My grandfather was married three times which made for a rather complicated family tree. My half-aunt, Sally, is a year younger than I am so we were raised more like sisters and I certainly love her as a sister. Her step-mother, who was my step-grandmother (I said it was complicated), passed away on the day of the total eclipse, August 21, just four days short of her 97th birthday. It wasn’t eclipsing in the U.K. where Sally lives, or in Nairobi where Denise Babette died, but it’s a date I will always remember. She lived in a lovely retirement community very close to my childhood home and they held a celebration of her life last Sunday. Sally and I wrote this remembrance, which was read at the celebration. I wanted to include it as part of my blog. Kwaheri is the Swahili word for goodbye.
Denise Babette married Tom White when Sally was 6 years old and Amanda was 7, and was suddenly thrust into the role of our stepmother and step-grandmother respectively. She referred to us collectively as “Salamanda” and to herself as WSM (wicked stepmother) and WSGM (wicked step-grandmother). For a woman then in her late 30s, she embraced both roles with passion and energy. We suddenly had this larger-than-life family member in our midst, who loved us unconditionally from day one. For two children in the 1950s whose lives could be somewhat erratic and who sensed a certain family drama playing out even when the adults attempted to shield us from the details, it was magical.
Denise embraced us and made us feel that we were important. She was so much fun! She had a huge laugh that could be heard across the street; she was never quiet but shrieked with joy every few minutes because her capacity for finding joy in every little thing was bottomless; she could sing (loudly and often!); she played the piano; she was an actress; she was a marvelous cook and baker; she was an artist; and she was a wonderful seamstress. She made us dresses with matching handbags and even made Tom an elegant black smoking jacket. This was the 1950s and 1960s when lives were more elegant than casual; when entertaining at home was routine; and when telling shaggy dog stories and jokes were what people did naturally – no smartphones to keep one occupied in those days. She regaled us with tales of driving an ambulance in the Fire Service during World War II and with stories of theatrical productions – and we believed every word.
Tom and Denise initially had a house at Bamburi and Denise spent endless hours on the verandah making paper dolls for us. We loved those paper dolls and she would draw entire wardrobes leaving little tabs to fold over the dolls’ shoulders, which we cut out and coloured in. Even hair washing became an event – she always added a spoon of lemon juice to the last rinse water for Sally’s hair (she was fair) and a spoon of vinegar for Amanda’s (she was brunette). It was those little things that WSM and WSGM had time for. She was never too busy to help with homework or play with dolls.
But it was Tom who gave meaning to her life. She made the last 16 years of his life comfortable and fun. His face would light up when she walked in the room and she loved him with abandon, leaning on the grand piano and singing with gusto while he played brilliantly; cooking his favourite creme caramel and rice pudding; finding his cigarette lighter (everyone smoked in those days); and filling his days with laughter.
After he had died in 1974, although she missed him enormously, she continued to embrace life. She was always ready to help and her home seemed to be shared with many exciting friends. She had a great thirst for knowledge, remembering huge tracts of poetry she had learnt as a child and knowing everything there was to know about medicine (or so we thought). She loved crosswords and scrabble. One thing she HATED though was writing letters so keeping in contact was very one-sided until … she got an iPad at the age of 90 and taught herself how to use it, so at last we had two-way conversations! Even when she was not able to write she loved hearing about our lives as we wrote to each other and copied her in.
Denise was always stalwart. Although often in pain she was very rarely down and was always so interested in other people. She lived every moment and yet was always able to give two little girls a special gift – the gift of her time and attention. Kwaheri, dear WSM and WSGM, we loved you and will miss you always.
Sally Naish – Tisbury, England
Amanda Marie – Atlanta, USA