A hymn and my mother are as one

Ke na le modisa, ke tla be ke hlokang?

Ke ya ipitsang Jehovah, molimo o phelang

O nkisa botaleng, lijong tse mphelisang

O nkalosa dinokaneng, metsing a nkholisang

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want;

He make me to lie down in pastures green;

He leads me beside the still waters;

And he restoreth my soul.

This hymn raised me. It cleaned the blood off my knees when I fell and scraped them and it soothed my gasps and racing heart after a nightmare of Pinky Pinky running after me in the grade two bathroom.

This hymn squeezed my hand tightly when my dad’s coffin slowly inched its way down into the hole and I wanted to run and jump in with it and this hymn looked at me with pride pouring down her cheeks when I got accepted into university with my tuition paid in full.

This hymn is my mom and my mom is this hymn.

Whenever I think of my mom, Anna Masarese Kekana, I smell the warm sweet vanilla scent of baked dikuku or scones, and I see her leaning over the table, rolling dough into a ball, flattening out the gooey goodness on to the table, which is sprinkled with flour — nothing irritates her more than dough sticking on to the surface — and cutting it into shapes to prepare the second tray, while humming Ke na le modisa without pause. The hymn has been a part of her for as long as I can remember and I can’t hear it anywhere without thinking of mama.

I grew up hearing my mom singing and humming this hymn so much that its notes have settled snugly into all my veins and they pulse through my body with each heartbeat, but there are two moments that are stuck in my mind like a paused movie scene. Try as I might, I can’t forget them.

My mom has been a domestic worker since her early 20s and is now 64 and still working. I spent the first eight years of my life living in Kelvin, Johannesburg, with her and her employers before we moved to Alexandra township.

The reason we moved was that her employers, the Malherbe family, moved to the United States. I remember my mom and I standing on the little stoep to our room in a tight embrace because our world was falling apart and we had no idea what tomorrow held. Where would she work? What about my schooling? Where would we live?

She didn’t sit me down and tell me that things were about to become incredibly difficult for us, and that I needed to be a big girl for her, but I understood this very clearly from the way she sang and hummed her beloved psalm of solace from this point onwards.

Her singing became more frenzied, as if her lungs were being crushed by the weight of pain, abandonment, worry and uncertainty. Instead of the mop gliding across the off-white tiles as it usually did while the melody enveloped her, it was pushed back and forth as she sang in short, staccato bursts — her eyes dark and her soul crushed.

Mama is the epitome of a strong, traditional black woman, so she is not one to share her emotions. But the hymn, and the way it was sung, said all there was to say.

Things ended up working out and we managed to find a tiny room to live in. We struggled so much at first but the Lord who comforts helped us get through it.

The second moment frozen in my mind is when my father died. My parents’ journey together was filled with laughter, mutual respect, quiet guidance and a respect for independence, of which I’m still in awe. Mama’s humming was so calm and smooth when papa was around. When he died after a long struggle with cancer, she stopped singing for months.

I worry about my mom as any child does about their parents, but I have never been as worried about her as I was then. Our little room in Alex became so quiet that I was afraid to make even a single sound. I didn’t know how to bring the song back to my mom’s heart and lips.

It was only after she returned to the Zion Christian Church after taking off her blue seshweshwe mourning clothes that she came back to the hymn, and the hymn came back to her.

“This hymn, e nthoba matswalo — it calms my soul. I don’t know where I would be without it and I don’t even want to imagine that, mara e mpha matla, but it gives me strength,” mama says with tears in her eyes.

A hymn is defined as a religious song or poem of praise to God. Psalm 23 is my reminder that God is always with me even in the darkness I sometimes walk through but, most importantly, it’s a reminder that I’m blessed to have such a devoted and prayerful woman as my earthly guide.

May I have God within me and may I be within God as my mom is. Amen.

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