Seven a.m. and the hotel dining room was empty except for three of us at separate tables, dotting the fringes of the room. The black woman with red lipstick and long, rippling braids faced me, her back to the stout black man in a jacket and tie. I could see both of them, and they could see me—a nondescript white woman in jeans and T-shirt. I remember the way the woman held her toast, between thumb and forefinger, her other fingers fanned as if her red nail polish might still be wet. I took them both to be business people, fueling themselves for the day.
I hadn’t slept well. I had come here after a safari in May 2013 to visit the South African city of my childhood, Pietermaritzburg—the city where my mother had died a year before. I’d tossed all night in the king-size bed, missing my mother’s saggy pull-out couch, from which for weeks I monitored her labored breathing. I thought a good breakfast might settle me now.
The hotel dining room was wrapped in the smell of toast and coffee, with no sound except the occasional, hushed query of a waiter and the clink of cups settling onto their saucers. I ordered the English breakfast, and as the waiter receded, I glanced again at my fellow diners. The man was hunched over a bowl, his jacket tugging at his armpits. The woman had slipped a foot out of one sleek pump, and was tapping a cell phone. She picked it up and began to talk in Zulu. Loudly. The man lifted his gaze and caught my eye. He looked at the woman’s back and slowly shook his head before bowing again to his bowl.
My breakfast arrived and I tried to concentrate on buttering the toast and pouring my tea. Surely she wouldn’t talk long. She leaned back in her chair and tipped her chin to the ceiling, and with that shift, her voice bounced off the ceiling and ricocheted around the room. A server came and went. I squared myself to the plate before me: two fried eggs, sizzled brown at the edges, and a fan of crisp bacon. The perfect, unhealthy breakfast. But Zulu words, usually lovely in their clicks and ripples, clanged against every hard surface and turned the food tasteless. I chewed, and looked again at her. She threw a full-throttled laugh, speared a cube of melon, and shouted into her phone again.
After a minute or two, I couldn’t stand it. I extended my arm and waved my palm at the floor, as though patting the air. The woman stopped talking. Her eyes scrunched, as if trying to understand what I was attempting to communicate—or perhaps at that moment the person on the other end cut in and she was listening—then she twisted her torso away from me and thrust her words against the butter-yellow walls.
When she hung up, she turned to me. “Were you saying something?”
The server who moments ago had refreshed my pot of tea, ducked into the doorway. I smoothed the napkin on my lap. “I was just asking you to talk softer,” I said. “We could hear your conversation.” I gestured toward the businessman, now mesmerized by his cup of coffee.
“I have a right to talk on the phone,” she said in a thick Zulu accent—“tok,” “fon.”
“Yes, of course, but it was disturbing us.”
She leaned over her table, chest swelling inside her buttoned jacket. “You!” She wagged a glossy-tipped finger at me. “You don’t tell me what to do. You hear me? Your days are over.”
I told myself to stay calm. Polite. Matter-of-fact. “All I’m saying….”
“O-VAH!!” She slapped down her napkin, rose up on her stiletto heels, and strode out.
I looked across the room at the black man, hoping for commiseration, but now he was studying the floral carpet. The server, also black, came in and murmured an apology. I thanked her, and told her it wasn’t her fault, although I wasn’t sure what, exactly, we were we talking about. The woman’s rudeness, or the fact that I and my race were no longer top dog?
The server went back to the kitchen, her voice ringing out in excited, indecipherable bursts. I poured myself another cup of tea and sat back to digest what had happened. By asking her to talk softer, I thought I’d treated her as I would treat anyone. People who carry on long and loud phone conversations in a hushed dining-room are inconsiderate. I wanted to eat my breakfast in peace. Like her, I had paid for bed and breakfast.
But something nagged at me. Was it possible that I’d shown a startling lack of sensitivity? This was the new South Africa, where anger toward whites is still raw. And I had told a black woman — someone whose family, if not herself, had suffered under white rule — how to behave. As for the man, I’d expected him to back me up, but now I wondered how he saw me: a sour-faced stranger gyrating her arm? Perhaps. Surely he saw, too, a white woman old enough to have known the heyday of apartheid.
That incident reminded me of another black person whose presence made me uncomfortable and whom I’d wanted, more consciously, to erase. He stands in a photograph behind my mother and Nelson Mandela, as they shake hands and she accepts an award.
In this glossy, eight by ten print my mother appears bathed in light. I’d like to think that she radiates joy—after all, that was her name, Joy Roberts—but I suspect the photograph is over-exposed, and of course, her skin is so much paler than Mandela’s. Only his hair is whiter—a snowy cap that gleams under the chandeliers of Pietermaritzburg’s city hall on that day in early autumn, 1997, sixteen years before the altercation in that hotel dining room.
My mother was being honored for her community work in Edendale, a township of about 130,000 Africans. It is a pin-prick on a map of South Africa, an untidy sprawl of cement-block houses and tin shacks, of schools and churches, connected by dusty roads. We lived in Pietermaritzburg, a “white” town, and the men and women of Edendale came in every day to stack cereal boxes in our supermarkets, clean our houses, and stretch hides in the tanning factory. In the evenings, they went home to their children who attended local schools, often sitting two to a desk, with never enough books or qualified teachers.
My mother wasn’t an activist by nature. She was a housewife with a degree in social work. She joined the Edendale Welfare Society as a volunteer, and soon became its chairwoman. For forty years she worked on setting up and managing a nursery school, a child welfare center and an old age home. She drove out to Edendale several times a week in a big Ford truck with her dog in the passenger seat. While the dog slept, she talked to local social workers and school principals. From her study she organized fund drives and wrote to the government for grants.
She never liked the limelight, and yet in this photograph she is on a stage with Madiba—Mandela’s clan name, by which South Africans affectionately refer to him—and in the crook of her thin arm lies a framed certificate. She beams at Mandela, a smile that starts in her eyes behind the gold-framed glasses. Mandela’s own smile is softer, and sadder. He has been in office three years, and his upper eyelids droop. He stoops a little as he leans forward, perhaps because he is almost a foot taller than my straight-backed mother, or perhaps because on those shoulders rest such enormous expectations. He is a year shy of eighty; my mother is ten years younger.
I was not in the audience that day. Instead, I was on the island of Kauai, unaware that this award ceremony was happening. In our weekly phone calls between Pietermaritzburg and Boston, and in the letters she wrote me every two weeks, she forgot to tell me she’d been singled out with six others to receive an award from South Africa’s savior himself.
I heard about the ceremony only when I returned from Hawaii, in a letter written on the eve of the event. It’s hard to believe that even my no-fuss mother didn’t mention the award when she first heard about it. But if she did, it would have been in her self-deprecating way—“Oh, I’m getting an award, God knows why”—with no mention of Mandela. In the letter she tells me what the award ceremony entails. “We are instructed to be seated by 9:30 AM. Ceremony to start at 10. The main feature is the Freedom of the City to Mandela. Then the awards…. I am most apprehensive about the whole thing and will be glad when it’s over.”
The city hall where the ceremony took place is a national monument, the largest brick building in the southern hemisphere, a bold example of Victorian architecture with turrets and arches and a soaring bell tower. The small slice of the interior shown in this photograph looks a little worn, particularly the scuffed staircase. But the room has a certain grandeur—red leather chairs, each with a crest and gold studs, and a carpet of the same saturated hue.
Mandela is the only man on the stage not wearing a suit and instead, his slim frame is fitted with a midnight-blue tunic, its Chinese collar rising to the top of his neck. White arcs ripple over the silk fabric like a frothy sea, or the roofs of so many pagodas.
Next to him my mother looks terribly English and strait-laced. She wears a soft blue dress, with a pleated, calf-length skirt and a relaxed bow at the neck. I’m sure she’s wearing pearl earrings, although they’re hidden under a wave of silver hair. Her hairstyle is unchanged since the sixties—a sideward sweep secured with a tortoiseshell comb, and a tumble of charcoal curls at the nape of her neck.
No matter their differences in dress and skin color, Madiba reaches out and squeezes my mother’s extended hand. It looks as if he is drinking in the grey hair and bright red lipstick, the wrinkles and poor eyesight. His expression is earnest and steady, and I want to believe that he sees beyond the proper lady whose life has known no real sacrifices, beyond all the differences between them, beyond whatever white guilt fueled her work, and recognizes in my mother a compatriot. After congratulating her, he says, “Now is the time for the young people to do the work.” Or so she reported to me, weeks later.
But there is a witness to this—a young black man who slouches behind them. He leans against the post of the staircase and the three of them—my mother, Mandela, and this man—form a triangle. His lips pout over a trickle of a moustache as he gazes into the middle distance just above Mandela’s head and adjusts his long, pinkish tie. His shoulders look broad under the double-breasted blazer. Perhaps he is Mandela’s bodyguard, waiting for the service to be over so he can go and get lunch.
This fellow has irritated me ever since I saw the photograph. The six people seated behind Mandela waiting to get their awards—five men and one woman of various races—all smile as my mother shakes Madiba’s hand. Only this man looks blank and bored.
“Oh, he doesn’t bother me,” my mother said years ago when we were in her study where the photograph hung behind the door. “He’s a reality check. And really, why should he be impressed by an elderly white do-gooder?”
For many years I left my copy of that photograph in a filing cabinet. But a few years before her death, I realized that I was allowing this important record, this occasion of family pride, to be hidden in a file because of a stranger. I mentioned the photograph to Steve, a friend who owned a small camera shop. “Oh, I can get rid of him for you,” he said. “No problem.”
Two weeks later, Steve’s assistant handed me a large envelope that contained a copy of the new, improved photograph. Where the bored man had stood, now curved an empty staircase. I stared uneasily at it. What did this mean, to erase someone just because I didn’t like his demeanor? Now that it was done, it seemed a dangerous act, a slippery slope. First a figure in a photograph, next a real person, and then what? No, I was being melodramatic. It was just a photo. My photo, of my mother’s moment in the sun, and wasn’t I was free to doctor it as I wished?
But instead of displaying it, I slipped it back into the filing cabinet. There were logical reasons for this. It needed a frame, and the image, I now realized, was ill-lit and a bit blurry; it was also in color, while the other photographs hanging in my study were all black-and-white.
After my mother died, I took her framed photograph back to Boston. I found my scrubbed copy in the filing cabinet and placed the two side by side. I discovered that Steve had done more than airbrush out the slouching man. In my mother’s copy, an Indian in a charcoal suit is walking off the platform. A seated black man peers over Mandela’s white crown. An Indian seated in the front row wearing a Nehru suit smiles at my mother. In Steve’s version, all have vanished. He zoomed in on my mother and Mandela, and wiped out the people around them. And every person missing has dark skin. In the original there are four Africans and three Indians. In the edited version, only one Indian survives, and one (smiling) black man has been reduced to a nose, a mouth and one eye. The only other African is Mandela, who, let’s face it, transcends color.
Still, whatever dire measures Steve took, he created a composition that holds at its center Mandela and my mother, with nothing to detract from their handshake and smiles. And yet. My mother and Mandela have themselves been sanitized, removed from the hubbub. They look rather lonely, against the dark void. It’s strange to admit this, but I now missed the man leaning against the banister. An objective observer might say that his standing there, his mind clearly on other things, gives the composition texture and depth. And it’s true. But more than that, I keep thinking of my mother’s words: he’s a reality check. If I see the ceremony through his eyes, all those receiving awards are at least middle-aged. Too many, for his tastes, are white. The slouch, the preoccupation with the tie, the not-looking—these don’t only reflect boredom; they also say, “You are invisible, and irrelevant. Your time is over.”
The evening after the breakfast incident, the hotel’s white manager insisted I have a gin and tonic on the house.
“That woman—she won’t be bothering you anymore. She’s gone, and I told her not to come back.”
I stared at him, incredulous. “Gone? You mean …?”
“Don’t worry.” He handed me the drink of my choice, bitter-sweet and thoroughly colonial. “She stays here often and she’s always rude to the staff. Although I must say, this is the first time she’s yelled at a guest.”
I took a sip and looked away, bothered by this dubious distinction. Still, I found news of her rudeness comforting. All day I’d been wondering if I had started it, with that supercilious flapping of my arm.
The woman was gone. That was the main thing. And even though I’d protested that I hadn’t wanted her kicked out, I wasn’t really sorry. No, I was secretly relieved that I wouldn’t have to deal with her anymore; relieved, too, that I had been declared innocent—the unlucky victim of a nasty woman—by an impartial judge. Except, was he? Would the outcome have been the same, I wondered, if I had been black, and the other woman, white?
When I look again at Mandela, something else occurs to me. I see his sad smile; his hand squeezing my mother’s as if in consolation; I hear his words—“Now is the time for the young people to do the work.” Perhaps he, too, is saying to this proper white lady, to this well-intentioned do-gooder—saying in a kinder, infinitely more polite way—your time is over.
The photograph that Steve worked so hard to sanitize is back in the dark of my filing cabinet. A few months ago I took the one that hung in my mother’s study and had it fitted with a new frame, one that does justice to all three characters in that complicated triangle.
As for the letter my mother wrote on the eve of the award ceremony—I keep it, too, with the hundreds of other letters she wrote to me over the years. The letter has a post-script, written in a darker pen than the rest. She had already signed off with her usual, “Lots of love, Mum,” but she didn’t like to waste paper, and there was still an inch or two left on that translucent page of onionskin. In that gap she wrote in four straight lines, “Friday, p.m. It’s all over without any mishaps. I shook the great man’s hand and secretly hope that someone, somewhere, took a photo to record the event, but I doubt it.”