The purpose of a housekeeper, I think, is only overtly to keep the house. The real purpose is for her to keep me. Alinah knows how to make all the different kinds of tea I like, and she knows when I’m tired. She’s the person who sees when I’ve worked through the day without pause. She opens the gate and gets the kettle boiling for each of my clients, and keeps a jug of water with fresh mint in the fridge. She listens while she irons, to my thoughts and plans and stories about my children. She tells me her hopes and concerns about her children.
Alinah made the school lunches for her youngest and mine; Thembi Caroline (now 14) and Caroline Dulcie (22). She came to work and live with me seven and a half years ago, and Thembi spent 6 months in a pre-school round the corner so that her English was fluent enough to attend the primary school across the road; now she is completing her 7th grade! Thembi was born in the year of grace for this country 1994. Her elder brother and sister stayed at the school near their rural family base, which was taught in Sotho – their home language – by teachers who had not had the advantage of a post-democracy education. Hlonono David left school earlier this year at the age of 18, weary of the struggle after repeating his grade 9 twice and being told he’d need to do it again. He lived there with his very wise, gentle-natured and well-respected grandmother, and did NOT like visiting us in Johannesburg. It was too noisy and rushed! His uncle is like that: Mhlalipula John helped me for a while as he studied English and did some courses to get a job. I asked Alinah what I should pay him “No” she said, “You help us and we help you.”
Some years ago Alinah received a call from her family home in Qua Qua – her eldest daughter, Maki, had given birth to a little premature baby none of us knew to expect! Alinah was at first angry and shamed, baking biscuits to take ‘home’ when we returned from holiday. My immediate response was just excitement: “A BABY! Oh Alinah, you’re a GRANDMOTHER!” then I understood the shock and greater significance. Maki was unlikely to finish her schooling now. But between us all the gladness took over and we began to feel the blessing and delight of this new family member, Palesa, and make preparations to welcome her to the world and nurture her mom. Two years later Ntsimaying joined the clan. They’ve stayed for long periods of time here with their mum and gran and aunt. I claimed the post of honorary grandmother. Very satisfying.
I’ve often tried on different words to describe the relationship between Alinah and me. She isn’t my family – her own is strong and clear. She isn’t my sister, my friend or merely my employee though she is my helper. My Caroline says she’s like a best friend: “Mum you talk to her about EVERYthing!”
Perhaps what makes it possible to live so closely together with peace and few, if any, power-struggles, is her innate self-respect, her clear boundaries and the things we actually don’t talk about as much as the things we do; the safe separateness. Sometimes she’s said that I’m her mother, in the wide wonderful African understanding that we have many mothers and sisters, as generous as the skies, and sometimes she mothers me.
I just know she’s in my heart.
Can it be that one of my Imago matches is a source of love and peace, growth without conflict? Differentiation is so well balanced, perhaps, with the intimacy of close living space. She’s the one who shares my prayers when our elder child, Beth, is travelling and thankfulness when she’s landed safely; who helped my Caroline in her determination to study Zulu instead of Afrikaans for matric; who came to me wondering if someone’s TB diagnosis was in fact symptomatic of Aids and what to do to get ARV’s. She’s the one who understood every July when I was low on brightness and couldn’t keep on working and filled the house with flowers to remember my precious small son who played too hard one day many years ago till his damaged heart gave in.
I turned 50 this year and had a sleepover party with the Mokoenas and my extended family to watch the Sound of Music! All of the cool 20 something children loved it, the younger ones were entranced and we wrinklies all sang along at the tops of our voices. Alinah broke tradition and bought me a gift – a vase!
Her vase is on my dressing room table now, with fresh daffodils and jasmine, brightness mirrored. And this July the flowers I did for church were for Michael Mills and the Mokoena family. Alinah is in hospital.
Her wide family were all on their way to a funeral in Qua Qua when the driver lost control of the van. Eight people died. Eight intimate family members. Alinah was thrown free, but in the midnight dark, was hit by an oncoming vehicle. Maki died. As did Alinah’s mother; the tent and shelter, the cornerstone of the family, nieces, their partners and a great niece. Palesa, my beloved, was critical and not expected to live, the hospital said. Ntsimaying broke her leg but was ok. Thembi and Hlonono were safely here at home. Thank God
Some days later we were able to bring Nstimyiing home. She sat on Caroline’s lap, resting on her shoulder, sharing the seat belt and holding out her leg. Such silence. Home here she lay and looked at Thembi and some cousins, while my Caroline cried herself to sleep with sorrow for the shock and loss this little girl has. But next morning Nstimyiing was talkative and alert, connecting to people, at home in every way.
The following weekend I had 4 pre-schoolers watching tv, 3 teenagers at last letting out their grief and drawing a family tree for me so I could understand who had died and all the relationships, and an aunt and a grandmother here to care for the children and talk to the little ones at night as they slept about those who had passed on, according to custom. This is an experience of Ubuntu as Archbishop Desmond Tutu talks about it: my humanity rests in your humanity, the community is the family, your child is my child and how you live with honour and integrity and love uplifts me because we are all utterly interconnected. This wide family letting me be a part of their humanity so enriched mine. Palesa, thank God, and all the pray-ers, came home that day, still traumatised, wailing then drifting back into sleep. This is the child who walked around the garden doing flowers with me, picking and smelling and arranging in vases and talking nineteen to the dozen in Sotho, of which I know very little. Imago style, though, I just made the sounds I’d heard and Palesa would agree and continue telling me her thoughts. Mirroring across a language barrier was that easy! Now all she said was “aaahh” again and again. I couldn’t comfort her and went out to make soup. Came back to see her wrapped in the arms of her teenage cousin, both lying on the sofa in tears but at peace too.
There seems to be a pragmatism about death in Africa. The fact of the grief is not lessened by the necessity to keep living and getting on with things: school fees must be paid and plans made about who will look after whom while parents are mourned and new lives begun.
I phone Alinah every day, just to see how she is and because I miss her. She says often “Thank you for looking after my children Joy.” I don’t even try to express what an honour it feels to be involved in her family, or remind her of how she’s helped me with mine. Last week kind, thoughtful Dave drove me through to Natalspruit Hospital to see her. He spoke to the hospital staff to get more information, and went to buy the things Alinah needed, and rubbed my back now and then. I held Alinah’s hand and we talked. About Maki and her mum and her storm-battered family tree; about booking Thembi in for high school, papers that need signing, formalising guardianship of her grandchildren and the government grants that will help us get them into nursery school. She told me she had so much pain on the day of the family funeral she’d been given injections and was mostly asleep and that was a good thing. I told her of Beth being in New York on her way to the Mexican International HIV/Aids Conference and her dilemma about whether to go to England to take up her studies in England this September or next. I teased her that when she came home she’d sit in a wheel chair and order us all around because she knows I can’t make things look as good as she can. Then we were both quiet awhile. Tears always close. “I miss you so much Alinah,” I said. “I know Joy,” she said, “and I know you love me too.”
This is my relationship with my housekeeper & helper: one of love. It’s a blessed connection of self respect and mutual respect, clear boundaries and generosity, both intimacy and differentiation. Who can say how love can grow in that Imago garden.