Monday, 21 January 2013

In memoriam


Photograph courtesy of jennyjuststuff

This is my granny, Helen Kotze.  She died earlier this afternoon at the age of 92. 

Helen was a formidable woman.  Raised in South Africa as one of four daughters to a Methodist minister, her childhood memories were of climbing trees, reading books, writing poetry and playing the violin.  When she was twenty she met my grandfather - a charismatic student called Theo - and they fell in love and got married, with a son (my uncle Derek) following soon after.  Four more children followed and my grandpa entered the ministry.  From Reverend's daughter to Reverend's wife.  Helen was by Theo's side as he became active in the anti-apartheid movement and supported him in all his work; a wife's duty, she would have said.  She was of the generation who believed that a woman's role was to support her husband, and this she did in every way she could, enabling Theo to become successful and admired while she stayed in the background (although not always: she was an active member of Black Sash, a womens anti-apartheid organisation).  In 1977, a dramatic escape from the South African authorities led to a sixteen year exile, first in the Netherlands and America, and then, from 1980, in the UK.  Helen did not have an easy life, but it was one filled with hard work, children, friends, love.

One of my earliest memories is of staying at my grandparents house the summer my brother was born.  They had a houseful of family - cousins, aunts and uncles - gathered from around the world, and so we (my cousins and I) had to sleep in the garage.  Because they were older than me, their bedtime was later than mine, so granny came into the garage to sit with me, telling me stories, until I fell asleep.  I remember feeling safe and comforted by her presence.  My brothers and I were lucky enough to grow up with granny and grandpa in the same country (a luxury few of my cousins had), and I always enjoyed spending time with them.

Later, as a teenager, I found Helen an intimidating prospect.  When she and Theo left the UK to return to South Africa, I was still the sweet, studious, blonde-haired grandaughter of her dreams.  Returning on a visit a couple of years after, she didn't really know how to deal with the dyed hair and facial piercings, and we clashed at times.  She was never one to hide her displeasure: I will always remember how she reacted when she felt my brother, Richard, and I were being insufficiently attentive while playing Scrabble (which was something akin to a second religion in Helen's book).  Let's just say, we quickly started taking the game more seriously after she'd said her piece.

For the past twenty-ish years I have lived thousands of miles away from Helen, seeing her on her rare visits to the UK and on my even rarer trips to South Africa.  But I was lucky enough to spend time with her last summer, by which time her decline - begun in many ways when Theo died in 2003, after which she suffered from depression - meant that she didn't really recognise or remember me. 

My uncle, Michael, and aunt, Jenny, have done a wonderful job of caring for Helen these last few years (you can read Jenny's amazing blog post about Helen's last days here.  It is a beautiful piece of writing).  My favourite story of theirs is the time they arrived at her flat to find her laid out on the bed, fully dressed, breathing deeply.  "What are you doing, mother?" Michael enquired of her, to which he received the answer, "practising taking my last breaths".  Granny has been ready to die for a long time, complaining (as, at 92, she had every right to!) of being tired of living.  Her death comes as a relief in many ways, and to know that she died peacefully, and at home, is a great blessing.  But the quietness of her death should not eclipse the wonderful things she achieved in life. 

16 comments:

  1. So sorry to hear about your granny passing away - this is a really lovely tribute to her and you have such good memories of you time together

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    1. Thank you. She was an incredible woman!

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  2. I'm so sorry for your loss. I know what it's like to lose a strong, opinionated,brave woman from your family. I hope you are OK. Its a beautiful tribute to her.

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  3. Thanks Louise. I'm ok; it was time for her to go, and I'm glad she died peacefully and not in any pain.

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  4. So wonderfully written Janet. Lots of love to you guys far away.

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    1. Love to you and Michael and Caroline. I am so grateful that she had you there in her last days, taking care of her and loving her.

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  5. "But the quietness of her death should not eclipse the wonderful things she achieved in life" - awesome

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  6. Lovely words to remember a special woman by Janet.

    The scrabble story made me smile. I often count up the value of license plates (numbers + the scrabble value of the letters) as she loved to do, but am not on Helen's level as I don't know the scrabble values of most letters. Thankfully she never knew this!


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  7. Lovely words to remember a special woman by Janet.

    The scrabble story made me smile. I often count up the value of license plates (numbers + the scrabble value of the letters) as she loved to do, but am not on Helen's level as I don't know the scrabble values of most letters. Thankfully she never knew this!


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    1. Thank you. She was a Scrabble fiend in her time!

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  8. Beautiful stuff, thanks for writing it. And I remember the scrabble telling-off - I think we were trying to make interesting words rather than high-scoring ones. I think Granny won that game quite handily!!

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    1. Yep, we kept forgoing chances to score well in order to make 'nice' words, and she got really cross!

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  9. Janet! So beautifully written, thank you! I have been thinking of you since I heard as I am thinking of all my far away cousins. I am so glad that you got to see her in a fairly good state last year. Lots of love to you all.
    X

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    1. Thank you. Love to all of you in Cape Town x

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  10. I'm so sorry to hear this - you have written about her beautifully, though; she sounds like an incredible woman.

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