Bridgett Whyte

A Different Time

The heavy front door is open at 7 Warwick Street. It leads into a long passage to the kitchen at the back of the house. Old pictures of family members line the walls. Light shines in from the rear kitchen window and open dutch door. It spills over the edge of the table. Food in various stages of preparation clutters the surface of the small table. Aroma escapes from a pot of sizzling onions and makes way down the passage and onto the stoep where a little girl is playing with her teddy and dolls.

‘Bridgett, Bridgett come here, your lunch is ready.’

‘I’m here Ma.’

‘Where have you been? You look hot. Are your hands clean? Sit down and eat. If you’re a good girl and finish all your food instead of playing with it, I’ll tell you a story about my growing up.’

‘When I was a young girl not much older than you, things were very different in Cape Town. There were almost no cars. Proper black paved roads with painted lines were also uncommon. There were no phones and few appliances. Life was simple and less complicated by things. Neighbours were such a part of everyday life they were treated like family. Everyone knew each other. There was little distinction regarding what belonged to whom, everything was shared, even raising and minding of the children.

‘In my teens government decided citizens must be grouped, classified according to their skin colour and ancestry. It meant thousands of families had to relocate without any say and move to communities far from the ones they were used to. Unfortunately many families had members with differences in skin colour and were classified differently.

‘My mother, your great grandmother, was Cape Malay. Her skin was dark brown. My father was a white skinned German. Of their six children, three had white skin and three of us brown. I have three brothers and two sisters. My two brothers have white skin, like my sister Frances – though her skin is as white as white can be. My other brother and sister have honey brown skin the same colour as yours and mine.

‘It made people uncomfortable to see us walk down the street. Eight people from the same family all with varying skin colours. People who didn’t know us called us ‘the black and white family’. It was painful, especially for my younger sisters, who withdrew and became quiet. When we were older, in high school our parents called us together. They had something sad to tell us. My father explained my brother Jacobus had to move to Plumstead and Frederick would move to Kensington. It was a terrible day. Maggie and I cried the day my brothers left not fully understanding why they had to leave. My father would only say was it was the way it had to be. It seemed so wrong. Many families were affected. We rarely saw our brothers after they moved. I think my parents thought less contact would make it easier for the boys and us to carry on. It upset us deeply and still does to this day.’

A gust of wind blew down the passage upsetting the flour sprinkled on the table. Ma, ready to roll out the piecrust, stopped to wipe her brow. Flour stuck to her forehead making her honeyed skin appear darker. The flour particles hung suspended dancing in the light coming through the windows. Some landed, others mixed with the onions and quickly vanished. Bridgett blew into the air trying to make them conform to the direction of her whims.

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