My 100-year-old aunt died in the night. Olive Irene Ceto was her name, but we all called her “Ollie”.
Ollie was my grandfather’s eldest sibling. He called her “siesie”. My Oupa was a complex man, a strong patriarch who became a doting little brother in her presence.
When a tree that old falls down, the ground shakes, the vibrations catapulting us right back into childhood.
When the great baobab fell in the night, I was transported to my years before primary school, to Grassy Park.
My Oupa and Ollie grew up in Constantia. In the 1930s their father, my great-grandfather, Peter Alexander Pietersen, caught wind of the fact that the land would be zoned for white occupation, so he sold some of his farmland and bought property in Grassy Park (the closest non-white area he could find.)
Cradled between Rondevlei, Zeekoevlei and Princessvlei, Grassy Park was in those days, grassy and very marshy and Zeekoeivlei still had hippos in it. The first piece of land he bought had an old farmhouse on it. Ollie moved to this house in the early 1960s – at the start of the forced removals in Constantia – and it is in this house that she took her last breath on Saturday August 4.
By the time she moved to Grassy Park, she was already widowed. Her husband Oom Jan, was a vat maker in the Constantia wine valley. She didn’t marry again.
Back to my childhood.
In those days, there were mobile clinics that drove into the Cape Flats. Wednesdays were clinic days in Grassy Park. On a Wednesday the van would park in 8th Avenue, and the moms would queue for milk for their babies, have them weighed, vaccinated, collect medicines.
On a Wednesday morning, I would walk hand-in-hand with my beloved granny, “Nannie”, my cousin in the pram, to the clinic – and afterwards, we would walk to Italian Road, to Ollie’s little farmhouse – a stone’s throw from the Rondevlei bird sanctuary – for tea and sandwiches or leftovers of the meal she had cooked on her mint green coal stove, the night before. Tamatiekos, koolkos, mince kerrie, waterblommetjiebredie. Oh, the water lilies that grew in the vlei.
Ollie was a strong, sturdy woman, fierce and feisty – yet warm like the fire that she always had burning in her house. Ollie chopped the firewood herself and was known to catch snakes too, in the long field grass on her property. She never owned a car or learned how to drive – but she walked and walked and walked everywhere she needed to go.
Her skin was a magnificent dark leather. I never saw her hair dyed, straightened or in curlers. She brushed and plaited her hair at night. And she spoke that old Cape colony Afrikaans, that one would have to translate for today’s generation.
Her stories were rich. They were beautiful and funny and angry and sad – and painted the picture of a colourful, rural Constantia – of life in The Valley, the coronation of the queen, wartime rations, harvest festivals, drawing water from a well or steam, milking cows, packing donkey carts full with fruit and vegetables to sell. Then packing lives onto those carts for the move out of The Valley.
Ollie was not just an enchanting storyteller, but a “kruievrou”, a herbswoman.
As a child, I saw young and old come through her door, for indigenous medicines and balms, made of vetplante and Khoe khoe herbs that grew in her garden. It’s no wonder she outlived her husband, two children and her little brother – and lived for 100 years.
Over the weekend I went back to that old farmhouse with my sister and our children. To touch her bed, hug and cry and laugh and share stories with her children and their children. To pray and to drink tea.
The house still smells the same, of Buchu and Hotnots kooigoed, of hope and the promise of healing.
My cousins tell me that all of this week she has been repeating these words: “My name is Olive Irene Ceto and I live in Italian Road, Grassy Park.”
She was ready to be collected.
* Ernestine Deane is an acclaimed singer, poet, actor, writer and film-maker.