My mother died on Sunday night, the 28th of April, 2013. It seems strange to say these words, almost ethereal, but I know they are the truth. I have chosen not to travel back to South Africa for her funeral as these religious ceremonies conflict with my intense atheist belief that death is the final end and therefore the purpose of the funeral is not to send the dead soul off to some nirvana but rather to provide closure for the living. The singing of hymns and other deity worship activities would in any case conflict with my Mother’s rejection of Catholicism and her dismissive retorts towards what she regarded as insipid happy clappers. As I am estranged from my father and do not have a close relationship with my sister I will find closure and a way to honour her memory without the cost, expense and family drama a long and arduous trip around the world would require. This prose is how I intend to give words to my feelings, make sense of my grief as well as provide my children with a sense of who their remarkable granny Pat really was.
Patricia Maureen Holgate (nee Leamy) was born in on the 13th of November, 1936 in Johannesburg to a father of Irish heritage, John Martin Leamy. Her mother, Herculina Johanna Visagie (affectionately known as “Hettie”), from a Dutch background converted to the prevailing Catholic ideology. I never met my maternal grandfather, but my mother was very proud of a father that had become the General Manager of Simmer & Jack Mine (then the largest gold mine in the world) while having the rare distinction of qualifications for both career tracks in mining – that of a mine captain and mine engineer. My sense is that he had a greater influence on her than her mother. His influence extended to her upbringing as a weekly border at a Catholic convent as well as her sharing his uncompromising insistence that if you are going to do a job, you had better do it right.
The focus of ambition
My mother always expected my sister and I to achieve a lot. It was an explicit expectation that we achieve everything we were capable of. She had studied law and ran the technical library for Metal Box. Having married an exceptionally intelligent man who was a Chartered Accountant it is no surprise that hard work, education and drive were part of the implicit rules that drove us.
She was not one for any of the noveau riche social climbing ambitions of private schools and detested those who put on airs and whom she felt were acting above their station. When I once suggested that I might send my future children to a prestigious private boarding school, such as the one my father had attended, I was promptly lectured on how such an action would be an abdication of my parenting responsibility and how it had failed my half-brother Quentin. Needless to say my sister and I both went to local government schools and appear none the worse from the experience.
At school however, my sister proved the diligent one, never missing a day of class in twelve years and becoming a school counselor (a leadership role in her matric year). I must have disappointed her tremendously when I barely scraped through high school, unable to enter the university courses I wanted due to my poor mathematics and science marks. In fact, her threats to send me to the Krugersdorp Reform School if I didn’t sort myself out were made with all seriousness and were instrumental in me even finishing high school.
ADHD was not understood when I attended school and my mother’s admonishments to improve my marks and her dedicated oversight and the extra tutoring she arranged did not seem to help. Usually there was an escalation in pressure after a visit to the school principal where she had to justify why my school results were so dramatically divorced from the IQ test results. In hindsight, I can understand that what she regarded as my laziness, impulsivity and lack of responsibility comes from a time when this disorder was not understood. Perhaps her suggestion that I switch from an academic track to a technikon trade might have been a pragmatic solution.
I did internalize a lifetime of watching her admiration for success and achievement and as an army conscript I began studying towards the first of my degrees. My sister has taken her studies to the highest level and this was a source of tremendous pride for my mother. She never stopped mentioning how proud she was of Claudia’s achievements in being an emergency paramedic, world traveler, educator and scientist.
Despite some rocky patches I did manage to grow one of my businesses (Albagas Ltd) into the fourth largest distributor of separated packaged industrial gas on behalf of Air Products and Chemical Industries in Africa. Just when I thought I had achieved something of substance in the business world my mother sent me an email mentioning that Elon Musk had just sent a rocket ship into space with his company Space X and asking how my career was progressing. The implication was obvious. She set the bar incredibly high and while I doubt I could ever have met her expectations, it still powers the ambition behind my entrepreneurial endeavors.
The pleasure of music
I have memories of my mother playing a piano she had inherited. The upright machine had once held beautiful extending candelabras and only small scars existed where they had been removed. The tin backing produced a heavy furniture piece with a beautiful sound and my mother played Beethoven sonatas, Grieg melodies and popular music of the time such as Caravans by Barbara Dixon.
Even before we started school I went to the Yamaha music academy in Illovo. Alas, my desire to play soccer or cricket outside with my friends instead of practicing my scales lead to many tears (mine) and frustration (hers) as none of the threats, bribes or tiger mom tactics worked. I stopped practicing piano in short order and only resumed it a few years ago, when as an adult I could more clearly appreciate the pleasure of ever increasing mastery that my mother attempting to teach me.
My mother was not one to waver on what she felt was important and did not give up with inculcating a love of music simply because I was recalcitrant to practice piano. Instead she switched tactics and took us with her to performances by the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra. In her mind, educated people appreciated the beauty, sophistication and pleasure of listening to, and performing, classical music.
My mother had a beautiful voice. Even though she was a smoker for much of her life, her pitch perfect sound was passed on. I recall listening to her sing hymns at Sunday Mass without the usual temerity of those around us. My initial embarrassment soon gave way to an appreciation that singing guided by diaphragmatic power was the only option if one chose not to remain silent. Before my voice broke I was required to solo at school assemblies and she diligently encouraged my singing practice and took me to weekly Bel Canto lessons on Saturday mornings.
We always had classical music playing in the house growing up. In pre-electronic days the long playing LP’s of Dvorak, Hummel and Greig were interspersed with my fathers Tom Jones hits. Shortly after I had destroyed most of the LP’s by using them as exploding Frisbees on the living room wall cassette tapes were invented. Surreptitiously borrowing and listening to Mahler symphonies, Tchaikovsky ballets and Hummel Trumpet Concerto’s invited me into the world of music.
In her later years, she bought a multi stacking CD player that would randomly select a track from a dozen CD’s. By this time her classical music collection had numbered in the thousands thanks to the genius of CD burning technology. It was always easy to buy her a present, provided we scoured her selection to ensure we did not buy a duplicate disc.
A few years ago I decided to learn how to play the piano. Inspired by the movie “The Pianst” I decided to teach myself Chopin’s Ballade No 1. In honesty I also wanted to impress my mother that her faith in me had not been misplaced and that I could accomplish the extra ordinary. I understood that going from nothing to a performance level piece of music would be tough, so I undertook to learn two Chopin nocturnes first. “If you can read music you can learn to play any instrument” sounded silently in my mother’s calm voice as I struggled to make sense of what each written note represented on the keyboard.
I sent her a copy of my first recital piece and her response was encouraging, asking me to send her more recordings of my playing. I regret that she did not live long enough for me to play her the full Ballade in G. Every time I play it will be a silent dedication to her memory.
The first gift – a love of language
Learning to love an activity is not something that can be forced. You cannot force somebody to love art, music, mathematics or language. My mother had a love of reading and a prodigious command of the English language. Before the days of Google we had an English Oxford dictionary sitting on the bookshelf. It gathered dust as my mother was able to elucidate concepts, provide synonyms and add context to words that we were required to learn growing up. The 100% mark I obtained on all my spelling tests were as a result of her teaching me novel ways to link and understand word meanings, structure, roots, prefixes and suffixes. The only time we ever accesses a dictionary was when my mother decided we were being lazy and that it was time for us to learn to find out ourselves.
Her book club provided a source of much pride and pleasure. She loved hunting for the best books to share with the other club ladies and when it was her turn to host the cakes, savoury scones and herb breads set the bar on hospitality. No disturbances were permitted when the session had started. We were happy to wait patiently, knowing that the overflow of cakes and other goodies would soon require consumption.
Calling her an avid reader does not really do her hobby justice. In fact she often read a book a day, sometimes devouring a thousand pages in one sitting. Spy novels, complex plotlines, horror and exceptionally well-written stories filled the shelves and cupboards of her domain. Eventually she decided that it didn’t make sense to hoard the mass of books and began to rotate through and keep only those she intended to read twice. As that pile grew too large, only the most recent books were retained as her voracious appetite searched for, and devoured, newly discovered authors and interesting genres.
My first real reading was from her selection and included light entertainment such as Higgins, Le Carre and Clancy. Once I was hooked on that, she provided me with slightly more substantive books and before I knew it I was delving into the likes of Coetzee, Achebe and Brink.
Her love of language did not stop there. Crossword puzzles, language games and cryptic clues melted before her gaze as she dismissed most attempts to present her with a challenge as routine.
One of my proudest moments was sharing with my Mom that I had aced the GMAT exam – scoring in the 98th percentile on the language component. I could not have accomplished this without her gift.
The second gift – applying generosity
My mother essentially died penniless. This was not due to her inability to work, save or some desire for aesthetic poverty. Rather it was that her kindness and generosity ensured that others were looked after first.
One of my fondest memories was when my mother won the lottery. Not the full row of winning numbers but a ticket that paid out about R75,000. She gave my sister and I about 25,000 each and kept a third for herself. I used my share to pay out my car loan and it had felt as though I had really been the lottery winner.
Shortly before her death, my Mom wrote to me and asked me to pay for some of her expenses. I arranged a transfer of this money through David Bayliss and wrote to her saying that I was happy to help this time but I did not want this to become an ongoing issue as I have many children whose needs I feel should come first. I think it must have taken a tremendous toll on her pride to have to ask me for help in the first place and I regret that I put a boundary in place that did not reflect her generosity. I will honour her by ensuring that I continue the tradition of giving freely to all of my children.
The expectation of courtesy, etiquette and integrity
I recall the first time I swore in front of my mother. It was also the last time I did so. No brook was tolerated when it came to standards pertaining to integrity, manners, etiquette and courtesy. We were raised with expectations that we behave properly at all times. My Mom held herself to a very high standard and expected the same from us. Every day rules such as closing the door behind us to not saying “hey” because “hay was for donkeys” were part of our upbringing.
Dinner was served at 6:30pm. Every day and without fail. It didn’t have to be said, it was just expected that we would be on time. Meals always had meat, even when we went through lean financial times during a failure of one of my father’s business endeavors in insurance. My mother expected us to sit properly at the dinner table, eat with manners, use our “please” and “thank you” and eat quietly. I did not eat quietly. There was lots of conflict around my noisy eating. Noisy eaters now grate me terribly and I understand her anger.
My mother lived a life of integrity. She never betrayed her promise and never engaged in illegal activities. She expected the same from us.
The gift of loyalty
My father is an alcoholic. My mother referred to him as a functioning alcoholic. I never differentiated. Growing up I endured the embarrassment of my father not picking me up in the evening from friend’s homes only to be told he arrived there after midnight and woken everyone up while drunk. I ran from home numerous times to escape my father’s drunken rages and learnt at an early age that hiding atop the compost heap would prevent a beating with a belt or riding crop. Never having friends over because the embarrassment of my drunken father arriving home sloshed and vomiting all over the place was a memory I would rather forget.
My mother was aware of this and explored the idea of leaving him. She decided that the cost and financial risk was too high. Did her Catholic upbringing play a role in her sticking it out I wonder? Did the fact that she was already four months pregnant with me when she got married play a role? In her day the idea of out of wedlock children as well as divorce were simply unthinkable. She stayed and they spent the rest of their lives sleeping in separate bedrooms.
She played the role of peacemaker. Whenever there was conflict she would remind me that he was drunk when he was insulting or rude or belittling. She cared deeply for her flawed husband and never stopped hoping that her kindness and care would reduce his alcohol consumption. During his sober periods she seemed to be more complete, more present and definitely happier. She never stopped cleaning up his puke, making sure he ate the best breakfast she could convince him to stomach after a night of heavy drinking, making him dinner even though it was seldom eaten and ensuring that he had his daily multi-vite and prostate medication. She forgave him his dalliances with other women and always put his safety first by insisting that he rather sleep over somewhere than drive home drunk.
She was loyal to a fault. Like many entrepreneurs I have gone through up times and down times. During one of the downtimes I needed financial help and I asked my father for money. She encouraged him to support me and together they were very generous. When I asked for a deferral on repaying the money they had loaned me they were very supportive. When I discovered that my father, in his role as company accountant, had siphoned off millions of Rand from my industrial gas business and was using my own money to not only advance me financial life support but also live a life of profligate spending I was livid. Not only did I now have to sort out the missing cash flow that had essentially crippled my gas business but I was also expected to repay them for my own money. Despite knowing that my father was a stranger to honesty in his dealings she refused to accept that I did not owe the full amount. Sadly this was where we left off on our final email communication.
When push came to shove she was there for him. When he was arrested for drunk driving, she called the experts, found out what needed to be done and smuggled a loaf of bread into the holding cell so that his blood alcohol results would be lowered. If someone ever challenged him, she would be the first to defend him. She acknowledged his strengths and downplayed his weaknesses. She deserved a better man but she gave as though she already had one.
The gift of perseverance
My mother did not enjoy a lifetime of good health. Various reasons contributed to this including rheumatic fever, inactivity, a love of chocolate and osteo-arthritis. After smoking for much of her life and after several attempts to quit she finally decided to simply do it. She stopped cold turkey and never smoked again and, unlike many an ex-smoker, she was not critical of those who were still addicted.
Surgery became necessary and body parts were replaced. Entire shoulders and knees were made bionic. Stents were used to keep the carotid artery flowing to the brain. Oxygen was administered continuously to ensure that damaged lungs did not stop providing the necessities for life. Skin cancer was kept at bay by diligent sarcoma removal.
She had a stroke as well. Much of the intellectual vigor disappeared and a recognition that written words did not match the words she meant to convey were deeply distressing for a woman who prided herself on good grammar and exceptional spelling.
Despite her obesity, despite her physical pain, despite her difficulty navigating stairs, she persevered. I will recall her perseverance in the face of such tremendous physical suffering as the standard by which I will have to measure myself when I grow old.
Expressions of kindness
My Mom loved her garden. It was her pride and joy. Watching the birds, reporting on how the different areas of the garden were doing and agonizing about the lack of rain were common topics in our telephone conversations. She loved sitting on her patio seeing which birds had come to eat the food she put out daily for them.
Meow Tse Tung, our first cat lived to the ripe old age of 19. Eventually his kidneys failed but not before he had conquered an empire stretching ever further each night. His return, along with attendant scrapes and torn ears turned a former dog lover who reminisced about her show dogs into a cat lover. Her tears when the next replacement tabby died were honest and heartfelt.
Despite the formality, my Mom had a soft spot for Adele. She continued to remain in contact with Adele even after our hostile divorce and during the early stages of our separation even sent money to help Adele get by. The irony of Adele spending tens of thousands of dollars later suing me in court for an unnecessarily expensive and hostile divorce was ignored. My frustration with my Mom disclosing my personal details to Adele during our divorce did not interfere in her kindness towards Adele. Later, when Adele discarded Justin by having him locked up in the Children’s Hospital Psychiatric Ward my Mom viewed it more from the perspective of pity for Adele rather than questioning her parenting competency.
As an avid bridge player, my Mom would often clean up house, trumping everything in sight and winning the maximum bids. She occasionally played competitively, but most of all she enjoyed playing with her regular friends and scooping up the individual one cent coins that were the standard currency. I have learnt the value of cultivating lifelong friends and recall how my Mom used to phone and talk to her sister (Elizabeth) and sister in law (Alison) daily.
The gift of fairness
The stokie slipper that was supposed to hit my bum caught my bare leg as I ran past her. My sister and I had done something that provoked a spanking response. I cannot recall the infraction, only that she was on the warpath and we were both in trouble. As I ran downstairs in our Gallo Manor home, I heard my sister getting her dues and then I caught sight of some purple chalk. I gently ran the purple chalk over the raised edges of the slight welts left by the slipper tread to create what appeared to be a very severe mark on my leg. Complaining to my mother that she was unfair in how she punished me compared to my sister and showing her the now angry looking result on my leg, she promptly went upstairs and gave my sister a more severe spanking. Fairness in all aspects was the standard.
While today’s parents may cringe at the thought of spanking a child, my parent’s generation held no compunction when it came to dishing out physical discipline. My mother related the story to me of how she and her sister Elizabeth (known affectionately to everyone as aunt Liz) became such good friends. During one of their common bickering sessions my grandfather gave them each a belt and instructed them that, with his full consent this time, they should proceed to lay into each other and get out their nastiness. When they refused to hit each other, he gave them both a sound belting and they never again indulged in bitchy bickering. My mother and her sister used to talk on the phone daily. My heartfelt sadness goes out to my aunt at the loss of her sister.
The gift of strength
Not physical strength, although my Mom was certainly no shrinking violet, but rather a strength of personality. My Mom never felt the need to kowtow to anyone and her directness could be very intimidating. It is telling that my ex-wife, Adele, was so intimidated by my Mom that she could not bring herself to call her Pat and despite my Moms insistence on being called Pat, continued to refer to her as Mrs. Holgate.
I don’t want to eulogize and pretend that my mother was a saint or that I would recommend her life as a case study for exceptional parenting. She was co-dependent with an alcoholic. She was consistently critical and very judgmental. Her pride sometimes got in the way of her doing the right thing. She would tell you that she was not an attached mother and I can count on my hand the number of times I received a hug or physical affection. She was not a role model on how to live a long and healthy life. She enjoyed driving expensive cars even though finances were often precarious.
Nonetheless, she was my mother and I carry her gifts inside of me as my real inheritance. I will honour her memory and do my best to learn from her mistakes and pass the gifts she freely gave me to the next generation..