147 The Alteration Hand

By Peter Fraenkel

I met Masie on one of my occasional visits to “Margot’s” – my mother’s dress shop. A pretty girl. We exchanged a few polite words. My ear seemed to confirm what I thought my eye had spotted.

“I take it,” I said to my mother a little later ”you do realise that this new alteration hand of yours is Cape Coloured?”

“Maybe she is,” she replied “Does that make any difference to you? It doesn’t to me.”

That was typical of my mother.  In that society where race and colour determined status, income, jobs or whom one could or could not marry, my mother determinedly ignored all that. As a Jew she had, after all, suffered racism in Nazi Germany. She would have no truck with the racism widespread in Northern Rhodesia. Her attitudes may well have lost her customers – white customers did not like having to try on dresses that a black customer may have tried on before. My mother ignored all that.

I don’t think my mother ever discussed matters of race with Masie. The girl was married to a white groundsman at the Gymkhana Club. One day a registered letter marked “urgent” arrived.  It was addressed to the husband but he had not been there to sign for it so the postman, knowing the neighbourhood well, brought it to the wife. “Was she willing to sign for it?”

A little later my mother asked Maisie would she want to go off for a few minutes to take it over to him?”

Masie flinched. “No, madam, I don’t think …. I don’t think I can.”

My mother was clued up enough to sense what was bugging her. ”Would you like me to take it over?”

“Would you, really? I’d be most grateful.”

Mother realised that it could lose the husband his job if it became known that he had a “coloured” wife. That was what the world was like in that place, at that time.

After that the two could speak more freely. Masie told her horror stories: She had a cousin who was “passing”. That meant “passing for white”. Her cousin was pregnant and about to go into labour. She was taken to a “white” maternity clinic but the new-born infant looked very obviously “coloured”. Mother and baby were thrown out of the clinic within an hour of the birth… probably far too early to be safe. But kicked out she was.

That’s what the world was like. Less remains of that world today, thank God!  But what remains with me is pride in my mother, all these many years after her death.