The Self Employed Housewife - A Seaman's Wife's story Ch 1
A Seaman’s Wife’s Story
1974 – Durban – South Africa
Book Blurb – story overview
Life is the strangest thing. One minute a mother of two toddlers is living with her in-laws in Holland. Next they are off with their young family emigrating to South Africa to start a new life from scratch. She learns is to be a sailor’s wife, but is forced to distance herself from several men she never expected to run into. Money is tight which motivated her to gain financial independence. One day she walked past a clothing boutique with leather handbags in the window. After hearing that they were handmade; this inspired her to investigate how to get started in leatherwork. While embarking on a brand new career as a self employed housewife; her childhood secret emerges from her past. She is wondering “What is life about anyway?” Her English improves through reading, which triggers memories that she had tried to keep hidden. Through her creativity she meets someone who tells her something so incredible, that she needs to write about it in her diary.
Both her parents and sister kept a diary, so she would do it as well. This would be her first entry in the form of a story.
The palm trees that lined the boulevard on Durban’s Marine Parade brought back memories of her childhood. She had been an avid collector of picture postcards of tropical plants and palm trees. She always felt that being born in the northern hemisphere was a mistake. Taking in the scenery with the colourful bead traders inspired all kind of opportunities. Her longing for a warm almost tropical climate had at last been realized.
“Hermien hurry up”
Jan’s irritated tone swiftly took her out of her daydreaming. Her tall lean husband hailed a taxi that would take them to the harbor where the oil tanker that he was to join as the first officer was docked.
Her little boy of three sulked from sadness. His father had given him his uniform cap and he wouldn’t part with it. The troubled toddler was both sad and angry that his Daddy was going away for at least eight weeks. His elder sister, very advanced for a five-year old, showed great compassion by holding his hand. She needed to be careful; Sascia was very sensitive about people’s moods. Her little girl’s ability to pick up the emotions of others was inherited from her.
“Come, daddy needs to go. He will be back soon.” She whispered, not knowing how soon that would be. Jan said just over two months which seemed forever.
After waving goodbye from the quay she promised them a treat. The waiting taxi dropped them off at the Marine Parade from where they could walk back to King’s Hall, their furnished apartment in the middle of town, opposite the town hall. That cheered them up, especially after buying them a soft serve from the ice-cream vendor near the playground.
The best songs in 1974
The kids played on the round-about while she sat on a bench that said ‘whites only’. That sign really triggered her anguish. Here she was on her own with her children in a strange country. She had been keen to immigrate to a warmer climate so she could get away from the ferociously bad weather in Holland, but this horrible apartheid sign troubled her.
She had been excited when Jan had accepted a position as first officer with Unicorn shipping line in South Africa as advertised in a Dutch newspaper, because they offered fully paid travel tickets including free accommodation for three months.
To emigrate again for good to a new country was much better than living back in Holland. She couldn’t stand the cold climate and the crowded living conditions after having lived for four years in Australia, where their little boy Jeroen had been born.
They had been told that it would take at least six weeks for their crate filled with personal possessions to arrive from Holland, and in that time she needed to find affordable rental accommodation. Her English was by no means fluent but feeling sorry for herself for having no transport and not knowing a single person, apart from the cleaning staff at the furnished apartment, just wouldn’t do.
A tall man in his thirties joined her on the bench. He nodded and spoke to her in Afrikaans. Not that she understood every word he said, but since Afrikaans was very close to Dutch, she could guess. He was flirting, wanted to know if she was on her own.
“Sorry my English isn’t all that good, and I do not speak Afrikaans, but I can sort off understand it, being Dutch.” She pointed at Sascia and Jeroen who were taking turns on the slide with two other children. Two nannies were standing nearby chatting to each other.
Staff came cheap in South Africa. She had been horrified to learn that there was a law in SA that separated people of different skin colour. How could she have missed that, that Apartheid was legal before they emigrated?
She got up from the bench, feeling uneasy that she might be seen as an easy pickup. “Come you two, we need to get to the shops before they close.” Speaking out loud in Dutch disrupted the nannies conversation while the man got up and walked away.
In a way she felt flattered. Jan liked her wearing tight fitted tops and she knew that her waistline was admired by many. Her flared skirt, a gift from her wealthy sister in Holland, looked stunning on her. She knew that Jan liked it if another man was stared at her, but it sometimes made her feel cheap.
When Sascia asked what shops she hinted at a supermarket, which worked because their treat would be a small toy. She could also do with a little cheering up treat. Buying a happy mood was all she could do for now, knowing it wouldn’t last.
Her dream of financial independence
The weather was humid during January in Durban, but that didn’t bother her. Instead the clothing boutiques with their colorful designs triggered her imagination since she was good at sewing. Then she spotted the most beautiful handbag in a shop window. It was the image of a sunset with a palm tree carved on the bag that mesmerized her.
“Come on you two! Mummy must quickly look at something in the shop. Please do behave.” She knew very well that her three your old hated clothing shops because they had no toys.
“Mommy, you promised.”
“Girly yes we will get to Pick n Pay and you can both choose something, as long as it is not too expensive.”
The eager shop assistant took out the leather bag from the window but when she saw the price tag of R30.00 she paled. That was at least two week’s housekeeping money. When the girl explained that it was handmade, it was as if somebody was whispering. “If that is self made, you can make it yourself.”
Her mind was buzzing from exhilaration
After doing the grocery shopping and buying them toys, they walked past a saddler business with a leather saddle in the window. “Go inside and ask if they know how to make handbags from real leather.” the voice in her head said. Hearing conversations in her head was normal for her, but she had better not reply out loud!
Getting out of the heat and humidity into a cool shop where the smell of leather was potent did not seem to bother the children. They were too busy admiring their toys and could not wait to play with them.
“Yes can I help you?”
The man had a kind expression. He was an Indian of about forty and spoke with an accent that she hadn’t heard before. He winked at the children and observed her as if they were close friends.
“I want to learn how to make products from real leather” she blurted out. Her broken English did not seem to discourage the man.
“Then you’ve come to the right place.”
“Really, can you show me?”
“Of course, come and let me show you what to start with.” He came round to the front of the counter, took 3 year old Jeroen by the hand and walked to the back of the shop. The fact that her little boy allowed that gave her courage to follow him. There she saw what the man was on about.
“May I ask where you’re from?” her Dutch accent had clearly given her away.
In her broken English she told him that they had arrived a week ago in Durban and that her husband had just sailed away today. He encouraged her to buy at least three belt straps, one punching tool, 3 buckles with rivets and a tool to punch holes and a small bottle of spirit dye. With that she was just as eager to get home to their apartment as the children were.
Two weeks went by. In between taking the train to several possible rented accommodations she visited the saddler several times to buy more belt straps and tools with her small savings she had brought with her from Holland. Jeroen greeted the man as if he had known him all his life.
Their new home
After six weeks scouting around Durban she had found a place to rent. It was in a brand new complex that was partly still under construction therefore less expensive, so the man said. Malvern was not all that far from the harbor by train. The rental was still rather steep, but anything else she had seen was not an option. After plundering their savings to buy mattresses and a kitchen table with four chairs, including a radio they moved in. She hoped that their crate with their personal belongings would arrive soon.
Ten days later their crate arrived. She was grateful to unpack some handyman tools. The children were happily playing with other children in the neighborhood. Life was good, but they all missed daddy. Some days they walked to the nearest phone booth in Malvern to dial the harbor captain’s office to find out about the whereabouts of the Unicorn tanker, so she would know more or less when the ship was heading back to Durban harbor.
Working from home
Her first need was to have a workbench to work on, since she could no longer work on the floor, hammering the patterns onto the moist leather. By this time she had purchased her first full hide and started to create patterns for handbags. More couples moved into the complex and soon Sascia found company and Jeroen followed her everywhere.
Sascia went to preschool in Malvern. She was glad to get her in so she could learn to speak English with other children, since they spoke Dutch at home.
They walked once a day to the village, often carrying bags of groceries all the way home. Poor Jeroen. He often needed to walk by himself since she had no pushchair. The walk took them at least 30 minutes to and fro, and the humidity was not helping. She needed a car.
There was enough money left in the savings for a second hand Beetle she had seen in the local paper, but she dared not buy that without Jan’s consent. They were now also partly living on his salary that had been paid into their joint bank account.
As the days went past, she started to do some major carpentry work. The wood from the crate came in handy. She made herself some furniture, but most important of all a workbench in the garage. She was eager to show off what she had accomplished during her man’s absence. Every time they phoned the harbour from the Malvern phone booth, the disappointment of the ship not returning was almost too hard to bear, especially for the children.
Her loneliness was slowly dissipated
She had made friends with other immigrants from the UK, Holland and Ireland. Their children were of the same age and that gave her time to work in the garage, often with the garage door wide open because of the heat.
The moment she started to get orders for belts and handbags from friends in the neighbourhood she knew she would be alright. Earning her own money for their daily needs made her feel more independent.
She was aware that some people in the complex were talking behind her back about her not having a man around, which started to create problems. Her Afrikaans neighbour was even making propositions to her. She was truly disgusted how blatantly he did it, while his wife often spent time helping her with hand sewing the gussets of the handbags.
She had received two letters from Jan that she had collected from King’s Hall in town. Jan was really sad for staying away a lot longer than was originally intended, to do with the relief captain. The tanker sailed around the Cape of Good Hope up to Angola and back past Durban without docking, then on to Mauritius and back again.
“Hermien why not hold your first exhibition in your garage? We’ll make sure many will come around to buy your goods.” Her two new friends, Pamela and Corrie suggested. They were all drinking coffee and having a smoke in her garage, which had become a meeting place for several mothers in the complex.
She held her first private show in her garage. The result was a huge order of two hundred belts for the OK Bazaars, a big departmental store off which one of the husbands was the manager. The patterns on the belts were of palm trees that were becoming her trademark.
- The Self Employed Housewife (Ch 2)
She was a seaman’s wife but she would have to be self reliant. Her mother had done it for over forty years! Her dad eared good money being a captain, but her husband had to start with a small salary.