Grace lay in bed for days, wanting to cast her eyes on nothing else but those walls. It was as if her eyes had seen enough for three lifetimes and wanted to rest. The blank space of wall, infinitely white, became a canvas on which she could project herself and rest – it was the only thing preventing her from ripping out her hair or gouging holes into her skin. As she lay on the mattress staring at the walls, nothing came, not a single thing, to her mind. The whiteness stared back at her, overwhelming her and bleeding into her, along with the hollow light of loss and pure grief. The blankness suspended her in life when death beckoned.
If Grace could have found the energy to kill herself, she’d have done so during those days in the white room. In their utter blandness the white walls somehow kept her alive.
For whom, for what, was her grief? Her mother, yes, but also for so much more than that. What could have been – the warmth of a family; the order of mother and father as protectors and nurturers; the indestructibility of the unit; the loving home. The white space of the room erased with finality all of these possibilities.
Blanched, parched, Grace lay on the bed facing it while cursing herself; fighting against being subsumed by the enervating blankness, yet feeling held by it too.
Grace had no memory of how long she lay like that, but there came a day when Ouma entered the room, pulled her out of bed and smacked her. She swung Grace’s legs off the bed, lifted her chin with her hand and turned her piercing eyes directly onto her face.
“Your mother is dead. She’s not coming back. But you are alive,” she said. “Live!” She paused for a second to let the words sink in. “If you don’t, I will send you away to a home.”
Grace collapsed back on the bed, feeling the first flutters of a will to return in her chest. Yet she didn’t know how to take back command of her limbs and her voice.
The weight of Ouma’s expectation made its home on her chest, and she sank deeper into the bed, with eyes too heavy to open. A doctor came to see her and prescribed vitamins and rest. Grace would come out of it, in her own time. But Ouma had grown tired of her.
A week later Aunty Joan arrived. Grace had seen pictures of her, but this was the first time she remembered meeting her mother’s sister. She packed all Grace’s belongings into a weathered suitcase she had brought with her, and bundled both Grace and the suitcase into her car. Almost no words were exchanged between Joan and her mother. Whatever war raged between them came to a silent truce so that Joan could enter the house and collect Grace.
“You’re coming to live with me,” was the only thing Joan said on the five-minute drive from Ouma’s house to hers. Grace wondered why they hadn’t just walked, and later she would also wonder why Joan never visited Ouma’s house. She knew why she’d never come to Saturn Street though – Patrick had banned her from setting foot in their house. But that day in the car, with the huddled-together houses whizzing by, was not the day for questions. The answers would come only years later.
Grace walked into Aunty Joan’s two-bedroomed flat and marvelled at the sufficiency of her space. Joan had a comfortable, neat home. Art and framed photographs adorned almost every wall. Here was a young Mary framed in gold against an orange wall; there a picture of a chubby baby she recognised as herself.
There were pictures of Ouma and Oupa, and of Joan and Mary as young girls. Grace was amazed that someone she’d known so little about – they were not allowed to mention Aunty Joan’s name in front of Patrick – had traced, with photographs, a full family genealogy, Grace included, against the walls of her living room.
The frame in which Grace’s baby picture sat was embellished with delicate, lace-like flowers. It warmed her that someone had put thought into choosing a frame in which to put her image, one that matched a detail in the dress she was wearing in the picture. Aunty Joan had thought about her and had cared enough to display her image with obvious care.
Grace obeyed, and Joan disappeared into the kitchen, emerging minutes later with a slice of chocolate cake and two glasses of Oros. Grace devoured the cake feverishly, ignoring the cake fork on the plate and digging in with her hands. She licked every crumb and every scrap of icing from her fingers, something Mary would never have allowed, and surprised herself by asking for a second slice. Joan laughed quietly and told her no, she could have another piece later on, one was enough for now. They sat across from each other in silence. The suitcase stood unopened at Grace’s feet.
“I live alone,” Aunty Joan said then. “Have done for years. You’re welcome to stay – I’ve got enough space.” She gestured around the room. “But if you don’t want to, I’ll take you back to your Ouma later today.”
Grace looked around. The sun was splitting shafts of light on the wooden floor. No dirty carpets. No dirty anything. For the first time she looked at her mother’s sister directly. She looked nothing like Mary. There was the same thick, curly hair, tied back in a way Mary would never have condescended to, but other than that, nothing.
Joan wore no make-up or jewellery. Dressed in a simple cotton blouse tucked into a long skirt, she was the like a moon to Mary’s sun – she emitted a cool glow to Mary’s amped up heat and painted lips. Her eyes were softer, calmer, without those desperate, erratic flickers of light in her mother’s that Grace loved and loathed at the same time. Here was a woman who did not need to be seen, who didn’t need to have her beauty validated to feel alive.
“I will stay,” Grace declared, as if she had a choice. “I’m glad. I was hoping you would.”
They sealed the arrangement by finishing their Oros together in silence.
The first thing Joan did was buy Grace new clothes – loose shirts and pants that were easy to get in and out of and easy to clean. Grace had never been allowed to wear clothes like these at home. Joan gradually got rid of Grace’s stuffy, frumpy clothes. Mary had loved her little girl as a copy of herself, and Grace had never objected, but the high-necked chiffon blouses Mary favoured for her inevitably sent her into a hot and sweaty mess. Mary’s clothes stifled, whereas Joan’s freed her up.
Then one day Aunty Joan brought home giant strips of canvas, procured from an artist friend, along with oil paints and brushes. She moved all the furniture in the living room against one wall, and sat Grace down in the middle of the room with these supplies, giving her one command: “Paint!”
Grace tried to protest about not knowing how, but Joan assured her that it didn’t matter.
“Just paint a picture for her or about her. It doesn’t have to look like her. You know abstract art?”
Grace didn’t, and Aunty Joan explained that all she had to do was colour the page with her feelings. There needn’t be lines or recognisable shapes; Grace should let the paint take over and let the feeling of it guide her to tell a story.
“Let the colours and textures lead you. Play with them. Feel them. You don’t have to stick to the brushes. Use your fingers, your elbows, your feet, if you like.”
No one had ever told Grace to play before. She struggled to let go of herself but slowly, gradually, after weeks of Saturday afternoons sitting on the newspaper-covered floor and allowing the brush in her hand to lead her, she settled into it.
Grace relearned breathing. Week after week, her canvases lightened from sombre greys and blacks to radiant swathes of green, yellow and ochre. Is this how her Mama had felt when she’d made her paintings all those years ago? She wished she had Mary there beside her to ask. But when she got lost in this world of colour and smell, the loss of Mary felt, for moments, bearable. Gradually the moments of bearing it moved closer and closer together, like pearls on a string, until there were hours and then whole afternoons when the loss didn’t rasp at her.
She never kept the paintings, was happy to let them go off with Aunty Joan. Once they were done, Grace was happy to release them and the feelings embedded in them into the world. She didn’t feel ownership or a need to cling. She learned, without language, catharsis; a blessed release that moved things through her, and the events of that dreadful day away from her, so that Mary’s death became a part of her life without obliterating her. Joan offered little instruction during these forays onto the canvas, leaving Grace alone with the brushes and tubes.
One afternoon as she knelt beside her to help gather up the newspaper after a particularly long painting session, which Grace had started in gloom but completed with a contented glow, Aunty Joan smiled at her and said: “Never forget what you did today. You created something. Don’t ever forget that you have that inside you, the ability to create an entire universe out of nothing. I did it. You just did it. We all have it in us.”
Grace didn’t understand what Aunty Joan was on about. She had made a colour backdrop on a page and then overlayed a few squiggles on top, adding, for the first time, white paint over dried orange, and here Joan was calling it a universe. She said nothing, and because she’d loved the sound of Joan’s voice as she’d said that, smiled obligingly at her aunt.
Slowly, very slowly, under Joan’s hand Grace came back to life. Joan was not an overly affectionate woman, and never again would Grace hear the words “Grace, darling” or be covered with a multitude of butterfly kisses in a fit of affection. But nor would she be frozen out and ignored when the tide turned. Joan had an abiding calm about her, and in her presence Grace felt calm too.
On rare occasions Joan would tell stories of Mary as a child, how she loved to paint, how her eyes had an insatiable hunger for colour. Mary could take a simple geranium flower and get lost in the universe of its hues. Joan’s eyes went soft but her mouth turned down at the corners when she told such stories, and as much as Grace loved to hear them, she never pressed or asked.
She grew adept at the art of waiting for these tales. To her they were beautiful gifts that would drop from Joan’s lips at the most unexpected times. Grace would listen, breathlessly, trying to take in every word. This was the mother she had never known, as she was before Grace existed. Mary had lived independently of her and had loves and passions that had nothing to do with her. The thought saddened and enlivened Grace. In these moments she learned so about her mother that she hadn’t known.
“She told me she loved painting. I always wondered why she didn’t do that at our house.”
“Well, she was busy looking after you.” Joan was quick to defend Mary.
“She always told me how much the boys loved her.” “Yes, they did,” Joan laughed.
Tell us: What do you think of the story?