By Susan Roberts
We are told from an early age that home is where the heart is, and Dorothy tells us at the end of her adventure in Oz that there is no place like it. But what do we actually mean by that word: Home?
Every time I return to South Africa after a few weeks in that other Oz, visiting my sister in Melbourne, I find myself searching for a new definition of exactly what Home is. What does it mean to me personally? And where exactly is Home now?
As a child, Home was the big, rambling house my grandfather had built room by room between the two world wars. My father had grown up there and in time he inherited it. My earliest memories are centred in that house. It was the place to which my sister and parents returned daily after their respective outings to school and work. In my tiny mind, I imagined that Home revolved around me, much like the earliest astronomers believed that the sun circled the earth, instead of the other way around.
I didn’t particularly enjoy school when I started it; the boys were rough and noisy and most of the girls settled into bitchy groups which didn’t include me. No matter, because I soon learnt to bury myself in books. When the final bell rang each day, Home was the haven to which I retreated; that place where I felt safe and loved after the rigours of a day at school.
My current home is a tiny cottage in Durban North where I have lived for most of the last twelve years. Secluded out of sight of the street, I cocoon myself in a profusion of books, cats, and an overgrown garden. But increasingly my mind thinks of other Homes.
Particularly the one in Melbourne.
When my sister moved there three years ago, part of my history and my heart moved there with her. My three visits there have resulted in the sort of root system that is usually associated with the most determined of weeds. I have put out feelers, dug in and attached myself inextricably to the earth around her, and part of me still lingers there long after I uproot myself to return to Durban each time.
Forgive the imagery, but since my sister is a keen gardener, I think it fits the situation perfectly. Her garden is beautiful, she spends time, effort and love in nurturing it, and it shows. The photographs I took of her garden in February are eclipsed by the ones I took in the last few weeks. Her garden has taken root and grown under her loving care in the same way that her family has.
In contrast, my own network of family has shrunk to the point where I no longer know what home means. When my mother died six years ago, my sister became the matriarch of the family. Christmas, Easter and family birthdays were almost always celebrated at her house. In the years since she moved to Australia those family celebrations have been pared down in my world, or sometimes ignored completely because it’s easier for me to deal with them that way.
The final three South African members of my mother’s generation have passed on in the last two years. This has coincided with the moving of most of the generation below me, to other countries – two to Oz; one to New Zealand, and the fourth is about to move to another town in South Africa. Soon there will be no one left here but me. When my eldest niece leaves Pietermaritzburg in two weeks’ time, she will be the last member of our family to leave that city in which our ancestors settled way back in 1880.
Each time I visit Australia I realise more and more that the family base is where my sister is, and that this may have been so for a longer time than either of us first realised. As children, we played daily with the boy next door, and we have always referred to him as our brother. Many years later he moved to Australia with his wife, and their family has formed a strong part of the new home base around my sister. I’ve seen them more in the last two and a half years than in the thirty or so years before that.
A week before I left Melbourne, we had a celebratory family braai. (Well, they call it a barbie over there but we know that it’s really a good old-fashioned braai!) I looked around the group of laughing, bantering, reminiscing relatives and realised that the word Home definitely had more to do with the people than the buildings they inhabit.
Dorothy Gale was right – there really is no place like home!