid New Year’s Eve in 1998 in Zimbabwe. Rain was threatening the skies over Bulawayo, and our family was settling into my sister’s home after a wonderful Christmas break at a small, private game reserve outside the city.

There were 22 of us together that year: my parents, my three siblings and all of our families. Some of us stayed at my sister’s house in Bulawayo, and some in friends’ homes around the neighbourhood. We gathered during the day and for meals and outings and arguments; not all of the above were planned. Hey, we’re family.

After a week or two in Bulawayo, we’d spent an amazing five days at the reserve, celebrating Christmas and the rare and welcome opportunity for us all to be together. We arrived at the reserve armed with food and drink to sustain an army. My brother-in-law’s family were at the reserve when we arrived; it was planned that Christmas Day would be our overlap day and 45 of us sat around the same celebratory table for lunch. A marquee doubled as a dormitory for the 18 children in sleeping bags that night, while the adults enjoyed the luxury of sleeping in thatched rondavels (round huts) overlooking a small dam. As they say, it’s hell in Africa.

After a further few idyllic days of horse-riding, fishing, swimming, walking, reading and enjoying good food and family time – including a spontaneous concert that we siblings put on for the incredulous children, and a wonderful awards’ ceremony that one of my brothers orchestrated to mark the unique contribution to the holiday of each one of us – we returned to the city to celebrate New Year together. It was on the day before New Year’s Eve that, one by one, 14 of our clan of 22 fell ill. (My original family plus two sturdy youngsters remained either completely or relatively untouched.) My sister – who is a nurse – took great care of each patient, ensuring everyone was well-hydrated and fever kept at bay.

The next day we took my elder son to see the doctor. Before she examined him, we told her that we had 13 more like him at home; whatever he had, they all had too. Tests revealed that shigella dysentery was, well, running through our family. All 22 of us had to have treatment for this notifiable disease, and so it was that we celebrated the dawn of 1999 quietly and, I guess for the most part, gingerly.

The medicine took effect quickly and within a day or two, all the cousins were gathered around the dining room table sharing stories of their experience of the disease. For the young boys – aged between about 8 and 14 – the conversation was not repeatable, and much laughter rang through the house; it made a change from those other sounds.

Part of the family left soon after the New Year and 12 of us remained to travel to Hwange Game Reserve and Victoria Falls for a few more idyllic days. We travelled in a pack, enjoyed incredible game-viewing and sight-seeing, and found that hysterical laughter can hurt your stomach almost as much as the disease. As we visited two of the most beautiful places on the planet, our memory banks filled with stories that will follow us around our whole lives, and shared memories of joy and discomfort that bonded us in a way you could never imagine.

We’ll never know where the disease came from but we do know that love, laughter, family and brown paper packets filled with bullet-sized tablets took it clean away.

So, as I sit in my London flat on a chilly, grey New Year’s Eve and await the dawn of 2012, it warms my heart to think of this time 13 years ago and all the interesting adventures of our family reunion. We bought a beautiful wooden carving of a giraffe who we named “Relly” (for relatives), and he stands proud in our home (currently in my parents’ home) as a reminder of that holiday.

Reflecting on the past year, I feel anxious to press on into the new. I miss my family and home and friends – I always do at this time of year – and my heart feels heavy with nostalgia. But I guess – like the shigella – that feeling too will pass and I look forward to rediscovering the laughter that will make my belly ache.

As I wish you all a wonderful and happy New Year, and every good blessing for you and your family, what is it that you reflect on at the dawn of this New Year? And what are your hopes for 2012?

Happy New Year to you all. Sunshine signing off for this year!

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!