My South African Aunt


My Aunt Betty [7/16/1926 – 7/23/2011] and her son Jean Blaise

Although I had never seen her, the knowledge that I had an aunt living in South Africa was both delicious and thrilling to my young heart.  I fingered the African curios on the bookshelf by the piano: woven baskets, a small carved ivory tusk, a wooden giraffe.  My favorite doll was an African baby with tight black curls and beaded skirts.

I would sit in the kitchen and quiz my mom on the family tree: going through aunts, uncles and cousins and fitting them, like puzzle pieces, in their proper place.  There was a secret satisfaction when we came to Aunt Betty and Aunt Ruthie. I felt a connection to these foreign aunts because I had been given their names, Carol from Elizabeth Carolyn and Ruth from Ruth Ethel.

 ::     ::     ::

After I grew up and married, Aunt Betty visited us in California. She was aghast at the extravagant size of our mugs and glasses. “Everything here is SO BIG!” she exclaimed.  When we shopped for groceries she informed me how many rands it would take to purchase each item, a bit of information that baffled me.

One night she suggested we drink coffee.

“We aren’t coffee drinkers, Aunt Betty, but I’d be glad to make you a cup.”

“Why don’t you drink coffee?” she inquired.

“We just don’t like the taste.” (We didn’t back then!)

“Let me make the coffee and I promise you will like it!” She warmed a small pan of milk, mixed in a cup of sugar and added instant coffee.  And so we enjoyed our first latte.

 ::     ::     ::

Several years later, she again paid us a visit. Aunt Betty helped me plant my garden, dispensing folk wisdom for better tomatoes and healthy vegetables. She gave me a cloth bib she had sewn with an African print…and I continue to use it on my grandsons.

One afternoon my young son, on his own initiative, climbed up on Aunt Betty’s lap and snuggled into her. She almost came undone with surprise and delight.That hour of rocking him, holding him close, giving and accepting affection,was a highlight of her visit.

 ::     ::     ::

Like all of us, Betty hadconflicting desires. She was a study in contrasts:

    ~ compassionate and yet critical

   ~ exotic and yet proper

   ~ generous and yet demanding

   ~ confident and yet insecure

   ~ stubborn and yet charming

   ~ connected and yet lonely

::     ::    ::

A good way to know a woman is to notice what she loves.  Aunt Betty loved the Lord Jesus, she loved being connected with family, she loved good food, sewing, gardening, old hymns, telephone calls, getting a bargain, dressing well and her beloved South Africa.

She dearly loved Jean Blaise. Many phone calls were filled with stories about “her son” and how pleased she was with him. “He calls me Mum,” she said. Jean Blaise gave her a focus; helping him was the crowning achievement of her life. Through Betty’s love and generosity, I now have a cousin/brother in South Africa. Through Aunt Betty and now through Jean Blaise, I will always be connected to South Africa.


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8 thoughts on “My South African Aunt

  1. Ah, Africa.  Once the connection is made, it is in the blood for ever.  And who would want it any other way?(Where I come from, there are many prejudices, misconceptions and more than a little ignorance about Africa.  And apparently someone recently referred to it as a country.  Oh dear.)

  2. Carol, this post evoked so many memories of my own Kenyan family — I was a foreign exchange student when in high school — simply beautiful, and I especially liked the comment, “A good way to know a woman is to notice what she loves.”

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