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The Big House
Travels with My Father
Six months after my father’s death, I fall in love. I am 29 years old and have been in love before, yet this time I am caught off guard. In the past months I have been mostly alone, staying in the house with my mother, reluctant to go out, especially at night. The house is large and we use separate lounges and bathrooms, eat at different times. Even so, the house feels small, my life outside the house even smaller. I am teaching history part-time at the same school where my mother teaches Afrikaans. I have only two classes – less than two hours a day. I accepted the position so that I could spend most of the day caring for my father, but he passed away two weeks into the first term. So my mother and I work together, live together. We shop together, go to movies together. We are dependent on one another, though we tell others that we are careful not to be. I don’t like to leave her at home alone, but at times I am anxious to get out and away.
I tell myself that I will use the time to write. I pretend that I am, but I write nothing. I pile books on my bedside table that I plan to read. I don’t even open them. I am not certain of what grief should be. Is it this? My mother’s grief is more manifest. She has grown confused and forgetful. She walks slower than before. Repeats herself. Leaves doors unlocked and can’t remember how the computer works. I hate her for this. I have no patience and we argue daily. Perhaps this is how I grieve; with anger and intolerance.
I meet Juliano accidentally. It is a Friday night and I am at a bar with acquaintances. I have not been out in months. It is cold and rainy and I did not want to leave the house. Under my jacket and scarf I am wearing a pyjama top. I turn around to go to the bathroom and I bump into him. We both apologise. I am surprised by his accent and he tells me he is from Brazil. We talk for the rest of the night. The first few weeks with Juliano I cry a lot. I cry every day, sometimes for hours. I feel like a fool. He tells me that he understands, though I don’t think he really does. But he is kind and thoughtful and when I cry he doesn’t try to stop me.
As with all who fall in love, we do not like being apart and after a couple of months he asks me to move in with him. He lives in a loft apartment two kilometres away. I agree, but feel guilty. My mother is afraid on her own in the big house. I tell her that I will move out slowly, little by little. I will visit her every day. The distance is nothing. ‘Of course,’ she says, ‘of course,’ but she is upset. This is the house that she and my father bought shortly after their marriage. The house that they fixed up, made additions to, where they tended a garden and a swimming pool. The house that they raised their children in. Yet she has grown to despise the thing. The stretches of lawn and the pool that keeps turning green. The large rooms that gather dust. There are too many lounges, too many empty spaces. Too many places through which a burglar could enter. It is an old house. It needs attention and time and energy. She doesn’t want to be there anymore. Not on her own. She begins to mention the possibility of selling and talks to a couple of estate agents, though my sister and I doubt anything will come of it. She is too indecisive lately.
Even before the house is on the market she begins to panic about clutter. She opens drawers and cupboards and despairs about the things we have amassed. The garage is full of boxes of objects that my father kept – our toys, our books, old tables, chairs, planks of wood, half-empty tins of paint. In the breakfast room are two small cake plates that my father brought home one day for my sister and I. I was perhaps five or six. I don’t know where he got them. They are identical. A light blue base with a floral border, gold rimmed. He told us that we would hang them on the wall as decoration until we were old enough to have our own houses. Nobody seems to remember that I would sit in the breakfast room looking at them. I was trying to identify differences in the two plates, determining which was the best so that when it came to the point when my sister and I had to choose whose was whose, I would have the upper hand. When friends visited, I would point out the plates to them. As my mother de-clutters, she gives the plates away to her sister-in-law. I am torn apart. My mother and I scream at one another and do not talk for several days. But she gets the plates back without any difficulty. My sister doesn’t want hers. She doesn’t even remember him giving them to us. I take both to Juliano’s flat where I display them on stands.
A month later the big house is for sale. I make a list of everything that must be kept. I want to avoid another misunderstanding or argument. The list is long. My mother and I fight again. We begrudge one another personal memories and want ours only. We have been living too long inside one another’s grief. My father is, for each of us, ours alone.
Number of pages: 177
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What was said about Travels with My Father‘Permeating this exquisite travelogue, then, is the spectre of the father, a presence that drives home a realisation of the finality of death and prompts reflection on the countless manners in which we remember, grieve over, honour or fail to honour the dead.
For me, this book is an unsparing quest for meaning on so many levels and one certainly deserving of the highest accolades.’ – Mathilda Slabbert on Litnet
‘The book is an exquisite examination of family, grief, dying and the father-daughter relationship, as well as an exploration of place and family anecdote in shaping meaning in life.
There are also not many books that explore grief and death in ways that are mundane rather than dramatic, that are both insightful and uplifting. This is just such a book.’ – Hermione Flavia on her blog CravenWild
‘This is writing that needs to be read. It is one of the most poetic things I've read in a while.’ – The Bookbag
‘Travels with My Father is a deeply engaging book in which Jennings attempts to come to grips with the death of her father and the memories and records she has of his life and their relationship.
At the same time she weaves family tales of addiction, abuse, and ghost haunting into the narrative.’ – Karina Magdalena on her website, first published in the Cape Times.
‘Poignant and lyrical, Travels with my Father takes the reader on a meandering journey through past and present.
Jennings's masterful control of her subject and her dramatic use of words creates a compulsive need to continue reading.’ – Judy Croome on goodreads
‘It is beautifully written and immensely satisfying to read. I would recommend this book to old and young alike….what are you waiting for? Go and buy it!’ – Samantha McKeever on the Xavier Nagel Agencies website
‘In Travels with My Father, Karen Jennings examines the life between tragic loss (the death of her father) and new love (falling in love with her future husband). But this book is not simply one of family history, its past and its future. In true storytelling tradition, Jennings is always ready to follow a curiosity and digress down a path, holding the reader’s interest, engaging it, informing and delighting it – from the macabre stories about Lenin’s embalmment to the way she defamiliarizes the geographic features of her home town. As much as this book is a tender portrayal of her father and family, it is also the writer’s wide-ranging curiosity displayed. Jennings ferrets wherever she may, giving us vignettes and stories from history and art and her own family’s life without being indulgent. It’s a surprising discovery of a sense of how we are part of the world, in simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary ways.’ – Rustum Kozain, multi-award winning poet and writer, including the Olive Schreiner Prize for Poetry (2014) and the Herman Charles Bosman Prize for English literary work across all genres (2013).
‘Karen Jennings has a keen eye for the quirky and the unusual. Her memoir-travelogue is a courageous, beautifully written evocation of the special people and places in her life. From the banal to the extraordinary her pen travels sure-footed.’ – Kobus Moolman - 2015 Glenna Luschei Prize winner.
‘A beautifully written, intimate remembrance of how things past live through the personal present.’ – André Krüger, author of the multiple award-winning Afrikaans novel Die twee lewens van Dieter Ondracek, as well as Komplot.
‘Karen Jennings’ autobiographical novel is an exquisite exploration of
the multiple dimensions of reality. Her beautifully written
recollection of the life of her late father attests to the redemptive
power of the narratives we tell ourselves and the journeys we choose.
Keith Edwin Jennings was a storyteller who never let the veracity of his
rather shabby ancestors stand in the way of a good tale. As she
grieves her father’s terribly truncated life, she reconsiders the
gifts he left her. The made up narratives by which she had recognised
herself offer a return to cohesion and belonging as she emerges from a
harrowing depression. The truth inherent in the fiction is what
ultimately frees her to become a writer of significant lyrical talent.
Jennings is tender, candid and funny.’ – Liesl Jobson, award-winning author, poet and musician.
‘Autobiographical writing is a rare form in African literature, but Karen Jennings’ stories defy norms and literary traditions... in Travels with My Father she is more of a storyteller than a writer; taking the reader through her exciting life and sojourns in Rome, India, Uganda, South Africa and England – telling tales of humour and sadness, and sharing historical lessons in the dreams of her father and the many adventures of her ancestors, in a folkloric style and voice that is rich and satisfying.’ – Obinna Udenwe, Author of Satans & Shaitans - a conspiracy crime thriller on terrorism, politics and love, published in the UK by Jacaranda Books and in Nigeria by AMAB Books.