2011: WHERE IS HOME: Figment of the Imagination and Other Contradictions

How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. So far, so much between, you can never go home again. You can go home, it's good to go home, but you never really get all the way home again in your life.    --James Agee, A Death in the Family

We have made our lives far way from our small city, but we just can’t get used to being away from it, and we like to nurture our nostalgia when it has been a while since we’ve been back, so sometimes we exaggerate our accent when talking among ourselves, and use the common words and expressions that we’ve been storing up over the years and that our children can vaguely understand from having heard them so often.  --Antonio Molina, Sepharad

The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness. -- A. F. G Bell, In Portugal (1912)

Where thou art - that - is Home.  -- Emily Dickinson

It was May 6th, a late Friday afternoon, and exactly three months after I arrived in South Africa.  The three months that had stretched ahead so invitingly when I got off the plane, had flown by even though day by day they had seemed endless.


Now I was on the way to the Johannesburg airport with John, who had joined me for the last few weeks.  For the past six days we were based in Pretoria, the city that provided the bookends to my trip. My anxiety, sadness and sorrow about leaving sent me into something of a panic. Did I have enough material?  Could I really write this darn book? What did I have to say that made the project worthwhile? Was I exposing my inner self too much? What actually did I do those three months? My emotions rippled up and down from my center to a tightening of my throat, teasing me, scaring me, discordant.


I am sitting next to John who joined me for the last few weeks as I look out the window at the open veld.

The wavy brown grass, shrubby trees, horizon far in the distance, so familiar to me from my stays in southern Africa. I find myself edging away from him, turning my shoulders so that my back is towards him - my green-carded Canadian partner, who at this moment represents where we are heading. I don’t want to think about it, not yet.

Open Veld, North West Province

This is my private communion with my country that I am already yearning for before I have left it. I gaze and absorb. Words, unbidden enter my mind, prick like barbs: “I love this country! love this country!”

Why am I this affected I wonder as my seemingly incurable sentimental self gives way to teariness?

After all, I have lived in the US, mostly in and around New York, for more than forty years. This is close to double my life in South Africa and yet I could never be moved to say about my adopted country: “I love this country” or even “I love this city”.

New York City from New Jersey: Murkier, and not Table Mountain!

But neither had I felt this way on previous visits to South Africa, which have been fairly regular since 1991.  On those trips I was not there to finish gathering material for a book. I was not there to purposely immerse myself in memories, to conjure up an earlier life, to expose myself to current times. Cape Town insinuated itself into me, jarring forgotten senses – smell, taste, sight – as well as buried memories – that reconnected synapses I had thought were severed forever.

Why was I so affected - even as John and I were creatively hatching plans to return regularly and for longer periods?

Setting sun from above Camps Bay, over the Atlantic Ocean

One thought begins to surface. Was I harking back to the twenty-three and a half year old self that left without saying goodbye? I had told myself I wanted to leave. I had told myself I had no reservations. I was white and privileged. It was impossible NOT to benefit from apartheid. My skin was an undetachable badge that declared that the apartheid government had made sure that everything in the country would be, for years to come, geared to my comfort and privilege. As I could not change my skin color to match that of 90 percent of the South African population, I was doomed to accept much of that privilege, like it or not.  I didn’t like it, so the only option, or so it seemed at the time, was to leave. I had trouble envisioning staying once the organization I worked for was banned, once political activity had become dormant. After all, once outside I could join the vibrant and growing anti-apartheid movement and make a contribution that way. And leaving wouldn’t matter.

Or so I told myself.

Sky during sunset from St. James, Indian Ocean

I followed the man I married the day before we left Cape Town for the United States. He had a scholarship to study for a PhD in Physics. He did not intend to return. No future in physics in South Africa, especially not in his particular field. 

I left and I did not consciously say goodbye. 

Although I left with a passport, in one respect I was like other exiles who left with one-way permits or fled across the border ahead of their own arrests or deaths, I did not know when I would be able to return. The beauty or South Africa, combined with the horrendous and brutalizing political system, made it impossible for most South Africans to let go. The country I called home and then left, had planted a seed within me that grew taut like an indestructible vine, unyielding to stimuli from outside as I became integrated in New York and US life and culture.

They might have a home, but they don't have a house! Protests before the municipal elections were a common aspect of Cape Town life.

Now, after days and weeks and months that flowed into one another, during which I felt that Cape Town and South Africa began to once more take on the familiarity of home, I am saying goodbye. This time it is wrenched, not because I was once again leaving home. It was due in large part to finally having to acknowledge that while I might not regard the US or the town I live in as my emotional home, I could no longer claim South Africa to be 'Home' with a capital 'H'. But at the same time memory, physical recognition of place and space, tentacles that bind, years of nostalgia, years of longing for more permanent reconnections, all conspired to keep me linked in a visceral way even if I had to give up on the idea that South Africa was still home.

Home is not, I have come to reflect, a very useful concept. It covers far too much ground. We will say flippantly that we are going home, wherever we happen to be staying, for a short while, a longer while, or a long time. “Are you home for supper?” or “What time are you coming home?”, I find myself asking friends who are staying at our house, be it for a few days or a few weeks.

I smile at the immigration official, if a little wanly, as he says “Welcome Home” and hands me back my US passport at Newark Airport.  Home?

And when, years past, I spent a long evening over Chinese food and wine and green tea with a new South African friend obsessing about South Africa and he asked: “When are you going home, Steph?”, I knew he was referring to South Africa and not my New York apartment in Washington Heights.

Or more recently, having dinner with two young black women in Cape Town, one the daughter of a coloured friend, one her friend from university who is African, I delight in their talk and ebullience, in their South African-ness . When they talk about South Africa there is anger and pain but also an acknowledgement that this is where they want to be. There is also pride when they list many of South Africa’s assets. After they regale me with stories about their visit to New York in the middle of winter, a city they obviously enjoyed, I ask them whether they ever think of leaving South Africa. No, they say, their voices assured, no hint of doubt. They love their country. They would like to travel and live elsewhere for a while, yes, that would be good, but South Africa is their country. They have no desire to live elsewhere.


Then there is the police officer who flags me down at 11:30 on the Main Road in Claremont where I am happily driving my zippy Yaris rental car on my way "home" to my cousin in Tamboerskloof after dinner with friends. At first I am hesitant. I can’t see who is behind the flashlights that are being waved up and down to signal me to stop. Do I stop or drive on? I am aware that the Main Road is not the safest road to drive on at this time of night but having overshot the exit to De Waal Drive I am heading for the next one. Should I just ride on and not stop as I have been often advised in situations such as this?  I slow down as I get closer and see the police car. I stop. A young white policemen, Afrikaans, trim, minus the swagger that I associate with policemen in the US, walks over and says with a friendly smile that it is a routine check. He asks for my license. I hand him my New Jersey one. 

 "Ah, New Jersey," he says as if he sees one of these on a regular basis. I tell him I am from Cape Town. “Good!” he responds, “South Africa is The Best!”


I interview Jean Marie Nkurunziza, an impressive young man who is working on gender justice issues with refugees in South Africa. He says at the beginning of the interview: “I am a Burundian by birth, an African by nationality.”

Home - he knows what it means to him.

I have come to the conclusion, a conclusion that I did not anticipate when I left for my three-month stay in South Africa, that in point of fact I have no home. Is it a figment of my imagination and that’s why I can’t find it? 

As the idea takes hold, I like it. It is freeing. It provides a sense of maturity and security. I am no longing seeking something too elusive to capture. It can be anywhere. I feel best where I have a community. And I have a number of them. Some bigger, with deeper roots. Somewhere I visit for short occasions and feel “at home” because of friends there that welcome me. And South Africa (more than Cape Town) where I am drawn back by a strong thread, resists letting go when I leave.


 Tree in front of our house in New Jersey in February, the day before I left for Cape Town

The same tree in bloom (white lacey blossoms against Rhododendrums) when I arrive back

Home is Montclair where I live in our family house where my daughter was raised. Home was England, to a lesser degree, for some twenty years, where first my parents, then my mother lived until they died, after leaving South Africa in the same year I did.

In the 1980's in northern Mozambique, I walked in the early evening with Anastasia my interpreter along a narrow dirt road that led out of the small village we were visiting. The African veld stretched away from us every which way in the receding light; the smell of fires, the sounds of birds in the calling in the stillness, the voices and activities of homestead life drifting towards us. It was a blissful walk, as we continued our ongoing conversation about what was happening to women after independence. A young man bicycling along the road dismounted when he reached us and walked alongside a little way, pushing his bike. He was curious about this white woman in his village, clearly not a common occurrence. Anastasia explained to him in Portuguese who I was.

“Aha!” he responded, obviously pleased. “A Internationalista!!!”

Many years later I still like that designation: Internationalist. I care about the world. The world is my home. 

Which is not to say that when I think of "home,” I think of the world. South Africa is what comes to mind when I am feeling nostalgic. Montclair and the US when I am in practical mode. I have no single place to identify as home.   Nonetheless, South Africa  tugs on my emotions; the feelings it generates about space and place are rope-strong. No other place comes close.

Breakfast on my last day in Cape Town in The Gardens with Sindiswa and Kate

An untranslatable Portuguese word captures the feelings about home better than any English word: Saudade. “Not an active discontent or poignant sadness but a ... dreaming wistfulness.” Am I destined to feel this way about South Africa, whether it is home or not? I don’t really know.

I smiled when I saw the subject line on an email from my cousin in Cape Town a few days ago: “Homingl”. I am not sure what she meant by this typo. In my mind I added an ‘e’ and a new word was formed,   "Homingle”. The mingling of many homes and connections and threads that tie me to places at different levels of flexibility, depending on where I am at that moment, both physically and emotionally.

Home. Africa. The World.

Yes, that feels right.

And yet I know when someone says to me “When are you going home again?” or “Do you miss home?”, it will refer to South Africa. No other place comes close.  It's more about feelings, than reality.  And when it comes to saudade, feelings trump.

And yet, and yet.... as I write this at my desk in Montclair, as I read emails from friends in South Africa relating how cold it is, and know too that I am comfortable here in my skin.  I know the place so well.  Friends abound.

Perhaps it is as simple as Emily Dickinson declares:  Where we are, that is home.


African Penguins

Boulders Beach, Cape Town: No doubt they know where home is: their community

I want to be alone...  home or not, let me outta there!

2011 Back in Cape Town: The memory of a childhood peach.


                                         Smells are surer than sounds or sights
                                          To make your heart-strings crack—

                                                      - Rudyard Kipling, Lichtenberg

I bite into a small, perfectly ripe, imperfectly rounded, soft, furry skinned, orange – really orange - peach.

It is a few days after arriving in Cape Town, settling in, which means organizing my new workspace in my cousin Gillian’s house close to the mountain above the city, beginning to contact friends, and generally getting ready for writing.  I am still in awe of the view of the glorious mountain in all its moods from every vantage point that her house and garden presents, when I casually pick up a peach from the fruit bowl on Gill’s kitchen table.  In the two-inch thick large flat-ish weathered bowl, four peaches rub up against other fruit: bananas, plums, avocadoes, mangoes, pineapples.

These other fruits are, it must be said, delicious.  However they are not that far from the league that can be found elsewhere and so they evoke and provoke little.  

Bananas I have eaten in America were perhaps not quite as dense in taste or texture, but if their flavor evokes anything it is probably America where the banana is the most popular fruit.  

Plums which drip as I eat them are sweeter and riper, for sure, but while they provoke some memories of a Cape Town childhood, they compete with plums I picked from a tree that grew in the garden of a house in the Catskills,  New York that I once shared with South African friends.    

Mangoes - well frankly, there is nothing to beat the fleshy, creamy, golden mangoes, large as babies’ heads,  that I have eaten in West Africa.  Now there’s a mango!

And the little undersized pineapple?  No contest with the enormous Abacaxi I encountered in northern Mozambique which women sold from high piles along the side of the road we drove on.  They were so heavy and ripe that even before I could cut through their thick, thorny skin to be cored and sliced,  juice had oozed and collected in a large puddle on the plate by virtue of their very weight.  

It not being Avo season the ones in the fruit bowl hail from Spain or Latin America and are no better, no worse than those I buy in Montclair and leave to ripen in a brown paper bag in a dark kitchen cupboard.  And not that much cheaper either.

As for the chunks of watermelon I tasted on a friend’s St. James’ veranda overlooking the vast sapphire sea?  Not up to the flavor, color or texture of the height of the season summer watermelons in the US.  

But then I pick up a peach, nestling innocently among the other fruit.  It is smaller and rounder than the New Jersey peaches that come into season for five or six weeks during the summer, and which I buy in small amounts at the local Saturday farmer’s market.  There is a window of what seems like a mere 60 minutes before peaches transform themselves from too hard to too soft to frot.  If you don’t eat them at precisely the right moment, they are destined to join the organic scraps heading for the compost heap.  If you manage to, they were, I thought, pretty delicious.

Or so I thought before I bit into my first Cape peach. 


Like the swelling, cresting and crashing of a wave after a calm, shallow sea I am engulfed.

With this one sensual taste, I am home.

I can’t describe taste.  It is way beyond my literary powers. But although recognizable as a peach, it is essence of peach, just as perfume is essence of the flower it is extracted from; just as a dab of perfume amplifies and is absorbed by the weightlessness of air as it ripples outwards until it can fill a whole room when the wearer steps into it, so the taste enters my head and expands there, to flow over my mind and release dormant memories.  

I relish it bite by slow bite, until only the pit is left.  I help myself to a second. This time I cut it in half and then in quarters, and then eighths removing the pit which leaves behind a deep rose-red creviced imprint in the orange flesh.  I bite into each section savoring each one and chewing  thoughtfully. 

I remember...

The feel of sun on skin, salt on skin,  leaving a white residue, wet sand clinging to feet and ankles and shins which when dry turns crusty and has to be vigorously toweled off.  The pinched painful sun burnt  shoulders, chests, backs and glowing cheeks.  The smell of calamine lotion slathered pink onto sensitive skin, unable to sleep under even a sheet.

Sundays at the beach. The packing of a picnic lunch into a wicker picnic suit case.  Roast chicken, boiled eggs, tomatoes, cut up carrots and cucumbers, salt wrapped in squares of grease proof paper  twisted at each end, bottles of water that will be too warm to drink, plates and alloy cutlery strapped criss-cross inside the lid of the case.  Then placed into the boot of the car with towels and an old table cloth and folding chairs.  The drive to Muizenberg.  No seat belts, my sister and I in the back seat, perhaps one of us with a friend in our black Citroen with the spare wheel held in place by metal casing the shape of the wheel, driving at 30 or 40 miles per hour.  It was a trek

The buying of watermelons. On Prince George’s Drive, my father pulls over in front of young men selling them at the side of the road.  He unfurls his long frame from the car and teases and jokes in his not too fluent Afrikaans, and is teased back.  Then he selects one of the large melons from the high dark green pyramid.  First he scrapes a spot on the rind.  If it marks easily he  rests the heavy melon on top of his head, and jerks his hands downwards.  If it cracks an inch or less it is deemed ripe enough to buy.  If not, it is returned to the pile and another selected.  “Try that one, Daddy!” I dance around and insist, delighted when “my” one is chosen.  Later, spread out on towels  on the beach, my father cuts it with a large bread knife brought along for the purpose and we hold the triangular slices by the rind, and devour the deep red, juicy flesh while trying to shield it from the wind’s determined effort to spoil the pleasure by insinuating fine white sand.

Tea at Kirstenbosch. Scones and apricot jam and thick cream. Milkshakes from synthetic flavoring and coloring. Pale green peppermint my definite favorite.  Large lawns to run on.  Stone steps to climb amongst Proteas and indigenous bushes up the sides of the mountain towering above us.  Lady Ann Barnard’s deep, clear bath shaped like a bird, in amongst different species of ferns and other shade plants, the sound of water trickling into and out of it.

The large sloping lawn outside the house I live in in Mowbray until I turn eight.  Rolling down the slopes, arms tucked under chests. Playing catch.  Making  tents with kitchen chairs upside down and blankets draped over for the roof.  Tea carried out to me and friends on a tray by our domestic to drink in cups with saucers in the coziness, cut off from the whole world. Bread and jam cut in triangles.  Sometimes Oros orange squash in plastic glasses tinkling with ice.  

Playing on these lawns on a sunny Saturday morning with coloured children my age and younger who have come with their father for legal advice from my father.  I fill two paper bags with toys on appreciating that they have none, and my six year old arms each grasping a bag I head back to the lawn from my bedroom.  

Stopped by my mother.  “What are you doing?”  “I want to give toys to my friends”.  “Absolutely not.  Take them back to your room”. Her voice is unsympathetic.  I do.  All of them.  My good deed thwarted.  Me crestfallen.

What other city boasts a mountain up to the heavens?  Always taking care, mother mountain, as if it could protect us from all things untoward. 

But it doesn't.

Suburbs nestled around it.  Streets running through the city right up to it.  Craggy and rocky, layers of rock, and its flat, flat top. Small cable car miraculously ascending.  Clinging to my mother‘s hand, sure it won’t make it. My father’s fear that we wouldn’t was real enough to keep him down below. Windy up there, walking along the paths and smiling at the cute dassies, who look something like prehistoric rabbits.  From the top we see the flat, sandy, Cape Flats, inhospitable terrain for those who work in Cape Town and are the source of my privilege.  But I am yet to understand this.

Later when older, climbing that mountain, up and up along windy paths, balancing on rocks, but never attempting the really tough, challenging climbs that Cape Town mountain climbers revel in.  One memorable time with a cousin leading the way.  Only understanding the importance of making sure one’s toe nails are cut when making the long descent,  toes jammed up against the front of my shoes, until I finally, painfully reached the bottom with bruised toes and blood seeping out of a big toe.

The peach talks to me of warmth, and sea, and long beaches, and lush flora, and easy living, and sturdy, comfortable houses, kept dustless and shining by domestic workers whose families lived back in the Transkei are looked after by sisters and mothers while they take care of me.

The contrasts dawn on me slowly.  My childhood interprets my surroundings through lenses that present it as normal.  As much as my parents rail against apartheid and my father bores his advocate friend with 18 hole lectures in Trotskyism during their Wednesday afternoon golf, for me what I see around me as a child, in keeping with South African with what other white children absorb, seems to present life as it is.  Not life as it should be. 

Who picked the peaches of my childhood and adolescence?  Who packed those peaches so that they arrived in stores unbruised? Who could afford to buy them and place them in large bowls on tables in scrubbed and shiny kitchens, in such abundance that a child walking by could grab one without stopping and eat it as she (I) went about her life of privilege and ease.

With each slow dawning moment of understanding of what apartheid means to those who are roped and chained in by it, I feel a wave of shock.  It is increasingly emotional and increasingly painful so that anger seethes below my surface and bursts.  

Once in New York I will build on my anger and hatred of apartheid and get to know the finer details of how apartheid functions, and how it essentially exists to control a cheap labor force.  I will devour banned books. I will meet exiles and connect with the anti-apartheid and anti-colonial struggles.  I will begin to channel (but not lose) the emotional response into anti-apartheid and anti-imperialism activism in the United States.

I will begin to channel (but not lose) the emotional response into anti-apartheid and anti-imperialism activism in the United States.

And in so doing I will lose the taste of the Cape peach.

And now after apartheid is no more and I am back in Cape Town, I have found it again.