Monday evening, I went and found Elizabeth after work. One of the housekeepers at the Bed and Breakfast, Elizabeth is the sweetest lady, always welcoming us with twinkling eyes behind her glasses and a warm smile. I was looking for her to get the jeans she had patched for me. I had actually given her the pants three weeks ago, but she couldn’t bring them to me until Monday, because she had been spending her time taking care of her sick mother. She was so apologetic, but I tried to reassure her it was completely fine. I kept trying to explain that I just felt bad she hadn’t been home for so long, and that made the fact that I’d been missing my jeans seem pretty insignificant.
I insisted on paying her 100 R, the equivalent of about $13.50. If I had gotten the pants patched at a tailor it probably would have only been about 35 R, but I wanted to give her the small token of my appreciation, and we’ve all witnessed how much our group tips mean to her every week. She refused at first, but eventually gave in, and I could see how moved she was. Her face lit up as she told me that she was going to make me beaded earrings as a thank you, and asked me what color I would prefer. She described the earrings she could make with great pride, and then pulled me into her small room to show me pictures of other earrings she had made. That led to her showing me pictures of former residents who had mailed letters and pictures after they had returned home, which then led to the explanation of the pictures of her family she had about the room. As she spoke of all these people and their stories with such care, I was struck by what an important place those seemingly small things had in her. I determined then and there that I would definitely send her letters and pictures after we went home.
As she showed me the pictures of her family, eventually she came to that of her granddaughter, and her voiced softened and paused. I think she was deciding how much she wanted to tell me. She slowly started to tell me a horribly sad story about her granddaughter, who had died in an accident after a school play when she was seven. I could see the pain on her face, and hear as her voice shook how difficult it had been for her family. Her daughter had gone to a mental hospital after the accident, which was two years ago, and had been there ever since. She told the story in such vivid detail it was agonizing, and we both had tears in our eyes by the end. All I could manage was a hug through my tears. She apologized for making me sad, but I shook my head, I was glad she had told me. We stayed like that for a while, our arms intertwined as we looked at the picture. I felt overwhelmingly sad, but was also so impressed by Elizabeth’s strength and so grateful that she had considered me a worthy listener of her story.
Eventually I had to go, and I left Elizabeth with one more hug, and a silent understanding that we were now closer than we had been when I had first come to see her tonight. I had to leave to meet the girls in the group, because we were going to drive to Simonstown and meet with another Elizabeth, Elizabeth Storey, for dinner. We wanted to hear more from her about her life and work in the anti-apartheid struggle, because we had realized when talking to her husband, Peter Storey, that she had been very influential as well. We had been right in our predictions that she had much to say, and the dinner was interesting and full of conservation. The way she viewed her work was interesting, because she simply said she had no other choice than to do what she did. In her eyes she was working for justice, and to stop or do otherwise simply wasn’t an option. I think the awe and respect we had for her resolve seemed to surprise her. She also spoke about how she connected to the struggle, and how she realized other people were affected so much more than she and her family were as middle class white people. She chose to use the stories of others as motivation; she took in their experiences with empathy that made her feel their injustice as if it were her own. She said that taking the time to feel what other people were experiencing helped her understand and persevere. I understood exactly what she meant, because Elizabeth had shown me just hours before how powerfully affecting empathy can be.
Needless to say, it was an inspiring evening. I spoke with two amazing women, and heard about the lives of two very different Elizabeths. I lay awake in bed that night recalling phrases, and remembering the faces of my storytellers. I cherished the unexpectedness of Elizabeth’s story, and the extra effort we made to hear the words of Elizabeth Storey. As I lay there, I felt how powerfully I had been moved, and I hoped that was something I would never forget.