The Joy Club member Elsa Browne, born in Durban, recounts her childhood stories from growing up in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, raised by her unwaveringly glamorous mother…
South Africa in the 1950s, I’m five years old. The coastal city that we lived in had no less than three bio-cafés that showed the popular films of the time from the big Hollywood studios. More than sixty years later, those images are as clear as ever in my mind – John Wayne in a green beret, Rita Hayworth’s cascading hair, her eyes shining as she looks up at her leading man.
My mother too had blonde hair, carefully styled when wet by pinching it between her index and middle fingers to frame her face, and falling in natural waves to her shoulders. Impressed by the glamour of Marilyn Monroe, she would emulate her breathless manner of speaking in front of the mirror at home. Obsessed with the glamour of Hollywood, and having three small children from whom there was little respite (my feckless father had scarpered), plus refreshments included in the ticket price, the lure of this temporary escape was irresistible to her.
So, on a Saturday morning, in the noisy crowded atmosphere of an old-style bio-café was where we would be with people coming and going throughout the film, spilling sticky red cordial on the shelf in front of the rows of seats. The films were shown on a loop with only approximate starting times, which mattered not one dot to our gang of four as we watched the stories back to front. When my mother had negotiated our entry (there weren’t many small children in the audience for The Searchers) we shuffled along to our seats, holding hands with one eye on the screen, enthused by my mother’s excitement.
Long before age restrictions were enforced, my mother had her own censorship scheme. Once settled, with three seats between the four of us – and with my little brother asleep on one of them – my sister and I were allowed to take turns to sit on my mother’s lap depending on the intensity of what was happening on the screen, or our particular trepidations. When there was a scene that she deemed would be too much for us she would sharply order “Cover your eyes!” and “Turn away!” and we knew to rapidly obey.
And so, I never really got to see what happened to James Dean in East of Eden when he got into that fight, but safely held in my mother’s arms Tarantula didn’t scare me and, to this day, I am simply fascinated by spiders.
Fast-forward forty years, my mother is again talking in a breathless voice, only this time it’s the lung cancer causing it. Her hair is still beautiful and wavy and now has the platinum sheen that she so coveted a long time ago. She is alert but frail as the three of us shuffle into the room holding hands and instantly, once again, we four are a gang. She looks up, a tragic Hollywood heroine, and I protect her from my tears as I cover my eyes and turn away.
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