I could probably count the amount of times I have hugged or even touched my Grandfather. When I say count I’m talking about on one hand, a single figure situation. We shared love, we shared a surname but intimacy was never something that I could feel from him.
My grandfather died a few years ago. I had just turned 23, or maybe it was 22. I sang at his funeral, a song that I had sung at Christmas the year before. I remember that day well. I sang while my family listened. When I stopped my mkhulu sang back to me, a seemingly random children’s nursery rhyme that I had never heard and that had nothing in connection with what I had sung.
I stood in front of my family, puzzled. My gogo and her two daughters, one of them my mom, burst into floods of laughter and with them my mkhulu. He laughed and laughed. A sound that I had never heard and if I had, I could not remember the day that the event took place. It was a beautiful dry, but full sound. A warm, soft sound. A sound that had I ever been asked, I would not have said he could produce.
This laugh is a sound that sits right in the centre of my heart. I hold it like a gift, a memory that my mkhulu left with me. He did not leave me many things. A car, a laugh and a mouthful of questions. A mouth so full of questions. Too full. I wake up with jaw ache some nights and massage my face in order to bring sleep back.
Everything that I know about Adrianus, aka Atti, I learned from other people. My gogo and her 3 children tell the best stories. Stories of a man with a back so straight and tall it hurt my neck to look at all of it. They told me their stories, their memories. Story after story of a quiet man, a man of few words, a man who would do anything for his family and who cared for people. They told me stories of a man who was logical and precise, a man who was calm and calculated.
When I was old enough and brave enough, + – 5 years old I whispered into my mommy’s ear and asked her to ask her dad, my mkhulu, if I could have my first hug? My mother looked into my hazel, dark brown eyes with her amber, golden yellow eyes and told me to ask him myself. I was too afraid to ask, so instead I just went in and wrapped my arms around his skyscraper frame.
It was all so strange and foreign. He felt so hard and sinewy. My soft face pushed against his flat hard chest. My little hands squeezed at his brick-like shoulders. I held on for a moment longer. I waited for him to fold into me. He did not. He never did. I learned in later years that he never had.
I grew up absolutely fascinated by this man. He was the oldest, tallest, whitest, grey-est, slowest most quiet person that I had ever had the pleasure of not really knowing. I learned in my late teens that he too had questions about me. My mkhulu wanted to know if I would turn out like a black? My mkhulu was so worried that his oldest daughter would love and raise and fall in love with a child that would ultimately grow up to be a person that she could not communicate or live with.
My mkhulu died at a time in my life when I was not quite ready or brave enough to empty my mouthful of questions. Now all I can do is remember the man as he was to me, tall, silent, white, old and elusive. I now have my own stories to share, my own memories to tell. My story begins with a man whose life I changed before I even knew I was in existence.