On my 15 inch laptop screen the FaceTime picture transmits a fuzzy resolution and tinny sound, streaming a conversation from my kitchen in a Liverpool suburb to my parents’ kitchen table in Pretoria, South Africa.
My mother’s right hand and forearm bound in white bandages, her thumb at an awkward angle from the stitches. Her eyes are a weary-grey and not the usual hazel-green. She looks up to my father who is standing behind her at the kitchen counter and tells him off for not whisking the milk tart ingredients in exactly the way (which is the best way that she has perfected over time) that she would do it. She has to make a milk tart tonight but she can’t do anything with her hand, so has no choice but to sit and give instructions.
And this is all because my father was away for a work trip two days ago and she had forgotten to close a window in her study that night. Leaving windows open at night is not a thing that South Africans do. Because if she hadn’t done that, the cat wouldn’t have ventured so arrogantly into her bedroom and sat on her dressing table, diagonally opposite the bed in such a way that my mother sensed a presence in the room just after 5am as the first rays of sun started coming through the spring-green fig leaves outside her bedroom window, making their way through the net curtains, lighting up all the reflective surfaces in the room. As my mother lay there alone in the bed, she woke up to the realisation that she was probably going to die that morning. Because if there’s somebody uninvited in your house in South Africa that’s often what it means.
A thought like an icy punch to the abdomen. Eyes unfocused and sleep disorientated, she decided to go down fighting and lashed out screaming at the nondescript shadow lurking to her right. The cat had not expected its intrusion to be met with such intensity and it responded in fury, lurching scratching, biting, cutting flesh, soft tissue, muscle, attaching itself to my mother’s right arm in a screeching feral rage. What followed was a scene from a horror-film as she ran through the house with the cat not letting go of her arm: blood pouring as it hacked away at her paper-thin skin while she staggered to the front door unable to disarm the alarm, its siren piercing the air, desperately looking for an exit for the cat so it could release itself. By the time she reached the kitchen the cat had spotted its exit route and bolted through a tiny window with a sheer four metre drop.
“It thought it died when it fell,” she says. “I was scared to look because I expected to find it at the bottom with a broken back and open dead eyes, but it was gone”.
It had been too dangerous to drive alone so early, so she waited for an hour, shaking but alive, mopping up the bloodied floors, before driving with her hand in a towel and plastic bag to the emergency room. Then sutures, a tetanus shot, industrial-strength painkillers and a warning that she could lose the use of her thumb, but time would tell. At the reception desk, she had asked if she could sit while they processed her payment, the indifferent receptionist had looked up blankly. Feeling weak she started sinking into the nearest chair, looking down at the last minute to see a cat on the seat underneath her. Startled, it had run away – while my mother contemplated the chances of lightning striking twice and wondering how the hell a cat had gotten into a private medical clinic in the first place.
Finally the tart is in the oven, the timer has been set and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. It was Heritage Day in South Africa this week and tomorrow is Sunday, so everyone at their church will be celebrating their cultures. People will show up in the tribal finery, their family lines pouring from the TshiVenda, isiZulu, isiXhosa, Sepedi, Setswana, Sesotho, isiNdebele, siSwati and Tsonga traditions – resplendent in colourful pride.
My mother says flippantly the only thing she is proud of about being Afrikaans is milk tart. The way she makes it is not the typical version with delicate Marie-biscuit crust and creamy white cinnamon-dusted filling. The kind you see displayed in tuisnywerheid* windows next to vetkoek filled with finely sliced biltong. The kind that was standard fare at the church bazaars of her youth to which she was dragged reluctantly as her mother (my ouma) paraded around as the dominee’s** wife, enjoying her society status a little too much.
No, my mother bakes her milk tarts and they emerge from the oven with a golden fluffy texture drenched in the aroma of vanilla. Its eggy-sugary warmth can cure all manner of ailments, even heartache.
I think about my mother’s bony hand under those white dressings. Freckled, with thick veins bulging kept pristinely moisturised to counteract the years of washing her own floors because she refused to be a miesies*** and hire a domestic worker. I have inherited those bony hands, but I’ve always thought my skin is thicker – until now.
And tomorrow amidst the ‘rainbow’ nation my mother will carry to the table her humble and untraditional milk tart with her bandaged hand, whisked incorrectly by my father. But I think she has a lot more to be proud of than that.
*home industry store
**Church minister in the Dutch Reformed Church
***term used a domestic worker to address a white Afrikaans woman