White Bred

Taryn Korb

My childhood seemed to me like a 50-meter sprint toward adulthood; too long a stretch to exert that much energy, yet short enough to be exhilarating. I remember running barefoot, on dry grass. Only a few strides in as an 8-year-old, I was the lucky number one-out-of-six kids to come from a divorced home. Not unlike the television show Party of Five, we were a family living through traumatic change. Having left the home that took my parents more years to build than it was actually lived in, my mother, brother, sister and I relocated like a traveling circus to finally live with my grandparents, their dog Penny, the garden gnomes whose hats we used to paint each summer, the swimming pool built three feet longer than initially agreed upon, the smell of carpets and mesh curtains, the naked statue lamp whose twin resides somewhere in Europe, and Julia my grandmother’s maid.

Back then, I would play croquet in the hallway and, from time to time, sample a dog biscuit and recall that the zing of salt and liver would make your mouth water in a bad way. Some days, I would lie on my stomach near the pantry and throw cards against the cupboard door to see who in the Royal Family could make it the closest. I rooted for the Queen. Julia could have come from Royalty and I would never have known. She once said that her Christian name was Zipporah. I thought it was cool that she had a Hebrew name. It connected us.

Jules was uncommonly tall for a Xhosa woman, and every bit as fierce as her lineage would suggest. When I would get under her feet and on her nerves as she bustled around in the kitchen, she would call out Ngiyachodla! literally meaning I will hit you! But she clearly had neither the intention nor the seriousness such an expression deserved. If she raised her hand, it was to show me how tall her children were growing. Always, when you show the height of a person, you should do so with your palm facing upward and your fingers closed, like a flower in bud.

She worked an undefined number of hours each day, earning less than minimum wage. She wore a uniform that included a pink pinafore with matching white apron frilled at the edges, and she took her lunch on the back porch. I remember how she sat on an upturned Coke bottle crate, next to the immovable marble table with built-in bottle top opener on the side, while she drank Inkomazi—a sour milk yoghurt drink— and ate mealie-pap and gravy with her fingers. For dessert, she would pop open a black plastic container with a yellow lid, about the size of the old five-rand coin. Snuff it was called, similar to smelling salts, except that no-one really knew what it was made of and for what purpose. I am still not convinced it was used to clear a cold. On a particularly difficult day, my Gran would blame Julia’s red eyes and sullen disposition on the snuff: It’s a drug you know she would whisper under her breath, God knows what’s in it, to which my mom would reply, Maybe I should give it a go, and then sink back, slouching in self pity.

Jules would bake scones on a Thursday before leaving to go home for the weekend. Home was a place called Hammanskraal, and she only went there on special occasions. Back then, Hammanskraal seemed to me like an African Neverland, partly because I had no idea where it was or how to get there and partly because of Jules’ descriptions of rural life, where the cows and chickens strolled freely in-between the shouting and dust clouds kicked up by children playing soccer. Now, however, the picture of wandering, parentless youth evokes the realization that Julia’s kids grew up without her. One day, standing in the hallway, I heard her say to my Grandmother that her house finally had a new roof, and soon she would have enough money to build a fence and keep her kids safe. One cement package after the other, she built her family a house that she barely lived in herself.

I remember a Thursday when the house smelled like warm hugs. It was her daughter’s confirmation—the equivalent of a Bat-Mitzvah—and Jules was baking scones. I bombarded her with questions about the celebration. She explained that one sheep and three goats would be slaughtered and cooked on a spit, heads and all. Her sisters and aunties were making enough mealie-pap to feed everyone. I even saw the mixing spoon. It was literally a broomstick with a metal whisk-like knob at one end. No-one would go hungry. If only we lived in Hammanskraal; feeding a community seemed easier than feeding a family: everyone contributed what they could.

I watched Jules rinse the sink and plug the drain with the torn-out base of a Pick ‘n Pay shopping packet. I stood by her side like an apprentice whose job it was to observe their master in action. There was no orderly line of ingredients awaiting their turn, neither was the process chaotic. Jules simply carried out her recipe with efficiency not unlike the triggering of muscle memory after a prolonged period of physical inactivity. Perhaps the anticipation of going home made her too restless or anxious or even excited to be precise. She poured 2 kilos of flour into the centre of the sink and turned on the tap. As Jules swirled her hand round and round the sink, the murky flour-water mix reminded me of how, every day, she knelt before the bathtub and swished our clothes round and round for hours till the water turned grey and the clothes were finally clean. To her mixture, she added white sugar, oil and salt to taste. Like raising a child from sleep, Jules lifted the heap of sticky dough and placed it on the counter. I do not recall how she manipulated the starchy mass, if she kneaded with her fingers or with the ball of her palm, but I do remember that there were no baking trays, and she used the oven only three times to bake everything. An hour later I sat at the kitchen table, biting into the yellowy-beige and light-brown crispy top of a hot, freshly-baked scone. My Gran generally ate hers sliced in half spread with strawberry jam and a dollop of cream. Jules and I ate ours plain, taking in the natural combination of flavours with the heat of the oven. I am sure they would have been even more delicious baked on an open flame.

The year I left to study abroad was the year Jules left for home, or at least that is where I assume she went. In fact, everyone had to leave. Eight years had passed since the death of my Grandpa, and the house was finally being sold. My Gran moved to a smaller, more practical apartment in a retirement village. There she would have companionship, cards and conversation with people her age. My Mother finally became the Madam in her own home. She had found an apartment in the centre of a Jewish suburb, and she, my brother and sister started a new life. Six months later, I returned from my travels to join them.

I was not present for the move. I did not see Julia pack the china cabinet or wrap the naked statue lamp. I did not see her sitting on the porch and drinking her tea in-between laps to the garage and back, storing and sorting thirty-three years’ worth of memories. I would not have wanted to be there on her last day. Maybe she was wearing the pink pinafore as she packed her Church clothes and other valuables into a suitcase, or perhaps she had packed up her uniform already, ready to be used someplace else. I wonder what was the last thing baked in the oven before it was uprooted like a tree whose roots cling deep into the earth. Scones seem unlikely.

I do not know where Julia is now. I have not seen her for nearly ten years. I remember asking my Mom if she knew where she had landed up. My Mom answered Hammanskraal. But no-one knows for sure. Looking for her would be futile, maybe even unfair, since I have never gone to look for Krisie or for Beatrice, though I wish them all the love in my heart.


Taryn Korb is a native-born South African and third-year undergraduate student in the department of English Literature at Bar-Ilan University, Israel.



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