A mother like a supernova


A mother like a supernova

DEBORAH STEINMAIR, as per request, writes something positive about her mother. Sort of.


THE other day my mom told me: “I'm getting weaker and weaker." It's impossible to respond to this because nothing can be done about it. She is turning 87. She likes to say, “I have made many mistakes, but one has to forgive." And, “You could at least write those articles of yours that I was the one who fostered your love of reading, who plied you all with books since you were two years old." That's true, and she was the one who took us to the library every week. Our house was full of books.

In the dark fist of night, as an earthquake in Boksburg sets the closet doors rattling, I think: While she is still with us, I want to write about my mother's beauty and magnetism, the magnificent sweep of her personality, how she cast a long shadow.

My mother was the 11th child and, with the full input of her personality, insisted on her share of attention in a crowded family. She grew up on a farm in Swaziland and had to attend boarding school in Piet Retief from an early age. In the holidays before her Standard 6 year, her older brother gave her a buzz cut, she broke an arm and was attacked by a swarm of bees. When she arrived at big school, she looked like someone living with a disability.

She was staring out of the classroom window when an arrogant German boy said to her, “What are you looking at me like that for?" She replied without missing a beat, “I didn't even notice you. And what's more, before we're in matric you're going to be so in love with me that you won't be able to see out your eyes." And so it came to pass.


In college, an eccentric, unstable and brilliant roommate became obsessed with my mother and tried to control her life in the minutest detail. The roommate was taken away in a straitjacket after not sleeping for a week and cutting her favourite dress into small squares with a razor blade. Since then, my mother has declared that she does not like women. She doesn't trust us. We are backstabbers. She prefers men.

Throughout our school years, my siblings and I adored her. It was like a personality cult. We competed for her attention and bent over backwards to ply her with acceptable sacrifices and fragrant offerings. She had a lovely voice. Her exuberant, melodious laughter warmed the cockles of our hearts and her wrath was something we wanted to avoid at all costs. One look could make a child stop dead in her tracks, trembling. I remember in church, when us four rowdy kids became restless, just how painful a pinch from a gloved hand could be.

She was the sun around which our household revolved. My father also worshipped the ground she walked on. We were all so hopelessly in love with her. She was beautiful, with a grace that stems from a fabulous self-image, the upright, proud posture of a healthy bird. She is skinny, and while she loved to lecture my sister and I on healthy eating, she could eat whatever she wanted. Apart from long, slender legs and a tiny waist, she had a bosom like Barbie and used it as a weapon like Erin Brockovich, to charm and intimidate. To have her way.

We all wanted her to have her way: that was our goal. She had the superpower of charging every day with an atmosphere of festivity and the promise of surprises and unprecedented joy. The air was alive with glitter. Later, when we left home, real life was dull in comparison and we felt lost. My sister didn't leave home until her 40s and my brothers never really broke free of my mom's orbit. I was the one who closed tight the tap to the magic so that I could breathe and compose myself. The proximity of a neutron star is exhausting, the atmosphere on such a lofty planet lacking in oxygen.

Her eyes are set wide apart, her cheekbones are high, and she carries an aura of mystery. Self-satisfied and amused, as if she alone knows a secret. We were always so proud when she picked us up from school. She didn't wear tracksuit pants and ponytails or tight perms like other moms. She was always elegantly turned out in high-heeled shoes or sexy sandals, her hair long, shiny and straight. Big sunglasses like Jackie Onassis. Glamorous.


My mother's temper was legendary. There are people in whom, when you cross or humiliate them, a fearsome monster rises up, scorching the entire landscape.

She was a part-time art teacher who taught whenever someone was on maternity leave. At the high school I attended, she taught art for a semester or so. There was a large, loudmouthed hooligan in her class, as there is in any class. One day he gave her lip and my mom retaliated with a punch to the face that sent him falling backwards from his bench. She went to the principal's office and told him she was ready to pack up her stuff. No man, said the headmaster (those were different days), this boy is a problem. Let's see what happens first. When she locked up her classroom that afternoon, the boy stood waiting to carry her bag to her car. And every day after that. This was the way she was.

At a florist, she walked through a glass door one day, shattering it with her winter boots and emerging unscathed. Her response was blistering anger: Why isn't the window clearly marked with stickers? They humbly apologised. She also once obliterated a mechanical boom in a parking garage. The manager was summoned and she thoroughly admonished him about the damage to her car and because the boom did not give way. Once again, they apologised.

She doesn't drive any more, but she was propelled by road rage (I struggle with it, too). She loudly cursed other drivers, always in English and mostly with: “Stupid, bloody ffffool!"

She was a fabulous cook who conjured up delightful dishes daily and entertained on a large scale. Now she's forever complaining about the nursing home food, which she can't stomach. She is stripped of power and her world rendered small, but when you visit her artful suite filled with paintings and books, she sits like a queen in her grey La-Z-boy draped in a colourful scarf, smartly dressed, brain as sharp as a razor. She reads non-stop and I struggle to keep her in books. She has a command of five languages: Afrikaans, English, Swati, German and Spanish. She has a phenomenal memory and a fine ear for languages and has travelled the world.

I wonder if the helpers suspect who she used to be; if they know about her once-legendary beauty and the immeasurable width of her magnetic field. I wish they could have seen her in her prime, beautiful in the lamplight, with long, dark hair and expressive face as she plays guitar and sings as clear as water: “Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end."

♦ VWB ♦

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