Opening the generation curtain

At least once a year many of us make the great trek back home—to our humble beginnings that are poles apart from our fancy city lives in places like Johannesburg, Pretoria or Cape Town.

During these annual retreats, we usually leave our executive and ­professional selves behind and become cousins, aunts, uncles, siblings and, most importantly, our parents’ children.

My sisters and I were home for a week during the holidays and, during the many discussions we had that week, I came to learn the meaning of the term “sandwiched generation”.

I grew up in a black South African middle-class home. My parents were Christians—and Xhosa traditionalists when they needed to be.

Both loved their children, education and church, in that order, using ingqeqesho (discipline) as the glue that held their three loves together.

As children we were not allowed to date, to go out at night or to drink alcohol. The moratorium on the first two rules ended when we started university but the third was still firmly in place until this past holiday.

While my 31-year-old sister was shopping for groceries with my mother, she slipped some bottles of wine into the trolley.

When she didn’t say anything, my sister added some ciders to the trolley and only when they got home did my mother realise what the pink drinks were. In the past my sister would have hidden the drinks but this time she chose to let my mother taste one of the drinks.

“Mmm, hayi imnandi” (no, it’s nice) she reluctantly admitted while sipping it—signalling the end of a rule we all broke when we were 17.

At first it was awkward drinking in front of my mother but we felt it was necessary if we ever hoped to burn the fence that separates our “real” lives from our home lives.

My peers and I are between two vastly different generations—my mother’s (she is in her 50s) and my little sister’s (who is in her early teens).

The sandwiched generation has one foot in the city where we dream in English, drink Champagne, eat sushi off peoples’ bodies, smoke and eat crème brûlée for dessert, and the other foot in our homes where meat and potatoes and jelly and custard are the rule, drinking and smoking are male activities, and where the realities include HIV-infected family members or relatives who have no running water or electricity and ancient family feuds that can involve witchcraft.

In the same way that blacks and whites were forced to share their spaces and face each other to understand one another, we have to do the same if we want our social structures, especially in black families, to change.

Who knows what revealing bits of your true self might do to bridge the gap with your God-fearing mother? For me, having a glass of wine in front of my parents might be a small step towards meaningful conversations about issues that would otherwise be stuck behind the generation curtain.



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