Every December, my family used to drive to a seaside village in the Eastern Cape. We would spend a good three or four weeks there, in a house that my grandparents had bought before I was born. The house was large and a bit run-down, furnished with old chairs and tables and old-fashioned picture frames and mirrors. My grandparents had the main bedroom, with, quaintly, two single beds. Most of my cousins were from the Eastern Cape. My second cousins were farmers near Bathurst. We shared the house with three of my first cousins over the December holidays. My other three first cousins had a house near our own. We were all similar ages.
There was an ongoing game of Murder at the house. The game went on all holiday. Everyone drew a card. The Ace of Spades was the murderer and the King of Hearts, the detective. When the cards were drawn there was much excitement. We longed to draw the murderer card and feared drawing it all at the same time. The Murder game went on until the detective discovered the murderer and then new cards were drawn. Only the murderer could lie to the detective during the investigations. When the murderer had claimed his or her first victim, the victim had to wait for one minute before they screamed. The detective would then call everyone into the lounge and begin his or her investigation. The all-time best murder was when my little cousin killed my dear uncle in the outside shower.
Those were happy days. We trapped crabs in sand moats, roasted marshmallows and went fishing and crabbing. One of my uncles had a boat, in which he could fit nine small children, and he often took us up the river.
We had epic road trips down to the sea. There were five of us (six, including a large brown Labrador) packed into an old green Datsun. The, then, thirteen-hour drive was an adventure in itself. We would wake at four and pack the car and get on the road. On at least two occasions, we didn’t get out of the driveway because my father had locked his keys in the car. He always wanted to see how far we could drive with as little petrol as possible. So, we ran out of petrol frequently. My father would have to hitchhike to the nearest town to procure petrol. We were left behind, in the car, with the Labrador, in the sweltering heat. Once, we had to stop in Ventersburg to obtain a tetanus injection for my sister who had been bitten by a Maltese poodle the day before. Each stop for the toilet was a “pitstop” and my father would time it, hoping to beat his previous time. My cousins, in the Eastern Cape were endlessly amused by our misfortunes and eagerly awaited to hear what tragedy had befallen us on the trip down.
My mother would pack padkos – always the same- white rolls, pork sausages, boiled eggs, lettuce and tomatoes. We would begin eating as soon as we were on the road. My two sisters and I (and the dog) were squeezed on to the back seat and squabbles about space broke out frequently. My father, who was driving, would keep one hand on the wheel and with the other arm would swipe at us to make us stop. We sang a lot of the way. Old songs, that my parents had taught us.
The drive took us through Grahamstown where my parents had first met. We heard the story every time we drove into Grahamstown. My mother, 17, wearing a shirtwaister, had been walking to her lectures when my father was having his morning tea outside his res. “I was eating a melon and ginger sandwich, when I saw your mother.” We knew the story off by heart.
I wonder, now, if we knew that what we were experiencing was joy. Or whether we merely accepted each day as it came, knowing that that there was nothing to fear, and that the next day would be the same and the next. I think it is the latter. It is pain that teaches us about joy and gratitude. And no pain had touched us, not then.