Julia

She was born on 27 November 1906, the year in which the British Labour Party was founded, Alfred Dreyfus was exonerated, and the International Radiotelegraph Conference agreed on “SOS” as the global standard distress signal.  In South Africa, Gandhi led the Indian community in the first passive resistance march against social injustice, the African National Congress sent a delegation to Britain protesting new legislation in the Orange Free State that had stripped blacks of legally acquired land, and tuberculosis reached epidemic proportions.

Early photos of Julia show a child who was dressed in the height of fashion and wore the latest accessories.  To the extent that a comfortable life can be inferred from such details, it came to an abrupt halt when Harry died.  The fourteen-year-old Julia was taken out of school and sent to work to support her mother and my then eight-year-old father.  I’d hear that a young man would later claim a special place in her heart, but due to her reduced circumstances or his family’s subsequent redirection of his affections elsewhere – perhaps both – that relationship did not progress.  When she married Issy, a Latvian-born dealer in bathroom accessories, she was 28.  Old for the times.

Julia was the aunt to whom I was despatched as a toddler, too young to travel overseas with my parents and siblings.  I spent three months in Johannesburg with her and Issy, and their daughters, Hilarye and Rosalind.  I celebrated my second birthday with them, the occasion recorded in a photo of me blowing out candles on a birthday cake, flanked by my smiling cousins.

The single-level house at 75 Louis Botha Avenue in Houghton – where Nelson Mandela would one day occupy a grand mansion – became synonymous with holidays in Johannesburg.  It was small compared with the double-storey home of my childhood, but it did boast several things that ours didn’t, including a tennis court and two bathrooms.  There were also burglar bars on every window, reinforcing the perception that Johannesburg was a much more dangerous place than Cape Town.  And, of course, it was.  While lying in bed one afternoon, Issy noticed a fishing rod poking through the bars of an open window.  He watched as the rod advanced towards the dumb valet where his jacket was hung, flipping open the left front.  By the time he understood the purpose of this exercise, the rod, which was liberally covered in razor blades, had retreated from view with his wallet.

My aunt was a short version of my father, but with brown eyes and more hair.  They had the same crinkly – and slightly mischievous – smiles which seemed to start at the corners of their eyes and travel down to their mouths.  Julia’s most distinctive feature, however, was at the other end of her body.  During the day, her feet would rise like loaves of bread in a warm oven, their skyward progress accentuated by the unyielding toes of her shoes.  I was endlessly fascinated by her swollen feet and hoped that this condition was not genetic.

Julia’s house was populated with dogs, always German shepherds, and good food.  Every morning bulkes – yeast buns – would emerge from the oven, hot on the heels of a cooked breakfast.  There was delicious yogurt in glass pots, stopped with a disc of cardboard under which a layer of cream lurked.  Julia’s Danish herring, with its sweet tomato base, was more approachable to my child’s palate than the vinegary tang of Mom’s pickled herring.  In the pantry, a jar of glacé cherries was regularly topped up to indulge my love of crystallised fruit.

When my turn came to travel overseas, Julia gave me a diary.  At the time, it seemed like doing homework and I was resentful of such a thoughtless gift.  But I dutifully scribbled in it, letting go of the discipline only in the last week of the trip.  No further diaries were pressed upon me and, without the prod, I kept no records of subsequent travel.  But a seed had been sown.  It would take 35 years for it to germinate and, since 1999, I have made notes on every overseas trip I’ve undertaken and of many local ones too; my only regret is that I didn’t pick up the habit earlier.  It appears I was not the first journal keeper in the family.  Among the various items we found when packing up my mother’s apartment in the early noughties were my father’s travel diaries and some of Mom’s jottings.

Julia was habitually late for everything.  Even when she was ready to go out, she would find some excuse not to leave on time.  I remember an occasion in the 1960s when we were preparing to go to the new Cinerama[1] where How the West Was Won was showing.  I was bursting with excitement about seeing a movie projected onto three[2] screens, wondering how they would achieve the curved effect and whether I would see the joins.  We were going nowhere, however, until Julia had finished combing the knots out of her granddaughter’s hair.

I saw Julia less often during the 1970s.  The family dynamic had changed and I now had the choice of staying with my brother, who had relocated to Johannesburg in 1972.  Issy died in 1974, the end of his life spent in a dementia care facility.  Four years later we were rocked by the news that Rosalind had committed suicide in London.  I can’t imagine the grief Julia must have suffered, and the questions that would never be answered.

On a return visit to South Africa in 1986, I rang to arrange a time to visit.  Julia was still living at the house on Louis Botha Avenue, with the two domestic servants I remembered from the 1960s.  She was almost blind and her feet were still rising up in her shoes.  There were no dogs nor the smell of freshly baked bulkes.  I was ushered into the formal reception room where my surviving cousin and her daughter, on account of whose knotted hair we’d been late for the movies twenty years ago, were seated.  Julia was cool, the others belligerent.  There was a grievance held by another party, they said, as they  looked in my direction.  I was shocked and hurt, but mostly I was dismayed by their misrepresentation of the facts.

It was the last time I saw Julia.  She died on 5 May 1997.  Four days earlier, Tony Blair’s New Labour had been swept to victory in Britain with the largest margin in its history.  In South Africa, a newly emancipated Nelson Mandela was negotiating a transition to majority rule with the then Nationalist government.  The incidence of TB was about to soar once again.[3]

On a visit to Johannesburg in 2014, I decided to look for Julia’s grave.  We drove out to Westpark Cemetery, a sprawling multi-denominational burial ground, with a printout of the plot location tucked into my handbag.  The office at the main gate was unattended, but a passing official gave us directions to the Jewish section.  ‘Go out the gate, turn left, pass five gates and you’ll see it.  You won’t miss it, darling,’ she said.  We drove through the fifth gate and parked near a function centre where a funeral service had just concluded.  Friends and family of the deceased were spilling onto the steps, a black man in a yarmulke an incongruity in the all-white crowd.  I approached an elderly man and asked where P Section was.  ‘Ten minutes on foot’, he said, pointing toward a clump of trees in the distance, his breath reeking of stale cigarette smoke and bad dentition.  Over at P Section I showed the printout to one of the attendants.  He nodded and set off at a trot, stopping at the end of a row.  He made a show of pulling weeds from the grave – there were barely any – then hurled a bucket of water at the tombstone, buffing up the lettering with a cloth.  I gave him 20 Rands, took a few snaps and left.

Julia and Issy had always intended to lie side-by-side at Westpark.  After Rosalind’s death, Julia offered up her plot so that her daughter could be interred alongside her father.  With no room left in the row, my aunt was squeezed into the grass verge between the last grave and a roadway.

Time is a great provider of perspective.  Despite the unfortunate circumstances of our last encounter, I remember Julia with fondness.   The three months of care was an extraordinary gift, even if I don’t remember any of it.  Whenever I stayed with her she looked after me with the responsibility and affection of a parent.  I should also give her credit for having influenced my writing career.  Without that first diary, I may never have taken up the habit in later life.

[1]              https://johannesburg1912.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/theatres-in-early-johannesburg/

[2]              The early system required shooting three synchronised cameras that shared a single shutter, giving a 146-degree field of view.  The ‘joins’ between the screens were clearly visible.

[3]              ‘The increasing burden of tuberculosis in rural South Africa – impact of the HIV epidemic’ South African Medical Journal vol. 87, 4, April 1997.  https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:215788/UQ215788_OA.pdf

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