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Ancestry & tailors

In South Africa


My ancestor sits on a wall, smiling at me, skirt billowed out, shoes muddied in tussocks. She leans forward, waiting to step to me through the centuries. She’s been there since childhood, in words whispered by a sister or brother, in the songs shimmering on a mother’s Irish lips, when I was first put down to play on blankets and pillows in the garden. Today, she still smiles coyly, from long, long before the age of photography.

Everything about her wants to reach me with fingers and lips, in a brightening made by the smile, in the skirt gleaming beneath the breasts bloused in tartan. Her wicker basket, shawled with linen, is inevitable, a painterly counterweight on the arm. It’s filled with – bread? wine? The hiddenness is exactly that of the eyes, shadowed and staring.

I’ve accepted and acknowledged her now. So her face is always lit, and glows the more she’s held in the mind, no longer a daydream, but part of my history. Now she rises, wanders playfully across the fields, hips swaying with the calmness of one who often fords a stream every day with a basket above the head.

She always, always,  has the look of belonging to someone. At last she’s heard to say what she’s always been saying – Be what you wish to me. I once was the father, the cousin, or the lover.

She slowly turns to see if I’m following.

I can’t. Standing here, only two generations on African soil. And recognising I’m of her kind, craving openness, arms, ceremonies of holding and murmuring – the music of centuried childhoods.


My grandfather, they’d say, when he emigrated from Scotland to Africa, tailored till midnight. Whirr and purr of spinning wheels. The oil lamp flickered over hands which wrinkled with the cloth dabbed up to catch needle and thread. In my mother’s kist were still a few loose buttons he’d threaded. Until, decades later,  she had to sell it, had to move into an old age “room”.

My grandfather whipped his children hard with a belt, including my mother, for bread stolen from the kitchen in the hard times, the Thirties. (Which times are not hard for most?) His face tore with rage and grief as the children shrieked and flinched. Grace was never said. You thank me. Why is all this passed down, mouthed near ears as words?

Grandpa also sits on walls: now in photographs.

Which began in me first?

His hunched poise, hat cocked, legs dangling off the ground, glowering at the unknown photographer or at his home country so far away – or was it that wicker basket near another wall, set against the down in skirts, intimating womanly tradition and rituals?

Well, the basket gleams more tangibly. He died. Died well before he could wordlessly enter the earliest memory with pipe tobacco and grandfatherly hands.

In China

The tailor surprises me with his vintage sewing machine which surely comes from the 1950s or earlier. I imagine it must have belonged to his grandfather and was tenderly passed down from generation to generation, cherished as a breadwinner during their hard times.

And now he and I are here, in Che Fang, on some edge of Suzhou, China. He claims I am the only “foreigner” he has ever seen in Che Fang. I stand before him, waiting to get my shorts mended (a mere two RMB). He tells me this kind of sewing machine can no longer be bought. Then I ask him if it is so, that the sewing machine belonged to his family, jiaren, going way back.

“Is what so?” he asks, not always sure of my Mandarin, and me not always sure of his blend of Suzhou-hua and Mandarin. I repeat, pointing at the sewing machine, “Did this belong to your father, and before, was it his father’s and, before, perhaps even his father’s?”

Shide.” Yes. Of course, he softly replies, as if this were the nature of things: the way things can only be, and hands my mended clothing back to me.