HOUSE OF MEMORY
Author and media personality JOANNE JOSEPH suggests that houses can remain in our MINDS and HEARTS long after they no longer PHYSICALLY exist – and sometimes, even when we ourselves have never spent time in them.
That was STRATFORD ROAD: a hearth that drew a rush of NEW and OLD FACES.
THERE IS A HOUSE, NOW BUILT ONLY FROM MEMORY and storytelling, its bricks long dissolved by the acid of apartheid’s paintbrush. I have never seen it. Yet I have magically walked its passages, my footfalls invisible on its wooden floors. The piano is there, bathing the afternoon in the timbre of its rosewood keys; French doors thrown open to send the crush of chords wafting to the city beyond. I enter through the blaze in my father’s eye as he speaks of his childhood home – 110 Stratford Road – in which he was once ensconced with his family amid the strident harmony of Durban’s Grey Street Casbah, where everyone found a home.
That was another life, when the streets were electric with the sounds of children. They played soccer in the lanes and shouted their joy to the sky; they broke windows to the bellowing of grizzling adults and fashioned their own vast families, not just from blood, but friendship. On their doorstep were churches, mosques, temples, the incantations of all melding into one. Their differences were somehow imperceptible to them, everything shared, from food to wonder to heartache.
At the nucleus of my father’s life was this home where he and his brother, Chris, came safely to berth at night. They spoke in the sibling tongue of jazz; Uncle Chris much older, adept at rattling the keyboard; my father’s young ear growing accustomed to the complexity of improvisation, absorbing it almost through osmosis as he took his place at the baby grand. Musicians streamed in – Hugh Masekela and John Mehegan, larger than life – and my grandmother plied them with sustenance as the hours ticked away, the house settling while the lounge turned smoky with their cigarettes and the strains of Oscar Peterson. That was Stratford Road: a hearth that drew a rush of new and old faces – family, friends, converging in swarms for lunches, dinners, laughter.
And then the bulldozers came. And they shattered it brick by brick till they’d left only hollowness and silence. The bureaucrats overlaid it with a bright green patch of grass where young white boys came to play cricket, while my father, suddenly a stranger to his old life, stood outside the window of their joy and watched and yearned for his home. Sometimes, before the authorities came to chase him away, he retraced its contours in his mind’s eye, grasping for the concrete sinews that had held it together, re-conjuring it, if only for a moment.
I grew up in Chatsworth, where my family was sent during the forced removals. It was the only physical concept of home I should have had as a child, yet there was always more, stretching back to some imaginary time that existed before me. My father’s memory of Stratford Road has somehow become mine. I feel and taste it as vividly as if I had known it myself. My mother and brother, neither of whom had set foot there either, feel connected to it too. Yet another generation on, my daughter channels it through the memories of her grandfather.
It reminds me that perhaps a home is never mere bricks and mortar. It is love and memory and, sometimes, tragedy and loss all at the same time – a human being’s indelible point of origin.
An established South African media personality with more than 20 years of experience, JOANNE JOSEPH is also a best-selling author. She’s hosted radio and television shows for major broadcasters, including the SABC and Primedia. Her book Drug Muled (MF Books, 2013), which told Vanessa Goosen’s story of spending 16 years in prison in Thailand, sold more than 10 000 copies. Joanne’s first work of fiction, Children of Sugarcane, was published in 2021 by Jonathan Ball.