Go somewhere new every day. That’s what the Dali Lama says. Or is it every week, every month, once a year? And was it someone else who said that? I’ve never been to what was once the Bowling Green in Clissold Park; it’s now a kind of dog-free picnic zone with the pavilion still there. The pavilion is an Education Centre, though I’m not sure it’s open yet. Today it was closed. Everything was closed. It’s been raining on and off for the past twenty-four hours.
My grandmother played bowls. Rachel (Rae) Levin, née Klein, was a keen bowler. I think she might even have played for Eastern Province. I know my grandfather did; when he was younger, he played rugby for the province. The story goes that he was meant to play for the Springboks, but his brother said there wasn’t enough money for him to join the overseas tour and that was the end of that. My grandmother played tennis. Bowls came later.
The Summerwood Bowling Club was not far from where we lived on Jenvey Road and was just up the road from my grandparent’s house on Brighton Drive (or was it Bognor Street?). In those days, until I was about ten, my world was Summerstrand. Everyone I knew lived within walking distance, except my sister, my father’s daughter from his first wife, who lived with her mother in Cape Town. That was about as exotic as it got. And she ate bacon, which was unthinkable in our house. My cousins from Johannesburg came to visit, although I don’t have memories of that.
So, why my grandmother? Why today? That’s what I was thinking as I cycled to the Park to shelter from the rain and write about the bowling green that was. It’s Yom Kippur today, and my strongest memories of those solemn days of prayer, once a year, a full day in shul, with only an hour or two to rest in the afternoon. That siesta was spent at my grandparent’s house, the closest place there was to the synagogue, The Summerstrand Hebrew Congregation. We must have moved by then to Humewood and stayed away from home all day, right up until the breaking of the fast.
I was fasting by then so it must have been just before or just after my bar mitzvah, and it might – because this is what memory does, duplicates and triplicates one-off experiences – only have happened once, because by the time I was fifteen, we’d left South Africa. We left in the summer, before the High Holy Days, before I could spend the second Yom Kippur in South Africa as one who’d been initiated into manhood.
My cousin M and I would take a bed each in the guest room at the back of the house, two beds pushed against opposite walls, beds that my grandmother’s sisters from Bloemfontein would have slept in when they came to visit. We’d page through my grandmother’s cookery magazines, housekeeping magazines, and show each other pictures of elaborate dishes, the way some teenage boys might paw through porn, shouting out at each other: “Check this out! I want that!”
The house was a place of mystery, of smells and secrets, objects that could spring to life, cupboards that hid homemade fudge and freshly dried biltong, a polished piano on which my grandfather would belt out boere liedjies, tobacco containers, intricately carved wooden canisters, distorted faces all the way round, empty of tobacco but rich with its sweet smell, as if that was what the wood smelt like. And there was my grandmother’s mustard-coloured tin in the kitchen, from which she would take tablespoonfuls of its brown granules, a fibre – that’s what it must have been – to encourage the movement of her bowels.
I’ve been reading Greg Bottom’s book Fight Scenes. He’s one of the great creative non-fiction writers. His work is lyrical and raw and elegantly composed. Another book of his, Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks is one of the rare books I go back to, over and again. The time he writes about in Fight Scenes is the time I’m writing about now, and my remembering is because I’m reading him. Good books take you to places you’ve never been to before, or haven’t been to in a long time. Stories generate stories. My grandparent’s house, the bowling club, the breaking of the fast.
By the time I knew my grandfather, he no longer drank alcohol, not even a sip of kiddish wine on Friday, not even a finger of Scotch to break the fast. We all broke the fast on a cocktail of milk and soda water. There was nothing pleasant about it, but it was what you drank if you’d fasted, and that made it a badge of honour, a medal, something earned, the first thing you sipped when you reached the other side.
On my way out of the enclosure, walking towards the bridge and the water and the path that leads to Pump House Gate, a pack of dogs, each one a different breed – a Basset Hound, poodles of different colours, a Labrador, a Schnauzer, mixed breeds – splash in the New River, play on the grass, run and turn and bark. Three dog walkers are herding them, though not exactly herding, just moving, and when they move, the pack of dogs moves with them.