Aunty M. is my Godmother. lets call her Martha. My Mum met Aunty Martha in the 1970’s. They are colleagues, teaching at H.M. Swart primary school in Bethal. as two of the three english medium teachers in a majority Afrikaans primary school in a majority Afrikaans mining town. Bethal is in what is now called Mpumalanga. Pre 1994, on the old map of South Africa, it is known as the Transvaal. The NG Kerk Bethel Oos (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Church, East Bethel) still refer to the area as the ‘Ou Transvaal’ on their website and in their hearts. The headmaster doesn’t speak much english and my mum doesn’t speak much Afrikaans so when there is an announcement on the Tannoy, Martha or Jenny run in from the classroom next door and translate.
I grow up seeing the usual old photo’s of me as a baby; on a changing mat, in a christening gown, bum shuffling on a woven rug, wearing an orange floral dress and an orange floral floppy sun hat with my gran and my mum also wearing floppy floral sun hats. There are big red knobbly mountains stretching out in a wide ark behind us. My first question is always: Where is this? Where are we living when this picture is taken? How old am I? I am still trying to get a sense of my own movements as a child. I want to trace the dotted red lines of my own migrations on a map. In many of these photo’s; baby in a cloth nappy, feeding time in a plastic high chair, wobbly wanderings in the garden, there is a tall, strong-boned woman with short black hair and some variation of trousers and a white turtleneck. This is Aunty Martha, My Godmother. Apparently, she takes me out on Saturdays to give mum and dad a rest. I go with her to the hostel where she lives. The old Afrikaans Aunties in the hostel kitchen feed me milk pudding and rusks. We have the ‘Just in case case’ with us, a small orange suitcase with spare pants in it, in case of emergencies. The ‘Just in case case’ is legendary in our family.
My parents lose touch with Aunty Martha in the late 1980’s. At the time I had other things on my mind, like puberty, but now I want to know who this woman is in these old photo’s. I want to know who this person is beyond the stories. Who is my phantom godmother? The post office isn’t so reliable in South Africa and we keep moving every two years so many of my parents Christmas card, catch up with the family once a year, contacts have been lost along the way. My parents don’t have email addresses for many people either. So, Where should I start looking?
Social media, where else? I look online for some of the names my parents mention from Bethal: Elsie & Hein and their daughter Charlotte, who must be about my age. I find Elsie easily on that social media site we won’t mention where people are all best buddies. She is an active poster of motivational messages and pictures of people playing golf. I send her a friends request and PM (Personal Message) her with an explanation about who I am, that I am coming to visit and that I’m looking for my Godmother, Martha. I scroll through all her friends looking for family members I might know. I examine and compare faces on family photo’s and Bingo!
Elsie’s daughter Charlotte has a new surname, but I recognise her face from an old photo of us in the 80’s at Bethal dam. In the photo we are all dolled up to go to a disco, Charlotte is wearing a purple and blue faux-leather two piece: bustier and miniskirt. She made it herself. I am wearing what appears to be a large baggy T-shirt with a white belt. We must be 14, both wearing make up and staring into the camera. She looks ready, I look dazed. These days she is a shop owning, married mother of two boys in Jo’burg. I PM her too. She replies. So does her mum. Of course they remember me and the family…“I must give their love to my parents, how can they contact them? such a shame we lost touch…” Elsie and Hein still live in the same house in Bethal that we visit regularly as children in the 1970s. We chat online and e-mail. I tell them I am looking for Aunty Martha. They remember her well, but don’t know where she lives now. Both mention that she was active in the Anglican church in Bethal and that she moved back to Jo’burg and they’d heard she may have become a priest. A priest? I hadn’t seen that coming.
This is the only lead I have. Mum says she must be about ten years older than her and that her parents used to live in Germiston in Jo’burg. That would make her about eighty. Is she still alive? I wonder, briefly. I scour google and end up on ‘My Anglican.org’. This is the website of the Anglican church in South Africa, that lists all the churches and all the priests and their email addresses. Handy! I go through the listings for every single church in the diocese of Johannesburg. I find a church in the District of Kathlehong, which means ‘place of succes’ and is also the second biggest informal settlement or ex-township in the city after Soweto. The church is called St Francis of Assisi Anglican church. Two retired priests names are listed, both with the right and the same surname. A Martha and a Mary. How biblical. Could this be her? Could she have a sister who is also a priest?
There is an email address, so I send a mail to the church secretary, Georgina, with some of those old photos: ‘She is the tall one on the left, and I am the toddler’. I feel a bit foolish mailing a total stranger with old family photo’s. It is a long shot, but what have I got to lose? I expect nothing will ever come of it.