Two Things my Mother taught me

Of all the things my mother taught me, her How-to-Guide on how to get along with adults is nothing short of legendary. Mom generally didn’t leave anything to chance and there was a moral code for just about everything: Tupperware handling and storage, ironing of school ribbons, loss and waterproofing of bus tickets, hairstyles for school and leisure versus formal functions, proper hem lengths for church or school – the list goes on. These were from an unwritten, well-guarded compendium of polite and moral interaction that signified being well-bred. This came mostly from the Langenhoven side of the family, my mother’s maiden name, whose main social currency was good manners, ordered physical presentation, musical talent and all things art; in that order.

 ‘This will get you further in life than any book knowledge or formal education,’ Mom would say, in barbed reference to the van den Heevers – my dad’s side of the family.

Public Transport Protocol

Before my Catholic primary school, St Augustine’s in Wynberg, got a school bus, my older sister and I used the public bus system to get to school.

Always give up your seat to adults, both women and older men, and especially pregnant women. Greet the bus driver politely and address them simply as ‘Driver’. If the need arises to address an adult on the bus, lead with, ‘Excuse me’ followed by ‘Lady’ or ‘Mister’, using appropriate discretion. When in distress, always seek assistance from a ‘Lady’ rather than a man”.

Needless to say, I don’t remember ever being seated on a public bus, as the regulars on our scheduled route would seek us out, knowing that my sister, myself and our school friends, Chantal and Claudette, could never stay seated in good conscience, and would inevitably surrender our comfort. We became their human seat-booking system. The beneficial exchange of course, was the friendly greeting, an acknowledgement of our moral fortitude and the caring eye they always cast over us for the duration of the commute.

The clearest benefit though, was meeting our friend Deon on the bus, when my sister gave up her seat for his mom. She would travel on the bus to accompany Deon to school each day. He was younger than us and attended our sister school directly across the street from ours. He taught us how to spell our names in sign language and got us to a level of conversational proficiency that always fascinated fellow commuters. Later he was allowed to travel with us, and the bus driver would allow us out of the bus briefly to collect him from his mom. It became easier when we travelled with the school bus, as we would find Dion safely loaded and seated by his teacher by the time we got to the bus, which parked under the big shady tree next to Corpus Christi in Forbes Road.

Never use pronouns (second or third person) when addressing or referring to adults

The complexities of coming from a bilingual family is most evident in this rule. Afrikaans, the ‘adult’ language in my family, has many polite or respectful forms baked into it. Chief among them is the gender-neutral pronoun, ‘U’, used to address esteemed individuals or adults, which simply does not exist in the English language. The work-around for Afrikaans’ mothers raising English children was to repurpose the royal protocol for addressing the Queen of England – a clear hangover from South Africa’s bygone affiliation to the Commonwealth. The result is captured in the following example of a grammar-and-form-defying interaction with my Aunty Hilda:

Morning Aunty Hilda. Yes, I am very well, thank you Aunty Hilda. I didn’t think Aunty Hilda was home – I didn’t see Aunty Hilda’s car in the driveway. Did Aunty Hilda park Aunty Hilda’s car in the garage?

Aunty Hilda is one of my mom’s seven siblings. Needless to say, Langenhoven gatherings were an anxiety-inducing minefield of polite code and the language of common decency! My siblings and I learned to keep topics with the Langenhoven adults limited to greetings and yes-no answers, followed by the obligatory ‘Aunty’ or ‘Uncle’ so-and-so. This was the only fail-safe to avoid the severe dressing-down that would result from a breach, second only to the supreme indictment of using a dishcloth to mop a spill on the floor.