Three days ago, the oldest member of my extended family passed away. My mother’s eldest sister, Aunty Helen, passed on to the next realm on 9 June, at the age of 90. Three weeks earlier, we’d all got together to celebrate her milestone birthday. My aunt leaves behind four children, four grandchildren, and two greatgrandchildren. No matter how old you are when you lose a parent, and no matter the parent’s age, it’s a devastation like no other. I feel so sad for my cousins, Jenny, Pam, Pat and Andy Wrankmore.
In recent years, Aunty Helen’s health deteriorated, and she became like a different person. Unlike the chatterbox I’d known her to be throughout my life, she became very quiet. You could see she loved being around the family, but her days of actively participating were over, as she silently watched and listened to everything around her.
In the 1970s, my aunt played a big role in our lives, when she gave us accommodation, in the garage of their Bo Kaap home, for almost four of my high school years. We had electricity, but no running water, so we shared their bathroom. My mom used wardrobes to divide the space into a bedroom and a kitchen, and we used a plastic basin for washing up. And that’s where we stayed, until my mom could afford to rent a place somewhere else. I remember how excited my sister and I were to have a bedroom! That was in Std 9. We moved twice that year, because the first landlord was a con artist: we stayed in his place, in Wetton, without electricity and water for three months, before my mom accepted that he’d had no intention of honouring his word! People can be really despicable!
I didn’t realise it at the time, but my aunt and her family helped us through one of the toughest times our family had experienced. The interesting thing was, because my mom was such a nothing’s-gonna-get-me-down kind of person, it always felt like an adventure to me, at best, but at other times, just normal.
While we lived there, the cousins who were still in the family home became like siblings to us, and up to today, that’s a bond that can’t be broken. My cousin Andy will always feel like a brother to me; we’re the same age, and he always made me laugh with his slapstick sense of humour. My cousin Pat, was like another big sister. Even though she’s just five years my senior, I remember hanging around her, watching her get ready to go out, putting on make-up and getting all dressed up. She was a primary school teacher, and she often brought marking home. She had cool friends who were all young teachers, and I remember wanting to be just like them.
Three weeks ago, when we all gathered to celebrate Aunty Helen’s life, two of her daughters made speeches, sharing the complex emotions they felt whenever they visited their mom at the nursing home. My cousin Pam said, “’The most important thing is, even though Mom doesn’t know who we are, we know who she is.”
As my own mom, aged 88, loses her bearings in the blur of Alzheimer’s, those are words of wisdom on which I should anchor myself.
Standing, L-R: Wendy (my sis), me and Aunty Helen. Seated is my mom. Christmas Day 2010.