Looking through the rear-view mirror

I just bought a used car from my stepfather. I always told myself I’d keep my old road-toaster until it cost me more to fix per month than a new car’s payment. That’s good and well until you break down between cities for the third time (this time because your alternator spontaneously combusted and your fan belt disintegrated – the previous time time you overheated you just need to pour a waterfall into your waterbottle every kilometre or so). The stress of driving isn’t worth the money you save when every turn of the ignition means gambling your safety.

He gave me a good deal – 68% of market value if you count the trade in of the car I don’t feel safe driving. It went smoothly until the admin with the bank – every request from them urgent enough to make me drop what I’m doing and bustle to print and scan things; every request from me affixed the dutiful, ponderous working days it takes to process a few signatures. The insurance caught me off guard. It smacked 50% on to the monthly price and a little gasp when I realise I need to put away for medical insurance and pension in the next few months too. I still have to keep giving five seconds worth of attention to YouTube’s new attempts at selling me insurance I’ve already bought.

I might have missed the chance at this good life, though, had I not found my misplaced ID.  I used it to vote a few weeks before, forgot it in my jeans pocket, the maid put the jeans in the washing basket, and I took the basket to the laundromat. If I hadn’t fished the clean jeans out of the basket, I’d look a whole lot whiter on that photo now. But as it stood, the pants were in the back of my car – thoughtful as I were.

While I was inverting my home looking for the ID, I went through these documents my mom had given me. She’d been holding on to them since I’ve been born, keeping record of my school career, university degree, CV and the odd hospital bill. I rummaged through them for the fifth time, hoping somehow that little green book would hop out of those pages. I found something else. A document from the Pretoria High Court, dated February 1993. The case of my mom vs my dad. I would have been four at the time and the divorce would have been raw. The document is only one page, detailing the judges decision that my father would have partial custody in the house he was building for us in Rooihuiskraal. He would pay 300 rand in child support for each of my brother and me, each month.

We never did move into that house. I remember seeing it built halfway, but after that he must have sold it. The child support equates to about R1 200 today (or $82). That’s what it cost to put us out of his mind. He, a diplomat with a double storey house in Brussels, wrote us a check each month that covers one grocery list for a home of three. My mom had to go from doting housewife to terrified single mother.

The unsustainable income put her desperate into medication for anxiety and the arms of a couple of other men. I don’t remember my first stepfather – she told me once that it’s better that way. The medication was supposed to be short-term. It’s twenty-six years later now.

She married my current stepfather in 2003. He’s an adult child of an alcoholic who’s in denial about his own neuroses. He tries to be good, but his obsessive compulsive thought-prison became a wretched set of rules she needed to abide by. The geyser can’t be on for longer than fifteen minutes a day. She can’t use the stove because it’s too much electricity. She shouldn’t work in the garden because it’s too water intensive. She can’t buy groceries because she gets things that aren’t the absolutely cheapest. The list goes on.

No one wanted to acknowledge it, when I was growing up. It felt like watching someone you love being abused into gradually becoming muted, properly in their place, spirit dissipated. We all watched as it happened every day. Too mild to be grounds for intervention, but chewing each day – a caterpillar having its fill of a woman’s psyche. The medication dosed upwards each year too.

It’s difficult to be around her now. I don’t know where to look when I’m in her company. She doesn’t have anything to say other than a few anxious questions about a topic at hand. She doesn’t consume the things she sees and doesn’t understand the things she hears. I have more memories attached to the cutlery and Tupperware with her name on, than with the woman I don’t know how to talk to any more.

I feel responsible. I know I couldn’t have changed much. But maybe there was some permutation of gentle nudgings to help my stepfather heal and spare her his prison.

As for my own experience growing up, the hard thing is coming up to thirty and hearing about my father’s powerful telescope. I love astronomy, and I would have been in awe of the stars had my father shown them to me through that telescope as I grew up. I spontaneously developed a love for politics and debating them, and he, being a diplomat would have been excellent fodder for my developing insights. I just happened to read many of the books I later learned he loved.

I had no idea where my interests came from or that they were even things that I was able to pursue. I thought they were just a few interesting thoughts with a full stop at the end, and nobody around me thought they were worth talking about.

Things could have been different. There could have been a lot more love and development to go around. But our household, my mother, my brother, my stepfather and I, all tried our own ways of dealing with the brokenness inside of us. And here I am, buying a second hand car at a 32% discount, being grateful.

And I am grateful.


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