Sunday, 1 August 2010

In memory of Mama Jo

Beatrice Josephine Thomas was born in Port Nolloth on the West Coast on 21 September 1918, to Edward Alfred Thomas of St Helena Island and Hannah Maria Goner of Matroosfontein. Mama Jo left Port Nolloth at the age of 15, to study teaching at Zonnebloem College in Hanover Street, District Six, Cape Town. She finished her studies in 1936 and started teaching under Miss Kay the following year, earning the princely sum of 8 pounds 6 & 8 (about 16c in current Rand terms).

Mama first met Leslie Douglas Cooper when she was seven years old, when her family visited Cape Town. They stayed in regular contact, with the families meeting and praying together. They courted for many years, and one of Mama Jo's favourite memories was of Papa Les being best man at Uncle Charlie's wedding, but dancing only with her the entire night - not one dance with the bridesmaids.
They got engaged at the age of 24, and married just after Papa turned 26 - on 23 December, 1944. Their son, Russell Gregory Cooper, was born on 22 October 1947. Mama Jo and Papa Les were married 57-and-a-half years when Papa died on 19 July 2002, and up until the day she died, Mama missed the love of her life. Her most-cherished memory of Papa was the way he used to rub her back every night until they fell asleep - the best ending to her day. 

Mama liked her family, friends and acquaintances to call her Jo or Joey - never Beatrice. To me, Mama was inextricably linked to the memory of food. Some of my most cherished and detailed memories are of being in the big old kitchen in Meteor Way, Wetton, with Mama cooking up vats of jam, baking delicious home-made bread or biscuits, or making one of her fine meat dishes. I do believe that the wide variety of oddities Mama fed me - including brains, heart, periwinkles, perlemoen and the like - geared me for a lifetime of trying every type of food imaginable. She told me once that it was her West Coast upbringing that led her to preserving, pickling, or making in large quantities, to put by at a later stage. 

Ricki and I used to go on holiday to Durban with Mama and Papa every year and she always made the most amazing pies as padkos - in fact, I asked her to baked me a batch a few years ago so that I could use freeze them to eat when I went on road trips. Mama didn't consider herself a chef, but a cook - she said a good cook helped make a real home because everyone would want to come home at night. 

Mama Jo was not only a consummate cook, she could bake, too. Her cheesecake was sublime - for the past few years, whenever I came to Cape Town, I would call ahead and ask her to make me a cheesecake that I could take back home to Johannesburg. It would barely last 24 hours! And only a select few friends ever got to try it. 

Not only was Mama a veritable artist in the kitchen, she was also the person who put me on the road to reading voraciously. As a teacher, Mama was a stickler for good grammar and writing. Reading her letters and even her recipes was a pleasure. She had the most beautiful handwriting and she loved the art of letter-writing. She taught me to love reading and, even though our tastes in books were vastly different, it's thanks to her influence that her grandchildren read almost anything we can find.

Mama and Papa were a real team and when their grandchildren arrived, they were focused on spoiling us. I remember when I came back from Joburg for the first time; they knew I loved mushrooms, so they prepared a full meal for me made up of various mushroom dishes. Mama and Papa used to look after Gary every day until he went to primary school, and on weekends Papa would make him little toys and Mama would bake him special cookies. These may seem like small and insignificant details, but it's the small things we remember and that colour our memories of those we love. 

Part of the way they spoiled us was that Papa and Mama would drive us everywhere because they didn't want us to take public transport, and she would sit in the front seat like a queen. When Papa died, we didn't think that she was going to live for very long, because she loved him so much and they did everything together - something she encouraged us to do with our life partners. Even though it's Mama Jo's funeral, there's a lot of mention of Papa Les. That's because they were inextricably linked and one didn't do anything without the other.

For a long time, Mama used to have conversations with Papa Les after his death, because she couldn't bear the thought that he was gone, and it comforted her to think that he was there, and listening, even though she knew she was only putting words in his mouth. She said that eventually the time came when he had to move on, and she no longer felt the need to speak to him out loud, because he had gone ahead to wait for her. That gave her real comfort, although she never stopped missing and loving him. 

I haven't seen Mama regularly for many years, especially since I've been in Joburg for 19 years. Ricki tells me that Mama had a routine that was almost military in nature, and she stuck to that routine even after she moved into the main house in March last year. At three o'clock every afternoon she would have her devotions. She would also secretly wash and clean the kitchen most afternoons and Ricki had to tell her when it was five to four so she could hurry back to her chair so Daddy didn't know what she was up to. At four o'clock, when Daddy arrived home, the first thing he had to do was make her a cup of tea. She would rather have tea made by him than by anyone who was looking after her. She would also take great pride in the fact that she was a teacher and would give Jessica extra reading and writing lessons up until the week before Mama Ella died. 

Mama loved attending church at St Aidan's on a Wednesday or a Sunday, and it was a great disappointment to her that her infirmity and illness made it impossible to attend as regularly as she would have liked in recent months. 

She loved her great-granddaughters immensely and took great delight in relaying stories of things they had done or said. One of her favourite stories was of her youngest great-granddaughter, Dylan, who is unable to pronounce her r's. She told Dylan to say "run, rabbit, run," and Dylan's response was "Jo, labbits don't lun, they hop." 

Whenever Ricki went to Joburg, she says Mama would always want to know how I was doing, in exact detail. Mama could be a very difficult woman as she wanted things her own way and she was a real perfectionist. She was a very proud woman, too, and she enjoyed it when her talents were noticed and remarked upon. I guess that's why she was so pleased when every year I would ask for something handmade by her - like her handknitted socks ... a pair of which I am wearing today. She loved making and doing, not sitting by idly. She loved working on crosswords every single day and writing out recipes to share, and passing on her knowledge of certain cooking tips and shortcuts. She loved knitting, and used to knit clothing for Aids babies and, in fact, I am told that she was working on a pair of socks when she died ... most likely for my birthday in September. 

Mama really appreciated everything that Mommy and Daddy did for her, and never wanted to be a burden to them. She would often tell Ricki that she was worried about Mommy being tired and having two old women to look after. She depended greatly on Daddy for most things, especially after Papa died, and her grandson, Gary was her personal chauffeur and assistant. She loved her nephews and nieces dearly and enjoyed buying them gifts when it was their birthday. When it was her birthday, she would prepare the food and either Ricki or Mommy would set the table and she would sit from 5pm waiting for her family to arrive so she could celebrate with them. In fact, she loved having visitors in general and would take great pleasure in preparing tea, cakes and biscuits for them. Mama loved the art of conversation and detested the way that cellphones intruded on these, especially at mealtimes, when the family had gathered. 

Mama's passing was a great shock to all of us because not only did she desire to live to 100 years old, but she seemed in fairly good health and her mind was still sharp until just a week before her death. Mama was there with her old friend, when Mama Ella passed on almost a month ago. She read Psalm 23 to Mama Ella as my mother prayed for her mother, and it was likely a great shock to her that her companion of the last eight years, someone her own age, had died right in front of her. It might have brought her to a realisation of her own mortality. Coupled with that, it was the eighth anniversary of Papa Les' death on Monday the 19th, and he would have been clear in her mind as every year, she had flowers made for the Wall of Remembrance here at St Aidan's. It may have been comforting to her to know that Mama Ella had gone to her Frank, and now the time had come for Mama Jo to be reunited with Papa Les. 

Before I end this tribute, on behalf of my parents, Russell and Hazel, I would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to my sister, Ricki, for being Mommy's right hand when it came to taking care of our grandmothers, and to my brother, Gary, for being there when needed. 

There are many stories we could tell about Mama Jo, and we encourage you to reflect on what has been said here and remember your relationships with her and the moments that stick in your mind and define Mama Jo for you. Thank you all for gathering here with us today to celebrate the life of Mama Jo.

1 comment:

Go ahead, make me laugh.

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