Look Out, Advice Columnists. You Never Met My Mother-in-Law.

This is a portrait I painted of my mother-in-law last year.

If we were ever to levy a special tax on advice columnists, the money should go to mothers-in-law. According to the advice-seekers, the only thing harder than planning a wedding, making your marriage work or raising kids is keeping your mother-in-law at bay. Flushed with her own success at raising your spouse, there is no aspect of your household immune to her interference.

But if everyone had a mother-in-law like mine, the advice columnists would be out of business.

I actually didn’t meet my mother-in-law, Anita, until a few days before my husband, Lala, proposed. I was the first girlfriend he had ever brought home (not for lack of candidates over the years), and it wasn’t a matter of heading across town or even across the country. I had just made my first-ever transatlantic flight and it was my first time in my husband’s native South Africa. His mom and dad have lived in a house in Soweto, outside Johannesburg, for almost thirty years.

While Lala and his father lifted suitcases out of the trunk, I went in the front door. I had waited four years to see my boyfriend’s childhood home. Anita was waiting in the living room. She hugged me before I could introduce myself.

Some people have trouble figuring out just how to address their in-laws. My husband’s parents have insisted on being “Mama” and “Papa” to me since before I ever walked into their house.

“Ah, my daughter,” Papa says when I sit next to him on the couch. “Thank you, my daughter,” Mama says when I hand her a plate.

Mealtime in her house always accounts for every family member. No-one is required to be home for dinner. But if you’re sleeping in the house, a full plate will be put aside for you, carefully covered, until you get home.

Some mothers-in-law are known for their iron grip on the kitchen. But when I visit South Africa, I get free rein, no questions asked, with my sisters-in-law leaning in to observe the process. My culinary free-for-alls there include but are not limited to spaghetti, pancakes for supper and Thanksgiving dinner, all of which had never been served to the household before.

Not that Mama hasn’t taught me a thing or two. I never learned the best way to separate a chicken drumstick from the thigh until she showed me. She finds me, an American child of an electric dryer, at the clothes-lines behind the house. Cotton and denim that wrinkles and wads in my hands submit to her immediately, hanging like breeze-kissed pennants of cleanliness with a few expert clips of the clothes-pins (or pegs, as they’re called there).

Some mothers-in-law seem to feel that every moment you are not pregnant with their grandchild is wasted. But Mama, herself a mother of six, offers no comment on the issue.  Throughout the years, Papa has kept mostly to one comment.

“One day,” he says, “God will bless you.”

I feel a special bond with Mama because in the Mabaso household, we’re both makoti, the bride. In my husband’s culture, the bride is not a role that finishes on your wedding day – it’s a lifelong mantle of duty and respect. She became makoti when she married Papa in the early seventies. Since Lala has four sisters (three married with their own children) and an unmarried brother, I am the only makoti of my generation in the Mabaso household.

Not that the neighbors are willing to believe it.

One night, while I chatted with Papa in front of the TV, Mama burst out in chuckles.

“My friends asked me, who is that white woman at your house?” she said. Her friends had decided I was a visiting co-worker of Lala’s.

“I told them, it is my daughter,” Mama laughed.

Mama has never failed to treat me like her own daughter, besides taking me firmly in hand in matters of laundry. During my first visit to South Africa, I quickly came down with a nasty cold, probably caught on the long flight. I was up coughing in the middle of the night, and she appeared in the dark with a mug of tea.

Mama has a magic in her fingers that not even her grown daughters can match. Look at the head-wrap I am wearing in this photo with Lala’s sister Nthabiseng. She arranged it with a few bobby pins in a matter of seconds. I wish I could wear it every week.

This is from a wedding in Soweto last year. Female guests often put on traditional African garb to celebrate. Since we’re both Tsonga brides, I had the honor of wearing Mama’s own wedding outfit. (Ntabiseng married a Zulu man, so her outfit is different. Our new nephew’s birth is weeks away).

Mama and Papa have stories that should never be lost. Lala was born in 1982, a time when violence and mass protests against South Africa’s apartheid regime roiled the black townships surrounding Johannesburg. Afrikaner tanks patrolled the neighborhood where my husband walked to preschool.

In the 70’s, Mama and Papa had harrowing experiences typical of a generation of black South Africans.

Mama and Papa, around the time they got married.

Every black citizen who wanted to move beyond their designated township was required to carry a passbook, known as a dom pas, that authorized his or her presence in the area. In Afrikaans, according to my husband, dom means “dumb” or “fool”.  Blacks had to obtain special living permits, and their movements outside their own neighborhoods, into areas reserved for whites, were determined by their employers, whose dom pas stamps authorized workers’ presence in the company’s city. Anyone white could ask for it at any time. If you didn’t have it, you were arrested.

Now, the musty dom pas books are stashed in drawers like old tax forms (Mama and Papa never throw anything away).

Before the late eighties, if the city you were in didn’t match the city stamp on your dom pas, you were arrested. All employees were required to get a monthly signature in the dom pas from their employers. If the signature was missing, you were arrested. If the signature was made in the wrong page, you were arrested. If the signature was not made before seventh of the month, you were arrested.

Mama and Papa had plenty of experience with employer’s stamps. Papa, now retired, worked several jobs over the years, often as a welder, and Mama was a seamstress until her retirement last year. Mama’s name is misspelled in her book. This was very common. There was no point in trying to get it fixed. It was just one more reminder of what a second-class citizen you were.

“Permitted to remain in the prescribed area….” A page from the dom pas Mama had in the 70’s and 80’s.

Papa was arrested in Germiston in 1976: his employer had suddenly moved operations there from Johannesburg without issuing him a new dom pas. He was stopped and taken right off the street, but released with a warning when his employer vouched for his presence in the city.

Another of Papa’s arrests had to have been as harrowing for Mama as it was for him.

In 1975, with the three children they had at the time staying with relatives, Mama and Papa took the risk of renting a room in Pimville without getting a permit to live there.

These permits cost R2.50 per year, Papa explained. At the time, that was more than many black families could afford. Today, one US dollar is worth approximately seven rands. In the mid-1980s, Papa made R140 per week working Monday through Saturday.

One morning at 4am, they woke up to pounding at the door. Mama dashed to the wardrobe and hid herself inside. When Papa opened the door, police officers interrogated him.

“Where’s your permit?” they demanded. He had none.

“Where is your wife?” He said he didn’t know where she was. Papa was determined to go calmly and gave no sign that anyone else was hiding there. The wardrobe wasn’t searched. He was forced into the police car and taken to jail.

“What did you do?” I asked Mama breathlessly.

“I went to work,” she said. She hid until everything was quiet, and the next morning, she had no choice but to head to work as usual. Phones were scarce. If she went to the police to ask where Papa was, she would have been immediately arrested as well. She couldn’t ask any neighbors – she knew that someone in the neighborhood had reported them to the police, but had no way of knowing who.

Papa spent the rest of the night and the next day in jail. R10 was the usual fee for bail.

“At that time, ten rands was scarce,” he said.

All Mama could do was wonder and wait. Papa returned that evening, unharmed. He had been questioned, and then the judge shocked him by releasing him, with strict orders not to tell any of his neighbors how leniently he had been treated.

I asked Papa if would have predicted the end of Apartheid. At the time, “I didn’t think it would ever be different,” he said.

I asked Mama what it was like, trying to raise her family at that time.  I expected something profound on keeping a family intact under terrible oppression. She surprised me by side-stepping the question.

She explained that Papa’s family wanted them to take the children and move back to the rural eastern province, near today’s Kruger Park, where she and Papa grew up. But she wanted to stay in Johannesburg so that she could keep working, not leave for a quiet, traditional life the countryside.

“I didn’t want to sit in Bushbuck Ridge,” she said.

Mama lived through terrifying times, but her concerns were the same as any working woman. Despite the incredible gulf between our experiences, we are not such different women, after all.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mama!

Mama and I outside Lala’s childhood home in Soweto. (We both like purple.)


Add yours →

  1. I will send this to my 2 daughters-in-law, one of whom is from another country, the other from a different culture in the same state. Beautifully written. Susan Perloff

  2. Beautiful tribute! – proud to be Lala’s Mother-in-Law
    Happy Mother’s Day to all!

  3. Beautiful essay, portrait and photos!

  4. Love. It. 🙂

  5. Wow this is a beautiful, remarkable story. I read through it twice already, yeah mantsongo u are the best. Love you xoxo

  6. stewartdesign May 13, 2012 — 1:08 pm

    Fantastic story, and what a remarkable mother-in-law you have. I really miss my own mother-in-law, who passed away unexpectedly from pneumonia complications during one of our trips to visit my husband’s family in N. Ireland. She was fantastic, welcoming from the very first moment I met her, and treated me just like a daughter.

    Here’s to all the great mamas, mamas-in-laws, and every other woman who’s ever been a mama to anyone else.

    (Love your painting, by the way.)

    • Alaina Mabaso May 13, 2012 — 1:11 pm

      Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Sorry to hear about your mother-in-law. It sounds like you were with her when it happened, though – I’m sure that was a small blessing under the circumstances.

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