My mother

She sits flat on the floor, one leg folded in, the other straight out ahead. She’s pinning a hemline, mouth full of dressmaker’s pins (I’m standing in front of her, slowly rotating, and very impatient). Or she’s scraping old polish and varnish off the parquet floor, preparing to refinish it, all by herself. Or she’s beating a piece of sheet-copper into the shape of a bowl. She’s going to enamel it in her home-made kiln, made of two large tins, and fired with a hand-held blowtorch.

Or I see her smoking a pipe, seated at the round table in the living room, marking student assignments. The pipe didn’t last long – she went back to smoking Lucky Strike Plain. Nevertheless, I liked the image of her with the pipe. I enjoyed the idea of having an eccentric mother.

I see her rushing in with a chicken pie she bought for lunch, serving it with a crisp salad she threw together, then rushing out again in time for her afternoon classes at the Art Centre. I see her hands smoothing down the damask tablecloth, and setting the table with Rosenthal, silver, candles and flowers for a birthday dinner. I see her fingers moving across the keys of the piano. But I cannot recall the exact sound of her voice.

Martha Elizabeth Frieda Auguste Schnell was born on 25 January 1921. She belonged to the silent generation. She did not speak much, but she was an excellent listener. She was inspiring. Just walking into her flat, with its library of Art and Craft books made one want to make something. She was a brilliant cook. Our home was redolent with the smells of baking throughout November, as she filled tin after tin with Christmas cookies. She was a dressmaker, and made all her own clothes, and ours. She could knit so fast that the needles blurred. She could embroider, crochet and tat. She had a beautiful singing voice, and sang me to sleep with old German lullabies that I sang to my children. As a young teacher, her school choir won competitions. She was a potter. For a short while, she was a wife. Widowed at 41, she had to learn to drive a car (she had a licence, but was scared to venture out on the roads), balance a cheque-book, and re-start her teaching career which she gave up in 1947 to travel the world with my father in the diplomatic service.

Mom was the eldest of seven children. My grandmother was 25 when she was born, her missionary husband was 50. She was his second wife. They were very poor. My mother, Martha, was her mother’s right hand, and helped bring up her siblings. She studied with a teacher’s bursary. There was no pocket-money for her, so she embroidered trousseaus for fellow students and mended their nylons for a bit of cash. She met my dad when she was nineteen, on a train full of students going to watch an inter-varsity rugby match. They were introduced when my dad needed somebody to sew his team number onto his jersey.

They married seven years later, after they’d both repaid their student loans, and had bought a house. They did not live there long, because when I was a baby, they were sent on their first overseas assignment, to Washington DC in the USA. As the wife of a diplomat, Mom had to learn to entertain. She did it with excellence. I remember her as a gracious hostess, never flustered, never appearing stressed, beautifully dressed in one of her home-made cocktail dresses or evening gowns, smelling of powder, lipstick and Yardley’s Lavender. Days before the party, she’d slaved in the kitchen, making hundreds of canapés, roasting legs of mutton, ham, sides of beef and baking the ox-tongue for the plates of cold-cuts. Or making koeksisters, a traditional Afrikaans sweetmeat.

When I was seven, we were sent to Stockholm. I went to the diplomatic school. In the dead of winter, snowploughs threw the snow up into high banks on the sides of the icy roads, and it took my dad an hour to drive us to school on his way to work. One day, I forgot my lunchbox at home. I had not even noticed it, because it was not lunchtime yet, when I looked up and saw my mother standing in the door of the classroom, holding out my lunchbox to my teacher. She was swaddled in a big coat, and wrapped in scarves, but I could see that she was frozen. She smiled at me, turned, and left. She had to catch two buses and a tram, and walk at least a kilometre in sub-zero weather to get to my school, and she’d have to repeat the journey to get home. Six hours in the freezing cold! I thought: “My mother must love me a lot!” I was embarrassed, because I felt it was my fault for forgetting my lunch, and I knew I would have survived for one day without a midday meal!

At age ten, our family was sent to Zaire, then the Belgian Congo. My mother sat with the Lingaphone records, and with the help of our houseboy, she was the first in our family to learn French… albeit with a funny accent. The native Congolese exchange l- and r-sounds. When my mother venture to the grocery shop and asked for rait, the person serving her looked puzzled. Eventually, she pointed. “Ah! Du lait, Madame!”

After the Congo, we lived in Holland. One night I woke up lying in a pool of slime. Ugh! I was sure I had accidentally soiled my pajama bottoms. I was mortified! I was twelve – and the last time it had happened I was eight. I nearly died, then, but Ma had quietly taken me upstairs and had helped me clean up. “Don’t feel ashamed. Anyone can have an accident.” This time, at least, I was older. Everyone was asleep. I could fix it myself.

When I rinsed out my pajama pants I looked at the water. It was bright red! I was scared to death. Was I dying? I tiptoed to my parents’ bedroom and whispered in my mother’s ear. She was instantly awake, and sent me back to my room. “I’ll be right there,” she said. “It’ll be fine.”

She came with a large packet and a small leaflet. She said: “You have started menstruating. This will happen every month, and it is so you can have children one day.” She helped me with the uncomfortable belt-and-pad arrangement, put me to bed, made me hot chocolate, and then sat down next to me. We were alone in the dark, just the two of us, bathed in a circle of light from my bedside lamp. She unfolded the leaflet and explained the diagrams. That night I learnt about the uterus and its lining, about what to expect when you menstruate, about hygiene, and Ma said, “When you are ready, you can try using a tampon.” She also explained about the maidenhead, and left it to me to decide. For a mother in the early 1960s, she was progressive!

When my dad died of a heart attack, Ma went to pieces for a while, and I became an angry, resentful and impossible teenager. We came back “home” to South Africa, but it wasn’t home. My safe, secure family had been wrecked. My mother had always been there when I got home from school. Now she had a job. She sat through my stormy teen years patiently, as I kicked holes in doors and as my grades dropped and as I snuck out to party with friends and ran away to Durban. When I was a second-year Art student, age 18, I fell pregnant. “Your baby needs a name,” she said, and organised my wedding. She bought us our first house. As my marriage went from bad to worse over the next seven years, she once said: “Have you thought of getting a divorce?” When I replied, “Ma, I’ve made my bed and I must lie in it,” she did not argue, but I understood that she considered it an option. I was surprised, since I thought her religious convictions would preclude divorce. Apart from that one time, she never said one critical thing about my impossibly difficult husband. Her motto, oft reiterated, was “If you cannot say something good about someone, say nothing.” She demonstrated diplomacy, gentleness, calm, and turning the other cheek. She said her mother had taught her: “The man is the head of the house. Woman is the neck that turns the head.” She was a strong woman, a lady. My husband said: “Why can’t you learn from your mother? She’s a wonderful woman. I wish you could be like her.” When my marriage ended, she confessed that she cried all the way home from Johannesburg to Pretoria each time she’d been to visit us.

In her later fifties, during menopause, I suspect that she suffered from severe clinical depression which she treated with alcohol. Over the next decade or so, I slowly lost my mother as she descended into alcoholism. I was angry at her. We arranged a family intervention, but it did not work, because I could not bear to threaten her with the family’s withdrawal. After she retired, her condition remained more-or-less under control until her sister, who had Alzheimer’s, was institutionalised. Looking after her had kept Ma going, but in her seventies she drank more and more.

In late November 2000, she ‘phoned me, and sounded her old self. “I’ve had my hair cut!” she said. I was amazed. And she went on to tell me of a dream she’d had. “Your dad was standing at the bedroom door, smiling at me. He held out his hand to me.” I told my husband that I thought she was so far gone, that perhaps she’d forgotten to drink.

A few days later she was in hospital, very ill from gallstones. The surgeon advised me that an operation was absolutely necessary, but very dangerous. Her blood pressure was way too high. She had the operation, but did not recover. She died in ICU, on 11 December, a month before her 79th birthday. I spent 16 days at her side, and it was a good time. I remembered who she was, and made peace. I held her hand until her heart stopped beating.

We buried her on 16 December, her wedding day.


Erna Buber-deVilliers
2009-12-23

With her baby sister Dot
Martha is on the right
The family of Missionary Schnell. My mother is the short-haired girl, top left. I was named after my grandmother, who was 25 years younger than Grandfather. She had eight children. One daughter died a few weeks old. She said: “Babies are the silver and gold threads in God’s tapestry.”
Martha, or Max, as my dad called her. Here she’s a student, aged 19, 1940. My mother had beautiful blue eyes and thick golden-blonde hair.
A bride, in my grandmother’s garden in Ventersdorp. I never knew my grandmother Erna. She died while her eldest daughter was on honeymoon, in late December 1927.
Mother and her first-born, me. In our garden in Pretoria just before we were sent to the USA for four years.
First Christmas in Sweden. Mom made Christmases magical.
I never thought of my mother as a beautiful woman, because she never saw herself as one. She really thought she was plain. She was wrong. She was lovely!
Our family loved picnics! This was taken on one of the islands of the Stockholm archipelago.
I had great birthday parties. My mother was very good at entertaining kids. This is a relay race. Two or (three?) teams see which team is the first to all have their shoes back on.

My dad’s party trick was to show off his trained pet flea, Alphonse. Dad carefully extracted Alphonce from a matchbox, and set him on a hand. He’d coax Alphonse to hop from hand to hand, my dad’s eyes following its progress through the air. Alphonse was invisible to the audience – I always thought because it was a flea - too tiny to see from a distance. Next, after warming up, Alphonse would do a somersault, then a double somersault… and then the tour de force: a triple somersault! But Alphonse never made it. He’d get lost. Dad would hunt for him in the hair of members of the itchy audience. When the missing flea was finally found, Dad would inspect him carefully, then announce, sadly, “Nope… this isn’t Alphonse”
My mother was a potter, too. She signed her work Mefas – from Martha Elizabeth Frieda Auguste Schnell-Schutte. She hated filling in forms with all those long names, so I became Erna – the shortened version of my grandmother Ernestina’s name.
Martha in her 60s in the 1980's (I think)

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