Going Back There – Reflections on Home for Visi Magazine

celebrating my husband's birthday with my parents in their home

celebrating my husband’s birthday with my parents in their home

Ishay Govender reflects on her childhood home, the changes that make visiting difficult and the constant pull to return. (Visi Magazine asked me to contribute a column on “home”. A version of this appears in their April 2015 issue)

Each year I return to our family home that rests at the bottom of a steep road. The suburb has faded somewhat into decrepitude, similar I suppose, to many other lower middle class South African neighbourhoods. This senescence has, in part, been brought on by a generation of children who have left in search of the plusher districts our parents’ weighty sacrifices have afforded us, and the influx of those who long to own or rent a three or four bedroom house but lack any spare cash for the up-keep.

My childhood neighbourhood, generous in its wide views, as the roads shimmy up and down the hills, yet sombre with the accumulated mildew of summer rains and wet-hot humidity, has sagged under the weight of these changes. And yet, my annual homecoming to my only childhood home (apart from the first three years when we lived with my grandparents in their council home in Durban) brings with it a sense that is more than comfort. It is, for all its latent complexities, about belonging.

Visiting our parents at home carries vestiges of the bitter and the sweet. I lean on the words of Pascal Mercier in Night Train to Lisbon: “We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.”

I relive this at our whitewashed house with the sunken lounge and my Lilliputian 10 square meter bedroom. Inside the room I am seven with a growing obsession for playing shop by neatly rearranging my shelves (a passing phase, sadly), I am twelve and writing a self-conscious love letter, I am fifteen and dreaming, through angst-ridden poetry (all of it awful) of a different life.

I marvel at the flight of black stairs that leads to our front door. As a child I had considered calling our house triple-storied because of these stairs; I imagined it would make us sound like a family of stature and good standing. Perhaps the concept remained with me on a subconscious level anyhow – my own home was built up to include a second floor. (Third storeys in this neighbourhood are frowned upon.)

In the yellowing kitchen that has repaired and up-cycled the same dishwasher and oven for nearly 28 years, my mother prepares an endless feast of favourites. Her movements have slowed, and this strikes me sharply. Still, her curries, pickles and stews are made with exacting care. While we’re working, her laughter tinkles through the open kitchen door. It’s like the sound of a small bell ringing, abundant in joy and embalmed in love. I recall her always laughing heartily at our jokes, even when they were clumsy and punch line-less. Long before I owned my own home, I had deduced from her example that a house with laughter softening it, was one I wanted to come home to.

I also knew I’d like wooden floors in my own house one day. The gleaming parquet floors at home are still pleasingly cool underfoot and used to be perfect for sliding across the passage in socks as we charged after our cat in her boisterous kitten phase. I knew though, from all the effort my mother and our domestic cleaner lavished over polishing and shining it, mine would need to be a breeze to maintain. Bamboo, it turns out, is exactly that.

I sometimes imagine the same childhood, transplanted to the suburb I live in now, 1556 kilometres across the country. Here the roads are broad and flat, with a park one minute away and a family-friendly cyclist’s path. When I was eleven I would sneak up the road on my bicycle, generating a burst of power by pedalling fast from our short concrete driveway. We were forbidden from riding on the roads – there were no sidewalks, the streets bubbled and rose unevenly with umpteen cars hurtling by.

We earned our dose of ‘park time’ by walking home from school through an incline mud-path clogged with unfriendly blackjack thorn bushes, and mulberry trees that we raided for snacks. Mostly though, we played in the tiny garden that my father mowed religiously, and along the driveway, acting out scenes from Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl books and calling our mother for glasses of Nesquik.

When we pull into the driveway, usually straight from Durban airport an hour away, my eyes are drawn up the flight of black stairs, to the old door (creaky and tarnished) and the figures of my mother and father as they smile and wave. Hello, and welcome their faces say. I fight against the knowledge that in the not-too-distant future the white walls might also aquire the mildew of neglect, the steps will lose their carefully polished gleam, and the front door will remain unopened, no aromas of an elaborate lunch waiting to welcome a weary daughter. Instead, I run up the stairs and hug my father and kiss my mother, I breathe in the scent of her warm, soft cheeks (Nivea or L’Oréal face cream) and ask her what’s for lunch.

It’s taken me many years to know that there are things in me that I can find again only by going back there.


Biography: Ishay Govender is a former commercial law attorney and a freelance writer covering people-led stories about culture, travel and food. She tweets and instagrams microstories at whim, and advocates for change for Foodbank SA, Learn to Earn and other social welfare causes. Elected a M&G Top Young South African 2014

Essays Ishay Govender-Ypma