A daughter resolves to find her ageing mother's childhood house in this tender memoir

The Blackridge House is a meditation on belonging, of the stories we tell of home and family, of the precarious footprint of life

18 March 2019 - 11:59

Elizabeth Madeline Martin spends her days in a retirement home in Cape Town, watching the pigeons and squirrels on the branch of a tree outside her window.

Bedridden, her memory fading, she can recall her early childhood spent in a small wood-and-iron house in Blackridge on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg.

Though she remembers the place in detail – dogs, a mango tree, a stream – she has no idea of where exactly it is. ‘My memory is full of blotches,’ she tells her daughter Julia, ‘like ink left about and knocked over.’

Julia resolves to find the Blackridge house: with her mother lonely and confused, would this, perhaps, bring some measure of closure?

A journey begins that traverses family history, forgotten documents, old photographs, and the maps that stake out a country’s troubled past – maps whose boundaries nature remains determined to resist.

Kind strangers, willing to assist in the search, lead to unexpected discoveries of ancestors and wars and lullabies.

Folded into this quest are the tender conversations between a daughter and a mother who does not have long to live. Taken as one, The Blackridge House is a meditation on belonging, of the stories we tell of home and family, of the precarious footprint of life.

Julia Martin is a professor in the Department of English at the University of the Western Cape. Her travel memoir, A Millimetre of Dust: Visiting Ancestral Sites (Kwela Books, 2008) was long-listed for the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award. Her most recent book, Nobody Home: Writing, Buddhism, and Living in Places (Trinity University Press, 2014) was co-authored with the eminent North American poet and essayist, Gary Snyder and is a collection of 30 years of their correspondence and interviews.

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