Friday, April 10, 2009

The Tea Set

Just a short little something I wrote for my writing class:

The Tea Set

How do I begin to describe my Oumie to you? First, I should probably say that Oumie is a term of endearment, used by the Boer people of South Africa to refer to one’s great-grandmother. Although I’m nineteen, my Oumie is not even 90 yet. Obviously my family believes in marrying young and having children ASAP. When my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents married they were all less than twenty years old, and according to them I’m running out of time.

But enough about me. This is about her. My Oumie. The best way to describer her to you is to give you a snapshot. A day in the life. Or more accurately, a few hours that I spent with her on my last visit to South Africa. Nothing paints a clearer picture of who she is.

It began, as all days do, with the sun rising. But this was one of those days, those African days, where the sun scorches the air, burns the grass golden, and cracks the red African ground into powder. The powder get into the air and you can almost feel it coating the inside of your mouth and throat as you breathe. But it has a pleasant, sweet taste that lingers on your tongue, and even now, I can taste its memory. To say it’s like a drug would not be too far off.

On a day like this, we drove from the region close to the Cape, leaving the rainforest and banana plantations behind, and crossed the large expanse of the golden plains of central South Africa. It’s almost savannah but not quite, there are just enough trees for it not to be. The land is flat, stretching out far and wide until it disintegrates in the heat waves dancing at the edges of the world. At the end of our long road was the city of Welkom.

Welkom is an odd city. We drove for miles and miles of flat, uneventful plains of sun-yellowed grass when suddenly we enter an entire area that is lush and green. Well, as lush and green as you get when you’re not at the coastline. The entire city has no stop signs or red lights. Instead, some brilliant civic engineer has left his mark by making every intersection, big or small, a roundabout. This makes for extremely fluid, though sickening, driving. Luckily we reached the house in less than five minutes.

The house is not her house of course. It belongs to Oom Willem. Here I should probably also add a side-note that “Oom” means Uncle in Afrikaans, the language of the Boer people, and that normally all older, males that are close to the family are referred to as Oom whether or not they are actually your uncle. Oom Willem is my great-uncle, one of my Oumie’s six children. Since people in my family get married so early on obviously they will end up with a large brood.

Anyway, Oom Willem is Oumie’s current caretaker. I say caretaker because she happens to be living on his property and he feels that it’s his responsibility to take care of her. However, she is not some sickly old lady that needs taking care of. If anything, she would be taking care of him if it weren’t for his wife. But more on that later.

We got to the large house, enclosed in its high brick walls, lined with electric fencing and all. South Africa has the highest crime rate in the world and not having an electric fence, alarm, and watch dog is considered moronic. Behind the walls was a very neat house that smelled like lemon, mahogany, and musk, and was always cold, no matter what the weather.

I was escorted to the back of the house where a stone courtyard spread out towards a small cottage. The courtyard was partly roofed and partly shaded by large palm and fig trees. There was a large barrel for collecting rainwater, to use for the small spaces of greenery that had been delved between the courtyard and the high walls. At the side was a dove cage that resembled a wardrobe made of chicken wire.

The white door with the peeling paint opened and Oumie stepped out. She wore one of her handmade outfits, a dark color just between blue and purple, with small white pearl buttons. Her completely white hair fell in waves down to her ears, and she looked practically regal with the white and purple contrast.

Her face was wrinkled, bones projecting from her cheeks. Her fingers were all shriveled and thin, but still warm with life and activity. Her entire frame was small, compact, and yet she did not seem frail at all. In fact, if we were both knocked over right then, I would not be surprised if she ended helping me up. Its not that she is that lithe or springy, she just has that look of preparedness and activity in her eyes.

When she walked, she half shuffled and half glided, as if she were on ice. She smiled a smile that is slightly crooked, revealing mischief and tenderness all at once. I ran to her and gave her a hug, surprised how light she had gotten. I knew she lost weight but this was concerning. As I put her down she answered me before I could say anything.

“You’re looking good, my child! So handsome and fine! But so thin! I’ll make you some of my vetkoek (South African deep fried pastry eaten with savory ground beef) later. But first let’s have some tea. Then you can tell me all about America.”

We sat out on the stone courtyard by the small metalwork table. Its top was covered in a fine grained mahogany, and set with a perfectly white lace tablecloth. Some of the things she had been allowed to keep after my Oupie (great-grandfather) died. The maid, whom she calls Tandi, comes out with the tea and biscuits.

Tandi has been a part of the family for almost five years now. The previous maid, Sara, had been with them for twelve years before she got married. The one before that, Mary, had been with my Oumie for almost 40 years. Tandi already knew how Oumie liked her tea and biscuits served when there are guests, and continually refer to Oumie as “Tanie” or aunt, and me as “klein baas” or little master.

She left after bringing the tea out and Oumie began pouring the tea. The tea set is extremely old, hand painted pink roses weave around the white porcelain cups and saucers, while golden vines and accents surround them. The rims are also golden, as if the maker thought our lips would be too good to drink from mere porcelain.

“So, tell me Oumie, are you happy here?” I ask as Oumie adds cream and sugar to my cup and stirs it before handing it to me.

“Oh, yes, very happy. Your Oom Willem as been so generous to me.” She said as she made her own cup of tea, took a thoughtful sip before saying with her eyes sparkling, “They still think I don’t know, do they?”

“Know what?” I asked, taking a sip from the tea too to give myself time to think of an answer.

“Hehehe. They think I don’t know they want to put me in a home for the elderly.” She said as she gently offered me the biscuits, “You know I’ve been to those places before. Several times, in and out. Every time your Oom’s wife convinces him that I have to go. Then once I’m gone, he feels so bad that he takes me out again. It’s all rather funny.”

“But you would rather stay here?” I ask, nibbling on a biscuit absentmindedly.

“What I want, is not to be a burden. Frankly, it seems that whether I’m here or there I’m still a burden so both ways, I’m not happy. But enough of me, why did you come visit me?” she asked as she dipped her biscuit in the warm tea.

“Oh, no reason.” I lied, “Just to spend time with you.”

“Thank you.” She could tell I was lying, “You’re so considerate, just like your Oupie. And you look like him too. Sure, you have your father’s eyes, but the rest are all Oupie. And you’re just as stubborn as him, if you’re mother is to be believed.”

“I can’t help it. Its in my blood.” I said relieved that the focus was off of my reason for visiting.

“It’s true. He was so stubborn that he even refused to take his heart medication. He said that if God wanted him to live then the medicine wouldn’t make a difference.” Here her smile returned, “So I would grind his medicine up, and mix it into his tea every night. In fact, that was his cup you’re drinking out of right now.”

“Really, wow.” Kinda creapy, but cool, I thought.

“Yes.” She smiled a slightly nostalgic smile as she continues, “That tea set has also cause a lot of commotion through the years.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, back before you were born, during the years of segregation I would insist that Mary, and later Sara, use the same tea cups as me when we had tea in the afternoons. You know all those other ladies from the church nearly had a heart attack when they learned that I wasn’t forcing Mary and Sara to drink from the tin cups. You wouldn’t have believed all the calls I got about my ‘unhygienic’ practice.” And here she laughed. “After that I had trouble getting any of them to come over for tea again.”

“That’s incredible! You mean this tea set helped play a part in bringing down apartheid?” I had always wondered about my family’s role during that time in our nation’s history.

“That was one of our people’s greatest sins. Not a day goes by that I don’t find myself asking forgiveness for our people’s sake, from those we wronged and from God.” She said before the twinkle returned to her eye. “But now they’re trying to kill us, so I guess in the end, all humans are just cruel, not just us.”

“Why don’t you come live with us in America?” I asked. “It’s safer there. You can actually walk down the street without fear of being mugged. There’s barely any crime compared to here, and you can actually sleep soundly at night. There’s none of the fear.”

“Thank you, my child. But you forget how old I really am. As much as my heart would go with you on this new… adventure, my body refuses.” She said with another sip from her cup.

“Now you’re the one not telling me something.” I said smiling.

“It’s nothing. Like I said, I really don’t want to be a burden. Whether physically or emotionally. So, lets just keep drinking tea, and we’ll pretend you’re just here because you wanted to drink tea with me, and that I’m just staying here in South Africa because I like the weather better.” She smiled that same smile, and for once, I see the slight bitterness to it, the bitter sweetness of her soul.

So I didn’t ask her all my questions about our family history I had come to ask. I suddenly realized just how painful it must be to delve into the past for her. She smiles all the while, but all she has left of her life is the memories. She would answer my questions too, if I asked. Like she said, she doesn’t want to be burdensome, and now suddenly I feel that the feeling was and is mutual.

That afternoon, when our tea was done, I helped her make one of our traditional Boer dinners. She showed me techniques that she had passed on to her daughters, and granddaughters, and that she had feared would be lost, as none of the great-granddaughters showed interest at all in cooking. Luckily for her, she has one great-grandson who was willing to learn.

Then she asked me to show her some of the things I had learned in America. I made a tiramisu, and she continually walked from her pot of savory curry beef to come see what I was doing, making mental notes. We both laughed when my grandmother and mother came in and reprimanded us both for stirring the food with teaspoons and knives instead of with ladles. Neither one of us did it consciously. Some things must just be in a person’s blood.

When we left, and drove on that long, straight road across the golden plains, I could feel that same bittersweet smile on my own lips. I now understood what it meant to say goodbye and know that it was very easily for the last time. I had learned so much, but most of all, I had learned that I did not have nearly enough time. Enough time to spend with the ones I loves, enough time to do what I wanted, enough time to change the world.

Driving on that straight and narrow road across the African plains, with the billowing blue and green clouds above me, I had an eye opening moment. Life is short. Time runs fast. People leave too soon, and tea cups are too fragile. In that moment, as the rain fell on the parched, red dust and turned it to mud, my eyes were opened. And I wept. I wept for the time I had wasted. And I wept because the light was too bright.


  1. Wow Jean... That was truly beautiful. Its times like these that I wish I could write like you and capture those moments as accurately in a story. Very moving my friend :)

  2. Very sincere and emotional account of your observations.

    You manage to find a balance between subjective content and objective description. You draw the reader in whether he wants to or not, and leaves him helpless at the mercy of emotion.


  3. This was so amazing Jean. We should get this to Oumie!