'Here's poor Grandpa, uprooted and transplanted'

Jennifer Friedman's 'The Messiah's Dream Machine' follows her journey into adulthood. Read an excerpt from the chapter about her beloved grandfather’s displacement and loneliness after the death of his wife and moving from his farm in the Free State to an old age home in Sea Point

15 April 2019 - 10:48 By Jennifer Friedman
'The Messiah's Dream Machine' is Jennifer Friedman's moving (and hilarious!) sequel to 'Queen of the Free State'.
'The Messiah's Dream Machine' is Jennifer Friedman's moving (and hilarious!) sequel to 'Queen of the Free State'.
Image: NB Publishers

Queen Beatrrreees

And now, only a few years later, here’s poor Grandpa, uprooted and transplanted in the arid season of his old age from the freedom of the Free State veld to the narrow, tarred streets and close, high walls of Sea Point, from the gracious Victorian home he and Granny lived in for more than 60 years, to a single room along an anonymous corridor in this impersonal old-age home, masquerading as a residential hotel.

Although his heart has always belonged to only one woman, Grandpa isn’t impervious to the admiring glances bestowed on his unattached – and apparently irresistibly attractive – widower self by the clutch of widows nesting in the small rooms and aspidistra-adorned TV lounge of their shared old-age home.

Self-appointed queen of this harem of blue- and lavender rinsed ladies is Beatrice.

"Beatrrreees," she coos throatily. "Call me Beatrrreees."

Beatrice clings to Grandpa's side, proprietorial as a limpet, her arm crooked through his, keeping her trophy squeezed close to her bosom. She flirts coquettishly with "Morrritz", pouts her crimson lips, sulks when he ignores her orders, and bats her mascaraed eyelashes when she’s pleased.

Beatrice is vain. Her earlobes sag under the weight of flashing diamonds. Clinking chains and bangles of gold adorn her neck and wrists, and more diamonds, set in heavy gold with rubies and pearls, cluster on her fingers. Grandpa’s always had an eye for a slim, pretty woman, and Beatrice is elegant and refined. His offspring view her with suspicion.

"Dad’s much too old to have a girlfriend," they joke, uneasy. Grandpa's never allowed anyone to tell him what to do, or when to do it, and his children are alarmed by his amused tolerance of Beatrice's bossiness. She fills a lonesome space in his life. Beatrice is triumphant; Grandpa's flattered, but he's not fooled.

"She'd better not harbour any thoughts of marrying him..."

Ma sniffs.

I can't help myself. "Ooh, Ma, if Grandpa marries Beatrice, you might get a new little brother or sister!"

Ma glares at me. "Don’t be ridiculous!"

Granny never wore make-up. A little powder perhaps, or a slick of lipstick in the manner of a well-bred countrywoman.

"Unadorned," Grandpa would smile at her approvingly. "A beautiful woman doesn’t require artificial help."

"What d'you want to be wearing all that muck on your face for?" Grandpa asks Beatrice. Beatrice is deeply offended, but equally determined not to lower her standards.

Now he's living in what he calls "the great metropolis of Cape Town", Grandpa starts attending Friday night services at the Marais Road Synagogue. He even strolls down there on a Saturday morning. It's never occurred to me that he might actually be religious.

"D’you remember all those stories you used to tell me when I was little about the 'olden days', when you and your siblings and all your cousins were children, Ma?"

"Of course, I do," she smiles.

"Grandpa and Granny did all the right things when it came to the Jewish holidays and traditions, didn’t they?"

"Oh, yes." She's quick to agree.

All the high and holy days were strictly observed. The family would gather, and Grandpa would lead the service from his place at the head of the great oak dining table. On Friday nights, Granny would light the Shabbat candles. She’d watch the match flame shimmer in the silver candlesticks, and then she’d cover her eyes, and wave her hands over their flickering light to welcome in the Sabbath. When it came to religious enlightenment and guidance, Ma and Pa made sure we were gathered around Grandpa MJ and Granny's table.

"Why didn’t we ever celebrate those holidays at home, Ma?"

She shrugs defensively. "We went to shul." Her voice is defiant. "And we sent you to cheder classes – don’t you remember how you used to complain about them? It was enough. You knew you were different."