The world is no longer at war. The avenue down which your father drives each day is still under construction, named after a man who is that very moment elsewhere, probably chatting to his friends in New York, forgetting about this homeland of his, mindful only of the need to leave something lasting.
I imagine your father hearing the news – firstly the pregnancy, then the delivery. You told me that he’d wanted another boy. Someone to take his initials onward. I imagine him in a wood-panelled office, those imposing edifices towering over the centre of this city, wanting another JAG. And that’s exactly what he got. Not a James Alistair Gemmill, though – a Judith Alistaire Gemmill.
I don’t know if anyone ever called you by your third name (mine also hangs disused, like a ceremonial sword at the launch of a nuclear submarine), but I certainly know that your first name has been uttered in almost as many ways as mine – Judy, Judes, Judal, Joooody and Joodhay, to name you only a few times. There were all these different ways of calling just the one of you.
1963. Last week was the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. I remember you telling me of how, 50 years ago, you were writing your Matric finals, and how girls had swooned when they’d heard. I wonder if you’d read any Huxley or CS Lewis by then, and if you’d known (down here in darkest Africa) that they too had left this earth on that single day.
I wonder how your name was made French or German or Italian or Swiss, in your time over there after school – the J smoothed out like the soft smoke from a sobranie cigarillo, or rounded like a dappled pebble from a riverbed near the glaciers.
Then I find myself picturing offices, cool despite the Joburg sun outside, and the scents of Rive Gauche and lipstick, hairspray and nail polish mixing into the city’s smells. But I also picture a deserted Louis Botha after midnight, after a thunderstorm, after the rest of the civilised world is in bed. Your shoes are dangling from your hand, and you’re waltzing. In some of my imaginings, you’re alone. At other times there are sportscarred playboys, Armenian princesses and Houghton socialites whisking you off to other storied places and times.
Your third decade sees your second naming, in the smoke and blood and heat of a wintery Soweto. The previous year you’d been running Wonderbox demonstrations, hopeful and practical, a mother and a woman among other mothers and women. Now you’re running supplies through roadblocks, handing out food to these prisoners in their own country, praying with Father Trevor, holding vigil in the darkness. Ukhanyisile, Khanyisile. From what you’ve told me, everything changed after that. KJAG
1979. Ulundi. Another winter’s day, although this one is barely noticeable in the Zululand heat. I imagine you being introduced to him, that moment when he shakes your hand for the first time. I imagine your Joburg Zulu bearing up well against his traditional Umvoti dialect. I imagine you as I have seen you often in photographs, with the hair and the 70’s flowing around you in a glamorous swirl. The KJAG becomes a KJAM
Five years later, in 1984, you’re my mother. You waited a whole month in that room, in a hospital overlooking a Voortrekker graveyard, just for me. Aunty Doppy’s just been in to see you, to issue her warning about Williams and the Mackenzie curse. It doesn’t bother you, or at least not as much as the fact that there’s no way you can make Elizabeth masculine (unlike the subtle feminine curl of the e on the end of your father’s sternly Scottish Alistair). But it doesn’t bother you for very long, because the next scene is one I’ve heard many times. My father walks into the room. You both look at me, cupped in my father’s hands, and my last name is the first one out. Mansfield. My paternal grandfather. Then Guy. My paternal great-uncle. Then Cullen. My maternal great-uncle.
With the strands of your family and my father’s family woven together, the rest of our history is remembered, not imagined. But these imaginings are at the heart of my story of you, Mum. And so I offer them to you today. Happy Birthday.