Seven years is a long time in the life of a child. In the life of a content, older person, it passes in a blink of an eye. Time is relative and affects all of us differently, in different circumstances and, by definition, isn’t stagnant. Time can flow or torture. On this, the jury changes daily.
I feel no jet lag as I awaken on a cool, winter morning in Johannesburg, in the same cottage I’d visited for the first time seven years earlier. Despite being situated several meters from the house, I can hear the sounds of grandchildren stirring, gates opening, a tea kettle keening high and low as the kitchen comes to life with sounds of sandwiches being slapped together and bowls of cereal clinking in the bustling dining room. Outside my gated doors, an insistent hadeda bird caws instructions to the gardeners, and it occurs to me that, although I now know its cry, I’ve never actually seen one.
The cottage hasn’t changed over the years, except that sometimes my daughter stores different furniture or cartons, juggling some charity project or rearranging Passover equipment. Once there was a full dining table and twelve chairs, but they are gone now, and I must remember to ask her what happened to the set. The wicker garden set is a constant, and even before I arrive, the table becomes piled with dried fruit, toddler story books and my “always” gift from my daughter’s mother-in-law, Merle: a pile of fashion magazines and dried fruit. This time she has impulsively brought a beautiful potted plant that I cannot bring back to Israel. After a moment, I realize that my visit provides an excuse for delivering a little more greenery into my daughter’s house. Both Merle and her husband, Lenny, are disappointed, I know, that I’ve come to south Africa alone as they both are eager to meet my South African husband. I’ve promised everyone, “Next time.”
He sent me off alone, knowing better than everyone that I needed to be with my two married daughters and be a Grandma. That I needed to “do lunches” and read stories and give baths and bake Shabbas treats. That I needed to accompany obstetrician visits and shop for infant supplies for the soon-to-be-born babies. And for my unmarried “baby” who just began university in Jo’burg, I had to visit the school, meet the instructors and have some back-and-forth in the financial office. My husband barely knows my daughters, and, yet, he knew better that I did that the three girls living in South Africa need their Mommy.
And in his wisdom, he knew that even more, Mommy needed her daughters. He understood that if he came with me, I’d constantly feel torn, trying to ensure meaningful activity to his trip while squeezing in time with the girls. He knew that I’d end up feeling frustrated, embarrassed and sad. “No,” he insisted, “this is your time.”
I am calm in South Africa. The sounds on the street are muffled, and the parks and public areas seem eerily empty. The women appear unharried and, occasionally, I feel intimidated by the manicured nails, coiffed hair, dulcet voices and curious obliviousness to electric fences, high walls and newspaper headlines that scream of another night of violence. After a few days, I am also relaxed and oblivious. My nails are also lacquered, and I saunter instead of speed-walk; it would be good for me to bring a little “South Africa” back to Israel with me, if only to delay the onset of anxiety that seems to be part of life in the Holy Land.
Except for a vibrant night-club culture, everything shuts down early in Johannesburg because – it is no secret – the night turns dangerous. In the homes of all three daughters, there are no televisions, and lights are out at approximately 9:30 p.m. I am not used to sleeping so early, and this is the time when I feel I am on vacation. I read. I write. Some late nights, when the weather is mild and windows open, I listen to my rabbi son-in-law teaching a class in Torah or marital obligations from the synagogue that adjoins their house. Something about listening to his classes in this manner feels a little clandestine; still, it leaves me feeling both spiritually elevated and terribly proud.
This is my fourth visit to Johannesburg, and I will not go on safari again until my husband comes with me. Over the years, I have collected enough tribal pottery and wooden bowls to open a small ethnocentric shop in Jerusalem’s Machne Yehuda souk. There is no need for me to, again, hit some of the funkier nightspots and have my face painted in Zulu warpaint while sipping margaritas. My job is to accompany car pool jaunts, fill freezers and pantries with goodies, add musical levity to the Sabbath table, wipe runny noses and tell stories about my daughters’ childhoods.
The most important part of my job in South Africa is what I should not do: Cry when I leave. To remind myself that it is okay if the babies grow bigger, taller, quieter, more reflective, surlier, giddier, more inquisitive or less interested in me and my tales. To realize that “time” merely exists and it is not mine to manipulate. That it must be respected and used and that I cannot place demands on the lives of those I love. After all, should a baby “freeze” in his infancy because he smells sweet and gazes adoringly? God forbid. He must grow up and grasp the gifts that await, even if his Grandma won’t be there to see him take those first teetering steps or, possibly, miss a high-school graduation.