In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1957 masterpiece Witness for the Prosecution, Marlene Dietrich husks out the song I May Never Go Home Anymore- she couldn’t sing for toffee but she could certainly deliver in an inimitably sexy style.
It was a superb film, based on an Agatha Christie play, and it’s surprising that unlike her 1939 variant on the Locked Room mystery “Ten Little Niggers” – subsequently published under more p.c. titles – the play has been filmed only once. But I am not writing about films or authors, but about what makes ‘Home’ home.
I moved to Grahamstown from the Reef when I was three, and remained there on and off before finally moving north at the age of 31, although I returned several times a year to visit my parents. It was a wrench when they sold the family home after 40 years – the grounds were too big and there were just too many rooms – but we liked the cottage they moved to.
When my mother died shortly after my father, everything changed. I realised it wasn’t the house in which I had grown up or the streets I knew so well that made Grahamstown ‘home’, even after 22 years in Gauteng; it was my mother. Without her, the town was simply a place she had been, and was no longer.
About five weeks after mummy’s funeral, my Joburg daughter, her boyfriend, and I went back to Grahamstown to clear my her cottage: we fetched my sister from Kimberley, and met up with my best friend, her family, my brother – who lives in Grahamstown – his family, and some of my mother’s oldest and closest friends.
It was probably one of the most miserable weeks of my life: both my siblings were there, both my daughters were there, my oldest friends were there, and the women who were so close to my mother they were extended family were there. But my mother was not there.
I learned that Home is not the place but the people: the big, water-drenched skies, the excessively wide streets, and the picture perfect Victorian and Edwardian houses simply made me sad. I couldn’t even think of the town without feeling sad.
The Grahamstown Festival began in the mid 70s – was it ’74 or 75? – and I was part of it. Guy Butler’s play Take Root or Die was the main inaugural offering, and the cast performed a special tableau-type performance when the Festival was officially opened. And I was there, up at the Settlers’ Monument, in a cap and an unflattering costume my mother had sewn for me.
The only festival I missed was in 1981; other than that, I attended every one of them – until my mother’s death in 2013. We were in my mum’s cottage after she died, visiting galleries and craft fairs and attending performances, but it was heartbreaking and I realised, walking across the fields near my parents’ house, I could never go home anymore.
When I was retrenched, my brother invited me to stay with his family in Grahamstown: he offered to pay my bus fare and to put me up and everything. But much as I wanted to see them, the idea of visiting my parents’ town was distressing: I didn’t think I could cope with that, coming on top of retrenchment.
But when my daughter came to South Africa from Vietnam for a few weeks, we had a mini road trip down to the Eastern Cape and took my brother up on his offer: Kroonstad, Bloemfontein, the Gariep Dam, Cradock, Bedford – all steps on the route we took so often to visit my parents.
I expected to be miserable: but things had changed and the journey was no longer familiar – the road was now excellent, there were wind farms, the countryside was as lush and green as an Irish estate – and my brother and his wife were wonderfully friendly and welcoming.
I had expected to spend my Grahamstown visit crying myself to sleep every night: instead I relaxed in a cocoon of kindness and generosity. Staying with a happy family who were also my family made all the difference, and far from being a weepy and melancholic journey down memory lane, we had a wonderful holiday.
I may never go home anymore, it’s true – not to that childhood home: but as we become the oldest generation ourselves, our definitions of home have to change too. Now ‘home’ is where there is love and acceptance and shared memories, home is family and old friends, home is – please excuse the terrible cliche – where the heart it.