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YA Eco Mysteries, Memoirs, Novels & Travel

South African Apartheid Memoir

Meeting Long-Lost Cousins in the Belgium Beer Garden

I’m sitting at a rough wooden picnic table at the Belgium Beer Garden in Melbourne, Australia, waiting to meet my two long-last third cousins that I have never meet, because of a family feud. They have come here to share more than a beer; it seems they have a bone to pick with me—a really big one. All around us young men in tank tops and cut off shorts, and young women in mini skirts and skimpy sundresses, are happily chugging down bottles of beer and laughing raucously. We old folks are chomping on succulent cheese “krantsky” sausages and sipping apple cider with a kick in it. Thank goodness my husband, Boris, my sister, Bea, and my brother-in-law, Mike, have bravely agreed to accompany me to this curious family reunion.
As the sultry sun sinks lower in an overcast sky, more youngsters crowd in to the beer garden, but still the dreaded cousins have not made their appearance. How did I get myself into this situation? How come I’m thousands of miles away from home in good old Alabama, steeling myself for a confrontation with cousins I have never even met? I ask myself. The unadulterated answer: because of the memoir I wrote about growing up in Apartheid South Africa.
Soon after it was published, I received e-mail from one of the cousins informing me that there were several errors in it. Intrigued, I replied that I would be happy to correct the errors, if they would e-mail the details. Although I did not receive a response before leaving for Australia, I sent my cousin our travel itinerary, saying that I looked forward to meeting them.
So here we now sit in the Belgium Beer Garden, apprehensively waiting for the apparently angry cousins—I’ll call them Sylvia and Vera. The crowd is getting rowdier and the lights strung in the trees have come on, but still no sight of my cousins.
“I’ll walk toward the street and see if I can spot them,” my sister Bea says, rushing off. Without the slightest prompting, my sweet sister has become my social secretary, sending endless text messages and making phone calls for me. What a luxury! A few minutes later, she appears with two ladies in tow! I stand up and wave them over. I can tell immediately by their stiff smiles and lack of eye contact that they are ill at ease. To connect with them, I begin by sharing my childhood memories of the flourishing South African family farm where my cousins were raised. The farm, pioneered by their grandfather, was passed down to his two sons, Jerry and Paul—I’ll call them that. It’s Paul’s two daughters that are now here with a chip on their shoulder about some something I wrote in the memoir they deem disparaging to the memory of their father.*
After chatting for a while the younger cousin, Sylvia, says, “Why didn’t you interview us, before you wrote the memoir?”
“I completely lost touch with your side of the family, so I couldn’t have interviewed you. And your parents are no longer alive. What I wrote was a memoir, is not a documentation of the family’s history,” I say.
I go on to explain that, for me, writing a memoir is like diving deep down into the sea of memories, starting with your earliest recollections of childhood. They are your memories alone, which may be different to what others remember and are only a sliver of the whole picture. As we continue to chat, the sisters slowly begin to thaw out. Finally, they are ready to set the record straight! The sore point centers on the loss of the prosperous family farm that the children of the two farming brothers, Jerry and Paul, inherited between them. You see, Jerry, the older brother had three sons, and Paul, the younger brother, had four daughters—two are sitting in front of me now. In all, seven children inherited the farm between them.
“You see it’s a very sore point with us, that our family farm, our inheritance, was lost because of the crooked business practices of our boy cousins,” Sylvia says, looking me straight in the eye for the first time.
Ah, I think to myself, money is always at the root of the problem.
But as the cousins unravel their story, I begin to understand that they want not just to set the record straight about who was responsible for the loss of their inheritance. They want me to know what a fine, intelligent and upstanding man their father Paul had been. They tell me that he had made a deathbed promise to his older brother to take care of his boys (his nephews). After his death, when two of the nephews were caught doing illegal deals, he kept them out of jail by paying a large sum of cash to those they had defrauded. Sylvia and Vera also want me to know that their father treated his black farmhands with courtesy and compassion, even at the height of Apartheid.
Ah, I think, his daughters want to be sure that I understand that their father was never a bigot, unlike some other members of the family.
To drive the point home, they tell me how Paul opened an elementary school for the children of the farmhands, and that there were hundreds of mourners, both black and white, at his funeral. Moreover, they tell me proudly, that their father was an outstanding farmer, who experimented with the latest agricultural methods, and that people came from all over to visit his farm.
By the time Sylvia and Vera stand up to leave, night has fallen, the crowds in the Belgium Beer Garden are thicker than ever, and the beer and laughter are still flowing freely. We all hug and vow to stay in touch. I breath a sigh of relief as they wave goodbye. I am glad that they had the chance to set the record straight and that it seems to have diffused any ill will they may have had toward me. Yet I feel sad that because of the feuding between the wives of Jerry and Paul, I was kept away from my cousins—but that’s a story for another blog.
I remember what my daughter said to me soon after my memoir was published: “Mom, you are brave to write about your family!”
I replied, “No, just honest.” In hindsight, I agree with my daughter that writing an “honest” memoir takes some courage, or just plain fool hardiness. In writing my memoir I inadvertently, stirred up my cousins’ justifiable resentment over a lost inheritance, their unresolved feelings about a family feud, and bruised their familial pride.
Still, writing a memoir is worth the effort. It reconnected me with my family, with many interesting people I would otherwise have never have met, and brought wonderful new experiences into my life—yet another topic for another blog. So if you are considering writing a memoir, go for it!
By the way, the cheese krantsky was just delicious, or as my country cousins might have said in Afrikaans,
Dis lekker man!

*To find out more about what I wrote in my memoir, read chapter 6, “Country Cousins,” in
Behind the Walled Garden of Apartheid: Growing Up White in Segregated South Africa.