Lala Kahle

Margaret Smith, rest in peace

Gran asked me to speak at her funeral, and I said, laughing, at the time that I did not think I would be able to, but I would try. So, I will try:

The Garden she loved is still growing. But she is not here.

Spring and summer will come, and the chair, in the corner among the lush greenery and the white vine roses, will sit empty.

She will not be there, eyes closed, basking in the Sun’s light, a smile on her face as it warms her skin,

But the plants and flowers still will grow.

She was not a Christian, she was a humanist. An atheist. But she was the most ‘Christian’ person I’ve ever known.

The South African police who jailed and tormented her, who tried, we suspect, to assassinate her by crushing her car between two lorries, and who succeeded in killing many of her friends, they called themselves Christians.

They even gave her a King James Bible in prison (did they expect a conversion, she wondered. She was just glad of something to read, she told me). But they were cruel and unjust, not like the christ those pages tell of, they were not kind nor loving nor humane.

She was, kind and loving and humane, not for appearances, nor from fear, but from empathy.

She could have lived a privileged life in South Africa, but she chose instead to stand up against injustice, even though doing so cost her so much, caused so much anguish.

She gave. She sacrificed.

When I was a small boy staying with her, giving my young mum a break for weekends and school holidays, she gave me the most valuable things you can give to a child: Unpatronising attention, and encouragement, and later, when I was a selfish, foolish, troubled, older boy, she gave me a home.

I tried, in adulthood, to repay her kindness. In what small ways I could.

I’d take her to restaurants to give her a break from the endless fishcakes her frugal diet consisted of.

At one restaurant she gave me a note telling how the Secret Police had caused her, after thirty years of loyal service as a journalist, to be made redundant. She included two press cuttings: one celebrating her appointment as the first female News Editor in Africa, one about the Secret Police’s shaming of her as a ‘terrorist’, the good times and the bad, and the note ended:

“Left without work, far from home, and two daughters to support

“Wanted you – who have been so good to me – to know all the [details]”

She was keen that her struggle be understood, she felt such guilt and sorrow.

Another time, she recalled the ten days of hunger strike she underwent in prison. The uneaten trays of food would be taken back by her visiting family, so she would hide letters under the plates. Messages written with make-up on toilet paper and torn out pages of the aforementioned bible.

She was strong-willed. Strong-willed enough to shun the tantalising dreams of ‘Peri Peri Prawns’ and deny herself food, for her beliefs.

This strength never abated, right to the end. Even when it was so much trouble, she would drag herself out to the shops, bent with age, but driven by determination, out in the community she was committed to, a vital part of. Slow and sure as Aesop’s tortoise.

She was strong-willed and she was humane.

To each of us, to humanity, she gave all she could.

I write this among the piles of photos, in the chair in her flat where I used to sit and talk with her.

And she is not here.

Except in memory.

I see her at the zoo when I was small, hear her laughter at some stupid joke about the Piranha.

I see her, happy, with us last Christmas.

I see her, haunted by anxiety and depression, her ever beautiful face racked with worry.

I see her in hospital, giving a conspiratorial smile as she squeezes my hand.

Remember her fondly, as she deserves to be remembered.

She fought, fiercely, against indignity, for others.

She fought, fiercely against the suffering in the world.

Remember her proudly. We should be proud to have known her, proud to be her kin, proud to have been loved by her. She was bohemian and brave, intelligent, wise, talented. If you think that she was not perfect, then you are right, I am sure, but there are machines that make perfect objects, that can make the same thing over and over again without fault. And then there are craftsman who can only make unique and fragile, beautiful things, that can never be remade.

Margaret was the latter.

She was the heart of our family. And like any heart, if it was at all broken, it only loved more.

She tried, against the encroaching darkness, within and without, to keep us in the sun.

In prison she grew orange pips in the dirt, tiny sprouts grew up towards the light and gave her hope.

In exile, she made a home, she nurtured a garden and she sat there and closed her eyes to the capricious London sun.

Perhaps she felt then, for a spell, that she was home beneath the African sun. But in 1994 she was allowed to return to feel that sun for real. She felt home. She felt whole.

And she is not here, but we are like the garden she found such joy in. The plants and flowers that she tended, the stray animals drawn to her kindness, that she would love, even when, as with the eponymous Black Cat she adopted, that love was sometimes repaid with savage wounds. She loved, unabated. Strong-willed and humane was she.

Now we are left, like her garden. Without her.

But like her half wild, half tamed garden we will flourish, because we were loved.

Heading to South Africa to see her beloved brother in hospital, she wrote me a note:

‘When it comes to crisis time’, she wrote, ‘love really counts, more than anything’

When I think of what she gave, to you, to the world, to me, it was love.

If we can love, at all.

She is here.

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.