I had been in Oz for a few months when I received an emergency call to come back to South Africa. Every émigré who leaves elderly parents dreads this call.
But this was worse than death. Our family lawyer called me to attend a meeting at the retirement Centre where the Chairman wanted to expel my parents for bad behavior.
“I am finished!” I said to my best friend Marilyn who fetched me from the airport and was driving me to the Centre. “I don’t know if it's a tragedy, a comedy, or a farce.”
Josh and I had checked out the place before we and the kids had left. I had the sole responsibility for the care of my parents since the death of my twin sister. I was filled with anxiety for their health and guilt for abandoning them. I just wanted them to be safe, happy and together.
Instead of being an Old Age Home, it was called A New Age Centre. There were well- designed apartments and fantastic communal facilities. In addition to the three B’s, Bridge, Bowls and Bible studies, they had beautiful grounds and swimming pools. It was like the Garden of Eden – with a Frail Care Wing.
During our visit, we saw a lecture in progress in the auditorium. We were soothed by the sea of heads in a hundred shades of grey and blue. After the lecture, I spoke to a resident, probably an octogenarian who was accompanied by a younger man.
“This is my boyfriend, Solly,” she said, “We both love it here.”
When I asked her age, she replied, “That number has been discontinued. Age is not a number but a state of mind. “
I later discovered that she was 93.
The place was perfect for my parents who had both retired. My father Barney was almost 75. He had run his own Pharmacy dispensing medicines and
My mother Judith was 72 and had been an Art teacher at the Technical College. I explained the New Age concept to them, but they refused to move to an old age home – whatever it was called.
Barney needed a knee op but didn’t want to have it. He was becoming irritable and immobile.
My mother said, “Becky, you may as well order a wheelchair for your father because not much is working from the waist down anyway.”
He retaliated, “Not much of you is working anymore either, especially from the neck up.”
Unfortunately, this was true. Judith was becoming forgetful, depressed, and refusing to eat. She had not only lost weight but also her sense of purpose.
But after visiting the Centre they agreed to leave their rambling, old house. What appealed to them was the motto – Life begins at 70. I cashed in one of my dad’s policies and chose a garden apartment in the New Age Centre.
I was helping them to pack and it was painful.
My mother sighed and said, “I love these shoes, but the heels are very high. If I wore them now, I would probably break my neck.”
“Couldn’t you wear them just once more?” my father asked, deadpan.
My mother looked tearful, but I had to laugh. My father still had a wicked sense of
At the Reception desk, a group of women were ogling my father. Although he was leaning on his cane, he still looked good, tall, elegantly grey with a prominent nose, and a small beard hiding a double chin.
Their interest waned when my mother arrived and held his arm possessively. They had a close relationship despite the few skirmishes.
“Another Darby and Joan,” one of the women muttered to her friend as they moved off.
My mother looked disconsolate in flat shoes and in a dress which was now much too large. It was upsetting to me because she had always looked smart when she taught at the Tech. We had the same build so before I emigrated, I gave her a suitcase of my good clothes. I encouraged her to cut and dye her hair. Her face was unwrinkled and her good features could be drastically improved if she got rid of the sulky, downturned mouth and the lackluster expression in her green eyes.
My parents refused to get cell phones or learn to use a computer. They did not want to become 'Skype Grandparents'. In addition to the occasional phone calls, my dad sent me a monthly postcard. January was Eat, meet and excrete. February was Forgive and forget —mostly forget. In March he wrote What was was. They were settling down and they were adjusting to the situation.
Then everything changed. In April, he decided to have the knee operation.
It was July, a delicious crisp Granny-Smith day in
When I saw my parents, it was a flashback from a movie. They both looked fantastic. My mother was wearing her break-neck high heels and the purple suit I had worn for my son’s bar mitzvah. Her hair had an auburn tinge and was stylishly short. My father rushed to hug me no longer using a cane. I realized how much I had missed him as the mascara streaked down my cheeks. I had always been his special little girl.
The reunion was cut short by the arrival of the Chairman of the Board with three Board members. They sat under the Motto, Life begins at
Matron of the rehab
“After the knee operation, we fetched Barney from the hospital. Judith had a surprise for him and was going to meet him in the lounge but she was delayed. A group of women crowded around Barney in his wheelchair, wishing him a speedy recovery. He enjoyed being the
"'Welcome home, Barney,' she said, kissing him on the cheek.
“He was momentarily at a loss for words. Speechless, he did not comment on her appearance.
"She had gone to a lot of trouble and felt hurt at his lack of response.’Sorry I am late but the hairdresser kept me for two hours.'
"He looked at her and said, 'Anyone who spends two hours at the hairdresser ought to have her head
“His audience loved that comment but Judith was annoyed. When I wheeled Barney to the rehab
“When Barney returned to their apartment three weeks later, Judith was a new person. She and Seymour had set up an arts and crafts class for the residents. When she was busy teaching, Barney would tell jokes in the lounge. He couldn’t remember anyone’s names so he would call the women the first name that popped into his head like 'Citronella' or 'Margarita'. He called a woman with a pale complexion 'Human Frailty' and a Russian woman with a post-nasal drip 'Miss Putin'. As soon as he could run again, Barney started running after and flirting with every available woman.”
I was shocked. I was sitting between my parents, like a tennis net at Wimbledon. They had always been partners, on the same side but now they were opponents. They always had protected me but now I was feeling the sharp sting of their animosity. My father gave me a sheepish grin, which reeked of
But Matron was just getting warmed up. “What’s more Barney was encouraging the older inmates to revert to their second childhood. He taught them 'Hide and Seek' and 'Doctor Doctor'. He made friends with the Pharmacist and kept up a steady order of Viagra running up a huge bill at the Pharmacy. He offered gifts of Viagra to all who wanted it. He told them to relive their teenage years without fear of pregnancy or parental disapproval.
“Barney had a bit too much wine at dinner one night and threw a plate of spaghetti at Seymour who poured a bowl of soup into Barney’s lap. Food, crockery, and cutlery started flying and one of the waiters was hit in the leg.
“The resident gossip told the story to a journalist and the news hit the front pages of the Northern Gazette.”
Matron’s evidence was disturbed by a scuffle at the doorway.
Two security guards had forcibly removed a large package from a young-looking resident, who turned out to be the protesting Seymour. His face was red as he gestured to my mother.
The Chairman took the package and played his trump card by unveiling a large oil painting.
It was a nude in the style of Manet’s Olympia. Seymour had eliminated the maid and the cat but the confrontational stare of the nude was most disconcerting. My eyes scanned the piece from the high-heeled shoes to the pair of sparkling green eyes. It was my mother.
I felt my father’s anger and saw his face go purple with rage. My mother’s eyes were large pools of green above her bright pink cheeks.
Our attorney covered the painting when he saw how much it upset us all.
He took the floor. “We agree to settle the Pharmacy Bill and to pay for any damage caused in the dining room,” he conceded. “But I have studied the contract carefully and there are absolutely no grounds to expel my clients. In fact, they should be commended for upholding the Motto of the Centre. Moreover, the New Age Centre has not suffered damage. On the contrary, I have ascertained that the applications for admission to Centre have spiked since the publication of the article.”
After consultation with the other Board members, the Chairman was forced to accept the offer.
My parents excitedly tried to justify their actions to me.
Pleading exhaustion and jet lag, I tried to make my escape. I was stopped by our lawyer, who faced me with apprehension and apology.
Ungrateful for his help I attacked him. “Why did you have to drag me all the way from Australia to hear all this dirt?”
“I wanted you to hear firsthand what had happened. How else could I explain that your parents want a divorce?”
Author Bio: Gallerist—Founder of Natalie Knight Gallery, Hyde Park, South Africa www.knightgalleries.net
Feature writer, playwright, art curator, editor, researcher and cultural historian.
There’s no Sugar Left - Play produced in 1981
Ndebele Images (1983)
Dungamanzi; Stirring Waters. 2007 -Tsonga/Shangaan culture
The Big Picture- an Art-o-biography 2017
Married, with children and great-grandchildren