It is very hard to write a tribute about someone you don’t know completely. Without question, I have known my mother all my life but I haven’t known her all her life and even during the periods where I am ‘qualified’ to talk about her, it is only from the perspective of one who has had the honour and privilege of being able to dip in and out of Veronica’s life – as has countless others. It is with this in mind that I write this tribute, not as one who is an authority, but rather as one who has had certain shared moments, encounters and revelations that I hope will in some instances resonate with others.
SMALL TOWN GIRL
As far as I am aware, Veronica Rose Lovett was born and raised in a small mining town called Middelburg on the outskirts of the area in South Africa then known as the Transvaal but now known as Mpumalanga. From what I can gather, her upbringing was complicated (a subject on which she made little effort to clarify to me), the relationships with her parents peculiar and she found the confines of a small town frustrating. It is not clear to me how or why it came to be so, but my mother spoke as if she were raised by her grandmother, a lady affectionately known to my mom as ‘Silver Granny’, a person whom by all accounts, was a consummate lady and someone who had a very strong sense of propriety and decorum and did not tolerate any deviation from respectability or etiquette. For those who know my mother, it is quite clear to see where her sense of decency was cultivated (although some might say my mother was always overly concerned about correctness).
My mother has always been very small and petite. To describe my mother as a little bird would not do her any injustice and if you didn’t know my mother you could also be forgiven for assuming she had the appropriate level of timidity to go with her diminutive stature – but of course you would be wrong (a subject on which we will touch on later). My mother’s lack of physical presence was also accompanied by an unassuming, sensitive and penetratingly deep intellect which in her developing years did her no favours as she was pushed up two standards at school and consequently resulted in her finishing her schooling at the age of fifteen. I am not sure what effect these promotions had on a very small girl (who would have been surrounded by people in her class who were at least two to three years her senior) but it may help to explain why my mother was the way she was.
My mother had ambitions for bigger and better things and was eager to escape her then life, although at that time, if you had pressed her to elaborate further on what those aspirations were, she would have been hard pressed to give you a clear and honest answer. As she began her grown-up life in Johannesburg my mom confessed to me in a moment of reflection that she was young, naive and stupid. Nothing highlighted this more so than her marriage to my father, Norman Tregurtha! That is not meant as a slight on my father’s character, but rather highlights the fact that my mother was married by the age of nineteen1. When asked why she married so young she didn’t really have an answer other than the fact that my father was a nice guy. And so my mother’s life truly began.
)1 Erratum – I was informed by my father after the memorial that my mother was in fact married by the age of twenty. My father however did not have any objection to the aspersions that were cast about his character as no doubt they were probably true! Regardless, my apologies.)
I cannot provide specifics about my mother or facts around the time her married life began, but I can say that by age 21 she had had her first child, was living on a construction site for a power station and at that time of their life, my parents were very poor. Prior to her being married, my mother worked as a secretary for a steel company and managed to secure my father one of his first jobs.
My mom did relate a few stories to me (about her) around that time of her life which may give you a sense of the type of person she was then. Two stories stand out in particular, namely my mother’s first meeting of my father’s immediate family and my mother’s first birth experience.
According to my mother, at the age of nineteen she was incredibly shy and correct to a fault. Contrast this to my father’s family, ‘the Tregurtha’s’, who were the exact opposite: loud, brash, confident, argumentative (in the way that only close families can be) and very, very big (my father and his two brothers were all well over six foot three and my grandmother was a ‘substantial woman’) to my mother they were like giants. Given the scenario, one can only imagine what my mother’s first experience must have been when thrust into the warm embrace of her new family. The family discussion was, according to my mother, a shouting match with loud people competing loudly for their points of view to be made…loudly – a bar room brawl would have sounded serene in comparison to the Tregurtha discourse over the dinner table. At the end of the evening and after saying her goodbyes my mother went home and sobbed. My mother always described her first meeting of the family as though it was one of the traumas she had had to endure in her life!
In a slightly different but not dissimilar vein my mother at 20 years was heavily pregnant with her first born, and was staying with her new parents-in-law. Of course my grandmother (and then my mother’s mother-in-law) had prepared a mid afternoon tea with all the trimmings which my mother had felt obliged to attend. Two hours or so into proceedings my mother had raised the prospect of going to the hospital so that the birth of my brother could be attended to. My mother received a short rebuke from her in-laws for being silly as one only had to worry about birth related matters once indeed the waters had broken to which my mother replied ‘they have broken, about two hours ago!’. Even then my mother’s unwillingness to upset the apple cart was very much part of her character.
By the late 70’s my parent’s life had progressed considerably from their days on the power station, they now had three children and were living a life of relative affluence in Pretoria. Despite her apparent achievements and ostensible life of ease, my mother took to studying psychology part-time through UNISA, this particular subject ignited an academic passion in her that would endure and remain a constant source of delight and intrigue for her for the rest of her life. It would be fair to say that at that time, my mother’s life was at its Zenith.
Quite clearly a Zenith that was tarnished because not too long after our days in Pretoria, our family moved to Cape Town to fulfill career ambitions which ultimately culminated in the divorce of my parents within a relatively short space of time. This was my mother’s welcome to Cape Town, a divorce and being saddled with the responsibility of raising three children.
I will say in parent’s defence, that both of them have remained good friends to the end despite their differences and that neither my mother nor my father ever took the opportunity to belittle the other to gain some sort of advantage with us as children. So much so that I have grown up with a skewed perception of divorce, if you had asked me as a child what divorce meant, I would have answered that it is something which means that your parents can’t live together but they are still good friends and can still meet up for Christmas lunch with their respective partners. Now that I have seen other examples of divorce and what it truly means for some, I realize how rare and enlightened my upbringing was. When I spoke to my mom about how my parents were able to maintain this type of relationship she explained that for her it took considerable effort and she endeavoured to maintain the status quo for the sake of the children at all costs, but it was not always easy.
THE MOTHER CITY
Although my mother was in her early thirties, in many ways she was still the young and naïve girl of nineteen but instead of dewy eyed ambition pervading her thoughts she now had more pressing matters of bills to pay and the frustration associated with getting her children into decent schools. My mother’s life was tough, and I as the youngest child did not have a clue.
Despite her predicament my mother still had her pride – and for those of you who know my mother, she has pride to spare! As an example when my mother attempted to buy her first house, the bank and the seller required that some individual stand surety for the transaction, my mother declared flatly that there was no-one to assist her with the surety ‘nor would she ask anyone for that type of assistance, (bearing in mind that she had no formal job at that time and she needed that property for the convenience of schooling and to provide a home for us children). My mother has never been sure of how or why she managed to buy that house in Kenilworth, but apparently the seller was impressed with my mother’s principles and had come to some agreement with the bank which had agreed to provide my mother with the finance. But when you asked my mother how it was possible to buy a house while unemployed, she always said that someone out there was looking after her (and that was one of my first glimpses into my mother’s more spiritual side).
Some may find it hard to believe, but my mother, certainly in her younger years was feisty, driven, determined, passionate … and she had a temper. I think looking back, the temper was borne out of fatigue, frustration, loneliness and weariness which only children can inflict on their parents, but despite my mother’s strength of will her frustrations would boil over particularly in the initial years of our ‘new’ life.
My mother’s start in Cape Town was hard, new life, no job, no friends but she soldiered on and her first real breakthrough was when she got a temp position as a PA’s assistant at the University of Cape Town (which was fortunate because she had a mortgage to pay!). There her life took off and she always remembered UCT with extreme fondness; and some of the friends she made there would be her best friends for the rest of her life. My mother loved the atmosphere of the university, the hubbub of young
people and the intellect of many of the people there. In a way, my mother had the opportunity to enjoy the university experience she had never had and she treasured her time there.
It was probably around this time that we learned about our mother’s ability to scold us by using the glare in her eyes when we embarrassed her in polite company, or when the company was less polite, my mother would discipline us by means of a swift kick under the table – those little legs had quite a reach! It was also during this time that we learned about key signals such as ‘F.H.B.’ which means Family Hold Back – a tactic we would employ as a family when we had guests visiting and there wasn’t quite enough food to go around. I have strong memories of how all the neighbourhood children would push start my mother’s car to get it started in the morning so we could get to school – on rainy days this pantomime was particularly exciting. I also have recollections of running to open the gate when my mother came home from work, she would pull into the driveway and hoot a particular rhythm. As I grappled with the gates, my brother would be ushering the neighbourhood children out the front door so as not to rouse any suspicion of the neighbourhood festivities that were going on there. I suspect my mother knew but given that her time was stretched to capacity, she had larger misdemeanors to worry about. Be that as it may, my mother loved the neighbourhood and the neighbourhood loved her, there was always a constant stream of people in and around our house when we were growing up.
My mother also had a softness for people we called ‘waifs and strays’ a term we used for those who were at a loose end – people who didn’t have families to go to for Christmas, someone who had recently gone through a traumatic break-up (you know the sort). So we would often have Christmas with individuals who had no place better to go but were guaranteed presents under our tree and treated as though they were always expected to come to us for Christmas.
Despite the rosiness of my memories, my mother must have been under considerable strain. We as children at the time, wittingly and unwittingly denied her the opportunity of finding support in the form of a life partner. She was working two jobs then, one at the university by day and another by night at an adult education centre for people of colour which bordered on one of Cape Town’s townships – at the height of the South African apartheid era. In hindsight it must have been nerve wracking for a single woman to be driving alone at night, in an unreliable car near the townships given the level of political uncertainty that existed in the country. In her spare time she used to type up academic theses for some of the lecturers for extra money. She had limited time to spend with her children and consequently may have missed some key opportunities to influence her children’s lives the way she would have ideally wanted to. This situation may have prompted my mother to send both my brother and sister to boarding schools for their high school years – although she never gave much indication, these were steps my mother regretted deeply and carried the consequent feelings of guilt with her throughout her life.
THE FAT YEARS
As a result of her situation, and despite her happiness at the institution, my mother left the university for a job in the clothing industry to earn more money. A move which proved successful. My mother had now managed to free up some of her time and I distinctly remember my mother enjoying herself and enjoying champagne breakfasts with her university friends that lasted all day! During that time I remember my mom as being her most carefree.
With the burden of motherhood slightly eased, my mother took to studying again, this time the subject of teaching, for reasons even she was not entirely sure of. My mother changed jobs again and began working for the Cape Town city council as a social worker. She moved from her beloved first house and she also found love of a sort that although was not conventional, was romantic and endured in its own peculiar way for the rest of her life. These years were free from the rigours and strain of coping and replaced with more aspirational pursuits – nothing significant ever came from these but the lean years (from my mother’s perspective) were certainly behind her.
It was during this time that I became more aware of how remarkable my mother truly was. For one thing she had an incredible tolerance for people I term ‘rouges’. People who were ‘a bit rough around the edges’ as my mother would euphemistically say. For reasons I am not entirely sure of, my mother showed more interest in drunks, addicts and people of unsavoury character than people one would normally expect my mother to associate herself with. And what was more remarkable was that the aforementioned ‘undesireables’ treated my mother with the kind of respect you would bestow upon royalty. They tried their utmost to never disgrace themselves in her company and would apologise profusely whenever inappropriate language ever did manage to escape into the conversation. In short, my mother was the most non-judgmental person one would ever come across and people instinctively knew that. She would listen attentively to their trials and tribulations, share in their joys and their sorrows and always put a positive spin on any situation without diminishing the severity of the particular subject at hand – it was a gift. Maybe my mother identified more with the rouges than she cared to admit (she did intimate that characters of that sort were very much a part of her life growing up) or maybe she valued the bald honesty that people of that kind so frequently display. Either way, it was something special.
Another aspect about my mother that I found incredible was the fact that she never held grudges (or very few!). Forgiveness is a word that is often bandied about but for my mother this word was actively applied. Whether this ability was an intrinsic part of my mother’s character or whether the years up to that point had taught her ‘to judge not’ is not clear, but my mother had the ability to endure, forgive and move on. I believe the reason why she could forgive others so freely was that in many respects my mother had learned to forgive herself and she allowed others the same amount of latitude. ‘When you know better, you do better’, is something my mother always said, which when she did, she would always have a wistful look on her face that was a mixture of self introspection and provision of moral advice. It is also one of her sayings that I hold very dear and unfortunately apply all too frequently. ‘When you know better, you do better’, when applied to oneself helps to deal with forgiveness of oneself, when applied to others helps to deal with forgiveness of others – this I have learned.
I also came to learn that my mother loved my friends. To be fair, she not only loved my friends, but she loved my brother’s and sister’s friends too. She loved her children’s friends, and in a strange way cultivated a unique relationship with each one of them to the point where it would not be unusual for me to visit my mother and find one of my friends or my sister’s friends having a cup of tea and catch up with her. I suspect this love of young people may have been one of the positive side-effects from working at the university but it also went deeper than that, my mom has always expressed intense concern and interest on matters related to the well-being of her children’s friends. As an aside it probably also gave her some insight into her own children’s character.
My mother communicated with me (and I suspect my siblings) in a peculiar way. We would often communicate in the realm of the unspoken and implied. It was not sufficient for my mother to actually say what was on her heart but one would have to glean her state of mind from her choice of words or discern her displeasure from a barbed comment beautifully presented. In this aspect my mother and I shared a special connection and it is one I treasure most dearly. By her example my mother impressed upon me the incredible power of words. She read prolifically and took great pleasure in using a word apposite to a particular situation. But more than that she demonstrated the actual power of language and only now do I see how that power plays out in my life. As an example, when I was a teenager, I remember coming home one day and expressing my disgust for a particular circumstance using words like ‘I hate’ etcetera etcetera – the moment those words left my mouth, I could see that my mother was visibly pained by what I had said and she begged me to express myself differently, she said ‘don’t say hate, it is such a terrible word, rather say ‘dislike’ or ‘have an extreme aversion to’ but please don’t say that, you cannot possibly feel that way’. Of course being a teenager I wanted my mother to realize the extent of my displeasure and used additional words such as abhor, loathe and detest (these all elicited similar reactions from my mother). That said, the exchange I had with my mother regarding one’s choice of words left an indelible mark on my life. I slowly began to realize that in the main, my mother
only used positive language and that the words she used played out in her life (and mine) to a significant degree.
For those who knew my mother intimately they would have known that despite her positive outlook and her willingness to see the best in all situations and all people she did have a hard edge to her character.
I remember bemoaning my fate following some incident in my life and my mother took me to task by saying ‘The world doesn’t owe you any favours. What makes you think that you’re so special?’. Hearing words like that from my mother (of all people) penetrated deeply and I personally feel that at her core it was one of her fundamental character traits. My mother did not tolerate self-pity.
Despite my mother’s full exposure to the harsh realities of life, she still held on to lofty ideals. She loved going to operas and musical theatre and enjoyed the myriad of cultural pursuits that Cape Town had to offer. She also loved interacting with people of genuine refinement, while people who insisted on pretending to be something they were not, were given a wide berth. My mother tried her best to instill a similar love for the arts in me, I must have disappointed her greatly in that regard!
One fact that may not have been apparent to those who knew my mother was that she was a consummate worrier. Not for herself but for everyone else. When bad news afflicted those she loved,
my mother would often be unable to sleep and would be angst ridden for days after. I remember her telling me how she cried upon receipt of the news that one of my sister’s friends had opted for a divorce
– not that my mother could influence the situation in the slightest, but still my mother applied vast amounts of emotional energy to all matters that affected love ones.
Perhaps it was this ability to worry for the benefit of others that made my mother so generous. While it is true to say my mother was not overtly rich (in the material sense), she was certainly a lady of means and would often provide financial support to me and my siblings without hesitation. If required, she would assist her family even to her own detriment. Fortunately for us, she was never tested to that degree but whenever we were in need my mother provided support without question and without hesitation.
After several happy years working for the council and at least a decade of relative stability in my mom’s life, my mother had her first brush with the dark spectre of breast cancer in 2004. It would be fair to say my mom’s spirit took a severe knock and the lady I had come to know as my mother changed. Not for better or for worse but just different. I imagine the change came as a result of my mom’s indomitable spirit coming to terms with its own mortality – an unpleasant prospect for any campaigner who was as yet undefeated. The first cancer saga also revealed to me the extent of my mother’s pride and her intense desire to carry on with life and pretend as though nothing happened. For those who knew her this was a most infuriating aspect of my mother’s character as it effectively denied those closest to her any opportunity to demonstrate love for her by providing any form of care and support (because my mother always acted as if nothing was wrong despite the contrary). But given her background how could you blame her? She had always relied on her inner strength to get her through those difficult times – acceptance of assistance from outside was a concept foreign to her.
The other manner in which the onset of cancer mortally wounded my mother’s pride was that of her appearance because she effectively lost the ability to pretend that all was right with the world. If you asked me what factor about my mom’s illness affected her the most it would not be the pain of chemotherapy, the mastectomy or the confirmation of one’s own mortality, but rather it was (for my mother) the humiliation of losing her hair. Even to her death, we as her children have had to wrestle with my mother’s unyielding pride.
THE CRONY YEARS
Following my mom’s victory over her breast cancer and her subsequent retirement from full-time work two years later, my mother entered a metaphorical vacuum in her life which I have dubbed ‘The Crony Years’ for reasons which will become clear later. As a whole I don’t think my mother truly enjoyed her retirement years. For sure if you asked if she was happy she would respond in the affirmative with enthusiasm, but as we know, what my mother said and how she truly felt were often two very different things. It was a time when we as children had flown the nest and my mother had oodles of free time, bliss for some but a torment for my mother who had worked diligently her entire life with very few holidays to speak of. It was then that my mother’s friends came to the fore. That special group of ladies(and one or two gents) who I have affectionately nicknamed her ‘cronies’. They know who they are, but to give others a sense of who they were, they were the book-club cronies, the hiking/walking group cronies, the U3a cronies, the bridgeclub cronies and her old work cronies. Cronies in all their glorious splendor and a real source of comfort and support to my mother. The feelings of guilt I felt for abandoning my mother were assuaged by the knowledge that my mother’s cronies were there for her. Myself and my brother and sister owe the cronies a deep debt of gratitude for being there for my mother when we couldn’t be.
And as I reflect on my mother and her life there are certain images and thoughts which spring to mind which don’t necessarily fit neatly into an account of her life, like when she laughed she always had to wipe the tears from her eyes. That she was a very intelligent lady, not in a know-it-all kind of way, but one who relied heavily on her intuition which was usually correct. That she was deeply spiritual but actively eschewed the hypocrisy (in her view) of the religious. Would die of embarrassment for those who embarrassed themselves publically (author included). Would love a tipple of brandy and coke in the privacy of her home (because drinking brandy and coke implied negative connotations about one’s character). Would always whisper when she swore as if that would somehow lessen the severity of word! How she would light up when she came to babysit my son and how she would sit quietly in some corner of some or other braai with some poor waif or stray pouring their hearts out to her. That to me was my mother.
It is unusual for a man to have a woman as his role model. Perhaps even more unusual for a son to want to grow up to be like his mom.
Veronica Rose Tregurtha, Veronica, V, Mrs Tregurtha, Mrs T, little Ronnie, Ronky, the Ronc, Babes, Granny Verky, Aunty Ron, little Granny, mom, ma, mommy – we are going to miss you.
With love, God bless.