Strawberry Exchange

Sketches in ink – 43

My grandfather, born this week in 1908, retired from his position as underground manager at one of the copper mines on the Copperbelt, Zambia at the age of 45. He spent some time thereafter as a caretaker of an apartment block, for which pleasure he and my grandmother got to live in the flat on the top floor. He used a large space in the basement to make wooden tables inlaid with slabs of marble. I loved the excitement of getting stuck midway between floors in the old-fashioned lift with him one day when I was small.

I have no idea why he and my grandmother decided to buy a five-acre plot in Benoni, then a rural area near Johannesburg, South Africa in about 1970, when I was six.

They lived in a pre-fabricated structure with a concrete hardstanding and froze for two winters while he built a very small house. I remember squinting in the sun, looking up at him and my father aligning the roof trusses one weekend. When that got monotonous, I picked the black-jack seeds (Bidens pilosa) off my corduroys.

They planted strawberries on those five acres – by hand. At the time, my mother, the hard worker, said it was madness for her parents to work so hard at their age. For all the detail I remember, I have no recollection of ever once seeing my grandfather’s handwriting. Until a month ago. I was looking at a box of old photos with my father while on holiday, and I came across an small old leather photo wallet belonging to my mother. Behind a photo of my grandfather was a folded piece of of blue paper. It was a letter written by him in February 1973, some ten months before he died, and the first February my immediate family were in our new place of abode in Salisbury, Rhodesia (now called Harare, Zimbabwe). The letter thanked us for the long distance telephone call to wish him a happy 65th birthday.

Since I was one of the addressees, I read it out aloud. It transported me back to the dark soil on the plot with just a hint of deep red and the long mounded rows of young strawberry plants; the adults stood around for ages talking on and on about the hows and whys and wherefores of planting strawberries, while my sister and I ran up and down the rows, and jumped from one row to another – and then being obedient (which was very hard) when my mother told us not to damage the strawberries.

I have transcribed the letter, exactly as it is written (except for the addition of three apostrophes) 🙂 :

Dear Dorothy Peter Allison & Jen
Thank you all for the
Birthday greetings. I am
starting to feel my age now
can’t take it like I used to
do, the Strawberry Exchange went
broke owing us R1,000 which has
been a set back for us. I was
depending on the money to get
the next crop in next month but
will have to cut down to
a small crop instead which is very
disappointing, because if we plant
early in March you get a
fantastic crop. a big crop
would also help to sell the
place. That’s enough about my
It was good talking to
you all. How did you know
we were at June’s place
God Bless you all
So glad you are all
keeping well & happy.
Your loving Dad
& Gran Pa

1. R1,000: One thousand South African Rand.
2. June’s place: June, my mother’s sister, lived in Johannesburg.

Grandpa's letter

The letter was all the more special, I suppose, because it was not my grandfather, but my grandmother who wrote to my mother every week, as mine does to me now.

The photo above of the strawberries is from the packet of seeds I aim to plant this weekend. And yes, years later and thousands of miles away from Benoni, I will probably still have to pick black-jacks off my trouser bottoms. I hope I get a fantastic crop, albeit a very small one.

©2015, Allison Wright

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