I Carry Her Heart, I Carry It in My Heart

My mom, reading to me, on Keurbooms beach, circa 1980

A few days after my mom’s funeral in early October, I published an unfinished post about her death, prematurely. When I realised what I’d done, I deleted it and have not attempted to complete it until now. Over the years I have been writing blogs, I don’t think I mentioned my mom extensively. She was an extremely private person and perhaps that is part of the reason. But now that she is gone, I feel it would be impossible to write about anything else, without first writing about her and how much she meant to me.

As I mentioned in my unfinished post, she died of a “dissecting aortic aneurism”. She was nearly 74, and, as far as we knew, healthy and fit for her age. (She looked after Chiara and Joe for a week in June while I joined David in France, for example). So it was a huge shock to lose her so unexpectedly. I have spoken with the GP her performed her autopsy, plus the pathologist who inspected her heart, as well as her own GP, my GP and a cardiologist. She died of something rare and unlucky. We were told that had she been in hospital when it happened, it’s unlikely she would have been saved – once the wall of the aorta bursts, death comes quickly.

The thing about death is that there is nothing more final. It is completely non-negotiable. And so there is little point wondering about what might have been: Did she experience pain and tell no-one and therefore could we have had her diagnosed and saved her life? Had she not been a smoker for so many years (like so many of her generation) would this not have happened? What should I have done differently in the last few months of her life?

There is little point torturing myself with such questions. Instead, I want to pay tribute to her memory.

My mom married her first husband when she was 26. Very tragically, he was killed working as an electrician six weeks later. I imagine that in her life plan, she would have had children in her late twenties. But it was not until she was in her mid-thirties, that she met my father. During those ten years, she nurtured her maternal instincts by spending time with her nieces and her cousin’s young daughters. My mother used to say that she could not understand a woman who did not want to have children. I realise this might be highly offensive to many women and I happen not to share her view, but I write this to illustrate the central role that motherhood played in her own life. I don’t suggest that my mother’s way of parenting is the only way or the best way, but I am grateful to have been the recipient of a woman who absolutely loved being a mother, possibly above all.

In my first job in Johannesburg, I had a colleague in her fifties who must have overhead a telephone conversation I had with my mother at work. She expressed some surprise and longing with respect to how she, herself had been parented. Her conclusion was not that her parents had been bad parents or bad people, but that they had simply not been very interested in their children. I feel incredibly blessed by how very interested my mother was in my sister and I. I think this is connected to what I do miss, and will continue to miss, the most, about her presence.

If I was suffering from the slightest ailment – either physical or emotional – my mother was there to pour over me bucketloads of empathy and support. If I had exciting news to share, she would be the proudest, the most excited, of anyone. On the day she died, I had relayed to our family that Joe had been diagnosed with tonsillitis. Her last message to me was to wish Joe and I a peaceful night’s sleep. With all my spoilings of nannies, not needing to get up and contribute to our family’s income, she still felt my potential pain of sleep deprivation as though it were her own.

I bitterly miss recounting to her every little adorable or amazing thing that Chiara and Joe say or do. Children fascinated her – not least her own grandchildren, of course – and she never grew tired of hearing the tiniest details about their little lives. I think it will be years before the involuntary urge to tell her about something they do or say, disappears.

Shortly after she died, I was reminded of a line from a poem by ee cummings which I think I have not had sight of since high school. There is something a little bit comforting about the notion that one can carry a loved one’s heart, in one’s own heart. The poem is meant for lovers, but it somehow manages to remind me that my mother will always be with me.

i carry your heart with me

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
i fear
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want
no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

* My sister, Sylvia, transcribed an “interview” she did with my mom last year, about my mom’s experience as a florist, and her relationship with plants and flowers. She posted it on her blog, Growing On Up, shortly after my mom died.

Sisters on Sabbatical: 3 Days in Hanoi, Vietnam

Sylvia & I at a local lunch spot in Hanoi’s French Quarter


Sabbaticals are the new black! My sister, Sylvia, has been dreaming about her sabbatical for years and I was honoured to be invited to join her in South East Asia for a small part of it. My husband, David, completed his nine week sabbatical in August (and has about six more exotic Ironman races to compete in over the next couple of years) and so he put his hand up to look after the children while I flitted off to Hanoi (and Halong Bay) for a week. (Thanks, babe!)

Hello Hanoi

A fairly typical Hanoi retail & residential street

Before leaving, I somehow got the impression that Hanoi’s Old Quarter was going to consist of cobbled streets and French bistros. Whilst I absolutely loved our time there, I wouldn’t say that Hanoi is a beautiful city. It’s a capital city with majestic state department buildings well maintained by the one-party state. The rest is a cacophany of messy micro enterprises, peeling paintwork, a sea of mopeds on every street and pavements stacked with illegally parked scooters. It’s noisy, it’s dilapidated and it’s intense. But it was like nothing I’d ever really experienced before and I had a great time.

Timmy the Tourist in Hanoi
After falling for an elaborate scam on honeymoon in communist Cuba in 2006, my appetite for “authentic” adventure travel waned a little. (Our second honeymoon was a package deal at a 5 star resort in Mauritius – the kind of honeymoon we’d scorned as reserved for the narrow-mind and the dull.) Since having children, I’m all about the kids club and couldn’t care less about never leaving the confines of the resort walls. In Hanoi, however, it was like my twenty-something self was back and I recalled arriving in Rome at age 23 and being bitterly disappointed that all my new international hostel buddies were desperate to find the nearest Irish Pub “where people at least speak English, right?” (With my dreams of meeting sophisticated Italians in the manner of Eat-Pray-Love shattered, I went along to O’Shagans or whatever. When in Rome…do as your fellow backpackers do).

For me, Hanoi was a fantastic mix of what looked and felt like an “authentic” view of Vietnamese life, yet the tourist market is well established so that it still felt like a holiday and not like, ahem, hard work. (I’m getting old). The day we arrived we headed south of the “tourist map”, in search of a particular bridal boutique (Sylvia is getting hitched in November). We walked the streets for a good couple of hours and only saw one other Westerner. This left me with the impression that there were hardly any tourists in the city, which is not the case. Certain streets in the Old Quarter felt almost claustrophobically tourist-centric (backpackers; tour booking outfits; hotels; scooters for rent) but most of Hanoi feels like it’s being enjoyed by the Vietnamese. Even some of the spots obviously aimed at Western tastes in the stylish French Quarter, seem to be largely frequented by locals.

Crossing The Street

On our bridal boutique adventure on Day 1, I stood trying to cross the street for what felt like ages. Sylvia had seen a gap earlier and bolted. I really was trying to be brave but I kept thinking, “I have small children” and honestly, it didn’t just seem unsafe, it seemed impossible. Eventually, a kind local lady came up to me, took me by the arm and calmly led me through this sea of scooters, before nodding and then disappearing, fairy godmother-style. A few days later, I came across this advice for foreigners from a local tour company:

“Beat the Street”

“Some first time visitors are shocked by the way traffic flows and worry about crossing the street. Take a few minutes to watch how Vietnamese people do it: look at the oncoming traffic, but avoid direct eye contact; step slowly but deliberately forward; maybe raise an arm in the air to be seen more clearly; stop if you are unsure if a rider has seen you; never step backwards – no rider will be expecting that.”

There you go, then. Simple.

Walking Food Tour (& Water Puppets Show)

The highlight of the trip for me was the food tour that Sylvia booked. First, our guide dropped us at a water puppets show which is apparently a famous must-see local thing. The concept of water puppets is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, it was stunningly executed and the puppets were beautiful. (It does get a little tedious after a few scenes and you are sitting with a hundred other iPhone touting tourists, but it’s only 50 mins so it’s worth it if you’ve never seen water puppets before.)

Water Puppet Show

After the theatre, we were joined by the lovely Bridget from North London (recently relocated to Singapore) for our walking food tour. Our guide was an irrepressibly bubbly, intelligent, positive 24 year old university graduate named Trang (apparently pronounced more like “Chang”) from Vietnam Awesome Travel. She took us to about five or six eateries (yes, I did lose count) and I absolutely LOVED basically all the food (and I don’t have an incredibly adventurous palate).

Bridget (London); me; Sylvia; Trang (our guide)

I noticed that many of the eateries had some form of English in their signage, obviously hoping to capture the tourist market. Yet, we were almost always the only Westerners in the establishment, so at the risk of sounding corny, the experience did feel pretty authentic.

1st Hanoi Food Tour Stop for Bun Cha (pork & noodles)

The One Dish Policy & Street Eateries

Something that took me a while to understand is the concept of restaurant in Hanoi. Firstly, most Vietamese places serve one dish only. It sounds odd but that’s why it was great to have a guide who took us to the best place for pork spring rolls, steamed pancakes or sticky rice yoghurt. The second is that it’s the exception for a restaurant to have adult-sized tables and chairs. Most local eateries have teeny tiny plastic chairs and tables (which, happily I’m quite used to from hanging out with teeny tiny people for the past four years). Apparently, this is partly because the “restaurants” set up on pavements are illegal so small, light, plastic pieces of furniture can be quickly stacked, run away with and hidden. For the legal restaurants in buildings, I get the impression it has to do with space, cost, coming out of communism into fledgling entrepreneurship and because it’s practical: Vietnamese people are mostly small and light. (I am sure that obesity is starting to become an issue as Western influences take hold and as affluence increases, but I did not see many even slightly overweight people in Hanoi – and they eat noodles for breakfast and aren’t shy of pork but there’s always lots of veg and broth, portions are small and the food doesn’t feel heavy).

Beat the Street. Or, um, have dinner on it?

Scams, Safety, Hawkers and Strangers in Range Rovers

The guide books warn of the classic taxi scam: driving unsuspecting tourist around in circles and charging accordingly, when their destination is actually around the corner. This has spurned a whole sub-market where tourists are encouraged to pay a reputable company up-front for a journey from say, the airport to their hotel, but, unbeknownst to the clueless tourist, get charged a 30% premium over and above a legitimate taxi’s market rate. But at least you weren’t ripped off by a scamster, right? From the constraints of Communism, Capitalist innovation has emerged…

In terms of safety, Sylvia and I walked the city by day and by night. Mostly, vendors tried to hard-sell us bananas from their bicycles or old editions of Lonely Planet from the backs of their mopeds. Otherwise, anyone who was close enough to a Range Rover to suggest that they may own it, tended to break out their best English to engage our attention. Apparently, luxury car purchases attract up to 100% in import taxes, so paying double its value for a Range Rover evidently imbues a man with double the confidence..

In Summary

Sylvia and I looked at one another on numerous occasions and said “Mom would hate it here!” The traffic and the noise would have driven my mother absolutely crazy and I have to say that by the last day, I was tired of not being able to walk on pavements jam-packed with mopeds and weary of the incessant noise. The history of Vietnam is tragic and heart wrenching and the country’s “state capitalism” is far from democratic. But it was a fascinating experience and I would return to Vietnam in a heartbeat.

Children: Coping with Competition & Learning the Art of Losing

parental guidance

A friend of a friend quipped the other day that she was preparing to launch her 11 year old as an IPO. What she meant was that she was about to embark on a roadshow to try to secure him a place at one South Africa’s top high schools. She was joking of course, but the first world problem of competing for spots at good schools is one that keeps parents up at night. It’s playground talk amongst moms in the 12 to 24 month age category at Clamber Club in Dunkeld. The fact is, demand exceeds supply, at present, and kids are competing for a limited number of places. Make no mistake, it’s a competitive world out there.

When I think about children and competition, I often think about the scene in the movie Parental Guidance (with Billy Crystal and Marisa Tomei) where the kids play non-competitive baseball – i.e. no-one can be struck out. Ever. So everyone remains equal and no-one wins or loses. It’s a spoof on a kind of new-age notion that competition is dangerous for a child’s self esteem.

Of course, I do understand that there are well-researched arguments for more collaborative, less competitive child-rearing approaches. I just don’t think that sheltering children almost entirely from competition prepares them for the current mainstream reality. I would argue that a more realistic approach for building confidence is to a) try to avoid creating competition where it need not exist and b) to teach children how to cope with losing – a skill even the most gifted must certainly need at times.

I sometimes catch myself doing the exact opposite of avoiding competition where it needn’t be present. I believe I do this in the interests of speed and efficiency – or perhaps because I’ve been hardwired that way since Sub A. For example, if I want to get the kids bathed quickly, I say “who wants to be washed first?” or if I want to get somewhere fast and they’re dawdling, my natural instinct is to make it a “race”. In contrast, my daughter’s neighbour and BFF, Kayla, regularly declares during complex kids’ suppers: “It’s not a race!” Indeed, the exercise of eating dinner should not be a competition (even though getting small kids to eat is often so laborious that I sometimes wish it were). I try to borrow Kayla’s maxim when situations that really needn’t be competitive, could turn into a contest.

Perhaps partly because I have vivid and mortifying memories of being a terrible loser as a child, I believe this is a critical coping mechanism that I want to equip my children with from a young age. No-one loves losing but I think some of us inherently mind it more than others. The other day I played “memory game” with my four year old daughter for the first time (jumbled up pairs of cards placed face down that you have to try to match, pair by pair, by recalling where they were lying when previously flipped over). I remember doing well at this game as a young child. Turns out that as an adult, I am rubbish. My daughter was cleaning up. She was on a winner’s high. I was deliberately competing as I would against an adult – i.e I was NOT letting her win. But then I got a bit lucky towards the end (when it’s much, much easier as they are far fewer cards left) and I began to collect quite a few pairs. Suddenly, my child looked set to lose and the prospect was devastating. She was completely unable to cope and proceeded to have a spectacular tantrum.

That was when I realised it was time I started gently teaching her how to have fun competing, but also, how to cope with losing.

As for her IPO roadshow, we opted out of the Grade 000 launch and I’m currently working on her marketing strategy for the Grade 0 race next year…

Being a Role Model to a Daughter as a Stay-at-home Mom


People tell me how great kids turn out when they’ve had their moms at home with them before they start Grade 1. People also tell me how they want their kids to see them working as mothers so they can be female role models for their daughters. I don’t disagree with either points of view.

When I studied part-time last year, my three year old daughter, Chiara, didn’t like it. Obviously. I hadn’t done it the year before or the year before and now suddenly I was dashing off to lectures and leaving her at home with her nanny. I only went to lectures three times a week, but still, she was not impressed.

Without making a big deal of it, I try to make her aware of the fact that stay-at-home moms are not the norm. I also suggest that although I may not currently be working, I may wish to do so in the future. I say this not only because I do miss working and would like to be part of the workforce again. I say it also because I want her to aspire to great things as girl and I want her to feel and believe that little girls can become anything they want to.

Chiara just turned four and a few weeks ago, she and her three year old cousin decided to play “Mommy Baby”. While preparing for the game, she turned to her cousin and announced:

“I’ll be the mommy because mommies get to go to work.”

No sooner had these words come out of her mouth when she moderated them:

“No,” she declared, “I’ll be the mommy because mommies get to stay up late!”

Then, a couple of days ago, she and her classmate were discussing which mommies were going to be at a playdate that afternoon. I pointed out that one of the moms they were discussing wouldn’t be able to be there as she would be at work. At this, Chiara turned to her friend and said:

“But my mom doesn’t work.”

I cautiously suggested that this may not always be the case, to which she replied emphatically:

“Yes, because if you don’t work then you won’t learn!”

It seems as though, at the tender age of four, she somehow has a fairly positive view of women and work – even if staying up late at night is a more attractive prospect than a rocking career, at this stage! Of course, it is easy for her to be positive when her mom is always around and not actually, “getting to” go to work or “learning” at work… But I am nonetheless glad that she is aware that work can be enjoyable and rewarding for women and mothers.

Although I have been concerned about creating this awareness in my daughter, when I really think about the kind of role model I would like to be, I come to the following conclusion: I believe that the best mother in the world is the mom who is the most comfortable in her own skin – whether she’s a CEO or a full time mom. If she does whatever she does with conviction and zest, then she is a good role model for her children. And I guess that is actually the ultimate challenge for all us mothers.

4 Mantras I learnt from my Mom


On my Dad’s 70th birthday last year, my sister wrote a tribute to our parents on her blog & cited some of the mantras she remembered our mom repeating throughout our childhood. These are some of them as well as others I recall and admire:

1. “You can’t put an old head on young shoulders

The older I get, the more I try to take in this truth. It is, however, by it’s very nature, impossible to completely appreciate until one is actually “old”. Mary Schmich puts it best in her 1997 column entitled “Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted on the Young”, which was later made famous when Baz Luhrmann borrowed the words for his hit song “Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen)”.* Schmich writes:

Enjoy the power & beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power & beauty of your youth until they’ve faded, but trust me, in twenty years’ time, you will look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now, how much possibility lay before and how fabulous you really looked…

This quote, which I heard again for the first time last year, at the age of 35, is one I plan to have inscribed on a canvas that hangs in my home – as a daily reminder to myself to at least try to appreciate the power and beauty of my own relative youth, and, as something which will hopefully ring true in my children’s ears in time to come. This is exactly what my mother was trying to teach me when I was growing up, just in different words.

2. You’ll have nothing to look forward to

I loathed hearing these words when I was a child. From Sub B (Grade 2, age 7/8), my classmates started having parties that started at 4pm and ended at 8pm which my mother disparagingly referred to as “night parties”. Needless to say, I was not allowed to attend said “night parties”. The explanation given was that I was too young and that I would “have nothing to look forward to” later on in life. This was re-iterated when I was sixteen and everyone my age growing up in the entirety of the Garden Route was allowed to go to the Plett night club “The Cave”. Ditto for New Years Eve on Plett beach. Naturally, I felt very disgruntled by these rules and I found the explanation even more insufferable.

Now, with a daughter of my own (although she’s only four), I do want to protect her from having seen it all and experienced it all, before her time.

3. ‘Boring’ is a banned word/ there’s no such thing as bored

My mother literally banned my sister and I from uttering the words “boring” or “bored”. Naturally, this infuriated me but it definitely worked. Such a clever parenting tool. Because we were forbidden from whining that we were bored, when we felt the urge to moan that we had nothing to do, we were forced to find something to do.

Now, with young children, I instinctively avoid these words. I don’t want to introduce them into my children’s vocabulary, I want to delay their awareness of the concept of boredom. And I will definitely be borrowing the mantra from my mother!

4. Sunburnt little girls make wrinkled old ladies

As it turns out, my mom and Mary Schmich have a fair amount in common. Not only do they agree that youth is wasted on the young, but that sunscreen is critical. I think that truth has become self-evident in recent years and I am so grateful to my mother for making me so vigilant about sunburn from an early age.

*In a recent post, I quoted a different part of Mary Schmich’s most brilliant column, but attributed the words to Baz Luhrmann, not realising that they were originally written by the Chicago Tribune writer.

South Africa Through the Eyes of a Joburg Cab Driver


Amidst the horror of the most recent spate of xenophobic violence that has gripped South Africa, I wanted to write a positive piece about people, preconceptions and othering.

It is 2003 and I have just moved to Joburg after a year in London and Rome and before that, four years in Cape Town.

Growing up, we made the long trip from Keurbooms to Joburg a few times to visit family and to experience some city buzz. The last time I visited Joburg with my parents I was ten years old. It was 1989 and there was a bomb scare while we shopping in one of the northern suburbs malls. In high school we were made to read some horrific Nadine Gordimer short story involving high walls and electric fences. I forget the details but either the dog or the owner of the dog is frazzled by their own electric fence. The story was set in Joburg. To me, it may as well have been Bogota or Baghdad. A society of such violence felt foreign and far away from the safety of my surroundings in Keurbooms, Plett, George and even, later, Cape Town. Joburg was the wild west. A menacing metropolis that someone from the Western Cape (or certainly, almost anyone I knew) would never imagine living in.

But love is a powerful thing. And that is what leads me to move to the Big Smoke in 2003. I recall a brief conversation with a stranger on a subway platform in Rome. He must have asked me where I was from/ moving to and I must have answered “Johannesburg”. He responded by telling me that it was the second most dangerous city in the world.

Nonetheless, I arrive in Joburg in June 2003 with the contents of a backpack and a boyfriend with a townhouse in Illovo. No job and – more critically – no wheels. I don’t know Hillbrow from Hobart Road and I am going for interviews anywhere and everywhere around the city.

About a week into my arrival, I am to meet a recruitment agent at a coffee shop in Bedfordview. I don’t remember how I get there but I do recall that my only way of getting back is to order a cab. So, after the meeting I phone a taxi company and a driver duly arrives to collect me. In an effort to be very nouveau South Africa or something, I climb into the front seat of his car.

“Look,” my 24 year-old self is trying to say, “we are equal. I’m not sitting at the back like some Apartheid-era Madam!” If he thinks anything of this gesture, he does not let on.

I don’t really recall what we speak about during the drive but what happens next will remain with me forever. We are stopped at a red light and, somehow, he gets started talking to a the driver of the vehicle next to me. They are speaking loudly and animatedly in Zulu.

“Did you understand what we just said?” he asks me as we pull away.

I reply that I am embarrassed to say that I did not. Not a word.

And then he turns to me and says, “And we could have been planning to murder you and you wouldn’t even have known?”

I smile.

And he smiles back.

I feel exhilarated. In that one moment in my first week in Joburg, this taxi driver has laid bare our country’s issues of violence, equality, language, race, class, education and has challenged me to confront them.

I dream that one day, we will all live in that South Africa. A South Africa in which we speak to one another as equals, regardless of the colour of our skins or whether we are expats or refugees seeking a better life here. A South Africa in which everyone feels truly free.