These days, not many have the good fortune to live a full life and die of old age, at nearly 92. That’s how life unfolded for my mom, Estelle.
Her journey, purpose and life’s lessons were complete. With her clear blue eyes and bright mind present to the last, she traversed her path with full knowledge and in charge of every moment. She died as she lived, her way!
As many of you know, when I heeded the call to engage with my ‘life’s work’, it also meant that I depart glorious Victoria, Canada, to return to a very complex and deeply wounded South Africa, the land of my birth.
This also meant I returned to spend nearly 11 years with mom; her golden years.
I’d always promised her that she’d live out her life at home, in her own house, in the company of her adoring pets and her glorious garden – with no plan in mind! However, our souls both knew, when we didn’t, that I’d return one day.
Mom was aged 57 when I left for Canada and she was devastated. I’d always been an integral part of her life, and, in many ways, she lived her life through me. I was her ‘little girl’ and was born, really, to be her best friend!
When I was quite little, mom decided she really didn’t want to be a housewife – bubbling pots on the stove and shiny silverware never fed her soul and she could no longer maintain the charade.
With funds borrowed from her mother, she started The Nook, a little haberdashery store, up the road from our home and opposite Girls High School.
The Nook was just that, a small space jam packed with all things knitting, sewing, crafts and handiwork. Girls High had a bustling ‘housecraft’ department and The Nook was their staple for supplies…teachers and students were constantly popping over the road.
Mom’s The Nook dream survived to thrive and grow – she blazed a trail when women of her generation were, most definitely at home and of service. The original Nook outgrew herself and moved to a larger space along with mom’s loyal customers, many becoming her friends.
She’d created the independence she’d craved, with courage and determination – indelible traits that paved her path and were integral to her very being.
Oh, my goodness, did this come back to bite her in the butt! She totally overlooked being my role model, for that’s what parents are after all, without even trying! When she became distraught with me blazing my trail, I refreshed her memory – and she also, sadly, never had the sheer delight of ‘when you have children one day’ – comeuppance ~
A very talented gal was mom, and so very involved in so many things with endless energy - always young at heart, such a ‘sport’ and game for fun, always.
She had two siblings in America and so her jaunts over to see me always involved some cross-country travel. I recall, fondly, the times I met her in New York City though, and we splashed out with swish hotel rooms, enjoyed the big musicals on Broadway, the opera or the ballet at the Met, lunches, all dressed to the 9s along with NYC’s ‘lunching ladies’….and shopping, of course!
She eventually retired aged 80 – her arthritic joints were yelling at her, they were done! This was about the time I returned and so we ‘wrapped up’ The Nook – much to the absolute dismay of all her loyal customers. She wasn’t sad, she was exhausted and longed to devote all her time to her garden. An amazing woman, who, for 50 odd years, ran a successful business and became a Pietermaritzburg legend! Everyone knew ‘Mrs Burns from The Nook’…even to this day.
As I age, I realize how much I’ve learned from my parents – I no longer believe the age old saying ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’….and ‘old folks never change’, because both mine did. Usually life recedes with age, moms didn’t – Ukulapha invaded mom’s life, not always to her pleasure, however, she adjusted and became involved – because she loved me. She realized, to have me back home came at a cost, which also involved much of what she’d stood for as a young woman and therefore what she role modelled – being forthright, independent and doing it ‘her way’ – this ‘apple didn’t fall far from the tree’!
Along with her best gardener Cleo, whom she taught, they cultivated and created the most glorious garden. It’s a large property at ¾ of an acre. Roses became her passion with about 60 rose bushes throughout the garden and she knew each one’s name. Despite her screaming joints, she could be found out in her garden along with the doggies. Thank goodness for her analgesic Tramacet tablets!
Over the past few years mom grew frailer. She survived a devastating attack of pneumonia about 2 ½ years ago – her outstanding pulmonologist was so fascinated by this little old lady and her vases of fresh roses, blue eyes and vibrant mind, he used to sneak back, after visiting hours, to sit and chat with her. That warmed the cockles of her heart! There was nothing more annoying to mom than being treated ‘like an old person’ who’d lost her mind!
Early January mom placed her hand over her chest and said, ‘something’s wrong, I need to see the doctor’. Being a lifelong asthmatic, her lungs were damaged, and she struggled with her breathing - and now her heart was failing as well. She required continuous oxygen. She really hoped that she’d regain her strength and get well again, such was mom’s spirit – I came to realize, over the few months of her declining health, that ‘letting go’ and ‘giving up’ were not part of her repertoire!
Without the amazing Gloria, our housekeeper, I’d never have managed to care for mom at home. Gloria, with her endless patience, deep understanding and love of the elderly, dropped everything when she heard mom’s call. Mom trusted and relied on her and was deeply fond of Gloria! The two of us chat about mom fondly, share stories and hearty laughter as well – mom was quite a character after all and ‘in charge’ until the end ~
Caring for mom became my primary task and duty, a solo journey, which was, emotionally, quite excruciating.
Mom was very open to honest conversation about life, our lives as a complex family – and about dying and death. I asked her so many questions and was truly grateful for her willingness to engage with such tough conversation - and I always knew she would - it was deeply healing and transformative for us both. I feel so thankful for such intimacy with mom - our shared journey took me to a depth of spirituality for which I’m deeply grateful. And she did say that she’d return to tell me what it’s like on the ‘other side’ so stay tuned!
I requested letters from those closest to her heart, of what she’d meant to them…the glorious memories that invariably get shared after death. Despite my handy tranquillizers, I bawled my eyes out whilst reading them to her, such lovely letters – and to see their impact written all over her face was so sweet and rewarding.
All our doggies visited mom regularly, but Maxie was glued to her side, he practically supported a portion of her bed, the darling fella. Come nighttime, he’d curl up on his huge cushion, and sleep alongside her. Max was always mom’s protector and adored her, unconditionally – literally, he didn’t require treats – that’s how sincere he is. I think he was eternally grateful to mom for choosing him, as a puppy, when we went to the SPCA to bring 2 doggies’ home with us. ~Max (left) and Molly (right)~
Animals and plants were mom’s two passions ~
And so, her clear blue eyes and bright mind were faithful to her to her very end as she peacefully and gently passed on – April 10th.
Tucked into a pretty, eco-friendly coffin, made of hard cardboard with rope handles, mom was dressed in her favourite ‘dress up’ outfit, with perfume and lipstick – and surrounded by flowers from her glorious garden. A dignified lady, all the way ~
Since her request was to be with the soil, in her garden, along with a pretty rose – she returned to us in a beautiful biodegradable urn.
On a sunny Easter Friday, six of her very favourite people gathered around a large pot in the front garden with the table set for a yummy farewell tea party. We paid tribute to her, and shared stories. Along with a delicious South African bubbly, carefully chosen, as per her request, we toasted her, and, she also got her fair share! Her rose is called Bloemfontein, named for the city where mom was born and raised…. a gloriously scented deep orange rose…. its flowered vigorously and is so healthy and happy! She gazes out over her front garden ~
The day after I ‘heard’ a deep call from my dad, to come home. Nineteen years ago, mom and I placed his urn in the Wall of Remembrance in Howick, a town outside of Pietermaritzburg, where they’d started their married life together. I heeded his call and went to fetch him with a basket of fresh leaves and flowers from the garden. That was a joyful occasion, I was happy to bring dad home! All four dogs greeted him respectfully, each having a gentle smell, one by one – as I introduced them. Dad too had a deep love of animals.
Mom and dad rest alongside each other with the house that they built and in the garden they lovingly created – in the flowerbed opposite we planted the rose called Peace.
In celebration of mom’s life, we had a lovely garden Tea Party, just as she wanted…at Tea on 23…. her favourite spot, Carrie’s place, her gardening friend. It was a glorious sunny day…. people helped themselves to juice, tea, savoury goodies and yummy cakes, chatted and mingled before we started honouring her. There was such a delightful response to the invite and so a hearty cross section of her life was well represented…which, of course, included mine over the past 11 years….so Slangspruit folks were there too!
I spoke and honoured mom, sharing stories, for quite a while. My role model, she taught me many things with independence, and the importance of self-reliance being the most indelible - along with ‘dancing to my own tune’. Mom was also a very generous person, a good friend and shared freely. She was sociable and determined to have an enjoyable time filled with many and varied experiences – with boundless energy.
Jill her friend of 44 years shared many stories, with some hearty laughs - which was lovely for me because I was gone for 25 years and missed much of mom’s life as she did mine.
Mr. Msomi, Slangspruit Primary School principal, spoke, honouring mom with an understanding of how tough it must’ve been for her to have her daughter work in the Township and how she didn’t let her concerns for my welfare interfere with my work.
Andy, mom’s favourite nephew, who was like a son to her, shared his stories – as did Andrew, the former principal of Alexandra High…. with his collaboration Ukulapha’s scholarship program commenced. Mantombi ‘my daughter’ spoke a little and then sang a hauntingly beautiful Zulu song ….and then all the Zulu folks came forward and sang to mom. It was all just more than beautiful, and I feel honoured and deeply grateful to Carrie, who hosted mom’s tea party – I know mom was smiling down, happily ~
This process has been quite transformational for me….I feel rather different….its been deeply spiritual and a significant part of my personal process, path and journey – which is also why it was actually a positive reality that I was alone and solo, as I still am….very intense, sometimes overwhelming.
I am exhausted…yet absolutely have to catch up, such a backlog, some days I don’t know where to start but I am making really good progress.
Its immensely soothing choosing and buying plants for the garden and getting ready for Spring – and Cleo and I are determined for a superb display of roses! He adored her and misses his mentor - he works the garden with mom by his side somehow, its touching and beautiful to watch.
Maxie settled and adjusted, wrapped in mom’s handcrafted blankets, with her lingering fragrance and lots of love and attention from me – the four doggies are my solace, comfort and companionship, and they don’t answer back!
And so it goes, as I gently close the book that tells the story of my last 11 years. I do get curious and excited, wondering which book will ‘fall off the shelf’ as I stroll by, with some hints and suggestions about the path unfolding.