In the autumn of 1959 my parents moved from Cape Town to Johannesburg when my father was offered a new job. A promotion – my mother pulls her mouth a little to hide a smile when she tells me this part of her story. I can see she likes the sound of the word, its self-important promise.
“He was promoted from Window Dresser to Marketing Executive at the OK Bazaars; It was a big step up,’ she says.
The step up meant that they crammed their blue Ford Zephyr with wedding presents and suitcases and left Cape Town for good. I have collected a few facts from this time using photos and letters but mostly I imagine the move from stories my mother has told down the years about how her new husband dragged her away from her beloved home in “the shadow of Table Mountain into the concrete jungle” – her favoured cliche for urban sprawl – that was Johannesburg in the 1950s.
They must have discussed the move and my mother, as a young bride, would surely have agreed to go with my father to take up their new life in Johannesburg. But by the time I was of an age for her to tell me the story, she had been torn away from her beloved Cape Town. For her, to this day, nothing compares to the beauty of the Cape: “The white beaches, the smell of the sea and the thick cloud pouring over Table Mountain.” She loves to recall how one day the Southeaster blew so hard that the wind lifted her off the ground and she had to cling to a lamppost to stop herself from being blown away. This image transformed itself in my childhood imagination into a picture of her with her arms wrapped around the lamppost, her bright red coat lifted by the wind, an unwilling Mary Poppins, struggling to remain in her beloved Cape Town.
Just as Cape Town is the place of youth and promise, the place where she lived “before everything became difficult and complicated”, Johannesburg is the place of disappointment and barrenness. If only she had been able to stay on in the Cape, everything might have been different, she recriminates yet again. She could have been happy and might have been able to give birth to her own children.
“My babies would all have looked just like me,” she declares.
For her, the distance between Cape Town and Joburg is not just a thousand miles, but is instead the measure of the mileage between what she dreamed of and what she became. Even now, having had decades to admit the truth and take some responsibility for the choice, she will, without fail, blame my father for her unhappiness, for everything she hates about Joburg, for his forcing her into a life she never wanted or agreed to.
They moved to a flat in Hillbrow – 401 Pinehurst, Louis Botha Avenue.
“North Houghton to be exact,” my father still corrects her. It is important to him to emphasize that they don’t live in Hillbrow, which means they are on the right side of respectability. They have heard that Hillbrow was never a nice area with its druggies and drop-outs but North Houghton has always been grand, with its imposing mansions owned by mining magnates and people with old money.
Our own place, Pinehurst, had no garden of its own, not even a small quadrangle with the cheerful floral borders my mother admired in other nearby buildings. There were no paths bright with pansies or African daisies, no scented jasmine climbing the ironwork. The curved concrete wall at the front of the building, with ‘Pinehurst’ spelled out in metal letters, was planted only with a row of dusty aloes that need no care to remain alive.
My mother was anxious to fall pregnant. I imagine her lying in bed, cold and frightened, listening to the scrape of branches against the building as the trees bend in the wind. When is it going to happen? She reads about cycles and fertility and tells my daunted father what they must do. She rests with her hips propped up after they have made love to have a better chance of conceiving. She is hyper-vigilant to the signs her body sends her: a little ache in her side, a sore stomach that turns out to be constipation, tender breasts. But every month the agony returns and the blood streams out of her, thick and clotted. One morning the pain is so bad she faints. Finally, after months of my father’s worried pleading, she agrees to consult a specialist.
Dr. Wells makes a small temple with his fingers and leans his elbows on the polished desk between him and my mother as he delivers his verdict. They will operate and remove one ovary, leaving her the chance to fall pregnant. But things don’t go to plan. My mother is thirty-three, thin and anaemic, when all hope of having her own babies is finally laid to rest in a kidney-shaped dish. The surgeons tell her afterward that they had no choice....My father had given permission for a full hysterectomy. When my mother woke up from the anaesthetic and the surgical nurses showed her what they had removed, she threw up. Her recovery was slow. It took six months for her to pay any attention to what was happening around her and a year before she got properly out and about.
I have heard the story so often, I know it as if it were my own: She is reluctant to leave the flat. Everyone is willing her to get well, but her pain is not just physical. She feels as though she has been struck by lightning. In a flash everything that matters has been taken away from her. She feels small, hollowed out. How could they have given her a hysterectomy without her consent? Why did he not explain to the doctors that they were trying for a baby? She cannot get over how she went to sleep one person and woke up another – one with no chance of ever having her own golden-haired babies.
My father tries to reason with her. “Listen, bokkie,” he explains, using his usual term of endearment, “you were under anaesthetic. As your husband, I had to make the decision. I just did what the doctors said was best.”
Months go by and she drags herself around their flat, absent-mindedly cupping her belly where the scar is healing nicely. One night she and my father attend a party at their friend Vinny’s flat. My father is relieved at the chance to escape for a while but my mother is unsure about going. What will she say? Who will she talk to in a room full of people who don’t know about her pain? She only has one thing on her mind: this loss that fills every thinking hour of her day and night. She stays in Vinny’s kitchen spooning out the punch, happy to have a task that will keep her busy. When my father goes looking for her later in the evening, he finds her perched on the kitchen table telling the sad tale of her hysterectomy to a circle of husbands who have wandered into the kitchen looking for a drink. Her words fall into the stillness: ovaries, fallopian tubes, endometriosis.
My father looks at their faces, upturned and horrified, “Come on, bokkie,” he says, and helps her off the table, “Let’s go home, shall we.”
Their great loss had already become the most important of the many things they could not talk about. It was my father’s love of children and his dream of having a big family that had convinced my mother to marry him in the first place. His optimism had made it seem that raising a family would be the obvious next step in their life together. She recounts yet again how my father wanted their own children as much as she did, how it was to have been their bond. No, it was not exactly his fault but still he betrayed their dream. It was he who gave permission to the surgeon.
At a loss as to what to do next, my father now began his adoption campaign. How did the idea come about? What did he say? It would become a conversation they'd have many times. He must have come at the topic, not head on, but from a slant, working all the angles, marketing it. I can hear him making his case -- softly, gently -- that it takes time to adopt a baby. There are waiting lists and red tape. They'll have to put their names down on one (or many) of these.
“We don’t have to commit ourselves, bokkie,” he reassures her, “If they offer us a baby and we’re not ready, we can just say no,” he reasons. He relies on the wisdom of Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care in his campaign to win my mother over, rubbing his thumb along the inside of the spine and reading aloud sections that underline his points: "A couple should not wait until they are old to adopt a child. They are liable to become too set in their ways."
“I don’t want to bring up someone else’s child,” my mother accuses, holding her side, the ache spreading into her back and down her legs, "I just wanted to have my own babies.”
"I know," he sighs, "But this will be our own baby. We’ll apply and sign all the papers and that will make it legal. The baby will have our name.’
And then, at some point, she changes her mind. Somehow this unpalatable plan – “taking on someone else’s problem”, as she called it – appears to her now as a solution to their own. At last, she leans in closer and listens, trying to imagine carrying the small bundle from the hospital, perfect and ready made, warm and smelling of someone else’s milk. But it would be hers. It would be theirs. That’s what the books say, and slowly she inches towards an image of that borrowed baby filling in the hollow of their marriage and her life.
"We can look into it," she tells him.
In a photograph taken shortly after my adoption, they are seated together on a sofa, my father with his legs crossed and his head turned coyly towards the camera. He wears blue knee-length socks that match the polka dots on my mother’s dress. She stares out of the frame, unsmiling, her face half in shadow. In the corner, a mother-in-law’s tongue plant twists upwards, its leaves sharp and prehistoric. My father’s arm is slung along the back of the couch, casually not touching my mother’s shoulders. I am on her lap, dressed in frothy white, still too small to hold my head up so that it lolls to one side – a doll, dressed up to be shown off. Although I am in her lap, she is not holding me. Her arms are firmly tucked at her sides. I am balanced only by the precarious tilt of her knees. In this photo, as after it was taken, the baby who doesn’t really belong to her has somehow landed in her lap and she has not yet learned how to hold onto it.
Lynnda Wardle is a South African-Scottish writer whose work has appeared in various publications and anthologies including: Gutter, New Writing Scotland, thi wurd, New Orleans Review, Glasgow Review of Books and PENning magazine. In 2007 Lynnda received a Creative Scotland New Writers award. Her memoir, Her Blue Eyes, Mine tells the story of her being adopted and growing up in apartheid South Africa and was shortlisted for the 2022 Fish Memoir Prize. She is currently studying for an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow and is writing fiction about Scottish emigrants to the Eastern Cape in the 1820s.