Libby is my aunt.
I dislike using that word when describing Libs. ‘Aunt’ somehow seems to take away what Libby is to me. She is so much more than a mere aunt.
Libs is my phenomenal, remarkable Other-Mum!
As a child, I devoured the Enid Blyton’s book series Malory Towers and St Clares. As a result, I could not wait to get to boarding school. The only problem was that my parents did not want to send me.
“I’m sorry, Gaynor, but we love having you at home with us in Jo’burg ,” Mums said, “so I’m afraid boarding school is out!”
Then I fell ill with Chickenpox. I was tossing and turning with a raging fever. Mums was sitting at my bed, stroking my hair away from my forehead.
“Mums”, I groaned, “please will you do something for me?”
“Of course I will, darling, have some water,” she said easing me up to have a cooling sip. As she laid me down again, I said:
“Do you promise you’ll do it?”
“I promise I’ll do it. Come on, close your eyes now,” Mums said gently.
“Please send me to boarding school,” I said looking at her with totally un-feverish eyes, “You promised!”
I went to Durban Girls College as a weekly boarder. My weekends were spent with Libby, John and their 4 daughters. I wasn’t treated as a niece. I was simply their fifth daughter. My Other-Mum came into play! I used to walk into their house on weekends and head straight for the fridge. Boarding school food was like all boarding school food and Libby’s fridge was always a sheer delight. And did I eat! I remember at Sunday roasts being given six crispy, crackling potatoes.
“Gaynor has to have them,” Libs remonstrated to the other’s groans at my largesse, “she’s at boarding school!”
Was it any wonder that I adored Libs so?!
Libby was a hopeless driver. She drove as if the road belonged to her and to her alone. On driving straight through a red robot, she remarked to our shocked cries: “ What a stupid place to put up a traffic light. I should actually report them!”
Libs drove this enormous Kombi. She chose one that grinned at the world from it’s bright Fanta orange colouring. There was certainly nothing’s subtle about Libs!
Every Monday, Libs would do the school lift, fetching Penny and Jane Strachen from just around the block. The Strachen boys would see Libs beetling up their long driveway and would shout to one another: “Libs is here. C’mon, we mustn’t miss the neck cricks.”
In would climb Jane and Pen to our assorted greetings. Then Libs would take off. Libs didn’t believe in gentle get aways. Particularly on Mondays! An 80 kilometre race off back down the drive, resulted in everyone’s necks going back several feet and then returning to their normal positions. Enter the neck cricks!!! You learned to hold onto your hat otherwise it tended to land somewhere at the back of the Kombi. Once our hats were neatly re-aligned, our school day could begin!
Libby would often park her orange Kombi behind the goal posts at our hockey matches. Each time we scored a goal this wild orange hooting would blaught out enthusiastically. My cousin, Anne and I would die a silent death of embarrassment but the rest of the team loved it!
Libs gave up driving five years ago. I think the whole of Durban heaved a deep sigh of relief!
One long weekend I came home from boarding school with a borrowed guitar. I wished to show my other family the three chords I had learned and the first and only song I could play: The Green Beret. Anne and Margs, my cousins, were utterly intrigued and so sharing the guitar between us, they too learnt the A, E and D chords. The house soon reverberated to the sound of The Green Beret which was belted out with great enthusiasm, over and over again. On Saturday we walked into the lounge to see a grinning Libby and John and three brand new guitars.
“We also bought this book which shows you how to play other chords and then there is this Songbook,” said Libs exuberantly. She had obviously had quite enough of The Green Beret!
I will always carry a memory of Libs sitting in her chair, a Cointreau in hand, harmonising to the many songs we played over the years on our guitars.
I studied drama at Durban University and we put on a variety of musicals. Oliver, Anne of Green Gables, The Fantastics, to name but a few. The head of our Drama department used to approach me on opening nights: “Gaynor, I am just confirming that your Aunt is coming tonight?”
“Prof, try and keep her away,” I replied laughing.
“Oh, good,” he said in relief, “that means a standing ovation is ensured!”
Four years after my accident, I went to live in Durban. I was unable to have a dog in my flat but I was allowed a bird. And so Libby bought me Pandora! She was a gorgeous yellow female cockatiel that shared the flat and my life with me.
What joy that yellow feathered friend bought into my existence. Her cage would sit on my lounge table with it’s door open. Pandora would parade around the table inspecting this and that or simply sit on top of the cage. She would come over to me whenever I sat on the adjoining chair. She’d climb onto my shoulder where she would murmur sweet nothings into my ear, finally falling asleep. I would gently put her back in her cage. Her eyes would sleepily open, check that I was nearby and then close contentedly once more. What a marvellous companion she was.
I had her for thirteen years and during that time she laid three eggs. She was horrified by the round object that had come out of her. While the atrocious cream blob lay on the gravel of her cage, Pandora would not venture down from her perch. Instead she would hiss malevolently until the egg was removed. Then it was a case of onto my shoulder once more where she gently scolded me about her egg and softly kissed my ear.
When Pandora died I was overwhelmed with grief. Libs, knowing what Pandora had meant to me, headed straight for a pet shop. She presented me with the oddest specimen of cockatiel I had ever seen. It looked as if it had just hatched out of a pre-historic egg. Big oversized grey eyes gazed at me from a scrawny, featherless frame.
“I went to three shops and this was the only cockatiel I could find,” Libs said apologetically. “It’s not able to feed itself yet. You have to feed it watered down Pronutro with this.”
She handed me an eye dropper. I looked at it aghast. With my spastic right hand this was not going to be an easy task. Not easy at all! I held little Spencer in a towel in my right hand and then attempted to put the food into his mouth with my left. As you can imagine, it was a most ungainly process that left a half starving bird and a tear streaked human in a wrecked state.
We flew down to George the next day. My joyful relief at watching Mums feed a starving Spencer was insurmountable. I stayed in George for two weeks and as Spencer grew so did my confidence and ability to feed an ever hungry, still un-feathered baby bird. When I returned to Durban, Mums said to me:
“He is growing very attached to you. Treat him as you used to treat Pandora. Keep his cage door open and let him get out and wander over the table. He will soon be perching on your shoulder.”
I did this the first day and Spencer duly climbed out the cage, plopped himself down on the table and began exploring. Yes, he seemed to approve of his surroundings.
The doorbell rang and I went to let Libby in. She engulfed me in a big hug.
“Where’s little Spencer?” she asked moving towards the table. That was when we heard it. A high pitched squeak and a whoomf as Libby’s foot came down. She had just stepped on and squashed Spencer!
I didn’t mind how Libs drove as we raced to the vets. Spencer was alive but the vet said he would keep him there for two days. Maybe he thought it best to keep that little mite out of my and Libby’s clutches for 48 hours!
Eleven years later, Spencer is now this gorgeous grey cockatiel with a bright yellow head adorned with two red spotted cheeks. He and my dog, Perdita, have a total love/hate relationship. At the moment his cage is covered over and he is sleeping peacefully at my side. Next to the cage lies Perdita, snoring softly.
Libby has always given me so much of herself.
The schoolgirl delving into her fridge. Her delightful orange Kombi. Her voice harmonising with mine to the soft plucking of a guitar. Hockey matches. Giving me lifts as I’m unable to drive. Sharing Cointreau on cold winters evenings. Putting down words like: cat, it and sat when I attempted to play Scrabble with her.
We have shared so much.
I have the most unbelievable, stupendous mother. I give thanks for her each and every day of my life. How lucky am I to also have a “Libby” in my life – this Other-Mother! Frequently there have been things that I have only been able to talk to Libs about. Mums was often too close to give me an unencumbered viewpoint. Libby was sufficiently removed to be able to give me a clear, unburdened picture of a problem that assailed me.
I think of my Other-Mum and my heart is open wide with gratitude and love.