Before the Train Comes: One Ouma Remembers

Free State writer unpicks her Ouma’s memories one thread at a time.

For a young person it is difficult questioning the elders. But sometimes an entry point into exploring the big issues, asking tricky questions, can be as simple as watching a grandmother doing her sewing. As part of our focus on Human Rights this month we go sit with a young Free State writer as she unpicks her Ouma’s memories one thread at a time.

Across the table from me sits Ouma Isobel, as everyone calls her. Her hands work diligently to finish the stitching of a torn shirt. She is focused on the gap she is closing… in the worn piece of clothing as well as in her memories.

Ouma Isobel Pienaa (77)b

Isobel Pienaar (77) can be described as your typical white boervrou. Mother of five, she has lived this life well. Has felt the weight of the world on her shoulders. She moved from town to town during her childhood because of her father’s work. I can understand why she married a farmer. A man anchored to his land.

When I ask how she met my grandfather, my Oupa, she tells me to wait a while and finishes an intricate stitch in the shirt. I suspect that she is reliving that part of her life. The part where a girl is in love and has no cares in the world. The part where all is well with your soul.

Oupa’s mother passed away in his matric year. Shortly after the death of my great grandmother he and Ouma started dating. She was on her way to study in Pretoria. He left his father on the farm and pursued a degree at the same university she would soon attend.

After they met she says he wouldn’t even allow distance to make their hearts grow fonder. She smiles at the thought. They got engaged. She pauses and says:

“Oh dear, I can’t see the tread that well anymore”.

We sit in silence while she examines the thread. I am grateful for the bit of relief from a strand of cotton. It’s not easy interviewing your grandmother. Coaxing her to unravel the complex thread of memories. Then moving across the tapestry into difficult terrain.

“Ouma, what do you remember about Apartheid?”

She blows her nose with a floral printed handkerchief. She is one of the few people I know who still uses these dainty cotton squares. They have all but disappeared from our modern, disposable lifestyles. Hankie tucked away she measures out the pieces of the tapestry she’s prepared to share.

Her father worked in the bank. He wasn’t allowed to talk about politics in public. She never even knew what party he supported. But they talked politics around the dinner table some nights. Ouma remembers the two separate queues at the bank and post office. One for whites and the other for non-whites. I ask her if she thought it was right and fair. The answer comes with a simple finality. As a young child she thought this was the way it should be.

“It’s only when I got older that I realised”, she says.
“Realised what, Ouma?”
“That it is a good thing.”
I am puzzled.
“What is a good thing, Ouma?”
“That people be treated equally.”

I smile and relax. Just a sentence that came out all wrong. For a moment there I was fearing her response. But she reassures me that in their home they were taught to treat all people with respect.

Then she tells me of the time Oupa shot a man who worked for him on the farm. His name was Samuel.

She searches for another perfect piece of thread to match the colour of the shirt. This colour or that colour? The thread dilemma gives us both another bit of breathing space.

It was early one morning when Oupa and all his workers were working at the barn, threshing wheat. Samuel was drunk. Oupa tried to reason with him. After a long discussion, Oupa instructed Samuel to fetch his pass. Oupa intended to sign the pass book and formally sack Samuel for refusing to cooperate and for being drunk.

Samuel went home, fetched his pass and returned to the farmhouse with an “Okapi” knife. Samuel had a reputation as a troublemaker. Oupa, knowing Samuel, armed himself with his revolver before Samuel reached the house.

Then he heard a commotion outside. When he went outside Samuel came at him with the “okapi” knife. Oupa tried to fight him off. Sossie, the small Maltese poodle, barked viciously. Samuel pointed the knife at Sossie.

It was then when one of their daughters (my mother) came riding home from the fields on her horse. She jumped off when she saw the fighting. She shouted at Samuel to leave her father alone! She ran up to them. Samuel was at the point of stabbing her when Oupa grabbed his gun. Fearing for his daughter’s life, Ouma tells me, he shot Samuel.

The post mortem showed that the bullet had strangely split and traveled up the main artery and moved towards Samuel’s heart, causing his death.

Afterwards, Samuel’s wife confessed that Samuel had beat her regularly and almost killed her with his belt one day when she did not prepare his supper in time.

Then I ask Ouma about her mother, my great grandmother Constance (who’s names I have inherited). She tells me that she lived long enough to see her last grandchild born. Something very special for a grandmother. Only then it strikes me that I know nothing about this ancestor whose names I carry. I feel suddenly sad that I never met her.

Ouma’s father passed away at the age of 90. He was driving (at that age!) and did not hear the train coming as he crossed the railway on his way to his farm. One can argue that it was a tragic death. But to be able to drive around at the age of 90, is instead a celebration of longevity I think.

In recent times life on the farm has become too dangerous for two old people. Ouma and Oupa have exchanged the wide open spaces of the Free State for a tiny two-bedroom apartment in a complex with high walls in Bethlehem.

Ouma doesn’t say she’s had enough of my questions. She merely picks up the shirt and examines it closely, saying solemnly that she doesn’t know if it’s much better than it was before.

I ask her what the highlight of her life has been. The answer is instant. Her five children.

“Ouma, if you could do anything differently in your life, what would it be?”
“No my child, I would do everything exactly the same.”
“Really Ouma?”

My talk with Ouma has made me understand that the only important thing is how I live my life before… before my version of the train comes.