How To Become a Grandmother at 27

This is the second post of a series on a visit to my South African in-laws. Find additional installments in the “South Africa” category.

Let’s be clear: I don’t have any children. And I used to have only one mother, one father, and one brother. When I married into an African  family, I didn’t know just how much my immediate family was about to expand.

“Abuti” means brother in Sotho (pronounced “Sue-too”), one of the languages primarily spoken in Johannesburg. “Abuti” is often shortened to “abu” and added to the name of your brother. “Ausi” means sister and is used the same way. After our transatlantic flight, we are reunited past customs with Aus’Nthabi, Abu’Thabo and Papa (Lala’s father Josiah). The Philadelphia autumn is worlds away as we head into a beautiful summer morning and pack ourselves and our luggage into two small cars. Lala rides with Papa and Aus’Nthabi, and I rode with Abu’Thabo, hurtling onto the left side of the highway.

As we pull up to Lala’s childhood home in Diepkloof, a neighborhood of the famous Soweto district of Johannesburg, Papa shoos me away from the luggage, and I step in the front door. My in-laws’ one-floor house is immaculate, but not because we are arriving. It is a house where everyone scours the bathtub with cleaner after he or she uses it – every time.  As our arrival brings the population of the house up to eight adults, it may be the world’s cleanest bathtub.

The house smells faintly of detergent and fresh produce. The only signs of disorder are the hurricanes of scribbles on the walls of the single hallway, which, like cave art, hint at a different way of life – one which would begin at about 3 o’clock, when the kids would come home from daycare (“crèche”). Lala’s mother Anita welcomes me at the door. She’s thin from a recent illness, but her beauty is still striking – it’s where Lala got his handsome eyes.

When I was growing up, I always understood the boundaries between family members. While extended family was much loved, distinctions between parents and grandparents, parents and aunts or uncles, and even first and second cousins were observed, and the only time the entire family might be together was Christmas.

Lala has five siblings, who, though they maintain their own houses and growing families, come and go at will in their childhood home. There is never any question of invitations, or of there being enough room for any family who wants to spend the weekend. Now stick with me. Your father’s sisters are your aunts, but your mother’s sisters are not; they are extra mothers. Your mother’s or father’s brother is your uncle (malume, “mah-loom-ay”), and his children are your cousins (if you want to be picky about defining things like that), but your maternal aunt’s kids are not your cousins; they’re your siblings. Hence Anita’s sister Maki is not our aunt, but one of several mothers to the nieces and nephews by birth and marriage of two generations. Mama Maki’s daughter Boitumelo is not Lala’s cousin, but his sister. Got it?

Lala became an uncle at five years old, when his oldest sister Priscilla had the first of her three daughters, Ntsako.  Ntasko grew up in her grandparents’ house like a sister to Lala. You might think that being an uncle at five years old is impressive, but Lala’s youngest sister, Puseletso, was an aunt from birth. Ntsako was older than her infant aunt Puseletso by about three years. To the young Puseletso’s chagrin, as she, Lala, and Ntsako grew up side by side, Ntsako’s seniority in age trumped any more traditional notions of an aunt’s seniority to her niece. When provoked by Ntsako, Puseletso’s screams of “but I am your aunt!” were to no avail. To me, who as a child was always interested in the distinction between first and second cousins, being your niece’s younger sister was a new one.

Lala and Puseletso became a great-uncle and great-aunt at 24 and 16, respectively, with the birth of Ntsako’s daughter Neo. At 11 years old, being an aunt to Neo is already old hat for aus’Priscilla’s second daughter, Takatso. And three years after she became a grandmother with Neo’s birth, aus’Priscilla and her husband welcomed their third daughter, Musa. It remains to be seen whether history will repeat itself, with Neo lording her age over her young aunt Musa.

In the US, there’s a big difference between your siblings and your in-laws. But to the Mabasos, the fact that I was born on the other side of the world – to a different continent, a different culture, and a different race – has no bearing on the relationships sealed by my marriage.  Anita and Josiah call me their daughter. My sisters-in-law introduce me as their sister.

The next generation is still in full swing. With Lala’s sister Nthabi, her husband Mandla and their kids staying with Anita and Josiah, the torrent of toddlers continues unabated today, which happens to be Papa’s 71st birthday.

The full implication of this inclusive attitude to family becomes clear to me when we all go out for Papa’s birthday dinner. “You know, you are now a grandmother,” Papa said, pointing at Neo, who was peering coyly at us through the beverage menus. I tried to explain that I was really the wife of Neo’s great-uncle. Papa just smiled at four generations around the same table. “Grandmother,” he insisted. “Yes, my baby. Grandmother.”

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