Sunday, August 29, 2010

my great-grandmother

This is a tribute to my great grandmother, Hester Magdalena Heyneke (neé Barnard), of the Braamfontein Barnards. She was born on the farm with the same name, now a suburb of Johannesburg on 15 January 1886 (the year the city was founded) and died on 9 November 1980 when she was 94 and I was 6.

I thought of this tribute the other evening in bed when we were settling down to sleep. I realised that the bedspread that we were lying under had to be close to, if not more than a hundred years old. My great grandmother made it by hand, using an ancient Frister-Rossman hand-and-treadmill sewing machine like the one shown in the photo. Aunt Alda called it Noah, because it was so ancient.

I have inherited two of these bedspreads, a red one which we use to disguise the dilapidated couch, and a black one under which we sleep in winter. They are lovely, heavy things that consist of a dense woolen inner part which is sewn in perfectly straight little stitches into a kind of cover, made from rough linen printed in bright colours. These are one of my favourite things. They have started falling apart in patches, but we use them still. If I remember correctly, she sewed a big tent using the same machine once. She even made authentic Voortrekkerkappies (the bonnets of my forefathers) up to the age of 85. Mother has one, so does Ilze. I must remember to show The One when we visit Mother again, and take a photo for the blog.

I admire my great grandmother tremendously. If I embellish and add on to the truth, blame my imagination. It is not done on purpose. Thanks, Mom, for knowing each and everyone of these dates by heart!

My great grandmother lived through the Boer War when she was 13, (1899-1902). If I remember correctly, she had to look after her infant siblings when the war broke out since she was the oldest daugther. Her mother was seriously ill. Her father and older brothers had gone to fight in the war. She worked in a laundry and bakery and she lost much in that war.

Later, she battled on through two world wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945). She lost a child of 11 to rheumatic fever and then gained a child when her sister-in-law died in childbirth. Her own daughter that had died, Marthie, was friends with a little girl who would later marry my grandfather and become her own daughter-in-law.

This photograph shows her and my great grandfather. On the back, in her own handwriting, it says that it was on the occasion of her 90th birthday, which was in 1976. But my great grandfather had passed away in 1971, so she must be mistaken.  Mother says it is on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1955. But she would have only been  69 years old then and I think she looks much older. I think it is shortly before his death in 1971 when she was 85. Just look at her poor old feet. I know she had many problems with her health. She died nine years after this photograph was taken if I am correct in guessing the date.

I have received the following information from a family member about the actual date of the photograph, after she had had quite a hunt for her copy of the photo: It was taken on my great-grandmother's 80th birthday, 15 January 1966, 14 years before her death and 5 years before the death of my great-grandfather.

She hated Victoria for the Boer Wars and never spoke or cared to understand English. I have got this from her, this hard-hardheadedness and resolve. I do think she admired Victoria secretly, though.

My great grandfather was 20 himself when the Boer War began and he ended up as a prisoner of war of the British Government on the island prison at Saint Helena. There is a diary / scrapbook he compiled while on the island containing many photographs and accounts of the terrible conditions they endured there. He married my great grandmother in October 1905 and they moved to Bethal, where my entire family comes from, shortly after the birth of my grandfather in 1906. My great grandfather was a corn farmer.

From her, I have also inherited my love of cooking and of good food. She was a true farmer's wife and won many awards for her cooking and baking. There is a photograph showing her in front of a table creaking under the weight of trophies she had won.

I never knew her personally since I was so young when she died. I would have loved to know her, though; I think she was an extremely interesting woman. Through my cooking and my imagination, I have become good friends with her.

Written by I
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