Stoicism

Sometimes, when I feel very far away, I think about my paternal grandmother. And sometimes that helps. Sometimes. When I am feeling big hearted and brave.

My dad’s mother arrived on a ship in Kenya in 1920. My grandfather had arrived sixteen years earlier as a very young man, a boy. The story goes (as all the best fairytales do) that when his mother died, and because he hated his (indubitably wicked) stepmother, he ran away from home and stowed on a ship bound for Africa. He overshot his final destination though and had to trek up from the Cape. I don’t know how true any of that is; time and enthusiasm often render stories bigger and better.

In any event my grandmother, whom my grandfather had returned to Scotland to meet and marry, arrived in Mombasa with a humble trousseau and two barrels of preserved mackerel. The barrels were dropped during the vessel’s offloading and split on the quayside and the fish slithered saltily back into the sea.

And then Granny travelled to her new home by train, its engines fed by coal so that you had to keep your windows shut (even whilst crossing the arid, panting Taru desert as you rumbled north where you longed for a whisper of a breeze) for the sparks that might fly in and set you and your bedding alight. The final leg of her journey was made on the back of a mule and Gran arrived to a home which had earthen floors and no running water or electricity (charcoal enveloped in chicken mesh and kept damp served as something approximating a cool pantry).

I was born into this continent, grew up here; the heat and the dust and the flies and the language and the challenges with water and electricity are second nature to me. To her they must have been shockingly alien; she had barely left her small village in Scotland; she’d never ventured as far as Edinburgh.

But in her stoicism she didn’t just endure it all, she embraced it. She bore five children in sixteen years and raised them on sprawling ranches, she grew pigs, she adopted a cheetah cub when its mother was killed by hunters, she knitted her family necessary socks and sweaters, she made the best marmalade in the country and she never succumbed to an electric whisk, not trusting anything but the strength of her right arm to get meringues just so.

She wrote letters to her backhomeinScotland siblings who must have received her news with wry disbelief, cheetahs beneath a dining table? A monkey that takes rides upon pigs’ backs? Really?! and she waited patiently for months for a reply to arrive on the farm.

As I write this, I am chatting to my son on Skype and my phone is pinging with whatsapp messages from my elder daughter on a train on her way to work.

So when I feel far away, and when I am feeling gracious and generous and a little bit stoic myself, I think about my Gran.

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4 Responses to “Stoicism”

  1. inthewronggear Says:

    Lovely. And, I can’t help feeling, you don’t do badly at following in grandmother’s footsteps…. xx

  2. Manda Says:

    What a story. I’m very much enjoying your writing. Thank you.

  3. Sabine Says:

    Wonderful memory. Thank you for writing this down.

    Reading your recent posts brought me back to the 1980s when I arrived with my husband and toddler in another east African country. It was my first time outside Europe but he had been living and working in Kenya and Somalia before and just got on with his job after a first good night’s sleep.

    I remember those first weeks. I felt like a giant white squid stuck in the most foreign sea teeming with exotic fish, unable to swim. We had dogs but my attempts of walking them were met with disbelief and laughter from the neighbours as well as the dogs. Gosh, I felt such a fool then. But of course, it became paradise eventually and even now I feel waves of homesickness when I think of my years there.

  4. iotamanhattan Says:

    When I lived in America, I often used to think of those first settlers, in their covered wagons. We really do have it easy!

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