I was either 11, or 12 – but it was a newly minted 11 or 12, shortly after my birthday, so I was probably extra-conscious of being a big boy at the time. Surrounded since birth by lots of older cousins, I was finally at the point where a few new ones had come along, so I wasn’t the baby at family get-togethers anymore. I’m fuzzy on the exact date, because in the three years that we lived in Cape Town when I was a kid (Zeekoevlei, alas, not the glamorous bit), we tried to make our pilgrimage to seek solace among our kin back in Durban every year around midwinter, thereby escaping the horizontal rain and annual flooding. But this holiday back at my grandparents’ house was definitely during our first or second year down there. It was a creaky old wood-and-iron Durban house, built like most old houses in the area on a brick foundation to keep it off the red soil and out of the termites’ reach, with two or three large terraces cut into the hillside given over to gardens, fruits trees and hedges. My grandfather also owned the property next door, almost identical in size and layout, which he let to my dad’s brother and family – my uncle being the only one of Grandpa’s three sons who followed him into the plumbing business.
The two households communicated easily through a gap in the hedge, which was probably great fun for everyone except my favourite aunt-by-marriage, who found herself living under the gaze of her in-laws, less than a stone’s throw away. How she managed in all those years to refrain from throwing a stone, I’ll never know – because a holiday at Big Gran’s in those days wasn’t what we’d think of as a holiday today. Big Gran (she was – and was so-called to differentiate her from Little Gran, my mom’s diminutive mother) was old-school; she wouldn’t have recognised a new-age holistic parenting technique designed to empower a child fully and keep it consciously open to its unlimited potential if she’d beaten it to death in the pantry with a crucifix, if you know what I mean.
Adults made decisions and children did what they were told. A holiday at Big Gran’s was cluttered rooms smelling of furniture polish and kept dim by small windows and net curtains. The entertainment was either improving Catholic storybooks or, “Go and play outside”, which wasn’t as attractive as it sounds, what with the insects and the ringworm. So it was a blessing that my uncle next door had just got a TV. The fact that SABC TV was in its infancy and offered about four hours of programming a night didn’t matter; every evening we kids would trot over to join our cousins for an hour in front of the magic box before bedtime. Until the night the waistband of my new big-boy jeans were still a little damp from the laundry. “Fine,” I said. “They’ll dry out on me.” “No,” said Big Gran, “You’ll catch a cold. You can wear your shorts to go watch TV.” I didn’t want to wear shorts! All the big kids would be in longs, and they’d smirk! “Actually, a cold is caused by a virus, not damp clothing – we read it in Science class,” I protested, but Big Gran wouldn’t believe me. I was furious; even at that age, ignorance and superstition triumphing over fact incensed me – she was WRONG and I knew I was RIGHT, but I was helpless. So I threw a tantrum and refused to go watch TV at all. That’s when my favourite aunt-by-marriage became my favourite aunt-by-marriage – she marched across from her place, gave me a stern, no-nonsense but loving lecture, whipped me into my shorts and dragged me off to watch TV, where no one snickered or pointed and one kind girl-cousin even said, “You look nice,” no doubt because she knew I needed to hear it. It’s a story I always remember when people tell me I must defer to older people just because they’re older.