Our family has been blessed to have to most amazing live-in domestic worker since just before I was born. Her name is Evelyn, but my brother and I have always known her as Gogo (the Zulu word for grandmother).
She first knocked on my parents' door when they were living in Ladysmith, a small town in KwaZulu-Natal. She was looking for work as her employer at the time was abusive. My mom couldn't believe how little money she was asking for to work fulltime, and how badly her employers treated her.
My parents took her in and were impressed with her work and willingness. When they moved back to Johannesburg a few years later (I was just a baby), she decided to move with them. While my mom worked fulltime at the Johanneburg General Hospital (she's a GP), Gogo looked after me, carrying me on her back like a Zulu baby and teaching me Zulu songs and stories. At one point, I knew more Zulu than I did English.
When my brother was born very, very sick, Gogo was invaluable in keeping things running at home while my parents stressed about operations and hospital bills. She would keep me entertained for hours, letting me "help" her with her cleaning the house while we sang together and she re-cleaned the bits I'd done ;-)
As my brother grew older, she did the same with him - carried him on her back, tickled him into fits of laughter and sang to him in Zulu. I remember him telling my mom when he was about four that he was going to marry Gogo when he grew up.
I have such fond memories of Gogo from different stages of my life - how she would laugh at my brother as he tried to learn to kick the ball and fell on his bum because he was kicking with both feet at the same time. She has the most awesome laugh.
She would break up our sibling fights and shout at us when we'd been naughty. We would cry for disappointing her and she would pick us up, hold us to her ample chest and hum soothing songs to us until we were smiling again.
She's a champion knitter and used to knit the squares for me that I was given as homework for school in about 10 minutes flat, or patiently unravel my uneven scarves to fix all the stitches I'd dropped. When my parents bought her a knitting machine for Christmas, she turned her talent into a business, knitting school jerseys and taking orders for all kinds of knitted wear.
Every birthday, my mom and I would get a hand-crocheted or knitted item. She worked a whole year to make a beautiful crocheted bed cover for my folks and a dining room table overlay for my mom's enormous 10-seater table that's been lugged from house to house with us for as long as I can remember. I had the most beautiful knitted clothes for my dolls from Gogo and my Gran, and even had miniature crocheted handbags that made me feel all grown up. I remember when we were renting a house in Dunvegan, Johannesburg, how she carefully built me a mini washing line with a few loose bricks and a string of purple yarn so that I could imitate her doing the laundry - washing my dolls' clothes and hanging them on the line to dry.
While my mom instilled a love of plants in me, Gogo taught me to value the veggie patch. At each house we lived in, she would cultivate potatoes, marogo (a plant that many people think of as a weed, which is a brilliant spinach substitute), mielies (corn) and whatever other veggies would grow well wherever we were living at the time (she moved with us from Ladysmith to Joburg to Durban to Pretoria... she said she'd move anywhere with my family except overseas).
As I grew older, I began to feel guilty about the fact that she was living so far from her own family (she and her husband split many years ago, but she has children and now granchildren to think about).
One day, I had decided to give her a pedicure and was in her flat painting her toenails when I brought it up. She laughed and said that she was very happy with us. I asked if she didn't miss her home. She said yes, sometimes she did, "But Mommy and Daddy (she always refers to my folks this way when she's talking to my brother or me) are good to me. I have a nice house here, friends, food, money... I get to send money home for my children and I go on holiday and see them. And when they get too much, I come back again." All of this punctuated with hearty laughter.
On occasion over the years, some of her children have visited us. They are all older than me, but I loved meeting them. I remember being amazed when Elsie, one of the older kids, made me a mini Zulu broom out of long grass prettily woven with coloured thread at the top and shyly handed it over. I treasured it for years.
Now that Gogo has two grandchildren, she makes sure to bring us new photos after every holiday to show us how they've grown. She is a good soul and the glue that keeps her family together. She organises jobs (often with my mom's help) for sons, nephews and cousins, mediates family arguments over the phone, picks up the slack in her lazy sister's family and oversees all finances. When her ancient grandmother died recently, she went home and put together the funeral and made sure everyone behaved themselves.
She must be in her early 60s now, although she looks like she's in her late 40s, and last year she told my mom she's building a new house in Ladysmith. We've visited her home before to drop off furniture my parents had given her, and at the time she had three long, skinny houses with sheet metal roofs and the traditional mud walls. But her new house is brick and mortar with roof tiles and framed windows and she's extremely proud of it. Her sister is so jealous that she's apparently stopped speaking to her.
Gogo has been wise with her money and savings, as well as clever in her entrepreneurial ventures, and she's now the talk of the neighbourhood in Ladysmith with her big, fancy house. I'm proud of her and how she has supported her family, but I'm also really sad now because she's retiring this month.
When she told my mom about her new house, she asked when she could retire. My mom said whenever she was ready, so Gogo asked if she could finish last year, work this year, and then when her house is ready, retire.
My parents don't actually need a fulltime or live-in maid anymore - I'm not at home (and I make a big part of the mess), my mom is no longer working and my brother will move out (into Gogo's flat) soon, so they were really keeping Gogo on until she was ready to finish up, so since Gogo's request they've starting getting things in order for her.
The new house in Ladysmith is done now, except the tiling. My parents have bought the tiles Gogo wanted as a Christmas and retirement present and put a large lump sum into a bank account for her pension. They said she can have all the furniture from the flat, so this weekend, my dad has hired a truck and we are going to load up the furniture (which is quite a bit - the double bed, microwave, lounge suite, mini-stove, two eating tables, six chairs, the coffee tables, bedside tables etc...) and drive through to Ladysmith on Saturday morning.
I'm getting all teary thinking about it. Gogo has been such a large part of my life since I was born and I can't bear the thought of her not being around to talk to, hug, swap veggies with, laugh at my brother's antics...
But I'm glad that I'll have the chance to see her new home in all its glory and to see her homecoming. And I know it's not goodbye. She has a cell phone so I can call her and we can SMS each other, and she has told me that when I have a baby she will come to stay with me for three weeks to look after me (but we all know that's not in my immediate plan).
But it's still the end of an era and it saddens me no end. I am thrilled for her that she will be able to retire and enjoy having her beautiful house where she can spoil her grandkids and plant another veggie garden, but I will miss her so, so much. This has come so much faster than I was expecting.
I am so blessed to have had her in my life for 25 years. I will miss seeing her so often.