“Max,” my teacher, Ms. Monare, said, “the spelling should be: M-a-x-i-m-i-l-l-i-a-n.”
“I know mistress,” I said,” It’s a difficult name to spell, more like characters in a paranormal novel.”
We used to address the female teachers as mistress and the male teachers as Sir.
“Okay,” she said,” let’s divide it like this: Max-mil-lian.”
She wrote the split name on a green chalkboard.
“Just remember that it’s a three syllable name,” she said.
“The double ‘l’s are surrounded by ‘i,’” she continued,” That’s the trick.”
“Why don’t we just stick to Max,” I said, “it’s like three names in one.”
I struggled to write my name correctly; sometimes I omitted an ‘l,’ other times an ‘i.”
“It’s Maximillian until eternity,” the teacher said,” it’ll be Max after you learn to write it properly.”
She was a strict and no-nonsense lady. Most students did not mess with her; even the principal was afraid of her. She was a star in English and Mathematics. She succeeded in hammering concepts into thick skulled pupil and continuously had almost hundred percent pass rate.
“Of course mistress,” I said.
“Oh, and by the way Max, don’t ever call me mistress,” she said, “If you call me that again, I’ll make it my life mission to be your father’s mistress.”
That’ll be cool; maybe he‘ll learn something
I did not know what the word mistress meant then until later in higher grades. I laughed to myself during an English class when I mistakenly encountered the meaning; other students were baffled thinking that I was going crazy.
“Oh Monty, “she said, “the proper spelling should be: Mont-go-mery.”
“Who cares,” Monty said, “Monty is good enough?”
“Hold your horses, little man,” the teacher said, “this week you‘ll learn to write your name.”
“How can you be proud of yourself if you don’t know the first thing about you, “she continued,” your name is your identity.”
I had similar struggles as Monty, though he was cockier than I was. I wondered why our families choose such complicated names for us. We got along like a house on fire although it was a fierce rivalry when we started at Marema Primary School.
“It’s tough mistress,” he said.
He stressed the word mistress. The whole class laughed.
“However hard it may be, you‘ve to learn it, young man,” she said,” I wonder if you can spell mistress.”
“Class isn’t it important to learn to write one’s name?” she said.
“Yes ma’am, it is crucial to spell our names correctly,” the whole class shouted rhythmically like an Orchestra.
“By the way today’s homework,” she said,” go find out the meaning and origins of your names.”
The bell rang, indicating the end of the day, the part of the school where everybody, even introverts, had a thing to say.
My name is Max, short for Maximillian. All I knew was that it was a French name reserved for Saints and Monarchs in the seventeenth century. I could not trace further the etymology of the name. I was not named after anyone of my paternal or maternal family, as it was a norm among the black community in the apartheid-South Africa. I had a brother Anthony affectionately known as Tony Danza among his friends after some Italian-American boxer-turned-actor. I had twin sisters Emma and Emily and a younger sister Sibongile. We affectionately called her Bongi. We grew up playing together. We grew up in a shack in abject poverty. A single mom with an absent daddy raised us. The area had all sorts of infestation from ants, cockroaches, to flies, a struggle throughout all the seasons. All those must have been from filthy neighbors who only washed their dishes once on weekends. Words could not explain the stink in the streets blocked by garbage for weeks on end. It was an area next to a river, which was cold and humid most of the year. During hot summer days, mosquitoes found a save heaven in our house. An area that could accommodate as little as twenty people was inhabited by close to as many as eighty to a hundred people at one time. Some diehards loved the place. There were some, like myself, who could not wait to get out of the place should an opportunity present itself.
Our mother had too little cash to take care of the five of us, so she subsidized her pittance domestic-work salary by selling eggs from a couple of chickens she began farming. Our teacher aunt Sophia assisted us where she could. Although she had, three daughters of her own to take care of, she managed to spare a few rands here and there. My brother and I slept in the kitchen while the sisters slept in the living room. The only bedroom available was exclusively for my mother and my father when he was home. Our mother was Mama Eva, short for Evelyn, was well known and respected among the community for her hands-on involvement.
“Max” mom called.
“Yes ma, “I said, “I ‘m coming.”
“Please smear me with Vaseline,” she asked.
“Where?” I asked.
“On my heels,” she said,” I can’t reach them.”
The cracks on her heels cut my soft little fingers.
“Ouch, what’s that?” I asked
“Those, my boy,” she said,” are the results of hard work.”
“Or slavery,” I murmured under my breath.
“What you saying?” she asked.
“Nothing ma,” I said.
I was afraid that I could invite an unsolicited beating.
“These cracks get your food on the table and winter clothes,” she said, “don’t be cocky.”
Bongi rescued me when she came rushing to the bedroom scared and shaken.
“Mom look,” she said.
“What‘s that?” mom asked.
“I got blisters just like you, “she said, “mine are on my fingers.”
Bongi knew all along.
Mom must have wanted me to know as well. She had ways of showing advice instead of voicing it. She used to show us those kinds of deterrence to push us to work harder at school and avoid being the master’s slaves.
“Don’t you know my child,” mom said, “this place is also called Ratsville.”
“What?” she said.
“There are rats all over,” mom said, “that’s why I always insist that you wash the dishes every night.”
“Was I bitten by rats? “ Bongi screamed,” Oh no.”
“Now you little girl wash your hands after eating each and every night,” mom said, “use your sister’s Dettol.”
Mom used to walk barefoot across a bridge from home to work mornings and evenings every day, during summer and winter alike. Before Bongi and I were born, on her third year of work, the master allowed her to stay in the garden cottage. It was a miserable setup for our brother and sisters, but it worked in her favor. She toiled to support us; brought us Ouma rusks every Saturday morning and made sure we had food and clean clothes for the following school week. Later on Sunday afternoon, she left for her domestic work. It was illegal back then for a black person to roam around the cities especially at night. One day my brother showed me a permit that belonged to my mother organized by her master, Mr. Kevin “Sven” Brooks, which allowed her to move freely around the city. Mr. Brooks was popular among the wealthy elite business people.
“What’s that in your mouth,” my dad asked.
“It’s peanut butter,” I said.
“Wash your mouth,” he said,” all you know is eat, did you do your homework?”
“Yes everything’s done,” I said.
“Have you fed the chickens yet?” he said, “I guess not.”
“Twice already today,” I said.
“So go play with your cars,” he said.
My siblings said and did nothing but seemed embarrassed by the awful treatment I received from our father. I could tell just by looking at them that my sisters knew more than they were letting on. As time went by dad came home once a month, then once in two months. He then came once a quarter and slept over for a day. He brought cash through friends. I did not miss him one bit since the little time he spent at home would be like a year in hell. From time to time, we went to sleep hungry. Some nights, a father from a nearby Catholic church brought us coupons and food parcels. I often bought bread and milk on weekends when I made a good sale from my wire cars. We did not live among the wealthy. Our neighbors suffered the same poverty fate as us, maybe to a lesser extent, so I thought. They too might have thought that we had it better than them.