It was only once she discovered an old, HIDDEN PHOTOGRAPH in her JOHANNESBU­RG HOME, writes RAZINA THEBA, that she was finally able to make the GRAND OLD HOUSE HER OWN.


I had to MAKE SENSE of making the place my own without DISTURBING the TANGIBLE LIGHTNESS of FLOWING ENERGY.

INITIALLY, THE OBJECTIVE DISADVANTA­GES of renovating the grand old lady of a house outweighed my personal preference­s. Built in Johannesbu­rg’s northern suburbs in 1953, it had owing parquet ooring that added warm tones, and ceilings high enough to sco at ready-made curtains. The ivory-plated mid-century steel kitchen units were seductive enough to entice the novice cook in me, and the abundant garden space housed a little sparrow who knocked at her own re ection on my bedroom window every morning. She and I were equally alarmed as I threw the curtains open after my rst night in the house.

I long resisted disturbing the building’s skeleton as it felt o ensive to interfere with such a solidly built structure – modernisin­g it would be like adding a ganache to a Madeira cake. It would add layers of sophistica­tion, but then it would not be a Madeira cake any more. I had to make sense of making the place my own without disturbing the tangible lightness of owing energy.

Then recently, the discovery of a photograph that had fallen between the panels at the back of a drawer revealed the human side of the previous owner, who had until then only ever been “the Seller” in a nancial transactio­n. In her twilight years, she hobbled into the conveyance­r’s practice, and within minutes sold her home to us.

But the photo was of a young woman, her head thrown back in laughter, with the sun setting behind her and a baby boy on her hip. The angle at which the photo was captured made her bright red lipstick the focal point of her face, which was framed with a halo of dark brown curls. I wondered what had been said to her to make her laugh with such abandon.

Over the years, I had found coins that had been mixed into building plaster for luck and prosperity, milk teeth belonging to a child named Liam with the dates he lost them, and a report card imploring Emily to work harder on her arithmetic. The edge of the door frame in the spare bedroom had markings of children’s growth spurts, recorded on 18 June every year. I wondered what was signi cant about that date, and I noticed how their handwritin­g matured through the years.

But when I found this photo, for a reason that is di cult to articulate, it felt like the permission I needed to start making this space my home. I could nally reconcile the image of the old, frail seller and the vibrant woman who had raised her family here.

And so, as I rummaged through my handbag for coins to throw into the building cement, ignoring the sniggers of the constructi­on workers, I was hopeful that someone would

nd them someday, and that this would create a narrative for them in the spaces where stories that do not want to be found hide.

RAZINA THEBA lives in Johannesbu­rg, and is an attorney and a writer. Her memoir, A Home On Vorster Street, published by Jonathan Ball in 2021, is a spirited exploratio­n of an Indian-Muslim family in Fordsburg.

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