My grandmother was blind, she lost her sight shortly after her husband’s death – my mother (my grandmother’s middle child) was around 6 years of age and her last-born was just an infant. She never knew what any of her five children grew to look like after that and never laid eyes on any of her twenty-five grandchildren; most of which were left in her care in the rural Valley of A Thousand Hills in Kwa-Zulu Natal South Africa.
Valley of a thousand hills
We called her Khulu. I lived with my mother in suburban Westville but visited Khulu, my cousins and aunts during the winter and summerholidays. When the taxi stopped at the bus stop in front of Khulu’s house and Ma and I stepped out with plastics and plastics of groceries, my cousins would come racing to meet us shouting “Nangu-Anti!!” and Khulu would know that we had arrived.
By the time Ma had divided the parcels amongst us all and we had made the short trip along the treaded path in the grass to the first rondavel,
Khulu would be standing outside her two-roomed house – just outside the door – with one hand still holding the door frame, smiling at the sun, waiting in her own dark world for my mother’s hands to be upon her.
Next would be my turn to greet, I would take her hand and lead her inside to sit down then she would open her knees so my torso could rest between them so she could give me the routine kisses on my face. For her to kiss me I would have to take her hands in each one of mine and cup them on my face so that she could pull it closer to kiss my forehead, each cheek and my lips before she would ask after my health and school and friends.
Khulu always slept with one of her grandchildren in her bed. Living so close to the Inanda Dam and the lack of proper insulation made it too cold for her body to warm itself…although, even in the summer she would sleep with one of us so I guess it was mainly for comfort. My first night would be my turn by default. After prayers I would help her up off her knees and into the bed, blow out the candle, hop carefully over my cousins bodies on the floor and climb into the space between her and the wall and curl my spine against her front in little-spoon position and wriggle a bit – for comfort and measure – as children do when they hope to be played with a bit or tickled. She would feign complaints and play along until I settled into her tradition of the body inspection.
Usually it would start with her sliding her palm against mine, so that the base of our palms would be in line and bending her fingers inwards on mine so that she could feel the size of my hand on hers. Then she would continue to run or at times gently pat her hand along my arms, shoulder, and face, cup my jaw, outline the shape of my lips and nose with her index and middle fingers to my closed eyes, up over my forehead onto my hair or scalp (depending on my hairstyle). She would feel my knees, which were generally wounded or grazed, she would feel for any ruptures on my skin; rashes, old scars, scabs, anything that felt abnormal to her and ask me about it. She would feel under my arms for hair growth and on my elbows to see if my mother was teaching me to take care of rough skin. She would feel my chest for signs of growing breasts and down my belly to feel how round my stomach is and comment on my weight. When she got to my abdomen just above my panty line she would say “why are you not jumping when I touch you here? A young girl gets a fright when someone touches her here” this would be at my yawning stages, I would mumble something and fall asleep to her warm gentle hands.
This is how she raised her children as a blind single mother. Her most reliable sense was touch to know what was happening with her children’s bodies. To know how bad a wound was or how much it was healing, to know how clean the feet were, to know how thin her children’s bodies were during the height of their poverty, to know if there were rashes that accompanied whatever illness she had to diagnose, to know where her daughters and sons were in puberty… this was her way of knowing us. Many times Khulu would report back to Ma on what she had discovered on my body – things that Ma had missed. This method worked.
Although my mother enjoyed full vision, I suppose this tradition stuck with her. On nights that I would fall asleep as her “little spoon” she would do the same body inspection routine in the dark before we fell asleep (even my face too sometimes). She would also run her hand towards my inner thigh. I remember my reaction: I would have to concentrate harder on keeping my breathing stable, my skin would flare up with heat and my stomach did flip flops that I couldn’t control. I never understood my reaction to this so I tried my best to keep it suppressed. At my feigned non-reaction Ma would echo Khulu’s sentiments that a young girl should fright when a hand touches her there. My reply to her was that she was my mother and that surely she’s allowed to touch me anywhere. She would say “that doesn’t matter” and that no hand but my own should touch me there. This kind of confused me but I said nothing more… this together with the fact that without fail I would be aware of the electricity her touch ignited when she did touch me there. I would fall asleep warm.
Growing up, my mother and I shared one bedroom. She was a live-in domestic worker and I lived with her. On nights that she had a lover over she would tell me that I had to go and sleep in the main house. In my younger years I would whine and cry about it, I didn’t enjoy having to sleep in a room all-alone. Some nights I would be defiant and cry so much that it would just be easier for her to let me fall asleep in my own bunk bed in her room and pretend to her employers that the lover was no longer coming. Often I would wake up in the dark to the sounds of Ma and her lover on her bed below me on the other side of the room. Sometimes I would be scared and cover my head with my duvet, other times I would be curious and try squint in the dark at the movement of the shadows. In the beginning I didn’t fully understand what was happening, but I knew not to question or talk candidly of it either.
As I grew older and wiser I began to comprehend the deed that was at the core of those sounds that I would wake up to and those movements I would try to squint at in the dark. This new awareness complicated my predicament. When Ma would tell me that I had to sleep in the main house for whatever reason I would know what the real reason was. I would obey only because the idea of being in the same room as my mother having sex began to nauseate me. It made me angry and jealous; I felt displaced, I felt protective and I hated it. I would become stroppy with attitude giving her the silent treatment for the rest of the evening and even the next day. Sometimes she would have to bribe me with money or something else that I liked to eventually win back my affection. I began to hate any man that she introduced me to – I became problematic for them. Sometimes I would ruin their clothes, one man lost his CD to a pair of scissors. I never quite understood why I behaved this way and I suppose Ma didn’t understand either. I think she would have expected this kind of difficulty with her sons rather than with her daughter.
That situation was alleviated by my move to boarding school at 13. I never had to deal with that situation again and kind of brushed it under the carpets of my mind over the years. It is only recently – in the last 3 years or so of introspection that I fully revisited the memories and wondered how those happenings have shaped me as an adult, as a female, as a Lesbian.
Usually when you come out of the closet you face the torrent of questions about your sexuality – when did you become a lesbian, why are you a lesbian, how do lesbians have sex? When I came out I tried hard to answer these questions to myself first before trying to answer them to other people by looking back to my childhood and analyzing all the events that may have cultivated my desire for pussy.
At some point I thought it was my hatred of men. Having witnessed how my mother had been ill treated by so many of them, having experienced childhood sexual abuse, having had a father who abandoned me through suicide, but then, in time I traced back my very first childhood crushes. Some of my experiments happened before my hate for men developed.
So I moved on to the theory that perhaps I was a ‘Freudian Lesbian’ (self coined term) because of this body inspection tradition, because I was physically present in some of my mothers sex life – I can say without doubt that these experiences created in me a sexual tie to her. And so I wondered if my coming out after she passed away was actually just me missing female affection and seeking to replace it. I grappled with that notion for a few months, wondering if there was anything wrong with that. Wondering if that didn’t really make me a real lesbian because if Ma had still been alive would I ever have dallied into the land of alternative living in search of a female lover?
At this point in my personal question/answer phase about myself and sexuality, I really am comfortable with the fact that I was born this way. Many a female has been sexually abused and they do not all share the same sexual preference. Many a female has been brought up by a blind maternal figure who had to feel their bodies along the way, they do not all share the same sexual preferences. Many a female has grown up in circumstances where they have been exposed to their parents’ sex lives, they do not all share the same sexual preferences.
However, I do believe that all of this has shaped some of my lover-persona.
Khulu’s blindness made her a more patient and sensual human being. A more sensual maternal figure, that sensuality trickled down to Ma and what has stuck with me is my deep appreciation for the sense of touch. I believe in touching, I believe in exploring, I believe in the intimacy of knowing; knowing where the scars are and why they are there, knowing where the open wounds are with your eyes closed, knowing where the skin is rough, where the skin is soft, where the moles are, where the hair grows thicker and where the skin has been slightly raised by the tattoo. I believe in skin exploring skin without the help of sight as an intimacy on its own, independent of sex. As a lover I prefer for my hands to know my lovers body well before we delve into the wells of ecstasy between our thighs.
Eyes cannot know what my lover feels like, only my skin can.