Monday, January 24, 2011

The Smiths - Part I

Have you ever met someone and just had the feeling they were kind of a big deal? Not so much in the Ron Burgundy sense, but in the grand scheme of things sense – like you were somehow always meant to cross paths with them, like you might have already held their hand in a former life. They’re like an express stop on the subway; you can take the A, C, or E train, you can go fast or slow, you can stop for a coffee in DUMBO or a meeting in SoHo, but eventually you’re going to end up at 14th Street, no matter what. It’s just the way the plan goes. That’s how it felt when I met the Smiths.
You must be the American. I looked up from the glowing screen on my lap to find a scruffy man with grey-stroked hair and a clever smirk standing over me. I’m Tony! Sorry I’m late to fetch you… Holy shit – is that your bag? Nice packing, man! Oh, sorry – is that rude? I tend to curse uncontrollably. Hope that’s ok with you! Queen of the sailor-tongue, I let out a broad grin. Well, are you ready to roll?
I’d been connected with the Smiths through one of my favorite college pals named Robert. He’d stayed with them while studying abroad in South Africa a few years ago, and I had heard him wax poetic about his African family since the moment I met him. When I arrived in Cape Town he sent me their info and insisted I get in touch with them. I emailed to ask them if we could meet up for lunch or something and they immediately wrote back: Lunch? Are you mad? You must come for the weekend! We’ll fetch you on Friday! And so here I was, sitting next to the infamous Tony Smith, on our way out to the ‘burbs. 
You must tell me about yourself so I can decide if I like you or if you’re the female version of Wilson Cecil. …Wilson Cecil? I really hope you’re not the female version of Wilson Cecil. The girls will be very disappointed to hear that. Shame! With a loud laugh, Tony shifted the car into high gear and pulled onto the N2 towards Stellenbosch. I couldn’t help but smile – I had no idea what the hell this guy was talking about, but somehow I knew I liked him. He reminded me of my favorite college professor: booming laugh, brilliant mind, and a touch of the crazies.
I told him a little about myself, about my plan (or lack thereof) for the trip, and about how I was struggling to decide what to do or where to go next, stranded in the middle of a field of freedom. Well, what are your options? I’ll tell you what to do. He turned to me with smirk in tow, eyebrows raised. I told him about the backpacker bus along the coast, the overland camping possibilities, and my dreams of East Africa. When I finished, he said, Which one scares you the most? Which one makes you nervous? I paused for a second to think. That’s what you should do. Whatever just popped into your mind. That’s what I would do. I bet you’re like my wife. She has a bad habit of wanting to be too comfortable. You gotta fight that shit. I mean stuff. You gotta throw on that thousand-kilo backpack and march out into the wilderness, man. That’s what I’d tell her to do. Not that she gives a rag what I say. But you probably shouldn’t listen to me – I’m kind of a bastard. My wife will tell you I’m a bastard. I mean it, right in front of me, she’ll tell you. And it’s true! He slapped the steering wheel and laughed his firecracker laugh. Oh man… this was going to be good.
As we pulled into the Smith driveway, Ingrid and their daughter, Jessie, were waiting for us on the front stoop, looking equally excited and concerned. I met Ingrid in the warmth of a giant, soothing hug. After greeting me, she turned and placed her hands on either side of Tony’s face for a loving kiss. Then she replaced them on my shoulders, looked me in the eye and said, I truly apologize for whatever this crazy man has said to you on the way here. He’s a total bastard. I let out an irrepressible snort. Told you! Tony shouted with glee. What? What are you talking about? Ingrid asked, eyes wide with confusion, as we made our way into the house.
After an equally welcoming embrace, Jessie took me on the grand tour of the Smith household. Here’s the kitchen, that’s the living room, that’s the dining room, down that hall is where we sleep – you probably won’t be going there, unless you’re a total creeper. Or Wilson Cecil. From the other room, I heard Tony explode with knee slaps and laughter. That’s your little shed out back, and those are the killer rabbits – if you like your fingers, don’t stick them anywhere near that cage. They’re assholes.  I heard the collision of teacup and saucer in the other room.  Jessie! Don’t say assholes! She just got here!
During a delicious meal of leftover barbequed chicken and coleslaw from younger daughter Emily’s ballet fundraiser, we bonded over our mutual love of New England, Thanksgiving, and Robert, the American Jew (What, Mom!? He IS Jewish! …Are you Jewish, Lyssa? What, Mom!? I’m just curious!). Ingrid apologized many times for the unceremonious meal and her family’s obvious lack of modesty. I assured her over and over again that it was more than fine; in fact, I spent the whole meal thinking about how wonderful it was to see such a dynamic family in motion. The last thing I wanted was for them to slow down, fly right, and offer me a fancy dinner. I enjoyed the warmth of being folded right into the family dough.
I learned that their oldest, Simon, was living in Jeffrey’s Bay for music school – He’s basically crazy just like my dad… but a little quieter. – and their youngest, Emily, was out with friends: Which is good, cause she’d be mortified right now. Like throwing a fit. Emily was apparently the family propriety police, which was a tough job that left her in a fairly constant state of embarrassment. I guess somebody has to be, right? I mean, we’re pretty embarrassing. Amid laughter almost to tears, Ingrid told a recent story of Tony making an inappropriate scene with fresh produce at the supermarket that resulted in Emily storming out to lock herself in the car. I knew the feeling exactly, and countered with the time my dad humiliated me the whole way down the main street in Burlington: eyes crossed, tongue hanging out, and foot dragging like Igor as he clung to my arm and shouted “Yesth, Masther! Yeeeesth!”. Tony loved that one. He vowed to use it next time he sensed Emily was getting too comfortable with him in public.
After such an introduction, I expected Emily to be the anxiety-ridden trembling bunny of the family. As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Even the Smith “stick in the mud” was still a member of this incredible family, and she could give Lucille Ball a serious run for her money. Or at least make you snort hot tea up your nose… more than once.
Jessie soon claimed her space as the “problem child” – I’m ADHD like you would not believe. I pretty much drive the world insane on a daily basis. But I knew there was more to her than that; Robert had told me about how Jessie is going to save the world, and I could see that fire in her from the moment we met. Well, I hope so. Someday. I’m taking a gap year to go to work at an orphanage in Ethiopia after I graduate, actually. Tony and his signature grin explained that, though there were plenty of orphaned children right here in South Africa, the best ones were definitely in Ethiopia. Dad! You don’t even know what you’re talking about!
But my favorite thing to witness over the course of dinner was the way Tony’s wonderfully frenetic energy was balanced and complimented by Ingrid’s calm warmth (and occasional frenetic outburst of her own). She was so clearly the bright, pulsing heart of the family, quietly keeping everything running and blanketed in love. Something about her reminded me of the actress, Emma Thompson, who I’ve always thought to have a deeply good heart and amazing mind. Ingrid surely has both. And the connection to Robert was so clear – she (and the rest of her family) had the exact same kind, open, curious spirit that I’d come to know in him. I couldn’t wait to spend more time with her. With all of them.
By the end of our epic first dinner, I had already been invited to borrow the family car and stay in the guesthouse as long as I wanted. I don’t know if you can tell by the 15 animals we have, and the revolving door of foreign students we’ve housed, but we like to collect people. We’d love to have you stay indefinitely. Does that suit? At that moment, I wanted nothing else in the world but to stay forever and be adopted into this family. Being around them made me feel bright and funny and alive, like the best version of myself. I wanted to forget the rest of my trip and be a Smith… I thought for a second and then asked aloud, But what if I turn out to be the female version of Wilson Cecil? A rip of laughter came from Tony’s end of the table. Oh I like her! She can definitely stay!
I still have no real idea who Wilson Cecil is. I just know he stayed with them and didn’t go out the front door of their house for three weeks. Can’t say that I blame him, really.
The next morning, I awoke in my own little guest house to the sound of Jessie’s voice outside. She’s not up yet. Can I go wake her up!? I want to wake her up! Then I heard a younger, unfamiliar voice. Jessieeeeee! Leave her alone! That’s so rude! I made my way out of my cozy bed and across the cobblestones to the kitchen, where I was introduced to Emily, Rooibos tea, and Ingrid’s buttermilk rusks. Let me tell you, those rusks will change your life. I got the recipe, and if you’re extra nice to me, I’ll share some with you when I get home.
Emily was shy at first, and very curious as to the extent of mortifying damage her family had done the night before, but she soon opened up into her incredible Jim Carey faces and dead-pan impressions. With her sense of concern for decorum and sophisticated sense of humor, she’s a bit like a 40 year old trapped in a twiggy, 14 year old body. And the best part about Emily is how easily she can laugh at herself – a rare find in a teenage girl. She may not always find her family’s antics as funny as I do, but it’s clear that she’s cut from the same cloth, whether she likes it or not. If she’s the glue that holds their decency together, she’s definitely Krazy glue, not your average Elmer’s.
After meeting Emily, I decided that she and Jess must take their sister stand-up on the road someday. I would personally pay lots of money to watch them go back and forth for hours on topics like Gossip Girl and Zac Efron. I’m just lucky I got to do it for free. And the girls made a decision of their own: in order to ensure my place as a permanent member of the family, I’d have to marry either their brother, Simon, or their adopted brother, Robert. I said I’d have to talk to them about that.
Both the girls had studying to do that day, and Tony had some project cooking, so Ingrid and I made a plan-du-jour that involved four of my favorite things in the world: shopping at a local craft fair, driving through beautiful countryside, tasting amazing wines, and eating lots and lots of cheese. We took off into the mountains after breakfast.
As we worked our way through the winelands east of Stellenbosch, Ingrid and I talked about everything from townships to relationships as if we’d known each other for the better part of a lifetime.
She told me about the latest violent incident in the local township – a young, white, male Stellenbosch University student had recently been murdered while walking around Kayamandi late at night. The university students were now up in arms about this latest in a string of disturbing events and the town was on edge. Some people just don’t understand that simply because apartheid is in the past doesn’t mean its wounds are healed. You just cannot go walking around the townships like that after dark. I don’t know what he was thinking. And we have very good friends who live in Kayamandi – my children stay with them often – but you can’t go wandering around without having a real connection there, without people watching out for you. Our friends have lived there for 15 years without a single violent incident. In fact, they feel safer there than in the white part of town because the criminals don’t break into houses in Kayamandi; they do it in our neighborhood. But there is still serious danger there, and these kids just don’t get it. The really sad part is that I think, in a way, things are much worse now than they used to be. I grew up in this town, never afraid to walk the streets alone, but my kids can’t do the same. They can’t ride the train into Cape Town. They can’t walk anywhere without concern. They can’t even be in the house without locking every door. I mourn the loss of my children’s freedom.
She told me about how Stellenbosch has traditionally been an Afrikaans-speaking town, with an Afrikaans university, and that this, too, was now adding to local tensions. The university has always taught its undergraduate classes in the traditional Boer/Coulered language, and the debate regarding whether to teach in English or even Xhosa was now a hot button topic. Afrikaans is no longer the national first language and is often branded as the language of apartheid, and Stellenbosch is one of the top universities in South Africa, so some concessions and changes are being made. Ingrid is of English decent, but speaks Afrikaans fluently thanks to a childhood spent in Stellenbosch. Tony and her children speak very little, despite the required classes in school, and it saddens her that they haven’t grown up with both languages. The increasing backlash against and marginalization of the Afrikaans language appears to be creating even more lines of division these days. Just what South Africa needs.
As we climbed an incredible mountain pass, I told her that her country, with all its beauty and complexity, makes me ache inside. It’s a fascinating, terrible feeling to be falling in love with something that also makes you so sad. Welcome to our world, my darling.
Mostly, Ingrid and I talked a lot about love. We discussed the many ways in which the family you were born with, or the one you create, can both fill your heart and break it at the same time. We planned out our dear friend, Robert’s, future, involving the great success and deep love he deserves in return for all that he gives. We dissected the relationships of my past and decided on what the men of my future should look like: older, tall, adaptable, adventurous, devastatingly handsome,  and always an equal. And he must like animals and children. I’m telling you – that’s the key. Most importantly, Ingrid said something to me after our fifth wine sample and 50th cheese that I will never forget. She said it with such sincerity and such little fanfare, that it simply took my breath away. Through anything and everything we’ve been through, I know I absolutely, without a doubt, picked the perfect partner for me. The most wonderful part was how positively I knew that to be true.
For dinner that night, we ate, almost exclusively, the truckloads of cheese we had returned with from our travels. It’s a miracle I didn’t expire from lactoverload that day. Between bites, I explained to my new favorite people that I did, in fact, have to return to Cape Town the next day, as much as it killed me. I’d promised a certain British girl that I’d be back in the city for Halloween night adventures, and though they graciously invited her to come stay as well, I knew I had to finish up my time in CT before I could go planting myself out here. We all sat quietly and a bit depressed for a while, trying to figure out how this wouldn’t have to be the last we’d see of each other. Stellenbosch is not exactly a quick cab ride from CT and the train was not an option they’d let me consider. After going over my possible routes onward from the city again, we discovered that the backpacker bus along the coast could drop me in Stellenbosch and pick me up again when I was ready to leave. It was perfect. We made a plan that I would return in a week or two and we’d pick up right where we left off.
It was truly hard to say goodbye to them the next day, even knowing I would return soon. I didn’t want to leave the comfortable warmth they’d wrapped me in or the fantastic high I’d had all weekend – the one that comes from laughing too hard for too long. I wanted so much more time with this amazing couple who breathed-in, questioned, and reveled in all that life had to offer, and were teaching their kids to do the same. No family is perfect – I know they’d be the first to say they’re far from it – and I’m incredibly lucky to have an amazing family of my own (with an extra one in Chicago, actually). But this family was getting something right in a way I’d never really witnessed before, and all I wanted was to soak it up for a while. I wanted to become a Smith by osmosis. But that would just have to wait...

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