Dear Agatha, Crowded House….

Crowded House

I don’t think it’s especially healthy, or helpful to dwell on things one is sorry about – but I am doing just that, so there we have it.

I really lament the fact that our house isn’t the centre of the action. Doesn’t that sound petty and trite Agatha? I can barely believe I wrote it let alone admitted to it, but I have and did, so bare with me while I attempt an explanation before you condemn me to the heap of silly friends recently discarded, and with good reason.

What action you ask? Any action. Some action. A bustle and hustle and opening and closing of doors as people come in, and later – leave.

I grew up in just such a home Agatha, or at least that’s the way I remember it. My parents didn’t have the grandest house of the group. By comparison to many in their circle it was pretty close to average. We seldom had any of the ‘toys’ and attractions that made ringing the front door bell a necessity. Yet consistently our house was the terminal through which most people travelled. Old and young alike and often together in layers of generations. My parents had the uncanny and enviable knack of melting between everyone and making them feel welcome.

Adding extra places to the lunch or dinner tables wasn’t anything that made my Mum frown. Opening more bottles and getting out extra glasses delighted my Dad. There seemed to be food in abundance at short notice and laughter reigned, well not always; sometimes hot and very heavy debates with slamming fists and bouncing stemware took place along the length of the table. But people returned so the differences of opinions it seems, seldom lasted.

I can clearly see the net curtains in the dining room sticking into the room at right angles as the hot wind blew in and tickled the candle flames. We had large, long wide sash windows and the terolleens kept out the dust and mosquitos. Sometimes the filmy white would settle over a diner like a veil and they’d swot it off like a fly, talking animatedly all the while as though nothing could be more normal. But still every one came back for more.

The food was neither fancy nor exotic. The wine probably drinkable, if barely, but the ‘feeling’ was priceless. It’s that intangible essence I want so badly to create so that our children look back on their home and think of it in terms of merry movement.

To my small eyes at the time, it seemed like I was a spectator at a show. When children were around, or older brothers, I was a participant, but more often than not I was a voyeur. Part of the party – and yet somehow not.

I don’t want to give the impression that my parents were what one would term ‘social’. Not in the least. Indeed they steered well clear of what might be called the ‘Durban social set’, but their group of friends was tight knit and consistent. Expanding occasionally to include travellers, or connections buffeted into the ring by a variety of circumstances, but for the most part throughout the thirty five years of their life lived in Durban, the collection remained astonishingly faithful to the original list.

To look back through the boxes of photos that I’ve squirrelled out of my Mum’s house and into my own, it’s almost uncanny how many photos there are of people laughing around a table. The same people perched on sofas watching the Wimbledon finals, necks craned towards the boxy Telefunken television set, youngest on the floor, adults doubled up on armchairs, the restless standing.

Had I the inclination towards order, I could easily arrange the now fading and fraying kodak prints chronologically. Many of the same faces but always in the same backdrop – 34 Wallace Road.

If anything I think you would agree I lean more towards the antisocial than the opposite. On the whole I am content with my own company and guard fiercely our increasingly limited time as a family of four – well six if you count the dogs, which, I do. I have to thus define my desire, if not for your sake, certainly for mine: I am thrilled that we are as a unit – self sufficient, and don’t have to rely on crowds of people to jolly us along and fill in large gaps. But – I seem to hanker after wanting to fill the house with troupes of people when the need arises.

I have encouraged the children to bring their friends to our house before heading off to parties; begged them to have them around for dinners, suggested they lunch with us after sporting events. I’ve all but placed adverts enticing the clans to loiter amidst our clutter without a hint of success. You might be thinking Agatha, that perhaps this should be interpreted as a personal issue; I’m aware my culinary abilities are unreliable – but we have offered to buy in; I’ve been told that I use ‘freaky’ expressions that no-one in Canada understands, but I’ve vowed to stay silent.  Try as I may, the chosen hubs don’t seem to be mine.

It’s very clear that our children are embarrassed of us, but isn’t that fairly standard teenage behaviour Agatha? I was mortified when my friends were over and my Dad was wearing a Speedo, and although a fine figure of a man, there can’t be a child on earth who thinks their male parent looks great in an itsy bitsy teeny, weeny bikini – bottom. But it never stopped me having any friend who would say yes come over and roll their eyes along with me.

My Mum went through a stage of changing into long skirts during the winter months. She felt the cold despite there being almost none given the tropical Durban climate, and yet had sewn for herself an impressive collection of acrylic fur A-line numbers which sent me face first into the depths of mortification. Sleepovers, however,  went on despite my having to navigate the jaw dropping amazement of her nocturnal wardrobe. So my patience with our children wears thin on this score, my husband and I are far more conservative then my parents were, yet still apparently not fit for public exposure.

I remember we supped on occasion at the comparatively contemporary house of especially close friends of ours. Even as a small girl, I loathed their artwork. I was terrified of the black iron skinny sculptures that loitered along the passageways so I was too scared to venture to the loo. The pictures on the wall disturbed me, I found them confusing, provoking all the wrong types of thoughts. So I passed the visits either staring intently into peoples’ eyes to block out anything in peripheral vision, or looking at the floor. But our own artwork is rather gentle. We have few sculptures, unless one counts the rotund wooden hippopotamus at the foot of the stairs, so I can’t imagine our children are sparing their connections from sensory distress.

When a celebration crops up I feel the lack of faces coming and going most acutely. Back in the day not a fête passed by without a gang to participate, which made for all the more glee. It’s not as though the decorations drew people in, nor the table settings or dazzling centrepieces, the trappings were fairly consistent, bordering on – well boring, but the atmosphere was electric and more than made up for a lack of silver, gold or floral flair.

I don’t want to give the impression that she didn’t put in a lot of hard work. She polished silver and placed candles amidst the flowers and made sure there were chocolate coated peanuts in little silver troughs along the table; ironed the linen cloths and ensured fresh towels were stacked in the cloakroom. But she didn’t obsess or over dramatize, she just made it happen and beamed at the result.

To be honest Agatha, I’m far from a natural ‘entertainer’. Merely being in  the kitchen increases my blood pressure, and that’s before I’ve so much as picked up a potato peeler. Being stubborn, vain or basically stupid, I soldier on battling through recipes, chopping and mashing from scratch, whereas given my level of skill a saner soul might turn to the numerous offerings commercially available to pass off, or at least enhance one’s own. Still, like a sculptor with a chisel I hammer on, because the very notion that I’m working towards a unifying experience gives me the dutch courage required to tackle the task, and makes me happy.

Our house is tidy-ish, clean-ish and enhanced greatly by scented candles, but I’m well aware there is dog hair sticking to the sofa skirt, side tables that wobble and lamps that don’t turn on. It isn’t perfect, not entirely, but still this doesn’t stop me wanting to have people within the walls, not all the time but certainly on demand.

So what is it Agatha? Why do they choose to go to other houses when I am so needy about having them herd the hoards to ours? Having been here for over five years we have a scattering of friends we rope in every now and then, but that casual swinging-door feel that I’m after would have to come from our children’s friends. More often then not, however, the door is closing as ours leave for theirs. And it makes me sad.

Your sorry friend, interpret that as you may,


Dear Agatha, Walking….


I’ve just come in from walking the dogs Agatha. Despite having turned the corner into spring, it was a chilly morning requiring beanie, gloves, and a vast coat, which, I assure you was zipped up to my chin.

Last week we were enveloped in warmth so it’s hardly surprising that re-entry into lingering sub-zero temperatures comes as something of a shock. It seems to me that I successfully spend the last part of the year preparing myself wardrobe-wise for the frigid temperatures ahead, and have generally managed to  dress to stave off the bitter cold. After a barefoot week, however, all base of reference is suddenly lost. As though by under-dressing I can will myself into warmth – which obviously doesn’t work.

Having said that, I’m clearly not the only dunce, as my daughter left for school in a brisk -9.5 C without her coat. Climatic denial seems to run in the family.

This letter is not intended as a moaning epistle about things I cannot change so lest I bore you to tears with tales of weather woe, I’ll hop to it and get to my point. Walking.

When I was at junior school I clearly remember my Mum meeting two or three friends and ‘walking’ around the racecourse. This activity they undertook once we had been deposited at school and the day was theirs to squander. I don’t think they did it every day, but certainly three times a week, weather permitting.

I don’t remember my Mum wearing anything especially athletic for this pursuit. The only time I ever saw her in lycra was in a swimming costume. I suppose in those days workout gear wasn’t the excuse for general attire that it has subsequently become. I think she went off in light cotton skirts or capri pants, but knowing her, she walked at a pace, more trot than amble.

You’ll remember of course that the Durban race course held pole position in the middle of the city. Like the cherry plopped on a cupcake. The green, white-fenced oval was located below the gentle hill of the Berea ridge, and behind the gleaming high-rises of the beachfront and downtown. To get to more or less anywhere, one skirted the greenery, so I assume it fell into landmark territory.

For the most part horses were a rare sighting, most of the training taking place early in the morning before the heat and humidity had set in. But on weekends, and Wednesdays I believe, in the season the stands teamed with colourful life. If one was lucky whilst driving past one could see the horses pounding past, the clods of turf splattered in the wake of their thundering hooves.

Still I confess to thinking that plodding the grassy round was about as dull as it could get. The fact that the route was a measured finite distance wasn’t sufficiently placatory to make the pastime a reasonable one. Fortunately for her, my Mum cared not a jot for this opinion and continued despite my disdain.

Thinking back to those teenage days, ‘walking’ was as close to a kiss of death as one could get. We weren’t allowed to complain of boredom – ever – but heaven forbid the word was let slip, ‘go for a walk’ was a sure-fire retort. Punishment in motion.

I couldn’t wrap my mind around the concept of walking for pleasure. Occasionally I walked home from school, even more occasionally I walked to a friend’s house, or to the mulberry tree at the bottom of the very steep road to collect purple berries for my silkworms, but all of these short trips were undertaken only after significant nagging to be driven had failed.

Every Sunday evening almost without fail my parents took me for a walk at the ‘beachfront.’ We walked the length of the beaches, and along the piers, my head craning towards the surfers entering or exiting the Indian ocean hoping desperately they would notice me.

My Mum walked fast, my Dad ambled, and I loitered in the ground somewhere midway. My Mum affectionally called my Dad ‘swizzle head’, as a wondering gaze set his head in constant motion side to side, goggling at the bikini clad beauties hoping to catch the last rays of the sun. In jest she would occasionally point out an unobserved bombshell, and he’d grin sheepishly and proclaim he only had eyes for my mother.

During exam time my Mum took me down each evening. Me half galloping to keep up with her as she raced along the pavement yelling over her shoulder that I should ‘breathe in deeply’ to clear the cobwebs and refresh my brain. I suppose  being always two significant paces behind her is the reason that I learnt to walk fast, really fast. But in those days I can’t confess to choosing to do it.

The older I got the more I drew abreast and we would talk endlessly about whatever came to mind or into view. My Mum is a great conversationalist and trained me as such, my Dad was more of a ruminator. Watching and thinking en route as opposed to verbalizing. When the three of us stood motionless at the end of a pier, leaning over the railings gawking at the boogie boarders and surfers bobbing on the swells, then he would burst forth like a tap suddenly opened after months of being shut off. As though the entire journey he had been accruing subject matter.

I suppose when we moved to the States and lived in New York walking started to turn from mundane to enjoyable. Time permitting, I walked everywhere. To get the lay of the land, to scout out restaurants and shops, and nooks and crannies that one could only stumble on in leisurely passing.

Then of course came childbirth when walking became virtually a means of survival. To the park, to the store, to wherever, just to be out of the sometimes solitary cocoon of parenting. Twice a day at least, a walk turned into a necessity, like breathing, and somehow one foot in front of the other developed into something to look forward to and relish.

I’m glad we have dogs for so many, many reasons, but amidst the lengthy list is the fact that they need walking. Whether I start out cold and a tad reluctantly at first, within a step or two I’m in my own little mobile world. On the whole I am more than happy to stomp along alone, my thoughts leapfrogging from the sublime to the ridiculous, sometimes I soak up the company of a friend. But either way, its a happy experience – and Agatha, there aren’t all that many chores out there that one can say that about with a straight face.

Your friend a-pacing,




Dear Agatha, Old Things…..

Dear Agatha, Old Things

When we moved into our house in Greenwich, Connecticut in April 2001, I was flooded with a whole assortment of experiences I’d never had before.

This being the first house, with garages, and a garden, and two levels, well three if you count the minuscule basement – bitterly cold in winter, where we squeezed a desk against the window so we could call it an office. All manner of things were new to me as a house-owner, let alone said title in a foreign country.

We had a septic tank Agatha, something we might have paid more heed to when putting in the purchasing offer and setting our heart on the open-plan, light-flooded family room, with a real live working fireplace surrounded in jagged stone  giving the heart a lodge-like quality. Really. I am not pulling your leg.

It was, despite the archaic septic system a most marvellous dwelling. I was happy the moment I turned the key in the front door lock.

Along with the nuts and bolts of proprietorship, the house came with neighbours. Friendly ones, with children knee-high and above, just looking for additional little feet pounding the space separating one front lawn from another.

I felt like I had moved into the front cover of the type of book I take on holiday. You know the sort of picture that pulls you in by virtue of sheer appeal? Simply perfect. And it was, until we had to leave four four years later, but that’s a tale for another day.

One of the neighbours to venture forth first, was, I soon realized, the spark of fire on the road. She was great fun, excellent at arranging and organizing and planning. And being somewhat lazy on all of those fronts, I was thrilled to sink into her circle of open-house, everyone for dinner, ‘lets-go-to-the-beach-at-the-last-minute’, type of lifestyle.

Our children never had all that much in common, but between us two couples we travelled from one end of the horseshoe road to the other fairly frequently for one reason or another. So the companionship endured despite the children not hitting it off with gusto.

One day I remember only too well seeing her walking up our short driveway, taking the stone steps two by two, something sort of round, canary yellow hanging by a black handle in her hand. It looked like a misshaped, extremely hard, plastic pumpkin.

Intrigued I opened the door and in she came, explaining that she was purging – her house that is, of anything that her three children no longer needed or used. This item fitted that latter bill, but she wondered whether it might find a use in our house.

Are you itching to know what it was Agatha? A radio, with a cassette player, a few buttons and the remnants of an antenna. It worked still, and seeing as we had been in the house well over a year at that stage and I had yet to furnish the sitting room or hang curtains in our bedroom, one cannot be surprised that she thought I might have need of something, which even then, seemed to lean towards the outdated  column.

Still, I was touched, and grateful, and the complicated sound system my husband had painstakingly installed himself, was frequently beyond my skill set, so I received it eagerly.

Those were the years when, while the children were eating strapped into high chairs, I either read to them at dinner, or played them book tapes. In retrospect I may as well have shot myself in the foot, as I ingrained the art of playing with one’s food as long as humanly possible in order to get to the next page, or the second cassette, firmly into their feeding ritual.

I had time on my hands, however, being an ardent believer of early bedtimes and knowing my husband wouldn’t be home until much much later, it seemed futile to rush, and while I was listening to the first Harry Potter book being reread for the hundredth time, I prepped for the second (adult)) feeding which took place long after small things were asleep.

Better yet, their stubby little fingers could manage the button pounding that enabled the lid to flip open and the cassette to be turned over, so in this small task the children were self sufficient. Another plus was the sheer strength of the contraption. Like the carapace of a prehistoric swamp dweller, virtually impossible to crack, despite the odd occasion when it was  accidentally knocked from its pedestal.

From Connecticut we moved to Charlotte, where whilst building our house we planned in an intricate sound system channeled music of our choice to many of the rooms. Still the yellow noise-maker found a spot front and central, continuing its reign as deliverer of local music and the Potter books in ascending order.

Making the move north of the border to Toronto, amidst the numerous items  being jettisoned, the battered contraption somehow survived to reinvent itself yet again. And don’t think for a minute Agatha, that I wasn’t under increasing pressure to pass it on. But somehow until just this past month, the yellow plastic smudged with wear, and the hard shell dented, it found a place in our kitchen.

Of course the children have long since stopped needing entertainment at meal times, though they still move food around their plates in an artful display of avoiding anything they don’t fancy, but increasingly over the years the black buttons have been mine to manipulate.

Maybe it was a hangover from my youth in Durban, when every time we left the house a radio was turned on at significant volume, along with a number of lights, assuring any scouting intruder that despite the lack of footsteps and shadows, the house was most definitely occupied. Did your family adopt that method of burglar alarm Agatha? To us it was as familiar as pressing the keypad upon departure and remains ingrained in me even though we now have a home alarm to set.

Of course after considerable wear and tear the tuning needle is more than shaky, so reception has become increasingly sporadic, but for the most part I have been able to tune to the classical station where the background noise makes me feel like I am at arms reach from people without having to interact with them.

I have convinced the sceptics in my family that upon departure we should leave it on for the dogs, they like it too – or so I tell them, and it irks me if someone flicks a switch launching the kitchen into stillness.

Requests to move on from the crackling artifact have grown increasingly loud, but my loyalty to the familiarity wrapped up in that garish yellow old fashioned bubble have been very hard to shunt aside. Until last week – when my husband returned from a foray to Cosco, warehouse home to all things necessary and ‘un’ – with a sleek, counter top, silver radio with wifi and soft touch response and all manner of things I barely understand. Needless to say the yellow antiquity had no place to turn and I was strong armed into replacing the trusty old with the shiny new.

I thought long and hard whether to drop it into the vast grey vat that accumulates our rubbish, everything from dustballs to broken coat hangers, but despite it’s twelve year tenure in our home, and clearly way outdated modus operandi, I simply could not throw it away.

Call me sentimental, but on the cusp of being discarded it arrived in my hands and filled a variety of spaces with consistently happy noise. It kept me company, much of the time subconsciously, – a small but somehow big presence. Throwing it away seemed akin to a betrayal. So I kept it.

Ssshh, you are sworn to secrecy – nothing good can come of spilling the beans Agatha. But if someone, somewhere has need of background noise, intermittent though it might be – I have just the thing.

Your friend in hoarding memories and other things,





Dear Agatha, Quotes…..

Dear Agatha, Quotes.....

Twice a week I sit on a stationary bike, and cycle the same program, for the same amount of minutes – 26 to be exact, and I hate it as much now as I did when I started the regimin two years ago.

This is hardly the substance of a great read Agatha, so I’ll ditch the boring details and get to the point. While I am perched aloft I have resorted to a variety of distractions to make those measly minutes, which feel more like an hour – fly. Music I have found to be of limited value, and television wasn’t really an option until very, very recently, so I resorted to reading.

For a while I tried the newspaper, but the constant shaking of vast pages, the folding and switching sides became cumbersome and counterproductive as raising my hands from the handlebars caused havoc. Furthermore the black print ink coated my fingers and stained my face as I swiped hair strands and sweat from my brow. Messy all round, and distracting – but not in a good way, so I soon jettisoned that idea in favour of another.

A while ago an old friend gave me a delightful book, it’s called “Bird by Bird,” which might lead you to the field of ornithology, but don’t be lead astray. It is a hilarious self-help book for writers, and believe me when I say that when I grow up, I desperately want to write like Anne Lamott, the authoress of said guide.

I have read the book cover to cover, wishing on many an incline that I had a marker at my fingertips so that I could make a note of a particular passage, or phrase or lesson. Of course I don’t, so as the cycle routine switches gears, I try and reread the pertinent prose hoping I can knock it into my brain with each revolution of the wheel. Malheureusement this method hasn’t worked thus far. When I step off having gauged my 26 minute progress, invariably the recently acquired wisdom remains on the little ledge below the screen, encapsulated between the soft and increasingly rumpled covers.

I think the thing I envy most about her talent is the fact that I never, ever tire of reading the same lines. Somehow she makes her topic so fresh that even after multiple bites it’s just as juicy. Not an easy feat, especially given the subject matter is essentially a ‘how to’ guide. But best of all are the quotes she interjects with casual perfection. These are the golden coins buried deep in the Christmas pudding, and the things I most want to keep at my finger tips for times of need.

I am a huge fan of ‘quotes’. Were I ever to have a tattoo, which is about as likely as croissants falling from the sky at brunch time on a Sunday, I would pick a quote to indelibly cover my skin. No blooming rose or swaying anchor for me – words of wisdom or appropriateness would be my poison.

I remember when our second child was born in London on the cusp of this century. My Mum was staying in our rather busy Battersea house, helping me with – everything. Baby, toddler, washing, cooking you name it. For the most past we worked hand in hand with very much the same outlook util it came to giving a pacifier to the increasingly vocal new born. Where I had tried so hard to get the first baby to soothe himself with the sucking apparatus, he refused, which against my wishes placed me in the camp of ‘no pacifiers, a hard habit to break’ blah blah, but made the crying spells infinitely longer.

Naturally having not had the aid with the first, I unilaterally eschewed it for the second, who was born, undoubtedly the worlds biggest sucker. She desperately wanted something to place between her rose petal lips with which to soothe herself.

On this matter, my mother and I wildly disagreed, but I was adamant I would wean the little mite of the desire. The second my back was turned my Mum would pluck out a little pink plastic apparatus and pop it into her mouth and calm fell like dew at dusk. Until one day I caught her at it, yanked said article away and tossed it behind the sofa where I am sure it lingers till this day.

Naturally the howling that ensued was unparalleled, as though the tiny tot registered that this was a ground breaking moment, she burst forth with vigour. Heaving, sobbing, flailing her hands around as I stormed upstairs only to turn at the landing to look down at my Mum and have her hail at me “There’s none so blind as will not see.”

I continued my authoritarian retreat pondering the meaning and implication of her incredibly short outburst, but I never changed my mind. The crying subsided as it was bound to do, but it didn’t take long for the little darling to find her index finger on the right hand, which she sucked ferociously for three years, developing a callous the size of an apple just below the knuckle. I took that as an interpretation of the quote, which, I think is biblical. Biblical or not, in that instant it was pretty much perfect. It stopped me in my tracks and served the dual purpose of having the last word, or words, while hitting home the point.

Yesterday, caught in my routine of wheel rotations, I did manage to imbed one wise saying from chapter five, over which I have been mulling all day. It’s short, and to the point, and goes something like this: “It’s not what lies before us, or behind us, but what lies within us that matters.” Brilliant don’t you agree Agatha? I didn’t bother to commit the name of the orator to memory, but thank Anne Lamott for passing it on. I think I will remember it always, and hopefully call on it often.

On that note I’ll love and leave you. Is that a quote? I doubt it, but the fact remains in the right moment it sums things up just perfectly, which is methinks the very purpose.

Your friend,







Dear Agatha, Hair…..But Not The Musical

Hair - But Not The Musical

I had mine cut today so one could say that the topic is somewhat on my mind. When I say cut Agatha, it’s something of an exaggeration as I seldom have it much more than trimmed – nail scissors would suffice.

I am the client that any seasoned hairdresser gives to the rookie as it is hard to mess up my hair, and just as hard to make it look terrific, so either way a beginner more or less cuts it, literally and figuratively.

I know I’ve droned on about this subject before, so perhaps I risk loosing your rapt attention, but clearly I can’t help myself so please indulge me when you have nothing better to do.

Every time we’ve moved to a new city the search for the inevitable list of basics kicks in. Doctors, dentists, candlestick makers – you know the drill Agatha, and how one stumbles around enquiring of each and every new found acquaintance a reference one hopes might stick.

I think in South Africa we were bought up very subtly, or maybe it was the home ground advantage of having a built in list handed down through the family, or knowing the network through school, or university, or dinner parties. But requesting references wasn’t something I ever spent any time doing, but believe me, this is a skill I like to think I’ve perfected.

I’ve become so brazen I’ll pat someone on the shoulder in a supermarket queue to enquire where they get their hair cut. I’ll pull our gasoline spewing vehicle up alongside people tending their gardens and amidst the belching fumes inquire which nursery they frequent. I’ll edge my way into a restaurant kitchen and seek the name of their grocer. All of this to the wide eyed horror of my husband and children I might add, but little do the realize just how much this blatant curiosity has benefitted them.

The internet is all very well,and a marvellous resource no doubt about it, but actual word of mouth, spoken not typed, is worth many hours of search-engine searching.

In reflection, I wonder if our culture shunned the ceremony of information inquiry because in some way it implied weakness? Maybe owning to not having a  fishmonger could be translated into being a poor housewife? Is needing a dentist interpreted as having poor dental hygiene, like needing a beauty salon implies hairy legs and unkept fingernails? I’m not sure, but certainly back in the day there seemed to be a sort of ‘hush-hush’ aura about acquiring references. Names spoken behind the back of hand, that sort of thing.

My roots have certainly been pulled up on that score. I seem to have lost all inhibition, possibly erring towards the ridiculous of asking for names even when I don’t have an immediate need, but might in the future. Forearmed and all that.

As it happens the hairdresser I went to today is the result of just one such ‘ask’. At least five years ago, shortly after we arrived in Toronto, it fell to a Friday afternoon and both children bleating that they wanted their hair cut half way through the journey home. Did I mention it was a Friday?

In frustration I pulled up outside the first plate glass window with the word ‘cut’ on it and sent in child number 1 to enquire whether there might be an opening for a 10 and 12 year old to have a quick snip. Naturally he had no sooner stepped in than he came out shaking his head, hopped back in, only to repeat the performance a couple of blocks further north.

On the third try it dawned on me that perhaps he wasn’t selling the request in the requisite light to invite a positive response. Leaving hazard lights flashing I darted into yet another establishment and pitched my need in a ‘it’ll just take a second, nothing fancy, no blow dry needed,‘ vein. But I too, tired of the routine pretty quickly, and was all but ready to head home at speed and take  matters into my own hands when it occurred to me to ask the receptionist whether she could possibly suggest a spot which might oblige. And presto – she did.

Monotonous story short, we landed up in a low key spot where three out of the four of us as well as the visiting mother and mother-in-law, have been serviced ever since. It just worked.

Although I couldn’t bear the original owner – a mean little man to whom I never took kindly, I liked the location, parking was easy, and I very, very much liked the two ladies who had originally sat the children side by side and cropped their mops.

Believe it or not Agatha, at one stage the owner closed it down – all of a sudden, and upon inquiry wouldn’t reveal where my cutter – lets call her Sasha, had gone nor how to reach her. Initially I was stumped and saddened, but figured that someone, somewhere, must have the answer. Secret-agent like, I set about ringing each and every one of the tenants in the surrounding stores until someone gave me her cell phone number, and voila – we were shortly back on track.

She ended up taking over the salon, repainted, renamed and continued as such until – well – today.

It seems Sasha has taken a leave of absence and in her wake I’m not entirely sure the salon will survive, which saddens me greatly. In readiness, the first thing I’ll do tomorrow morning when I arrive at yoga class is ask a few people to whom they take their hair….and we’ll see where it takes me.

Your friend in a state of perpetual inquiry,



Dear Agatha, “Family Gatherings…..”

Family Gatherings

Often it is the case Agatha that family gatherings sound like more fun than they actually are. Particularly when members are far flung and wide spread the sheer expectation of continual communal joy can bring along with it a level of stress which manifests in a variety of ways, some very obvious, others more subtle, but never-the-less equally potent.

The annual summer holidays of my youth, of which I speak so frequently, remain untarnished in my memory. We tripped us five from the Indian Ocean to the shores of the Atlantic to spend three, as I remember them, glorious weeks with our cousins, widowed uncle and grandmother. Of course perhaps a veil of ignorance floats over my powers of recall as I was in bed for much of those holidays well before the African sun had officially set.

Packed off to bed directly after supper in pink pyjamas, I was seldom privy to the hot nights and equally heated conversations that might have followed the copious amounts of excellent and reasonable Cape wine that flowed at the table prior to my departure, and no doubt faster thereafter. So in my memory all was always rosy, and besides, looking at the cast of characters; my grandmother was given to amiable agreement and although was rumoured to have a fierce streak, I neither saw nor heard it and knew her more as even tempered and good humoured. My Uncle likewise was mild of manners, and although he could guffaw like a sailor, he wasn’t one to seek confrontation, classified as decidedly even-keeled, his passions were nicely parcelled and seldom paraded.

My kin, however, we were born with a little spice mixed into our blood. With the exception of my eldest brother, whom I think is the most mild mannered and gentle natured of the lot of us, the other four hungered for a little head butting now and again, especially my parents.

I think it was woven like a thread through their intensely passionate relationship, and despite hearing from an early age, voices raised and points vociferously conveyed, I never once doubted that they adored each other. If truth be told, I think the ‘argument’ was a little like intellectual for-play.

Politics, religion, pre-marital sex, any and all subjects, nothing was taboo, and I watched the match one point at a time fly from one side of the divide to the other. Moving rooms, refilling glasses, opening windows, their dance of opposing ideas traveled the length and breadth of the house, ending always behind their firmly closed bedroom door. I seldom knew which one emerged as victor, but the next morning right as rain life went on just the same as it had before. Lovingly.

In my teens I doubt I was considered ‘confrontational’, but for some reason once married I developed the taste for argumentative blood and set about laying traps for our dinner companions. My mild mannered, infinitely more diplomatic husband seldom fell for the bait, rather spending his energies diluting the oil I wanted to throw at every flame.

For me there could be no grey. Inflexible is the word that came commonly across my plate. I must assume it was meant in terms of attitude, and confess the server summed me up rather well.

I think I’ve calmed down somewhat, maybe maturity – though I’m not a big fan of that word, I believe it to be an elusive state and perhaps not always entirely desirable but that’s a conversation, or argument, better left to another letter. Possibly I’ve just widened my eyes to accept a view where not everyone feels as black or white about the things that I do, and can move on without feeling the need to convert, let alone flatten them.

In my ‘hot’ days of yore, a family holiday was brimming with opportunities for a crusade. I virtually arrived like a boxer waiting to step into the ring – and methinks I’m not the only one, though I’d never say it publicly.

I didn’t take long before any little peeve would pop up in the discourse, generally around a table laden with delicious food, after a day in the sun, or the snow, or wherever. And then it started, my father and I most ardent of the lot, quickest to defend and die for a cause, emotional martyrs in full and billowing flight rousing the others to step in and take up arms.

Anyone bowing out or taking the road of moderation less travelled – survived the night unscathed, waking the next morning to restore peace and make coffee, but us wrestlers emerged a little bruised and frosty, but rearing for the next sit-down.

I don’t want to paint a picture of a torrid and tempestuous time on these weeks of togetherness Agatha, but reading back fear I might have done just that and you will have an image of a brutal and savage crowd. Not so at all, but there’s no denying that when one saddles a group of people who love each other together, no matter how glorious the destination- the truth will eventually out. And no doubt, someone will disagree with that same truth and voila – action.

I feel strongly that when things are too even, too calm, too polite, the real world is merely frothing around underneath like a submarine waiting to crack through the ice and emerge – with a big noise, causing a big and unexpected stir. I am awry of people who proclaim ” we never fight.” Mind that I concede here that there are various acceptable definitions of the word, most are unacceptable so probably the word I should stick to is ‘disagree’ – albeit -intensely.

Of course there is always that little slogan ” a time and a apace for everything,’ in my wilder days I ignored it completely – the time was consistently right when a crusade needed launching, but I think I’m changing, albeit maybe not as rapidly as some would like.

I think what’s most important to me of all is that one should never have to suppress one’s real feelings from one’s nearest and dearest. I simply cannot nod and acquiesce if my heart and head are not in agreement – but I just might be learning to present my ‘views’ less violently. Without banging my fist and shaking the table and jabbing an index finger in the air.

As it happens what prompted me to pick this topic is that this past December family fiesta was one characterized by exactly the gatherings I have been referring to. Lots of family and even more vast meals, sometimes too many around a table to lift an elbow. The one difference was for the first time in decades I felt no compunction at all to take anyone on. Each sitting was characterized by an unprecedented amount of laughter. Differences of opinion were teased away, and sticky issues were deftly dealt with, and all in all if I had to pick a realistic adjective I think I’d peg ‘harmonious’ as summing things up.

This was the first holiday in a long while that us three siblings were together for more than a night or two, thus much of the laughter was at one or other’s expense. One ‘when-we’ story after another issued forth, good, bad, and in-between reflections on our various histories both growing up together and living apart. In-laws chimed in adding to the stew, mixing up the subject matter, and the teenagers feasted on the tales, no doubt stock piling them for future reference.

As a family of wildly different personalities I’m glad we are all function more or less the same way. One thing I simply cannot tolerate in a relationship of any significance is the inability to ‘have it out.’ I’m not a pretender, it’s one of my many faults. I am compelled to spill my beans if I disagree and expect the same from the person opposite. I’ve attempted change and moderation of attitude but thus far have had no success, but this past holiday opened up the possibility to me that there can indeed be swathes of time when I don’t come across anything with which to violently disagree. Not a cause that needed defending, nor an idea that needed emphatic expounding. I am still all but aghast.

We are a raucous group Agatha, some more hot-headed than others, perhaps I more peppery than most, but on the whole I have to say we manage to take the bumps head on, bash the differences out between us, and move on. I like it that way, but here a small confession – it was really terrific to have a very even road and nary a reason to raise a hackle – I’ve discovered I also like it that way.

Your friend, for once not taking up, but holding out arms,


Dear Agatha, Seasons Greetings…..

Seasons GreetingsIt’s never easy to start a letter after a hiatus of two months, so best I not dance around the wishy washy reasons which might explain my lack of putting pen to paper – but rather proceed towards the topic at hand which is after all – to wish you all things merry and bright.

You will have noted by this late stage in the month that I failed to mail the standard holiday greeting card with whatever half decent photo I could muster of our two children enclosed therein, or plastered to the front, depending on the nature of the stationary. Oh the pressure – the angst of orchestrating a picture perfect, seemingly uncontrived, happy snap. A colour representation of our pair, snuggly close, mid-chuckle, looking for all the world like cherubs. Carefully dressed, casually groomed, appearing effortlessly ‘natural’ – spontaenously snapped as though the moment is one of merely millions that make up our family year.

One would think it might get easier the older they get, but in fact I have found the opposite to be true Agatha. When the pups were young a favourite past time of mine was holding my camera and taking reels of film. Having grandparents at a distance ensured a grateful audience for any kodak moments and I had time on my hands to turn those moments into memories to be filed in albums, so I was more than happy to oblige. This idyll pastime provided me with a wealth of suitable material from which to pluck the photo which might elicit the ‘oohs and ahhs’ I sought. Better yet the children were too small to protest, and were frequently entirely unaware that they were the subjects of my contortions to catch a magic shot for posterity. Better yet I could bribe and bully them up trees, onto rocks, deck them out in ludicrous garb and still they beamed on demand.

I’m not sure when photo cards made an appearance on our mantel piece, in fact probably long before we had a mantel, and certainly well before we had children of our own. Back in the recesses of my memory, Christmas cards of yore represented nativity scenes and camels, stars with one elongated point, snowmen or reindeer, and cheerful, red cheeked rotund Father Christmases hauling sacks pregnant with goodies. In my grandmothers house where we holidayed at that time of year, we strung these colourful greetings across the room on a piece of string, in a heavy breeze glitter might rain down so the effect had a magic far beyond the pretty pictures. Once they were taken down, always just before January 5th along with all the other trappings of the festive season, I was allowed to tear the gorgeous fronts from the backs and use them for collages.

In those days the markings of high quality were in the thickness of the paper, the embossing of the image, the lining of the envelope. Allegiances could be judged by the charities some of the cards supported and depth of feeling by how much was written above the printed massage.Very clearly there was a lot to be read into them.

When our turn came to issue forth frothy wishes I selected cards which allowed me sufficient space for maximum correspondence. Ever mindful of the postage I seldom ignored the opportunity to cram each and every blank space with as much detail of the year leading up to the occasion as possible. You know all too well Agatha, that with a pen in hand I tend towards being long-winded, to say the least, so each card developed into a personalized précis of mammoth proportion in minute chicken scratch. Whether or not the recipients could make head or feathered tail of the subject matter I never knew, but I certainly felt as though the stamp had paid for itself.

Realizing that the time commitment required to churn out the correspondence was heading towards the ridiculous, and battling the inclination to leave things to the last minute, I developed a ‘to friends and family afar’ strategy, and not that we have that many friends near or far Agatha, but as you can imagine the list contracted to a great and manageable extent.

When we lived in Connecticut in the early turn of the century, (doesn’t that sound simply ludicrous?) and the children were at that lovely stage of looking adorable much of the time, it occurred to me I too was ready to push aside the camels and paste our progeny to the placard. I noticed, however, that the marvellous array of cards housing slots for photos came at a significant investment, so after gutsing out the first season, the very minute the sale signs went up I shot off to a gift store where I had been coveting boxes of cards and invested a small fortune in a number of half price designs. Cleverly I bought double and triple of each so that during the years since I have more or less managed to keep to a ‘theme’ – be it gold ribbon and cranberries or something a little zesty like pink zebra stripes. On the whole I went for the ‘pretty’ element above the religious, shying away from anything that might not cross over between beliefs. My belief is that a card with well wishes cannot go astray no matter which religious affiliation one ascribes to.

You will appreciate Agatha, that this significant purchase took place almost 14 years ago and I am only just scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Then too, one ordered the photos through the pharmacy or a specialized store, and upon collection, spent a while with glue stick or double sided tape, affixing the image within the frame. An often messy process made up of many steps with help being offered by small hands which could be of no help at all.

I’m not sure when we invested in a printer which could manage the intricacies of photographic paper, but I assume it coincided with the digitalization of our camera. This has been at once a blessing and a curse as every year without fail my long suffering husband has to configure the chosen masterpiece to the right size, fit as many as he can onto each paper, and then print them out – by the hundred.

Naturally there is the hit and miss of the first printing when the kodak paper is loaded wrong side up, so the gloss never does appear and those beaming matt faces have to be scrapped. Despite having piles of the same print, I still find it tricky to scrunch one up and discard it, and recently came across a heap from a few years back – 15 of the same photo, but still I kept them.

And the cutting Agatha! Straight lines have never been my forté, and in this case practice has never made for perfect, but who can’t live with a borders of varying widths?

On the whole I’ve stuck to the more unconventional poses, and one of the happiest most magical moments ever immortalized by my index finger was taken of the children on a hammock. They are mid-swing and it’s a close-up, their mouths are wide open mid-laugh, the gurgles almost tangible, their skin is shining and their hair a little tussled by the movement. It is an infectiously happy photo having little if anything to do with anything other than ‘joy’, and seemed to me to be appropriate. That year the card was bordered in green holly leaves punctuated with bright red berries so the effect to me was almost edible, although I have to confess to unabridged bias.

I have found it more challenging to capture the above essence as their arms have lengthened and their baby teeth been replaced by the real things. Invariably posing for anything upon demand brings frowns and petulance and any spontaneity is soundly crushed by objection. If bullied the result is fake and faux and against my intention so then we’re all irritable and I resort to whatever stock I have on hand from the year as it unfolded. With mixed results. One year a greeting issued forth with our son looking like he had a toffee the size of an apple lodged in his left cheek while alongside him his sister shelters with a hat pulled down so far over her forehead only DNA tests could affirm that she is indeed kin. I have more examples to add but for the sake of expediency will curb my pen.

For uncooperative subjects their protests when they aren’t pleased with what they see are loud, but its too late and I hold it as a rod for the next time I issue the ‘just look up and smile’ command.

Some years the photo is so dated their legs have lengthened by a foot, or their hair has shortened by a length. Sometimes they are so far in the distance its virtually impossible to tell one from the other, but still the deed is done and signed ‘with love’.

Slowly my stockpile is decreasing. I have an assortment of mismatched boxes and will have to – if I get around to it – send forth a haphazard mixture of designs leaving our house for others.

Yet this year – nothing Agatha. I’m not sure why. I just didn’t get around to it in the most conscious way. I watched the days roll over knowing the time was coming to get cracking, and just as passively I watched it pass over without rousing myself to action. Possibly it’s because I’ve had a fraught few months and the thought of feigning merriment wasn’t appealing, besides you know me as a ‘wear my heart on the sleeve’ kind of girl so I’m sure the ‘wishes for peace and prosperity’ would have been interlaced with a written melancholy I wouldn’t have been able to disguise. Somewhat self indulgent perhaps – but the only reasonable explanation I can dig up.

Once before I missed the Holiday Boat and February saw a pale pink card sent to arrive on Valentines day, essentially saying and showing everything that should have been delivered two months before. I concocted a crumby rhyme about missing Santa’s sack and all that, but I’m not sure I can venture down that corny road again. So if you get something intriguing in the post box Agatha, its fairly safe to assume its not from me. Not this time.

Thus in lieu thereof for now – I’m wishing you the best – of everything, and more. Now and always, and this comes with love (although no picture) – and masses of it.

Your friend,


Dear Agatha, Scott of the Antarctic…..

Scott of the Antarctic

This past weekend I was visiting my eldest brother in South Carolina. He’s going through all sorts of hell, the details of which will no doubt come tumbling out in a cascade of letters at a later date. For now I’ll have to leave it at that and move rapidly on to the point of my correspondence lest I loose your attention.

As well you know Agatha, I was much younger than the two boys, nine and seven years respectively. By the time they returned  home from various sports in the late Durban afternoon, I was generally in my pink pyjamas about to be packed off to bed.  The instant dinner ended I was shooed upstairs, and ‘the boys’ got to sit in the ‘sub-lounge’ (from whence that weird abbreviation derived I can’t be sure) as we called the comfortable, less formal sitting room, and discuss adult topics with my parents. Of what they spoke I’ll never know, but at the time it seemed mighty awful to be excluded, but there we have it and there they were, I – an entire floor above fuming in my bed at being treated such the baby.

Worse still was the inevitable Saturday night when my parents sallied forth on a social pretext, and my brothers followed. Each in their own direction, but once again, without me. The nanny, knowing she would have to spend the long night waiting for someone’s return before her night could eventually start, had her dinner in her quarters, and was called back into the house at the last minute, which left me eating at the long narrow dining room table very much alone. Do you weep for me Agatha?

I remember clear as a bell that one of these Saturday nights, my eldest brother came down to keep me company. He must have been in his final year at school, or thereabout, so I’m pretty sure were we grappling around for topics of mutual interest. What spurred him on I’ll never know but out of the blue he said that he was going to tell me a true story, and of course I was all ears. Beside myself with delight at not being alone, and better yet – about to be entertained. The story, he said, did come with one proviso, but at that stage he’d hooked me and I would have agreed to hear it sitting on burning coals. He said he would relate the tale, but that my attention needed to be rapt so that I could recall the facts and commit them to memory, there would be a few verbal test questions along the way to ensure I was on track.

You might think this odd Agatha, but my brothers, thanks to endless encouragement from my Dad, had a firm belief when it came to me that at all times I should be kept on my academic toes and opportunities to enrich should not be squandered. I suppose it was evident even then that my intellect would need ‘help’ whereas theirs certainly didn’t, and the whole family put their backs into that goal. To this end – and here I digress; when the boys were taken overseas with my parents for the first time and I was packed off to my grandmother in Cape Town, my elders concocted an exercise book of ‘sums,’ mathematical additions, subtractions and multiplications for me to do each and every day. And vocabulary, to be learnt, tested, written down and corrected – in English and Afrikaans. It was quite clear that one brother was in charge of one day and the other the next as the script alternated throughout the holiday, though the difficulty was constant. My grand mother thought them mad, and helped I’m sure, but those books went home with me in my luggage and were perused for errors I can assure you.

Had you been on the outside looking in you would have seen as the net curtains billowed in the humid breeze, a scrawny seven or eight year old swinging her slippered feet at the table, listening entranced as she pushed  the peas and whatever other foods of nutritious value loitered on the plate, around and around, gaping at the strapping much older boy as he recounted the tale bit by bit. Occasionally seeking clarification on a name, date, or distance but being told the tale of Scott of the Antarctic in such riveting detail it seemed snow was falling beyond the sash windows.

How I adored that story. It remained alive for me for many years, and was followed by one or two more, but that being the first seems to loom especially large in my memory.

As it happens, this past summer while in London we were stilling along the Maida Vale canal and happened upon a book barge, complete with rather antiquated looking middle aged man in a long dressing gown type of affair who manned the little floating store. The solo wing backed crimson velvet chair played host to an ancient dog, lending the little scene a slightly unreal old fashioned quality. Donated books spanning a myriad of topics were packed into a few well constructed bookcases, some were lined up on ledges of the boat, some were in piles on the small deck. Any two were for sale for five pounds.

Completely taken in by the scene, attracted to the very evident psychological satisfaction of the owner and his hound despite the improbability of any real commercial success, how could I help but reach for a few titles, one of which a hefty paperback outlining the very journey I have been describing above ? Naturally I bought it, in a flash.

Now I’m a bit rusty on the facts myself Agatha, though I knew them soldier sharp when I was younger, ever ready for the impromptu  examination, so unfortunately I never took the time to verbally lure our children towards this spellbinding adventure. Besides the dodgy details at my disposal I never was a great story teller so probably it’s best left to a professional, and it seems I have one at hand.  I’m not sure that it’ll live up to my experience, but it may kindle a flame.

Your friend reliving history.



Dear Agatha, Tutu Much…….

Tutu Much.....

You see I have been true to my word and am picking up where I left off not so long ago. It’s a greyish day today Agatha, rather heavy with as yet unspilt water, and although something very fine and wet falls from the sky, it cannot possibly be classified as rain.

I’ve been professionally engaged for the better part of the day but find myself upon return to an empty, and as yet still quiet house with an hour to spare before I should be actively employed once more in making myself useful.

So where was I? Our daughter and dance methinks, and if not, that’s the direction in which I intended my preceding letter to head so with haste I’ll plunge in and stride ahead along that theme.

True to the proverbial mother style, naturally I wanted to relive all my ballet experiences, or lack thereof through the tiny, little, long-limbed creature born in 1999. She too has arches as high as the Golden Gate Bridge which boded well, arms of willowy length even as a toddler and seemingly endless legs so almost as soon as we had registered her birth in London, I had her name down for ballet classes.

At the time we lived within a hop, skip and a jump from the Royal Ballet dance studios in South London. Unable to wait till the minuscule mite could stand, let alone totter, I knocked on their door and made the requisite inquiries, noting at the same time that a steady stream of little boys, in little navy track pants, were streaming out of a dance studio amidst their female companions. I had a boy, and very soon procured the navy blue uniform and a pair of black slippers and he was whacked off despite vociferous protest, to the first class I could stick him into.

Barely three at the time he knew enough to resent this injustice, and quickly tethered my husband’s outrage to his own. Little did I care, the afternoons were long, the light went early, the winter loomed large and a wide wooden-floored space seemed a perfect justification for enrolment. And then there were those arches again…..a family trait to be treated with respect and not better place for that than a ballet class?

Besides, with our baby girl but a bean swaddled in pink, I could spend an hour in the waiting room, as close to my passion as a new mother could reasonably get without employing a babysitter.

Our son stuck it out for three sessions before the trauma of getting him to class became more tedious that the reward was tasty, so admitting defeat I quietly shut the door on that opportunity, and resigned myself to postponing the inevitable until our daughter was ‘ready’.

By the time ‘the time’ eventually came, we were living in Connecticut, and registering her for the dance class of choice, with the friends of choice, at the school decreed as the school of choice; it was a performance of monumental scale. The stress as to whether she would obtain a place blanketed the house, well really me – but then Agatha, I was pretty much the house, in angst for days. Not that there weren’t other options in the town, after all, it’s a well established spot, but this was the option so really the wealth of alternatives interested me not a jot. For a three year old, who I might add had shown more inclination to dress up as a dragon than as a ballerina, the hullabaloo seemed more than justified. To me. My husband took it as further proof that motherhood was clearly playing havoc with my former ability to be a relatively rational girl.

Of course in the development of the fairy tale we were lucky enough to snatch a spot and there ensued a delicious outing to purchase the strictly prescribed leotard, tights and most splendid of all – ballet shoes. There was no contest as to whom those were the most pleasing, she cared not an iota for the pink leather, and I loved them to bits, caressing them and showing them off to anyone who cared to look.

Classes started and as parents of small things given to unpredictable behaviour, mothers spent the hour in the waiting room  very conveniently boasting a vast glass window against which we pressed our noses cooing about the goings on beyond. Like piranhas on the outside of a fish bowl we hovered, secretly noting which child had the most natural ability, the longest legs, the highest jumps. I, however, became increasingly irate that the hour seemed to be spent with precious little actual ballet instruction being metered out. Things appeared to have a certain playground like quality and soon my wrath started to spill over.

I moaned to the other mothers that the pupils should be being taught how to plié, how to jeté, how to point and lift and point and close. Someone foolish gently reminded me that the girls were but three years old, but I was having none of that Agatha, I was there for a purpose, and if I had had fun in mind we would have stayed home. I suffered through the year bitching and moaning and inevitably standing alone glaring through the window hoping the feeble, barely qualified, student teachers would pick up on my dissatisfaction, but if they did, nothing changed.

At the end of the fruitless year, a ‘recital’ required purchase of an elaborate tutu, hair piece and wide pink satin sash with three beautifully crafted fabric roses positioned in the middle. The costume certainly ticked the ‘gorgeous’ box but the performance itself was little more than an ode to supervised play. Worse still, our baby ballerina didn’t seem nearly as entranced with the pink tulle, bulbous flowers or reams of satin ribbon as I was. I’m not sure which was more bitter as a pill to swallow Agatha, but things didn’t seem to be going quite according to plan.

Shortly after we relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina where the ballet school of note, the very one which made up the performing ballet troupe of the city, offered classes for aspirant dancers at the school in the late Friday afternoons. Exactly opposite in every way to my former experience, attendees had to bring a notebook, long or short hair had to be sprayed, twisted and gripped into a bun – on top of the head, not at the nape of the neck, and the dress code allowed for no interpretation or tears in tights. Attendance was strictly recorded and an absence too many assured expulsion. I was in my element.

New leotard, larger slippers, and lots of hairspray and off she went. There was no opportunity for peaking, or even speaking to the teacher, who even to my specific requirements seemed a little rigid, especially given her youth. Like pins with pink legs the little creatures lined up in a slightly curved queue, waiting silently for the go ahead to file into the room, fingers on lips, eyes straight ahead. Our pin hated it from the very first lesson.

The notebook, which I confess had confused me at the outset, served for the taking down of French ballet terms and the beginning of each lesson was spent with the girls being tested on the terminology of the preceding lesson. Shortly after we had begun, complaints lasting most of the weekend, it came to her, and immediately after, my attention – that almost all the other girls in her school class were taking ballet at a different studio, and clearly having a lot more fun so doing.

The tales of their freedoms became almost folkloric. They wear what they want to, they get to do free dance, they don’t have to learn french, they don’t have to do sit ups. I replied – yes well that may be – but they aren’t doing ballet, and you are. To which she retorted with increasing conviction ‘and I hate it.’

Certain to soldier on I took her to every performance that came through town, played Tchaikovsky till dusk and invested heavily in the Angelina Ballerina series, the charmingly illustrated, gentle tales of a ballerina mouse. Who could fail to be converted Agatha when surrounded by so much subject matter?

I’ll tell you who – our daughter.

Water off a duck’s back, until eventually I was the only one wet and I threw in the towel, withdrew her from the program for the second year and quite literally hung up the ballet shoes. Activities turned to soccer which she enjoyed from the beginning and though I mourned the dance studio, she was certainly happy on the field, and being not a very, very bad mother it didn’t take me long to find my happiness in her own.

Still I can’t pretend that I wouldn’t have liked her to continue with ballet, certainly not to a competitive or career level, but long enough for her to soak up some of the traits of the art I find so alluring. The composure, the posture, the ease with which a dancer moves, things that despite far more study I never quite held within my grasp but would have dearly loved to. Therein I suppose Agatha, lies the rub, she craves none of the above, and despite my concerted efforts, I couldn’t make my desires her own.

In reflection I’m realizing that she has a grace all of her own making, an ethereal quality that all the tulle in the world couldn’t enhance, and certainly a teacher couldn’t teach. Her poise in a variety of situations couldn’t be taught by the most legendary instructors at Saddlers Wells or the Kirov. Whether she can pas-de-chat is irrelevant, the fact is she’s perfectly happy and very good at so much more than I could ever have been, so I’ve put aside my dream realizing that she’s far surpassed it – she just took a different route.

Your friend with bunions,




Dear Agatha, Prima Ballerina….

Prima BallerinaFor so much of my youth I wanted to be a ballet dancer Agatha. Front and centre on a large stage leaping to the strains of a large orchestra, curtseying to shouts of ‘encore’, and having roses showered down from dizzying heights.

Now, you know as well as I, that despite having not near enough talent to stand in for the weakest link in the ‘corps de ballet’, almost more importantly I had virtually none of the charisma and stage presence to woo the audience. I was stage-stilted in the extreme.

Not to trample my dreams, however, and encouraged by extremely high arches, unusually long arms and matching craning neck, I ticked off one Royal Academy ballet exam after another. My Mum sewing the pink satin ribbons on increasingly larger ballet slippers and pretending for all the world that I was the next Margot Fonteyn, despite the repetitive comments on each and every report card “the student needs to lift her eyes from the floor and inject more personality into her dancing…’ – or words consistently to that effect.

Technique never got to be the issue as even I realized by age 11 that this particular gig was not to be mine. I chose the line of having grown too tall as a graceful exit from my fantasy, but we all knew differently, and quietly left it at that.  I switched to modern dance, which, if anything required more personality and less inhibition. The reports read the same way, but the high arches carried me about as far along the ladder as I could get in conjunction with finishing school, and we had all known that there was less than no hope of me pursuing the ‘talent – or lack thereof’ after I matriculated. So things more or less came to a natural conclusion without too much psychological trauma.

When I went away to university the inhibitions started slowly cracking off as tends to happen when one spreads one’s wings and starts seeing oneself in the mirror as a person who stands almost on their own two feet, and as you know Agatha, I had done very little of that before I left home to head to Cape Town university at 18. I wouldn’t say I was exactly ready for the spotlight, but I wasn’t quite as strenuously reserved. In due course I found a dance school in central town, in a warehouse with views of the harbour and the occasional live drummer. I started to take late afternoon classes with a very eclectic group of people, none of whom were students so I was somewhat safe to start developing a new ‘performing’ persona. I thought myself rather radical veering off campus and cavorting around with all manner of city folk, far more talented than I in every way, so the satisfaction was broad and once again I was immersed in a world of leg warmers and leotards.

When we lived in Manhattan, still working and pre-parenting, once again I joined an adults dance class at the Joffrey Dance School on 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village. The large studios were situated just above the legendary Balduccis (the latter has since closed and relocated which is almost as agonizing as my non-career as it was such a staple of our life downtown), and had huge glass windows which overlooked the bustling avenue towards the Jefferson Market library which is one of the most beautiful buildings in that neck of the woods, with domes, and towers and horizontal white lines breaking up the red brick, almost turkish in architecture and suitably exotic to form a fitting backdrop to the Tchaikovsky pelting out of the open windows.

Of course many of the studios on the higher levels were reserved for the company dancers, but just being in close proximity to all those pink tights and scuffed toed shoes made my skin tingle. Ours was a mixed class, literally. Men, women, young- adult  and old, some with talent, some with experience and many with neither. Our teacher was a retired professional herself and as graceful as a swan despite being a grandmother. I loved it, for many reasons, not least of all was that I found it particularly hard work. Holding my arm out in second position for a matter of minutes seemed to require superhuman strength, something I clearly never lacked in my early teens. I was suddenly happy and humbled at the same time, not a common combination.

There was huge anonymity in the group which appealed to me tremendously. The class fluctuated in size form one week to the next which lent it an ebb and flow quality quite unlike the classes of my youth where each student had their place at the barre, their spot in the middle of the room and were as regular in attendance as minutes following seconds . I’ve always found it easier to be unrestrained with people I have no relationship with, which probably doesn’t come across as a ringing endorsement of my character – but there we have it Agatha. Far easier for me to banter with a check-out lady than in a room of mothers at a school fundraiser.

Perhaps that’s where my complete lack of inability to inject a little ‘pep’ into my performances strangled me in my youth. I’d like to think so at least, a far more comfortable loop hole than not quite having enough of what it took. No doubt a psychologist could clarify, but as this particular concern doesn’t keep me up at night, I’m leaving the theory on the table and pirouetting away from it.

I know much of my obsession with ballet was, and still is to some extent due to the costumes.  Lengths of tulle sufficient to swathe the US/ Canadian border, tiny little crystals embellished on satin bodices, metallic threads embroidered into ornate freezes, tiaras, and tufts of ostrich feathers. I loved it all. So mad am I for tulle, it crept into and under many a dress I had made for various functions. One such creation modelled after the “Willies” in Les Sylphides, who guard the graves in ankle length, very full skirts constructed from one layer atop another of tulle. I copied this image virtually to T, almost killing the dressmaker as my Mum and I arrived with four different shades of pastel netting so fine it was hard to make out the holes, and asked her to concoct a dress with alternating layers of each at least four or five deep. She looked at us like we were mad, and clearly she was by the end of it, having spent three weeks on her knees cutting full circles of the awkward stuff.

My Mum was as happy to indulge my whims as I was to dream them ever higher. From an early age I remember going to the ballet with her. A huge break from routine on a school night, I had to have an afternoon sleep in preparation, and when the time came we set off with the crowd to float off into another world, sitting making contented sighs and elbowing each other as ever more spectacular visions floated before us. Chattering the entire, very late night ride home about which work of art we loved best, and why.

Holidays too, were punctuated by trips to whichever seasonal ballet was being staged. Given that we were frequently in Cape Town over Christmas we most often saw the Nutcracker, although each time it was somehow grander, more gasp worthy than the time before. The Cape theatre, the Nico Milan, was larger the the Alhambra Theatre in Durban, usually with its own orchestra which immediately gave it an edge of gravitas missing from our home town productions, and paved the way for ultimately seeing the legendary English, European, and American dance companies weave their own particular magic through their feet, and leaps, and arm extensions in their native world class amphitheatres.

I had planned on writing on and on regaling you with tales of how I endeavoured to force this love of the ballet onto our daughter but the day slips away Agatha. Once again I am lost in my own world, which does little to take care of the real things in the real world which need doing, so I’ll leave you hanging until time and freedom from the shackles of a long ‘to do’ list are in my possession. Thereupon I’ll take up pen once more, but for now I invite you to scour your local listings, book a ticket, maybe two, and prepare for a few hours of escape into a fairy world where all is light and frothy and very beautiful.

Your friend with high arches and big dreams,