Writings / Creative Non-Fiction: Isme Benni

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Party Politics

The first party I can remember was my own birthday party. It was my sixth birthday, just a few days after my sister was born, and I fell into a nest of red ants and had to be carted off into a bathtub. Birthday parties in those days, the 40s and 50s, were quite simple, not the elaborate events they can be today – with entertainers and so on. They took place in the afternoon, we arrived in party clothes, bringing gifts, and played games until it was time to sit round a table laden with all sorts of sweet things: pink and white meringues pressed together with whipped cream and, of course, a birthday cake. It was layered with whipped cream or strawberry jam and Happy Birthday was scrolled on top, with little candles – five, six or seven, depending on the age being celebrated – standing up in pink or blue rosettes in the frosting. After the birthday boy or girl blew out the candles with one big whoosh and made the obligatory secret wish, we sang Happy Birthday To You. Presents were opened and then games like Hide and Seek continued until a parent came to collect his or her offspring.

Growing up in a small town, we all knew each other, and usually the same group of kids circulated from birthday party to birthday party. I remember making a huge fuss about one invitation because we were going to be seated boy-girl-boy-girl. How we change! At another birthday party we used plastic straws for the first time and had to return them to be re-used.

As we grew older, we started having evening parties, perhaps for a birthday or just for the fun of it. The first of these that I went to was at my friend, Dorothy’s house. It was actually her older brother’s party but she and I made sure we were included. I wore a blue plaid skirt and a pink twinset decorated with a blue Fair Isle pattern. And I probably wore ankle socks! Dorothy wore stockings for the first time. The fight with my mother about wearing mascara was soon to begin.

Because we lived in a small town, went to the same high school and all knew each other, the “crowd” included a wider age group of young people – those of us who were around until we went off to university or wherever. During the winter and summer holidays, the kids who had been sent off to boarding school joined our ranks. We gathered at someone’s house, danced to Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole, and as the music slowed and the lights dimmed, made out, or some of us did. We called it smooching. Sometimes a carload of guys drove in from the nearby city, and that really made the girls’ night. The visit didn’t get reversed very often. My parents did not drive, but they let our black driver take me and some friends to a party in the city occasionally, perhaps to a holiday reunion. My mother was against a party I wanted to have, I must have been twelve or thirteen, but I plotted with friends and they called my mother and told her they were planning a surprise party for me. She was flattered, and the party happened, spilling out into our back garden, behind the servant’s quarters. I remember the dress I wore: white with sprigs of pink flowers, a sweetheart neck edged with pink, and a gathered skirt with a tulle underlay.

We were all, of course, white. This was in the apartheid era. We were all English-speaking. The Afrikaans-speaking kids who went to the Afrikaans medium school were never part of our scene. The crowd was mixed Jewish and non-Jewish, again the result of being juxtaposed in a small town.

My friend Estelle’s sixteenth birthday is the last of those parties from my high school years that I can clearly recall. Her parents managed the Royal Hotel, so she was able to have a large crowd in the dining room, which had been cleared for it. I have the photograph of us all there, with our names written on the back and I can still identify everyone. I go through it and see Peter who died young, Warren who committed suicide, also Jeffrey, Michael and Zalman who became doctors; only that Michael has outlived Zalman. There are also Jackie, widowed young and now deceased, Carol, divorced young and my oldest friend Shala. There is Estelle, a beautiful young woman, whose life played out tragically and who died of an overdose. And there are many, like me, who left the country during the unhappy apartheid years.

After I left South Africa, I seldom went back. But I did go home, as I call South Africa even after all these years away, for my nephew Dan’s bar mitzvah. Now thirteen, it was his Jewish coming-of-age. It was still during those apartheid years. And just like the celebrations of my youth, the religious ceremony and luncheon reception was followed by an evening party for Dan’s friends.

Shirley, the black maid, who had worked for my sister since my nephew was born and who had looked after him through thirteen years, summoned her son Stephen to the event – from the farm in Bopututswana where he lived with his grandparents. All dressed up, he looked like a city boy, even though in those days he was not allowed by law to live there with his mother. The two of them, mother and son, sat in the synagogue, two sole black figures in the white congregation, proudly listening to my nephew read his portion of the service.

In the early evening Dan’s friends started arriving. With religion and family served, it was their time to celebrate. They came in their running shoes and t-shirts, formal synagogue clothes off, for hot-dogs and hamburgers, and to rock with the DJ under the strobe lights of the instant teenage party package.

The grown-ups continued to drink outside in a desultory fashion – the communion of the evening scotch. At one time I went indoors for some more ice. I looked into the room where the youngsters were dancing, nice middle-class kids having a good time. Also watching them was the black boy Stephen, still all smartly dressed in the clothes specially bought for today. Although he was a boy the same age as the rest, not even one of the others so much as noticed him. He stood in the shadows, a boy as bright as the rest; but it would never even have occurred to them to include him. Did he feel left out? Would it ever even cross his mind – or would he even dare to think in those days – that he could ever be one of them? I stood helplessly in the doorway watching him watch the others.

9 Responses to “Writings / Creative Non-Fiction: Isme Benni”

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  1. Jan Lowenthal says:

    A very poignant story.

  2. Terry Macartney-Filgate says:

    This is a wonderful and moving account of growing up in Africa. You must keep adding to this memoir. There is a full book waiting to be finished.

  3. evan says:

    Bennie takes another slice out of South Africa B.C. (Before CODESA), with her usual finely observed (and somehow nostalgic) sampling. She says it how it was; Makeup…with warts and all.

  4. Peter Harcourt says:

    In those days, throughout the white English-speaking world, I guess all birthday parties were very much the same. Except in Toronto which was ever so WASP, it wasn’t blacks we excluded but Jews and Catholics.

    What a world we grew up in! It’s amazing that at least a few of us managed to emerge sane.

    • Darryl says:

      Our lives were a bubble of priviledge with limited insight of what it meant to be outside of that padded cocoon. The memories and images recreated in this narrative tell vivid a story of a place and time, not so long ago, that we need to remember – one complete with pink and white meringues and multiple tales of exclusion.

  5. Deborah Bernstein says:

    Your story has left me wanting to know more about your “characters”.

  6. Michael says:

    Powerful, Isme. I admire the way you present the children’s and teenage parties in an almost bland tone (though with evocative detail), with only here and there (the black driver, the servants’ quarters, the maid and her son at the synagogue) hints of the racism and privilege that were so unthinkingly, unfeelingly accepted, by the white (especially English-speaking? especially Jewish?) middle class. And then you shake us in the final paragraph, leaving us feeling sick. I read this to someone who has no connection with South Africa. It brought tears — of anger and sadness — to her eyes.

  7. Ellen says:

    I don’t know how you do it, Isme. Every story evokes a picture and an emotion for me, even though I’ve never been to S. Africa. Beautiful as always!

  8. Jenny Hacker says:

    There is such rich and evocative material here.. I would love to read more! I think Isme Bennie’s articles could be shaped into a wonderful book or feature film!!

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