Pineapples, Port Alfred, and My Sweet Memories of uTata

Life is a road trip that always leads you home.

By Nobhongo Gxolo

There’s a stretch of road that heads past Port Alfred as you drive from East London. I haven’t been on it in a while now. Back then that drive, only three hours long, was endless.

The way big things seem bigger when you’re little. A forever road between being born and now, both stretching and collapsing time.

My sister, brother and I, with blankets and pillows cushioning us in the back of Tata’s two-seater van. White. They were always white.

uMama in the front with him, speaking things foreign to child ears, reminiscing about the secrets couples do when there’s no-one else to hear but them.

Holidays in a big house in Blue Water Bay. My uncle’s home; dad’s older brother – one of. The only one I remember knowing. The one I deeply loved.

Walks to the beach. Family and food in abundance. Two couples managing school holiday logistics to bring play and mirth to their children.

Of the four, only uMama remains.

We moved to Gqeberha, then Port Elizabeth, when I was eight, leaving my sister behind at boarding school. She’s old enough to make those types of decisions now. The ones with gravity that keeps you rooted without pulling you down.

We left behind things we loved and people who were all we’d known. Cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends. So, we spent a lot of time being in the bakkie, driving back to see them. Back and forth between two cities.

Celebrations and funerals – tears and laughter as common denominators. A pendulum of driving with the parents sometimes taking my brother and I along with them to East London or bringing my sister back with them from there.

And on the way, when the way wasn’t via Grahamstown’s fog, which swallows souls, it was the Port Alfred route, which always meant pineapples.

It was more scenic, water always is, perhaps as a result of its embedded connotations. Water as death – the many lives lost at sea. Water as life. Water as calm, peace, and quiet. Water as respite – nourishment. Water as ritual. Water as healing.

Sometimes, with my sister still away at boarding school, and when my brother and I weren’t part of the trip, we’d be at home with Sunday summoning the anxiety that Monday brings: tests, assignments, and unfinished homework. Teenage crushes and friendship clashes.

Hearing the garage door open signaled uTata coming home. Slight panic, eyes surveying the room to check that things were in order. Scanning through memory to see that his instructions and chores list were ticked off.

A beep with the opening of the side door, and him, imposing, regardless of his intention. The presence was outside of him. He couldn’t tie it down, I think. I’m not sure he tried.

uTata was my first real example of generosity. He couldn’t move forward without taking others with him. He gave without hesitation and without question. And perhaps he could have also been called soft.

He just took up more space than soft things usually do. He could be soft with us.

He’d walk in with a suitcase previously packed, with things no longer in their place. A newspaper, always that, suit jacket over his arm, and a sack of pineapples.

They grow there, in Port Alfred, like weeds. Or perhaps they farm them. They must. And it would have cost him maybe R10 for the sack, a rand a pineapple. You’d smell them before you saw them.

Later, their sweetness filling up the house, we each got our own. Chop off the green afro and settle in front of the Sunday 8 o’clock movie.

Fork in hand, we’d get to mushing the flesh, scraping it from its skin. A determined act releasing sweetness.

The movie – something new, thrilling. Sucrose flesh – that was our popcorn. And a raw tongue the next morning, proof of the goodness from the night before.

We don’t live in that home anymore. We lost uTata. Siblings and uMama, older and scattered, hearts finding home not in brick and mortar, but in each other now.

It’s been years since we’ve heard that garage door beep, announcing uTata and pineapples. He was the big love of my life. My first romance. Losing him remains irreconcilable. A joke without humour.

So, I don’t mush pineapples anymore. Perhaps something uniquely unbearable about that particular act. But chopping off that green afro and releasing that yellow sweetness remains a balm.

  • This article first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes. The opinions expressed in this piece are the writer’s own and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BrightRock.
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